Five years ago if someone had asked me where I would see myself today, I guess I would not have imagined this place: an old post and beam barn of a small sheep farm, hay covering the dress I wear for my job at the bookstore, sheep poop speckled muck boots on my feet. If someone had told me five years ago that life would change so much it would take me away from the domestic life I had created to one that was composed of books, writing, long busy days, occasional forays into hayfields and long rows of someone else’s tomatoes, I think I would have laughed in their face. After all, I was living my dream wasn’t I?
This homesteading life, this stay-at-home mother life was what I wanted. When my husband and I had our first date, we learned we shared the same dream: to live in a small place in the woods, provide our own food, live simply. I had come to this dream after learning a few valuable lessons. When I was 29 I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. I was a single mother, my older son was only 3 years old. Just days before I got sick I was running 6 miles, dancing with an improvisational dance group, zooming all over the busy maternity unit where I worked as a nursing assistant. My initial reaction to the diagnosis was to deny that it would have any significant impact on my life: which, obviously, was only going to be a short term strategy until the next exacerbation. Over the following years I journeyed between the instinct that a busy type-A lifestyle was not going to serve my long term abilities and the day to day realities of rent, single parenting and increasing poor health.
Maybe it was a Mother Earth News Magazine or maybe a book by the Nearings, either way it was a culmination of the right information appearing during the second exacerbation in a year, while on a new MS drug, that lead me to make something positive happen. I called around until I found the phone number of the the manager of Portland (Maine) Community Gardens. A simple remedy to better health was found in soil. In the garden my mind could wander, I learned how to be in “this moment”; the breeze bobbing the sunflower, the lady bug on the dill, the worm wrestling with a greedy pitchfork, the osprey riding thermals overhead. I learned to pace according to what my body could do; somedays only able to pull up a few weeds, other days hauling compost by the wheelbarrow load. In the garden I imagined a whole life created around this simple need: grow food, preserve it, cook it and eat it. I also saw a pathway to health that did not sacrifice an acknowledged need to feel productive.
As our romance became a serious relationship, my husband and I did not just dream but planned our homesteading life. We bought land, poured over house plans and seed catalogs. Marriage, a baby and finally a house in the country with a pig, chickens, sheep, a big garden and a pantry full of summer labor. It all seemed magical at the time. Livestock stories collected to share with our families. Knowledge gleaned from experience and curiosity. Satisfaction in labor that directly connects to the table. Quiet days. In retrospect, maybe too quiet. Maybe too comfortable. Divorce was about to reboot my life again.
I think a disruptive change, a change we may not have a choice in, like illness or divorce, is an opportunity; even if it is painful. It is an invitation to learn what needs to fall away to make room for something new. This may not just be those externalities of career, house, geography; it can also mean an examination of habits of mind, emotional triggers which sabotage our own happiness. It is also a time to really know what is essentially important. Yes, life changes, we may let go of much but we don’t have to let go of it all. I am reminded of this as I enter the barn to take care of a farm sitting client’s flock of a dozen Romney sheep. For two weeks I drive to this farm. I lay grain in their trough, load them up on hay, fill their water and make sure they have their mineral. I also stand outside their pasture and watch as they raise their head to my presence and shuttle into the barn for their meal. Inside the barn, only the sound of their hooves shushing through the straw as they enter to eat. When they are sated they lift their heads in unison with hope for a little more grain from my hand. It is a quiet moment of grace in an otherwise hectic day. One I am fully aware of and open to receiving.
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