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shannon hayes canning

Cave Men, Tomatoes, Ground Beef and…Love

It’s three in the morning. I’m standing in my kitchen, staring down 70 pounds of tomatoes and 35 pounds of onions, all awaiting their destiny in a year’s supply of tomato sauce. Lined up next to the basement stairs are 40 pounds of green beans, already chopped and neatly canned in quart jars.

August doesn’t overwhelm me like it used to. I’ve run the calculations numerous times, and the savings, year-round convenience and flavor garnered from the extra labors invested this month far outweigh the drawbacks of a few sleep-deprived nights. I’ve been up for a half hour already, and I am confident that I will have the sauce settled into a comfortable simmer by the time I start homeschool with the girls in a few hours.

My body is well acquainted with the necessary motions. Little thought is required as I fill the sink with tomatoes and line up my production course. My hands slip into the cool water and remove the wet fruit, my pairing knife glides in and around the tops, removing the stems, and my mind is free to travel.

This morning it settles on an incident from the night before. I had sat down at my computer in an attempt to answer an email from a reader asking two simple questions: “How did you take that step? How did you make a farm your life?” Before I could respond, the phone rang. Mom was paying bills, and she wasn’t happy. We’d just sent a Jersey out for processing, and she now discovered that the fee for ground beef had gone up 25 cents per pound. At the same time, she was confronted with a bill for purchasing new livestock. Presently, the price of stocker cattle is at record levels. The farm is getting pinched, and she feels we need to adjust the prices.

But a cost adjustment on ground beef isn’t easy. Unlike commodity farmers who must accept prices determined by the market, as direct marketers, we are privileged with the ability to set the fee for our product based on our expenses. That said, we have to look our customers in the eye. Changing the price of ground beef is a big deal. It doesn’t dramatically impact the small handful of our customers who have good jobs and high incomes. It impacts the vast majority of them — the ones who are either eking out an existence on the economic fringe, or the ones perceived as slightly more affluent, but who are crushed between mortgages, school debts, middle class salaries and a desire for wholesome food. Those folks can easily bypass the high end cuts it they are out of their price range. But ground beef is what folks buy when they can’t afford anything else.

Mom puts Dad on the phone with me. He and I run the numbers on the animal. We look at the live weight, the hanging weight, the yield percentages. We put that up against the price of the stockers and the cost of processing. We nudge the price up until the farm is able to net 60 cents per pound on ground beef. Averaged out with the other higher-value cuts, Sap Bush Hollow should net about $500 on this Jersey. He seems satisfied.

I am not. Each day, our farm is inching closer to a full transition, where Bob and I will completely take over the family business. As the next tomato glides through my fingers, I am tallying the un-mentioned costs that were not figured into the price of that meat: taxes, insurance, transportation, electricity, repairs and upkeep, market fees, and the biggest one of all: labor.

shannon hayes tomatoes 1

I drop one tomato into the bowl, then pick up a second, smiling ruefully as I consider that reader’s question. She wants to know how I took that first step. Meanwhile, I’m trying to figure out how we will keep this place running. I pause in my work with the tomatoes and shift to the stove. Bob has thoughtfully sliced the onions for me the night before, and I put them on to cook, then begin to peel the garlic Mom pulled from the garden for me. Soon, the kitchen is awake with the sizzle of onions and garlic in four enormous stock pots spread across the cooktops. Under-utilized resources, I tell myself. The trick to keeping a family farm running is capitalizing on the under-utilized resources. We’ve figured out how to capitalize on the lard, the tallow, the chicken livers, the bone broth. Is there anything else? The writing. I could step up production and marketing of the books. That could help pay the labor bill. I push that thought from my mind. Writing, after all, is not a farm product. It is something I do to honor the calling in my soul. But it is not farming.

I add the first batch of tomatoes to the pots, and I am transported back into Ruth’s kitchen, my surrogate grandmother who used to live on the farm up the road. We had a tight working space in her house. She didn’t have the luxury of counters. Food preparation was done at the kitchen table, which had to be cleared first of her crochet projects. Over the course of a day, that table was a workshop while she crocheted baby blankets and booties to sell to neighbors; it was the work station for her summer canning; the pastry board where she rolled out crusts for the pies she would make to order. Technically, like my writing, none of those things were farm products, either. But it was the canning that kept the grocery bill down, and the money from pies and baby booties that kept the siding on the barn.

I find a long wooden spoon to stir the first round of crushed tomatoes into the onions. I leave behind thoughts of Ruth’s crocheted booties and blackberry pies. My mind drifts back to that reader’s question: How did you take that first step?

I consider answering her with a historical perspective. Right now for homeschool, Saoirse is studying ancient civilizations. The agricultural revolution is glossed over in her text book with a simple paragraph that begins with “After thousands of years, Stone Age people did learn to grow their own food.” As a happy result, the book explains, early people no longer had to keep moving from one cave to the next. Feeling the topic might warrant a little more investigation, I looked up the history of agriculture on the internet. Data was pretty firm about the earliest planned sowing and harvesting, the first irrigation systems, the first use of fertilizers. But scholars cannot seem to agree on why this happened. Some have hypothesized that humans were becoming increasingly sedentary. Ha. Apparently those scholars haven’t spent much time on a working farm. Others attributed it to localized climate change; someone else suggests that it was the result of tribes exerting dominance by hosting big parties. I scroll through the list on Wikipedia until I come to a tiny mention at the bottom of the page: The Domestication Hypothesis — First, humans stayed in particular areas, then, agriculture developed.

That, in my mind, almost gets at the crux of why. Here’s what I think happened:

There was a woman. She loved her husband. But she loved her mom and dad, too, and she didn’t want to leave them behind just because she got hitched. And then there was her mother, who suddenly couldn’t bear the thought of splitting away from her daughter, of not being able to nuzzle, coo and grunt over her grand babies. And then there was the grandfather, who had killed enough wild game and found he preferred to play with younger members of his tribe. Or maybe it was a hunter who started it. Maybe he and his fellow tribesmen killed some wild sheep, then found a few baby lambs. He couldn’t bear to leave them defenseless. Or maybe it was a man, or a woman, who looked out from the cave one day and realized that the piece of ground they were standing on had such a deep hold on them, they couldn’t move.

Here’s the bottom line: I believe the answer to the question of why the agricultural revolution happened is the same answer as to how a person takes their first step in farming. It is the same answer as to why a farmer keeps raising cattle when they net only 60 cents a pound on ground beef. And it is the same answer as to why one woman would crochet baby booties and bake pies to keep the siding on the barn, or why another would dip candles, make soap, write books, or stand in her kitchen at three in the morning chopping tomatoes. The answer is….

…Love.

When you are in love, you do whatever it takes. You limit your profit to 60 cents per pound because you love your customers. You crochet booties and bake pies so you don’t have to leave the land that holds your soul. You write your books, turn sausages or dip candles so that you can keep your family together. And when August rolls around, and you have to pull yourself from your bed while it is still dark so that you can process 70 pounds of tomato sauce before your children wake up, love is the only alarm clock. And getting up is easy.

I have just finished washing and grinding the first sinkful of tomatoes. I am dumping in the second load, when I hear a creak on the stairs. Ula’s head pops around the corner. Her eyes are still sleepy, her hair is a nest of tangles. “Mommy? Why are you doing this alone? You know we can help you.” She’s right.

shannon hayes tomatoes 2

Seeing my smile, she scuttles down the stairs in her underpants and t-shirt, then scrambles up on a kitchen stool. Without another word she washes her hands in the sink, then goes to find a knife. At last, I am ready to answer my reader’s question. How do you take the first step to become a farmer? First, you act out of love. Then, you do whatever it takes.

This essay was written by Shannon Hayes of Sap Bush Hollow Farm — farmer, homeschooler and author —  whose weekly Tuesday Posts are supported solely by the sale of her books and family farm products.  To receive a link to each Tuesday Post in your email, enter your information in the space at the right of this page (scroll up).  To support Sap Bush Hollow Farm and these writings, please check out the hand crafts and farm products in our online store, or come see us at the farm, or at The Round Barn Farmers’ Market in Holcottsville, NY (the Catskill Mountains).  To buy books, check the titles in our online bookstore, or check out the ebook titles available directly from the author here.  All Shannon’s titles are also available through the major online booksellers, as well as through your local independent bookstore.

 

New from Shannon Hayes

 

shannonhayescookingbeef

Forthcoming from Shannon Hayes

 

homespunmomjpeg

Also by Shannon Hayes

 

shannon hayes boundaries

Boundaries

 

“Mom, there’s something I have to tell you,” Ula’s eyes were wide with distress as she kneeled at her kitchen chair.  I had made her shredded zucchini with a marinara meat sauce, one of her favorite August meals.  She wasn’t touching it.  That worried me.

 

“What is it sweetie?”  I reached over and pushed a strand of hair behind her ear.  Her cheek was hot.

 

“I know we weren’t supposed to do it,” she began.  Never a good sign.

 

She had been playing with one of her friends from swimming lessons.  The friend had wanted to practice the CPR they had learned in swimming class.  On her.  Ula started to cry.  “I didn’t want to do it.  I told her I didn’t want to do it….But she really wanted to, and I didn’t want to make her mad…”

 

“CPR is never something you should do on a person unless it is a life or death situation,” Bob’s voice was calm.

 

“I know that,” Ula said as her tears fell into her bowl, “And it was so awful, I would never do it again!”

 

But it was too late.  There must have been a bug going around.  Now, Ula’s temperature was already running somewhere around 101 degrees.

 

I sent a note to the other parents, so they could talk to their daughter.  I suppose, under other circumstances, it might have been funny in a kids do the darndest things kind of way.  But something Ula said disturbed me: “I didn’t want to do it.  I told her I didn’t want to do it….But she really wanted to, and I didn’t want to make her mad.”

 

Ula knew that what the other kid wanted to do wasn’t right.  She knew it was something she didn’t want to do.  But she didn’t stand up for herself.  That frightened me.  What frightened me more was that, as I reflected on her recent play experiences with different children, this wasn’t the first time she has had this trouble.

 

Over the next few days, once a good purgative vomit has flown across the kitchen table and the fever has broken, Ula requires a lot of close time.  She craves to be in my lap constantly.  She wants my arms around her non-stop. I honor the need, and we talk about boundaries, the invisible protective forcefields around our individual bodies that help us to keep safe, that help us, when necessary, to see to our needs before the needs of others.  Boundaries can protect us from being overworked .  They can protect us from getting overwhelmed.  They can protect our belongings.  They can safeguard our health.  Sometimes they simply buy us the time to be alone or with a friend, away from the normal chaos of life, to rest and enjoy ourselves.

 

With Ula, we practice saying “no.”  We imagine different  friends in different situations, crying and carrying on, screaming and yelling, threatening to tell on her.  We visualize her walking away from manipulative behaviors.   We tell her that we trust her to know what is right, no matter how angry that may make someone.  We tell her we will always be there to back her up.

 

Then, on Tuesday, I break away from the farm.  My friend Lisa has her second chemotherapy session.  She has decided to use the four hour confinement as an opportunity to spend time with her girlfriends.  This week, she chooses me.  We are calling it our spa day.  We leave our children at the farm and drive into Albany.

 

It has been four months since Lisa’s breast cancer diagnosis.  During that time, we have spent a number of hours on the why of the disease.  Was it the soy milk?  Grocery store meat?  Was it some toxin in the water?  The stress of her move to Cobleskill last year?  Lisa has cleaned out her refrigerator.  She is buying local and organic foods.  She reads constantly now about diet and nutrition.  But when we talk about the healing process, the conversation inevitably goes to boundaries.  In her own diagnosis, Lisa recognizes a lifelong struggle to stand up for herself, to expect better of her world, to define her limits, to put herself first.

 

The car is parked, and Lisa leads the way through the business park to the cancer treatment center.  Once inside, we are taken into a room with several rows of heated reclining massage chairs.  She chooses her seat and we unpack our picnic lunch.

 

Our girlfriend chat continues as the nurse brings her some pills, then begins prepping the port site that has been inserted into Lisa’s shoulder.

 

“Make sure they download the new version of iTunes while you’re hooked up,” I quip as Lisa closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and the nurse puts in the tube.  If only it were that easy, I think to myself, watching.  A simple download, to address any potential security breaches.  The nurse leaves, and we begin a leisurely luncheon.

 

An hour later, we are still chatting and eating. There isn’t a ton of food, but with no children, no telephones, no pick-ups, no drop-offs and no interruptions, we are able to luxuriate in the leisurely pace. Food is seasoned with sporadic conversation, followed by stretches of companionable silence.   I leave to find us tea and marvel at how relaxed I am in a hospital setting.  It’s the boundary, I suddenly realize.  As we sit through Lisa’s chemo, the boundaries are drawn.  She is tied to a drip tube.  I am tied to her.  We can’t go anywhere.  We can’t do anything.  No children are allowed in the chemotherapy room.  There is a giant fence circling us, isolating us from the chaos of our lives.

 

After tea, we pull out our knitting projects.  Each of us is knitting an Aran sweater. They will not be gifts for anyone else.  They are for ourselves.  The nurse comes by to marvel at our work.  “Can you believe it?”  Lisa sings from her chair, “this is what we have to do in order to get a day to ourselves where we can sit and knit!”

 

Her comment hits home.  This day is her one year anniversary since she moved here.  Since we met, we’ve talked about having a day where we could  knit and just be together.  But there is homeschooling for both of us.  There are the constant needs of the children.  There is her work. There is the farm. There are household chores.  There are family obligations.

 

I leave to find us a second cup of tea, allowing myself a good look around the room.  Peppered throughout are women in my age group, their faces exhibiting a raw beauty, where it seems like every thought is made bold across a visage that has been stripped of its ability to hide behind hair.  All of them must be thinking about how to keep this disease from coming back.  All of them must be on a fast track course for inner wisdom and personal boundaries.

 

I like to think of myself as a woman who can articulate her boundaries, who can draw the line to make sure my personal needs are met.  I probably do this better than most.  But if I visualize my boundary lines, I confess that they would be in watercolor on a piece of wet paper.  I would paint a circle of protection around myself, but the line would run and fade.  It would become this messy blob that blurred into the surrounding landscape of the canvas of my life.  It would be broken by my children, my husband, my mom and dad, my friends, my work, my neighbors.  It would be smudged with errands, with over-grown grass, with weeds and Japanese beetles, housecleaning, lesson planning, emails and phone calls, with homemade soap, canning jars, broth pots and kettles of rendered fat.  It would be decorated with sausages and pork chops, garnished with kale salad and sauerkraut.

 

Lisa and I walked out of chemo, both of us relaxed after four hours of chatter, giggling, knitting, and relaxation; thankful for the moment, for the exterior forces that gave us a protective bubble for a few short hours.

 

But by today, Lisa will be paying for that little holiday.  She will be sick to her stomach. She will be exhausted.  She will be unable to eat.  She will face a future of mammograms and follow-up appointments.  That’s a high price to pay to for a crash course in setting boundaries.

 

I meet my family at the farm and we head home.  Ula is sobbing.  Saoirse is yelling at her.  There has been another incident with a friend where Ula has failed to say “no.”  An (admittedly insignificant) toy has been damaged as a result,  and Saoirse is furious, because Ula is the one who let it happen, who didn’t say “no” when she should have.  We revisit what has now become these week’s theme, about loving and saying no at the same time.  “Being kind doesn’t mean you have to agree to everything,” I repeat once more.  I am beginning to feel like a broken record.

 

The next day, Saoirse falls prey to the stomach bug that Ula picked up from her CPR nightmare.  Bob leaves for the farm, and I do my best to dash up and see to her needs while trying to keep Ula’s lessons on schedule downstairs.  I am failing at both.  Furthermore, I have forgotten to eat my breakfast.  I toss some leftovers in the oven to warm for lunch, and a short while later, Saoirse calls me to her side. She is poised over her vomit bowl.

 

“Please stay with me,” she whimpers.

 

I sit on the bed with her, stroking her hair, rubbing her back, rubbing her feet.  But her stomach will not release its contents.  By the end of an hour, we are both begging for the purge.  Of course, she is suffering greatly, but I, too, want release.  I want to rest.  I want to eat.  I want to go the bathroom.  I stay with her.

 

As I press my thumbs into the soles of her feet, my mind wanders to my own boundaries.  Am I letting them be violated this afternoon?  Should I draw the line and see to my own needs?  I picture again that watercolor painting with the runny, interrupted line that protects my body.  In my mind, I pan out and gaze at the broader painting.  I find solace in observing that all the assaults on my boundary line are chosen.  They are people and things that I love.  But that doesn’t mean the line can be eliminated from the picture.

 

As I sit on my child’s bed I realize that, it doesn’t matter if we are seven or 47.  Learning to protect our personal boundaries is not like riding a bicycle. It is a never-ending study and practice, rife with errors in judgment.   With each day of our lives, we have to learn where the line is.  We have to learn how to define it.  We have to decide if and how, on that day, we will defend it.

 

I stay with Saoirse until she lays herself back down on her pillow.  “You need to go eat,” she gives me a weak smile.  And in her diminished state, I am awed by her wisdom as she reminds me of the next great lesson in boundaries.  It is not enough to look out for our own limits.  We must honor them in others.

This essay was written by Shannon Hayes of Sap Bush Hollow Farm — farmer, homeschooler and author —  whose weekly Tuesday Posts are supported solely by the sale of her books and family farm products.  To receive a link to each Tuesday Post in your email, enter your information in the space at the right of this page (scroll up).  To support Sap Bush Hollow Farm and these writings, please check out the hand crafts and farm products in our online store, or come see us at the farm, or at The Round Barn Farmers’ Market in Holcottsville, NY (the Catskill Mountains).  To buy books, check the titles in our online bookstore, or check out the ebook titles available directly from the author here.  All Shannon’s titles are also available through the major online booksellers, as well as through your local independent bookstore.

 

New from Shannon Hayes

 

shannonhayescookingbeef

Forthcoming from Shannon Hayes

 

homespunmomjpeg

Also by Shannon Hayes

 

 

 

 

 

shannon hayes fish

The Retention Bonus

“Say, the price for your brisket isn’t bad,” the man said as he glanced over the list at our farmers’ market stall, “when you consider how much you get paid for your steaks!”

I tried not to let it get to me. In spite of the barb, it had been a decent market day, and the weather was beautiful. We packed up as swiftly as we could, eager to get home to be ready for the family birthday dinner we’d be holding for Saoirse later that evening.

We pulled in the driveway, and I saw Dad peak his head out of the grain room. I knew I should start immediately helping Bob unload the coolers, but I didn’t want to. Dad likes to get his market report. Bob doesn’t mind. So I walked over and squinted up at him as he stood on the top step and looked down, a broad smile on his face as he filled his last bucket and prepared to climb down. “Well?” he asked, expectantly waiting for the sales totals, along with any gossip I could bring him. His foot was on the top step, nearly at my eye level. It caught my eye, as I noticed that he had placed it down so that only the back of his heel was on the wood. Doesn’t he know that he isn’t actually on that stair? I thought to myself. But before I could say anything, he had begun to fall. Our eyes met, and I saw the terror fly across his face. He had only just had his back surgery six weeks ago. The nerves in his legs were still excruciatingly raw. And clearly he had not yet regained sensation in his feet, if he couldn’t detect that he wasn’t on that stair. His eyes locked on mine before he came tumbling forward. I held out my hands and shifted my weight fully in his direction.

I caught him. We stood there a moment, gripping to each other, trying not to think about what could have happened. I looked down at his shoes. “The soles on your boots are too thick, Dad,” I remarked. “You aren’t getting enough biofeedback to know where you’re stepping.” Nothing more was said.

Saoirse came running up to us, unaware of what had just transpired, her eyes radiant at the excitement of her birthday, her cheeks flushed from the thrills of her day. She threw her arms around me. “Hi Mom!” Her wide smile trumped even the broad brim of her hat. “Grammie and I are going fishing!” she bubbled. “Pop Pop, can you come too?”

Photo courtesy of Adele Hayes

Photo courtesy of Adele Hayes

 

“I can’t,” he looked down at the grain buckets. “I need to go in and rest for a minute, then I gotta finish chores.” He went inside, shifting his weight side to side on his path, to ease the fatigue in his legs. I went back to help Bob. We finished unloading the meat and the ice packs, and rinsed the coolers. Then we made our way to the house. “We’ll finish chores, Dad,” I told him. “Just rest.”

Bob and I went over the list of what was undone. I went out to the lambs while he brought feed to the pigs, then drove out to the back field to put the chickens in. We brought the Mule back to the garage as we finished up, where Dad came out to greet us. “Don’t bother putting it away,” he said, his energy suddenly revived. “I’m taking it fishing.” I smiled to myself.

We drove home to set the table. Bob shucked the sweet corn, and I made pesto for the zucchini. A short while later, my brother and sister-in-law came in with their toddler and their new baby. I glanced at the clock. Mom, Dad and the girls were late. What could be holding them up? We made drinks and began carving the chicken.

A little while later, the four missing guests burst in the door, Saoirse carrying her grandmother’s iPod. “Mommy! Mommy! Look! Look at the size of the fish Pop Pop caught!” She ran into the kitchen and scrolled through a series of photos of their great conquest. I was too distracted getting supper on the table to give it much thought.

shannon hayes fish

But my attention soon came front and center when my sister-in-law, who has only just returned to her job after her maternity leave, announced that on her first day back she was awarded a promotion, a 14% pay raise, and a retention bonus.

“What’s a retention bonus?” I called from the kitchen. I wasn’t familiar with the term.

“It’s money they pay you as part of an agreement to stay on the job for a certain period of time, and not go looking someplace else,” she explained.

As the story unfolded, we learned she had been called into the office of a superior on her first day back. Over the course of her maternity leave, it had come to the company’s attention just how much they suffered in her absence, and just how valuable she was as an employee. In an era when women are still getting penalized by corporate America for choosing to have families, my sister-in-law is bucking the trend. I felt very proud of her….Then I felt a green streak of jealousy shoot through my body. That retention bonus alone was worth nearly four times Bob’s and my income in 2013. She was getting a bonus, on top of a pay raise. And I had to listen to some guy at the market tell me that $11.25 per pound for our brisket was over-priced.

But my jealousy ran deeper. How marvelous to go into work and have someone say we really value you. We can’t do this without you. We want to reward you.

“Hey!” I shouted out over the clatter of pots and pans in the kitchen as I lifted the lid from the sweet corn, capturing the attention of Mom and Dad in the living room. They looked over. “Where the hell is my retention bonus?”

“Hey yourself!” Mom shouted back just as loud. “Where the hell is my retention bonus?” Stalemate.

We pressed my sister-in-law for more of her story. With that, she began sharing the details of her performance evaluations. I put down the platter of chicken and gaped at her. Performance evaluation? Someone got to examine her day in and day out and pass judgment on her performance? And it was written up in a file someplace? I felt my spine bristle at the very idea.

The story flitted from my mind as the evening rolled on and we feasted on all the delights that the midsummer harvest offers up. But the next morning, when I slipped out of bed to go for a walk and watch the sun come up, my jealousy and self-pity returned.

I can give lip service to the idea that my value in life can not be quantified, but there are times when I question it. I question whether I was a fool to walk away from a conventional career. I question whether my co-workers, who happen to be my own family, truly value what I do.

There are no retention bonuses in family farming. Nobody hands you a bonus check and says, “we couldn’t do this without you.” Nobody even worries whether you’ll go someplace else. We are bonded to the land. We are bonded to each other, and we are hostage to a culture of taking each other for granted.

But there are no performance evaluations, either. Nobody looks at my work and judges the quality. Nobody is writing down whether any of us is sufficiently dependable, cooperative or adaptable. Nobody makes a note in a file when we stand in the kitchen and hurl invectives at each other and slam doors. Nobody is going to fire me or eliminate my position.

There is no retention bonus, a voice in my head proclaimed, because you live your reward. But where was the reward? By that point I had perched myself on a rock overlooking a pond. My three dogs were alternately sniffing around the forest and coming to lay beside my feet. The reward is this time beside a pond, I told myself. Was that all I’d bought myself? Time to sit beside a pond and breathe deeply? Anyone could do that on a Sunday morning.

But then my mind flashed to the previous afternoon, and I replayed the scene, where Bob and I pulled in from the market. I was smiling as I jumped out of the car. Nothing particularly spectacular had happened, it’s just that, even when someone complains about the price of a brisket, I still love what I do. And I ignored the work of unloading for a minute, because I knew that Bob wouldn’t mind. I knew there was no performance evaluation. Instead, I went and stood at the foot of the grain room stairs, because at that moment, the person I most wanted to see was my Dad. And he was smiling at me, because he was happy, too. And then he fell.

And then I got to catch him.

And there we were. Present in the moment for each other, for no other reason than because it was where we wanted to be. On that particular afternoon, my arms were his retention bonus. And his regained balance was mine.

I walked back to the house, my steps much lighter, my belly grumbling for breakfast. I went into the kitchen and opened the fridge to find something to eat. And there, on the shelf, skinned and filleted, was my very favorite breakfast in the entire world: Dad’s fresh-caught fish, left for me….a priceless reward for sticking around.

girl fishing 2

This essay was written by Shannon Hayes of Sap Bush Hollow Farm — farmer, homeschooler and author —  whose weekly Tuesday Posts are supported solely by the sale of her books and family farm products.  To receive a link to each Tuesday Post in your email, enter your information in the space at the right of this page (scroll up).  To support Sap Bush Hollow Farm and these writings, please check out the hand crafts and farm products in our online store, or come see us at the farm, or at The Round Barn Farmers’ Market in Holcottsville, NY (the Catskill Mountains).  To buy books, check the titles in our online bookstore, or check out the ebook titles available directly from the author here.  All Shannon’s titles are also available through the major online booksellers, as well as through your local independent bookstore.

 

New from Shannon Hayes

 

shannonhayescookingbeef

Forthcoming from Shannon Hayes

 

homespunmomjpeg

Also by Shannon Hayes

Photo courtesy of Nancy Daynard

Normal: A Drama

 

NORMAL:  ACT I, SCENE I:

 

 

I don’t play the part of “normal mom” very well, nor do I play it very often.  Saoirse and Ula have been trained to sleep in, to afford me as many quiet pre-dawn silent work hours as possible.  If they step into my office before 7:30 in the morning, they are met with a snarling beast. I expect them to make their own breakfasts.  I refuse to drive them to ballet class or music lessons.  “When you are older and can drive yourself,” I tell them, “if that same fire still burns inside of you, then you will quickly make up for my neglect with your talent and dedication.”

 

But once a year, I dig out my Trac phone and charge it up.  We pretend we are normal Americans.  For one week in July, I take sole possession of our car, when Saoirse and Ula are each allowed to attend one week of a summer camp, where they can experience some of the things our farm life doesn’t typically allow.  I cancel my morning writing sessions, ignore the farm as much as possible, and keep a calendar and clock in front of my nose at all times.  Then, so they can feel like real children on real schedules, I walk upstairs with my biggest steel bowl and bang on it with a wooden spoon  at 6am while singing Irving Berlin’s Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning  until they drag their weary bodies out of bed.  Our sunrise calm is supplanted by timed hysteria, “We leave in 24 minutes and 31 seconds!  Move! Move!” I shout. Coordinating with my mother over the cell phone as my back-up driver, we race over the back roads of the county, and as a result of careful calculations, I deliver my children to their respective camps.  On time.   This year, Saoirse went to spend a week practicing 19th century homesteading skills at The Farmers Museum.   Ula, who has been dreaming of the stage for years now, chose a local theater camp, where the children would put on a puppet production of Anansi and the Strange Moss Covered Rock.

 

Monday, everything went fine.  I learned last year that deviled eggs and hog’s headcheese were inhibitors to peer social interactions at lunch time.  This year, I agreed to a week of toxic gluten-free sandwich bread from the grocery store, slathered with almond butter and homemade jam.  Apparently, that helped to smooth the social path.  At the end of the day, both girls were smiling.  I patted myself on the back.  Good normal mom.  Only four days to go.

 

 

NORMAL:  ACT I, SCENE 2:

 

On Tuesday, camp was still fine for Saoirse.  But when I retrieved Ula, the musical director met me at the sign-out sheet.  “So we were wondering if Ula would be willing to play the part of Anansi,” she whispered quietly.  “She has such good stage presence…”

 

From what I could tell, Ula was one of the youngest children in the group.  My “normal mom” heart thumped with pride.  “No problem!”  I said.  We agreed that the director would email me a copy of the script, and we’d be in touch over the week so I could help Ula practice at home.  On the way back, we stopped at the gas station (an almost-daily occurrence during normal parenting week).  There, we met our friend Matt.  I rolled down the window to let Ula announce with joy her starring role.  “We’ll be at the show!”  Matt called before pulling away.    When we got home, I sent an email to our neighbors, parents of Ula’s best friend Katharine.  Could they come see her?  Another note went to her Aunt Erin and Uncle Matthew over in Cobleskill.  And another one to Saoirse and Ula’s dear friend Sarah and her family.  Friday night, 6pm, they were all told.  I dutifully printed off the script, and brought the rehearsal CD into the kitchen.  Once the supper dishes were cleared,  Ula and I practiced.  She loved every minute of it, and threw her body and soul into rehearsing her solo.  At 11pm I put the script down and refused to let her continue.  “You MUST sleep!” I ordered her.

 

 

NORMAL:  ACT I, SCENE 3:

 

On Wednesday, the director emailed me a list of songs and lines that Ula was having trouble with.  It was disturbingly long.  That evening, Alicia, my friend who is a mother of five, managed to shed 3 of her five children with her husband, and came over for a girls’ night. Propping herself up on a stool in the kitchen, she poured herself a glass of wine, took a sip, savored the flavor, then drank in the reality that she had only two children to care for that night.  She smiled at me like a cat toying with a mouse as I pulled the silk from the ears of sweet corn, and, panic stricken, kept my eyes on the clock as I tried to figure out when I was supposed to find the time to review Ula’s part with her before the next morning.

 

“Bet you’re wishing she didn’t get the part of Anansi,” she grinned.  She was right.  At this point, I was wishing Ula could play the moss covered rock.

 

“I’m out of my league,” I confessed.  “I don’t know how we’re going to get through this.  She’s too young to learn all this stuff. The show is in two days!”

 

“Yup,” she gave me a knowing nod, “it’s a little extra work for the kid.  A LOT of extra work for the mom.”

 

To his credit, Bob was actually the one left to do the rehearsing that time.

 

On Thursday, Bob brought Ula home from camp in the farm truck.  Her eyes were wide with fear.  “How’d it go?”  I asked.

 

“I got stuff wrong,” she said quietly.  “I almost cried in front of everyone.”  That night, we couldn’t practice her part.  I could only sit with her while she wept.  How were we going to get through this?  What do other normal parents do?

 

Ula and I left early on Friday, and I put the rehearsal CD on the car stereo. “Why aren’t you singing?” I asked as she gazed at me through the rear-view mirror.

 

“I want you to sing it with me.”

“But the show is tonight!  You need to be able to do it on your own!”

“Please?  Will you just do it with me?”

I skipped to the part where she had the most difficult lines.  “I’ll say the part of the bush deer,” I told her.  “You say your Anansi lines.”

 

We practiced, but she never raised her voice above a whisper.  As we neared the site of the camp, I pulled off the road at a nearby park.  Maybe it is just too much time being normal.  Maybe she’s had too much indoor time, I guessed, maybe she just needs to relax in nature.  We walked down to the Fox Creek and sat on some rocks, watching as the morning sun sparkled on the swiftly moving water.

 

“You can do this,” I told her.  “You’ll be great.”  She didn’t answer.  We stood up to go and she slipped her hand inside mine.

 

“Mommy?”

“Yes?”

“Will you stay with me today?”

Yes, I was trying to be a normal mom.  But I didn’t want to be a helicopter parent.  “You don’t actually need me there, sweetie,” I assured her.  “Have fun with the other kids.”

“I do need you.  Please?  I will just feel better if you’re there.”

And so I stayed.  I hid in the back of the dark theater and watched.  She couldn’t deliver any of her lines.  At the first break, she ran to find me.  Taking me by the hand, she brought me up to the front, where I was nearly in the spotlight.  “I need you here,” she said.  I obeyed.

shannon hayes Anansi rehearsal

But the day didn’t go much better.  It was four hours before the show, and the prompter had to feed her every line.  And she was so frightened, my brave and brazen child suddenly couldn’t raise her voice above a whisper.  Normal moms would have done a better job rehearsing with their children, I chided to myself.  A good mom wouldn’t have let her daughter get in over her head.  But here we were.  Over our heads.  And there was nothing to be done about it.  The rehearsal ended and all the children ran outside to play.  I was helping to clean up when the director spoke.

“Well, your being here may have helped,” she began, awkwardly.

“I was sorry to intrude on your day,” I began, “Ula was just so frightened.”

“Well, I’m sorry too,” she pushed a strand of hair behind her ear.  “She acts so mature, we just didn’t realize how young she was.”

“Maybe it will all change tonight,” I offered weakly.  “Ula has always wanted to perform.  Maybe she just needs to feel what it is like to have an audience.”

“Well,” she was trying not to be too negative, I could tell, “things usually go better than I expect.”

She must not be expecting much, I thought to myself.

 

 

NORMAL: ACT II, SCENE I

 

Ula and I got in the car to leave.  I turned the ignition, and the rehearsal CD began to play.  “Please, Mom, I can’t,” tears were coming down her face.

“But you’ve got to know it for tonight!”

“Can I please not go tonight?”

I wanted to give in, but if I did, then I knew it would only be harder for her when she faced her next challenge.

She stared out the window and half-heartedly mouthed the words as we drove.

 

She was feeling like a failure.  But in truth, I had failed her.  I should have had her rehearse more.  But she’s just a kid, I told myself.  She needed to play, too.  I should have known she was too young for the part.  Only a stupid mom would push her child into something that she wasn’t ready for, I thought.  A good mom would have put the breaks on, before it was too late.

 

Every year, this one week of camp, where I see other families on-the-run, where I watch other mothers with their children, where I fill my gas tank three or more times in five days, brings us to the brink.  All the driving.  All the scheduling and coordinating.  All the packed lunches.  And now, all the rehearsing we should have done.   I try to understand how other people do it. Once a year,  I try to play down our homeschooled radical homemaking, family farming lifestyle and help my kids fit in.  But here we were, three and a half hours before a play, and my kid, owing to my ineptitude as a “normal” mother, was going to ruin the show for everyone.  To hell with it, I decided. I turned off the CD.  Time to do things my own way.  

 

I swung the car over to the side of the road, and back down to the park along the creek.

 

“What are we doing, Mom?”

“Magic,” I answered.  “We’re doing magic.”  Dumbo’s feather, Dumbo’s feather, I kept repeating to myself.  Dumbo thought he couldn’t fly, until the crow gave him his magic feather.  Ula unbuckled her carseat while I frantically ran around opening all the doors, digging under seats and scrounging through the trunk, finding anything I could to make magic for my seven-year-old.  Intention is what matters,  I told myself.  Belief, and intention.  I found a lollipop in the glove box from our last trip to the bank.  I found a container of salt in my lunch bag.  I dug out my secret stash  – half of an organic, fair trade dark chocolate bar.  As I searched, I wracked through the rolodex of deities in my brain.    Christian God?  No, too hierarchical.  Virgin Mary?  No, too unfamiliar. Zeus? No, too much thunder and drama.  Fairies?  No, too prone to play tricks. I thought about the time of year.  My Aunt Kimmie is Wiccan.  On my desk is a hand-written letter she mailed me once, where she wrote out the Eight Spoked Wheel of the Year, outlining all the festival days.  We were at the end of July.  Just this morning I had picked that letter off the top of my desk clutter, and I remembered: Lughnasadh, the Celtic Fire Festival…the beginning of the harvest…a time to honor the God Lugh, the Celtic Diety of many skills.  Many skills?  That works, I decided.

 

I grabbed Ula by the hand and led her down to the creek bank. I handed her the chocolate bar.  “Here!  Break this up!  Throw it into the creek!”

“But Mommy!  This is your favorite chocolate!”

“Rituals require sacrifice,” I assured her.  With glee, she broke up the bits of chocolate and tossed it across the flowing water. I joined her in the dispersal.  “We offer this gift for the God Lugh!”  I called out.

“We offer this gift,” she repeated, “for the God… Lou?”  She turned to me.  “Who’s Lou?”

 

Confidence mattered more than than anything else.  “Lugh is the Irish God of Many Skills,” I spoke with as much authority as I could muster.  “You need many skills tonight, and, lucky for us, this is the time of his festival, so he’s extra strong right now.”

“We offer this gift to the God…. Lugh,” she went along.

 

“Now stand still!”  I told her.  “It’s time to make you a protective circle!”  A few boys were fishing a little ways down stream.

“Mommy?  Are those boys watching us?”

“Maybe.”

“What are they thinking?”

“I don’t care what they think.  We need magic.  Let’s go.”

Ula closed her eyes and stood solemnly still.  I opened my vial of salt and made a circle around her.  “I make this circle of salt so that you may feel protected and safe,” I said.

“But Mommy?  I can’t stay in this circle all night.  We have a play.”

Stop being so damned pragmatic, I thought.  I was making a fool of myself, but it was the only thing I could do.  “The circle is symbolic,” I invented my answer, “the protection will follow you, even when you step out of it.”  The answer seemed to suffice.  She closed her eyes and let me proceed.  “And on this day, we pray to the God Lugh,” I continued.

 

She kept her eyes closed., “I pray to the God Lugh,” she was on board.

 

“And we ask for his gifts this night,” I went on.

“And we ask for his gifts,” she repeated.

“For courage,”

“For courage.”

“For imagination,”

“For imagination.”

 

Shouldn’t there at least be three things? I thought to myself?   Her eyes were still closed.

“For joy!” I added.

“For joy!” She repeated with the fullest voice I’d heard thus far.

 

 

“Now Ula,” I instructed her.  “Step outside your circle, and know that its protection follows you.”  Cautiously, she stepped outside and looked at me.  Normal moms would be going over lines and rehearsing songs, I thought.  Maybe later.

 

“I want you to think,” I proceeded, “think about each of your fears.  And I want you to pick up one stone for each fear.  Call it out, then throw it away into the water.”

shannon hayes girl and creek

She stared down, then carefully selected two stones.  Looking out over the widest part of Fox Creek, she wound her arm behind her, then bellowed out “FEAR OF FAILURE!” and pitched it as far as she could.

 

“That fear is now washed away,” I said quietly.

 

She wound up with the second stone.  “EMBARRASSMENT!”  And she threw.

 

My eyes were filled with tears.  “Your embarrassment is washed away,” I spoke through stilted sobs.  I handed her the bits of crumbled up lemon lollipop.  “Now give him this,” I instructed.

 

“Isn’t lollipop littering?”

“It’s dessert.”

 

She watched the water a little longer.  I looked around at the ground in search of something to give her in a medicine bundle.  Someone had dropped three fishing lure beads.  “Here,” I called her attention to them.  “Hold these in your hand until we can get home and find you a medicine bag.

“What’s that?”

“They are gifts from Lugh to remind you that he’s helping you tonight.”

“Mommy, it looks like litter.”

“But there are three?  See?  This one is for courage,” she held her palm open to receive it.  “And this one is for imagination, and this one,” I dropped the last into her hand.  “Is for joy.  So you will have fun tonight.”  I spoke with conviction, but my mama’s heart was rattled with fear on her behalf.  “Time to go,” I pointed her in the direction of the car, and she skuttled off.  Before following, I turned back to the creek.  “Please,” I whispered.  I didn’t care if she sang beautifully.  I didn’t care if she forgot her lines.  “Just let her feel happy and fulfilled,” I asked.  And there was nothing more I could do.

 

NORMAL:  ACT II, SCENE II

 

I was pacing about outside the theater when Bob came in.  I shook my head when he gazed at me with questioning eyes.  “It doesn’t look good,” I muttered, with Ula safely out of earshot with the cast.

 

“Crap,” he muttered.

“I think she needs to see familiar faces,” I thought aloud.  Bethany, another friend who is a professional singer whose daughter was in the cast floated up to me.  “Why are you looking so nervous?” she asked, cool and calm in the face of the performance.  “Ula’s ready to throw up,” I said.  “And therefore, so am I.”

She hugged me.  “It’s a rite of passage,” she said.  “This is a big night for her.”

 

Just then, Ula’s best friend Katharine came dancing in the door.  “Shannon!  Shannon!”  She jumped up, trying to make her little body seen amidst the sea of grown-ups.  “We’re here for Ula!” Behind her were her mom and dad, smiling broadly.

“She’s scared,” I said, “Do you think we can fill the front row so she can see friendly faces?”

 

“We’re on it,” said Katharine’s mom.  We nosed and nudged our way to the front of the line, then charged into the theater, grabbing the front row for ourselves.  A few minutes later, in came Grammie and Pop Pop.  And then her Aunt Erin, Uncle Matt, and her cousins, Evie and Tick.  Following them was Matt from the gas station, along with his wife, Nancy.  Then in came Sarah and her Dad.  I peered around the dark room.  It was filled with the faces of people who love my little girl.

 

The lights came up.  Children came out  singing with their puppets of monkeys, lions, elephants, rhinoceroses, zebras.  Then the stage fell quiet.  All the children looked to the back corner and waited.  And there she came, around the corner. Around her neck I could see the yarn that held her hidden medicine bundle.   Her eyes searched the audience and found mine.  We locked gazes, and she smiled broadly, then began creeping like Anansi the Spider, across the stage.

 

And then it was time for her solo.

 

And she froze.

 

The prompter fed her the first line.

 

And the second line.

 

She chimed in a bit on the third line.  Then a bit more on the fourth line.

 

She sang the next verse by herself, then pretended to fall asleep, just as she was supposed to do, according to the script.  And the audience (nearly half of which was her friends and family by this point) burst into applause.

 

And I watched her body tremble in response.  She looked up from her slumber in surprise and shock.  That was real applause!  For her!

 

And that was it.  She was Anansi the spider.  Sure, she forgot lines.  She forgot where she was supposed to be on the stage.  She needed quite a few reminders from the prompter.  A few times, she crossed her legs and grabbed herself, as though maybe she needed to pee. But the tears poured down my eyes every second of that 25 minute production.  Not because she was making mistakes…but because she was loving every minute of it.  And the applause never stopped coming for her.

 

NORMAL:  ACT II, SCENE III

 

 

Bethany was correct.  It was a rite of passage.  Ula couldn’t stop smiling when the play was done.  She was covered with hugs, decorated with flowers, showered with kisses.  But just before those lights came up for that play, she had her darkest hour.  And by forcing herself to confront that darkest hour, she was now basking in light.

Photo courtesy of Nancy Daynard

Photo courtesy of Nancy Daynard

But it wasn’t just Ula’s first time going through this.  It was my first time through as a parent.  I don’t suppose praying to Celtic Gods and sprinkling lollipops and chocolate into creeks counts as normal coping mechanisms, but I consider it a gift of the gods that brought all Ula’s friends and family to surround her during that dark hour.  I consider it a gift of the gods that they filled the room with smiles and applause, sending her the courage and joy that she needed to face her fears.  But ultimately, it was Ula’s victory.   And we were all there to share it with her.

 

“She came through!” The director sang out as we cleaned up after the show.  “You were right!  She just needed to feel that audience!”  She turned to Ula.  “How was that?”  She asked.

 

“Piece of cake,” Ula waved her hand in dismissal.  “Mommy?  Can we sign up for theater camp next week, too?”

 

“Forget it!”  One week in the life of normal is enough for me.
This essay was written by Shannon Hayes of Sap Bush Hollow Farm — farmer, homeschooler and author —  whose weekly Tuesday Posts are supported solely by the sale of her books and family farm products.  To receive a link to each Tuesday Post in your email, enter your information in the space at the right of this page (scroll up).  To support Sap Bush Hollow Farm and these writings, please check out the hand crafts and farm products in our online store, or come see us at the farm, or at The Round Barn Farmers’ Market in Holcottsville, NY (the Catskill Mountains).  To buy books, check the titles in our online bookstore, or check out the ebook titles available directly from the author here.  All Shannon’s titles are also available through the major online booksellers, as well as through your local independent bookstore.

 

New from Shannon Hayes

 

shannonhayescookingbeef

Forthcoming from Shannon Hayes

 

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Also by Shannon Hayes

shannonhayestocookanelephant

How To Cook An Elephant

Our family doesn’t spend a lot of time on current events.  There is no television service; it is nearly impossible to listen to the radio amidst the din of kids and dogs; none of us could find the time to sit still long enough to read a newspaper before it was needed to light the fire or the grill; and our available computer time is limited.  Bob tries to keep up-to-date by listening to podcasts on the tractor, and much of my news is, admittedly, filtered through him.

 

I’ve read written criticisms of our homeschooling efforts that suggest our family is sheltered and naive, but there has been conscious method behind our oblivion.  It is not that Bob and I fail to care about what is happening in the world around us.  We care a lot. And we want our children to care, too.  Perhaps it is true that bombarding our daughters with headlines and stories beyond their sphere of influence will lead the outside world to perceive them as erudite.  They could potentially impress adults with a level of worldly knowledge beyond their years.  But in our view, that doesn’t necessarily create caring citizens.  We want our kids to be passionate about the world in which they live, and to feel empowered to act within it to make things better.  Thus, current events, in our family, start with an intimate knowledge of the seasons, and the factors that influence our food and wildlife.   My daughters don’t see the nightly news, but their first-hand experiences on a family farm give them a pretty firm grasp on climate change, pollution, habitat destruction, basic economics, the banking system, and the importance of proper stewardship of this earth.

 

Our concern about excessive exposure to news media for our children is that it can carry them down the spectrum from empathy toward apathy.  In our opinion, too much bad news without the filters of maturity leads to despondence.  Despondence leads to apathy.  Apathy leads to cynical adulthood, and I think cynical grown-ups have a harder time bringing about positive change.

 

But that doesn’t mean we intend to block out everything in perpetuity.  And when the recent issue of Smithsonian showed up in the mailbox, we were all curious about the lead story: The Hunt for Africa’s Most Notorious Elephant Poacher.  I read it aloud to Bob over a cup of coffee in the early morning hours last Saturday, before we headed out to set up our stall at the market.  Deciding that now was a good time to start introducing more global concerns in our education, I chose to read it aloud again to the girls after dinner that night.  Supporting me in this experiment, Bob refrained from jumping up to do dishes, and stayed seated at the table.

 

The article was rife with tragedy, but broadly covered many current intertwining world events.  Fifty thousand elephants traversed  the interior of Chad 50 years ago.  Today, less than two percent of the population remains.  To satisfy the hunger of the ivory trade, entire elephant herds are being mowed down by the hundreds with AK-47s.  The proceeds have gone, among other places, to finance the Janjaweed in the ethnic cleansing of Darfur.

 

That’s hard stuff for a ten-year-old and a seven-year-old.  It was harder still for Bob and me to watch their despair over this story.  There wasn’t a dry eye around the kitchen table.  We read about the guards who had taken bribes to help the killers identify migratory routes; about the villagers and subsistence farmers who willingly assisted the poachers, happy to keep the elephants out of their crops, and to find a source of free meat.

 

I read on as the story delved into details about covert operations and arrests.   But I was interrupted.

 

“The trouble is, they need to learn how to cook an elephant,” Ula blurted with sudden enthusiasm.

shannonhayestocookanelephant

I lifted my eyes and joined Bob in giving her a brief disapproving stare.  I resumed reading. The story unfolded with more descriptions of the warring between the poachers and the rangers.

 

“And the fencing systems,” Saoirse interrupted.  “I mean, they need to look at the villager’s fencing systems.”

 

“…Because if you know how to properly cook an elephant,” Ula continued her own intellectual thread, apparently unmoved by the parental disciplinary glare, “then you should be able to kill just one, and you should be able to get a lot of meals out of it.”

 

I was losing my listening audience.  Fast.

 

“Because what are the villagers supposed to do, if they are losing their crops?”  Saoirse, who had lost some prized melon seedlings to our flock of guinea hens earlier this summer, was on her own tangent.

 

“I mean, think about how much bone broth you could get from a single elephant!”  Ula was on a role.  “And shooting them like that with those guns —  That’s not good.  They should really be doing it with a spear.  Because that’s a lot of meat they’re wasting.”

 

I glanced across the table at Bob.  He was holding his head in his hands.  This current events lesson was failing.  Fast.

 

“Well, they shouldn’t be killing the elephants at all!”  I retorted to Ula.

 

“Why?”  Ula challenged me head-on. “I mean, they have to eat, right?  Well, no one could eat 250 elephants.  That’s not right.  But they could do a lot with one elephant.  I mean, think about the size!  Think how much meat they could take off it!  And then, they could make  a little something nice with the tusks.  But I wouldn’t just use the tusks.  After I made broth from the bones, I’d probably make something nice with those, too.”

 

“And how can those villagers farm if the elephants are allowed to just wander through?”  Saoirse added.

 

Homeschooling is a work-in-progress, I comforted myself privately.  I closed the magazine and tossed it aside.  Bob was shaking his head as he began clearing the table.  This hadn’t played out as I’d hoped.  Where had I gone wrong?

 

My mind mulled this over for the next several days.  As I walked my dogs each morning, I kept repeating these words to myself:  Apathy versus Empathy.  Apathy versus Empathy.  Did Ula and Saoirse fail to care about the elephants?

 

No.  They had grown deeply distressed about the plight of the elephants.  And Saoirse’s comments about the fencing systems made sense to me.  But Ula’s comments about cooking the elephants disturbed me.  How could she hear about all that destruction, and then focus on the proper technique to kill and cook an elephant?

 

I was nearly home from my walk yesterday after puzzling through this for a week before I finally understood the obvious.  Our family raises and slaughters beef, chickens, pigs and sheep to live.  Saoirse’s and Ula’s understanding of the world around them is that people must eat to live.  And eating requires two things:  protecting the livestock and crops from perils, and killing.  The massive killings were, beyond a doubt, upsetting to them.  However, those few short lines about the villagers and subsistence farmers were not something they could easily gloss over.  Here was true empathy:  by virtue of their own daily experience, they were able to identify closely with those other people.

 

There was no question that they were far from apathetic about the elephant poaching in Africa.  And as I replayed our family dialog, I realize that they were truly empathetic.  They were horrified about the ethnic cleansing in Darfur.  They cried over the elephants.  But they were also concerned about the sustainability of the villagers and the farmers.  Unlike their short-sighted mother, who was only hoping to spark empathy for elephants and knowledge about current events, they had gone one step further.  They were using their own life experience along with their ability to think critically.  They were not seeing the solution to the problem in terms of international laws or policing efforts, which was the scope of the news story.  They went beyond and worried first and foremost about making sure people’s and the elephants’ needs were met.

 

Maybe the current events lesson had not gone wrong.  Maybe it went very right.  Saoirse and Ula had found the component in the story that they could understand and relate to, and they forced me to think deeper about the problem than I originally had.  As I mentioned earlier, homeschooling is a work in progress. And hopefully, after they’ve worked with me for 12 years or so, my kids will finally get me properly educated.

This essay was written by Shannon Hayes of Sap Bush Hollow Farm — farmer, homeschooler and author —  whose weekly Tuesday Posts are supported solely by the sale of her books and family farm products.  To receive a link to each Tuesday Post in your email, enter your information in the space at the right of this page (scroll up).  To support Sap Bush Hollow Farm and these writings, please check out the hand crafts and farm products in our online store, or come see us at the farm, or at The Round Barn Farmers’ Market in Holcottsville, NY (the Catskill Mountains).  To buy books, check the titles in our online bookstore, or check out the ebook titles available directly from the author here.  All Shannon’s titles are also available through the major online booksellers, as well as through your local independent bookstore.

 

New from Shannon Hayes

 

shannonhayescookingbeef

Forthcoming from Shannon Hayes

 

homespunmomjpeg

Also by Shannon Hayes

Sundried Tomatoes or Mountain Streams?

We are driving home from Ula’s eye doctor appointment in Schenectady as Saoirse wistfully glances back over her shoulder at the mountains in the distance.  She sighs.

shannonhayesadirondackmts

“Can we please go to the Adirondacks this summer?”  Her question interrupts my own thoughts, where I am tallying how much garlic I have left in storage, calculating whether I will have enough  to can a full bushel or only a half bushel of pickles.

 

I pause in my computations and swallow down my guilt before I give her a direct reply.  “We cannot.”

 

I blame the tomatoes.  We used to make the journey north after Labor Day, once the summer crowds had thinned out.  But packing up the family and prepping all the food, arranging for our absence from the farm, taking our chances with North Country weather, then packing them out, driving sticky kids and a loaded car back to the northern Catskills and then unpacking again admidst the late summer maelstrom of  harvesting, dehydrating and canning tomatoes leaves Bob and me more exhausted and stressed than if we simply stayed put.

 

Honestly, it is more than the tomatoes.  It is all the activity that leads up to the tomato harvest:  picking and freezing the blueberries and raspberries, canning peaches and green beans, feeding chickens and pigs, moving fence, cutting and wrapping lamb and beef, linking sausages, packing for the market, going to the market, doing bookkeeping for the market.

 

But my swallowed guilt doesn’t stay down.  Like any highly acid food, I taste it again and again.

 

I remember my first big trip to the Adirondacks.  Roland Crowe, a family friend and former north country ranger from the 1960s approached my mom when I was a freshman in high school.  He wanted to bring his son and my older brother on a backpacking trip up to the Cold River, along the Northville-Lake Placid section of the Adirondack trail.  “Shannon needs to go, too,” she told him firmly, her heart keenly aware that my soul hungered for those mountains.  He agreed to let me come.

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For four days we carried our packs along that back country trail, crossing back and forth over the river, stopping to swim in her frigid waters, munching granola bars for lunch, napping on sun-warmed rocks, cooking meals over an evening fire.  I seemed to suffer from hypergraphia on that journey, my journal and pen in hand at every possible minute, my body torn between simply living in the moment and wanting to capture every second of my bliss on paper.

 

I came home a changed person.  The seed of intolerance for an artificially structured life had been planted.  I was angry about returning to school. I dropped out of sports, I quit my extra-curricular clubs.  I hadn’t found drugs, alcohol, or bad kids to drag me off the pedestal of the well-rounded student.  I had found the wilderness.

 

But the Adirondacks are a two hour drive from the farm.  Our mountains are tame compared to the North Country, yielding to pastures and hay fields. The fertile Schoharie Valley winds between them, offering up the zucchini and sweet corn, the cucumbers and broccoli, and of course, the abundant tomatoes for which Schoharie County is famous — the same tomatoes that will keep me home this summer.

 

The journey from childhood to adulthood offers many choices.  And behind those two words I spoke to Saoirse — we cannot — are a lifetime of them.  That first big trip to the wilderness led me to study botany, to move out west to become a Student Conservation Assistant with a back country assignment.  I was miserable.

 

I learned that the wilderness could not hold me long without the people.  But somewhere between the wilds and the office cubicles lay this world of family farms, where people work together and team up with nature to harvest a life.

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While tamer than the wilderness, the agrarian life is just as relentless.  I look around at my farming neighbors.  They are the graziers, the keepers of the sweet corn, the shepherds of the flocks, gatherers of the eggs, defenders of the turkeys, stewards of the gardens and hay fields, matrons of the canning pots.  Like me, somewhere on their journey, they learned that summer could not be spent indoors.  But a commitment to farming comes with demands.  I know of no Schoharie County farmers who will be taking a trip to the mountains this summer.

 

But that doesn’t ease my guilt.  I am aware of how transformative my own Adirondack excursions were for my life.  And I want to give them to my daughters.

 

The issue lies unresolved in my mind during this past week of non-stop rains.  On Thursday morning, there is a break in the clouds and fierce sunlight streams down to the earth, releasing jets of steam.  Saoirse’s and Ula’s friend Ania is visiting from California.  They are playing with fierce energy, charging up and down the hillsides, forging paths in and out of fantasy worlds.  In my head I  am organizing my own day.  There is firewood to be stacked before the afternoon thunderstorms begin, and the lawn is desperately in need of mowing.  And once the rains return, perhaps I can finally get a start on canning the pickles.  But then three sweaty heads pop in the door, smiles bright.

 

“You’re taking us swimming up at the pond, right?”

 

I stammer.  “I-I am?”  I consider if there is a way I can re-arrange my to-do list. I begin to tell them that this wasn’t on the plan for the day.  And then I realize I am not being given a choice.

 

The lawn will wait.  The firewood will wait.  The pickles will wait.

 

We load up the dogs, pack a few bottles of water and make for the pond, where we while the hours away drifting, splashing, diving and floating.  I pull myself from the water and find a chair to sit and watch them as I gaze out over the mountains that surround us, their laughter and play as merry a sound as the redwing blackbird’s song that rings out from the pond’s edge.

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I reflect further on those words: We cannot.  In one sense, they are an expression of limits.  But at the same time, they are an acknowledgment of everything else that is possible.  We cannot go to those mountains, it is true.  But in exchange, we can dance in the heat of the sun, splash in the water of a pond nestled high in a mountain pasture.  We can eat pickles and tomato sauce and fresh sweet corn; toss blueberries and raspberries into our mouths by the handful.  We can grill our burgers beside the water’s edge, then chase them down with a slice of watermelon.   We can sink our teeth into the meat of a sweet cherry and take turns spitting the pits across the deck.    We can work hard to glean a living from this land.  But we can play hard, too.   I miss the Cold River. I miss gazing out at the Adirondack lakes.  But what I’ve got here is pretty damned sweet.

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As a mother, I have made my own life choices.  And those choices do not allow my children everything that they want.  They do not even give my children everything I want for them.  But it will have to be enough.  With each passing year, these girls grow more into their own independence.  Soon enough, they, too, will be able to make choices, to save their money, to borrow or buy good packs, and venture up into those mountains.  And I will stay here, shucking the sweet corn, linking sausages, canning pickles  and slicing tomatoes, ready to hear all about it when they come back home.

 

This essay was written by Shannon Hayes of Sap Bush Hollow Farm — farmer, homeschooler and author —  whose weekly Tuesday Posts are supported solely by the sale of her books and family farm products.  To receive a link to each Tuesday Post in your email, enter your information in the space at the right of this page (scroll up).  To support Sap Bush Hollow Farm and these writings, please check out the hand crafts and farm products in our online store, or come see us at the farm, or at The Round Barn Farmers’ Market in Holcottsville, NY (the Catskill Mountains).  To buy books, check the titles in our online bookstore, or check out the ebook titles available directly from the author here.  All Shannon’s titles are also available through the major online booksellers, as well as through your local independent bookstore.

 

New from Shannon Hayes

 

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Forthcoming from Shannon Hayes

 

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Also by Shannon Hayes

New Book From Shannon Hayes: Cooking Grassfed Beef

shannonhayescookingbeef

Free Range Farm Girl: Cooking Grassfed Beef

Healthy Recipes From Nose To Tail

All prices include shipping.

For volumes greater than 100 copies, write to sapbushshannon(at)gmail.com for special pricing and shipping.

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1 copy$11.95+$4 s/h=$15.95$11.95+$7 s/h=$18.95$11.95+$8 s/h=$19.95
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25 copies$194.25+$15.50 s/h=$209.75$194.25+$45s/h=$239.95$194.95+$68s/h=$262.25
50 copies$358.50+$23s/h=$381.50$358.50+$65 s/h=$423.50$358.50+$105s/h=$463.50
100 copies$657.25+$43s/h=$700.25$657.25+$125s/h=$782.25$657.25+$205s/h=$862.25

 

From America’s leading authority on cooking sustainably raised meats comes the first in a series of nose-to-tail guides for home cooks. In Cooking Grassfed Beef, Shannon Hayes has selected the best recipes from each of her three prior grassfed cookbooks, combined them with her signature easy instructions and explanations, and served up a simple, easy-to-use cookbook for the newcomer to the world of grassfed.  This book offers a wide array of time-tested family-friendly recipes, with chapters dedicated to pan-frying and oven roasting; braises, stews and soups; ground beef; grilling and barbecuing, as well as a complete section on using the bones and fat.  Free Range Farm Girl: Cooking Grassfed Beef offers clear information on making cut selections, candid explanations about navigating the world of farm-direct purchasing, and up-to-date information about ecologically friendly and humane livestock farming.  As with all Hayes’s cookbooks, the culinary concepts are easily learned, and the extensive section covering spice rubs, marinades and sauces will liberate home chefs who long to improvise and invent their own grassfed beef dishes.  This little volume is the perfect introduction to Shannon Hayes’s vast writings on the subject of sustainable meat.

Regrets and Student Debts

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On June 18th, 1999, while on a camping trip, Bob and I were hiking through Asticou Terraces on Northeast Harbor in Maine.  We’d had a series of thunder and lightning storms, but on that afternoon, the clouds finally parted and rays of sunlight dappled golden splashes along the forest floor.  We came to a resting point along the trail, where a break in the trees granted us a view over the harbor.  We sat down and drank in the sight.

“I-I really love you,” he stammered after a few minutes of silence.  “And I feel as though, together, we could build a really nice life.”  I smiled at him.  “Do you feel that way?”  His brown eyes looked at me imploringly. “ —That we could make a really nice life together?”  My eyes began to grow wet as I realized the weight of his words.

“Yes,” my voice was barely a whisper.  “I do.”

He got down on one knee and pulled a little box out of his pocket.  “Will you marry me?”

I nodded and stammered something like “yes,” tears spilling down my cheeks as I desperately tried to get him back off his knees, hoping no one would come along and see him.

We went home a few days later and announced our engagement.  I don’t think my parents ever doubted that this would be the outcome of our three year courtship, and when we told them our news, they promptly made an offer for us build a house on the farm, where they knew my heart was.

We turned them down.  We didn’t want to carve up the farm, we told them.  We didn’t want to cause a rift in family relationships.  But most of all, we carried the belief, inculcated through the broader American culture, that in order to be successful members of society, we were supposed to be independent from our family.  And in 1999, that meant owning our own house, our own piece of land, our own mortgage.  In October of that year, we closed on our house and took on our mortgage.

It was our first big mistake.

While Bob is happy to have a few miles between our household and his in-laws (and they might feel the same way), there are lots of reasons that lead me to conclude this  was a grave error (and in some moments, Bob even concurs).  It would have been much easier raising a family with my parents within walking distance.  As we work on slowly transitioning the farm, the burden of managing two properties is a perpetual struggle.  Every morning when Bob swills down a cup of coffee and has to drive down the mountain to move the chickens and repair fence lines, the mistake sloshes around in our gas tank.

This mistake is at the fore of my mind following a letter I received last week from a young radical homemaker, in her mid-twenties, newly married with a partner who shares her dream.  Saddled with nearly $100,000 in student loans, their life is not where they want it to be right now.  They are renting an apartment in the suburbs; they are both working full time to pay off their debts, canning their tomatoes every August, dreaming of a homestead someday.  They feel alone in their dreams, with no community to support them.  They are frustrated at their expenses and their commutes.  They are angry that they were sold a bill of goods about student loans for degrees that not only fail to serve their life path, but that have derailed them from their dreams as they work to pay off their obligations.

They, along with about 40 million other Americans, are lamenting their first big mistake.

I could make a list of money-saving tips for this young couple:  ditch the iPhone subscription, ditch the digital tv service, ditch the visits to Starbucks, ditch the dinners out, ditch the Netflix.  Use the library instead of Amazon.  Take odd jobs that increase weekly income while building community relationships: mowing lawns, driving for the elderly, babysitting, painting decks, weeding gardens, shoveling driveways. Make soap and sell it on Etsy.  Find a local farm and help on weekends. Don’t just make the minimum monthly payments — pay down a little extra every single month. If a windfall happens along the way, pay down a lot extra.

But I’m guessing they know this.

What I think is more important, however, is making sure the first big mistake doesn’t transmogrify into a second big mistake:  letting a perceived bad choice poison their lives.

Everyone is angry about student debt right now.  Countless grassroots organizations are working to combat the problem, and it deserves public attention.  It is worthy of our activism.  But it is not worth abandoning the journey toward the goal.  It is not worth coming home angry at the end of every day spent in an unwanted cubicle. It is not worth poisoning marriages, tarnishing a tender kiss, spoiling the joy of intimacy during a Saturday morning lie-in, or ruining a few moments on a summer evening spent sipping cool air while perched on the steps to an apartment.  It is not worth sullying the daily affirmations of “I love you,” and “I believe in you.”  And most importantly, it is not worth abandoning one’s deepest dreams.

Everyone on the radical homemaking path confronts mistakes.  But in a movement like this, where we need to unravel an unsustainable culture and re-think our societal assumptions, mistakes hold tremendous value.  Bob’s and my mistake to borrow money and buy a separate house led us to challenge the mainstream  exaltation of nuclear families and housing debt.  As our family grew and our tiny house expanded to accommodate children, every change was made with an eye toward enabling future generations of our family to cohabitate.  Aware of our mistake, our family doesn’t inculcate our daughters with phrases like, “when you’re 18, you’re on your own,” or “when you own your own house…”  We let them fantasize about how they will use our farm, our house, to meet their own dreams.  Maybe Saoirse and Ula will someday own a place of their own.  But they no longer have to.  We assure them that there will always be room for them, just like many families across the country who are waking up to the power of intergenerational interdependence.  We are teaching a new generation to have new expectations that are more in line with the carrying capacity of the planet.

And as for the education debt mistake, that, too, is important.  Regretting student loan debt opens our eyes to important realizations about education:  While diplomas can be bought for a price, education cannot.  It must be taken.  It cannot be given.  We are re-conceiving what higher education means for future generations.  While many of our current generation’s radical homemakers are working off student loan debt, they are simultaneously helping their own children remain open to  apprenticeships, independent study, online coursework, mentoring relationships.  Mistakes are typically the very first steps toward bringing about positive change.  As long as this young couple shares a common dream, as long as they keep working toward it, the mistakes will only make the journey rich.

At it’s core, radical homemaking is not about having a homestead.  It is not about being free of financial obligations. It is not about living easily while living light.   These are things to which many of us aspire; but ultimately, it is about those simple words Bob used when he first proposed to me: having  a really nice life together — one where we live by our deepest values, and where each mistake is forgiven as it helps to make us wiser, and where we find people at the end of every day to whom we can turn and say “I love you,” no matter how much money is in the piggy bank.

This post was written by Shannon Hayes, whose blog, RadicalHomemakers.com and GrassfedCooking.com, is supported by the sale of her books, farm products and handcrafts. If you like the writing and want to support this creative work, please consider visiting the  farm and book store on this site.

If you would like to support Saoirse and Ula’s entrepreneurial endeavors, Ula’s greeting cards are available for purchase here. (For the record, they share the proceeds.)

 

Feel free to click on any of the links below to learn about Shannon’s other book titles:

Forthcoming this summer from Shannon Hayes:
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TJ’s Blanket

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I tried not to give much thought to the fact that it was Friday the 13th when I sat down with a cup of coffee a little over a week ago and began scrolling through my emails.  I will admit that, on that day, my eyes glazed over the latest in the growing list of petition and donation requests for saving whales, protecting polar bear habitat and farmland, for safeguarding the water supply, to stop the use of glycophosphates, to label GMO foods, to fight discrimination.  I suppose it is relatively painless to be an email activist, but today I couldn’t give my mind over to the troubles of the world.  My eyes fell on one note from a friend, Melissa.  Craving contact with someone closer to home than the polar bears, I clicked and began reading.  She had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.

She is the second of my friends to be diagnosed in the last six weeks; the fourth of my friends to receive a diagnosis this year.  I am beginning to fear breast cancer may be contagious.  My fingers hovered over the keys, trying to think of appropriate words of comfort to send Melissa in these frightful hours that I knew were tearing at her soul.

I had none.  Friday the 13th was the day of my Dad’s back operation.  The inauspicious day had caused a number of raised eyebrows among our friends and neighbors when we announced his surgery.  Dad was often asked why he accepted his appointment for then.  “They had an opening,” was his dark humored reply.  Given the opportunity, I would chime in with a bit of arcane history about the origin of Friday the 13th superstitions, hoping the historical explanation would assuage his fears that he might have bad luck on that day.

I was certainly aware that a back surgery was minor compared to breast cancer.  Nevertheless, I closed Melissa’s email and tried to push it from my mind.  Today, I had my own worries and concerns.  The phone rang.  The hospital was running ahead of schedule (I suspect there were a few cancellations owing to the unlucky date), and they had unexpectedly moved his surgery time up by one hour. My morning coffee respite would have to come to an abrupt end.  Dad was on his way to pick me up, and we needed to leave immediately.

Setting my cup beside the sink, I grabbed the pieces of a baby blanket I was working on for my newborn nephew, TJ.  Saoirse and Ula helped, shoving in the squares that each of them had knitted, the pile of crooked odd-shaped mismatched squares my brother had sent from California as his contribution, the stack of tightly knit precise pieces that Bob had muscled through, pulling out and knitting repeatedly in his efforts to create a flawless contribution.

I should divulge that TJ is not truly my biological nephew.  He is not even my nephew by marriage.  He and his two-year-old sister are the children of my brother’s best friend, Matt, who lived next door when we were growing up.  Matt and his wife Erin moved back to Schoharie County a few years ago, and now they live only a few miles away.  They never asked me if I wanted to be a surrogate auntie.  They never had to.  TJ is only a few weeks old, and already my heart skips at the mere sight of his little face.

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Dad pulls into the driveway and toots the horn.  I grab a picnic cooler where I’ve packed a lunch of comfort foods for my mom and me while we goes through surgery.  Saoirse hands me a get well card she has made for her Pop Pop; Ula dashes to her money jar and hands me a dollar bill, hoping that will help.  They go to the window to wave to Pop Pop in the car. I am glad that he cannot see through the darkened glass to know that they are sobbing.  I dash out the door.

Conversation is awkward as Mom, Dad and I wind our way along narrow roads on our way to the hospital.  I make chit chat about my newest book projects, about the farm customers.  We swap the latest stories about Saoirse and Ula, we talk over business matters regarding the farm.  I don’t remember many of the details, only the simple fact that I am consciously not mentioning to either of them that Melissa has breast cancer.  I try to appear upbeat and optimistic, but I am a phony.  I am frightened for my dad.  I am distressed about Melissa, worried about her three year old son.  I am maudlin about my other recently diagnosed friend, Lisa, who is battling breast cancer as she homeschools her ten year old daughter.

We check in at the hospital, and Dad is promptly whisked away to pre-op.  Mom and I are shown to a waiting room.  We try to choose a seat where we don’t have to watch a television blaring weather reports, pharmaceutical ads and sports scores.  Like passengers waiting for a bus, we sit with our bags in our laps, unsure how long we will be in this space.  She begins to cry.

I push my bag to the floor and grab her hand.  It has been years since I have held hands with my mother.  I marvel at their strength.  After a few minutes, she pulls away to wipe her eyes.  I lean down and pull from my knitting bag a thermos of hot water, a thermal cup and a bottle of valerian extract.  I make her a cup of herbal tea to calm her nerves.

She takes a few sips before the nurse comes to find us.  She leads down the hall and behind a curtain, where we will wait with my father before they begin the anesthesia.

I recognize Dad’s face, but nothing else. The clothes that define him: the stinky floppy hat he wears to protect his head in summer; the sweatshirt riddled with holes and caked with manure; the droopy jeans with grease smears and grass stains across the thighs — all the components of his daily wardrobe — have disappeared.  He is wearing a hospital gown; his thread bare socks and his chronically smudged glasses the only vestige of his daily life as a farmer.

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“The Lucky Socks!”  I call out to mom suddenly.  “Find his lucky socks!”

 

“Oh yes!” He forces a cheerful note of enthusiasm into his voice for my benefit.  “I can’t forget my lucky socks!”

 

Mom rummages in his bag and finds a pair of brown woolen socks I made for him for his surgery.  Lucy socks, I am hoping, will offset the effects of Friday the 13th.  We pull off his ragged crew socks and replace them with the thick wool ones, trying not to jar his legs.  He is unable to help us.

 

I fight back my tears.  Just like he doesn’t need to know about Melissa’s cancer, he doesn’t need to witness my fear for him.  He moves his legs slightly, and winces.  The irritation of his nerves from his spinal stinosis is bad.  One doctor told us it was a miracle he wasn’t blacking out from it.  Mom and I hold our breath as we watch the suffering strike across his face like an unwanted bolt of lightning.

 

Surgery is his last resort.  We know his quality of life has been poor these past few years.  We know there are days when the shooting pain has been so strong, the antics of Saoirse and Ula have been the only reason for him to maintain his interest in this world. Thus, we’ve tried to keep them at the farm with him constantly as salves to his suffering.

 

There was only one chair in the little curtained off space where we waited.  I offered it to mom, then perched on the side of Dad’s bed.  The truth of the moment weighed heavily on all of us, and we were losing our ability to make idle chatter to camouflage it.  Was this the starting place of renewed vitality and joy for Dad?  Or was this the beginning of the end?

 

In need of comfort and release from my fears, I pulled the pieces of TJ’s blanket from the bag.  Lacking adequate workspace, I spread them across his lap and began stitching the squares together.  Mom and Dad were silent and completely still; the motion of my needle and yarn moving through the stitches the only activity.  Lacking other distraction, they sat and watched.

 

The rhythm of the work calmed my mind, but I felt deep sadness as I stitched this gift for my newborn nephew.  I thought about that little soul, so fresh in this world.  I wanted him to have a life filled with joy, but sitting on the edge of my dad’s hospital bed, I knew there would be more to TJ’s life than warm cuddles under wool.  No matter how perfect his world is, he, too, will have friends who battle cancer.  He, too, will sit on the edge of a hospital bed of someone he loves, fearing he might lose them.  Some days, the battle with cancer will be victorious.  Some days it won’t.  Some days the moments beside the hospital bed will be forgotten in the face of speedy recovery; some days they will be remembered as the last moments before his world is turned upside down.

 

I tried to push these thoughts from my head as I fastened the pieces together.  I want only happy thoughts sewn into this baby boy’s new life.

 

 

The nurse comes.  She gives Dad a pill to swallow, then begins lifting the rails on his bed to roll him away.  Mom and I jump up and kiss him.  Sharing his penchant for black humor in the face of superstition, I tell him to “break a leg” for good luck.  Mom and I hold hands once more as we follow the gurney down the hallway.  The nurse stops at another door, directing us to go in and wait in this new room.  “The surgeon will be ready to speak with you in three hours,” she calls over her shoulder.  Within moments, Dad is wheeled out of site.

 

Mom and I enter the windowless room.  We arrange our bags.  We sit.  We stand again, seeking  a more comfortable location.  We arrange our bags once more.  We sit again.  Finally, we give up and make for the cafeteria with hopes for finding a window beside which we can set up our picnic lunch.

 

We eat.  The first hour goes by.  We take the car out to find a gas station.  The second hour passes.  We return to the waiting room anticipating our meeting with the surgeon.  I pull out the pieces of TJ’s blanket once more.  I stitch a square.  Mom watches me.  I fumble in my notions bag and find a second darning needle, then break off a handful of yarn.  I hand it to her, and she, too, begins to stitch.  The third hour goes by.  We notice the time, but we say nothing.  We keep stitching TJ’s blanket.

 

My thoughts from earlier in the day, about the inevitable sadness in TJ’s life, haunt me as I whip the little squares together.  But as I push my needle through the corner of one square, a thought occurs to me.  Sadness is a sign of joy.  I recall a stanza from Kahlil Gibran’s writings:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

If TJ’s life unfolds in the way that I hope, he will be surrounded by love and connection.  He will have secure bonds with his parents, with his grandparents, with his uncles and aunts.  There will be people in his life for whom the ties run so deep, he will think of them as family, even if there is no biological connection.  He will have many friends for whom he will care deeply.  And there will be moments in life when those joys will unveil sorrow; and in their unveiling, he will realize the fortune he enjoys in love and connectedness.

 

In those thoughts, I lose my own self pity.  I am worried about my father because he is such a source of happiness in my life.  Breast cancer is not a contagious disease.  It’s sudden appearance is a sign that I am blessed with many wonderful women friends of all ages.

 

A phone rings in the waiting room.  My father has woken up, he is ready to see us.  Mom hands off the stitching she has completed, and I shove all the pieces in the bag.  We walk out of the room to go find him.  She begins to cry, fearful of what lies ahead.  I take her hand once more,now familiar with the power in her grip.

 

All of the patients in recovery are masked behind curtains as we make our way down the hall.  We are unsure which bay holds my dad, until I see a pair of brown woolen lucky socks peeking out from one of them.  The toes are wiggling, a very good sign.

 

He is groggy when we find him, but he is marveling at the fact that he is able to move his feet.  “There were a lot of nerves down there,” he reminds me.  “I don’t think it would have been hard for the surgeon to accidentally sever one.”  The possibility of permanent paralysis was not lost on him.  He wears his lucky socks for the next two days,refusing to remove them.

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But on the third day, Fathers’ Day, he relinquishes them.  He is able to change his own socks.  He and Mom drive up to the house to have brunch with our family, along with my sister Dawn, and her partner, Bill.  The meal is running late, as we are short-handed on the farm while dad recuperates.  Nobody cares.  We are all thankful for the sunshine, for Dad’s ability to stand, walk, and sit in a chair without wincing in pain.   TJ’s blanket it passed around.  Saoirse and Ula each stitch in a few squares.  Dawn stitches in a square.  Dad even stitches in a square, each of us wishing for TJ all the blessings and joys that life can offer.

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Later that night, after everyone has left, I sew the final pieces together, then wash the blanket and spread it out on the floor to block it.  As I set the pins around the borders to shape it, I give a prayer of thanks for my Dad’s recovery.  And then, my thoughts turn to Melissa and Lisa, and I begin making prayers for their health and healing.  That’s life, TJ, I direct my thoughts to the blanket.  If you are endowed with wonderful people in your world, they will forever hold a place in your heart, making your life a running stitch of joys and sorrows, hopes and prayers.  And that, my sweet little baby boy, is my wish for you.

 

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While my friend Lisa feels that they will be economically secure as they proceed through her treatments, my friend Melissa will face some  financial hardships during this time.  Ordinarily, I ask that you consider supporting my weekly writings by supporting our farm or considering the purchase of one of my books.  Today, I would like to ask you to consider supporting my work by making a small donation to Melissa’s family as they make their way through the coming months.  You can read more about what she faces here.