Mother: Part Science, Part Magic

As my hand buzzes the circular saw through scrap two-by-fours, no one is making supper. Andrew steadies the boards while I power the screws in place, and the skeleton of a moveable sheep shelter arises from the concrete barn floor. Our kids are tucked into their screen-time—although I think this is their school’s screen-free week—and will forgive a very late supper of noodles and sauce, minus veggies. I’m counting on the idea that parenting, as my mom says, is more about the overall average than a particular meal or moment. There are many ways to be a mother.

As a noun, mother expands far beyond her first definition as a female parent. Mother is a woman in authority, leader of a religious group. Mother is the source, origin—calling up images of soil and water. When speaking of an extreme or ultimate example, especially in size, we might say, “That is the mother of all roller coasters,” or ice cream sundaes or construction projects. We might say, as writer Cheryl Strayed did to encourage a woman to be strong and honest in her writing, “Write like a motherf***er.” We might open a mussel and admire the luminous lining, the mother of pearl.

As a verb, to mother is to give rise to, and to care for and protect. Being a mother, by definition, is powerful, large, and fierce, as well as tender. I note with relief that the prerequisites do not require excellence in organizing school papers, mopping the kitchen floor, or folding laundry. Mother embraces and exceeds the ordinary and spectacular and complicated acts of bearing and raising children.

Another image arises in these definitions: a mother of vinegar. This mother hovers in liquid—not pretty, but transformative. It is a film or jelly, a slimy clot of cellulose and bacteria. The mother turns alcohol into vinegar in the presence of oxygen. I love this name for something so alive and potent. The mother seems part science, part magic—performed by a messy pile of life. It fits.

As mother’s day approaches this year, I am sawing old barn siding into pieces to fit our sheep shack. Each cedar board tapers, from thin to thinner, made to overlap the board below it and stronger when nestled above the one before them. I handle them gently, aware of my own overlapping—my mother below me, my children above. All of them alive and close to me in this season.

Mother, children, alive, close. There are no assumptions or guarantees in these words. So while I stack the fragrant, fragile boards, I think of children wanted or unwanted, lost before they arrived or lost suddenly or lost after painful struggles. I think of mothers able or unable to care for or protect. Mothers lost early or late. Children and mothers, sharing the extremes of pain and joy. I stack the boards, thinking of how things change.

Together, Andrew and I nail the siding to the structure, with Stella handing us nails. All of our previous mobile pasture shelters have ended up less mobile than planned, so we snap our pulling straps (dog leashes) into place with trepidation. But this time, our educated guesses have proven correct. To our surprise, it sails across the grass behind us: part science, part magic.

This sturdy shack is a mothership, a protective structure allowing for pliable, changing lives, and a home base to follow, to leave, and where to return. We celebrate the strength of this ship. We will treat her gently, support her work, and anchor her so she does not blow away.

 

Immersion in Asparagus

I have just learned how to plant asparagus from a nice man on YouTube. I found him shortly after I cut open one of our cardboard boxes from Stark Brothers Nursery. The asparagus crowns lurked in plastic bags—strange, white, squid-like plants, unlike anything I’ve ever planted. The asparagus video reveals a much more intensive process than I anticipated, but luckily I tend to be energetic and naïve at the front end of a big project. So I dig in.

I hack a long trench that will become our asparagus bed. Soil piles up along the trench’s sides, and the chickens arrive to poach juicy worms. Muscles awaken in my arms and back; they wake up a little grumpy. I am having fun, though, and trundle past the garden to the compost pile. After I fill the wheelbarrow with dark organic material, I can barely push it upslope, but the chickens help me churn it into the trench bottom. I add a wheelbarrow of crushed stone, mix, then hoe two mounds lengthwise in the trench. It is finally ready for asparagus crowns.

I have heard bringing book into the world compared with having a child, but this analogy is not my experience. For me, writing a book resembles planting asparagus, or trees—not flowers, but plants who demand serious digging and delay our gratification.

Yesterday, I knelt in the heavy drizzle, mud soaking my jeans while I planted pawpaw trees. At this early stage, the trees were glorified pencils, with a few tiny branches. Most of each tree was underground. I tenderly fanned out a sapling’s roots and palmed soft soil around them. Here it will anchor and grow into a life of its own. Six years ago, I held something equally spindly, mostly underground—the beginning of my book—and decided to let it take root.

Now I kneel again in light rain, in the asparagus trench. Not being one to hamper my creative momentum with excess planning, I find myself revising extensively. I space the asparagus crowns one foot apart, until I am halfway down the trench and realize they need to be farther apart.

After several rounds of scootching asparagus forward and hopping them to the end, I discover that at 18 inches apart, the 32 plants exactly fit my trench. With the book, I also found myself leapfrogging sections, cutting an entire chapter, splitting one chapter into two, and writing most of a new one. I could have measured things better from the start, but perhaps the process was necessary for me.

Tossing soil in the trench, I race against the chickens. They dart their beaks at the white worms of asparagus lying across the mounds. My reluctant muscles are angry, but I finish tucking all the soil back into the bed as the rain relieves me of watering responsibilities.

Now it is springtime for my book and our farm—full of newness and promise. I’ve brought home four small Romney lambs in the back of our Honda Fit. Two boxes of Red Ranger meat chicks—125 of them—have arrived from the post office. We are planting in the rain and after dark to keep up with deliveries of trees and berry plants. And two weeks ago, my book released into the world, as if finally bursting into bloom.

The fruit from my book is sweet, and I have already begun to taste its ability to connect me with longtime friends and new people. As my book finds readers, I am savoring the space created between us by these words, which bear more fruit in the mind and life of a reader. As with the asparagus and pawpaws, it seems that the book will grow into a life of its own.

But there is an important difference. At the end of the asparagus video, the nice man stands with shovel in hand. He says, “Then be happy that you’ll never have to this in your lifetime again, and you should have asparagus for 10, 20, 30 years.” While I do feel that relief about asparagus planting, I am already scheming about my next book.

We Would Give Them The Stars

“Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and the daughters of Life’s longing for itself.”

Kahlil Gibran

For the first time in their lives, our kids want to fall asleep by themselves. They scheme up this plan, in cahoots, and pitch it to me. So Andrew and I doze on the living room sofa, while the kids giggle in their shared room. When we rouse ourselves enough to go upstairs to bed at ten, the kids seem not-quite-asleep, but settled.

Near midnight, the dog barks downstairs. I roll out of bed, entirely disoriented, to check on things. On my way, I peek into the kids’ room. Something seems off. I look closer. Their beds are empty.

Luckily, my brain is so slow and bleary that I do not panic. Someone probably had to pee. I bumble downstairs, but the living room is dark and quiet. So is the kitchen. And the bathroom. There are no kids in this house.

I turn on the kitchen light and lift Sam’s blankie from the radiator and hold it limply, feeling something fall away inside me. “Were they stolen?” I ask the dog, who stands calmly looking at the front door, head up, tail waving softly.

Then the mudroom door opens, and they appear. I resist flinging myself at them. They are in full winterwear—hats, boots, coats, snowpants—suitable for the cold, snowy night. As I help them unzip, I see they are shirtless underneath, but each wearing pajama pants. We are mutually baffled. They have come inside, I will learn later, because they saw me walking past the kitchen window and wondered what I was doing.

They went outside because they wanted to see the stars.

These two kids, five and seven years old, have gone out in the darkness, looking for beauty. They can seek the midnight stars here because the air is clear. Plentiful clean water wells up from the ground here. The soil and water grow good food. We are so lucky.

It is not only luck, though, that produces star-worthy nights, healthy air, and potable water. We make choices—individually, as a community, and nationally—that will directly keep the air and water clean or foul it up. We will all have to live with these choices, our own and others’.

In the White House, the hand that undoes protections for these basics of life is clutching at delusions. He is a puppet, manipulated by greed. With the jerk of a pen, he dismisses breathing and drinking, as if there is any other way for our children to survive.

And couldn’t we at least all agree that we want our children to survive? If we could, we would even give them the stars.

When I finally have our kids tucked in and asleep, I climb back into bed myself. “The kids were outside,” I say aloud, startling sleeping Andrew.

“What?”

“The kids were outside.”

“By themselves?!”

“Yep. They wanted to go look at the stars.”

“Bless their hearts.”

In the Imperfect

 

We are hunched over a 500-piece puzzle when Sam sinks part of the edge into place. “Perfect!” I tell him.

“It’s great, not perfect, Mom,” Sam says. “There is no perfect.”

I almost weep with relief that he has, at some level, learned this truth, despite me.

Outside, Andrew and I have been working on another puzzle, sorting a barnful of wood into various piles. This stack will become a mobile pasture house for our laying hens, and that stack goes towards a camping shelter up on the hill. Several other piles will line the walls of our renovated barns. Also, I have insisted on a pile that we call “art,” for future projects with the beautiful, century-old barn wood. Everything else will burn.

We are clearing the wood from this barn because it is falling down and not worth saving, except in pieces dedicated to other structures. Traipsing back and forth inside the barn is companionable. We talk about plans. We look at each board, deciding its destiny. Gradually, the inside of the barn is emptying, tidying, and being prepared for careful demolition.

When we close the barn door, though, and head to the house, the barns look the same from the outside. So much effort is simply preparation for change. We have made many repairs here in the past two years, but big projects teach patience. Fixing an entire farm can take a lifetime, and it will never be perfect.

Some languages, such as Spanish, have an imperfect verb tense, which refers to events that happened repeatedly or continuously in the past. If we are lucky, someday we can use verbs in the imperfect to tell these stories, to describe how we worked on this farm.

Meanwhile, I am amazed that the view from our kitchen window is never the same, even when the barns’ imperfections are not changing. The shifting light and sky remind me that there are forces other than ourselves at work here, creating beauty. Even the ground itself changes. We are part of what shapes this scene, joining the seasons and plants and light in making this place. Not perfect, but life-giving and lovely.

As Sam and I scrutinize our puzzle, we try to guess just how imperfect the final product will be, knowing that our dog has been snacking fallen pieces from the floor. Days later, when Sam sets the final piece into the puzzle, there are seven pieces missing. Today, the picture is not complete, but we still feel satisfied with our work.

 

 

 

The Dangerous Thing About Searching

The dangerous thing about reading maps is following them out your door into the world. So I am out the door at noon and across the barnyard and into the woods and topping our hill. In my mind, I carry a map of the Barrack Zourie cave system, seemingly named by Tolkien. A map can resemble a good book in this way, taking you so far beyond yourself that you seem different when you return.

The dangerous thing about going out your door is wanting to keep going, which I blame on the sunlight setting crisp shadows onto the snow. My laced-up waterproof boots and insulated overalls—rugged and encouraging—are equally to blame. Luring me on, though, is also the Barrack Zourie, the mountain close to our hilltop and the long complex of tubes and caverns traversing underground, Southwest of the depression where our farmstead sits: Buried Valley.

Thin black lines squiggle across the cave map. I begin to read the circled numbers—depths, heights. Rappelling into Barn Entrance from the surface would drop you 98 feet into the Sewers, where the water is two feet deep and the ceiling is two feet above the water surface. An ill-advised left turn out of the Sewers ends at Death’s Door, but a right turn leads to Bluestone Highway. Further on, a tunnel called Bloody Hell leaves La Grande Chambre, connecting to Nothing Yet Passage, with a twelve-foot ceiling. In Whale’s Belly and The Swim, the ceiling is four feet above the water, but the water is six feet deep.

The dangerous thing about going onward is beginning to feel like you’re searching for something. Based on the map, I should be able to find a cave opening somewhere just off my path: Cave Mistake. Not a real entrance, but irresistibly named. As I zig-zag through the almost frozen woods, I wonder if Cave Mistake is the kind of cave opening that would require rappelling into, and if so, how obvious would such a drop be if disguised by leaf litter and light snow cover. I watch the dog covering twice my distance, trusting that if she remains up top, so will I.

The dangerous thing about searching is not finding the thing, which might be more relief than disappointment when searching for Cave Mistake. Instead I find rabbit urine staining the snow like red wine, a turkey feather’s velvet spread, curling ice designs, a tree hole rasped by a pileated woodpecker. Beavers have tackled an impressive tree along the wetland, in view of Barrack Zourie Mountain. I keep hiking in the bright woods, with my mind traveling underground and here at the surface, finding exactly what I came out here for.