We Are Not Alone: A Cell-Based Model

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My dad hangs up from our morning conversation to make a necessary business call. We’ve been rambling about the brave and terrifying endeavor of farming, and how Andrew and I will be insulated by our jobs from the raw risks that my dad and mom faced, farming. After he signs off, I forget myself for a minute and keep the phone pressed to my ear, not ready to disconnect. In the silence, I hear my pulse.

Our bodies keep a fine balance between allowing blood to flow and stopping blood from flowing; it’s called hemostasis. I used to think financial stability was linear, like medicine’s older models of hemostasis. In veterinary school, we charted how blood clots as two pathways, separate until they join at the end, neatly. Until recently, I’ve viewed keeping money in our accounts as a similarly straightforward process.

Put in money from our paychecks. Pay sensible bills. Refrain from spending extravagantly. Draw some arrows, add some Roman numerals for effect, and you arrive at the bottom of the chart with a magical balance that prevents uncontrolled hemorrhage of money.

The past year or so, however, blew up my chart. We followed the formula, with paychecks and sensible bills, but unexpected variables appeared. The cat, the car, and I all required surgery. We lost money on a house we owned, then finally sold. We moved for the second time in two years, then planned to move again. Our bank account looked anemic.

This fall, I took a veterinary continuing education seminar on hemostasis, “My Patient is Bleeding and Won’t Stop.” It was a prelude to transfusion medicine. Some patients just won’t survive without transfusion. “The ideal donor,” the critical care specialist said in his British accent, “is healthy with a good temperament—placid and sensible—and very food motivated.” My parents, who kept us from crashing this year, were ideal donors.

Not every bleeding bank account gets the support it needs and survives. We are beyond lucky. I have whole new definitions for stability, humility, and gratitude.

Having a frugal temperament and minimalist tastes, I’ve enjoyed modest financial stability since my first real job at age sixteen. I don’t recognize myself in critical financial condition. New arrows and factors clutter my tidy chart for stable finances. My emerging understanding of managing money as an adult has shifted from, “Why does this seem so hard for some people,” to “This is more complicated than I thought,” to “How does anyone stay afloat in this real, real world?”

Medical experts have recently had more complex insights into our bodies’ processes for hemostasis. Stepping back from tidy, separate cascades, they’ve begun drawing messier pictures with more circles and arrows weaving around each other. It’s called a “cell-based model,” which tells me that its okay to look at things in context, to consider the complications, and that the tangles are just what happens when your heart keeps pushing your blood through your messy body.  It tells me that the processes of living don’t happen neatly, in a void, and that we are not alone in trying to figure them out.

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The Bones Are Just Bones

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Reaching behind the baseboard heater under the bay window, sweeping my fingers between studs, I discover bones. I am scooping out plaster chunks and piles of old insulation churned into nests of mouse droppings. The new insulation can then fluff into the whole wall space, trapping baseboard heat inside the house. To this end, I excavate.

I might be starting to feel a little grumpy about it—this cloying gray dust, these insidious pink insulation fibers, mouse turds. The mess comes in waves, never fully receding. I lift crunching fistfuls from inside the walls. There’s no shortcut to doing this work right. Except that we have shortcut this project, hiring an excellent guy named Jimmy, and the walls will soon be finished.

New sheetrock, skillfully smoothed with mud, will hide this house’s secrets, discovered as we have stripped off layers. In one seemingly solid wall, a window still hung, covered by a plastic blind, then old sheetrock, then faux wood paneling, then paint. Surrounding the bay window, the studs dangled in mid-air—a floating wall, left unsupported when someone chopped a hole to add the large window. And between the studs once lived metropolitan numbers of mice.

From among tufts of insulation, I extract the skeleton. It is headless, but exquisitely intact. The spine remains whole; each caudal vertebra stacks into a long curving tail, dwindling to the last eyelash-sized bone. One leg is separated at the knee, but not broken, and each tiny digit still hinges on the complete foot. On my next cautious dip into the wall, I retrieve the skull. Curved incisors, miniature molars.

Now I arrange it in the morning light, clearing a space among tools on the bay window ledge. Breath held, I watch it curl there, a small life that passes behind a wall. How is it possible to be so fragile, yet remain nearly whole, even among the rubble?

Near where the skeleton emerged, I find a papery section of snakeskin. Another life passes through the wall, outgrowing itself, stretching and splitting open, leaving its own evidence of survival. I place the thin layer of snake beside the intricate mouse. The sun, lifting well above trees now, warms the dust around them.

Kneeling in the light, I succumb to the details for long moments. This does not complete the job very fast, but I am doing my work.

I will keep this skeleton and shard of skin to show the kids, who seem only politely interested. Later, 3-year-old Stella will announce calmly, while eating a turkey leg, “The bones are just bones.” And I will think that she is right, and finally toss both mouse and snake into the compost, to start over.

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Ode to the Shovel

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O shovel, with yellow blade and curved handle for sparing my unspared back. It glides my driveway like a typewriter, old technology, back and forth.

Like vacuuming, which my mom once told me organizes your brain. So I welcome repetition—lean, push, walk, lift, lean, push. By spring, my thoughts will be color-coded and alphabetical, sitting neatly on dust-free shelves.

Like pulling a paddle through a lake. Canoeing Minnesota’s Boundary Waters for our honeymoon, I notched my paddle each day until twenty-eight tallies gouged the pale wood. On this first, honeymoon winter at the farm, I feel the urge to mark my shovel. To etch its plastic each day, or maybe cover it with decals, like a well-traveled guitar case.

This work, I realize, is for our cars, which I envy as I brush thick snow from their windows and headlights, then clear a path before them. Such service we provide them.

Shoveling in tandem, we stay close enough to talk, but mostly don’t talk. Work towards each other, then one of us moves a dozen paces upslope and starts fresh. He doesn’t rush, conserving energy with efficient form. His shoulders square, he pushes and hoists snow calmly onto growing piles. I hunch my shoulders, two hands gripping, bulldozing. My feet hustle. I barely contain exuberance. In work, we each echo our own parents.

O shovel, light enough for kids to help. It meanders ahead of Sam, carving a path all over, up and down, looping the car six times. Stella places one mitten on the handle, walks with me. At the driveway’s edge, she screws up her face and grunts her hand into the air, assisting my lift and toss.

Heavy snow makes me feel both real and charmed. Dormant muscles awaken to the snow’s relentless coming, to its sparkling weight. So much devotion to moving piles of water out of our way. I imagine the garden this summer and how much we might plant when I swap this shovel for another, dig soil, and turn all this shoveling energy into food.

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When Everything Is Cancelled

2015-02-01 21.38.48Full of Georgia sweet potatoes that we baked in crisp, soft-centered medallions for lunch, we have enough energy to head outside. That is, we have enough energy to spend 20 minutes herding our kids into the layers of clothing, snowpants, hats, mittens, scarves, coats, and boots required in zero degree, still-snowing weather. Sam wears my grandpa Andrew Lehman’s scarf, which I wore in college, crocheting a bright orange patch to keep it alive. Stella wears the hat my husband Andrew wore when we first started dating in college; she likes its dangly pom-pom.

2015-02-01 21.39.10Well-packaged, we clomp out through our disheveled mudroom and into the snow. It fell most of the night and all morning. It keeps coming, now in small fast bits that tingle our cheeks, and now in bigger dreamy flakes that circle and move sideways. The driveway needs shoveling for the fourth time, but it’ll wait.

We have sleds.

We have a rip-ready 5 year old and a semi-convinced 3 year old and all of the enthusiasm from our own childhoods juicing our untrained limbs. Neither kid can make much headway in snow up to their waists, so we tote them. Stella, wary of the sled, will only ride piggyback. Sam squawks excitedly riding uphill on the sled pulled by Andrew.

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In fact, it’s slow sledding, this nearly two feet of softness. We leave the sleds and hike uphill towards a tall drift, wading through snow that varies from calf-deep to butt-deep.

2015-02-01 22.28.14Moving with resistance feels satisfying. I have always loved being immersed in water. Even frozen into billions of unique, feathery crystals, this water holds us. It cushions, forgiving us when we flail and fall. We can swim. I feel buoyant.



2015-02-01 22.15.29I feel out of breath. We flop down at the base of the drift. Soon, Andrew tosses Sam on top of it, and they make a sliding board, which delights even our skeptical Stella, who forgets her frozen nose while sliding. Then, Andrew digs like a badger, emerging with his beard frosted from inside a cave that Sam can nearly sit up in.

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Thrashing back downhill, we carry our kids and the warmth of exertion. My ears are full of my breathing, creaking snow under my boots, and the swish of my waterproof pants, but the world is quiet when I pause.

Gulps of the air taste like our well water, fresh and cold. Our legs and sleds have plowed tracks across the smooth hill, and we follow ourselves back to the house.2015-02-01 22.32.28


Tomorrow morning, the wind will have swept the glowing hillside clean. The only deep tracks around the house will be from a rabbit that must’ve gone in over his ears with each hop.

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