Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. ~Mary Oliver
All days are sacred days to wake New gladness in the sunny air. Only a night from old to new; Only a sleep from night to morn. The new is but the old come true; Each sunrise sees a new year born. ~Helen Hunt Jackson from “New Year’s Morning”
The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul. – G.K. Chesterton
To live is so startling, it leaves little room for other occupations. ~Emily Dickinson
…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable —if anything is excellent or praiseworthy— think about such things. … And the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4: 8 -9
A few days of heavy rain have transformed our farm to mush. Puddles are everywhere, the ground is saturated and mushrooms are sprouting in the most unlikely places. Slugs are seeking out mushrooms for refuge from the deluge. It’s even too wet for the trumpeter swans and Canadian geese who glean in the nearby harvested cornfields, filling up on dropped corn kernels. They now are flying overhead to head south to drier places, noisily honking, their wings swooshing the air as they pass over.
The wet weather means chores are more challenging on our farm. Some of the stalls in the barn have flooded so moving the horses out to pasture for the day means braving wind and rain and soppy footing. At the end of the day, they eagerly walk back to the barn, soaked and dripping, diving into fresh shavings for a good roll and shake. I can appreciate the relief they feel as I like getting back to solid footing too at the end of the day. Much of my day also seems to be spent navigating slippery slopes and muddy terrain, both real and figurative.
It isn’t always apparent what ground is treacherous from appearance alone. The grassy slope heading down to the barn from the house looks pretty benign until I start navigating in a driving rainstorm in the dark, and suddenly the turf becomes a skating rink and I’m finding I’m picking my way carefully with a flashlight. The path I seek is to find the patches of moss, which happily soaks up the water like a sponge carpet, so not as slick to walk on. Even if moss ordinarily is not a welcome addition to lawn or pasture–I do appreciate it this time of year.
Another challenge is pushing a wheelbarrow with two 60 pound bales of hay back up that slope to our largest paddock for the day’s feeding. There is no traction underneath to help my feet stick to the ground for the push uphill. I can feel particularly foolish at this futile effort–my feet sometimes slide out beneath me, landing me on my knees down on the ground, soaked and humiliated, and the wheelbarrow goes skidding right back down to the barn door where it started.
Trusting the footing underneath my feet is crucial day to day. If I am to get work done most efficiently and make progress, I must have solid ground to tread. But the stuff of real life, like our farm’s ground, doesn’t come made to order that way. Some days are slick and treacherous, unpredictable and ready to throw me to my knees, while other days are simple, easy, and smooth sailing. Waking in the morning, I cannot know what I will face that day–whether I need my highest hip boots to wade through the muck or whether I can dash about in comfy house slippers. My attitude has something to do with it–sometimes my “internal” footing is loose and slippery, tripping up those around me as well as myself. That is when I need most to plant myself in the solid foundation that I know will support me during those treacherous times.
I need my faith, my need to forgive and experience forgiveness, my people holding me when I fall, and to help pick them up when they are down. Without those footings every day, I’m nothing more than a muddy soiled mess lying face down on the ground wondering if I’ll ever walk again.
There is good reason I end up on my knees at times. It is the best reminder of where I should be full time if it were not for stronger hands that lift me up, clean me up and guide my footsteps all the rest of my days.
Now a red, sleepy sun above the rim Of twilight stares along the quiet weald, And the kind, simple country shines revealed In solitudes of peace, no longer dim. The old horse lifts his face and thanks the light, Then stretches down his head to crop the green. All things that he has loved are in his sight; The places where his happiness has been Are in his eyes, his heart, and they are good. ~Siegfried Sassoon from “Break of Day”
Move away from reading morning headlines
or being crushed in the masses at rush hour,
ignore the politics of power
or striving for market share~
instead, come home to this:
the reality of peace brought to earth.
A day breaks fresh each morning
and folds gently and quietly each evening.
And we are glad,
that it is good.
It will not always be like this, The air windless, a few last Leaves adding their decoration To the trees’ shoulders, braiding the cuffs Of the boughs with gold; a bird preening
In the lawn’s mirror. Having looked up From the day’s chores, pause a minute, Let the mind take its photograph Of the bright scene, something to wear Against the heart in the long cold. ~Ronald Stuart Thomas A Day in Autumn
There is much about autumn farm chores that is good for the weary heart.
When the stresses of the work world amass together and threaten to overwhelm, there is reassurance in the routine of putting on muck boots, gloves, jacket, then hearing the back door bang behind me as I head outside. Following the path to the barns with my trusty corgi boys in the lead, I open wide the doors to hear the welcoming nickers of six different equine voices.
The routine: loosening up the twine on the hay bales and opening each stall door to put a meal in front of each hungry horse, maneuvering the wheelbarrow to fork up accumulated manure, fill up the water bucket, pat a neck and go on to the next one. By the time I’m done, I am generally calmer, listening to the rhythmic chewing from six sets of molars. It is a welcome symphony of satisfaction for both the musicians and audience. My mind snaps a picture and records the song to pull out later when needed.
The horses are not in the least perturbed that I may have had a challenging day. Like the dogs and cats, they show appreciation that I have come to do what I promise to do–I care for them, I protect them and moreover, I will always return.
Outside the barn, the chill wind blows gently through the bare tree branches with a wintry bite to remind me who is not in control. I should drop the pretense. The stars, covered most nights by cloud cover, show themselves, glowing alongside the moon in a galactic sweep across the sky. They exude the tranquility of an Ever-Presence over my bowed and humbled head. I am cared for and protected; He is always there and He will return.
There is balance of the ordinary and extraordinary within the profundity of farm chores, and within the rhythm of autumn’s transition to winter.
Equilibrium is delivered to my heart, once and ever after, from a stable.
Season of ripening fruit and seeds, depart; There is no harvest ripening in the heart.
Bring the frost that strikes the dahlias down In one cruel night. The blackened buds, the brown And wilted heads, the crippled stems, we crave – All beauty withered, crumbling to the grave. Wind, strip off the leaves, and harden, ground, Till in your frozen crust no break is found.
Then only, when man’s inner world is one With barren earth and branches bared to bone, Then only can the heart begin to know The seeds of hope asleep beneath the snow; Then only can the chastened spirit tap The hidden faith still pulsing in the sap. ~Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Our farm has been changing dramatically over the past several weeks, each day moving a little closer to the reality of winter around the corner. Most of the fruit which is not residing in our freezer has fallen from the trees, and the walnut husks are hanging lonesome and bulbous as a windstorm pulled many leaves to the ground creating a multi-colored carpet everywhere I walk.
Readying for winter’s sleep is quite a glamorous affair for some trees on our farm–they are clothed in rich crimson and gold like the most alluring and ostentatious negligee. However the majority of tree leaves turn drab yellow or brown, as if donning a practical flannel nightgown or an oversized t-shirt without any pretense of grandeur. Even our Haflinger horses laze about, comfortable in their soft winter woolie coats and feathered slippers, happy with their gift of hay. I’m understand their contentment as I prefer fluffy flannel myself.This has not been a leisurely autumn for me, instead full of turbulence and fretfulness, too much work to do in too few hours, rushing full force toward the hoped-for calm and quiet of winter. Like so many others, I’m ill at ease with this transition, as unready as a small child who resists the approach of bedtime, even when exhausted to the point of meltdown. It takes someone to quietly sit down with me to read a good bedtime story and to sing a soft hymn of lullaby. I keep leaping up, eyes propped open, pushing on, aware there are still too many “miles to go before I sleep”.
The time to sleep will come, sooner than I think. Just as a storm brings the leaves to the ground, so shall I be laid to rest, to be restored when the time is right.
Maybe I should think about wearing that bright red nightie.
All winter your brute shoulders strained against collars, padding and steerhide over the ash hames, to haul sledges of cordwood for drying through spring and summer, for the Glenwood stove next winter, and for the simmering range.
In April you pulled cartloads of manure to spread on the fields, dark manure of Holsteins, and knobs of your own clustered with oats. All summer you mowed the grass in meadow and hayfield, the mowing machine clacketing beside you, while the sun walked high in the morning;
and after noon’s heat, you pulled a clawed rake through the same acres, gathering stacks, and dragged the wagon from stack to stack, and the built hayrack back, uphill to the chaffy barn, three loads of hay a day from standing grass in the morning.
Sundays you trotted the two miles to church with the light load a leather quartertop buggy, and grazed in the sound of hymns. Generation on generation, your neck rubbed the windowsill of the stall, smoothing the wood as the sea smooths glass.
When you were old and lame, when your shoulders hurt bending to graze, one October the man, who fed you and kept you, and harnessed you every morning, led you through corn stubble to sandy ground above Eagle Pond, and dug a hole beside you where you stood shuddering in your skin,
and lay the shotgun’s muzzle in the boneless hollow behind your ear, and fired the slug into your brain, and felled you into your grave, shoveling sand to cover you, setting goldenrod upright above you, where by next summer a dent in the ground made your monument.
For a hundred and fifty years, in the Pasture of dead horses, roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs, yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter frost heaved your bones in the ground – old toilers, soil makers:
O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.
~Donald Hall “Name of Horses”
As a child, not yet a teenager, I regularly visited the horse grave dug by hand by my father in an open clearing of our woods where our horse rested in the ground. She was felled by a vet’s bullet to the head after an agonizing bout with colic. At first it was a place to cry where no one but the trees and wild flowers could see. When the tears dried up, it was a place to sing loudly where no one but chipmunks and my dog could hear. Later it became the sanctuary I retreated to talk to God when my church no longer was.
Your bones lie there still and no one but me knows where. The dent in the ground will always betray the spot.
…to love life, to love it even when you have no stomach for it and everything you’ve held dear crumbles like burnt paper in your hands, your throat filled with the silt of it. When grief sits with you, its tropical heat thickening the air, heavy as water more fit for gills than lungs; when grief weights you like your own flesh only more of it, an obesity of grief, you think, How can a body withstand this? Then you hold life like a face between your palms, a plain face, no charming smile, no violet eyes, and you say, yes, I will take you I will love you, again. — Ellen Bass “The Thing Is…” from Mules of Love
It begins again, even though I’m unprepared. No matter which way I turn, autumn’s kaleidoscope displays new patterns, new colors, new empty spaces as I watch the world die into itself once again. Some dying is flashy, brilliant, blazing – a calling out for attention. Then there is the hidden dying that happens without anyone taking notice: just a plain, tired, rusting away letting go.
I will spend the morning adjusting to the change in season by occupying myself with the familiar task of moving manure. Cleaning barn is a comforting chore, allowing me to transform tangible benefit from something objectionable and just plain stinky to the nurturing fertilizer of the future. It feels like I’ve actually accomplished something.
As I scoop and push the wheelbarrow, I recall another barn cleaning fifteen years ago, when I was one of three or four friends left cleaning over ninety stalls after a Haflinger horse event that I had organized at our local fairgrounds. Some people had brought their horses from over 1000 miles away to participate for several days. There had been personality clashes and harsh words among some participants along with criticism directed at me as the organizer that I had taken very personally. As I struggled with the umpteenth wheelbarrow load of manure, tears stung my eyes and my heart. I was miserable with regret. After going without sleep and making personal sacrifices over many months planning and preparing for the benefit of our group, my work felt futile and unappreciated.
One friend had stayed behind with her young family to help clean up the large facility and she could see I was struggling to keep my composure. Jenny put herself right in front of my wheelbarrow and looked me in the eye, insisting I stop for a moment and listen:
“You know, none of these troubles and conflicts will amount to a hill of beans years from now. People will remember a fun event in a beautiful part of the country, a wonderful time with their Haflingers, their friends and family, and they’ll be all nostalgic about it, not giving a thought to the infighting or the sour attitudes or who said what to whom. So don’t make this about you and whether you did or didn’t make everyone happy. You loved us all enough to make it possible to meet here and the rest was up to us. So quit being upset about what you can’t change. There’s too much you can still do for us.”
During tough times since (and there have been plenty), Jenny’s advice replays, reminding me to cease seeking appreciation from others or feeling hurt when harsh words come my way. She was right about the balm found in the tincture of time. She was right about giving up the upset in order to die to self and self absorption, and instead to focus outward.
I have remembered.
Jenny herself did not know that day fifteen years ago she would subsequently spend six years dying while still loving her life every day, fighting a relentless cancer that was only slowed in the face of her faith and intense drive to live. She became a rusting leaf gone holy, fading imperceptibly over time, crumbling at the edges until five years ago this past week, she finally had to let go. Her dying did not flash brilliance, nor draw attention at the end. Her intense focus during the years of her illness had always been outward to others, to her family and friends, to the healers she spent so much time with in medical offices, to her firm belief in the plan God had written for her and those who loved her.
So Jenny let go her hold on life here. And we reluctantly let her go. Brilliance cloaks her as her focus is now on things eternal.
You were so right, Jenny. Nothing from fifteen years ago amounts to a hill of beans now. Except the words you spoke to me that day, teaching me to love life even when I have no stomach for it.
And I won’t be upset that I can’t change what is past and the fact that you have left us.