Walk around feeling like a leaf. Know you could tumble any second. Then decide what to do with your time. — Naomi Shihab Nye
We have had three weeks of delightfully temperate weather — days in the 70’s, nights cooling to the 50’s, gentle breezes which at times gust and shake the foliage and fruit from branches.
It feels a bit like autumn in July, with leaves loosening from tree branches, tumbling to the ground two months early. Our annual July family gathering is coming up soon, but without an older generation of birthdays to celebrate as in previous years: the last of our family elders passed on two months ago. The inevitable shifting and sifting of generations is keenly felt; we middle aged folk now bounce grandchildren on our laps rather than our own children. The last fifteen years have changed much in our family tree.
I feel badly for the trees parting with their leaves too soon. I am sad our family has parted with our elders before we’re ready.
I am no longer invulnerable, seemingly protected by a veneer of youth and vigor. Located high in the canopy of branches, I may wave bravely in the breezes, dew glistening like sweat on my skin, feeling the sun on my back and the raindrops running off my leafy shoulders. Yet my grip is loosening, slowly, surely. My color is subtly fading. My edges are starting to fray, and there may be a hole rent here or there. Yes, I am feeling more and more leaf-like, knowing how far I could fall any time.
That knowledge makes all the difference. I hang on ever more tightly while I can.
Even when the softness of sunset lingers long
with residual stains of dappled cobbler clouds
lasting long to the sweetness of next day’s dawn,
I’m reminded to “remember this, this moment, this feeling”~
I realize that it will be lost, slipping away from me
in mere moments, a sacramental fading with time.
I can barely remember the sweetness of its taste,
so what’s left is the mere stain of its loss.
Walking this life’s cobbled path,
only guessing where it leads,
I ponder the messy sweetness
of today’s helping of soulful shortcake,
treasure it up, stains and all,
knowing I could never miss it
if I didn’t taste and savor it to begin with.
I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.
~Henry David Thoreau
You can live for years next door to a big pine tree, honored to have so venerable a neighbor, even when it sheds needles all over your flowers or wakes you, dropping big cones onto your deck at still of night. ~Denise Levertov
I hear you call, pine tree, I hear you upon the hill, by the silent pond where the lotus flowers bloom, I hear you call, pine tree. What is it you call, pine tree, when the rain falls, when the winds blow, and when the stars appear, what is it you call, pine tree? I hear you call, pine tree, but I am blind, and do not know how to reach you, pine tree. Who will take me to you, pine tree? ~Yone Noguchi “I Hear You Call, Pine Tree”
Our wet side of the state is not pine tree country — they prefer the dry climate east of the mountains. Once planted here, however, they take hold and make the best of their wet feet.
The tall pine along our barn driveway must be at least sixty years old — it is starting to look its age, as am I. Sure, there are some bare branches, a few brown needles, yet it still drops cones in the hope of a future generation of pine seedlings. The squirrels are too fast and whisk the seeds to their hideaways before they can sprout and take hold.
This old acquaintance of mine, this venerable pine and I, we may sway in the breeze and be bent by ice and snow, but we weather the years together. After all, our roots go deep and our arms reach to the sky.
Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass And hang zigzag on hedges. Green as glass The water in the horse-trough shines. Nine ducks go wobbling by in two straight lines.
A hen stares at nothing with one eye, Then picks it up. Out of an empty sky A swallow falls and, flickering through The barn, dives up again into the dizzy blue.
I lie, not thinking, in the cool, soft grass, Afraid of where a thought might take me – as This grasshopper with plated face Unfolds his legs and finds himself in space.
Self under self, a pile of selves I stand Threaded on time, and with metaphysic hand Lift the farm like a lid and see Farm within farm, and in the centre, me.
~Norman MacCaig “Summer Farm”
Most of my life, a barn has stood a few dozen yards from my back door. As a small child, I learned to ride a tricycle on the wooden planks of the chicken coop, sat on the bony back of a Guernsey cow while my father milked by hand, found new litters of kittens in cobweb-filled hideaways, and leaped with abandon into stacks of loose hay in a massive loft.
As a young girl, I preferred to clean stalls rather than my bedroom. The acoustics in the barn were first rate for singing loud and the horses and cows never covered their ears, although the dog would usually howl. A hay loft was the perfect spot for hiding a writing journal and reading books. It was a place for quiet contemplation and sometimes fervent prayer when I was worried: a sanctuary for turbulent adolescence.
Through college and medical training, I managed to live over twelve years in the city without access to a barn or the critters that lived inside. I searched for plenty of surrogate retreats: the library stacks, empty chapels within the hospitals I worked, even a remote mountainous wildlife refuge in central Africa.
It is hard to ignore one’s genetic destiny to struggle as a steward of the land through the challenges of economics and weather. My blood runs with DNA of wheat and lentil growers, loggers, cattle ranchers, dairy farmers, work horse teamsters, and flower and vegetable gardeners. A farm eventually called me to come back home and so I heeded over thirty years ago, along with a husband from a dairy farming background himself, and eventually there followed three children, now grown and flown far from the farm.
Like a once sturdily built barn now sagging and leaning, I too am buffeted by the gales of mid-life. My doors have been flung open wide, my roof/lid lifted and pulled off, at times leaving me reeling. More and more now I need restoration, renewal and reconciliation. And so I set to work to fix up my life with all the skill I can muster: setting things right where they’ve been upended, painting a fresh coat where chipped and dulled, shoring up rotted foundations.
If only I can get it done well enough, with sufficient perseverance, I surely can recover from the latest blow. But my hard work and determination is not enough. It is never enough. I am never finished.
The only true sanctuary isn’t found in a weather-beaten barn of rough-hewn old growth timbers vulnerable to the winds of life.
The barnstorming must happen within me, in the depths of my soul, comforted only by the encompassing and salvaging arms of God.
There I am held, transformed and restored, grateful beyond measure.
I’m almost sixty three, deep into my middle age and some days I’m reminded how deep more than others. Though I’m well past the hot flashes of the last decade, I still compare notes with the aging mares on our farm and watch how well they cope with their advancing years.
These mares still have a lot of life left. They run like the wind when turned loose, their hair flies in the wind and they can buck, kick and fart with the best of them.
These mares know who they are. There is no identity crisis here. They are mothers who have finished their mothering years, and are well into the grandmothering years. Even so, they still like to flirt and haven’t given up on the idea that they can attract attention from a certain fella in the neighboring field.
These mares know their jobs very well, sometimes too well and anticipate what is being asked before it is requested. They can go for long periods without work but once saddled or harnessed up and pointed in the right direction, it is like they’ve been doing their job every day for years. No need for a steep learning curve, or reminder lessons. No funny business or messing around. There is pride in their work. They can be a bit out of shape though, with a tendency toward the fluffy side of fitness, so they need a moment to catch their breath once in awhile. Their muscles sometimes hurt the next day. They break out in sweat easily. They appreciate a break for a mid-day nap.
These mares are opinionated. There is no question they know their own minds, what they want and how they are going to get it and keep no one around them guessing.
These mares are stubborn. Once they’ve decided something, it takes more than soft sweet persuasion, like a whack on the behind, to change course. Once they’ve decided they don’t like another horse, the only way to change that opinion is for the other horse to adopt an attitude of complete servitude and submission, giving way whenever approached and grooming the boss mare whenever asked.
These mares are hungry. Always. See “fluffy” above.
These mares don’t sleep all that much, but wish they could sleep more. Even though they might look like they are napping (see “mid-day nap” above), they are actually meditating, with their eyes closed, on the next plan of action.
These mares are not as fussy about their appearance as they used to be. The four foot manes have been rubbed down to two foot manes and may have a few more tangles in them. Their tails may have stains (don’t ask why). They stride through mud puddles without a second thought to where the dirt flies, whereas when they were younger, there was no way one hoof was going to set foot in such mucky stuff.
These mares don’t keep as tidy a bedroom as they used to. Why bother? Life is too short for tidiness.
These mares know how to make best friends and keep them. If their best forever friend is not turned out with them in the field, they will stand at the gate, and call nonstop for an hour asking where she is.
These mares know how to give great kisses and hugs. Especially if you are hiding a carrot on your person, you’ll be mugged.
Yes, we deep-in-middle age gals, human and equine, do seem to have a lot in common. Nice to know we can always stick together, through thick and …well, thick.
Old friend now there is no one alive
who remembers when you were young
it was high summer when I first saw you
in the blaze of day most of my life ago
with the dry grass whispering in your shade
and already you had lived through wars
and echoes of wars around your silence
through days of parting and seasons of absence
with the house emptying as the years went their way
until it was home to bats and swallows
and still when spring climbed toward summer you opened once more the curled sleeping fingers of newborn leaves as though nothing had happened you and the seasons spoke the same language and all these years I have looked through your limbs to the river below and the roofs and the night and you were the way I saw the world ~W.S. Merwin from “Elegy for a Walnut”
This grand old tree defines the seasons for me~
and defines me as I age.
This winter’s storms took its branches down in the night
with deafening cracks so loud
I feared to see the remnant in the morning,
yet it stands, intrepid
for another round of seasons–
tired, sagging, broken
and still reaching to the sky.