Catastrophic Thinking

(story from the Barnstorming archives)

Chores at our farm are rarely routine since our batch of four male kittens were born 6 months ago. They were delivered unceremoniously in the corner of one of the horse stalls by their young mother whose spontaneous adoption we accepted a mere four weeks before, not realizing we were accepting five kitties, not just one.

They were born under a Haflinger’s nose, and amazingly survived the ordeal and managed to stay safe until the next day when we came in to clean and discovered them nicely warmed near a nice fresh pile of poop. What a birthing spot this mama had chosen. Thankfully Haflingers are tolerant about sharing their space as long as you don’t ask for a share of their food too…

We moved them and mama to a safer spot in the barn, away from big Haflinger feet, and they thrived, getting more adventuresome by the week, until they are now in full adolescent glory, mock fighting with each other, scrambling up and down the hay bales, using the shavings as their personal litter box, doing rodent patrol, and most of all, strolling along the shelves that line the stalls, breathing in the Haflinger smell, and rubbing their fur up against Haflinger noses through the wire. They are best of friends with these ponies in the light of day, as after all they were born right in a Haflinger bed.

But at night it’s another story. Each evening as I come out to do chores after returning home from work, it is pitch dark and the Haflingers, out in their winter paddocks, must walk with me one by one back to their box stalls for the night. Only this is now far more of an adventure thanks to four cats who glory in stealth attacks in the dark, like mountain lions in the shadows, waiting for their prey to pass by.

These four rascals are two tabbies, one black and one gray, all four perfectly suited to be camouflaged in the northwest dim misty fall evenings along a barely lit pathway between paddocks and barn. They flatten themselves tight on the ground, just inches from where our feet will pass, and suddenly, they spring into the air as we approach, just looking for a reaction from either the horse or myself. It never fails to unnerve me, as I’m always anticipating and fearing the horse’s response to a surprise cat attack. Interestingly, the Haflingers, used to kitten antics all night long in the barn, are completely bored by the whole show, but when the tension from me as I tighten on the lead rope comes through to them, their head goes up and they sense there must be something to fear. Then the dancing on the lead rope begins, only because I’m the one with the fear transmitted like an electric current to the Haflinger. We do this four times along the path to the barn as four kittens lay in wait, one after another, just to torment me. By the end of bringing in eight horses, I’m done in by my own case of nerves.

You’d think I’d learn to stop fearing, and start laughing at these pranksters. They are hilarious in their hiding places, their attempts to “guard” the barn door from intruders, their occasional miscalculations that land them right in front of a hoof about to hit the ground. Why I haven’t had at least one squished kitten by now is beyond my comprehension. Yet they survive to torment me and delight me yet another night. I cuddle them after the horses are all put away, flopping them on their backs in my arms, and tickling their tummies and scolding them for their contribution to my increasingly gray hair.

I’m a slow learner. These are like so many of my little daily fears, which seem to hide, blended in to the surroundings of my daily life, ready to spring at me without warning, looking like much bigger scarier things than they really are. I’m a highly skilled catastrophizer in the best of circumstances, and if I have a kitten sized worry, it becomes a mountain lion sized melodrama in no time. Only because I allow it to become so.

Stepping back, taking a deep breath, if I learn to laugh at the small stuff, then it won’t become a “cat”astrophe, now will it? If I can grab those fears, turn them over on their back and tickle their tummies until they purr, then I’m the one enjoying a good time.

I’ll try that the next time I feel that old familiar sensation of “what if?” making my muscles tense and my step quicken. I just might tolerate that walk in the dark a little better, whether it is the scary plane flight, the worry over a loved one’s health, the state of the economy, where the next terrorist will strike, or the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring.

I’ll know that behind that mountain lion is a soft loving purring fur ball, granting me relief from the mundane, for which I’m extremely grateful. Life is always an adventure, even if it is just a stroll down a barn lane in the dark wondering what might come at me next on the path.

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson

But Nothing Can Stopper Time

the golden hour of the clock of the year. Everything that can run
to fruit has already done so: round apples, oval plums, bottom-heavy
pears, black walnuts and hickory nuts annealed in their shells,
the woodchuck with his overcoat of fat. Flowers that were once bright
as a box of crayons are now seed heads and thistle down. All the feathery grasses shine in the slanted light. It’s time to bring in the lawn chairs and wind chimes, time to draw the drapes against the wind, time to hunker down. Summer’s fruits are preserved in syrup, but nothing can stopper time. No way to seal it in wax or amber; it slides though our hands like a rope of silk. At night, the moon’s restless searchlight sweeps across the sky.
~Barbara Crooker “And Now it’s October” from Small Rain.

…but I do try to stopper time.
I try every day
not to suspend it or render it frozen,
but like summer flower and fruit that withers,
to preserve any sweet moment for sampling
through stored words
or pictures
in the midst of my days of winter.
I roll it around on my tongue,
its heady fragrance
becoming today’s lyrical shared moment,
unstoppered,
perpetual
and always intoxicating.

The Ebb and Flow of Sound

What I remember is the ebb and flow of sound
That summer morning as the mower came and went
And came again, crescendo and diminuendo,
And always when the sound was loudest how it ceased
A moment while he backed the horses for the turn,
The rapid clatter giving place to the slow click
And the mower’s voice. That was the sound I listened for,
The voice did what the horses did. It shared the action
As sympathetic magic does or incantation.
The voice hauled and the horses hauled. The strength of one
Was in the other and in the strength was impatience.
Over and over as the mower made his rounds
I heard his voice and only once or twice he backed
And turned and went ahead and spoke no word at all.
~Robert Francis “The Sound I Listened For” from Collected Poems

In the rural countryside where we live, we’ve been fortunate enough to know people who still dabble in horse farming, whose draft teams are hitched to plows and mowers and manure spreaders as they head out to the fields to recapture the past and experience working the land in a way that honors the traditions of our forebears.

A good teamster primarily works with his horses using his voice. No diesel engine means hearing bird calls from the surrounding fields and woods, along with the steady footfall of the horses, the harness chains jingling, the leather straps creaking, the machinery shushing quietly as gears turn and grass lays over in submission. No ear protection is needed. There is no clock needed to pace the day.

There is a rhythm of nurture when animals instead of motors are part of the work day. The gauge for taking a break is the amount of foamy sweat on the horses and how fast they are breathing — time to stop and take a breather, time to start back up and do a few more rows, time to water, time for a meal, time for a nap, time for a rest in a shady spot.

This is gentle use of the land with four footed stewards who deposit right back to the soil the digested forage they have eaten only hours before. This is gentle to our ears and our souls, measuring the ebb and flow of sound and silence.

The horse-drawn field mower is a sound I listen for, if not next door then in my dreams.

Photo courtesy of Aaron Janicki
Photo courtesy of Aaron Janicki

The Road Ahead

He sometimes felt that he had missed his life
By being far too busy looking for it.
Searching the distance, he often turned to find
That he had passed some milestone unaware…

The path grew easier with each passing day,
Since it was worn and mostly sloped downhill.
The road ahead seemed hazy in the gloom.
Where was it he had meant to go, and with whom?
~Dana Gioia from “The Road” from 99 Poems: New and Selected

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone.
Let others follow, if they can!
Let them a journey new begin.
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Still ’round the corner there may wait
A new road or secret gate;
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.
~J.R.R Tolkien from “Roads Go Ever On”

Like many others, I have experienced the disconcerting feeling of traveling a familiar route with my mind completely disengaged. Suddenly I find myself at my destination without a conscious realization of how I even got there or what I saw along the way. Or maybe I was doing a routine daily task and later couldn’t remember having done it (did I shut off the barn faucet or are the water barrels flooding over all day?) because my head was somewhere else.

We describe this as “auto-pilot” or “body memory” or more distressingly “dissociation” — most therapists prescribe “mindfulness” to reengage us in our daily lives and thoughts. I’m not sure it is mindfulness that I practice, but I do force regular “brain check-ins” to anchor me to a time and place and task. (“yes, I have just passed that intersection where that truck and trailer almost hit me years ago and I am grateful to still be alive” or “I am now shutting off the barn faucet and won’t have to think about it again until tomorrow, thank you very much!”)

I regret “missing out” on experiencing my journey because I was so busy scanning the horizon for what is to come or looking back at where I’ve been, or watching where my feet will land or thinking about anywhere but where I was in the moment.

I need to acknowledge the milestones and not pass them by unawares — stopping at the view points, reading the historical markers, taking a breather at the rest stops. I seek to find the hidden paths and explore them rather than be solely destination-driven.

I must pay attention to who is alongside me and be ready to steady them if they trip or stumble, and pray they’ll catch me if I start to fall.

And most importantly, may I stay pointed toward the lighted inn that is awaiting all of us.

The Abundance of This Place

Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music
risen out of the ground. They will take
nothing from the ground they will not return,
whatever the grief at parting. Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light.
~Wendell Berry from “A Vision”

Into the rooms flow meadow airs,
The warm farm baking smell’s blown round.
Inside and out, and sky and ground
Are much the same;

Now straightening from the flowery hay,
Down the still light the mowers look,
Or turn, because their dreaming shook,
And they waked half to other days,
When left alone in the yellow stubble
The rusty-coated mare would graze.

~Léonie Adams from “Country Summer”

Most of the work on our farm involves the ground – whether plowing, seeding, fertilizing, mowing, harvesting – this soil lives and breathes as much as we creatures who walk over it and the plants which arise rooted to it.

Yes, there must be light. Yes, there must be moisture. Yes, there must be teeming worms and microbes deep within the dirt, digesting and aerating and thriving, leaving behind needed nutrients as they live and die.

And yes, we all become dust again, hopefully returning to the ground more than we have taken.

As I watch our rusty-coated horses graze on the stubble of these slopes and valleys, I’m reminded it is a sacrament to live in such abundance. We all started in a Garden until we desired something more, and knowing our mistake, we keep striving to return.

So this land teems with memories: of the rhythms and cycles of the seasons, of the songs and stories of peoples who have lived here for generation after generation.

Eventually we will find our way back to the abundant soil.

Breathing the Spirit of the Seasons

photo of Grandma Emma by Sara Larsen

With my arms raised in a vee,
I gather the heavens and bring
my hands down slow together,
press palms and bow my head.

I try to forget the suffering,
the wars, the ravage of land
that threatens songbirds,
butterflies, and pollinators.

The ghosts of their wings flutter
past my closed eyes as I breathe
the spirit of seasons, the stirrings
in soil, trees moving with sap.

With my third eye, I conjure
the red fox, its healthy tail, recount
the good of this world, the farmer
tending her tomatoes, the beans

dazzled green al dente in butter,
salt and pepper, cows munching
on grass. The orb of sun-gold
from which all bounty flows.
~Twyla M. Hansen “Trying to Pray” from
 Rock. Tree. Bird

There is much to pray about.
The list is endless and the need overwhelming.

Where even to begin?

It is for good reason we are advised by Paul to “pray without ceasing” (the word in Greek is adialeiptos or “uninterruptedly”) in 1 Thessalonians 5:17.

It is not only when we audibly and in form,
address our petitions to the Deity that we pray.
We pray without ceasing.
Every secret wish is a prayer.
Every house is a church;
the corner of every street is a closet of devotion.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson in his sermon: Pray Without Ceasing

A farmer may have an addendum:
every barn is a church,
every moment kneeling and weeding the soil an act of devotion,
every moment of care-taking God’s creation an act of sacramental obedience.
Praying without ceasing in the course of one’s day.

Yet even before we clasp our hands together,
we are told to “Rejoice always.”
-Rejoice before complaining.
-Rejoice before requesting.
-Rejoice before losing heart.

Let me be breathing in the spirit of the seasons, overwhelmed by joy, before I talk with God. He knows which tears are which.

Electrified With Morning

Video by Harry Rodenberger
Video by Harry Rodenberger

One swallow does not make a summer, neither does one fine day…
~Aristotle from The Nicomachean Ethics

God gives every bird his worm,
but He does not throw it into the nest. 
~Swedish Proverb

You wake wanting the dream
you left behind in sleep,
water washing through everything,
clearing away sediment
of years, uncovering the lost
and forgotten. You hear the sun
breaking on cold grass,
on eaves, on stone steps
outside. You see light
igniting sparks of dust
in the air. You feel for the first
time in years the world
electrified with morning.

You know something has changed
in the night, something you thought
gone from the world has come back:
shooting stars in the pasture,
sleeping beneath a field
of daisies, wisteria climbing
over fences, houses, trees.

This is a place that smells
like childhood and old age.
It is a limb you swung from,
a field you go back to.
It is a part of whatever you do.
~Scott Owen “Arrival of the Past”

The beginning of summer brings back early childhood memories of waking early in the morning with no plans for the day other than just showing up.

As a kid, I was never bored with so many open-ended hours before me; the air felt electric with potential adventures, whether it was building a tree fort, bushwhacking a new trail in the woods, searching out killdeer nests in the field, catching butterflies, or watching a salamander sunning itself for hours. The possibilities felt infinite and I was free as a bird to go looking for what the day had to offer.

By the time I was ten, I began to work to earn money to make my dream (owning my own horse) come true – picking berries, weeding gardens, babysitting neighbor kids. The work routine started early as dreams don’t happen without striving for them.

Now for the first time in 55 years, I awake knowing life has changed in the night: I don’t have a schedule and don’t need to show up to a job. The long summer days I thought were gone and forgotten have been here all along, just now uncovered again.

I can go back to those days of electrifying potential open-ended hours, just to simply show up to the moments before me.

I stand here, mouth open, ready to be fed.