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 read a book once that pointed out that life tends to divide itself into befores and afters.
It’s true, when you think about it. Some are obvious milestones: Before high school. After high school. Before college. After college. Before and after your first job. Births. Deaths. We, all of us, all our lives, are just a mess of befores and afters and how they changed us from one version of ourselves to the next. We have ceremonies to celebrate or mourn the changes. Matriculation. Funerals. Christenings.
Sometimes, even though one day you’re a person of before and the next day a person of after, it feels like little has changed. Some befores and afters fade into one another like the colors of the sunset meld from one to the next, and suddenly the sky has gone from blue to orange to purple without you noticing. The easy changes are like that. You don’t realize things are changing until they have, and then, before you know it, you’ve made your way from a before to an after.
Other changes fall like a sledgehammer. No matter the slope into it, no matter the warning or preparation, the change will always be abrupt.
Hopefully followed by rebirth.
For me, 2017 was a sledgehammer year.
2017 felt like falling off the edge of the world. Tumbling into the unknown with no way of catching myself and hoping against hope that I would manage to find some yet unknown footing. And it wasn’t just the divorce, though that was a large part of it. It was losing all faith in the person who I used to consider my best friend. Honestly, before I found out about his affair, if I had been asked whether I had more faith in him, or in the sun’s rising in the east and setting in the west, I would have, without a moment’s hesitation, said him. But after? I felt worthless, thrown away by the person who had promised to love me no matter what.
When my marriage fell away, I realized that I had defined myself by my relationship and that I didn’t entirely remember who I was outside of it. And I was so numb that, for quite a while, I couldn’t figure out what to do to fix that.
2017 was a lost and found year.
When my life fell to pieces, I really thought that I was destined to live a half-life. I couldn’t imagine my world without my ex. I couldn’t imagine being happy again. I know that it sounds crazy, but for a long while there, it seemed like joy was a thing of my past.
I lost who I had been. I lost who he and I had been together. I lost the person I had depended upon the most.
But then, hidden in the wreckage of my life, cowering and lost, I found myself again.
I was surprised to learn that you can always find your way back to you.
2017 was my year of Women Reading Aloud. (Yes, Julie, I’m talking about you.)
The series of events that brought me to the South of France this August, sitting in a room full of lovely, beautiful, talented writers, is complex and uncanny. It was almost an accident. It was almost intentional. I almost didn’t go, feeling almost too heartbroken to function. But, somehow, the universe brought me to a little retreat, near a little town, that I almost couldn’t find on a map. Weirdly, I started to find pieces of myself in a place that I had never been with people who I had never met.
After that, I started to find pieces of myself all over. My friends and family helped remind me of who I had always been. My creatures reminded me of what I had always done. My half-life grew, and it was as though those people and places and creatures dearest to me had been holding pieces of me for safe-keeping: pieces I had forgotten about. Pieces that they handed back once I was ready to begin putting myself back together.
The thing about befores and afters is that they never really leave you. Rather, they change you. If you let them, they can change you for the better, even as you mourn what you lost.
I was recently sent a message by an old college friend who reached out to me, asking what she could do to help someone who had recently discovered their spouse was having an affair. My heart broke for this person, who I had never met, because I know what it is to renegotiate yourself through that sort of brokenness. I gave her some advice. A list of books that had I found helpful.
And I started thinking, not for the first time, about all the people who find themselves living in an after they never expected.
If that’s where you are right now, negotiating an heart-wrenching after, you’re not alone. You’re growing. And you’re changing. And you’re probably breaking into a thousand pieces. But you’re not alone.
You’ll change. You’ll grow. You find yourself all over again. And you put the pieces back, maybe a little differently.
All of this to say, you’ve got this. I believe in you. Go live your after
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 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.
“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.