Broad August burns in milky skies, The world is blanched with hazy heat; The vast green pasture, even, lies Too hot and bright for eyes and feet.
Amid the grassy levels rears The sycamore against the sun The dark boughs of a hundred years, The emerald foliage of one.
Lulled in a dream of shade and sheen, Within the clement twilight thrown By that great cloud of floating green, A horse is standing, still as stone.
He stirs nor head nor hoof, although The grass is fresh beneath the branch; His tail alone swings to and fro In graceful curves from haunch to haunch.
He stands quite lost, indifferent To rack or pasture, trace or rein; He feels the vaguely sweet content Of perfect sloth in limb and brain. ~William Canton “Standing Still”
Sweet contentment is a horse dozing in the summer field, completely sated by grass and clover, tail switching and skin rippling automatically to discourage flies.
I too wish at times for that stillness of mind and body, allowing myself to simply “be” without concern about yesterday’s travails, or what duties await me tomorrow. Sloth and indifference sounds almost inviting. I’m an utter failure at both.
The closest I come to this kind of stillness is my first moments of waking from an afternoon nap. As I slowly surface out of the depths of a few minutes of sound sleep, I lie still as a stone, my eyes open but not yet focused, my brain not yet working overtime.
I simply am.
It doesn’t stay simple for long. But it is good to remember the feeling of becoming aware of living and breathing.
I want to use my days well. I want to be worthy. I want to know there is a reason to be here beyond just warning the flies away.
It is absolutely enough to enjoy the glory of it all.
The first surprise: I like it. Whatever happens now, some things that used to terrify have not:
I didn’t die young, for instance. Or lose my only love. My three children never had to run away from anyone. Don’t tell me this gratitude is complacent. We all approach the edge of the same blackness which for me is silent.
Knowing as much sharpens my delight in January freesia, hot coffee, winter sunlight. So we say
as we lie close on some gentle occasion: every day won from such darkness is a celebration. ~ Elaine Feinstein, “Getting Older” from The Clinic, Memory
It is a privilege to turn 65 today, celebrating the unofficial end of middle age and the beginning of senior citizen discounts and elder status. I’m pleased to make it this far relatively unscathed.
When I was an early grade school kid, I worried about everything: whatever could happen would happen – in my imagination. My parents would perish in an accident while I was at school. My dog would get lost and never come home. I would get sick with a dread disease that only afflicts one in a million children, but I would be that one.
The worries went on and on, often keeping me awake in the night and certainly ensuring that I had stomach aches every morning so my mother would keep me home from school where life felt safer. Our pediatrician, who saw me much more regularly than was actually necessary, would look at me over his glasses with a gentle penetrating gaze, put his hands on my shoulders as I squirmed about on the noisy paper on his exam table, and tell me for the umpteenth time I was 110% healthy so there was nothing I needed to worry about. I now try to instill this confidence in my own patients, thanks to that good man.
But I knew I needed to worry; somehow the worry was a talisman that kept the awful darkness of bad stuff away, things like nuclear bombs and polio outbreaks and earthquakes. That is a heavy load for a little kid to carry, making sure everything stays right with the universe. None of it ever happened in my sheltered little life so I must have been doing something right!
Thankfully, by the time I turned nine, I finally learned to coexist with the inherent risks of daily life, as I realized I, in fact, wasn’t in control of the universe. We lived okay through a 6.3 earthquake. We lived through a 114 mph windstorm that took out the power for a week. We lived through my grandpa dying. Later on I lived through some hard stuff that is painful to even recall so I’d rather not.
Growing older means realizing that bad stuff will happen, and it is usually survivable yet the reality is: life on earth itself isn’t survivable. I’ve seen and experienced plenty of traumatic things over 65 years, and have seen how heroic people can be in the worst possible situations. I’ve even been a bit heroic when I needed to be. But I’ve learned my confidence can’t be in myself or anyone else, and rests in Someone who really is in charge of the universe and who knows all that was, is and will be.
Oh, I still worry. It is hard to stop when it is deeply engrained in my DNA, having descended from a long line of worriers. My children are not grateful for that genetic gift to them. I’m sure my grandchildren won’t thank me either.
Yet, every day I snatch back from that darkness is reason for celebration, and today is no different.
Nearly 24,000 days under my belt of celebrating being here. Hoping for more gentle occasions like this one.
And the seasons they go round and round And the painted ponies go up and down We’re captive on the carousel of time We can’t return, we can only look behind From where we came And go round and round and round In the circle game… ~Joni Mitchell “The Circle Game”
those lovely horses, that galloped me,
moving the world, piston push and pull,
into the past—dream to where? there, when
the clouds swayed by then trees, as a tire
swing swung me under—rope groan.
now, the brass beam, holds my bent face,
calliope cadence—O where have I been? ~Richard Maxson “Carousel at Seventy”
Sixty years ago in July, I was a five year old having her first ride on the historic carousel at Woodland Park Zoo before we moved from Stanwood to Olympia. Fifty years ago — a teenager watching the first men walk on the moon the summer I started work as an assistant to a local dentist. Forty years ago — deep in the guts of a hospital working a forty hour shift thinking about the man who was to become my husband. Thirty years ago — my husband and I picking up bales of hay with two young children in tow after I had just accepted a new position doctoring at the local university & we are offered an opportunity to buy a larger farm. Twenty years ago — with three children and our farm house remodel complete, we have three local parents with health issues needing support, helping with church activities and worship, raising Haflinger foals and organizing a summer local Haflinger gathering of nearly 100 horses and owners, planning a new clinic building. Ten years ago — two sons launched with one about to move to Japan, a daughter at home with a new driver’s license, my mother slowly bidding goodbye to life at a local care center, farming is less about horse raising and more about gardening, starting to record life on my blog. Five years ago — two sons married, a daughter off in the midwest as a camp counselor so our first summer without children at home. Time for a new puppy! Now – O where have I been? We can only look behind from where we came.
The decades pass, round and round – there is comfort knowing that through the ups and downs of daily life, I am still hanging on and if I slip and fall, there is Someone ready to catch me.
O! for a horse with wings! ~William Shakespeare from Cymbeline
One reason why birds and horses are happy is because they are not trying to impress other birds and horses. ~Dale Carnegie
When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it; ~William Shakespeare from Henry V
We all should have a buddy who will simply hang out with us, helping to keep the biting flies away by gobbling them up before they draw blood.
It is symbiosis at its best: a relationship built on mutual trust and helpfulness. In exchange for relief from annoying insects that a tail can’t flick off, a Haflinger serves up bugs on a smorgasbord landing platform located safely above farm cats and marauding coyotes.
Thanks to their perpetual full meal deals, these birds do leave “deposits” behind that need to be brushed off at the end of the day. Like any good friendship, having to clean up the little messes left behind is a small price to pay for the bliss of companionable comradeship.
We’re buds after all – best forever friends.
And this is exactly what friends are for: one provides the feast and the other provides the wings. We’re fully fed and we’re free.
This time of year our farm is brilliant, verdant and delicious to behold. The cherry orchard blossoms have yielded fruit and the pastures are knee high with grass. By mid-June, the daylight starts creeping over the eastern foothills at 4 AM and the last glimpse of sun disappears at nearly 10 PM. So many hours of light to work with!
Yet today I yearn for a dark rainy day to hide inside with a book even when the lawnmower and weed whacker call my name, and the fish pond needs cleaning and the garden must be weeded. It’s not that things don’t happen on the farm during months like this. It’s just that nothing we do is enough. Blackberry brambles take over everything, grass grows faster than we can keep it mowed down, the manure piles grow exponentially.
The fences always need fixing. The old hay barn is falling down and needing to be resurrected. The weather is becoming iffy with rain in the forecast so we may not have anything but junk hay in the barn this winter in a year when hay will cost a premium. For a decade now we have stopped breeding our Haflinger horses as even the demand for well bred horses is not robust enough to justify bringing more into the world.
Suddenly our farm dream seems not nearly so compelling.
We spent many years dreaming about our farm as we hoped it would be. We imagined the pastures managed perfectly with fencing that was both functional and beautiful. Our barns and buildings would be tidy and leak-proof, and the stalls secure and safe. We’d have a really nice pick up truck with low miles on it, not a 30 year old hand me down truck with almost 250,000 miles. We would have trees pruned expertly and we’d have flower beds blooming and a vegetable garden yielding 9 months of the year. Our hay would never be rained on. We would have dogs that wouldn’t run off and cats that would take care of all the rodents. We wouldn’t have any moles, thistles, dandelions or buttercup. The pheasant, deer, coyotes, raccoons, and wild rabbits (even the occasional cougar, lynx and bear!) would only stroll through the yard for our amusement and not disturb anything. We’d have livestock with the best bloodlines we could afford and a steady demand from customers to purchase their offspring at reasonable prices so that not a dime of our off-farm income would be necessary to pay farm expenses. Our animals (and we) would never get sick or injured.
And our house would always stay clean.
Dream on. Farms are often back-breaking, morale-eroding, expensive sinkholes. I know ours is. Yet here we be and here we stay.
It’s home. We raised three wonderful children here. We’ve bred and grown good beef and horses and great garden and orchard crops and tons of hay from our own fields. We breathe clean air and enjoy hearing dozens of different bird songs and look out at some of the best scenery this side of heaven. Eagles land in the trees in our front yard.
It’s all enough for us even if we are not enough for the farm. I know there will come a time when the farm will need to be a fond memory and not a daily reality. Until then we will keep pursuing our dream as we and the farm grow older. Dreams age and mature and I know now what I dreamed of when I was younger was not the important stuff.
We are blessed with one another, with the continuing sunrises and the sunsets and everything in between. This is the stuff of which the best dreams are made.
All day he’s shoveled green pine sawdust out of the trailer truck into the chute. From time to time he’s clambered down to even the pile. Now his hair is frosted with sawdust. Little rivers of sawdust pour out of his boots.
I hope in the afterlife there’s none of this stuff he says, stripping nude in the late September sun while I broom off his jeans, his sweater flocked with granules, his immersed-in-sawdust socks. I hope there’s no bedding, no stalls, no barn
no more repairs to the paddock gate the horses burst through when snow avalanches off the roof. Although the old broodmare, our first foal, is his, horses, he’s fond of saying, make divorces. Fifty years married, he’s safely facetious.
No garden pump that’s airbound, no window a grouse flies into and shatters, no ancient tractor’s intractable problem with carburetor ignition or piston, no mowers and no chain saws that refuse to start, or start, misfire and quit...
…then he says let’s walk up to the field and catch the sunset and off we go, a couple of aging fools.
I hope, he says, on the other side there’s a lot less work, but just in case I’m bringing tools. ~Maxine Kumin from “Chores”
When I pull open the barn doors every morning and close them again each evening, as our grandparents did one hundred years ago, six rumbling voices rise in greeting. We exchange scents, nuzzle each others’ ears, rumble grumble back a response.
We do our chores faithfully as our grandparents once did– draw fresh water into buckets, wheel away the pungent mess underfoot, release an armful of summer from the bale, reach under heavy manes to stroke silken necks.
We don’t depend on our horses’ strength and willingness to don harness to carry us to town or move the logs or till the soil as our grandparents did.
Instead, these soft eyed souls, born on this farm over two long decades ago, are simply grateful for our constancy morning and night to serve their needs until the day comes they need no more.
And we depend on them to depend on us to be there to open and close the doors; their low whispering welcome gives voice to the blessings of living on a farm ripe with rhythms and seasons, sunrises and sunsets that keep coming, as if yesterday, today and tomorrow are just like one hundred years ago.