To Muck and Shovel and Sing

“He (the professor) asked what I made of the other students (at Oxford) so I told him.
They were okay, but they were all very similar…
they’d never failed at anything or been nobodies,
and they thought they would always win.
But this isn’t most people’s experience of life.

He asked me what could be done about it.
I told him the answer was to send them all out for a year
to do some dead-end job
like working in a chicken processing plant
or spreading muck with a tractor.
It would do more good than a gap year in Peru. 

He laughed and thought this was tremendously witty.
It wasn’t meant to be funny.

~James Rebanks from The Shepherd’s Life
(how a sheep farmer succeeds at Oxford and then goes back to the farm)


In our barn we have a very beat up old AM/FM radio that sits on a shelf next to the horse stalls and serves as company to the horses during the rainy stormy days they stay inside, and serves as distraction to me as we clean stalls of manure and wet spots in the evening.  We live about 10 miles south of the Canadian border, so most stations that come in well on this radio’s broken antenna are from the lower mainland of British Columbia.  This includes a panoply of stations spoken in every imaginable language– a Babel of sorts that I can tune into: Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Hindi, Russian, French and of course, proper British accent English.  But standard issue American melting pot genetic mix that I am, I prefer to tune into the “Oldies” Station and reminisce.

There is a strange comfort in listening to songs that I enjoyed 40-50+ years ago, and I’m somewhat miffed and perplexed that they should be called “oldies”.  Oldies always referred to music from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, not the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s!   I listen and sing along with a mixture of feeling ancient and yet transported back to my teens.  I can think of faces and names I haven’t thought of in decades, remember special summer days picking berries and hear long lost voices from school days. I can smell and taste and feel things all because of the trigger of a familiar song.   There is something primordial –deep in my synapses– that is stirred by this music. In fact, I shoveled manure to these same songs 50 years ago, and somehow, it seems not much as changed. 

Or has it? One  (very quick) glance in the mirror tells me it has and I have.

YesterdayI Got You, Babe and you were a Bridge Over Troubled Waters for this Natural Woman who just wants to be Close to You so You’ve Got a Friend.  There’s Something in the way I Cherish The Way We Were and of course Love Will Keep Us Together. If You Leave Me Now,  You’re So VainI’ve always wanted it My Way but How Sweet It Is when I Want To Hold Your Hand.  Come Saturday Morning we’re Born to Be Wild.

Help! Do You Know Where You’re Going To?  Me and You and A Dog Named Boo will travel Country Roads and Rock Around the Clock even though God Didn’t Make the Little Green Apples.  Fire and Rain will make things All Right Now once Morning is Broken, I’ll Say a Little Prayer For You.

I Can’t Get No Satisfaction from the Sounds of Silence — If— Those Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My HeadStand By Me as It’s Just My Imagination that I am a Rock,when really I only want Time in a Bottle and to just Sing, Sing a Song.

They just don’t write songs like they used to.  I seem to remember my parents saying that about the songs I loved so well.  Somehow in the midst of decades of change, there are some constants.  Music still touches our souls, no matter how young or old we are.

And there will always be manure that needs shoveling.

A Forgotten Light

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Usually, after turning out that forgotten barn light, I sit on the edge of the tractor bucket for a few minutes and let my eyes adjust to the night outside. City people always notice the darkness here, but it’s never very dark if you wait till your eyes owl out a little….

I’m always glad to have to walk down to the barn in the night, and I always forget that it makes me glad. I heave on my coat, stomp into my barn boots and trudge down toward the barn light, muttering at myself. But then I sit in the dark, and I remember this gladness, and I walk back up to the gleaming house, listening for the horses.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg from A Light in the Barn

 

 

My favorite thing about walking up from the barn at night is looking at the lights glowing in our house, knowing the lives that have thrived there, even though each child has flown away to distant cities.

There is love there as we have rediscovered our “alone” life together.

There are still future years there, as many as God grants us to stay on the farm. It is home and it is light and if all it takes is a walk from a dark barn to remind me, I’ll leave the lights on in the barn at night more often.

 

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A Wedding of Lace

…Then how his muffled armies move in all night
And we wake and every road is blockaded
Every hill taken and every farm occupied
And the white glare of his tents is on the ceiling.
And all that dull blue day and on into the gloaming
We have to watch more coming.

Then everything in the rubbish-heaped world
Is a bridesmaid at her miracle.
Dunghills and crumbly dark old barns are bowed in the chapel of her sparkle.
The gruesome boggy cellars of the wood
Are a wedding of lace
Now taking place.
~Ted Hughes from “Snow and Snow”

I wish one 
could press snowflakes 
in a book
like flowers.
~James Schuyler from “February 13, 1975”

It’s true that three snow days in a row is unprecedented in our part of the world. Being snowbound by driveway-blocking drifts has its advantages until it isn’t fun any longer and means even more work to be done both on and off the farm, especially for a physician stranded from her closed clinic.

I’ve been doing my best taking care of our clinic’s patients via messaging, text and other media, but there is a limit to my virtual reach: I can’t palpate a tender belly, or feel swollen lymph nodes or listen to someone’s palpitations, though it is a little easier to discern despair, anticipate anxiety and work out someone’s worries from afar.

But I do have a view of the wedding lace of our woods and the sparkling chapels made of our tired old barns and buildings on the farm. I’m reminded that even I can be dressed up with a covering as white as snow. So lovely to look at, if only to be preserved for the long summer days that lie ahead — a wilting snowflake pressed into a book like a flower remembered, its fragrance still attached.

Cold Grows Colder

The cold grows colder, even as the days 
grow longer, February’s mercury vapor light 
buffing but not defrosting the bone-white 
ground, crusty and treacherous underfoot. 
This is the time of year that’s apt to put 
a hammerlock on a healthy appetite, 
old anxieties back into the night, 
insomnia and nightmares into play; 
when things in need of doing go undone 
and things that can’t be undone come to call, 
muttering recriminations at the door, 
and buried ambitions rise up through the floor 
and pin your wriggling shoulders to the wall; 
and hope’s a reptile waiting for the sun.
~Bill Christopherson
“February”

Just when you think it is safe to go out in shirt sleeves and sweats, subzero wind chill blasts through your bravado and reminds you February is still WINTER on the calendar and in reality.

February can be a month of regret and recriminations, of “should-haves” and “should-not-haves” while waiting, frozen and immobile, for spring to bring us back to life. Like cold-blooded creatures, we need the sun to warm us up so we can move again. This sun today, bright as it is, only lights up our flaws and holes – no warmth whatsoever.

And it’s not just me struggling to stay upright in the storm. Our old red barn, waiting for its spring date with a talented rehab carpenter, hasn’t many roof shingles left after this latest blow, and a recent partial wall collapse in the wind prompted a neighbor to ask if we had meant to create a new door into our barn.

Uh, no.

The old barn is kind of like how I feel at times: lacking a decent foundation, a bit shaky on my underpinnings, a lot sagging in the middle, broad in the beam and drafty where I shouldn’t be.

So much to be shored up, fixed, patched and restored. So much need for a talented Carpenter who knows how to mend and strengthen the broken and fallen.

The Way the Wind Blows

Snow is falling today and more wind is forecast tomorrow.

It is a cold wind, whether coming from the north, chilling our bones as various weather fronts meet and clash overhead and we feel dumped on.

Another cold wind of reality is blowing through America right now as well, and not just on our farm.

There is considerable turmoil as Americans struggle with the increased need to “pay as you go” rather than “borrow for what you desire”.  The debt load for young adults is climbing, especially student loans and mortgages. Fewer older people have any significant savings for retirement.

Our parents were Great-Depression era children, so my husband and I heard plenty of stories convincing us never to reach beyond our means.  My grandmother moved her three young children 20 miles away from home in order to cook morning, noon and night in a large boarding house, grateful for the work that allowed her to feed her family. It also meant separation from their jobless, depressed and often intoxicated father for weeks at a time.  She told stories of making sandwiches to feed hobos who knocked on the kitchen door, hoping for a hand out, and after sitting briefly on the back steps eating what she could offer from left over scraps, they would be on their way again, walking on down the muddy road, hoping somewhere farther along there may be another handout or perhaps a day’s work.   Even in her time of trouble, my grandmother could find blessing in the fact she and her children had a roof over their heads, beds to sleep in (all in one room) and food to fill their stomachs.  There were always people worse off and she wasn’t one of them.

My grandmother never lived comfortably, by her own choice, after that experience.  She could never trust that tomorrow things would be as plentiful as today, so she rarely rested, never borrowed, always saved even the tiniest scrap of food, of cloth, of wood, as it could always prove useful someday.   My father learned from those uncertain days of his childhood and never borrowed to buy a car or a piece of furniture or an appliance.   It had to be cash, or it was simply not his to purchase, so he never coveted what he did not have money to buy outright.

So we, the next generation, were raised that way.  Even so, borrowing began with loans for college but still working three jobs while maintaining good grades.  But then there was borrowing for that first care and to buy a house. 

But with grandma’s and dad’s stories fresh in our minds, we knew we couldn’t start that slippery slope of borrowing to take vacations or buy  the latest and greatest stuff or build the bigger house.   So we didn’t.

We have lived simply, driving our vehicles past 200,000 miles, continuing to harvest and preserve from the garden, using our appliances past the 25 year mark. And we’ve been content and happy.

Happiness isn’t stuff.  It isn’t big houses.  It isn’t brand new cars or the latest gadgets.

It’s being under the same roof as a family, striving together and loving each other.  It is taking care of friends when they need help.  It is reaching out to the stranger in our midst who has less than we have.

The wind is pointing us back to the values we had long forgotten as we got much too comfortable.   It takes a storm to find that true contentment can rest only within our hearts.

A Certain Slant

There’s a certain Slant of light
On winter afternoons —
That oppresses, like the Heft
of cathedral tunes.
When it comes, the Landscape listens —
Shadows hold their breath —
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death.
~Emily Dickinson

During our northwest winters, there is usually so little sunlight on gray cloudy days that I routinely turn on the two light bulbs in the big hay barn any time I need to fetch hay bales for the horses. This is so I avoid falling into the holes that inevitably develop in the hay stack between bales. Winter murky lighting tends to hide the dark shadows of the leg-swallowing pits among the bales, something that is particularly hazardous when carrying a 60 pound hay bale.

Yesterday when I went to grab hay bales for the horses at sunset, before I flipped the light switch, I could see light already blazing in the big barn. The last of the day’s sun rays were at a precise winter slant, streaming through the barn slat openings, ricocheting off the roof timbers onto the bales, casting an almost fiery glow onto the hay. The barn was ignited and ablaze without fire and smoke — the last things one would even want in a hay barn.

I scrambled among the bales without worry.

In my life outside the barn I’ve been falling into more than my share of dark holes lately. Even when I know where they lie and how deep they are, some days I will manage to step right in anyway. Each time it knocks the breath out of me, makes me cry out, makes me want to quit trying to lift the heavy loads. It leaves me fearful to even venture out.

Then, on the darkest of days, light comes from the most unexpected of places, blazing a trail to help me see where to step, what to avoid, how to navigate the hazards to avoid collapsing on my face. I’m redirected, inspired anew, granted grace, gratefully calmed and comforted amid my fears. Even though the light fades, and the darkness descends again, it is only until tomorrow. Then it reignites again.

The Light returns and so will I.

Like an Unexpected Gift

…this has been a day of grace
in the dead of winter,
the hard knuckle of the year,
a day that unwrapped itself
like an unexpected gift,
and the stars turn on,
order themselves
into the winter night.
~Barbara Crooker from 
Barbara Crooker: Selected Poems

…it’s easy to forget that the ordinary is just the extraordinary that’s happened over and over again. Sometimes the beauty of your life is apparent. Sometimes you have to go looking for it. And just because you have to look for it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
God, grant me the grace of a normal day.

~Billy Coffey

…there is no such thing as a charmed life, not for any of us, no matter where we live or how mindfully we attend to the tasks at hand. But there are charmed moments, all the time, in every life and in every day, if we are only awake enough to experience them when they come and wise enough to appreciate them.
~Katrina Kenison from The Gift of an Ordinary Day

These dead of winter days are lengthening, slowly and surely, but I still leave the farm in darkness to head to my work in town, and I return in darkness at the end of the workday.  Barn chores at either end of the day happen under moonlight and starlight.

Each day, so extraordinary in its ordinariness, is full of grace if I awake to really see it, even under cover of darkness.

The bones of the trees, and the bones of me, illuminated.