Fall Cleaning

It’s that time of year where all the bugs are at their most visibly industrious. Spiders weave vast and complicated webs every night outside, and fill the undusted corners of the house (so, all the corners) with messy spun-sugar looking masses. Hummingbirds fattening up for migration vie for the feeders with European hornets as large as they are. Crickets, some kind of little black beetle, ladybugs, and ALL the stink bugs suddenly want to come in to the house. I want to open all the windows to the glorious fall weather, but that means I am also opening them to the bugs to find all the gaps in the screens and the windowframes. I don’t love sharing my house with bugs, but most of all I don’t love sharing my bed with them – or my clothes. Stink bugs seem to be the only bugs who think that’s a good idea and as usual at this time of year I am puzzled as to why.

The bugs, if they are paying attention to me, may be equally puzzled by the purpose of my version of autumnal industry. I’m having an organizing spree, so far split between the basement (where I work, and therefore where the dogs and I spend most of our days), and two outbuildings which have both partially housed horse equipment, garden tools, and hay, and which I am converting to one single-purpose tack barn and one single-purpose hay barn. I guess that makes three outbuildings, as I am also moving the gardening tools and anything else that doesn’t belong in any of these three catagories to the horse barn, which has not housed horses since we put in the run-in sheds a dozen or more years ago.

Though I am making dump runs in all of this – it’s amazing how often we seem to decide we aren’t going to use something any more and instead of getting rid of it we put it on a shelf – but I’m trying to moderate my default organizing method which I call “throw it all away.” This means that, to the inconvenience of the spiders and stink bugs and crickets, and to the bemusement of the dogs, I am taking things off shelves, cleaning the shelves, moving the shelves to another place, and then putting things back on the shelves. Not always the same shelves, or the same things, as I move items from one space to another, but I imagine the finer points are lost on the bugs. As far as the dogs are concerned, the main benefit to this is that I may occasionally unearth a lacrosse ball or other forgotten toy.

I’m also trying to moderate getting lost in the minutiae of what I’m organizing. I’m throwing away obvious trash, but not otherwise going through things in a lot of detail, because if I start that I know I’ll just wind up sitting on the floor looking at old photographs and notes from when the kids were little, and the basement will continue to look like the aftermath of a fairly gentle earthquake. And I will not – NOT – start cleaning tack in the tack barn. Yet.

Occasionally I find something that is useful and that I know we will no longer use, and then I put it up for sale online. Sometimes (as with a meat grinder I just sold), this involves digging for parts in multiple cabinets, and also looking for owner’s manuals. Last night I was looking for a manual before listing another item. We have a very orderly drawer with file folders for each appliance, up to a point. We also have a cabinet in the kitchen with a pile of stuff in it, and sometimes this is where the manuals for kitchen appliances end up. In my search last night, I did not find the manual I was looking for, though when I put the appliance in question back in its cabinet after photographing it for the add, I saw that the manual was there already. What I did find was the manual for my old LG flip phone, which I used from roughly 2005-2011, a book on deck-building, a recipe for Amish cinnamon bread from my youngest child’s elementary school (she just turned 31), three versions of the recipe for my mother’s truffles (one in my writing and two in hers), a recipe also in my mother’s writing for Truly Awful Cake (I’ve been making this cake for over thirty years and only just discovered it’s supposed to be made in a bundt tin), and what will have to be the lead recipe for my food blog, Mystery Recipes. This recipe reads in its entirety:

2 c. flour
2 c. sugar
3/4 c. cocoa
1 t b powder
1/2 t salt
1 c water
3/4 c oil
1 t vanilla
2 T coffee
350
dry
add wet
15 min (or less)

There’s no title, and no reference to a pan or a shape or a number. It can’t be brownies, because that’s way too much flour, and it can’t be cake, because of the baking time. It doesn’t say anything about forming cookies, though that’s my current best guess. I figure for my food blog I can just post the recipes as I wrote them, and then see how many different food products can be made from the ingredients and method (such as it is). Prizes for the most edible result.

Prior to this mystery recipe I had thought my version of the truffle recipe, jotted down in a conversation with my mother 20 or 30 years ago, was my most cryptic. This one at least says “truffles” at the top, and if the method is abbreviated (and it is – it consists of the following two lines:
“choc, butter – double boiler
add etc – wisk – cool – toss”)
at least I have made them enough that *I* know what I am talking about (even if I apparently don’t know how to spell “whisk”). More puzzling to me is how I wound up with two versions of the recipe in my mother’s handwriting. One of them is probably the original. It is covered with chocolate – one’s hands get very chocolatey while shaping the truffles and coating them in cocoa, and it has notes in three different pens. “Florence’s truffles” is squinched in at the tops as an afterthought in a green felt tip ink. We all think of these as my mother’s truffles, but the recipe came from a friend from her job at the Renwick. The recipe is, in the main, written in blue ball point, and abbreviated (though not as abbreviated as my version). Clarifying notes (“about a teaspoon” next to “rum brandy or vanilla,” and “with cocoa in bag” next to “toss”) are in black felt tip. I can see the exact pens in my mind – my father was forever bring home bags of pens from which finding one that worked was like a much less deadly but more annoying form of Russian roulette – and I recognize each of these inks and the pens they came from. The other one is written on a post card of Bolinas Bay, which doesn’t really give me any clues about the time frame. This one contains the instruction “leave in icebox overnight” and now I’m trying to remember when the last time was that I heard someone call a fridge an icebox, and if it was something my parents stopped saying at some point. For some reason it makes me a little sad to think they did.

The strangest thing about my mother’s two Florence’s Truffles recipes and her Truly Awful Cake recipe is that I have no idea how they got into my cabinet of random papers. I’m quite sure she didn’t give them to me, so they must have been something I chose to keep from her things after she died. Or possibly even after my father died seven years after her: maybe they were in her desk, for some odd reason, or maybe they were still in the kitchen. I have no recollection of finding them or choosing them. Indeed, as far as I can recall, last night was the first time I saw any of them.

I have never had a dream about my mother since she died, and aside from sensing her strongly when I have gone to Wolf Trap, I don’t feel her presence very often. Still, she shows up in ways that are very her. One of the few things I do remember keeping from her things is a t-shirt from the National Zoo for their Boo in the Zoo Halloween event. Eight years after she died, I grabbed it one night to wear as a night shirt, and found after turning off the light that it glows in the dark. These recipes of hers seem like another of her little surprises. It’s not quite truffle season yet – they are a thing we make at Christmas time, though they are not at all Christmasy. Just a tradition, of which we had precious few as a family. I like having her company while I continue my organizing. And I appreciate the reminder that some things I will never get rid of.

Quiet

I woke up this morning to the sound of gunshots, or possibly firecrackers – I’m not much of a weapons expert. My limited experience using guns is target shooting with a .22 rifle at camp, using air rifles at the arcade, and once shooting a shotgun towards a sick fox that was hanging around the barn where I worked and I believe he died of surprise. There was a lot wrong with him, I could see when I went to dispose of the body, but I couldn’t swear that shot pellets were on the list. While I took the dogs out this morning before breakfast, the rapid fire that woke me up changed to what I think of as my neighbor’s cannon, though it’s probably a standard hunting gun and it’s probably some kind of hunting season here now that fall has arrived. I heard a weird gronking noise and thought “Goose? No. Maybe something injured?” and then looked down towards the misty reservoir in time to see a disgruntled great blue heron flying off to look for a quieter spot for his morning fishing.

Life in the country is only quiet compared to life in the city. There’s a lot less human-made noise here, but between a large year round population of Canada geese on the reservoir next door and the rotating seasonal chorus of mockingbirds and crows, crickets and cicadas, peepers and tree frogs, migrating swans, barking foxes – well, it’s rarely what I would call quiet. It’s the human sounds that tend to irk me the most, although I admit to days I want to yell back at the geese. I count my neighbor’s dog, who I also want to yell back at, among the human sounds. We don’t live in sight of any roads, but we can hear when someone is driving too fast on our road, and if there’s a loud vehicle on one of the bigger, farther away roads, we can hear it. We can also hear a steady background hum of traffic on the bigger roads during what passes for rush hour here.

There’s something notable about the kind of quiet that happens when one of the regular human sounds lessens or stops. Last year during the height of the covid restrictions, the absence of traffic sounds was noticeable, and it was something of a novelty to be able to walk down the driveway and across the road to get our mail without ever seeing a car. We moved here in 2001, and I didn’t realize how quickly we had acclimated to the planes flying in and out of the local airport until they stopped completely that September. That local airport is now regional, and there are a few more planes than there used to be, but I mostly only notice them when they are particularly loud, either because they are flying lower than usual or more directly over our property than usual; particularly unusual, as happens each October when there’s an airshow that I forget about every year until a B17 bomber flies over my house; or when they go suddenly quiet in mid-air, which I hope only happens during lessons when someone is learning to come out of a stall.

Having grown up in the city, I hardly notice sirens unless they are close or many, but certain sirens make our dogs start up their chorus, with Scout holding the steady melody in either a tenor or soprano range, depending on his mood, Boo chiming in with the baritone harmony, and Quinn doing some kind of coloratura soprano jazz scat that only he understands. The dogs respond similarly to certain trains, though not all trains. I usually don’t hear the trains unless I have the windows open – the nearest track is over a mile away – but there are some evening trains that do not inspire the dogs, and a 5:15 a.m. train that always does (though it does not always go through on time, so I can’t use that particular song as an alarm clock).

It’s an unusual kind of quiet inside the house these days because Rose is in Colorado, visiting our oldest and youngest children and getting some much needed Colorado time, and probably also some much needed away time. When we first moved here, we were both working jobs in actual offices away from the house. A few years later, we both started working from home, but in jobs or consulting positions that had us traveling a week at a time multiple times a year. My last work trip was a two week stint in the second half of February 2020, and since then of course we have both been home. Rose went out to visit the kids (and Colorado) last summer also, but aside from a few days where I did the same this past May, and a couple of short trips Rose has taken with one of her sisters, we’ve both just been here. All the time. Right now it’s just me, and this weekend I’ve noticed how much more quiet the quiet gets when you know the person that’s gone can’t even try to communicate with you because Rose is camping in the cell-signal-free mountains. It’s odd, because it’s not as if we talk every day when we are not in the same place, but we probably do communicate daily in some way – text, facebook comments, instagram messages – or maybe it’s just knowing that we can. This quiet is different.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about my father, and my brother-in-law, and my friend Elaine’s husband Mark, each in their resoundingly quiet homes after their spouse died. One of the very few conversations I can remember having with my father in my lifetime that had any emotional content was when he told me that he still talked to my mother – out loud – after she died, and that he felt it was just as real a conversation as when she had been physically present. Of course, having known both of my parents, I can take that cynically or I can take it with empathy. In this case, I choose empathy. The quiet that falls after someone who has been sharing your life and home for decades is suddenly gone forever must be deafening.

None of my beloved people who have died were living in the same house as me when they died, so their absence for me is a different kind of silence – the kind when there’s no longer anyone there to answer the phone. My animals, though – I’m sure that’s one of the reasons their deaths hit as hard as they do. They are a daily presence, and they leave a gaping hole. And I do talk to them, though not necessarily out loud. I especially still talk to the horses. We have buried five horses here, and I find reason to talk to each of them sometimes as I make my daily rounds. As with my living horses, I’m learning to be quieter in my conversations. The living horses let me know when I’m making improvements. The are reminding me now that when I don’t have anyone who responds with speech when I talk to them (except Quinn, but only when it involves putting his dinner bowl down, or going out to play), I’m quieter in general, and they prefer that. I’m sure Rose will be grateful if I can keep it up when she returns; quiet is not an adjective anyone would use to describe me. I haven’t even been listening to music, so I’m in a fairly constant state of listening to nothing but the sounds of what – and who – is here right now, and the quiet of what – and who – is not.

Perspective

Looking through my recent photographs, I see that I’ve been trying to see from different perspectives this summer. Lots of looking up through things, looking at the back of things, extreme close ups. Views from the perspective of what the thing I’m photographing is looking at, or would be looking at if it had eyes. I’m tired of my own point of view. I’m tired, period. Tired of all the things. My approach to work looks like my high school approach to term papers: wait until the last possible minute for no good reason and then cram in everything I need to do that felt overwhelming but turns out not to be hard at all, except for the adrenaline rush of the almost-missed deadline. I am getting chores done – all humans and animals are fed and reasonably cleaned up after, bills are paid. I listen to podcasts sometimes, but that’s basically a chore, and I spend much of my podcast-listening time composing rebuttals to whatever the person I’m supposed to be inspired by said that annoyed me.

What I’m not getting done is non-chores. What do we call that – fun? Creativity? Relaxation? I’m not listening to music. I’m not writing. I don’t even want to read. I mean, not really, because that’s crazy talk, but I’ve been rereading rather than reading new books. Which is fine, and something I always do somewhat, but for at least the last six months if not a year, I have read hardly any new books, which is unusual. Unusual isn’t a strong enough word. I did read a new book this week (thank you, Laura Lippman, for always being able to keep my attention), and in it the writer who is the main character is talking to his editor, who says that if he ever sees certain words in the writer’s manuscript he will know it’s a secret message to alert him that the writer is in trouble. In his case it was words like limn, or saying good things about Wuthering Heights. In my case, “I don’t want to read” is pretty close to that kind of cry for help.

Not that I am being held hostage, other than the way we all still feel one degree or another of stuck at home these days, and the fact that I can’t seem to make myself stop looking at social media even while declaring how much I hate it (and I do, increasingly, hate it). There are things I haven’t done for a year and a half that I don’t miss at all (any form of public transit), and there are things I have very mixed feelings about not doing (work travel), and things I have been grateful for (not having to respond to invitations to – well, anything).

Now that I think of it, this one book that held my attention is, in many ways, about perspective. As I was reading it, I thought “This doesn’t sound like Laura Lippman.” Then I noticed she was writing in third person, but a very close third that had made me think for a while it was first person, so basically she’s writing in third person but more or less from inside her main character’s point of view. But then I realized that maybe it’s another character’s view of the main character’s point of view. And then someone else came into the picture. It sounds needlessly complicated, but it reminds me of how things are right now (or maybe always). Most things that are being presented as objective are anything but. Perspectives are skewed but no one wants to look at any other perspective, or at their own bias. My way of dealing with that seems to be to decrease my intake even more, and now I’m basically hibernating. Or estivating, as I once heard it called when it’s a summer time rest, and even if that’s not a real thing I still like the word, and the idea that there may be a name for it in every season.

What I miss most isn’t even a thing, it’s a feeling: joy. Being around my dogs brings me something like joy, but it’s closer to peace. Same with the horses. I don’t know what people do who don’t have animals in their lives. Animal perspective is the best perspective, if I’m looking for other views: views of time (always now), of what matters (staying alive, dinner, belly rubs, ear scritches), of staying home (the pack is together!).

Last week Rose and I decided to make a getaway. We went to the beach for the first time in we actually can’t remember when. Four years? Six? We were only away for a few days, and mostly we sat and relaxed. On the second day, we took advantage of staying with an Airbnb host who does boat tours, and we went out with him for a sunset boat ride. If I can’t remember the last year I went to the beach, I can’t even recall the last decade in which I was on a boat. We were staying on a creek that connects to the Chesapeake Bay, and in order to get where he wanted to take us – to a disappearing island that is used by many kinds of birds as a nighttime resting spot, and in time for sunset – our host had to put the hammer down. I can’t promise Marie Kondo that anything in my closet will ever spark joy, but speeding along the water in a place where we could not see the shore in any direction, with the wind and water spray all around us – well, that not only sparked joy, it lit the whole damn fire.

Our last day we went back to the ocean. In addition to seeing an endless stream of my beloved pelicans, we also saw a big pod of dolphins, complete with little dolphin babies doing leaps and flips. But mostly we alternated swimming and sitting, as one does at the beach. I love how the beach – any beach – is so full of memories. General memories, specific memories, pleasant and not so pleasant memories – somehow all of them are good memories now. The smell of olive oil, which my father used as tanning lotion. Playing in the sand and the water with my sisters. Diving off my father’s hands into a wave. The disorientation of misjudging a wave and getting tumbled upside down and raked by sand. Singing and practicing cartwheels and handstands, both in and out of the water. Holding hands with my daughter to run and dive into the cold waves. Relaxing on the quietest beach I have ever been to with Rose, while we caught up on lost sleep after the first six months of our first adorable but exhausting puppy.

The thing about a beach is that even if it’s a beach I’ve never been to, it brings up memories of every beach I HAVE ever been to, every friend and family member I have spent beach time with, every boardwalk and arcade and cold wave and sand castle and morning donut and afternoon pizza slice, every sand dollar and conch shell and dolphin leap and pelican dive.

The thing about a beach is that even if it’s a beach I have been to a million times, it’s a brand new beach every trip, every day. No matter what kind of dredging and jetty building and sea grass planting and sand importing we humans try to do, the sea and the weather will have their way with the coastline, which changes every day – sometimes large, and sometimes small, but always changes.

The thing about the beach is the thing about life. It’s always familiar and full of memories, at the same time it’s always new and changing and completely out of my control. The joy, though – the joy is always there, when I am ready to reach for it again.

Berry Season

The blueberries are ripening already, which seems early to me – they started before it was even officially summer. Fruit in the garden is still something of a mystery to me even after twenty years of blueberries, a period of strawberries, and a yearly wild crop of wineberries.

Planting the vegetable garden was an annual event in my childhood. Compared to my current several acres of land, our yard in the city was a postage stamp, but when my father had the back porch stairs redone as a spiral staircase that didn’t extend as far into the yard as the previous straight stairway, it was like we had a whole farm back there. We would drive out to Serio’s, a garden center way out in the country past Rockville (in Olney, which now more or less a suburb of DC), and my parents would buy seeds and plants and Miracle Gro. When my oldest sister was in junior high, so I was six or seven, she went with her dance class to Syracuse and I spent some time puzzling over where they would be dancing and, more to the point since they were going for several days, where they could sleep at the garden center.

My clearest memory of the garden planting is of my mother mixing up the magic blue liquid to sprinkle on the tomato plants. At one point my parents planted strawberries, but I don’t remember them lasting for long. When the house next door changed hands, the new neighbors replaced the chain link fence with a taller wooden privacy fence and perhaps it shaded the strawberry patch too much – my vague memory is they were planted right up against the fence. I doubt I was sorry to see them go, as I was not much of a berry eater as a child. Berries had seeds, which went against my fondness for single-textured foods. Blueberries also fell in the same category as cherry tomatoes: there was always the possibility that a fine looking exterior housed a fruit that had gone bad from the inside and was just waiting to detonate when you bit into it.

Blackberries were my first berry love. I still associate them with late July and early August, the North Carolina mountains, and camp overnights. The camp I went to from the summer after sixth grade through almost all of high school was my favorite place. The blackberries were not a huge part of my time there, but we sometimes went out on overnights, my favorites being when we rode the horses out to the big pastures up the hill, turned the horses out, and slept under the stars. I have no memory of tents, and I do have memories of being woken up by being rained on, so I think all we took was sleeping bags, flashlights, and food. Food for any kind of camp trip was the most basic kid sustenance: white bread, peanut butter and jelly, bologna and American cheese and yellow mustard, KoolAid. For overnights we also took Bisquick, and we managed something I believe we called doughboys: a moldable preparation of the Bisquick surrounding blackberries we had just picked from the wooded edges of the pastures, all wrapped around a stick and cooked over the fire like a s’more. Like s’mores, there was always a chance your doughboy would fall into the flames, but it was worth the effort, even with the potential for charred bits and the need to pick stick splinters out of your breakfast. We have a few blackberry plants here now. They don’t bear much fruit these days, and the few berries that are getting started now won’t be ready for some time, but a single glorious berry can still send me right back to those summer mornings.

One of our first garden beds when we moved here had blueberries on two sides, asparagus in the middle, and strawberries in the front and crawling under everything else. I was particularly astonished by the strawberries each time they bore fruit, as I still think of strawberries as a thing you can only buy at the grocery store. Even farmers market strawberries don’t seem like the kind of thing just anybody should be able to grow at home, but grow them we did. That bed has always gotten a little wild, and over the years, the asparagus and strawberries died out. We have mock strawberries in that bed and pretty much everywhere else on our property. They look pretty but I’ve never tried to taste one. I find it suspicious that I never see any of our plentiful wildlife eating the mock strawberries, though they were certainly fond enough of taking bites out of our cultivated strawberries. If I ever see any true wild strawberries I will be delighted to try them, but I think I’ll stick to admiring the mocks with my eyes.

For the first twenty years we lived here I called the berries out back wild raspberries, and I suppose technically they are, but I learned last year that they are known as wineberries. They are even prettier than the mock strawberries, and I know for sure they are not only edible but delicious. Like any kind of raspberry they are delicate. When I pick them I always want a large flat pan so I won’t squash any, but I always take a standard bowl or bag instead. I don’t serve them in any way where their form matters, but they are so lovely I just want to treat them gently.

The blueberries, though. Our original blueberries have continued to grow, and we have added more bushes as other things have died out and made room in that bed.

My first experience enjoying blueberries – outside of reading Blueberries for Sal – was at my great-half-uncle’s house in New Hampshire. Going to visit Uncle Richard with our maternal grandmother (my grandfather was Richard’s half brother) was a bit of a rite of passage for me and my sisters in our high school years. Each of us in turn made the trip, flying to Boston and then taking the bus to Meredith or Concord where Uncle Richard would pick us up. Time in New Hampshire mostly consisted of reading, swimming, and hiking to the lake. Blueberry picking was always on the agenda: wild high bush blueberries, small and the perfect mix of sweet and tart. Uncle Richard taught me to make blueberry pie, which I love but have hardly ever made outside of his house. Grocery store berries were just never the same, and with our own berries I have made blueberry cakes, blueberry muffins, blueberry scones, blueberry smoothies, but not very often blueberry pie. I can’t say never, but I used fancier recipes than Uncle Richard’s oleo crust and just plain blueberries dusted with flour and sugar.

Richard was a relative I met in my mid-teens and saw for the last time when I was in my mid-twenties, though he lived a lot of years beyond that. My connection with him was mainly through my grandmother, who died when I was twenty, and then my aunt, who died five years before Richard. He was born in 1923, he was in the army in the 1940s, and he taught high school for forty years. We all long suspected he was gay, but it wasn’t till he was eighty that he had his first out relationship with a man, who remained his partner for the last seventeen years of his life.

Berry season is also Pride season. I’m not a big Pride celebrator myself, but it is a time of year when I think about how much things have changed in my lifetime – even in the nearly thirty years of my relationship with Rose – and I think about how unfathomable being out and partnered and content was for someone like Richard for most of his life, and how glad I am that he still got to have all of that in his lifetime. The years I saw him actively were the years of my own coming out – in fact, it was to his house in New Hampshire that I retreated when I thought I was losing my mind, before I realized that actually, I was just gay. We didn’t talk about it any more than we talked about his orientation or relationships, but somehow I knew where to go to feel ok for a little while. I’m making blueberry tarts today, not blueberry pie, and I’m sure Richard would understand why I am toasting him today with blueberries, love, and gratitude.

Home

I’m back from my first trip in a year and a half. It was nice enough to be out and about again that even the plane rides seemed nice. My fellow travelers may have felt the same since everyone was pleasant, which is not the first word I would have used for people in airports and planes the last time I flew.

I started to say that I’m home from my trip, but I was home where I was, too. Partly because I was staying in my own house, but also because I got to see two of my kids, and because I got to see good friends, and because I was in a place that has always felt like home to me, even the first time I went.

My family was not big on refrigerator magnets, but a few funny ones given as gifts accumulated over the years, mostly about wine, cats, or grammar. I think that one of them was the Robert Frost quote “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” which may have been something my sister gave my parents, but my whole memory of this may be off. Regardless, it’s how I would describe my parents’ home after I left to go to college. I moved back there for a few weeks after I left school and before I found a job with housing, but aside from a couple of holidays during college (after my first year I lived in apartments, not dorm rooms, so I didn’t have to move out during winter and summer breaks), and staying there sometimes when my father was sick and then dying, I didn’t go back to stay. I lived close enough to visit for a meal, but far enough to make that inconvenient to do often.

I would also, as I just did, describe it as “my parents’ home.” Partly because where they lived by the time I moved back to the general area where I grew up was not a place I ever lived with them, and partly because, well, it wasn’t my home. At that time in my life, in my early twenties, I lived in a house on the farm where I worked, and had parents and a sister who lived in houses in the city where I grew up less than two hours away, but I didn’t have a heart home. My high school friends were mostly no longer living in the area. I had just left college, and my friends there. I pretty well ran away from that place and those people in an effort to get away from the inside of my head, which inconveniently came along with me. An excellent idea for me then would have been therapy, but that wasn’t even on my radar. A few years later I would find it was much less difficult to tell my mother that I had a girlfriend than to tell her I had a therapist.

Where I live now is very much home. Though it is a place that was once also home for my kids, I know they all have their own places they call home now, and this house is that awkward combination of “mom’s house” and “that place where I lived through everything I had to live through as a teenager” and whatever else our dwellings from the past come to mean to us. It’s hard to go back to a place where the very smells and sounds seem to suck you back into playing a role that never really fit and that you don’t have to play in your adult life. I love it when my kids visit, but I think even more I love to go see them in their current lives where they are their current selves.

It’s thirty years later than when I had a homeless heart, and now I have a heart home made up of a lot of parts. Rose, our kids. Dogs, horses, cats. Places that I love. Myself. That’s probably the biggest change from my early twenties: whevever I go, there I am has a whole different meaning now. If I don’t carry my home on my back, I carry it in my heart, and I can make the shelter I need out of the tools I have available wherever I am.

Bridges

How do you get from here to there?
Are your bridges sturdy, patchwork, washed out?
What do you do when the roof caves in?
Or when it looks like it might?
When you have to blast your own entry or exit?


When the road ahead is rocky?
When you can’t see what’s around the next bend?


Here’s the thing: it’s all beautiful.
Even – maybe especially – the mess.

Roots

We have a redbud tree with a tiny nub where its main trunk once grew straight up towards the sky. This redbud is in a spot on our property where we buried one of our cats, and despite my many attempts to grow her a memorial plant, everything I have put on her grave has died. The redbud, which is not directly on her grave but very close by, looked like it would be the next victim. But though the main trunk did die off about two feet above the ground, there were some skinny little twigs that slowly took over and grew upwards. The tree gets hit by our strong northwest winds, even more so since we took down the disintegrating locust trees that sort of blocked some of the wind sometimes (but that also flung branches down on the redbuds sometimes), and the way it has grown makes it look like it’s being bent by a strong wind even when the air is still.

I haven’t counted the trees we have planted in a while, but there are over twenty of them. Some of them have had uneventful lives, growing straight and strong and healthy. Others, like the redbud, have suffered one way and another, sometimes with known causes and sometimes unknown. The eleven year old maple tree that marks one of the horse graves has a split trunk because what was the main trunk got bitten off by one of the other horses when the tree was still tiny. There are two young tulip poplars we planted in the same season. One of them is about four times the size of the other because the little one’s leaves kept getting eaten by something that didn’t seem to find the other one tasty, despite the two trees being only about thirty feet apart. Our two Bradford pears did what Bradford pears do, and split beyond saving in two separate storms, though the second one to die continues to stage Night of the Living Bradford Pear and sends up little zombie shoots despite all kinds of discouragement. Some of our strongest trees are the volunteers – the trees that seeded themselves from another tree on our property and chose where they wanted to grow.

It used to be that when I had to answer family medical history questions at a doctor’s office, I said that except for my grandfather who died of a heart attack at 55, everyone was pretty healthy. We are not a talking people, my family – at least not about personal topics – so it took a couple decades of collecting and extrapolating information before I realized there probably isn’t room on the forms to list all the things. In addition to my grandfather’s heart attack, there is high blood pressure and high cholesterol and thyroid disfunction. There is quite a bit of depression, probably two suicides, a lot of alcholism. There is some range on the autism spectrum. There are at least six different cancers. I’m never sure how helpful it is for me to know these things. Some of them don’t affect me, some I can stave off or manage, but some of them just are or will be.

My father used to say that he didn’t understand depression. His suggestion for a cure was “Just decide to be happy, and be happy.” Of course, he also said that he didn’t understand drug use because he “just got high on life” – and sometimes he said it with his daily beer or vodka and tonic in one hand, a bottle of wine open in the dining room to breathe so it could be consumed with dinner, and a liquor cabinet full of options for his after dinner nightcap. He was a man of contradictions, with a sidecar of denial. Once, when talking to my then sober grandmother (my father remained convinced that both my grandmother and my aunt went to AA meetings because they were lonely and it was a way to make friends), he said “We don’t drink” and my mother looked up from her newspaper and said “The hell we don’t!” which I thought was considerably more accurate.

I’d be hard pressed to describe my father as happy – the emotions he displayed tended more towards anger than joy – but he was curious, continually interested in life, and I think he was content. Knowing what I do know of his childhood, I would say he was a bit like my redbud tree and grew strong in the directions he could with what he had to work with. I am a child born of his seeds and blown by his often stormy winds, and like many of my trees, I have chosen where I want to put down my roots and I have grown as I will. My brain is not a good guide for my emotions – if my brain had its way, I wouldn’t have any emotions at all, so deciding how to feel is not in my life plan. But feeling what I feel and growing because of it, in spite of it, or when necessary around it – that is something I can keep doing.

Time Lapse

A couple of days ago I set up my wildlife camera next to the bird feeders to record who all showed up over the course of a day. I’ve only been paying attention to birds in any kind of focused way for the past two years, and I would not call myself an avid birder. My interest in them started when I decided I wanted to take a bird photograph every day for a 100 days of fill-in-the-creative-endeavor project, and while I still enjoy trying to get decent photos of them, I’m not that committed to that either. I follow a local online birding group and I see a lot of amazing photos there, and a lot of people excitedly adding to their life lists (the poor painted bunting who showed up in the DC suburbs seemed to have more photographers than all the current and former British royal family combined). I admire the enthusiasm but I don’t fully understand it. I do get pretty excited when I see a bird I’ve never seen and can actually identify, but maybe next year I’ll forget and get just as excited again.

I had the bird feeder camera set up for about ten hours to try to catch multiple feeding cycles. Most of the 1,354 photos are just that – repeat cycles of the same visitors, including a cardinal couple, a red bellied woodpecker couple, a blue jay, a mockingbird (it could be more than one – they come one at a time and I can’t tell them apart), a bluebird or two, a few brown headed cowbirds, a vast parade of house finches (with an occasional purple finch to remind me I am terrible at finch identification), goldfinches, little chipping sparrows, and one very fat and sassy squirrel. The photos I like best are the ones that make me laugh: the squirrel moving from one feeder to another, several bird blurs coming and going at once, a goldfinch in the middle of a 180 as he realized he didn’t want to mess with the mockingbird and he could come back later.

It turns out to be watching the regular birds doing regular bird things that interests me most. An eastern kingbird in his little tuxedo perched on the fence looking so refined, and then full-on assaulting a robin, appearing to say “I said GOOD DAY, sir!” to the back end of the departing robin. The way the female cardinal always shows up first, whether at the feeder or a tree, and then is joined by her mate – in contrast to the red bellied woodpeckers, who take entirely separate turns at the feeders, and always the male first. Many of the birds I’m seeing now I saw all winter. I’ve been watching the male goldfinches shift from a dull sort of olive color in winter to their bright yellow breeding plumage. The chickadees who buzz impatiently at me from the nearby sugar maple while I fill the feeders may well be the same ones who have been buzzing at me all winter, though their red breasted nuthatch and pine warbler associates who were bold enough to perch right on the stands while I added seed seem to have moved on.

The green herons have made their first spring appearance. They are following their usual pattern: first I see one flying north from the reservoir next door, perhaps to one of the other nearby ponds. Then I start seeing them flying over our property to or from the water – that’s the phase we are in now. Soon those flights will include carrying sticks to build their highly hypothetical looking nests, which I believe are constructed of eleven twigs and some wishful thinking, but they always do the trick. Last year when they built a nest in the weeping cherry right outside our bedroom window and I found one of the eggs after it hatched, I was amazed how small it was, and that it didn’t just slip right through the twigs. Green heron baby watch may be my favorite season, and it’s coming soon.

The barn swallows returned in April, as they always do. The consistency of birds is another thing I love, and barn swallows seem to be among the most punctual. We have had barn swallow mud nests in all of our run-in sheds for years, but I haven’t seen any evidence they are inhabited. I don’t know if swallows reuse nests; they may just be out and about doing their swallow activities all day. Far and away my favorite thing about mowing is having the swallows fly low and fast around me, eating the bugs that are scared up by the tractor. It’s a little wet to mow right now, but I had to mow the dog yard so as to not lose the actual dogs in the tall grass, and I had swallow companions the whole time. They were one of the first birds I paid attention to, in my early twenties when I didn’t have attention for much but the fact that I seemed to be losing my mind. Luckily I was working on a 95 acre farm at the time and there was a lot of mowing to do. I sat on the tractor for hours, sifting through depression and trauma and confusion and grief, all of which lightened with the swoop and swish of the barn swallows. For me, barn swallows are the dolphins of the air. They always make me smile, with their tiny rust colored breasts and bright eyes and sparkling wings filling my heart and reminding me to look up.

In the two years since I started my current bird journey I have also had bouts of depression and trauma and confusion and grief and feeling like I’m losing my mind. Most of it has been less extreme than in my early twenties – life in general was just more extreme when I was in my early twenties. But some things have gotten bigger, or harder, and the grief keeps adding up.

As with my early barn swallows, all the birds I watch now help me through that grief, and all the other worries large and small. We have raptors here as well as song birds, so I get frequent reminders from the birds (or the remains of the birds) that nature can be brutal, but I also get the beauty. I get the ebb and flow of bird migrations, the transient joy of the exotic visitors passing through, the birds who stay, the birds who return again and again, the birds who build their improbable nests and raise their babies against slim odds to start the cycle all over again.

Horse of a Different Color

I got my start with horses in a world of “make them do it” horsemanship. I heard a lot about making the horse respect the rider. Crops and whips were used as both aids and punishment. Side reins were used to hold the horse’s head in position, and there was a lot of talk about driving aids, pushing the horse into the contact, and setting the hands. Any reluctance or unresponsiveness by the horse was to be met with a sharper or secondary aid to get the desired response NOW.

For nearly my first thirty years of riding, that was my foundation. Over time I moved away from a lot of the harsher components of it, but like many of the people I grew up watching and learning from, I remained quick to frustration and anger when things didn’t go the way I wanted or expected with a horse. For the past almost twenty years, I’ve been learning from people who have a different approach to horses, one that is more relationship-based than demand-based. When I started actively learning a softer way with horses and that anger came up, I directed most of it at myself, for my inability to just stop reacting that way. The horses didn’t care much who I was mad at; they just knew that I was mad, and that the energy I was projecting wasn’t safe to be around.

When I was in my early twenties, I read a book by a respected animal behaviorist who was also a respected trainer of dogs and horses. When she died in 2001, the New York Times obituary referred to her as someone “who saw human traits in pets,” which was not how scientists were supposed to think then (it probably still isn’t). She was much more aware than most trainers and scientists of the time of animals having intellect and emotions, and what she called a moral sense. As a trainer, she also wrote about being given “crazy” horses or dogs to work with and acting crazier than they did so that they had to pay attention to her. At the time, as something of a specialist myself in “crazy” horses (i.e. the horses I usually got a chance to work with when I couldn’t afford a horse that had decent or no training), this made sense to me. Now, it does not. For me, anyway, this approach was just another variant of the old methods: obedience, discipline, correction. Even well-intentioned trainers still use language like this.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why we deal with horses this way. When “I say, you do, and do it NOW” is the expectation, what’s behind that? Far more often than I ever want to admit, it’s about fear. “I say, you do” feels like it keeps me in control. I think there’s a human belief that if we are afraid of something, and we can make that something or someone afraid of us instead, we will be safe. We can try to convince the horse that we are scary enough for it not to hurt us – without going so far that we convince it we are scary enough to attack. Horses are flight animals, but if given no choice, they will fight. When we are afraid, we make bad (and sometimes dangerous) decisions. When we are afraid and we don’t want to admit to or show our fear, we make even worse (and more dangerous) decisions.

Recently my wise friend, horsewoman Anna Blake, posted a brilliant blog in which she said “Level ground is needed for trust. In the beginning, it feels like chaos to breathe instead of intimidating.” I don’t want any kind of tattoo, let alone one with a whole lot of words in it (ouch!), but that sounds like a good choice so that I can look at those words every day. What does it feel like to put myself on level ground with someone or something I believe can hurt me? What does it look like for me to pause, breathe, and choose my next action with deliberation and kindness, instead of reacting in fear and anger? What happens if I start by extending trust, instead of withholding it?

Also: none of this is about horses.

Pasture Walk

I have, once again, been in a mood for the past two weeks. I thought about taking up the negativity challenge my cousin sent me a few years back when there were too many gratitude and positivity chain posts sweeping Facebook. The gist of the negativity challenge is that you name ten things that get on your nerves, the pettier the better. It is quite fun and even a little cathartic, but the problem right now is that the things that are getting on my nerves aren’t petty. The other problem is that when so many people are getting on my nerves with big things, it’s probably a pretty good sign that I have some work to do in those areas myself, and I don’t feeeeeeeeel like it. So there.

I had two different writing exercises assigned in this same two week time frame. One was a praise poem, and I got one of the projected five stanzas done because the only thing I felt like praising was coffee. I tried to move from coffee to other things in the kitchen that I wanted to praise, but I stalled out at:

“I give thanks for the dogs that lie under my feet
Tripping me as I gather ingredients.”

Looking back, even the coffee stanza is a little disgruntled.

The other exercise worked a little better, since it did not require me to be actively grateful, but just to think about something I do regularly that I take pleasure in. Here it is, in hopes that anyone else who has been having the same kind of April I’ve been having may feel better for a little walk through the pasture:

This is a walk I do every day, but not a walk from any particular day. It’s a walk that I do in all seasons, but for today I will walk in the fall, with its background music of geese muttering on the pond next door, the leaves on the trees changed or fallen, the still-green grass eaten down to a haze interspersed with patches of bare dirt.

I’m walking through a field, on my way from one pair of horses to the other, a fence on my left, a small hill on my right, a bucket of grain in one hand. The field, like all the fields around it, is a minefield of primarily horse manure, but also that of fox, goose, skunk, and any other creature who takes this path when I’m not on it. A lot of my looking is down.

My downcast eyes start to steer me around a pile of horse manure, but then I stop, and stoop. This pile is covered with something that from above it looks like a convention of tiny parasols. Each one is open and translucently striped, and I pull my cell phone out of my pocket to take pictures, which is the main reason I have a cell phone. I stare at it in paralyzed horror on the rare occasions it rings, but it is silent now as I crouch down to photograph the last signs of the fairy party.

The sun is up but not high enough to clear the trees in front of me, so the rays pierce the scantily clad limbs only to get caught and fractured by the chilly morning fog. The parallel lines of the fence boards are periodically connected by spider webs, which with all due respect to Charlotte have much more beauty in their rainbow sparkling dew concentricity than any words. I stop again, angling so that the web is clearly visible against the backdrop of the ground, and the light reflects off the dew droplets but does not shine directly into the lens. I’m interrupted by an indignant whuffing and the sound of fifteen hundred equine pounds landing from an impatient but balletic leap. I pause by the big bay body after I tip his breakfast into his bowl, trying to catch his whorls of hair in the dawn light but he steps his hind feet away, muzzle still firmly planted in his food. I settle for the silhouette of his withers, back, and croup against the fog: sunrise over Mount Finn.

On these morning walks, I feel compelled to try to record these sights as I see them. If I succeed, they will look not like what they are, but like what they feel like to me, a city child transplanted into these country fields more than half my life ago, starting my days on my knees in the wet grass amid nameless scat, trying to capture the view from behind my eyes.