I got out of bed on two strong legs. It might have been otherwise. I ate cereal, sweet milk, ripe, flawless peach. It might have been otherwise. I took the dog uphill to the birch wood. All morning I did the work I love. At noon I lay down with my mate. It might have been otherwise. We ate dinner together at a table with silver candlesticks. It might have been otherwise. I slept in a bed in a room with paintings on the walls, and planned another day just like this day. But one day, I know, it will be otherwise. ~Jane Kenyon “Otherwise” from Otherwise
We become complacent in our routines, confident in the knowledge that tomorrow will be very much like yesterday. The small distinct blessings of an ordinary day become lost in the rush of moving forward to the next experience, the next task, the next responsibility.
The reality is there is nothing ordinary about this day – it could be otherwise and some day it will be otherwise.
Jane Kenyon wrote much of her best poetry in the knowledge she was dying of leukemia. She reminds us that we don’t need a terminal diagnosis to understand the blessings of each ordinary moment.
So I look around longingly at the blessings of my life that I don’t even realize, knowing that one day, it will be otherwise. I dwell richly in the experience of these moments, these peaches and cream of daily life, as they are happening.
We must have known, Even as we reached Down to touch them Where we’d found them
Shut-eyed and trembling Under a straw bale In the haymow, that She would move them
That night under cover Of darkness, and that By finding them We were making certain
We wouldn’t see them again Until we saw them Crouching under the pickup Like sullen teens, having gone
As wild by then as they’d gone Still in her mouth that night She made a decision Any mother might make
Upon guessing the intentions Of the state: to go and to Go now, taking everything You love between your teeth. ~Austin Smith “Cat Moving Kittens”
I’ve never known a farm cat who doesn’t hold something back in their loyalty to their human. They are never “all in” like a dog who lavishes love without thought or hesitation.
Cats live at a bit of a remove here, particularly if they grew up without being regularly handled and cuddled.
I don’t mind our barn cats’ autonomy and self-sufficiency as they need those characteristics when they live independently outside rather than as part of furniture in the house with us. They must view the rest of the world with some suspicion and caution, viewing things from afar with their keen eyes rather than leaping in without thinking.
As I go about my day on the farm, moving from shed to barn to garage to house, I have the distinct feeling of being watched. The reality is — they could run this place on their own if they needed to — and they do.
The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was, is lost For none now live who remember it. ~J.R.R. Tolkien Galadriel’s prologue to The Fellowship of the Rings
There trudges one to a merry-making With a sturdy swing, On whom the rain comes down.
To fetch the saving medicament Is another bent, On whom the rain comes down.
One slowly drives his herd to the stall Ere ill befall, On whom the rain comes down.
This bears his missives of life and death With quickening breath, On whom the rain comes down.
One watches for signals of wreck or war From the hill afar, On whom the rain comes down.
No care if he gain a shelter or none, Unhired moves on, On whom the rain comes down.
And another knows nought of its chilling fall Upon him at all, On whom the rain comes down. ~Thomas Hardy “An Autumn Rain-scene”(1904)
The rain has returned, now six months into a changed world. The rain blows, raging against the windows and puddling in the low spots, sparing nothing and no one.
It drenches all and everyone – none of us immune from the cleansing: whether missing the joy of sweet fellowship, whether bearing urgent messages or administering badly needed medication, whether trudging through the day’s chores, whether unemployed and praying for work, whether bearing witness to ongoing divisive conflict and tragedy, or whether the rain falls chill upon those newly lying still and silent beneath the soil.
In our universal soaking, may we look at one another with a renewed compassion. Each one of us deserves a warm and comforting toweling off, being buffed and fluffed so we’re ready to face what comes next.
I’ve banked nothing, or everything. Every day the chores need doing again. Early in the morning, I clean the horse barn with a manure fork. Every morning, it feels as though it could be the day beforeor a year ago or a year before that. With every pass, I give the fork one final upward flick to keep the manure from falling out, and every day I remember where I learned to do that and from whom. Time all but stops.
But then I dump the cart on the compost pile. I bring out the tractor and turn the pile, once every three or four days. The bucket bites and lifts, and steam comes billowing out of the heap. It’s my assurance that time is really moving forward, decomposing us all in the process. ~Verlyn Klinkenborg from More Scenes from the Rural Life
I’ve written about horse manure before in a variety of contexts as it is a daily chore here to keep it picked up, wheeled to the pile, wait for it to compost and then use it to fertilize garden or fields. It is one of the crops on our farm and we take our manure management seriously.
I have not written before about our dogs’ coprophagous grins (look it up). This is a family-friendly blog so I’m not using the colloquial term that might be used while we’re out in the barn. But grinning they are, with a muzzle full of manure.
Dogs love to eat horse poop (among other things). No one has figured out why except that decomposing things – fecal, rotting or decaying- just simply smell good to a dog and what smells good must taste good. It does not smell good on their breath or, when they happily roll in it, on their fur. But they don’t seem to mind stinking to high heaven as long as it is their choice. What consenting dogs do should not concern us, right? Right – until the stink reaches the threshold of the house or man’s best friend wants to plant a slobbery kiss on your cheek.
There is a lesson here in the manure pile. There must be a pony buried here somewhere. And there is.
We human beings, proper as we may appear on the surface, like to roll around in the figurative decomposing stuff too. Especially individuals in the news this week and in the recent past who proclaim strict Christian values and are leaders in preaching standards of morality have found themselves up to their eyeballs in the stink of their own choices, surrounding themselves with it. Jobs have been lost and reputations ruined.
We almost lost a farm dog because he inadvertently overdosed on ivermectin horse wormer that may have been in ingested manure or dripped nearby. What may appear benign, no big deal and may not hurt anyone, could in fact be lethal.
So I tell the dogs to wipe that coprophagous grin off their faces and clean up their act. If I wanted to hang out with the stink of decomposition, I’d go picnic next to a nice steaming warm compost pile.
At least I know in the case of the compost pile, the manure eventually becomes something far more wholesome, thereby ultimately redeemed.
I had a dog who loved flowers. Briskly she went through the fields,
yet paused for the honeysuckle or the rose, her dark head
and her wet nose touching the face of every one
with its petals of silk, with its fragrance rising
into the air where the bees, their bodies heavy with pollen,
hovered— and easily she adored every blossom,
not in the serious, careful way that we choose this blossom or that blossom—
the way we praise or don’t praise— the way we love or don’t love— but the way
we long to be— that happy in the heaven of earth— that wild, that loving. ~Mary Oliver “Luke” from Dog Songs
Why do we not feel the joiede vivre, the ebullience and fullness of every moment? What makes us hide our nakedness rather than join in the walk in the garden in the cool of the day? What makes us choose this blossom or that, this tree or that, this fruit or that, judging for ourselves what is good, better and best?
What has happened to wild loving appreciation of the heaven of earth?
We gave it up for one taste; we lost heaven and regretted it immediately.
Even so, joiede vivre awaits, beyond this, above this. We are invited, all expenses paid, yet unearned, to go back to the way we long to be:
The incredible grace of loving wildly what we’re given.
It will not always be like this, The air windless, a few last Leaves adding their decoration To the trees’ shoulders, braiding the cuffs Of the boughs with gold; a bird preening
In the lawn’s mirror. Having looked up From the day’s chores, pause a minute, Let the mind take its photograph Of the bright scene, something to wear Against the heart in the long cold. ~Ronald Stuart Thomas A Day in Autumn
Autumn farm chores are good for the weary heart.
When the stresses of the work world amass together and threaten to overwhelm, there is reassurance in the routine of putting on muck boots, gloves, jacket, then hearing the back door bang behind me as I head outside. Following the path to the barns with my trusty corgi boys in the lead, I open wide the doors to hear the welcoming nickers of five different Haflinger voices.
The routine: loosening up the twine on the hay bales and opening each stall door to put a meal in front of each hungry horse, maneuvering the wheelbarrow to fork up accumulated manure, fill up the water bucket, pat a neck and go on to the next one. By the time I’m done, I am calmer, listening to the rhythmic chewing from five sets of molars. It is a welcome symphony of satisfaction for both the musicians and audience. My mind snaps a picture and records the song to pull out later when needed.
The horses are not in the least perturbed that I may face a challenging day. Like the dogs and cats, they show appreciation that I have come to do what I promised to do–I care for them, I protect them and moreover, I will always return.
Outside the barn, the chill wind blows gently through the bare tree branches with a wintry bite, reminding me who is not in control. I should drop the pretense. The stars, covered most nights by cloud cover, show themselves, glowing alongside the moon in a galactic sweep across the sky. They exude the tranquility of an Ever-Presence over my bowed and humbled head. I am cared for and protected; He is always there and He will return.
Saving mental photographs of the extraordinary ordinariness of barn chores, I ready myself as autumn fades to winter.
Equilibrium is delivered to my heart, once and ever after, from a stable.
I want to be like water, go low where there is least resistance, loll in the vestibules of leaks, the flaws of casks, painlessly pool around rocks, unworried about which part of me splits off. I want to flow, drop by drop, with crown-shaped splatters, hang like a spangled globule on the oily feather of a bird, jewel-like in the sun, or be flung
in diamond-crested shakes by a wet dog. Let me be of a piece, the shape of shape- lessness, like my airy partner, the fog. Let me forget I’m caught in the trap of a body, that abyss of bone and blood inside my skin where I founder, drowning. ~Enid Shomer, “Shoreless” from This Close To the Earth
I’m of an age where I try not to look at my shape in the mirror too often. My reflection reminds me too much of the ravages of time and faltering self-discipline. The old gray mare ain’t what she used to be.
I was a skinny kid, so much so that my mother despaired of ever “fattening me up” with visits to the doctor and recommendations of high calorie supplements to add “meat to my bones.” I didn’t mind this plumping up at all, having been teased mercilessly at grade school that I was “Polebean Polis”. My overweight grandmother just shook her head at my mother and told me more than once about how skinny she was too as a kid and “look at me now.”
Grandma was right, particularly considering the challenges of post-childbirth and post-menopause. It takes lots of effort to keep from becoming “shapeless” when everything conspires to loosen, round out, sag, wrinkle and droop.
I like the thought that my shape is softened by the “fog” and water of time passing. I may not have the silhouette I used to have, or the firmness of muscle, nor can you easily count my ribs, but this is no trap I inhabit. It is merely temporary housing.
The next morning I felt that our house had been lifted away from its foundation during the night, and was now adrift, though so heavy it drew a foot or more of whatever was buoying it up, not water but something cold and thin and clear, silence riffling its surface as the house began to turn on a strengthening current, leaving, taking my wife and me with it, and though it had never occurred to me until that moment, for fifteen years our dog had held down what we had by pressing his belly to the floors, his front paws, too, and with him gone the house had begun to float out onto emptiness, no solid ground in sight. ~Ted Kooser “Death of a Dog”
God… sat down for a moment when the dog was finished in order to watch it… and to know that it was good, that nothing was lacking, that it could not have been made better.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke
Twelve dogs have left pawprints on my heart over my sixty five years. Each dog of my childhood was my best friend to confide in, take walks with, to cry into the ruff of their furry necks. They always listened compassionately and never judged, even when I was in the wrong.
There was a thirteen year long dogless period while I went to college, medical school and residency, living in inhospitable urban environs, working unsuitable dog-keeping hours. Those were sad years indeed with no dog hair to vacuum or slobber to mop up.
The first dog in our married life on the farm, a Tervuren, rode home from Oregon on my pregnant lap in the passenger seat, all sixty five pounds of her. I think our first born son has a permanent dog imprint on his side as a result, and it certainly resulted in his dog-loving brain yet he has lived ten years in the largest city on earth, sadly dogless.
Six dogs and thirty four years later, we are currently owned by two gentle hobbit-souled Cardigan Corgis who are middle-aged and healthy. I hope they stick around with us for a few more years, but we have felt the unmooring of our home’s foundation when we have lost, one by one, our dog friends in the past, usually in ripe old age.
Dogs could not have been made better among God’s creations because they love unconditionally, forgive without holding a grudge and show unbounded joy umpteen times a day. It’s true–it would be nice if they would poop only in discrete off-the-path areas, use their teeth only for dog designated chew toys, and vocalize only briefly when greeting and warning, but hey, nobody is perfect.
So to Buttons, Sammy, Sandy, Sparky, Toby, Tango, Talley, Makai, Frodo, Dylan Thomas, Sam Gamgee and Homer: God sat down for a moment when He made you and saw that it was good.
You’ve been good for me too, holding fast my foundation to the ground..
Now all the doors and windows are open, and we move so easily through the rooms. Cats roll on the sunny rugs, and a clumsy wasp climbs the pane, pausing to rub a leg over her head.
All around physical life reconvenes. The molecules of our bodies must love to exist: they whirl in circles and seem to begrudge us nothing. Heat, Horatio, heat makes them put this antic disposition on!
This year’s brown spider sways over the door as I come and go. A single poppy shouts from the far field, and the crow, beyond alarm, goes right on pulling up the corn. ~Jane Kenyon, “Philosophy in Warm Weather” from Otherwise
Whether weather is very or very cold, so go our molecules — indeed our very atoms are constantly awhirl to keep us upright whenever we sweat or shiver.
This summer my doors and windows have been flung wide open; I’m seeing and hearing and feeling all that I can absorb, never to forget the gift of being human witness to it all.
Like a dog trying to catch its tail, I’m whirling in circles, trying to grab what will always elude me.
Some were pulled by the wind from moving to the ends of the stacked cages, some had their heads blown through the bars—
and could not get them in again. Some hung there like that—dead— their own feathers blowing, clotting
in their faces. Then I saw the one that made me slow some— I lingered there beside her for five miles.
She had pushed her head through the space between bars—to get a better view. She had the look of a dog in the back
of a pickup, that eager look of a dog who knows she’s being taken along. She craned her neck.
She looked around, watched me, then strained to see over the car—strained to see what happened beyond.
That is the chicken I want to be. ~Jane Mead “Passing a Truck Full of Chickens at Night on Highway Eighty” from The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, 2015
I want to be that chicken.
When life is an anxious,
even terrifying journey
and everything around me is a swirl of chaos –
I want to be able to stick my head up above the fray,
feel the wind as opportunity rather than threat
and exist content in the moment,
looking ahead to what may happen,
Reaching my mind beyond what I can hardly grasp,
I want to be that chicken
who experiences life like a dog.
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for? ~Robert Browning from “Andrea Del Sarto”