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.
For those of you who don’t know, llamas are wool-bearing animals and must be shorn yearly. Without shearing, they’re particularly susceptible to heat stress, which can kill them…pretty quickly. This is especially true in places where it gets HOT. And in Illinois? It gets HOT.
Seventeen years ago, when I started working on this ranch as an almost-fifteen year old, I was immediately thrown into the work of shearing prep. Back then, there were sixty llamas instead of eighteen, and they were on a work rotation of grooming and washing that left them fluffy, clean, and ready to be shorn. Shearing was our goal for months.
A shearer was hired in from out of state, and our shearing weekend was orchestrated like an professional event. People were assigned roles. (Halterer, holder, wool gatherer, etc. There was a clipboard and everything.) We were a well-oiled, shearing machine that started at precisely 8 am and made it through sixty animals in two days. Plus, my bosses kept me well stocked in Gatorade and Red Bull (ugh, yes, I used to drink Red Bull), and they bought all of us lunch.
A few years ago when my ex and I took over the farm, he took over shearing. Friends helped when they had time–gathering wool or grabbing the next animal in line while I held and he sheared–and we bought them lunch. We were down to about thirty animals then.
Over the next few years, the animals became fewer. (Some of you have read about how we lost several of them.) Shearing became less of an event. My ex would just disappear for a bit, and then come back and tell me that he sheared a few animals.
He sheared for me last year, after our divorce, and told me that he always would if I wanted him to. Instead, I had him teach me how to do it myself, sensing even then that he would move onto something else very quickly, and that we wouldn’t stay friends forever.
I was right.
And this year, I did all of it.
I sent my shears off to be maintained. I ordered new blades. I ignored the newly cleaned and sharpened shears for a week, afraid to tackle my next hard thing.
When the weather turned stupid hot, I stood in my feed room in a mild panic when I couldn’t immediately remember how to install the blades on the shears.
Then, I googled how to install the blades correctly.
Eighteen llamas and alpacas.
I haltered. I prepped. I sheared. I was the shearing team, and no one bought me lunch. Most stood tied without a holder. For one particularly smart llama–who figured out how to unplug the shears because he didn’t like them–I had to call my dad into hold, so he couldn’t reach the cord, but mostly I did it myself.
It took me three days and a lot of Gatorade, but the whole herd is shorn and de-wormed. (I figured I would do bi-yearly shots while I was at it.) And, honestly? I’m pretty proud of myself. I’m also pretty proud of my llamas and alpacas who mostly behaved really well.
Also, while I was trying to collage photos of newly shorn llamas, I created a “push-me, pull-you.” (You’re welcome.)
Turns out, shearing is another thing I can do; it’s amazing what you can figure out if you have to.
I was watching the llamas today as they grazed, cool and comfortable with their wool shorn off and bagged up in the barn. The breeze was soft. Crickets and frogs were chirping, and I was struck, yet again, by the fact that there is no where else on the planet I would rather be. This place has stretched me again and again. It is the hard thing that I have to tackle every day. And it’s the right thing.
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.
(Not unlike my hair now that I think about it.)
But back to the hay bale. I buy hay in 1200 lb bales to feed my horses. The bales are tall and round. I cover them with impossibly large nets that hold the bale together as horses slowly eat it down. The bales are made for eating, but sometimes I sit in them instead. Today, home early after having been haunted by the ghost of a migraine, I wandered out in the warm air and and made myself comfortable in the hay.
I am like a barometer, at least according to my chiropractor who has to adjust away the headaches I wake up with every time the barometric pressure swings wildly. A migraine crept in during the first part of this swing two days ago; I could barely walk without the urge to be sick. For the past two days, it’s lingered, just at the edge of my awareness, just enough there to make me fearful that it will crash back down on me the moment I feel comfortable. I wore sunglasses at the office today, and left as soon as I had the opportunity, anxious to be away from the buzz of the fluorescent lights and the glare of my computer screen. I drove myself home, walked up the lane to the horse field, and laid down in the hay.
I closed my eyes, listening to the breeze and the birds, enveloped in the smell of sweet grass hay, a smell that always seems to bring me back to my childhood. A few of the horses came up, and I kept a wary eye on them in case they set their mind upon mischief, but instead, they nuzzled and blew their warm breath onto my forehead, checking to see if I had shrunk I suppose, or reassuring themselves that it was me even when I laid down.
There is something about the change of the seasons here on the ranch that always seems to bring me back to myself, reawaken pieces of me that sleep for a time. In the winter, we rest. The farm. The animals. Me. Our numbers are fewer from the autumn migrations that call our wild, summer residents away. I buckle down, bundle up, and steel my mind to keeping all of us alive through the cold. Water unfrozen. Animals bundled in blankets or locked into barns as necessary. Everyone well-fed…maybe even overfed. And, at the same time, I also relax, putting projects on hold, contenting myself to spend cold nights cuddled up under blankets next to the fire.
When the Spring comes, I watch as all of us wake up. I’m called to the outside. I sit and listen to the birds with my morning coffee. (Sometimes I think that I should learn to identify them by song, a “get to know your neighbors” kind of thing.) I watch our bluebirds come home, and I wait anxiously for the first butterfly. There is a gentleness to it, but the to-do list seems to grow daily. Shearing, hoof trimming, vaccines–not to mention pasture clean-up, barn cleaning, and mowing–are about to be upon me.
From my spot in the hay, I couldn’t help but notice that the horses need a thorough grooming; they are blowing their winter coat, leaving the season behind them. They remind me that transitions can be messy, but that there’s a loveliness in the mess, if you’re willing to see it. The mess with always be there somehow; there’s always going to be a new thing to take of, another item on the never ending list. But sometimes, in the moments between the winter and spring, all you need do is close you eyes, listen, and breathe in the sweet smell that come along as things change.
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.
Actually, he did, until he didn’t anymore, but that’s a little beside the point.
That day last summer, the day that he yelled over the phone that the farm would kill me, that it was too much for me to do on my own, he was pretty clear on not wanting the farm.
I stood between my barns, acutely aware of everything that was broken or undone. Everything that required my time and my energy and my money. Everything that needed to be done that I didn’t know how to do. Tears ran down my cheeks, because his words left me with no future.
He didn’t want the farm. He insisted that I couldn’t handle it alone. He didn’t want to live in Illinois. He didn’t want all the animals. My future with him hung on my willingness to give up the farm and the animals, to move states away from my good-paying job, my family, and all my friends. And, even then, it seemed that I would be trading one version of alone for another: even if I had given up everything in my life and had moved to Pennsylvania with him, he still wouldn’t be around. He was still chasing a work schedule that had him on the road three weeks a month, and he made it pretty clear that that wouldn’t change. I would still be alone, only without a job, friends, my animals, or my family.
As far as I could tell, the life he wanted didn’t have any room in it for me. It certainly didn’t have room for the critters we had rescued together. I considered what my life would be like in Pennsylvania, trading my ranch for a one-bedroom apartment somewhere near the fancy Pennsylvania barns, and I racked my brain over what would happen to the animals that I wouldn’t have the space or the money for if I followed him.
And, ugly crying, I called Lauren.
“What if I can’t do it? He says this place will kill me.”
Lauren has the collected disposition of someone who has spent most of her life dealing with the unpredictability of horses, and while I’ve seen the “New Jersey” come out in her once or twice, she generally doesn’t get too upset. But I heard her blood pressure rising in her next words.
“You can’t handle it? What the fuck does he think you’ve been doing for the last year and a half?”
I knew I had struck a nerve; Lauren had been running her own ranch alone for nearly as long as I had been running mine, and, like me, she had fielded her own share of negativity.
“Look, of course you can’t do it all alone, but no one does this all alone. That’s not how farms work. You will do most of it, like you have been, and you will ask for help when you need it, and things will get done. You probably won’t do things like he would, and that’s ok.”
“Besides, even if it turns out that you can’t manage everything on your own, that will be ok, because you will have tried. And honestly, you never signed up to do all of this by yourself. It was supposed to take two of you. That was the deal.”
My ex wasn’t the only one to tell me I couldn’t handle the farm on my own. As news slowly spread of our break up, any number of well-meaning individuals expressed the same sentiment, albeit without the yelling. Saying things like, “Oh honey, it’s just too much!” or “I just don’t know how you’ll do this.” Some cloaked it in feeling sorry for me. Some felt betrayed by my ex’s behavior on my behalf.
I remember walking down the farm lane one afternoon with a friend, carrying a dead chicken upside down by her legs. The chicken had been killed by a predator, and I was taking her into the woods, far away from the coop. I didn’t want her body to draw more predators into the barnyard.
I was feeling so nearly defeated, this dead pet hanging limp next to me as I walked, and my friend, feeling badly for me, let loose a volley of what I’m sure she considered to be sympathetic thoughts about how unfair it was that I was dealing with that on my own, about how hard everything was, about how she just couldn’t see how I could manage.
The words were different, but the message was the same as my ex’s: This place was far too much to manage. I would fail.
The message landed in my weak places because of the truth in it.
The truth is, I had never planned to take this place on my own. I don’t think it would have been offered to me as a single person, and I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to say yes to it if it had been. The truth is, I have questioned a thousand times whether or not I was strong enough to keep this place running by myself. When my depression comes knocking, it tugs at those fears like a loose thread in the fabric of my life.
“What if I fail?”
“What if I can’t?”
“What if I’m not strong enough?”
“What if it all falls apart?”
But then, if my divorce has taught me anything, it’s that all the “what ifs” in the world will never change what is.
As things fell apart, I debated my path almost endlessly, looking for a direction that made at least a little bit of sense. I considered following him. I considered downsizing. I considered running from this place that had been my dream since I was a girl out of fear of failure.
And then, though I’m not sure when, I decided that all of that was bullshit.
I wanted to save my marriage more than anything; I nearly tore myself in half for two years trying. But somewhere along the line, I realized that I couldn’t save a relationship with someone who would make zero room in his life for me. I couldn’t save a relationship that he had willingly betrayed for someone else. (Yeah…I haven’t told you all about that part…) And, if I kept trying, I would wind up losing myself.
In the end, when faced with the choice between losing him or losing myself, I chose to save myself.
And it fucking sucked.
Turns out, this place hasn’t killed me yet.
Nearly every step along this path is difficult. I am learning as I go. (Trial by fire, as it were.) But, at nearly every step, I have been surprised by the kindness and willingness to help of those around me. Help mowing. Help watching the animals. My dad teaching me to run my equipment or to install a new floor. The local farmer who delivers round bales to my horses when my equipment isn’t working. My friends who come out to hold llamas for shots or trimming. The vet who taught me to give my own equine shots. My extended family, who rallied to bring in 200 bales of hay out of my fields last summer before they got rained on.
(This, by the way, is what it looks like to “call in the cavalry.”)
Over and over, when I need it, help shows up. Over and over, I realize that I’m not entirely alone: out here or in this life.
Maybe this place would be too much if I were doing it alone, but I am realizing now that my latest lesson is this: None of us do anything alone, not really. The trick is to ask for help when we need it, or maybe just to accept the help that we’re offered as it comes along.
I’m learning that that’s ok. Accepting help doesn’t make me weak. Asking for help doesn’t make me less capable. It makes me human and reminds me of what Lauren told me that day when everything felt impossible and tears streamed down my face. No one does this alone.
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.
His conversation with the vet led to his conversation with me. He explained that Phoenix had an excellent shot to recover to pasture sound (pain free but unridable), a decent chance of recovering to trail sound (noncompetitively ridable), and a very, very slim chance of recovering to performance sound, but that, in any case, he would require a lot of time and a lot of money. His owners weren’t willing to make that sort of investment in an almost definitely noncompetitive horse with such an uncertain future.
“What do you think?” Jeremiah asked. “Should we bring him home?”
If you’ve been following this blog for any time at all, you will know quite well that sad creatures are my kryptonite. I have barely bought myself a new pair of jeans in the past four years, but my creatures are well-stocked with their own comforts. However, the fact is, as much as I would like to try, I cannot save them all. My resources are finite, and every animal requires hay and time and space. All of those things have their limits, even out here on 100 acres. I try to be very aware of those limits because at my core, the space in my heart drastically outdistances the space in my pastures or leeway in my pocketbook. That could get me in trouble really quickly. Not to mention, as you might guess given my last post on my divorce, Jeremiah and I weren’t on terribly solid footing ourselves just then…
I paused before responding. “It’s probably a terrible idea…and we might just be bringing the poor thing up here to euthanize in a few months if things don’t heal…”
“I know.” Jeremiah sounded resigned, another horse, especially an injured one, would be a huge responsibility to add to already chaotic and complicated lives.
“It’s good that we’re in agreement on that…” I inhaled deeply. “But I think we should do it anyway.”
Jeremiah spent the next week getting Phoenix set to travel while I got the barn ready to accommodate a seriously injured horse. Jeremiah shod his uninjured front hoof in a fancy set of composite shoes for extra support. We had a vet in Southern Illinois cast his injured leg, and we had radiographs and records sent to our vet up here. By the time he loaded onto our trailer to travel three hours North, he had already required a significant investment in vet bills and hoof work.
I had been sent a few photos of him, but when I agreed to take him in, it was sight unseen, so when he stepped off the trailer, I was surprised by a few things. First, Phoenix was stunningly beautiful, and TALL, much taller than I had expected given his Arabian Heritage. Second, with his lower limb in a cast, he was fairly ambulatory, not nearly as lame as I expected. (I had been under the impression that we were bringing home a half-dead horse with a slim chance of survival, but he was in far better shape than I had imagined.) Third, he was taking his trailer ride and new surroundings mostly in stride. He seemed nervous, but obliging. All of that was encouraging.
I got him settled in to an empty stall on the far edge of the barn and began a routine that we hoped would make him better. The vet came out regularly to administer Ozone Therapy. We found someone locally who could administer pulsed magnetic wave therapy. We tried to limit his movement, control his pain, and give him any sort of edge we could find to give him. He was underweight when he came, so in addition to hay, he was also fed grain twice daily.
I was basically already running the farm by myself at that point, with Jeremiah away for weeks at a time, so Phoenix and I spent a lot of time together, especially early on. I cleaned his stall; I fed him; I held him for his treatments; I kept him clean, and fed, and as happy as possible. I planned to remain somewhat distant with him, not wanting to get overly attached if we were to have to put him down, but he had one of those difficult to resist personalities. My sister-in-law took to calling him a “puppy horse” due to his tendency to follow us, demand attention, and cuddle. It wasn’t long before he wiggled his giant self right into my heart.
For several months, things went very well. Better than expected, in fact. The combination of treatments seemed to be working splendidly. Phoenix moved into his second cast without a hiccup, continuing his treatments each step of the way.
Getting a Magnawave treatment and eating hay; this became a favorite routine.
Sedated to remove his first cast and set the second
I started planning for his future with us.
Despite offers from a few of Jeremiah’s clients to take him once he was sound, I decided he would stay. As far as I was concerned, he would always be something of a time bomb for the wrong owner: High spirited and athletic but with potential for a re-injury. He was built like a jumper, and I was afraid that would be his undoing in the wrong hands. Also, if I’m being terribly honest, it bugged me a little that plenty of people wanted him sound, but no one else was willing to take the chance on him or spend the required money on him when his fate was uncertain.
And somewhere along the line, between my initial resolution to keep emotional distance from him and the day Jeremiah came home to remove his second cast twelve weeks later, I had unconsciously decided that he would get better. He had gone from being a anonymous horse we were going to try to save, but would likely have to euthanize, to a member of my herd with a future, his own personality, and a place in my heart.
He stood patiently as Jeremiah removed his cast. The leg underneath was atrophied from under-use, but we expected that. Jeremiah asked me to lead him away, and Phoenix followed me obligingly…completely unable to bear weight on his injured leg. I had so thoroughly convinced myself that Phoenix would be sound out of the cast that those first few steps shocked me to my core.
Jeremiah watched him walk and shook his head, lips pursed, brow furrowed. I had seen that look so many times, usually as he tried to decide how to tell a client that things didn’t look so good for their horse.
“Did we expect this?” I asked, hoping he knew something I didn’t.
“No,” he said simply. “But, maybe it will take him a few days to get used to it.”
I put Phoenix back in his stall. He settled in, refusing to put weight on his hoof but otherwise paying it no mind. I fed him, just as I had done every day since Jeremiah brought him home, and Jeremiah and I walked back down to the house.
Both of us were despondent, but I think I felt more defeated. The uncertainty, defeat, fear of loss–those emotions, that vulnerability–are the true cost of what I do out here. The sacrifice of time or of money is easy by comparison.
The next few days showed little improvement. Phoenix seemed happy enough, but seldom put any weight at all on his injured leg, hobbling around pathetically on three legs instead.
The vet needed to come out again; this time to x-ray the affected leg and determine where Phoenix was at. Had the leg been reinjured? Had the tears healed? Was he developing rapid early arthritis (a concern from the beginning)? I needed to know whether or not he was getting better and whether or not I could offer him a good quality of life.
I needed to know whether my baby boy–you know, the one I wouldn’t let myself get attached to–would make it.
The vet wasn’t able to come out for two more weeks. Jeremiah went off on another month long trip and I stayed, feeding Phoenix twice a day (along with everyone else), cleaning his stall, and studying his every movement, looking for improvement…hope…
When our vet’s farm truck rolled up two weeks later, my stomach was in knots. It had already been decided that we would only keep going with treatment if it was fair to the horse, and his state at that moment, still not walking on the injured leg with three months of rehab behind him, made me desperately afraid that I would have to schedule his euthanasia before Doc drove away that afternoon.
I brought Phoenix out of his stall, and he stood calmly as the vet went about his business. He was used to being poked and prodded by then.
The vet was able to pull the x-rays up on his laptop within minutes. He viewed them side-by-side with the x-rays of the initial injury.
“Oh, ok. These look good. See here? This is much better.”
That knot in my stomach melted, and tried to pay attention as Doc explained all the intricacies of the x-rays we were looking at, but all I could focus on was that Phoenix was better. Things would be ok. I could hardly believe that things would be ok.
I watched him drive away with a sense of relief. He wouldn’t be coming back to help me give a unrecoverable horse a kind end. Instead, Doc told me that the muscles had atrophied in the cast, that Phoenix needed time and space. Those things, I could give him.
I opened up his stall to a small run that day. I moved him into his own small pasture within about a month. Then, this Spring, I walked him down the lane and introduced him to the other horses, moving him into the big field where he could run and play to his heart’s content.
Phoenix with his chickens.
Phoenix with his kitty.
I watched the horses munching their hay tonight as the sun set behind us. Phoenix stood in the field with everyone else, sound and a true-blue member of the herd, and I breathed a sigh of relief, remembering again just how miraculous that was.
“No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just come out the other side. Or you don’t.”
~ Stephen King
My divorce, so long in the making, was final at the end of March. My cousin, Erin, came down for a long weekend and stayed to hold my hand in a mostly empty courtroom on a Monday morning while I answered questions from a bored-looking judge for five minutes so that he could declare my marriage dissolved. My ex didn’t come; in Illinois you don’t have to have both parties present to finalize a divorce, and I had decided that the whole thing would probably be easier if I didn’t have to face him.
Divorce is strange. It can be equal parts terrifying and debilitating and liberating. Even world-ending. It’s unexpected for some. It feels inevitable for others. The cutting of a cord. The removing of a limb. A decision that you make, but that feels as though it had been made without you. One that somehow feels equal parts devastating and hopeful.
It’s the end of something you never thought would end, and the beginning of something you never prepared for.
At least, that’s how it was for me.
Divorces seem to be like couples; each one of them is different
Two years ago, my ex began chasing madly after a career a thousand miles away. It seemed to make him happy in ways that his work here did not, so I encouraged it, and I sacrificed for it. My time, money, and all of my needs were placed on a chopping block of my own creation. I dutifully swung the ax without even questioning, because, after all, we were a team, and I was nothing if not a team player. Don’t get me wrong. He never demanded, or even asked for, such sacrifices. Honestly, he didn’t even know I was making them. I did that all on my own while he was away. I believed the sacrifices were temporary and in service to our relationship. My choice. My consequences.
At first, he left for two weeks a month…then a month at a time…then six weeks between every stop home. His priorities changed slowly at first, then seemingly all at once. Looking back, I can see that his heart left this place…and I suppose me…long before he did.
When my marriage began falling apart, I felt scared and alone and incapable of living my life. I went through stages where the farm felt like way too much. The animals felt like way too much. My job felt like way too much. It felt like I was treading water, barely keeping my head up, all the while watching the waves get rougher all around me.
Bills. Sick animals. Farm emergencies. Broken equipment. Collapsed ceilings from my then-leaking roof. None of them had seemed so impossible when I was part of a team, when I had the emotional support of someone equally invested in building this life with me, but they began to pile on as I dealt with one after another mostly on my own. There was so much to do. So much to learn.
The truth is, Jeremiah is an incredibly capable person with a laundry list of skills that he always made look easy and that I didn’t possess. He’s a gifted builder. He’s good with heavy equipment. And, damn, can he mend a fence and hang a gate! When he left, I lost the most meaningful relationship of my life, and I lost at least half of the expertise that had kept the farm running. The loss of the second made it difficult to find the emotional space to deal with the loss of the first. It was the proverbial double-whammy, and it made me feel like every piece of my life was coming undone at the seams.
Putting a life back together that has come apart at the seams is a slow task. Putting a heart back together that has come apart at the seams is an even slower task. I’m still working on both.
Here’s the thing I’m learning: if you tread water long enough–and just float when you need to–you eventually get strong enough to swim. People always say “it gets easier,” but when you’re facing a struggle, those words do you a disservice. I believe the truth of the matter is a little different. It doesn’t get easier; You get stronger
I’m not saying this in the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” so “stop being a pansy” and “rub some dirt in it” kind of way. Rather, it’s worth acknowledging that the character traits we tend to admire–grit, compassion, self-awareness–they all come from living through the days we spend in that uncharted, unexpected territory in our lives.
I’m starting to believe that life gives us the experiences required to make us who we want to become, and that becoming the person we want to be is the result of walking through those experiences with all the openness we can muster. You walk the “blue and lonely section of hell,” and if you let it, it will teach you.
This place, these animals, all of this work, and even the dissolution of the most significant relationship of my life…they are my teachers right now, and I’m discovering that it’s usually easier to let them teach me than it is to fight them on the lessons.
“There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside of it.” – George Elliot, Middlemarch.
It isn’t as warm as yesterday, but I cannot call it cold. As of morning chores, the thermometer was flirting with 50 degrees, unseasonably warm for Midwestern Februarys. Walking to the barn in just a sweatshirt is a rare treat. The day is overcast; my weather app tells me that it will drop back down into the 30s tomorrow.
The squirrels seems to be celebrating this momentary gift of warmth. I watch two of them flitting through the trees like little furry ninjas, taking aerial leaps from tree to tree, branch to branch, that I wouldn’t have thought possible. I can’t help but laugh aloud, pausing for several minutes to stand and watch them as they chitter back and forth, oblivious to my presence.
The horses, llamas, ponies, alpacas, chickens, and even barn cats are likewise “feeling their oats.” They all seems especially enthusiastic today; whether playing or eating or just napping in the sun, they are going about their business with a little bit of sunshine in their step. So am I.
It’s temporary; I know, but when February gives you light, you let that light in.
The day has been gray. The weather forecast warned me that rain is likely, but things are warm and dry as I go about most of my day, and I forget about the impending squall. The text from my mother warning me about the oncoming storm stops me in the middle of cooking dinner; I run to the barn, hoping to settle the animals in for the night before the thunderstorm makes it to the ranch. The storm begins to blow in as I run up the barn lane. My solitary set of winds chimes tolls a panicked warning; they ring out loud and angry and dissonant. The same wind rattles my aluminum gates in their hinges, creaking and crashing. The trees swayed back and forth, deep roots digging in against the front coming out of the west. I wonder briefly if any of them will fall.
Rain comes down cold and heavy on my shoulders as I roll open my barn doors and begin ticking chores off my list. Shut the barn cats inside their tack room. Shut the chickens into their coop.
Sirens begin blaring as I fill hay nets. That means that a tornado has been sighted in the county. I glance outside; the sky bares no tell-tale signs of a twister. The heavens are angry, to be sure, but dark gray, not green. The wind is frenzied. My Midwestern upbringing has taught me that the sky to worry about is a calm green one. I glance at my weather app and confirm that the touch down was on the other side of the county, miles and miles away. I make hasty work of the last few hay nets, and, comfortable that everyone is as well set to weather the storm as I can make them, I run back through the downpour to the comfort of the house.
The sounds of the storm wake me several times throughout the night. Hail pinging on a metal roof, thunder crashing in the distance, wind and rain railing against every corner of the house as the winds shift direction. I lie in bed and pray for my creatures, hoping they have the sense to go inside. Hoping that no trees fall and take down fences. Hoping no more twisters are born of this storm system. I fall back asleep as the rain continues down.
April showers are said to bring May flowers, but so far they are only bringing me mud. The two horses in the main barn have churned up their paddock so badly that I have ankle deep mud to contend with every time I have to get to the chicken coop. Of course, that’s inconvenient, but the bigger problem is the way they tend to slip around. I picture them falling, and worry that someone will get hurt…whether that someone would be one of them, or me, is yet to be seen. I decide to move them in with the other horses in the back pasture to keep all of us safer.
My world is wet and damp. The rain is unrelenting from the end of March through the first part of April. Everything is more difficult in the mud, from chores every morning to keeping my tile floors clean against the dogs’ muddy paws. The mud makes me irrationally angry every time I have to slog through it. There’s a crack in my rubber boots that lets cold, mucky water in when I step. I really need to replace those…
If I were to begin building an ark up here, high on the ridge above the Illinois River, no one would even blink. The animals barely step out of the barn, and they are as cranky as I am. The forecast says that the rain will end soon, but it feels like it will keep falling down forever.
The daffodils are up along the farm road. Yellow and bright against the new green grass that I’ve been waiting for. The sun is out, and the animals spend their time outside. They are decidedly happier than they have been in weeks. I still need to replace those boots, but the mud is no longer deep enough to seep in through the crack. Things are warming up, sprouting up, waking up, and coming to life all around me. The warm weather wakes me up too. Months of cold and damp and dark are coming to an end. I feel lighter. The anger from the mud is wearing off as things dry. Of course, the storms will still come–they always do–but when April give you light, you let that light in.
Let me be crystal clear: I didn’t NEED any more chickens. Cluckingham Palace is currently home to 11 laying chickens, 1 lavender turkey hen, and, of course, Arthur of Camelot. I currently collect more eggs than I can personally use, and I’ve been pretty open about the fact that eggs cost more to raise than to buy.
I know all of these things, but I have a mild case of chicken math disorder…which is basically a psychological disorder, and every Spring I seem to manage to fill up a brooder. There are some very reasonable arguments for doing so. (Chickens lay fewer eggs as they age. If you free-range, it is understood that you will lose an occasional hen to predators, etc.) But, when you get right down to it, I know that the real reason I keep buying chickens is that I like having chickens hanging around and that itty-bitty chicks are basically the cutest things ever in the history of all time; all of the other reasons are ancillary.
I had debated ordering chicks from mypetchicken again this year–I’ve been wanting a few rare breeds for several years that I know I can get through a hatchery order–but all of that went out the window when I walked into my feed store and realized that they had ordered in more than a dozen different types of chick this year.
You see, as it turns out, I have no real self-control. Though I admirably resisted all of the cute, little fluffy-butts the first time I saw them, it couldn’t last. A couple of weeks later, I made the mistake of going in to pick up feed while I was having a bad day; I left the store with two chick crates (10 chicks).
Chicks require special care for about a month and a half. It usually takes about six weeks for chicks to lose the fluff and grow their adult feathers. Until then, they have to live away from the other chickens and be kept warm and safe. For my chicks, that means living in my basement for at least that first six weeks. I settled my new chick-kids into their brooder that afternoon with lots of food, clean water, bedding, and appropriate heat lamps.
I don’t worry much about my adult chickens. Though I have an occasional issue–and I’m lucky enough to have a vet who will treat poultry–chickens tend to be pretty hardy. Chicks are another matter entirely. They are sensitive to heat, cold, changes in food, and stress. Issues can arise pretty quickly, and they can be hard to successfully treat. So, when I found one of my chicks acting lethargic about a day and a half later, I didn’t waste time.
It was already late when I found little one, but, despite the hour, I picked her up out of the brooder and took her upstairs with me. She had “pasty butt” which can be a symptom of a bigger issue or the issue itself, so I cleaned her up, offered her some water, and tucked her into my shirt so I could keep her warm and keep an eye on her at the same time. I didn’t want put her back in the brooder for fear that the other chicks would pick on her (it’s common for them to pick on sick birds), so I held her next to me, occasionally dipping her beak in water so she could drink and hoping she would take a turn for the better.
tucked into my shirt while I watched Netflix
The two of us watched Netflix until I almost couldn’t keep my eyes open, and at three am, I put her back in her brooder, a small towel around her to give her some space from the other chicks.
The next morning, I awoke groggy and later than usual, but I went downstairs to check on my little one first thing. She was still hanging on, but had pasted over again. I picked her up, brought her upstairs, and cleaned her up again. Then she and I settled into my couch for the morning.
I would read between offering her water or food.
She would occasionally perk up. The cats would act incredulous that I had a chick on their couch.
I called off work to stay with her, and I spent the morning with her, letting her bask in the sunlight. I took a quick break from my reading and her basking to attend to my barn, but beyond that, I held her for most of the day.
That evening, I asked my sister to come over to “chick sit” so I could do my second round of barn chores. God bless her, she came and sat on my bed holding a baby chicken for about an hour while I took care of things outside. By then I wasn’t optimistic about the little one’s chances, but I didn’t want her to be alone.
Little one passed that evening. She was warm and safe. She hadn’t been picked on by the other chicks. She hadn’t died of dehydration. She had known what it was like to bask in the sunshine.
You get used to losing animals when you do what I do. Or, rather, maybe you don’t entirely get used to it, but you learn to accept it. With little one, I had honestly resigned myself to losing her fairly early on–I knew pretty well what was coming–but I had made the decision to keep holding her and to keep trying anyway, because it was the right thing to do, and I believe that matters.
In my mind, kindness matters. It matters no matter how loud or how quiet it is. Kindness matters every time it’s given, whether to a person or a stray dog or a dying chick. And it matters even when it doesn’t make a “real” difference in how things turn out.
The fact that little one knew what it was like to bask in the sunshine matters. I really believe that. I think that every good thing makes the world a better place. Every act of kindness, no matter how very, very small, no matter how insignificant it may seem, makes the world a little kinder.
In a world where you can be anything, please be kind.
Kahn was someone’s house cat once. I’m almost sure of it. Feral cats don’t come to humans to ask for help, which is just what he was doing when he and I first met. It was the coldest, darkest part of winter, more than a year before we took over at the ranch. I was helping to keep an eye on things while the owners were away, doing evening chores and hanging out with a friend, Katie, who had come along to keep me company.
The night was quiet, so we heard the his cries from outside the shut barn door. Katie slid it open to find a battered-looking, black cat standing just out of reach. It was snowy, and he was cold. His inky fur was rough and made him stand in stark contrast to the snow. He held one foot above the cold ground, obviously wounded and infected. His right eye was swollen nearly shut, and despite his size–Kahn is a big cat–he was desperately underweight and looked very small. He continued to cry as we looked on, but skirted us. Nervous and scared but pleading for help. Continue reading “The Adventures of Kahn”→
I am the sort of person who has favorite trees. I’ve always found trees to be a little bit magical, a piece of the past that roots into the future. When I was a little girl, one of my favorite trees was the willow tree in our backyard (the namesake of our lane). Now, though I have many trees that I love, one of my absolute favorites is my backyard western pine.
Very few types of evergreen trees are actually native to Illinois. If you see them here, it’s usually because they were planted, or perhaps their parent tree was planted. They grow tall and lovely, and can rival the height of the native oaks and maples, but they don’t reach their true potential they way they would if they had rooted in their native soil.
And yet, they are the monoliths of the ridge line. Apparently the result of depression era planting, there are rows upon rows of western pines scattered across the farm. They edge the farm road, they frame the back fields, and one particularly lovely and tall evergreen commands the back yard. I am the sort of person who has favorite trees, and this particular pine is one of my absolute favorite trees on the property.
I sat in my sun room on Friday, reflecting on a particularly difficult day, starring out at the backyard and my stalwart pine tree in its field of oaks and maples. It swayed gently in the wind as the sky faded from blue to pink behind it.
The sunset was extraordinary; I watched the colors slip from one to the next like the tracks on a well loved CD, so quiet in their transition that before you realize one song has ended, you’re listening to a new one. I feel like God gave us sunsets to remind us that endings can be beautiful.
And I think maybe God gave us trees to remind us of our own brevity. Those trees in the backyard have watched over this place for decades. To their lifetime, I am a footnote. But not even the trees are permanent. Everything is both stable and changing, all the time, all around us.
I’m not sure why, but those ideas comforted me that evening. Endings can be beautiful. Nothing lasts forever.
Pink to orange. Orange to purple. Purple back to blue before the night settled in. The moon like an iridescent white pearl against the black, crushed-velvet sky. By the time the night settled in, I felt much better. Because sometimes, endings can be beautiful.
And, regardless, the sun is going to rise over my favorite pinetree in the morning.