Friday, January 28, 2011

Mr. Roger’s Farmhood

Little is spoken about farm couture. Judging by the on-farm snapshots that people take of me, that could probably be a good thing when it comes to me. I am prone to adorning myself with whatever thing is clean (or not) and handy in whatever layers they happen to make it on. I also seem to have a gamut of items that the previous owner left in our mudroom that still circulate on a regular basis. Did I mention that he was a 65-year-old fellow? No self-respecting woman who hopes to gain her husband’s attention should be sporting attire that belonged to a 65-year-old man, right? There are some pretty appalling get-ups going on in those photos. But what is a practical girl to do? I like to be able to move, get dirty and stay warm or cool or unexposed to sun or bugs. At the time, it always makes a lot of sense.

Rob, on the other hand is the Mr. Rogers of farming. I swear he has a different outfit for every task. He has a greenhouse outfit, a barn outfit, a chainsaw outfit (very attractive in this one!), a construction outfit, a horse-logging outfit, a harvesting outfit, a stoking-the-furnace outfit and on and on it goes. He will even change outfits throughout the day depending on what he is up to and not necessarily just sport the pre-dominant one.

When we are getting ready to head for the city, he usually takes a great deal longer than me as well and there are multiple rejected outfits on the bed once the final ensemble is chosen. He will NOT wear his farm work clothes to town, even if we are in the middle of a job and need to run in to pick something up and even if he is running late. He has the self-respect and class to change into clean, presentable clothes before he is seen in public.

I, on the other hand, am not so inclined. My husband also has more style in his socks than I do in my entire closet. Rob is kind enough not to comment and I do feel pleased that I have not yet been caught dropping my kids at day care in my pajamas, but there are some pretty horrific scenes taking place some mornings. Incidentally, I have a son who at 18 months began picking out his outfits by himself, including the order in which they were to be put on. At 3, he is still showing no signs of taking up his mother’s lackadaisical manner with fashion.

It has taken me a long time, however, to learn that there is a VERY good reason for the “Mr. Roger’s Approach” to dressing on a farm. (By the way, do you all know Mr. Rogers? He was this guy with a children’s show who began every segment by changing his shoes and coat into slippers and a cardigan right on camera. Even as a 5 year old, it used to drive me nuts how long he took tying up those laces and doing up those buttons and I couldn’t figure out why he couldn’t have just dressed himself BEFORE they started filming!) Do you wanna know why I now believe different outfits make sense on a farm? One word folks: smell.

I have been known to stop off at the barn on my way into my office cubicle to do one quick thing and the whole drive into the city I am left wondering why it should smell of manure in the car. You guessed it! No matter how much you avoid those cow patties, there is bound to be a stray hitchhiker managing to somehow attach itself to your boots. I much preferred horse poop to cow dung as the horse piles seem to manage to keep more discreet. The cow ones just infiltrate no matter how much you stay out of their way.

A friend of mine also has a 5-minute rule with her clothes in the barn. It is also true for hair. You pretty much can’t stand in any kind of barn, no matter how clean, that is shared with any number of animals and escape without smelling a whole lot like them after 5 minutes. I have now learned that snuggling up against the flank of a fuzzy winter-coated Jersey every morning surely assigns me a round of shampoo in my hair every day when I’m done. No matter how much I tuck hair into my hat, or how much I wash my hands with soap, and how many layers I am wearing, every part of me smells like a cow when I leave that barn.

And if I think about this a bit more, when I stoke the furnace, I smell of smoke. If I drive the tractor, I smell like oil or fuel. If I harvest tomatoes, I am green from the stems and smelling of Italian pasta dishes. I have also learned that sawdust sticks to wool like nobody’s business and straw will not under any circumstances be separated from fleece.

You are what you work at. Literally. You are stinky or stained or decorated from it anyway.

So outfits, my friend, are the answer. Many, many different outfits and one very awesome pair of coveralls. And while you’re at it, you may as well colour coordinate because you just never know which photo will end up on Facebook.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Through Toddler's Eyes

There are times in our lives when we cross into new and uncharted territory and we feel both excited and terrified at the same time. Heading off to a new school. Traveling to an unknown place. Getting to know a potential life partner. Having a baby. Buying a house or a piece of land. Starting a new job. These are all scary yet exhilarating things.

All of my life I have seen aging as a blessing. I love how with each passing year I become more comfortable in my own skin. I am inspired by how increased experience brings a different kind of passion for life. Yet, this year was the first time I realized that age might not be on my side anymore. My physical body seems a bit more fragile than it used to be as I head back into a renewed exercise regime. I was recently excluded from a government development grant to attend a farming conference as it was for ‘youth’ only (defined as under the age of 40). As far as the job market is concerned, I should have established myself and be on my upward climb by now – instead I am still trying to figure out what to do there. I do not want to get bogged down in this kind of thinking.

I have never wanted a gift that was not mine to keep and even as a teenager I was aware that youth was something that would not stay with me forever. I wanted to develop things in myself that would grow and last a lifetime. I did not want to focus on assets that deteriorated over time. I always imagine myself towards the end of my life as a strong and wise woman with her long, white hair pulled tightly into a bun - friendly, funny and really hard to read. And, yes, I still take myself way too seriously. In this future vision, I am wealthy with experience, and have accumulated so much to care for and be proud of and hopefully learned a few things from my mistakes. There is nothing the years and gravity will have taken from me that I need to have back again.

Somehow these days, it feels just like I’m heading away to summer camp, flying overseas or starting at a new school. Life is exciting right now and full of potential. And age has absolutely nothing to do with this, grants or no grants, wobbly knees or no. I don’t know if it is related to the act of watching my children grow into their boots, or if it is more to do with renewing my own life, potentially switching careers (leaving a career?) for a different kind of life.

What age can never take away is the wonder at being part of this world. And every time a new project, a new friend, a new idea, a new connection takes shape I get to explore it like a toddler does. Instead of young eyes, I want to see the world through new eyes. I want to start each day as though it is at the beginning. And unlike youth, that gift is mine to keep.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Idea of Farming

If I had a dollar for every grocery store clerk, airplane companion, delivery guy etc. that said they were hoping to buy a piece of land one day when I told them I lived on a farm, I would be one rich farmer.

Everyone loves the idea of farming.

Yet, there is something I’ve noticed too about how much folks like to outline all the ways in which a new farmer will fail before they even begin their endeavours. I have been guilty of the same thing when I hear of people starting up an operation. And many gave us that same look when we regaled our plans once we bought property. Turns out not only does everyone love the idea of farming, everyone seems to know all about the best way to run a farming business.

Once you make it through the bliss of the exciting planning stage, the real trip takes off when the hard work begins and things start to go wrong. People around you start giving you the “I told you so” look. But something in you hangs on.

When so much hope is built around something, it is impossible not to covet the hopeful when your hopes have turned into something altogether different from what you expected. Not worse, just different. Or worse. Depends on how much control you wanted over the outcome. This can be true of growing vegetables where you can get a bumper crop out of something you didn’t invest a whole lot in or lose the very thing you banked all of your time and energy on. So is the way it goes for us, anyway. Including everywhere in between. And when it comes to raising animals, it is hard to explain how heartbreaking it can be to lose one unexpectedly.

I was told I would become jaded and eventually think nothing of it when I came upon a dead chicken in the coop, or a foal or calf or new mother in distress, or a cat that has disappeared on a night that the coyotes came howling through the fog. Yet I have not been blessed with apathy in these situations. What I have gained is an incredible perspective on the spectrum between birth and death. It can be overwhelming to allow yourself to see the entire arc at once, like viewing a rainbow from one pot of gold to the other. It is much to take in, but breathtaking and very rewarding.

The traits that I have found most useful as a farmer include the ability to go with the flow, adjust your route as you go and be grateful for everything that you get trying not to focus too hard on the things you have lost. I also balance the disappointment and frustration with inspiration from others who manage to get through the days, months and years doing similar work.

I set a goal a while back to try to produce as much of our food as possible from our land for our table. I did this before I had children, before I had a plan for juggling farming with my career in the city. I’ve had mixed but continued success in some regard with this. This has meant learning to grow and raise a variety of meat, produce and milk and make dairy products. We’ve even tried out some grains, including rice, but none have ended up in my kitchen yet. One huge bin fed a slew of rats one winter at the barn once they figured out how to rip it open and other grains have made it to the horses or cows. But as of yet, I’ve not managed to grind any flour from our own grains.

I did shuck some kidney beans that we grew with my thumbs. This took about 8 hours for a 4L bowl full of beans. The act gave me a whole new appreciation for machines that clean beans and the bags of dry beans in the stores I can buy for relatively no money. Each year I have learned additional ways to be self-sufficient with our food. I am always trying to find new ways to preserve, roast, freeze or dehydrate something in an efficient manner that might otherwise have gone to the compost pile. And the road seemingly never ends.

Living with an abundance of food is an incredible gift. Having the opportunity to fill our table from our land is a privilege I realize. But I have to admit that there are many times when I’m in the middle of it that it just doesn’t feel so grand. Where the rubber hits the road is where the idea of farming actually turns into food (and possibly even profit from selling that food). But sometimes I might like to just sit and talk and write and dream about farming instead of actually doing the work. But I have frequently said that writing about farming is like talking about dancing. It don't mean a thing until you get to the doing.

I can tell you that at 6 this morning I was much, very much, more enthralled with the idea of milking a cow over actually doing it. If that stupid cat tries one more time to knock over my milk jars when I’m trying to fill them, I’m going to lose my mind. And thanks to dear Bonnie for sticking her hoof square in the middle of my bucket before we’ve even begun, I was really hoping to get that whole roll of paper towels used up. And she could not have placed that frozen manure nugget on her side any better for it lines up perfectly with my forehead. I also especially appreciate that my fingers become arthritic the second I take off my gloves. Did I mention how much I love my dog barking at the dark black figures eating hay in the pasture?

But I have milk. Incredible, abundant, fresh, nutrient-rich milk. I didn’t have to drive to get it. No milk bags, no label reading, no price comparisons or date checks. Just milk.

Welcome to my rainbow folks. As always, it will surely be a wild ride to the next pot of gold.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Frozen Milk

It is -35 C outside with the wind chill (a high of -22 today!) and I've been out each morning this week at 6am milking our dear Bonnie. Her calf left us Monday which now puts me entirely in charge of making sure this girl gets milked. So far I've been getting between 5 and 6 litres (including what those two very happy barn kitties drink) and a good lot of that is being stored in the freezer. Thawed milk has a different texture, but I find for cooking, hot cereals, baking, and coffee, when heated it works just fine and the taste is the same. I did up a 4L batch of yogurt too and we are so happy to be back in 'real' yogurt. Like bread, or tomatoes fresh from the garden, it should be illegal to call anything else yogurt due to the vast difference in what you get. No offense to the good stuff out there - its just hard to beat it when it is fresh.

Of course, I had grand ideas of making cheese this winter but I find myself too deeply coveting the milk and yogurt. 4L of yogurt from 4L of milk (which is around $20 if we buy the Organic Meadow stuff we like best from the store). Or 20L of milk can make me 2kg of cheese which I can get for $35 or so from a local cheese factory. In addition to costs, I have to admit that I am also afraid that I will like the cheese I make too much and become dependent on that too. I love making cheese but I don't love the inflexibility of milking a cow at the exact time each day when there are so many other demanding commitments around here. It also leaves us little flexibility for going anywhere - though both of us don't usually ever get too far away. So it's nice for a while but not something I want to tie into for the whole year.

Anyway, my eyelashes were frozen before I even made it to the barn this morning. The milk froze on the edge of the stainless steel bucket as soon as it hit (and this is coming straight from a warm body). The water was freezing in the cat bowls minutes after I filled it. This world is cold today.

Despite all my worrying, Bonnie and I are getting along just fine. I am faster at milking and she has learned to tolerate me with 2 scoops of grain. I think we both kind of like our quiet time together in the mornings. I know I do.

Life is good. Right and clear. Just like the stars overhead at 6 this morning.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Body Painting

Food. We all need it and generally seek it out multiple times in a day if we are lucky enough to have it available.

They say that every 7 years our cells replace and regenerate themselves. Most of what made you physically whole 7 years ago isn’t here anymore today. Those cells have sloughed themselves off and left behind a brand new copy of you.

I noted this cell replacement theory when I got terrible frostbite in my feet one winter during an emergency when I went without shoes for an extended period in very cold weather. I could not feel my feet for weeks. When finally, some feeling returned, the same numbness in my feet was always waiting to return no matter how short a time I was outside or how warm I was dressed. This happened for exactly 7 years and then it stopped.

So what gets used as the building blocks to repeatedly renew the parts that make up our bodies? Food. Food is you. You are food. You are what you eat. Blah blah blah. You’ve heard it all before.

There is no arguing that food is essential to building your physical self. But there is also a non-tangible side to eating. It is a very vulnerable act. You make your choices, but then you are trusting food as your general contractor in charge of how your house is going to turn out.

We can develop not only a deep appreciation of food but an attachment to it as well. We gather around food. We celebrate with food. We express ourselves with food. We console our selves and each other with food. We give the gift of food. We entertain with food. We define our cultures by what we eat and how we eat it. We define our cultures by whether we have access to food. And at the end of this yellow brick road, we need it, regularly and always, to survive.

There is all this talk today about getting closer to the source of your food.
What does this mean exactly? Get to know your farmer? Read more labels? Educate yourself? Learn how to raise and grow food? Name your cow before you eat it?

Our relationship with food develops as we select it, prepare it and observe the circumstances around eating it. It also grows as you learn how it is planted, grown, harvested, prepared, preserved. There is a sensual experience to it. You can breathe in its aromas. You can know how it feels on your tongue, in your stomach, whether it gives you energy or makes you tired.

So maybe it is because of this or in spite of all of this that it becomes so easy to have an emotional dependence on food. It seems us women are particularly prone to this. We can sneak it, take more than our share of it, feel ashamed around it or rely on it for comfort. Like any intricate relationship, it can become a tangled cycle of love and hate. Apparently the human body can go a few weeks without food. I have never gone more than a few hours in my whole entire life. Never, not once. Usually an hour or two of uncontrolled separation is long enough to send me into a minor panic.

And for those of us who have an emotional attachment to food - is it any wonder when we end up in positions where making food is our art? Is it surprising when we migrate to an existence of wanting to uncover or deliver what sustains us? Asking to get to know your food intimately and not just superficially is like wanting to know what makes you whole. And if you don’t feel whole in the first place, perhaps you could use food to fix that.

I would venture to say that we eat what we are – or better, how we see ourselves. Enjoying food and appreciating all of the goodness and variety that it has to offer is one thing. Wouldn’t that be an excellent way to see your self? Full of goodness? But we can also use food to pacify feelings of inadequacy, and eat too much, often mostly junk. Or we can feel like we are too much to handle, and not eat at all. We can use it as a cry for help or protection from a storm. Either way we are in a constant action and reaction to our lives through food. I hesitate to speak for anyone but myself here, but I’ve seen so many women use food as the brush with which they paint themselves onto a canvas for the world to see.

Is it possible that digging down to the roots of food is an attempt to make the relationship with our bodies right again? Is this a way to literally get closer to our origins? What better connection to heal and make healthy than the one we have with food?

There is so much more I could say about this. But I am going to rest now tonight. And possibly go and paint myself a picture.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Worldly God

In the beginning of my foray into Christianity, I felt like I was forever going to be stuck behind a wall. I loved all things about nature, living things and the earth. Most of all, I loved my role in the play called ‘Life and Living’ and I didn't need any help with that part. I wanted to be among it all, in the centre of it, doing a dance, singing a song, feeling the dirt on my sweaty face. I was certain this made me a Pagan (or at the very least a secular hippie chick) and that this just wasn’t going to fly in any church. I love the ways streams twist and turn down the mountainsides. I love the way damselflies speed across the surface of a pond. I love the light in September in the late afternoon as the sun goes down. I am a girl who belongs in this world as it is. I feel like I have already found heaven here on earth.

I’ve always been proud to describe myself as a 'worldly' person (meaning, of this world - not so much the well-traveled, well-read variety) but have stumbled on the fact that it seems being 'spiritual' and worldly are two opposite states according to the dictionary and the definition of secular. Is it possible to be a person who lives fully with their hands in the earth and revere all that has been created in the world while still believing in a God? Is it blasphemous to put earth (that which I appear to believe I can control) above heaven (that which I can't see)?

As random reading goes, I have been delivered three excellent bits of wording to potentially help put the final nail in my worldly coffin.

Sara Miles, who came from a non-religious background, found herself a friend in Jesus later in life and proceeded to start a massive Food Bank out of her church in San Francisco, wrote two great books called: ‘Take this Bread’ and ‘Jesus Freak’. Both are excellent reads for anyone headed anywhere and coming from anywhere. In ‘Jesus Freak’ she points out how worldly divisions (such as family and money…) get in the way of God’s instructions and separate indivisible parts of God’s creation.

I also recently flipped open to a page in Barbara Brown Taylor’s ‘An Altar in the World’ that talked about how reverence by definition is the recognition that there is something greater than the self, something beyond human creation or control and something that transcends full human understanding. That all makes good sense right? But then she goes on to say that not only God meets these criteria but so do birth, death, sex, nature, truth, justice and wisdom. I noted that all of these elements appear in the day to day living on a farm with a family (especially justice as far as who gets the bigger piece of cake goes). So, is operating a farm and raising children an act of reverence, because sometimes it feels like it might be a self-righteous attempt to do God’s work? Not coincidentally, Barbara Brown Taylor also lives on a farm and writes very well about how her days tie into her beliefs.

In addition to worldliness, the definition of secular (that which does not relate to religion) also includes the notion of heeding to a temporal existence. As far as taking care of wee children and other living things goes, I am sideswiped daily by the needs of the beings around me. They run my existence (my time at least) and I’ve always held the belief that all of these worldly things that I do in a day are my anchor. But are they the very thing that separates me from access to God because I am too bogged down in my temporal duties?

I also recently read ‘The Shack’ by William Young that illustrates a heartbreaking example of how humans make attempts to control their entire existence and it eventually becomes their undoing. In it, God interacts with the main character over breakfast and explains that women generally turn away from God to men for security and men turn to themselves or the ground instead of God. (My feminist self got a rise out of this as I generally find that I turn to myself and the ground before I turn to a man but either way I got the point cause I was most definitely not turning towards God). Anyway, once again, I was being bombarded with the idea that humans are so willing to escape into fixed time and space to avoid the reality of the wonders that be.

My witty, cheeky stepbrother who frequently now asks me since my recent baptism how my ‘imaginary air friend’ is doing, would get an incredible kick out of that last statement. How could I possibly describe the spiritual world as reality and our human tasks as a fantasy world? Oh how far I seem to have lost my marbles now, hey? But I have to argue that worldly things do seem to be what they are without my help. I seem to be there to do a bit of the work but if I’m honest, I’ve had to learn to take some guidance as I so frequently feel like I have no idea what I’m doing as a parent and a farmer. I also believe that the things that are beyond our understanding are equally real in our lives, if not tangible, whether we choose to acknowledge them or not.

Barbara Brown Taylor brings it all home by simply saying that even reverence is not something we can make or manage ourselves. So, with this I am brought to believe that my awe of nature itself is actually something that could come from God. Perhaps I had nothing to do with even that. So I suppose this lets me off the hook then. God can still work through me in this worldly existence of mine.

I may be still unwilling to jump off of my perceived life raft that floats just outside full surrender to a higher power, but I definitely think that God lives in every single part of this piece of land that we reside in. Mine seems to be a worldly God. One that finds me in the middle of my tasks anyway and even if I’m meddling with the damselflies.

I recall the promises I made out loud the day of my baptism. Almost all of them included, ‘I will, with God’s help’. So its settled then. I’ll do my part in this family and be active on this farm, God. But I’m going to need your help.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Paint a Life

I have an image of my 5 year-old-self in kindergarten painting a picture at an easel and the teacher running over with a look of panic on her face. Basically, I had taken too much paint and there was a river of red streaming off my page and onto the floor. My experiences in the craft world have all managed to look something like this since then. Related frustration over four decades will learn a girl to steer clear of such activities, I’m afraid to say.

As I meander my way through this new way of being in the world to try to need less, use less, stop more, listen more, create more, destroy less, I find myself venturing back into artsy kind of things, if only for my children's sake. It makes me shiver, I tell you! I understand the value of a good freestyle art moment but I continually have to face the fact that I’m just not very good at this. The result of my efforts usually ends up looking a lot like somebody’s blotch pad (if only ever beautiful by mistake). Though I do always manage to see something quite stunning in my mind’s eye.

My sewing skills go nicely alongside my painting skills. I just don’t seem to have the finesse to replicate what I see in my head and make it come into physical being.

I feel intimidated by women that I meet or read about (and men, too) that are able to bring this kind of creativity to light. I know there are other things that I’m good at but this makes me wonder how many women are out there stumped by something as well.

I am reminded that creativity can take many forms. It shows its face in music, cooking, painting, fashion, building or decorating houses, writing, weaving and endless other ways. I think even more importantly we can apply our creative selves in intangible ways when we organize social gatherings or community events, teach, volunteer, raise children, organize our schedules or our home.

I believe that where our imagination takes form in the world is where we are closest to God. Our task is to find the thing that makes us feel most at home in ourselves and in the world and see it through to completion. It may take a lot of hard work, and it may not even be the thing that we are best at. It may not be comfortable or easy or in our face. It may be the thing you least expect. But it makes you feel like you’re home.

Perhaps this is the best definition for ‘homemaker’. She or he who feels at home in whatever they are doing. That would be a good thing to strive to make, no?

The trick for me has been to quit focusing on what is most available to me, what other people do, what makes the most money, what I got the best marks at in school… None of these clues to finding my way have provided me with any luck at happiness or a sense of fulfillment. Instead, the gift of feeling whole has come over the most unlikely things, in the strangest corners and from the most unexpected people.

I propose applying a new equation to the search for a ‘right’ life. Where do I ultimately create the most, destroy the least, contribute to the greatest number and displace the fewest for my success?

Jerry Seinfeld said that we all design our own time. I love that idea. We are not the Creators of Life. We may or may not have wealth, health, youth or luck at our disposal. But we were each given a life to do with what we can with what we’ve got.

We get to create our own lives out of simple tools: our hearts, our time and our energy. And that to me is a home well worth making.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Turning Three

There is something about my littlest child turning 3 in a couple of weeks that already has me nostalgic for the days that my babies rode out their entire days attached to my body. As I have heard many other mothers report, I cannot count the number of times that I wished this stage to be over. I remember wanting privacy while going to the bathroom, the ability to have a shower without opening the curtain every 30 seconds to check on my bouncing baby in their chair, the privilege to make dinner with two whole functional hands.

Yet here I am, nearly entirely past this stage of complete physical dependence (my little one insists on choosing his entire outfit from hat to socks), and I long for them to cuddle up close again. This morning I even reached over our bed and stole the cuddling two year old from my husband’s arms. Gratefully, Rob has been able to sleep with straying toddlers poking limbs into his mid-section. I, on the other hand, would lie awake from whatever early hour they had called or climbed down from their beds and wait it out until morning light. Now I am unable to sleep for a different reason. The boy is no longer a baby. To prove my point, he opens his eyes, gives me a knowing smile and rolls over to go back to sleep.

I am afraid to admit that my children’s needs for me has at times sent me into a dithering panic. Especially the day that my first was born and the nurse handed her to me saying: ‘she is your baby, not mine’ and promptly walked out of the room. The look on my face must have showed my terror and doubt that I could take care of such a fragile thing.

I had also just spent the better part of three and a half decades doing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted to. I took on the usual responsibilities of educating myself and earning my keep but otherwise the sky was the limit. At least this was true as far as my time was concerned, as long as it stayed within the boundaries of my budget and my moral compass, I was good to go. My mother had given me a fair amount of trust and freedom as a child as she was a single, working mother who often worked late. I’ve known how to meet my own needs for a while now and have gotten pretty used to it. How did it come to be that the better part of my day would now be taken up meeting the needs of another?

I can’t say I resented this, in fact most of the time I thoroughly enjoyed having these small humans to care for. Yet there was something so unfamiliar to me about having so little ‘freedom’ in a day. When I had only recently had hours of time to fill in a day (and sometimes spent it willingly taking care of others), I now had barely two minutes to rub together to myself.

This is the greatest complaint I hear from hands-on mothers (or is that as redundant as the term ‘working mother’?). Mothers only need 15 minutes but they want it when they want it. When the mother-in-law or the husband finally descends to give Mama a break, it just so happens that the little angel is curled up having a nap in her stroller. When the little one is having a hard time articulating exactly what it is that will stop them from their permanent tonsil display, the helpers are nowhere to be found.

In my ‘free’ life, I used to head into movie theatres to escape the world at the strangest times of day. There was something about stealing this time that made it even more delicious. The dark theatre surrounding me like a cocoon, I would sit in my safe little chair with my pile of snacks and let my troubles fall away. With young children, there were years where this habit was no longer feasible. Before children, I was told that I would learn not to care about missing out on the latest movies. But I did care. To forgo this ritual was to give up my decompression chamber, my sanity retreat.

With my infants, I was still able to fulfill many other past-times that gave me a sense of peace. I would go for long walks in the woods or along back roads with my stroller that would make both baby and me happy for hours. We would visit with friends, ride the escalators in malls, or make an activity of helping Daddy dig potatoes in the field. Our lives were satisfying. But something in me felt like it was holding its breath for many years running. I would look around me and wonder if other mothers were feeling this way too.

Now that I am about to emerge as the mother of a 3 year old (is that when the official definition of toddler ends?), I find myself looking to fill the gap that was once ‘free Julie’. I suppose for some women at this stage, their career would have already swooped back in and made them whole again. I have always enjoyed the work I do, but I’ve never found my identity in it. It was never something that defined me.

With this feeling of wanting something to call my own again, I decided to go back to work. This decision came simultaneously as I worked on some budget numbers, painfully exploring every dime we had spent over the last 8 months, tallying the final farm income and teasing out what could or could not be changed in the coming years if we opted to forgo my second income for longer than a year. By my first calculation Rob would need to work over 200 days in a year to cover off the money we were spending on the household and family (excluding farm expenses). On top of those 200 days, there would be a farm business to run which for about 6 months out of the year looks a lot like a full time job in itself at the very, very least.

In the past 8 months I have completely changed the way that I spend money in hopes of making this new life work for us. I felt so angry and ashamed that I had come so far off track somewhere along the way. Even these writings are meant to be a way to reconcile my old life of frivolous spending with a new one of making intentional choices. I had firmly come to believe that taking back control of how I manage my time and energy was going to help me save money. According to these numbers, I had failed miserably at this attempt.

My daugher’s figure skating lessons were starting and Rob was driving back from a meeting so on the heels of this sinking discovery (that there was no way we could continue doing what were doing financially), I took my heavy-hearted self to pick up the kids and head for the task of getting them fed and off to the arena on time. The whole time I kept trying to imagine that spreadsheet and where I might have gone wrong. How does one find tens of thousands of dollars in errors in a spreadsheet that contains receipts for shoes and groceries?

Hours passed and I let the idea of returning to work in May settle into being. It would be what it would be. When we got home and I sat down for my new daily routine on the bathroom floor reading ‘Stuck Muck’ to my little son as he attempted to make good use of his potty, I grew ever more frustrated. All I wanted was 5 minutes to open my laptop, scan over the spreadsheet and try to figure out if there was something that I had done wrong. I screamed out to Rob that I needed a minute, just a minute, to look at something. I was stuck reading ‘Stuck Muck’ on the floor of the bathroom and could he please come and help? He was busy unloading skates and various hats and mitts from the van and came to my call right away. Right when I needed him to.

But at that moment, I looked over and my little boy had taken it all in – my tone, my fear, my frustration, my blame. His eyes filled with tears, his face reddened and the sides of his little mouth dove down in a frown the way a person does when their sadness really means business. He had caught the book name and in his own little way, realized that I was finding this ritual with him a burden.

There are probably not many moments of being a mother that I have felt this ashamed and regretful for my actions. Ironically, the very thing that had been bothering me was that I was facing heading back to work and losing time with my children before they all grew up. And here he was, Spiderman underwear tangled around his ankles, asking for me to sit with him and help him with this new job that he was so proud to be able to do. And I was yelling. Not at him. But about him. And that was enough.

The numbers were wrong. One small but significant error had me including the purchase of our car twice. In fact, what we had spent, including our payments and investments, and what we made came out even pretty much to the dollar.

Once the kids were asleep, together Rob and I made a new budget for the year and discussed possibilities for improvement. It was going to be possible to get by on one income if that is what we chose.

In 3 weeks my little guy will be 3 years old. Maybe in time, my need to have what I want when I want it will catch up with that of a 3 year old. Until then, we’ll make the best of this time while it is still here.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Learning to Kill

I have often come across folks that assume because I am interested in wildlife and nature that I would be against hunting and eating the meat. This is not true. I have a great respect for people who can harvest their food from the wild. What I do not appreciate is when people do this in a wasteful or gratuitously disrespectful or greedy manner. Harvesting within what is sustainable for a wild population and using all of what is killed is to my mind the most efficient way to procure meat for one's table.

Needless to say as we raise animals for meat, I obviously accept ending an animal’s life to make my food. As I watch our very small cattle herd grazing on our pasture throughout the summer, I often imagine that they have the best life that a cow could have, even one that is headed for slaughter. But I can’t know what an animal prefers.

There are many people in my life that I am very close to that forgo animals or animal products in their diet. Some people choose not to eat meat as an ecological decision. It can take more energy to raise meat than the calories it provides. Some feel hypocritical if they are not willing to do the killing themselves. Many feel that meat is not healthy, and is the cause of much disease in our bodies. Beyond these reasons, there can be animal welfare questions which I feel are far too personal to address here. These people know what they require to be comfortable and I might better move a few mountains than expect everyone to seek out the same diet as me.

Sourcing the meat for our table involves more than just feeding the animals and giving them a good home. To be fully responsible, I feel I need to lift the veil between the animal’s life and death. I know the animal grazing in our picturesque pastures and the guy who accepts a pat from me in the barn. I also know what arrives wrapped and labeled in boxes for our freezer and how it tastes done up on the barbecue. I have purposefully not spent much time sorting out what happens in between.

Aside from mosquitoes whose presence are the only thing that makes me yearn to return to the city, I am not quick to escort anything to its death. I do not feel I have the right to end the lives of anything including flies in our windows, mice that have chewed through our winter stores, rats that have infested our house, beavers that have flooded our fields, ants that have colonized our cupboards, coyotes that have eaten our cats, foxes that have taken our chickens and chipmunks that have raided our greenhouse. This doesn’t mean I don’t do it. It just means it takes a lot for me to go this route.

Needless to say, I have not used my own hands to take the lifeblood from any of the creatures that became sustenance for my body. This to me is the ultimate act of hypocrisy. One of the reasons why I was unable to raise pigs again this past spring is that I hit a roadblock with my inability to see this animal through to its death.

I recall my days as a vegetarian in university where I simply didn’t eat anything I wasn't willing to kill. I followed this rule in my diet strictly (and easily) for more than two years. Then along came an intense weight-training regime for my university rowing team, a doctor’s diagnosis of anemia, and I was ready to wring every squirrel’s neck that crossed my path for its blood. Isn’t it amazing how your body will tell you what it needs? In the interest of health, budget and time, I returned to eating meat with the agreement that I would one day know what it is like to be responsible for killing a beast.

I have it on my radar to get a firearms license. I do not idolize Sarah Palin or anything. I just want to figure out how to be brave enough to participate in the experience of an animal taking its last breath – particularly one that I intend to eat. Why should somebody else bare this burden for me so that I can blindly consume whatever I want whenever I want?

All I know is that we will all die one day and living a rich and complete life can make death make some sense. At least it can fill out the story a little. Being responsible for the food that I eat not only includes the life that I provide for the animal but for me it must now include the uncomfortable death.

I apologize for these inconvenient and graphic associations about food. I have a habit of naming the elephant (or cow) in the room. There are many who appreciate when I pipe up the name of of the fellow who provided our hamburger on any given day. Some just don't care to hear about it.

Today I made the call to make an appointment to see off our 6 month old bull calf. He’s a little young for my liking but we haven’t got enough hay for the winter to keep him around and soon he will start to show signs of aggression due to his intact dangly bits.

Perhaps I will ask to watch and learn as he is taken apart and packaged up. For what it is worth, this will also tear me apart. But I figure it is the least I can do out of respect for the offering.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Monster Inside

As the farm settles into its winter sleep and the chores become very straight forward, I now have energy to focus on other things. I have been spending more time with the kids, doing a bit more writing, socializing and finishing our house.

So in this ‘down’ time, I’m trying to nurture a little creativity. These days I’m like a sponge for inspiration and I seem to get ideas flooding at me from everywhere. It is really quite an awesome state and I’m feeling pretty blessed about it. Nothing in particular being created - just a different way of approaching everything I do. I have learned that indeed something bigger than me is responsible for my expressions in the world. Yet I find that with this creativity comes a little dose of crazy. It means experiencing the extreme highs and lows of every situation. It means turning things around one too many times and looking at them from every possible angle. If I get too close, it can sometimes feel like I’ve created a monster.

Farm work is often repetitive or monotonous. It does not require over analysis and can actually save you from self-created monsters. The daily work at the barn consists of bringing thawed water to the chickens and cats, filling the water trough for the cows and laying straw out in their shed, collecting eggs, offering up a bucket of grain to the lactating mama and throwing down some flakes of protein-rich hay from the mow. Once a week or so we drive a large round bale out to the cows (and we’ve learned the hard way that you can’t be late with this or they will wander into the neighbours yard on a warm day to find some of the grass that is coming up).

Soon I will be heading out to milk our mama regularly when her calf leaves. To be totally honest, I’m dreading getting out there to milk her again. The cold and early hour does not worry me. What I am afraid of is my cow. You see she and I have not been getting along that well lately. The last few times I milked her she developed an excellent kicking habit (excellent only in her accuracy at being able to hoof straw (or worse) clear into my bucket with great finesse). I think she hates me. And who said one couldn’t get neurotic over farm chores?

It turns out the loving, intuitive relationship I thought I had with my bovine beast was really just her using me for the bucket of way-too-large fruits I was bringing her from our fields during the growing season. I am now giving her dairy ration which is a sweet mix of grains but she eats this much too quickly and lets down her milk much too slowly (on purpose, I believe) to last the duration. When the bucket of grain is done, and I’ve just finished washing off her udder, we both have a problem on our hands. Mine is having no milk yet. Hers is having a dense person trying to partake in her bounty without offering up sufficient goods.

To get a few liters of milk takes me about 15 minutes milking by hand not including preparation and clean-up. It depends a lot on how willing she is to give it up, how long it has been since she has been with her calf and how accustomed my hands are. It is not easy to fathom how much cramping can occur initially and over time with this repetitive process. It is also an incredibly intimate act. Your face is pressed right up against their flank taking in the musty smell of their fur while your arms are outstretched below. Of course it all just becomes a chore in time and eventually it is about going through the motions. (In case your mind is wandering to parallels here, get back here will you?) But if you ever stop to think what exactly you’re up to down there, it all seems a little weird, yes?

They say that being insane is the only sane response to an insane world. I’m not sure that I believe the world is insane. And whatever it is, there may be no such thing as a sane response to it. I think all we can do is get out there and on a bad day we may get poo kicked into our face. That’s just life when you’re down in the dirt with living things. All at the same time I am surrounded by the peace and chaos and fullness and I respond while still only playing the role of a witness. I don’t decide how things are going to go. No wonder I feel a little nuts.

Soon I will be out at the barn collecting my milk every day. Some days it will be my favourite thing about my day. Other days I am going to wish I could go to a torture chamber instead.

This will mimic every other part of the day as a mother, a farmer, an artist, and a human. Oh, so good. Oh, so scary. Oh, so uncertain. Oh, so worth it!

But whatever I do, I won’t cry over spilt milk.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Creatures of Habit

The grocery store in the town near where we live has been boarded up since before Christmas. There are a couple of other places that offer a limited selection of groceries but for anything out of the ordinary, people have to drive at least 30 minutes in any direction. For folks who do not drive this is a terribly inconvenient situation. The store is on strike with no hope in the near future of resolving discussions. There is talk that it will be a year before we see a new grocery store opening in town.

There is no question that having a fully stocked (well, mostly stocked) grocery store is something we all pretty much take for granted. Even I, who meddles with making ketchup, have stumbled more than once recently on the fact that I just can’t get what I need when I need it. What I imagined to be some degree of self-sufficiency has become even more obviously not the case.

I am very curious to see how others are coping. When it was starting to look like convenience foods buy us time, it now takes half a day just to drive to get these handy items.

I’m not advocating that you buy yourself a cow and some hens to avoid all future dependence on your neighbourhood grocery store. That’ll chew up more time and money than it’s worth if your reason is to gain access to the food alone.

But I am suddenly even more aware of how important the habit of foraging for food is in our day. Those who depended on that store are all learning new habits out of necessity. It is a grumpy process. It involves a lot of unwanted change in schedules, patterns and willingness to go without, find alternatives or stock up.

At the end of the day this foodie is thrilled to note, however, that it is possible to change our food buying habits. Recognizing that it may take an external driver to make it so, I still realize that even the most embedded of habits can change.

Backing up and reiterating what I seem to be striving for with food production on our farm is that I simply want real food back. That is all I want. I want it available and accessible and affordable to all. I want it to be our habit to seek it out. If we could learn to value where our food comes from, perhaps we could board up the processed food section by our own volition. We could take the power back into our own hands.

A dear young boy from the city visited us the other day and heard a rooster crow from the barn. His immediate reaction was to cover his ears and suggest that we duct tape the roosters mouth. I wasn’t offended. I found it curious. I felt compassionate in that moment. Not only have we (city folks) been separated from the sources of our food but we’ve actually come to feel disdain for the animals that feed us.

We may be boarding up our grocery stores due to union disputes but please tell me that we won’t be boarding up our barns anytime soon as well. At least I would prefer to let that rooster tell his side of the story a little while yet.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Magical, Snowy Day

Rain fell hard outside our window stealing away our December snow just after Christmas had closed its chapter for this year. The New Year was approaching fast as was our annual pond hockey game with family and friends. We always tried to pull this off when the weather cooperated or I wasn’t carrying one of my two new year babies.

The past week I had sledded my two dear children down to the pond a few hundred metres from our house with shovels, skates and the necessary change of clothes and skating apparatus. Back against our deciduous and rocky hillside, nestled beyond the sumac groves, we have a small, spring-fed irrigation pond that houses the largest leeches I have ever seen in my life in summer yet turns into our recreational bliss-land in winter with the right conditions.

Around 3pm, the sun hits this pond like a spotlight in a movie. The golden light is like a whisper in your ear telling you that the New Year has come and the magic has arrived. Whenever I see this sun setting, my heart fills so large I can hardly breathe.

The kids each have shovels and fortunately they are obsessive like me. They continue to help me clear the 6 inches of snow off the ice for 3 days in a row. One day we are by ourselves, the next day we have help from a single mother friend who is visiting with her four young children, the next day we have help from Rob. All the while the forecast looms two warm days of continuous above zero temperatures and rain which will surely bring the partial thaw of our ponds.

There are two ponds. We have banked on this one this year for skating because the other froze after a beaver had dammed and flooded it. The beaver then let us remove his dam, the pond drained and a lovely, thick pancake of ice floated high above the water making it impossible to trust the hollowness beneath.

Meanwhile I am reading my usual ‘how does this world work’ fodder which happens to be focusing on the great need to relinquish control to a God in our lives. As a Christian, this includes letting Jesus work in us.

I stumble so greatly on this one thing. The need to surrender, the nature of this kind of worship, it is the exact opposite of everything I’ve ever known. You have to realize this kid has been making her own way since she insisted on tying her own shoe laces at age 2 (and wore shoes on the wrong feet with dangling laces for many months after that).

There is no question that I’ve learned that I try too hard. I push circles into square holes. I often would do better to bang my head against a wall than attempt the energy and time-wasters that I take on. The thing is I am always rewarded for my efforts. What I know for sure is this reward may have come with or without my help.

The day after the rain, the temperature dropped and we had a small window of sort of cold weather where the pond could freeze again before our party. On our way home from church, I toddled down in my Sunday best right away to check the ice. Open holes so large you could swim in them made my heart sink on first glance. The snow banks that we had made had insulated the edges so greatly that they had proceeded to thaw the ice underneath in the warmer temperatures. All of our work had basically fashioned us a lovely freezing cold swimming hole.

I lay awake the night before our skating party imagining the ways in which I could regain control of that pond. It was to be my husband’s birthday. Small children would be coming, some that could skate and some that could not, mine included. People that I was really excited to see and that were really excited to skate on a winter’s day on the farm would be there. I cared that it would all turn out.

How long would it take to freeze again enough to make it safe for skating? What temperature would be needed to make it refreeze in the 24-hour period we had before the gang was to show up? How would I keep the people safe? How would they get to the pond, what would they eat, where would they go to the bathroom? How would they stay warm and get to and from the pond? What would we do if we couldn’t skate without any snow anywhere? I jokingly suggested we get out our volleyball net.

During this insomnia, I read a little more about the need to allow God to take care of our plans. There was much to say about how the agenda of the individual could be in fact damaging to not only the individual but also to the world at large. I fell back asleep in a stupor of worry and shame. Worry about the danger that could ensue if I did not take a frozen pond seriously. I had in fact lost a friend on a frozen lake on New Years eve many years ago – this was not something I took lightly. The shame I felt was about how I had spent my whole life imagining that I was the only captain of my ship.

I do not look for a higher power to take control of my life so that I no longer need to take responsibility for my actions. I still feel very much in charge of the consequences of my actions. Jesus may take the wheel but my hands are gonna hold on to it too and I’m surely gonna keep my eyes on the road while I’m at it. But there are two piles. One includes the things I can control. The other contains the things I can’t. This pond was so far out of my reach it must have the Gods laughing their heads off.

The morning of the party arrived and I headed immediately down to find out the verdict. Would we or would we not be skating on this final day of the holiday period before our lives swept us away again in a blur of routine and to-do lists?
My pond was still a swimming pool. It had mostly frozen but the number of areas with paper thin ice nowhere near safe enough for skaters.

As a consolation, I headed through the forest to the other pond, the one the beaver had taken control of. In years past, this one had worked out marvelously for us if we put a lot of work into keeping it cleared. This year I had not even laid eyes on it.

Well, you guessed how this ends.

The day ended with large white snowflakes descending gracefully onto the fleece jackets of a rinkful of hockey players of all sizes. My son wore skates for the first time and took it upon himself to push his little metal bar right through the middle of the hockey game for a number of hours without break. I trailored a birthday cake down to my husband where we would all stop for a break and sing while he blew out candles as the snow fell lightly all around. The faces were all smiling. We all shared the same secret about how to make the best of our cold Canadian winters .

The ice was like glass. I could not have groomed it so well if I had tried. With the warm weather, the large pancake of floating ice thawed and dropped down to the water level forming a solid 6 inches consistently over the pond water. No cracks, no moans, no danger zones, the pond was literally made by God.

At the end of the day as my red-faced friends left our house with their contented children, their tummies full and their hearts even more full we all had the same thing to say.

That was just magic.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Chapter One: Searching for the Boy - March, 2003

You know that feeling of looking for something and not knowing where to find it?
I have a bachelor apartment in downtown Ottawa, a government job, 3 cats, some lovely friends and a family who likes me most of the time. The desire to have a life partner, kids, an established creative outlet, a fulfilling job that I feel I am good at is surging through me like my blood - but I’ve yet to find a way to go about finding it.

I decide to write a book. The fact that I’m terrible with grammar, can never remember when to double the consonants before adding ‘ing’, switch verb tenses just for fun and my English teachers always thought English my second language (although it is my first) does not scare me. I am confident that I have a unique voice. I have studied Carrie Bradshaw (newspaper columnist), Bridget Jones (Diary Enthusiast), and read every issue of Oprah Magazine religiously from cover to cover. I feel a full and integral part of my generation and its culture. I once believed myself to be a true Madonna clone. I have never missed an episode of American idol, and fancy myself to be a silent judge for the show.

I know I am and always will be a writer. Someone who feels compelled to write things down for any purpose, not necessarily making a living this way. My mother once found a piece of toilet paper in my shoe with a poem called 'Love' written on it. I was in grade 3 at the time and had sneaked out with the bathroom pass and a pen to sit in the stall writing on the neat little folded pieces of paper that came out of the metal box.

I’ve written and recorded some songs but I’m not a musician or a performer. I am a song-maker. A songwriter who hears songs in her head and tries to make them whole by playing them out on an instrument with some lyrics attached. I must admit though, sometimes they make up me. Sometimes they come to me while I am driving in my car or wake me up in the middle of the night. They are bossy, these songs. But they don't afford me a vast enough area to write the script that streams constantly through my head.

So a book it will be. What will this book be about, I wonder? Boys. Let’s make it about boys. So I'll have to go off now and find me a boy to write about, won't I? If nothing else, I can prove that I have indeed searched far and wide but not found a fellow well suited to me. That would be a good story to write.

There was that first Bachelorette reality show that showed Trista and Ryan Sutter’s whirlwind romance. Perhaps I could create my own mini-drama. Though I may not be a skinny, blond cheerleader, I have some things to offer. Besides, the whole thing would be much easier for me as I won't have production crews following me around and I won't have to do interviews with People magazine. I could be in control of the whole thing.

I am 32 and accept that I may be single for a very long time yet and may never have biological babies as a result. I am fine with this outcome, in some ways excited about it. But I need my 60 year old self to be able to look back and know that my 32 year old self did everything in her power to accept love and a partner into her life.

If I was going to be autonomous, it would not be from fear or unwillingness to expand in whatever way was necessary to let another human into my biosphere.

Having had a long string of completely failed relationships, some short and some long, some important and some frivolous, many hopeful and many hopeless, I have learned a few things. I have come to see some pretty obvious patterns in the way that I approach relationships with men. During a strong, independent stage of my life (a superior version of myself), I attract a fantastic man, Velcro myself to him like a needy cling-on, become desperate and dependent, and lose the very thing that attracted the man to me in the first place.

The other version was with men who actually wanted a powerless woman beside them and there I would stand as the sinking and suffocation ran its course. Then it would be I who disappeared into the night, unable to breathe under the constraints of being with this person. In either of these scenarios, I was unable to hold on to the core of me in my relationships. This will have to change or I will accept a life as a single and fabulous person.

I want someone who can inspire a better version of myself. I want someone who sees the good and the bad of me and accepts the whole picture without judgment. I want someone who can give me room to grow and not be threatened. I want to do all of this for the person I am with.

But does such a relationship exist?