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.
I walked out to the barn this evening wearing a sweatshirt and jeans; it’s not cold enough to break out my winter things yet, but if I know anything about time and seasons and the Midwest and ranch work, I know that those coats and hats and gloves aren’t as far away as they seem right now. Acorns crunched under each step; in no time their crunch will be replaced by the crunch of snow underfoot.
The barn was quiet. Most of the animals, especially the llamas, were out in their fields enjoying the green grass. I walked down the barn aisle attending to those who required a special dinner. The quiet of my evening interrupted by the occasional impatient whinny or llama hum.
Twice a day, everyday, this is my world. Llamas. Alpacas. Horses. Chickens. Silly little ponies. A random pet turkey hen who doesn’t really like me all that much. It comes complete with all the dust, and manure, and work I can manage…plus just enough more to remind me that the work will never, ever actually be done. It is overwhelming sometimes. Exhausting sometimes. Heartbreaking sometimes.
It is also beautiful in ways I still struggle to put to words.
I walked down the lane farther and dislodged a hay bale from my stack. Hooves pounded the ground, and my horses called to me as I carried a bale out into the field. Some trotted. A few cantered. One sprung into a mad gallop that ended in bucks of pure joy. I watched and listened. I will never tire of the sound of hoof beats. Watching my horses gallop in for dinner will never get old.
But I don’t always watch or listen.
I try to practice mindfulness in my life: taking the time to center myself to my breath, notice what is going on around me, and live in the moment.
I have to be honest, I’m really bad at it most of the time.
I’m a very cerebral person in general, and it’s hard for me to let go of what’s going on in my head long enough to notice what’s going on in front of me. When I finally take a moment to slow down and notice the world around me, I am most often struck by what I miss out on everyday.
Tonight could have passed that way, like so many others. But for some reason, instead of quickly tossing hay and leaving my horses to their dinner, I walked around checking in with each of them. I kissed Phoenix on the nose. I scratched Morana’s neck. I said hello to each horse. Then, impulsively when he came up to me and seemed to offer it, I climbed on Jiminy Cricket’s back.
It’s been a while since I climbed on a horse bareback.
I had no intention of asking him for anything. This wasn’t going to be a battle of wills; I wasn’t a rider, just a passenger. He had complete say over where we went. How fast we traveled. He wasn’t bothered, settling in quietly to eat hay with his pet monkey on his back.
I sat there while the sun set. The oak leaves ruffled gently in the breeze and the light glittered between them. The sunlight played in a way that made me understand why the ancients believed in faeries.
Jiminy felt warm and powerful and gentle beneath me. He took a deep breath in response to my own, and we settled into this moment in the fall, the light like golden glitter between the leaves, and the sweet smell of hay.
I slid off his back as the light I had been watching began to dim. The horses watched me leave, and I walked back to the house hearing the crunch of acorns.
And I thought about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the poet who once wrote that “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God.” Most of the time, we miss it, but sometimes? Sometimes we see the fire. We recognize the holy. We sit in the sacred, and we remember, though we will probably soon forget again, that the sacred is always within reach.
I pulled the red and white notice off the door of my Heights house with a sigh. We would be fined within days if the lawn continued un-mowed, if the landscaping wasn’t trimmed back. Jeremiah and I (mostly Jeremiah) had been in a slow war with the code enforcement officer in the Heights most of the time that we lived there. Our fence was the first infraction–built on a corner lot and requiring signatures of all the neighbors and a hearing at city hall to build–but from then on the inspector took every opportunity to cite us, and Jeremiah took every opportunity to provoke him. We learned after the fence incident that bribes were the usual way of dealing with his red and white citations, and it seemed that forcing the issue with the city had been something of an embarrassment to him when all the council members immediately approved our “beautiful fence.”
But this time? Honestly, I could see his point.
I was at the Heights house to meet with our carpet installer for a quote. Getting that house on the market, so that I can stop carrying bills for two homes and re-appropriate some of my capital from the Heights into the farm, has been a long, slow, goal. Earlier this year, I hired my contractor to put on a new roof and finish the drywall in our new addition; just a month or so ago I bought all new light fixtures and paint. But it’s not quite there yet.
Oh – and I would love to make the lawn someone else’s problem.
Since we moved across the river, the lawn at the Heights has alternately been the problem of my dad, my former brother-in-law (who I still totally consider family…actually, I’m keeping all of Jeremiah’s family), and Jeremiah (occasionally…when he’s in town). This time? My dad offered to help me pick up the slack, once again, and that’s how we found ourselves taming back the jungle that was my former house’s lawn just before dusk.
I drove over to meet him with a weed whacker, hedge trimmers, and a potato fork in my truck, ready to whack, trim, or dig as necessary. When I pulled up, he was nearly finished mowing the yard.
My Heights house sits on a lot and a half in one of the nicer working class neighborhoods across the river. It was built nearly a hundred years ago, when houses were smaller and ceilings were taller. Nothing is perfectly square, the floors are, at best, levelish, and nearly every corner of the not quite 800 square feet (from one of our foundation walls to two staircases) made a valiant attempt to fall in on us while we lived there.
And it was completely perfect, and I couldn’t have loved it more.
It’s five minutes from anything you could possibly need. Sidewalks make it pedestrian (and pup) friendly; the posh boutique restaurants and shops uptown are a relatively easy walk if you’re in the mood. Our favorite pizza place was just up the block. Starbucks was just around the corner.
It’s the sort of neighborhood where neighbors know each other’s names and say hello. When my Amelia was a puppy, she made a habit of slipping the fence, running across the street to our favorite neighbors’ house, and waiting on the porch until Wade saw her, gave her pets, and walked her back home. It was a ritual for both of them for a few weeks, nearly every morning, until we figured out where she was escaping. He never complained once.
There’s a lot that I miss about that place.
I miss the front porch with its steps that I lined with flowers. The landscaping that we scrapped together from free splits, plant sales, and the occasional splurge.
I miss the sidewalks. I miss the neighborhood cats who used to come visit while we sat on the porch and drank wine in the evening under twinkle lights. I miss the people who would wave hello as I sat on the same porch drinking coffee and grading English papers.
I miss the utterly ingenious squirrels.
Mostly though, I miss the feeling of “knowing” what direction my life was heading. I miss the security I felt there with my cozy little house and almost blissfully happy marriage. I was sure of myself when I lived there in a way that I haven’t been able to reclaim since.
Nostalgia rolled over me as I pulled climbing weeds from the stems of the hydrangea plants that I worked for years to establish. They bloomed this year without my noticing; I only rarely drive by. The gardens that we had tended so exactly for years were overgrown and wild, a reminder that nature will reclaim whatever it feels it is due, even in town, even with a Starbucks just around the corner.
I bit back tears once or twice, not for the house exactly, but for the losses that my mind had folded into those walls, and that yard, and those pretty little hydrangeas.
When Dad and I finished up, we sat on the porch for a bit. The evening was cool, and the front porch was still perfect. One of the neighborhood cats, Bennie by his tag, sat with us and enjoyed pets.
“Things were good here…” I said to my dad, or maybe to myself, or maybe to no one in particular.
“Before the shit hit the fan,” he replied.
Yes, I thought. Before all of the shit hit all of the fans.
Once upon a time, in what feels like another life, I used to teach English 101 to Freshman at the local four year college. I had two additional goals for my students beyond what was specifically in the 101 instructor handbook: first, that they actually understand the rules for commas by the time they leave my class, and second, that they have a basic grasp of logic and logical fallacies. I won’t turn this post into a lesson on commas–suffice it to say there really are only four comma rules, and they aren’t that hard–but I was reminded of my logical fallacy lessons as I sat on the steps.
Memories are remarkably unreliable, mostly because they were never designed for perfect playback as much as they were designed to help us adapt and survive. The memories that we keep for some time tend to be remembered as mostly positive or negative, while our current situations can be seen with more objectivity: the positive and negative weighed against each other. (Also, we tend to remember our best days, and our worst, but the “mostly ok” days that make up most of our lives slip through our mental lockers like water through a sieve.) Most of us have times in our lives that we remember with proverbial “rose-tinted glasses.” For me, my time in that little house comes across almost glowing.
Ah, but here’s the rub: if you’re willing to really think about those times, it becomes clear fairly quickly that things weren’t perfect and idyllic. That may make for a better story or a good memory, but it’s seldom the way our lives are actually lived.
I don’t miss the city noises, or the headlights that would shine through my bedroom window as people drove down the street in the middle of the night. I don’t miss the code enforcement guy monitoring my lawn, or the overzealous animal control in the county. I really don’t miss the fact that most of town used the weeks from the middle of June through the end of July as an excuse to set off fireworks at all hours.
I miss some of my neighbors, but I couldn’t wait to leave a few of them behind me.
I miss the convenience of being right in town, but I wouldn’t trade my farm lane for all the tea in China (or, you know, something I would realistically have more use and desire for than all of the Chinese tea…)
I would give almost anything to move my front porch across the river and park it squarely in front of this big, old ranch house, but there are limits to what you can actually take with you when you leave a place. So, instead of the porch, I’ll take the memories of the summer nights, and the twinkle lights, and the wine. I’ll hope that the next owners love the little house as much as we did, that their good memories will outweigh the bad, and that love will live there for a long time to come. Maybe I’ll even hope that their memories there show through rose-tinted glasses.
I’m mostly ok with it.
I walked around the little gardens and made a mental note of the clean-up yet to be done. Hopefully, those flower boxes that Jeremiah so painstakingly built for me will belong to someone else before long, but in the meantime, I believe I can afford to give them just a little more time and attention.
Before leaving, I chose a handful of overgrown plants to split and replant in my butterfly garden in front of the ranch house. We dug them up without much ceremony and loaded them into my truck alongside the tools I brought.
It was nearly dark by the time I made it home and began digging holes in the soft earth of my butterfly garden, the clayish soil mingling with llama manure compost, clinging to my hands and sticking underneath my fingernails. I listened to the nighttime things wake up around me. The owls. The crickets. The toads.
No sign of the city except for the tiny bit of light pollution that glows from the west.
Things will never be the same as they were during those years in my little house. I may never quite reclaim those same feelings of security, but that loss made space for other good things that I couldn’t have imagined then.
I sunk the roots of my plants into the space I made them, and I watered them almost to flooded, knowing that the next day would be hot, and that they would need a lot of care to establish themselves. They didn’t have the space they really needed in the little garden boxes, but in the butterfly garden, if they could make it past the trauma of the move to establish their roots, they would have plenty of room to grow.
She thinks she’s bragging, but the little girl, or teen, or grown-ass woman (or perhaps man) who utters those words in the horseback riding world has failed to read the room. We are not impressed. In fact, the polite among us are trying not to laugh in her face. She looks with at the other riders with expectation, all of us with muck on our boots, sweat under our helmets and horsehair on our jeans. We, she implies, have fallen, and she has not; therefore, obviously, her skills are greater. We should accept the inevitable conclusion that she is the superior rider.
It’s almost cute, really…
But we know something she doesn’t. We know there are only two types of horseback riders: Those who have fallen off, and those who will. Continue reading “Falling”→