Saturday, October 29, 2011

Joyful Girl

Once we have a physical space to go to, it is time to work on our attitudes. The best thing to do is to just stop worrying and be cheerful.

That is what we are often told. My experience has been that this is not as simple as it sounds. Because it isn't that simple, is it?

I recently did an online questionnaire that assesses personality type that asked me to put 4 given states in order that best describe me. The one you put on the top was the one most like you. The one on the bottom was the one least like you. I did not feel particularly affiliated with any of the set that was given so I asked my husband to help. One of them was ‘cheerful’. One by one my husband suggested that I was more likely the other one than ‘cheerful’ and finally ‘cheerful’ made it to the bottom of the pile. Least like me.

Of course, I had to ask my husband if he thought me not cheerful. Like every man who has just walked into his wife’s trap he smiled politely, threw up his hands and said he wasn’t going to play anymore. Upon further pressuring, he finally came up with the one perfect thing: “Cheerful people can be kind of annoying, can’t they?” For a guy who doesn’t say much, he knows how to get out of a sticky situation.

My doubts about whether I was a cheerful sort came on the heels of watching a very pregnant woman in the cafeteria-style restaurant at IKEA the other night. The place was packed and it was getting late for our kids to be eating their dinner so I was a little nervous about navigating these circumstances in public. However, we had things to do in the city and needed a reasonably inexpensive, somewhat healthy and kid-friendly place to eat.

For us, getting to the restaurant is always a feat in itself. You have to get past the ball room and explain that we need to get food in us first. Then we have to make it through the maze of furniture and people pushing carts along the blue arrows on the floor. I am always certain we will lose or maim our children on this journey. Next we have to wait in line with the other children pouring out of their skins from fatigue and hunger. When it is our turn, we make the plea that we get the BLUE plate for the boy and the PINK plate for the girl.

So somehow, having presumably worked through the same obstacles as us, this woman with a belly out to yonder is managing to sit peacefully in her chair while her two small children are eating and playing next to her. She is chatting with her husband and smiling calmly and genuinely at least once a minute. She gets up 3 separate times to get a utensil at the other side of the cafeteria, a cup of water, a napkin. I don’t know about you folks, but when I was that pregnant I was getting people to fetch me things. And I certainly would never have braved that environment with my two young ones at my side. CERTAINLY NOT WITH A SMILE.

But here was this woman, finding a way to put on a pleasant face and enjoy her meal at the centre of all the chaos. We can never really know what is going on with other people. Maybe this woman was just having a particularly great day. But somehow I think there is more to it than that. I think she has figured out how to master her attitude.

I don’t think that we should aim to be one of those bouncing, smiling positive, cheerful people 100% of the time. Let's admit it, they are kind of annoying, aren't they? I think that variety is the spice of life. And when we experience lows, we are so much better able to appreciate the highs.

But there is one thing I think we can do to make our lives easier (and be more pleasant to be around). We must figure out a way to sit amongst unruliness and find calm anyway. If a pregnant person with two small children can do it at 7pm in the IKEA cafeteria then so can I! Our meditation and yoga teachers all say the same thing. That it takes practice, regular practice to learn how to experience peace in the face of disorder.

It is certain that we can’t keep bad things at bay in our lives. Terrible things will happen, sometimes all in the same day, month or year. We have to cope. We have to survive them. Some of these things are small on the grand scheme of things. Some of them are total life-changers. Either way, we need to practice responding with the only thing we can control – our reaction to it.

That day in IKEA, I decided to practice smiling once a minute while my husband and I chatted in between coaxing our children to finish their meatballs and mashed potatoes. You know, I don’t care much for phony, but the smiling really worked. I felt happier, more calm. The chaos did not go away. But I didn’t feel like I was being taken away with it.

Perhaps this is also a lesson about seeing someone in a store one day that has something that you admire. Observe for a few minutes. Mimic, repeat where effective.

I am going to set up a regular meditation schedule for myself. Is there time to do it? Not if I keep up the construction, cleaning, chores and tasks I have in mind for myself this fall. Will I do it anyway? You bet.

I think it is joy that we seek, much more than cheer. And if we can’t find a quiet place when the world spins around us, we distance ourself from our inner inherent joy. There are times for cheer and times for sadness. But inherent joy is something we can cultivate through any of it.

So that’s settled. I will find my inner Joyful Girl. Ani Difranco sang in her song with the same title (Joyful Girl): I do it because its the least I can do…I do it because I learned it from you.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Lady's Lair

So now that we are building our space, an area of our home (or elsewhere) where we know we can let our creative selves roam, we need a name for this space. Men have the Man Cave. In it, I am told, are rock star props, posters of women in bikinis, magazines about mechanics etc.

Actually I have no idea what a Man Cave has in it. I imagine it is different for every man. My husband would have his farming magazines, his blackberry and laptop, a good Wendell Berry book and some sugary treats.

But I don’t see women enjoying a Cave-like atmosphere. Ours would have morning sunshine leaking in (and incidentally, our old bedroom attic which is my new allotted creative space - has this in spades). You would go upstairs to it or even outside. Or if it were downstairs there might be flowers, scents, music playing, knitting needles and stacks of gorgeous wool?

Here are some ideas for the name of our hideaway. Lady’s Lair, Dame's Den, Chick Nook. Or is it just the Kitchen for some? Lass' Castle. Estrogen Chamber. How about My Space? Not the internet one, but simply the space that a woman does not attend to the needs of others. It is a safe, uninterrupted place where you have permission to be at home in your self and do whatever you please for a wee few minutes or hours every week.

In my twenties I built a small treehouse in a cedar tree that leaned out over top of a running creek. The creek tumbled through the valley beneath my rented house in the forest. The water flowed year round, even below the ice on the coldest days of winter. The structure was about 10 feet off the ground and 2 of the 3 sides were made of glass. It was insulated with a sealed doorway so that even on the coldest winter nights, I would bring my pillows and duvet(s) and my cat and sleep while listening to the creek trickle below around the silence of the snowy wilderness. It was my little piece of heaven. I would play guitar here, read here, contemplate stuff or just go to be alone.

My point here is that there should be no limits to where this space is. Whatever gets your juices flowing!

I hope you have this already.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Space to be Creative

I loved the concept behind Gretchen Ruben’s Happiness Project. That anyone could improve their life with a series of actions. The thought I kept having while reading it, however, is that she says she started in a great and happy place to begin with. She seems able to accomplish anything she sets her mind to. Aside from discovering things she doesn’t prefer, she is not so very good at failing.

I find this hard to relate to. I need someone to show me how to get out from the dark days into a productive and enlightened space. I want examples of people who started small and found unlimited sparkle and shine. I want to know how to move forward when the obstacles set in. I have finally realized that the only person who can do this is me. Gretchen actually does invite people to make their own Happiness Project. So I shall. I am deeply inspired by this idea.

I have been obsessed with ‘new rooms’ in the past and have recurring dreams about them appearing out of nowhere in my house. In the interest of spending more time creating joy in my life, I have decided to make a space in my home where I can be creative.

What was once our bedroom, the same room that I went into labour with my first child and woke up with her for the first year of her life, will now become ‘the Creativity room’. As we have no basements, only rat and spider-friendly crawl spaces below our 100 year old log cabin, I have began to use this attic-type, knee-walled room as a major storage depot since our new addition was put on. And when I’m in a hurry, I might just have gone to the top of the stairs with a garbage bag full of stuff and flung it into the general middle of the room. It wouldn’t have mattered. There were piles of such bags and boxes already occupying the floor.

Somewhere under those bags and boxes was a guest room bed. But eventually I would drag the mattress into our family room downstairs and advise my guests to steer clear of the mountain of junk up in that room.

Junk be gone! Or at least methodically arranged out of sight.

I have spent a few days in the last month rifling through things and finding much that could be given away. In amongst the mess is the pair of Robeez leather slippers that my little 3-month old girl used to wear. I found my old 4-track cassette recorder. An area rug still taped up that my mother had passed along when she moved 4 years ago. A bag of stuffed animals from my own childhood.

When we purchased this farm, I had the idea in the back of my head that I could resurrect my interest in songwriting and making music if only I had a quiet space to do it. Some expensive microphones and a Mac computer with appropriate software later and I still haven’t found that groove. I wrote one song very early on in our farm years, a love song for the farm, and recorded it with the sound of crickets in the background. That was the last my microphone saw the light of day.

I have decided to dig out my recording equipment. I shall leave it ‘handy’ and see if the mood strikes to do anything with it. I also have an electronic keyboard that the kids are loving! They are loving this new space. Incidentally, I built new bannisters on these stairs which now allows them to go up unassisted, which was never true before.

Today I brought up an old hutch-type book shelf and loaded it with kids puzzles, games and lego on one side and all of my recording equipment on the other. I set up the easel and whiteboard. I brought up my photos and scrapbooking materials along with old National Geographic magazines and calendars and photo agendas filled with beautiful pictures. All headed for the vision board. The room also now houses a dance pad that lights up when you step on it and a stereo to play tunes on. Although I have a great desire to have a room of my own, sharing it with the kids is even more delicious. What I long for most is to be able to work creatively alongside my children.

Over the years I have also been collecting material for a book that I have wanted to write about women in farming over the years. Magazines, journal articles, theses, scavenged books from ebay, internet links all sit waiting for inspiration to strike.

But you know and I know that inspiration needs to be whacked heavily over the head with a cast iron pan. So this is the kind of thing I’ve been doing. Leaving no stones unturned. All because I am so tired of complaining about low energy, feeling bored, unfulfilled, overworked, buried in demands.

One last swing for the week was my attempt at a ‘run’ yesterday. My husband took what we call the bike train that consists of an adult bike, a child’s seat between the handlebars and seat and a tag along for our oldest to ride attached behind. I put on my running shoes and strapped two dogs around my waist and ‘ran’ alongside. If it were not for the dogs you might better have called my gait a slow trot but the 150 pounds of anxious black furry beasts kept me at pace. The kids were in heaven! I managed 5 km of slightly lifted waddle and a 3km walk back home. I felt so proud after that - it had been nearly 5 whole months since I have managed such a thing. It was like pulling teeth to make it happen but boy it felt good once it was done (and during as well!)

I do believe that exercise for me is like free Prozac. If I don’t do it, I feel blue. Period. But I often don’t do it. Because there is always something more important to do. But what is better than kicking your blues in the hiney and telling them to take a bit fat hike? Nothing. So I tried to run. I won’t give up.

Will you join me in this ass-whooping? Let’s not let the dim grey of November get to us, shall we?

Tell me about the space in your home that you use to inspire you. What do you keep in it? How do you ensure that you use it? Are there things you wish you could be doing right now but can’t find a way to make happen?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Great Expectations

I often feel as though there is a lot expected of me. If I were to sit down and make a list of all the things that other people wanted from me in any one moment, I would probably freeze up or freak out from the weight of it. The odd time I will check in with others about these expectations. My perceptions manage to elicit a few laughs, a bit of pity or sometimes a different perspective that often sets me free. Either way, what I assume others want from me is usually far, far, far off from what they actually ever took the time to imagine.

Under this boatload of great expectations, I often feel paralyzed. I can’t fathom adding another thing to this tall list. Often I do nothing. And feel a lot of guilt. I spend my days buried in these expectations.

But what has never come to light before now is that I expect very little of myself. I forge forward, deliver and produce, in all the areas that true life demands. I do what is asked of me. I duck out of extra responsibilities when I’m feeling overwhelmed. I take on tasks and carry them through whimsically but never under any set goal or pressure. I’ve never actually sat down and made a list of what I am capable of. Of what I could accomplish if I believed I could do it. I have never set expectations for myself. I suppose I was too busy responding to the imaginary desires of other people.

Before I go on, I want to separate doing charity work and helping out people in need from what I am talking about here. There is a lot of satisfaction to be gained from making your time, efforts and resources available to others. The world requires this of us. But I believe the trick is to do it from a place of real self worth and believing you have a lot to offer others. And not because we believe we are at the bottom of the totem pole and must give our own needs up for others. I have gone hungry or cold so that another could be fed or stay warm and been just fine about it. But when we give up our spot because we think another human is more valuable than us, Sister we have a problem.

It can be frustrating to believe yourself primarily and only at the service of other people, as though you are an empty shell of a human being. Husbands have capitalized on women not figuring out what they are worth for decades. In many countries this problem is extremely prevalent. And it still happens in our very own homes. Women don’t value the work they do, so they turn to the needs of others to feel that worth. I can’t begin to capture the story of women who are imprisoned by cultural or social restrictions that ‘tame’ them. I won’t even try. I refer only to this western affliction I seem to have acquired.

For now, I will talk about the women who stand at the stove while her family consumes a warm meal. Women who wear yesterday’s clothes because everyone else’s laundry was washed first. Women who don’t spend money on a haircut so that lunch money could be provided to her kid. Women who gave up their careers to support the home front. All noble efforts, but where did they come from?

I fear that there are others like me. Who have never once actually given themselves the opportunity to reveal their potential as a human being. Who sat in the shadow while their husband or children or neighbours or church or friends took the spotlight.

I am afraid to know what I am capable of. If I’m honest, I would find out that it is far more than I ever dreamed of. If I’m honest, I would admit that the only person ever holding me back was me. If I’m honest, I would realize that I could change this in a heartbeat. That I could set some goals. That I could pretend to believe and then fake it until I make it.

If I’m honest, I would know that in this country, it was only ever I who hid behind others to mask my abilities. If I’m honest, I would realize that it is easier to blame others for all that I am not, instead of doing the thing that I am afraid of and getting out there and applying myself 100% to my passions. If I fail, only I will be to blame. Ah, but if I succeed.

Gone are the days that I wish to blame age, my mood, my disposition, my children, my husband, my farm, my weight, my dogs, my height, my shampoo…for the things I have been too afraid to do.

Expectations? I will add more to my pile. Because the only expectations that matter are the ones that we place on ourselves that come from the heart. Those are the ones that maximize our contribution – and are in line with all that we truly have to offer the world.

As for what others will gain from it? Permission to do the same, I hope. Is this selfish? You bet! How will I be able to tell that this is the right thing to do? When I am done making excuses. When I find myself diving into the fray and my fear is nothing more than a clue that these uncharted waters are the ones with the buried treasure.

And that will be the best way to give myself to the world. I hope you would expect nothing less from me. To be clear, this is exactly what I expect from you.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Inspiration Station

I have decided to change my tack on blog writing. I have to say that I personally have become some tired of listening to myself for many months. Where I used to be able to find gratitude, solutions, connections, and satisfaction, I am no longer inspired by what I am writing. Time for a shift.

I began to write this blog at the end of November last year. A full season of vegetable and meat growing was finally behind us. Having my entire headspace for farming was still new and fresh to me. All of my activities on the farm before that year were done with an infant on my hip, before heading off on my long trek to my job in the city, amidst the chaos of too many commitments. The three days leading up to our wedding day, we planted 10,000 strawberry plants. I often packaged vegetables or conversed with customers at the farmers’ market with a baby in a backpack.

Our life here was only ever one foot in and one foot out of farming. To give farming a real chance, I needed to see what it looked like with both feet in. With subsidized day care for my children (thank you, socialist state of Quebec), I was able to work on the farm and still have child care with a farmer’s wage. The opportunity was a true gift.

But here are two things I have learned. One is that there is not just one way to farm. When others would tell us how it was going to be, it was important to remember that the world (of farming and beyond) is ever changing and it doesn’t hurt to try a new way. The other is that there is only one way to farm. With passion.

The passion is what feeds you when your crop fails or an animal needs help giving birth on a cold winter night. The passion is what keeps the joy alive. The passion is what gives you energy to do the work every day, day in and day out. The passion is what brightens your soul and tells you that you are achieving your life’s work.

The day your passion for the work (endless, relentless, demanding, often unrewarded work) subsides, there is nothing left to do but get out. If you don’t get out it will consume you like a cancer and leave you broke, depressed and unfulfilled.

Fortunately, I still have a great desire to do many things with this piece of land that we own. Over the past two years I have learned which of these things I have passion for, and which I most definitely do not. I have also learned that my husband does not share the same passions as I do. This is fantastic news simply because we both like to keep to ourselves and do our own thing. Further, our interests are 100% compatible and complementary. We are blessed.

Now that I feel I have finally defined my role on the farm, after many years of defending or clarifying myself, I feel it is time to move on from writing about it. Where writing once served to frame all of the potential directions a woman in my position could go, I now find myself wanting to live more intentionally in the present. I wish to give up the search for my inner Farmer’s Wife.

I do not believe it is necessary any longer to justify the worth of what I do on this farm. I do not feel the need to defend the value of my accomplishments. I have done what was right for me in each moment and for that reason alone, it was always enough.

Acceptance. Forgiveness. Surrender. Kindness.

A lady can learn a lot by employing these deeds on herself. Attach them to her childrearing, money-earning, art-doing, homemaking, food growing, rest-taking, project-making, dog-walking, friend-enhancing…and all of the rest of it. This is the key to a woman’s sanity.

I have known lost sanity. I have had unfathomable (to me anyway) clarity. I have been to the city and back. I have longed for children of my own, and I have silently longed for brief moments that I could have my life back without them. I have coveted what other women have. I have felt unworthy, yet other times proud.

All I really ever wanted to do was create something that was meaningful to me. I don’t know where I signed up for the simultaneous self-beatings that came along with it. Farming for me has been a mixed bag of feeling never good enough and feeling on top of this big ol’ world.

But now I wish for the beatings to stop. I shall put down the whip. I shall move towards something lighter. I shall focus on capturing beauty. I shall put down the bone when the bone has been chewed for too long. I shall work towards a path, a vision, a method, and ideas that enrich my life. I shall spend more time feeling gratitude.

A friend of mine recently told me of her regular habit of building vision boards. In my current scrapbooking obsession (I actually haven’t started yet, I’m still too intimidated), I’ve decided to make visual representations of the life that I wish to live. From what I gather, you ought to be quite careful what you wish for when you do this. What you dream will materialize before you know it! Much of the vision book will simply be a story about the life I am already living. A lot of it will involve wiping away the anger or resentment from years past. Most of it will be about building something wonderful for the future.

In November, a new blog called Inspiration Station will begin. In it I hope to share my ideas for making a ‘scrapbook’ of ways to build a better life. In it, I hope to learn how women everywhere are making this happen in the face of their daily challenges (be they farming or clerking). I’ll keep you posted on where to go to find me.

It’s gonna be an incredible journey. Yet in a world where everything moves too quickly, I’m hoping it will be an oasis. I want to build a place to disembark from the hectic train of our lives and stop for some nourishment for the soul.

An Inspiration Station.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

How To Build a Memory

Once a year I brave the deep, dark bowels of my computer’s hard drive to select and print off a thousand or so of my favourite digital photos from the year. This is only a subset of the whole. Usually I put them into the cheapest photo insert type albums I can find. All in the name of securing a back up to the memories that we have collected over the years in pictures in an affordable manner.

Until now I have averted anything to do with the scrapbooking movement that seems to be consuming women’s spare time the country over. My addictive, obsessive-compulsive personality was at risk of complete bankruptcy and the loss of any spare time if I ventured there.

Now that I’ve seen these broad, bound books with beautiful coloured paper that a friend puts her pictures into, I can no longer hold back. My senses have nearly imploded – and purchases have been made. I am going to put my photos into a scrapbook for the first time in my life (and I can’t wait to do it).

For the record, I plan to use scissors, glue, paper and plastic covers. There will be no shiny stickers or wooden letters. I can’t go there. I have to put boundaries or the bottom will never be found.

Memories. I recently read the Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin who explored ways to increase the quality of her life over the course of a year. The self-direction that most stood out to me in this book was ‘Be a Treasure House of Happy Memories’. I agree that we all have the ability to savour our lives in whatever shape, colour, size, sound or space that works best.

Coloured paper, here I come.

Have you got photo albums or scrapbooks that mark the important moments of your life? Do you find yourself periodically (or at the very least every time you move) surfing through these memories, re-living the events, the abundance, the losses, and all of the feelings that went with them? Do you find it curious how you can feel apathetic for situations that once elated or destroyed you? Do you ever wonder how you have completely forgotten a certain era, time, haircut, car, friendship, or place that you visited?

What has crossed my mind is how much having these albums may have affected what I remember. Gretchen Ruben acknowledges this as well. Is it possible that we form (or re-form) our memories based on what we decided at the time to tuck away in our physical treasure house? Are our histories primarily shaped by these storage facilities?

I also wonder if writing about one’s life in this personal diary type blog thing affects how information is remembered. In the way that we ask if life imitates art or the other way around, do we blog about our lives or do we live what we want to blog? More specifically, I find myself becoming a watcher of my life, wondering from time to time if any of it is worthy of a ‘post’.

I don’t think we’re meant to live our lives from the outside looking in. Nor telling ourselves the story before it is played out. This type of navel gazing completely prevents the ability to live in the present, enjoy the moment (the only time it is possible to actually enjoy any moment). I think we can deprive ourselves of the full experience when we duck behind a camera lens to document these moments.

I do it all the time. I’m the one who takes pictures of everything, everywhere I go. I see a whale, I reach for my camera. I get to a look-out, I filter the view through a lens. My child does something I want to remember forever, I run around looking for my camera hoping the moment doesn’t pass while I’m gone.

Pictures are fantastic. Pictures on coloured paper even better. But let’s not fool ourselves out of our own skin. All things are best experienced from our center looking out. Not the other way around. Looking at a picture of your life, yourself, your memory has the ability to distort reality. It can serve to validate, magnify, rearrange or even disappear should the picture get lost.

Our blogs should provide us with an opportunity to share our lives, iron out the wrinkles, shed light on the stuff worth knowing. Not become one more task in the day to secure a tangible existence.

If a tree falls in the forest, does anybody hear? If a photograph is not taken, is the event still remembered? If words are not written, can the thoughts still culminate into something real?

The colour of our lives is for us to create. We know how we feel. We know what we see. Artistic urges are going on everywhere with people trying to recreate these into something tangible, palatable, recognizable. Paper, pen, paintbrush, sound.

I wish I knew that my life would be a full life to look back upon no matter how many photo books I kept on my shelves. I want my children to know that they mattered with or without my documentation. I hope my grandparents know that the image they left on my heart is far greater than the worn paper I preserve in metal boxes in my attic. I long to not cringe every time I see a photo of myself - like I am suddenly realizing I exist for the first time.

To document or not to document. That was never the question. We exist because we are here. Not because we are captured in a sea of information so large that a great many of us feel overwhelmed or over-stimulated much of the time. In these times of instantaneous access to anything we desire, and a constant onslaught of information we never asked for, I believe it is important to hone in on what truly matters.

The treasure house of happy memories? Oh yes, focus on the happy ones and make them linger most. But we must remember that the best part of the memory has been there all along engraved on our human hearts, stored deeply in our human senses. Being obsessive or compulsive has a bad habit of taking us away from the center of that. Some cultures believe that taking a photograph can steal part of your soul. I see now this may not be a physical act, but simply one about whether we focus our attention on people or objects (including pictures of people).

So, I will get out my coloured paper and my scissors but I have to make a promise to myself. That I will BE there when the memories go down. Both when the photos are being taken. And the scrapbooks are being made. And never forget that the true memories are those that we keep inside of us.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Bow of Gratitude

This is the last week before the pigs leave. I alternate between spending time with them and avoiding them completely. My husband backs me up so they do not go unfed. Throughout the past 5 months that they have been in our care, I have been jumping their fence to give them back rubs, fill their mud bath tub and add things to their compost pile. The scratching elicits the same groan that matches the sounds they make when you put food in front of them – pure pleasure. But I am guilty of not letting them in on the whole story.

I’m going to go way out there now. Bear with me, as I will come back. We’re taking the long way around.

On my recent trip to Tadoussac, Quebec, I got the rare pleasure of driving without the interruption of wee voices in the back seat for 10 hours straight. Some would say this is a boring and monotonous thing to have to do. I was in heaven. I had made a long MP3 mixed CD that allowed me to listen to 120 of some of my favourite songs without a break for 7 hours. As each new song approached, I could not believe that there was yet another 5 minutes that I was going to have to myself.

This mix included a song by Ani Difranco called Gratitude. If you don’t know the artist, she was known as a young, intense, raving, ranting, bald-headed, feminist, songstress in the early nineties. She softened with age and still continues her magic today. She is but two weeks older than I. I understand this softening. In this song she thanks the subject for loaning her busfare, the use of a clean towel, half of his bed (we can sleep here like brother and sister you said) and acknowledges the kindness she was being offered by her male host. Then the chorus: “You changed the rules, in an hour or two, and I don’t know what you and your sister do. Please don’t, please stop, this is not my obligation….what does my body have to do with my gratitude?”

The matter is serious. Yet, she delivers it with such an earnest desire to uncover the truth behind it, that it makes the uncomfortable astoundingly beautiful. Most of her songs do this. My post here is not about the abuse of a woman’s body against her will. I would never take that lightly or avoid giving it the weight it deserves in any discussion. But, as hours spent alone will do, I find myself focusing on one line that I heard on my long drive weeks after the fact, and now completely out of context: What does my body have to do with my gratitude?

As I drove by the barn yesterday, I felt an incredible urge to stop my vehicle, in the dark, cold, rain and visit the pigs for one of the last times. It was time to give thanks for what was going to be offered to me. I had no agenda. I felt an appreciation so deep that I wanted to kneel before these wonderous creatures as a servant would before a king. I thought myself crazy at the time.

What does my body have to do with my gratitude?

Everything, in this case, it would seem. I’m not trying to create unnecessary drama here. I don’t need to make a heart-wrenching documentary about how animals are being abused and used for their meat. I am one woman. There are two pigs. We have an agreement. I will offer them shelter, cool water to drink and mud to bathe in. I will feed them regularly and often. We will look each other in the eyes. But it is only I who knows of our agreement. They will surely get the gist of it in a few days but hopefully there will not be enough time for that to involve any suffering.

My daughter and I went to visit the pigs the other day and I told her she should start thinking about saying goodbye as they were leaving soon. “Why?” she asked. “They will be back won’t they? Aren’t we going to eat them?” I smiled and agreed with her. So pragmatic. So the age of five. “Are you getting sad again, Mommy? Are you not going to be able to eat the pigs again because you’re sad?” She continued, “Well, I won’t be sad. I’m going to eat them”. Right there was the moment I realized that my daughter knew EXACTLY what went on with our animals around here.

She might be right. I might not eat them. I struggle with this greatly as, for some reason, I am too weak, unprincipled or some other concoction to become the strict vegetarian I should be. Instead, I wander into the middle of what it means to raise an animal that you will eat. Perhaps so that I can know that any suffering was shared.

I am often warned to not name my animals. Not get too close. To get in and get out with the chores never forming any kind of relationship. I don’t agree. If I’m going to do this, I need to do it all the way. And save for killing them myself (I won’t because I’m afraid I won’t get it right and they will suffer more, not because I have any physical or emotional aversion to this step), I want to know them from the beginning to the end.

I also think the pigs are happier for having known us, interacted with us, felt a part of our world here.

Sick in the head? Maybe.

But I am not only attached to my animals. I am grateful for what they bring to us. So very grateful. For it is my body, not my emotional realm, that will benefit from these magnificent beings. Somehow the attachment in life becomes part of the gratitude after their death. They will nourish my family and many around us in a way that a lot of other meat available in this corner of the world cannot. They will be rich in Omega-3s, have a healthy ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6, absorbable and available Vitamin D and taste like the real meat I ate as a kid.

Incidentally, tomorrow I will be sending a female cow along to the butcher as well. It seemed easier to do it all at once. This is the first female we have eaten from here. For reasons that seem to have to do with believing she should have had the opportunity to give birth at least once, this has been really tough on me. But she’s a fence jumper. And the trouble she causes is greater than we can tolerate any longer. Nor would I wish her fence-jumping habits on anyone else. And we are also out of beef in the freezer.

All I have left to do, after the trailer pulls away from the barn is to say Sorry and Thank You.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. My body will be forever in debt to what you have given it. It once seemed as though I was your keeper, your Captain. Now I realize that as I acknowledge your offering, it is I who is completely surrendering to you.

I did my best. I won’t miss you, as I know you will be back. All that you are will become building blocks for our bodies. You will be the one who sustains us.

And in that way, you will live on.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ground Cherry Heaven

Do you know about Ground Cherries?

They are also called Chinese Lanterns or Cape Gooseberries (although they are not a gooseberry).

They look like a small tomatillo and are ripe when they take on a yellowy green colour (and have size up to the diameter of a penny or so). They grow on sprawling tomato/pepper like plants close to the ground (hence the name) and each cherry is individually wrapped with a fine paper that you slip off before you eat the berry. Nature’s version of over-packaging I find. They are shaped like cherry tomatoes. They taste like a cross between a cantaloupe and a tomato (some say pineapple also).

Basket of Ground Cherries

What is sure is that you either love them or hate them. They invoke strong feelings either way the way people feel about olives.

You can sit a heaping Quart beside me in the car and I will have consumed every last berry within half an hour no problem. I actually won't do this with cherry tomatoes or even strawberries as I find them too acidic, too strong. But the subtle sweetness and acidity of ground cherries is just right to my palate.

My favourite thing to do with these little nubbins is to pulverize them with my handheld food processor in a pot (without their papers). Then I add equal part crushed tomato sauce (skins removed).

Once you have a puree base, add in some finely diced green peppers, jalapeno peppers, onions and minced garlic, sugar and vinegar to taste and cook on low temperature until boiling. Once boiled, reduce temperature for 30 minutes or so and then place in jars (though I do freeze it as I don’t have a pressure canner). Once thawed, I find the jar will keep in the fridge for a couple of months. To my taste, this is the best fruit sauce on the planet. I eat it with my eggs or meat pies.

Even people who hate ground cherries have tolerated them this way. I find it gives the same fruity tang to a fruit or chili sauce that peaches or melon would give.

When late summer arrives, they can become unmanageably prolific which is fine by me. If you sit me in a patch of them I play the one for me, one for the basket game. It’s a fun game.

Happy Ground Cherrying.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Politics, Parenting, Religion and....Food

After becoming a parent for the first time, I learned in a hurry that you oughtn’t speak too loudly or surely about your choices as you might come across as thinking your ways better than others. I find this is also true of farming. Except in both cases it is pretty much impossible to keep your ways to yourself as someone always gets an eye on what you’re doing.

How much television are your children watching? Can you control the tantrums in the grocery store? Are you feeding them white bread or brown? Did you breastfeed your kids? Put them in cloth diapers? Teach them to read before the age of 4? Did you choose a private school, to homeschool, unschool, send them to an alternative school? French school? 4H? Dance lessons? Violin lessons?

Do you have enough grass for your cows to graze on? How big did your garlic bulbs get this year? Are you feeding them organic feed? Are you milking them once, twice or three times? What kind of fence are you using? Do the animals get outside? Did you rotate your crops this year? Are you certified organic?

All of these questions are so precious. They are so untouchable between one parent and the next. One farmer and the next. Because dare you say that one way is better for you – it may assume you think it the best way for everyone. Dare someone say what is best for them, you may assume you are falling short.

I once shared my opinions about a certain US president with a friend of mine in Texas. The conversation ended with her suggesting we not talk about politics. Unexpectedly (because I naively believed that everyone I knew in the US would share my views), I had offended her when I had honestly believed it would be one more way to find common ground. We had been friends for decades, since before we reached our full heights and it seemed odd to me that we would ever hold a different view on these matters. But we did. And how. And I learned that it was best to shut my mouth.

It would seem that farming and parenting have their trip wires as dangerous as any political mine field. And often the best way to keep the peace is to keep your idears to your own self.

Recently, Sara Miles posted on Facebook an opinion about the current discourse on our food system. Sara Miles wrote an exellent book entitled ‘Take This Bread’ where she describes the journey she took from being a secular individual to one who is a great follower of Jesus Christ. She was one of the primary inspirations for me to baptize my children last year and to get baptized myself. There was something so forgiving and accepting in the way she had come from so far out in left field and found her way into a middle she never imagined she could feel at home in. It gave me hope that such a shift would be possible for me.

Here was this woman who led me by the hand through her thoughts and expressions towards a certain religion. Ironically now she was questioning my passion (or at least my approach) to food. Her words: I accept all arguments about the importance of local vegetables and community gardens and living wages for farmworkers and sustainability....and I the only one who sometimes thinks there's a little bit of idolatry in the current discourse around “good” food?

Needless to say, carrying on about one’s religious affiliations holds its own very real causes for war in this world, apparently. No small discussion. Best left for another day.

Idolatry. The act of putting something other than God above all else. The blind or excessive devotion to something. Can it be true that some people (me included) have become so obsessed and concerned with getting food ‘right’ that I was creating a distance between myself and others or God in the process? Was I so taken with my desire to grow and provide “good” food to my family and others that I had lost sight of the duality that I was creating?

It is only recently that I have concluded that talking about food has become yet another taboo subject. It does not surprise me that what was once a novel idea (to eat more simply, track the footprint of our diet, try and make food about health and prevention of illness) has now become a national obsession that ironically enables others to cash in on the deal. In other words, local or organic have become mainstream catch all phrases for even places like WalMart to earn a profit. I even find myself buying the ‘Farmer’s Market’ brand pies in the grocery store chains because it makes me feel like I’m supporting a farmer. Even though I absolutely and totally know that the whole thing begins and ends with the name.

New questions have arisen. Who grew your food? Is it organic? Certified or not? Local? How many miles? What was the food combined with? How was it processed? What was added to it? What was it packaged in?

I have no 'right' answers to any of these questions. I only know that to speak of them is to tread on potentially offensive ground with others. Politics, religion, parenting…and now food.

In short, best I shut my mouth?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

If I Were a Figurine

Lately I’ve been obsessed with finding animal figurines in second hand stores. I seek out the Schleich ones in particular because they are so beautifully painted, have some serious weight to them and actually look like the animals they are meant to represent.

After my mid-week delivery, when my van pulls away 1000 pounds lighter I sometimes try to catch a friend for a coffee, slip off to a movie or do a little shopping to sow my city oats. At the end of my run, I also enjoy looking for my little Schleich animals in the place I lovingly refer to as the dumpstore, Value Village. The universe and I have been playing a game (pardon me for bringing the universe into my petty folly).

Here is the strange thing. For many, many months, every single week, I have found one Schleich animal hanging on the wall where the sea of little plastic fast food meal rejects usually hang in bags. Each week I find a different animal. Never a duplicate. Always just one. I can count on one hand how many weeks I have not found any. The same goes for the times there has been more than one.

One day, my children and I cut down a small alder tree to build a shelf for ‘our’ animals. Naturally, the children believe these toys are for them and because I’m a good mother, I’m willing to share.

I have always been a serious collector. For as long as I can remember I have amassed things of a designated kind that mean something to me. Although the focus has been ever-shifting (from Princess Diana wedding paraphernalia to stainless steel kitchen gadgets) the momentum is always there to stockpile.

From the outside looking in I think people who do this kind of thing are odd, if only just difficult to understand. It is also interesting for me to observe people with no collecting tendency whatsoever. I don’t know what compels me but believe me when I tell you that I am compelled.

The irony is not lost on me that at this time where I have grown exceptionally tired of caring for all of the living animals around me, I take solace in plastic replicas of cows, pigs, elephants, kangaroos... If only I had one less live kangaroo to care for, my life would be so much easier.

So this week was a little different. Here is what I found (made by Schleich).

First Settler Lady

I took her home because I didn’t want to offend the universe but between you and me I thought a cruel joke was being played. I almost asked to speak to the manager of the store. This is not an animal.

What is kind of funny is that this summer I have taken to wearing a knee-length flowy blue skirt to do my chores. I have been on my knees in the greenhouse in my skirt, hopped over electric fences, chased cows home from the neighbours. I suppose I like wearing it because it makes me feel slightly feminine amidst all of the dirt and sweat. I would also cook in this skirt, and be able to wear it (if not covered with too much pig slobber) to the grocery store or day care to pick up my children on days when there was little time to change.

In my mind I pictured a woman much like my little figurine woman, a hundred years ago, settling into a piece of land, milking a cow, carrying buckets around, kneading bread. All the while wearing a long skirt. Who in their right mind figures that a skirt like this is practical for barn chores? I do, I suppose. Given the choice, I had chosen the skirt. (Can’t say I went floor length, however).

There have been many days where I moved around this place imagining myself as a little farm fairy, flitting about in all of the corners unseen. In my sprightly state, I would pop inside to grab a bite to eat or use the washroom and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Where my mind’s eye had imagined a bright, windswept mane of hair in a ponytail or in wisps around my face, the mirror showed something quite different.

What had once been a neat, high, tight mass of clean, collected hair became a fallen mass of dusty, disheveled strings plastered to my sweaty face and lumped at the base of my neck. I had the dowdy farm wife look just like my little plastic lady here. Perhaps this look was a real hit a hundred years ago. But I know for sure that you wouldn’t catch any of our movie idols with such a ‘do’. And much to my own chagrin, I seem to sport this look more often than I’d like to admit.

So what am I to do with this little lady? Does she go on my shelf with the other animals? Is this a sign to overhaul my work outfit? Fix my hair once in a while? I have to be honest with you. I despise this woman. She is everything I believe women have worked so hard for to avoid being. Subservient. Ready to do whatever is asked of her from whatever size of animal or person. Never to shine. Never to draw too much attention to herself.

Yet on the other hand, I idolize her. I am so impressed with what she was able to endure. So much hardship, it seems. So much relentless work and likely with ne’er a complaint. My grandmother was this woman. Still carrying water from a well to the house in buckets when my mother had first met my father in the late 1960’s and into the 70’s she carried on doing this.

I can’t help but wonder what my plastic woman is looking for. Perhaps something to look forward to since she just turned 40. Have her children run off across the pasture? Is her husband expected to return home from the fields? Is there a storm brewing on the horizon and she has to bring in her laundry? Have her cows hopped the fence again?

I don’t think I work anywhere near as hard as women did a hundred years ago. And yet I think I complain enough to cover a continent and a century. I have so many luxuries available to me. Affordable childcare, for one. A vehicle or two at my disposal, filled with gas, despite exorbitant gas prices. My health and strength. Good friends, excellent family. Hot water inside my house. Free healthcare! Seriously!

As projection is impossible to avoid, I actually imagine that she is searching for her identity. She is looking to find herself in something outside of her. She is looking for approval. For recognition or appreciation. She has forgotten how to find solace in the quiet things. She is looking for a guide.

You know, if I’m honest, I would admit that anyone who looks to find fulfillment in a retail establishment is going to be severely disappointed. Though, I always do it, week after week. And the satisfaction is there, though fleeting. It stays while I stand in line to purchase my animal of the week. But it leaves as quickly as it arrives and I am looking towards the next hunt.

From another angle, however, I have to admit that the diversity of my collection of animals brings me joy and some comfort too. Perhaps I am searching for my totem in the form of a personal animal guide. Rather than just one, I see a little bit of myself in all of them. Which is why I think it is especially important that whoever painted them (in China, not Germany anymore, it would appear), was able to take the time to paint their eyes in the proper place so their face is not unintentionally frightening.

Each animal holds an expression frozen in time. Perhaps they are holding one of their young. Perhaps they are yawning and displaying enormous teeth, mid-gallop or leap, lying down to take a rest, preparing to fight, or looking for a mate.

I think I will put my little lady on my shelf of animals. Perhaps she can be yet another guide for me, reminding me that my life is ever so much easier than it was for a woman 100 years ago. Advising me how to do the things that our culture has so significantly forgotten. Telling me that skirts don’t work well around electric fences. And that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to brush my hair once in a while.

The Animals

Lady on the Shelf

She’s good there. We can all use any help we can get. And tiny pleasures should never be overlooked.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Whales Outside My Window

I awoke to a usual Monday morning. The children taking far too long to get their clothes on. The breakfast requests and then the changing of minds when the food is put warm in front of them. A load of laundry is started. The school bus arrives and we scurry out the door to meet it, backpack in hand, coat swinging from one arm, the heels of her boots not quite in place. There are dogs who want food. Pigs who are starting to awaken hungry. A cat calling from the barn.

I decide to take a trip. My husband's suggestion. It takes nothing before I know where I want to go.

Where did I put my tent? There once was a time where a tent was my home, the wilderness my office. I would sleep in it for months at a time without complaint, year after year. Now I can't find it anywhere and when I do, I can't remember where the sleeping bags have gotten to. The propane tank is over a decade old. Which camp stove works again? This lighter, this knife, this flashlight. Do they still function?

Digging into my camping gear was like digging up an old self that I had packed away almost a decade ago when we bought this farm. My life is wider now in so many ways. Instead of a portable tent, I have 100 acres of permanence to roam.

On days like these, in months like these, I grow tired of the work, however. Who owns whom? When I try to hide away I see the work undone out every window. And my tired feet climb again into my muddy boots and I make good use of my hands.

I am going on a trip. I know a place where whales roam but 10 metres from the rocky shore line. I can pitch my tent there. It is but 10 hours of driving away. If I leave now I can return by the end of the third day of the week. In time to get ready for market again and take my daughter to her dance lesson. Lazy summers escape us here on the farm. And time spent enjoying the warm days on beaches or hiking trails is limited to the short windows between the essential work.

But I'm calling it. I want to see the whales. Every September in the past I would make my way over to watch them loll about in the St. Lawrence River. My vigilance is an ode to my life in the west where I spent a decade of my adult years. You can take the girl out of the west but you can't take the west out of the girl. And I need my whales.

I listen to music and eat out of a cooler packed with garden fresh fruits and vegetables as I drive. I do this for 10 hours. Then I pitch my dusty tent. And spend hour after hour immersed in the purple glow that casts itself over this fresh water ocean.

You can hear the whales before you see them. They warn you to look up from your book, your day dream, your reverie and watch as their dorsal fin rolls over the surface of the water. Sometimes if you are a lucky a tail will curl into the air. These creatures are large. Smooth. Black. Gentle. It is impossible to watch them and not be instantly immersed in peace.

I see more than a handful of whales before I sleep, and again over a tin cup as the sun rises again, a few more.

There are whales outside of my window.

And no, this isn't from some hallucination one might expect fitting of an organic farmer. I really did go there. Outside of Tadoussac, Quebec. I really did see them. 2.5 days gone from the bustle of my life.

What seems like an eternity of peace and perspective was gained.