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”

A Day in the Life

8:15:

Coffee

It’s after 8:00; I’m still in bed, under covers, and I’ve only REALLY been awake for about 15 minutes.  Over and over, I have to explain this.  I don’t do early mornings unless I have to, and on weekends, I don’t have to.

People who hear about the ranch always assume that I’m up before dawn.  They expect, I suppose, that I am out by the sunrise, scattering chicken feed from the pockets of an apron that I would assumedly be wearing while singing “The Hills are Alive” from The Sound of Music.

No.

My sweet spot is between 7:00 and 8:00.  Which is why I’m still not quite out of bed when John comes back in with coffee.

John is almost always awake first.  His job, as a process engineer for a company about an hour and a half from here, requires that his ass be at his desk by 7 am.  His internal clock is set differently than mine.

 He makes coffee for us on the weekends.

Really good coffee.

I’m keeping him.

He offers me my coffee cup.  I stretch.  Sit up.  Take the cup.

“Good morning, gorgeous.”

This is my wake-up every morning that we wake up in the same space.  It’s less often than we’d like since he still lives and works over 100 miles away.  The distance, which both of us coming off of bad break-ups had initially found so comforting, is starting to get old.

I take a sip of the coffee.  It’s hot and delicious.  Fresh ground.  Just a hint of cream.  No sugar.

The day, we both know, will be long, so coffee is slow.

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9:30:

It’s already hot outside when we finally make it to the barn.  Truthfully, wiser ranchers and farmers start chores earlier than me to beat the heat.  I trade in 5 to 10 degrees of comfort for an extra hour or two in bed.  We all make choices.

I start cleaning stalls while John fills hay nets.  These are the daily chores, along with collecting eggs and feeding chickens, letting the cats out of their room, and making sure the horses have food (either hay or pasture).   Weekends are usually full of stuff that doesn’t make the day-to-day and this one is no exception.

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10:30:

Cinco is so easy to catch.  Basically, you want up to him and ask politely.  He stands still while you slip a halter on and walks with you maintaining respectable distance.  I bring him into the center of the barn and hand him to John, and head into my feed room to grab my hoof trimming tools.

That’s a thing I do now.   I never budgeted hoof care into the equation when I brought all of these guys home.  That may seem shortsighted, except that I was married to a farrier (a horse shoer/trimmer) at the time, and I hadn’t planned for the marriage to spectacularly fail.  After it did, I was left with the choice of learning how to trim my own horses or getting rid of them, because there was definitely not room in the budget for a good farrier, and the idea of having my ex out to the ranch every six weeks made me feel ill for quite a while..

That brings me here, with Cinco and John.  (On a related note, I’m pretty sure John never saw himself holding horses for trimming either…Life does not always take us where we expect.)

Trimming hooves can be a little bit like performing surgery.  The hoof is complicated, a live piece of their body, and it’s important to understand the anatomy before cutting into it.  Fortunately, I was already fairly well-versed in that before I ever picked up a nipper.  (It’s a side effect of travelling with and listening to a farrier for hundreds and hundreds of hours.)

The actual work though?  All the book knowledge in the world didn’t make it easier to cut into a hoof for the first time.  I knew enough to know just how much I could fuck things up (though my other horsey friends pointed out that one mildly bad trim wasn’t going to do too much damage).

My first trim was of my friend Lauren’s horse with her husband’s supervision.   Then my horses with Lauren’s help and supervision.  Now it’s my horses with my supervision (and an occasional Facetime session with Lauren and her husband).

Since those first few experiences, there have been a lot of “good enough” trims.  Not perfect.  Not exactly what I was looking for, but functional, especially for my herd of horses who are rarely ridden and who are never worked particularly hard.  But this one?  By the time I came to the end of the trim, even I thought it looked pretty damn good.

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Of course, there was blood.  Not Cinco’s.  Mine.  I rarely remember gloves when I first start a trim, and I have a nasty habit of hitting my knuckles with the rasp.  A blood sacrifice to the equine gods, I suppose.

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Noonish: (Trims take me a while)

I wiped the drips of blood off my hands, and lead Cinco down the lane to the backyard.  Typically it’s where I keep the dogs, but the grass is high, and I don’t much feel like mowing.  I watch Cinco as we walk down the drive, and I’m pleased with how he’s moving.   The trim will serve.  

He is nervous at first until we catch and bring the other horses down to join him. Any nervousness at being in a new field is overshadowed by the security of being with the whole herd and the joy of being in a fresh field with more grass than they can eat. 

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I have work to do in the garden.  (Occasionally, while I pull the weeds that I never have quite been able to keep up with, it occurs to me that I can buy groceries…)

I have errands to run.  (There’s a gardening tool at Lowe’s that I feel I must have but that it turns out I will barely use after tomorrow.)

I need to deworm the cat.  The baby llama needs a shot.  The hay nets are empty and need to be refilled.

When was the last time I watered the flowers on the porch?

Before the day is over, I take two showers, sweating through my barn clothes twice.  (My mom wonders sometimes why I have to do so much laundry…this is it.)  We settle down after evening chores just in time to see some friends pull up the driveway.  They meet the new baby llama.

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They pet the critters who come up to greet them.

We settle in for conversation and wine and some fresh popcorn.

There’s one more day in the weekend.  One more slow morning with delicious coffee.  On Monday, mornings speed up.  John will leave just before 5am.  I will do the chores that must be done before heading to work myself.

The rest will wait until the weekend comes around again.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Ice and Bluebells

It’s been one of “those” days.

You know the ones…

It’s the sort of day that feels a bit like three.  Nothing goes catastrophically wrong, but things don’t go quite right either.  Minor inconveniences twang at the edges of your nerves like a curious toddler smacking the strings of a slightly out of tune banjo with their open hand.  There is nothing intentional or melodic about it, but there is a lot of noise.

It’s the sort of day I tend to have out here at the tail-end of winter, when it is just too fucking cold for roughly the millionth day in a row, and all I want to do is shut myself in the house for three or four days with cozy blankets, a warm hot chocolate, a roaring fire, and a great memoir, but I’ve given up sugar (so no hot cocoa), I can’t get a fire to catch without a starter log that I forgot to buy, the horses need round bales put out and the ponies are hungry, so I have to brave the frozen tundra just long enough for my fingers and toes to go numb through my gloves and boots instead.

It’s been that kind of day.

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It’s been a difficult winter.

Cold, snow, and ice have been tracks playing on repeat this season, a symphony Elsa herself would be proud of.  Outside of the polar vortex with it’s -55 wild chills–as though that wasn’t enough all on it’s own–we’ve also had record breaking snowfalls, winter storms gracing the forecast with alarming regularity, and ice.  Lots of ice.

The Midwest is a place that NEEDS its seasons.  The summer is too summery to last forever.  I couldn’t handle the horse flies or poison ivy or 100 degree days with staggering humidity all year long, even in exchange for the fireflies, wildflowers, and warm summer nights.  By August, I’m looking forward to the drop in temperature,  bonfires, and pumpkin everything that are coming around the corner.  Likewise, I start getting stir crazy at the end of winter.  (For the love of all that is good and holy, give me just one day that I don’t wind up feeling cold!)  Right now, I am aching for 45 degrees, chores without a bulky winter coat, and a slow slide into spring.

There are bluebells and daffodils tucked under the frozen dirt somewhere; I just know it.  Gardens to clean up.  Chicks to raise.  Native bee houses, bat houses, and bird houses to put up.  Seeds to sow in ground that needs tilling.  Raised beds I was given for Christmas that are just waiting for me to find them homes.  There are bikes to ride.  Horses to groom.  Ponies to begin socializing.  There are a thousand plans swirling around in my head, more than one summer can possibly contain, but I feel like that’s half the fun.

In the meantime though, my clay rich dirt is as hard as rock.  My full bale hay nets are frozen to the ground and completely unusable.  The chicken coop is desperate for a good cleaning, but I won’t be able to do a thing with it until the thaw.  Until winter begins to release it’s freezing grip, the only thing I can do is continue.

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I was cranky when I met my hay supplier at my horse pasture around 5:15.  I think maybe he was too.  Not at each other, mind you, at the cold weather and the setting sun.

“How are you holding up out here?”

I tried not to look at the hundreds of dollars of hay waste on the ground.  Without my nets to slow them down, the horses have been going through hay like a trust fund baby going through cash on their first trip to Vegas.  This winter is costing more than emotional energy.

“Hanging in,” I replied.  “Sick and tired of the cold.”

Larry looked up, searching the skies for just a moment before replying.

“I saw the geese flying north earlier.”

That’s the sort of thing we look for out here, the same way that we pay attention to the number of woolly worms in the fall to give us a clue about the coming winter.  The geese, I can assure you, know something that Larry and I do not, and the geese are on their way back home.

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The wild things are stirring.  Last night, as I filled the horse trough, hands going slightly numb through my gloves, I heard the barn owls call to one another.  One was behind me in the woods on the creek side.  The other was across the horse pasture in the woods towards the neighbor’s corn fields.  They cut through the silence with their call and reply, a sound I’ve gotten used to in my time out here on the ridge line.  I only occasionally see them, but they’ve been my neighbor’s for years.

I’ve started hearing the chorus of just a few plucky songbirds in the morning when I walk the lane to start my chores.   Most of them are relatively quiet through the winter.  By mid-summer they will make up an orchestra.

For now, I’m only hearing solitary notes, but the song is coming.  The song and the bluebells are on their way.

 

 

Winter, Christmas Trees, and a Little Bit of Unexpected Magic

There needs to be a setting on my Fitbit for “walking through the snow in coveralls.” Regular steps seem wholly inadequate for the trudge that takes me between the house and the barns each morning and evening. Something between walking and swimming would do nicely I think…

The ranch has been blanketed with snow for the better part of a week.  Everything takes a little extra effort.  Waterers require heaters.  Three of my llamas are wearing coats.  One is being supplemented with grain.  The chickens are being fed black oil sunflower seeds for extra calories in addition to their regular food.  Stalls are getting messier, faster.  And, of course, there’s the two pair of socks and coverall wearing trudge.

This is the time of year that always makes farmers, ranchers, critter enthusiastic hobbyists, and almost farmgirls question our own sanity.

It’s too cold for humans,  we proclaim, tucked safely under our covers, dreading the moment that our feet hit the floor and our day begins in earnest.

It’s too cold for critters, we decide, putting a coat on an animal who, in the wild, definitely wouldn’t be wearing a coat.

It’s too cold for water, we somewhat insanely argue, as we pull a puck-like chunk of ice off the waterer whose heater isn’t keeping up.

Why do I do this?  The question rattles around in the empty spaces created by all of the cold.

Things break. Animals shiver.  Our faces get chapped by the frigid air, and our toes go just a little numb in our boots when we forget to put on two pairs of socks.

The ancients used to bring evergreens into their homes in the winter as an act of sympathetic magic.  (It’s where we get our Christmas trees, actually.)  It was a reminder that spring and summer would come again.    The greenery provided comfort against their stark, harsh world of cold and dark and white.   It was reminder of the renewal that was waiting for them just under the surface of the snow.

I get it.

Last weekend, my boyfriend and I decorated my tree.  We chose a little beauty from my hay supplier’s tree lot.  It is on the smaller side, a cute little Fraser fir, but it is full, and well-branched, and lovely.  Everything I look for in a Christmas tree.   My hay guy gave it to me for free, insisting that I paid enough for hay throughout the year to merit a free Christmas tree, and it is standing in my sunroom smelling a little bit like heaven.

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John strung the lights, and I pulled out my collection of ornaments while we waited on the most recent blizzard.   He built a fire in the fireplace.  We opened a bottle of wine, and I took my yearly walk down memory lane, choosing ornaments from my collection that seemed especially meaningful.  I added a few this year.  I put a few in a donation box whose meaning no longer felt dear to me (several of them commemorating milestones with my ex husband).

We sipped wine and cuddled up with the cats for the rest of the evening, enjoying our little bit of magic with it’s glittering ornaments and fairy lights.  I ventured out in my pajamas and coveralls with a flashlight in hand as the sleet turned to snow to bring the horses in from the field.

As the ice stung my face, I briefly wondered why I feel so pulled to this place and this work.  Then the horses made their way into the barn, bits of snow clinging to their long eyelashes and against their manes and tails.  The ponies nickered from their stall, wondering if perhaps it wasn’t time for second dinner.  The llamas hummed softly from across the aisle, munching hay from the nets I had refilled earlier that day.

I made my way back to the house, back to my boyfriend, back to the dogs and cats I share my home with, back to the warm fire, and the tree that awaited me with it’s sympathetic magic, and I realized that the barn was full of magic of its own. The creatures there reminding me, in their own way, that we are all in this together.  That we are connected to one another and to the seasons as they come and go.  That the snow and the cold and the chill are both temporary and beautiful.

I settled into the couch next to John and sipped my glass of red wine.

It was quiet.  The lights on the tree glittered through and shone against the ornaments.  The fire crackled.  Renewal waits on the other side of this season, on the other side of the snow, and the cold will pass.  For now though, I will steel myself against the cold, enjoy the quiet moments, and try to pay attention to the magic.

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”

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”

Sitting in the Sacred

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

It’s still warm enough for crickets to chirp their song at the end of the day, but only just.  Our fall colors are still flirting with the green of summer.  Fall happens slowly here.  You almost miss it, sandwiched between our Midwestern summers and winters which compete every year to be fiercer than the other.  Fall is quiet.  Unlike the famous colors out east, our colors don’t come all at once.   We entertain shades of gold and green and red in the same moment.  Oranges like pumpkins.  Scarlet like the lips of emboldened women.  Yellow leaves reminiscent of gold jewelry worn to be noticed and envied.  All of this beside the slow trees that cling to their chlorophyll, still green into November.  Even lovelier for their slow and steady, almost cautious, pace.

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Continue reading “Sitting in the Sacred”

When Phoenix Came to Stay

 

“So…There’s this horse…”

I was lying on my bed in the middle of the afternoon-a weekend in early May of 2016-feeling extraordinarily lazy, and watching my ceiling fan spin circles above me.  I held my phone to my ear and listened as Jeremiah began to explain the plight of a unfortunate four-year-old desert bred Arabian gelding who had been injured in a pasture accident.  The injury was deemed “career ending” for the young gelding, once an exceptionally promising and talented performance prospect, and the decision was made to put him down.  He was three-legged lame, currently residing in a stall awaiting his appointment for euthanasia after x-rays revealed that he had torn much of the connective tissue in his lower right front leg.  He only had a few days before the vet would be back out.

Through an unlikely chain of events (involving the horse’s previous owner, an unexpected shoeing appointment, and a brief conversation with the consulting vet), the gelding, named Phoenix, had made his way onto Jeremiah’s radar.  Jeremiah had known Phoenix’s mother and was the farrier for Phoenix’s previous owner.  He was just connected enough to the horse to be interested, and he started making phone calls to get to the bottom of the situation. Continue reading “When Phoenix Came to Stay”

Depression and Stitching Things Back Together

I spent the other morning holding the lead line of my largest horse, an off the track thoroughbred named Vinny, while our vet quietly sedated him and stitched a gaping dermal laceration on his neck.   It was ugly, probably four inches long, and bloody, a surprise when I went out to check the horses.  It’s his second emergency vet visit this month; a few weeks ago he tore open his shoulder open just about six inches below his current tear.  That, plus another “stitch” visit (for one of my ponies, Slash) has made our vet such a common sight for us this month that I’m beginning to feel like he lives here.

I’m still not entirely sure how he hurt himself. Sometimes with horses it’s like that. You just have to concentrate on fixing the issues even if you don’t understand why there was an issue in the first place.

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Vinny

I watched the vet stretch the broken skin back over the tissue on Vin’s neck.  Vin, whose sedation had him happily enjoying the sound of the color orange, barely seemed to notice the curved needle slowly, methodically, putting him back together where he had torn himself apart.

There’s been a lot of stitching around the farm lately: literal and metaphoric.   Continue reading “Depression and Stitching Things Back Together”