Winter, Christmas, and All of the Lists

I sat down last weekend and made my Christmas lists.  Christmas shopping.  Christmas goals.  Taking some inspiration from a blogger I follow–Karen at The Art of Doing Stuff–I decided that this year, I want to have my holiday obligations (the shopping, the wrapping, the decorating, etc) out of the way by the end of November, leaving December wide open for less-stress celebrations and evenings enjoying the season in front of a nice fire.

This year, I will be organized and intentional, and I WILL NOT be wrapping the last of my gifts on Christmas day before we load the car…again.  I refuse.

Maybe it was the early first snow that kicked my butt into gear.  Maybe it was Karen’s email about her Christmas pledge.  Maybe it was the fact that my furnace chose the evening of our first snow to take a shit, reminding me very clearly and viscerally of what cold and winter feel like.

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Maybe it was a combination of the three.

Either way, Winter, I’m here with you.  To-do lists in hand. Continue reading “Winter, Christmas, and All of the Lists”

Plans, Accidents, and a perfect “K”

Kniggett stood perfectly for shearing.

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He always had; every shearing since his first, Kniggett stood rooted more than tied.  He seemed to enjoy having his hot wool stripped off row by row, exposing the skin underneath to the cool breeze.  He made the job easy, which maybe why I chose to shear him in my first group.

He seemed happy with his new haircut when I finished, wandering off to enjoy the pasture with the other llamas immediately afterwords.  I watched him walk away and shook my head.  He had gotten skinny over the winter.  Really skinny.  I knew that he had lost weight, but the depth and breadth of it hadn’t been entirely clear until I removed his wool.

<<<>>>

Kniggett had been a surprise.  His sire decided to jump a fence between himself and the girls, and Kniggett showed up 11 months later with red wool like his mom and an impish face like his dad.  He was named “Kiley’s Kniggett” after his mom, Kiley, and as an homage to Monty Python’s “Silly English Kniggetts” (Knights) from “The Search for the Holy Grail.”  He was one of the sweetest llamas ever born out here: a perpetual favorite, always asking for neck skritches from his people and saying hello to newcomers.

You love them all, of course.  When you do what I do, have creatures like I do, you love them all.  But some, a few, dig their way just a little bit deeper into your heart.  Theirs are the faces you look for in the morning.  The hellos you always say.  The ones you unintentionally spoil just a little bit extra.

Wednesday, when I drove to work, he was in the dust bath in the front pasture, enjoying a good roll.

Wednesday, when I got home from work, he was still there, but now laying at an odd angle, completely unmoving.  I got out of the car as fast as I could and ran into the pasture.  I called for him, even though I could tell that he was already gone.

Sometimes, when those animals who have dug their way just a little bit deeper into your heart leave you, it’s as though they’ve taken a piece of you with them.  

<<<>>>

I don’t cry over all of them at this point.  Maybe it’s just the sheer volume of loss I have felt out here.  Maybe it’s a deeper appreciation that it’s what I do for them while they’re living that matters and that death is just the next part of a life.   Maybe I’m getting hard.

But I don’t cry over all of them.

I cried over Kniggett.

I cried a lot over Kniggett.

<<<>>>

I gave myself a little bit of space the next morning.  My first chore had come at  7AM when I had to meet the companion cremation guy at my barn and load Kniggett into his truck with my skid steer, and it didn’t entirely sit well with me.  I didn’t need the reminder that he was gone before sitting down for coffee. I went back to the house after that; I needed a minute.

When I went back to the barn later to do my usual morning chores, I was feeling a little worn.  All of my llamas were inside, a definite reminder of the one that was not.

Except…

I was cleaning up my main herd’s stall when I realized that I was missing someone.  Not Kniggett, though I missed him terribly, but Reva.

When I first took over the ranch, I was given Reva and her sister, Baby, by some clients of my ex who didn’t want them anymore.   As of Thursday morning, she was still unshorn, and when I realized she was out alone while the entire herd was inside–not normal behavior for most llamas–I panicked.

“No, no, no” I thought, putting down my barn tools and heading out towards the back pastures in search of her.

Visions of her stretched out with heat stress, unable to move and laboring to breathe flashed through me.  I didn’t pause to consider the fact that she was only a medium wooled animal, and that it wasn’t actually that hot out…

I saw her once I walked past the pine trees, she was to my left, munching on some grass and standing in the shade.

I breathed a sigh of relief before doing a double take.

It wasn’t just her.

It took me a moment to realize that she wasn’t alone, that a baby was next to her, alert and watching me back.

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<<<>>>

After making sure that they were both ok, I walked back to the barn to get a halter for Reva so I could bring the pair in.  As best as I could tell, the little one had been born the afternoon before or very early that morning, coming into the world on the heels of Kniggett leaving it.

His surprise entrace reminded me of Kniggett’s.  He wasn’t unplanned, since I did intentional expose Reva and Baby to our stud last year, but I hadn’t thought Reva caught, and, even to the small degree that I considered it, I had the dates all wrong.

I made them a stall.  I gave Reva a bucket full of grain and corn.  I spent my day assuring myself that the baby, a little boy, was healthy, nursing, and strong.  The pair of them joined back in with the herd that evening, and it became clear that this little guy had an attitude.

What he didn’t have was a name.

Nothing was fitting.  I wanted to play on Sky, his sire’s name, which gave me a number of directions to try out, but nothing clicked.

<<<>>>

Two days later, John and I were texting names back and forth, rapid fire. He eventually commented that the names I came up with sounded like something off of Game of Thrones and responded in kind.

img_4227But then the next one.

“Skye’s Starry Knight…”

It was just one more in the list, but it literally stopped me in my tracks.

Of course he’s a Knight.  Like Kniggett.  Of course he is.

Once I saw it, it was just so obvious.

“That one,” I replied.

“With or without the K?”

The “K” had been a typo, one that stopped me cold and brought tears to my eyes.  A reminder that this little life had been ushered in on the tail end of another. A Starry Knight and a silly English Kniggett.

John was surprised by how well the name landed; he’s still riding the “I named the baby llama” high.

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<<<>>>

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I find myself believing more and more that life is just a series of lessons.  That the job of living is to learn and become better.  And this place?  This life I’ve chosen that is so wrapped up in this home I’m living it in?  It seems to be a lesson in planning and unplanning and accidents.

I’ve said before that I’m a planner.  Maybe a little bit of a control freak.  And I chose a life that, maybe even more than others, cannot be controlled.

This life teaches me that plans are fine and so is throwing them out the window. Accidents, like Kniggett, like the K in Starry Knight, are sometimes the very best parts of life.

Or, maybe, accidents, like Kniggett, like the K in Starry Knight, aren’t really accidents at all, just more of the lesson.

 

 

The Four Ponies of the Apocalypse…

Sunday…

7:29 am.

I’m still curled up in bed, asleep enough to be dreaming, when the phone goes off.  I don’t check it, letting the caller go to voicemail.  I snuggle back into the sheets for a moment before thinking that I should at least look to see who it was.

Bad Pony…

If I’m getting a 7:29 am phone call from the neighbor who I’ve always had in my phone as “bad pony,” it’s probably because I have some bad ponies…

I roll over and begin to sit up.

“I think the ponies got out,” I tell John.

The first time this happened with John, when I got a call that the horses broke loose from their pasture well before dawn in the middle of winter– this was early in our dating life–John moved like molasses, a lot of “what” and “huh” as I shot out of bed.  Now, more than a year and a half in, he beat me to the window.

“Can you see them?” I ask.

“Yeah…” He pauses before replying, “They just ran down the driveway.”

John watches as they run up the hill towards the neighbors, tiny tails bopping joyfully as they trot to freedom.

(98 acres out here, and those tiny monsters just want to eat my neighbor’s front lawn.)

We left them in a temporary pen overnight, letting them graze and enjoy the cool evening, but apparently they got bored at some point and pushed a gate away from the fence.

Guys, letting miniature ponies get bored is like feeding gremlins after midnight.  JUST DON’T FUCKING DO IT.

I pull on the official uniform of “my livestock escaped before I got out of bed”: yesterday’s jeans, a gray tank top with no bra, flip-flops, and a baseball cap.  John, apparently competing for the redneck hall of fame, pulls on dirty jeans and muckboots.  He decides to forgo his shirt entirely, showing off the beginnings of a notable farmer’s tan.

I know it seems unlikely, but the ranch really is part of a very nice neighborhood, probably the nicest one in town.  I am just at the edge of it, but the real estate around me is not the sort that you would expect to host rogue ponies, or horses, or llamas. However, at some point or another, I have chased each species through a neighbor’s yard.  Behind the ranch, I am surrounded by farmers and country people, the sort that just happen to have old horse halters hiding in a barn somewhere that they grab when someone else’s horse (read: mine) shows up in their front yard.  But next to the ranch?  I have genteel city people who moved out-of-town to appreciate the peace and quiet.

Fortunately, these particular city people think I am an amusing novelty and that ponies are cute.

I think that I have four ponies and that there are supposed to be four horsemen of the apocalypse. (Or alpacalypse… maybe llamageddon…)  As I walk up my driveway and see the ponies looking at me wearily from the top of the hill, I think that those apocalyptic horses probably won’t look like people expect.

Immediately across the road, my neighbor rents out his massive colonial-style home as an AirB&B.  This weekend’s renters chatted with my boyfriend as he tried to flank my four tiniest horses.

“We just woke up,” they told him from the driveway, “and there were tiny horses running down the road.  It was so cute!”

Cute…

John’s presence sends Violet, Slash, Gem, and Cody running back into my yard, the temporary neighbors looking on with amusement.  They would have a story to tell about their vacation rental in the country.

“Just don’t let them go back up the road,” I tell him.

“No kidding,” he replies.

Two laps of the front yard, one detour to the big horses’ barn, and an almost-trek through the manure pit in flip-flops to head them off later, the ponies run back into their pasture, seemingly at least a little confused about how they got there.

Such, I suppose, is life with livestock.

<<<>>>

Ponies tucked safely away, John and I walk back to the house together.  He makes coffee–he makes really good coffee–and we sit on the couch until our cups run low and the barn calls us back out to finish morning chores.  The rest of the day will come soon enough, bringing with it more work than either of us woke up with any intention of completing, but for a moment, we sit back and appreciate the momentary, and elusive, peace and quiet of the country.

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I really need to learn my neighbor’s name…

Herd Health and the To-Do Lists that Will Never End

“Oooph…Her teeth are a mess.”

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Doc shone her headlight into Violetta’s jaw and gestured for me to take a look.  Pronounced under-bite aside, she had jagged edges, uneven wear, and several sharp points that painted a pretty clear picture of why she dropped weight this winter.

Tuesday was herd health day; all ten of my horses (six full size and four minis) had their yearly shots and dental work done.  Of the ten, only two were complicated.  Violetta was one.  Cinco, my old man horse whose teeth have mostly stopped growing, was the other.

Many non-horsey people don’t realize that a horse’s teeth continually grow as they age.   Yearly floating (grinding down of the teeth) is in order to level out the rough edges that form as the teeth wear against each other.  In some horses, like Violetta, the wear pattern isn’t consistent, and sharp, painful points can form inside the mouth.  She will need a follow up in six months to try and level out her lower front teeth that are being worn down by the upper fronts in a undesirable fashion due to the underbite, but, for now, we sorted the issue as much as it can be sorted.

<<<>>>

Last year, yearly shots and teeth floating got away from me.   I just didn’t manage to make the appointment. To be honest, plenty of horse owners don’t have teeth done every year, and lots of people don’t vaccinate animals who never leave home, but on Tuesday, when I learned that Violet was having issues due to my forgetfulness, I felt the guilt pour in.  (Guys, I should probably add “feeling guilty” to the special skills section of my resume.  I am SO good at it.)

My to-do lists out here are miles long; it can be a little too easy to miss something, even something important.  I have lists for both houses, both barns, the pastures, the woods, the gardens, the driveway, and for all of the animals.  I have lists restricted by time, lists restricted by money, and lists restricted by motivation or skill.  I have lists of long-term goals.  Lists for the spring.  Lists for the summer.  A list for today.  Some of the lists are yearly.  Some are seasonal.  Some are weekly or monthly.  A few are pie-in-the-sky wish lists that I may or may not ever find time or money for.  Despite the fact that I,  my boyfriend, and my dad regularly work to tackle items on the lists, they never seem to get much shorter.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by it, to look at this place through the lens of everything that needs to be done and feel only heaviness.    That’s how my ex saw the ranch at the end, and on my bad days, when I’m dealing with my anxiety, or depression, or when I’m reckoning with something I left undone for a little too long, it’s hard to see it any other way.

<<<>>>

I think this tendency to only see what is undone is natural programming.  It’s natural to be concerned with our next meal, to concern ourselves with the next season.  Humans have learned to survive by anticipating future needs rather than just immediate ones.

I also think that this normal, natural behavior can run amok and cause us to live in a state of striving, never being satisfied with where we are right now, with what we’ve accomplished, with the items on the to-do list that we manage to check off.

We so seldom give ourselves credit for what we actually do.

The other day, I was complaining to my boyfriend about the fact that I couldn’t muster any extra energy to work on any of the big lists that day.  I was racked with exhaustion and also guilty about feeling exhausted.  I couldn’t relax completely because I felt guilty about needing to do nothing for a while.

“Yeah,” he replied, “I think you completely underestimate the amount of energy it takes to accomplish the day to day out here.   You do a lot.  Everyday.  Feeling tired after all the regular stuff is done is completely understandable.”

I don’t know why his response struck such a deep chord, but it did.  Maybe it was that his response rang of “you are enough” when it used to be that I only got choruses of “you need to do more,” but I think I could have cried with relief.   I was content, for a little while, to rest.

<<<>>>

Most of us don’t give ourselves enough credit.  We forget to count the things we accomplish, the hard work of simply living, and focus unendingly on the to-do list.

I have a friend who works full-time as a teacher, runs a horse ranch full of mostly rescued critters, and is currently renovating a property.  As often as not, when we chat, she laments the laundry that she hasn’t gotten to.

One of my dearest friends, who works full-time almost an hour from her home and is in the middle of raising two wonderful little boys, tends to mention the floors she hasn’t quite gotten around to cleaning this week.

My close friend who is currently working full-time THROUGH CHEMOTHERAPY (CAN WE REPEAT THAT ONE FOR THE FOLKS IN THE BACK???) mentioned to me the last time that I saw her that she wishes she ordered less take-out and managed to cook more.

I could go on and on, listing all the people I know who accomplish way more than they give themselves credit for, but then this post would damn near go on forever, and I think you get the idea.  Life, as it turns out, takes a lot of effort, and you’re probably doing more than you think.

<<<>>>

After John’s comment, I took a moment to catalog everything that I had already done that day, and, later, I took a moment to appreciate just how far the ranch has come since changing hands.  The list is growing, always, but it’s also changing.  It’s not stagnant.  Slowly but surely, the things that need to be done are getting done.  Slowly but surely, I’m getting better at prioritizing and better at recognizing that things are moving in the right direction.

My herd health day moved off the list.  A recheck for Violet and Cinco in September got penciled in in its place.  So did booster shots for Cody and Gem in a month.  So did a new course of treatment for my two horses with heaves.

The list is actually longer now with herd health done–funny how that happens–but life is more than a series of to-do lists.

The ranch is more than a series of to-do lists.

I am more than a series of to-do lists.

And so are you.

 

The Polar Vortex and a Lesson in Control

“Ok,” I said, “tell me why this wouldn’t work.”

John, God bless the man, was standing in my chicken coop with an ice breaker, chipping away at the mass of chicken shit and ice that was preventing the coop door from closing.

He looked over before replying.

“Tell you why what wouldn’t work…?”

“What if, instead of creating a horse stall in the center aisle, we bed it down, close the aisle off on one end, and let all the llamas in there.  Then we could give the llama stall to four of the horses.”

The Polar Vortex was approaching with anticipated -55 degree wind chills (thank God for 10 day forecasts), and I had been racking my brain for the best way to shut all of the animals inside the main barn and out of the elements.  This was my third or fourth proposal and the one that I believed had the most potential.

“What about the hay you stored at the end of the aisle?” he asked.

“Let them eat hay!” I replied.

<<<>>>

I spent three days getting myself and the barn (and my house, and the guesthouse) ready for the onslaught of cold.  Last Monday evening, I moved the llamas, shut in the ponies, battened down the chicken coop, bribed the cats to stay in the tack room, and brought in only partially willing horses.  (You know what isn’t much fun?  Trying to catch an off-the-track thoroughbred race horse in the dark, through a foot and a half of snow, who has no interest in being caught.)

I fed extra hay.  I triple checked stall locks.  I prepped, and prepped, and prepped, but as I turned off the barn lights that first night, and the weather closed in, I still wondered how the next few days would play out.

Those who know me in real life know that I have some issues with control.  I plan.  I research.  I try to micromanage my life and create something that I can exert my will upon.  I want there to be reasons for things, and I want to know all of those reasons.  (And, frankly, I want to be able to argue with those reasons if I disagree with them.)

I struggle with both anxiety and depression (the uppers and downers of mental health).  Neither condition is debilitating for me; I have relatively mild doses of each, and it’s uncommon for the depression to get so bad that I don’t want to get out of bed or for the anxiety to get so bad that it feels like my skin is crawling and that I want to scream, but they still exist as realities in my life.  (Side note, did you know that “The Scream” by Edvard Munch likely depicted the artist’s panic attack?  I used to not get the painting, but now, I FEEL it.)  Sometimes I think they combine and create an unnatural need to control my environment under the false belief that if I control things enough I can keep bad things from happening.

Maybe.

…It’s a thought.

I could hear the wind howling as I laid in bed Monday night.  It cuts off of the river in the winter, straight up the hills and across the ranch, bringing a stinging, icy chill.   I laid in bed, trying to reassure myself that I had done everything I could, that the weather would come regardless, and that what happened from here was beyond my control.

My anxiety whispered in my ear that night as I tried to sleep, creating a parade of imaginary problems that marched in front of me one by one.

“What if all the water lines freeze?”
“What if one of the animals freeze?”
“What if one of the animals gets sick?”
“What if one of the gates get unlocked?”
“What if one of the critters die?”
“WHAT IF ALL THE CRITTERS DIE???”
“WHAT IF I SLIP ON THE ICE ON THE WAY TO THE BARN, AND I HIT MY HEAD, AND I FREEZE AND DIE???”

*Pause*
*Deep breath*

“What if absolutely everything I’m worried about right now is beyond my control?  What if I can’t do a damn thing about it?  What if I try to get some sleep?”

<<<>>>

The next morning, with straight temps hovering around -20, I made my way back out to the barn.  The llamas had obviously had a party in their center stall, and enjoyed the access that living in the center of the barn gave them to my goings on.  They constantly pushed the not-quite-shut feed-room door open to check on me while I was in there.

About half of my autowaterers had frozen up, and I spent half the morning hanging and filling water buckets to replace them.   But everyone was mostly ok.  We spent the next few days doing mostly ok.  Mostly ok, but bored.  Mostly ok, but stir crazy.  Mostly ok, but chilled.  Mostly ok with deathly cold just on the other side of the barn door didn’t seem so bad.

<<<>>>

Last week, I reopened the barn to the combined rejoicing of everyone who had been shut inside.  Two days ago, I found one of my chickens dead in the coop.  My vet supposed her to be a victim of the cold.  A delayed victim, but a victim nonetheless.

“Her body probably couldn’t recover from the shock,” she told me when I mentioned my one casualty.

I cradled the hen’s dead body in one arm and hiked out into the woods a ways.  That’s what I do with them; it’s become a weird ritual for me.  I laid her behind a tree, far enough away from my barn that she won’t draw attention to my living birds, and I said a quick thank you; my hens do a job for me that I like to acknowledge.

Something–a raccoon or bobcat or coyote–will take her body and eat it.  Nothing will be  wasted.

<<<>>>

Livestock teach you to take 100% responsibility, while acknowledging your complete lack of control.     It’s a hard lesson, this realization that all the planning in the world can’t guarantee an outcome, the realization that the world spins on in its own way regardless of our intentions for it.

It’s also lovely, because sometimes acknowledging your smallness reminds you to settle into it and let go of your illusion of control.

When the cold comes, you do the best you can and let go of the rest.  Settle in, and know that warmer air is on its way.

 

 

 

 

Why I Paid an Artist to Cut My Wedding Dress into Pieces.

I spent part of this evening cleaning up around the house.

As usual, I couldn’t really stay on task.  I wandered.  Washing sheets from one room.  Picking up in another.  I clean like an ADHD squirrel, bouncing from room to room, lacking cohesion and getting distracted by each new corner.  I once set out to dust my bedroom and wound up reorganizing the entire contents of my walk-in hallway closet instead.  The bedroom went undusted.  The closet turned out wonderfully, and I’m still not sure how that happened.

All of this to say, I didn’t set out to throw away wedding memorabilia today, but somewhere in the process of cleaning up my guest room, I stumbled upon my one-time treasures and decided that it was time that they stop taking up space…in my home and in my life.  Unity candles are a lovely metaphor, and you never expect to see the day come that you toss them aside, but their meaning is lessened once the pair they unified sever all the ties the flame represented.   I took out the ceremonial objects and unceremoniously dumped them into my trash outside next to the dirty cat litter. Continue reading “Why I Paid an Artist to Cut My Wedding Dress into Pieces.”

On Shearing and Doing Hard Things

This is me.

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This is me on an almost 90 degree day, after shearing nine of my llamas over the course of about two hours.

This is me sweaty and exhausted.  Covered in tiny bits of wool.  Thoroughly uncomfortable

And thrilled that my animals were cool again. Continue reading “On Shearing and Doing Hard Things”

Spring

I just found hay in my hair, a memento from the time I spent in the horse field this afternoon lying on my back in what remained of a round bale. It’s sixty degrees.  Just a few days ago, there was snow on the ground.  Spring is like that here.

Unpredictable.

Fickle.

Unruly.

(Not unlike my hair now that I think about it.) Continue reading “Spring”

Letting “Good Enough” be Good Enough: The stalls won’t always be clean…and that’s ok

I’ve started this blog post three times.  Each time, Amelia, one of my three dogs, shoves her nose under my elbow and nudges my arm, asking for attention.  Each time, my fingers lose their space on the keyboard; I backspace and start over.  One of those times, my puppy, Rose, joins in, but in her poor “puppy” form, she makes the mistake of grabbing my hand in her mouth (albeit gently), resulting in a reprimand.

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They give up, bored, and curl up on their beds across the room.  I’m granted a moment to myself, and I keep typing. Continue reading “Letting “Good Enough” be Good Enough: The stalls won’t always be clean…and that’s ok”

Living the Dream

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I forgot to step tall over the hot wire.

I felt my rubber muck boot catch the bottom wire of the horse fence.  My ankle caught the strand that I had strung there this summer.  My knees hit the snow.  The five gallon bucket I had been filling at the spigot fell forward out of my hands and spilled into the stark, white snow, soaking my hands through my gloves, emptying in a mockery of the small task I was trying to accomplish.

I was wearing too many layers to injure myself in the fall: my legs were insulated against their snowy landing spot by two pairs of pants and a pair of heavy duty coveralls.  Rather, the -15 degree windchill made the possibility of frostbite through my wet gloves my most pressing concern.  I stood up slowly–the only possible way to stand in coveralls–and, swearing at the wind or the weather or my own clumsiness, began to refill the bucket.  Ponies need water.  It is my job to make sure they have it, whether the process for getting it is pleasant or not. Continue reading “Living the Dream”