The Strength of Damaged Things

Sometimes it feels good to save something, even when it might not make sense. One Sunday at the emergency clinic, a chipmunk-sized stray kitten arrived in a cardboard box. He shivered under a coat of maggots, with a large botfly larva burrowed in his neck. I discarded logic instead of the kitten, and spent an hour with my coworker cleaning up the little guy, who rewarded us by eating ravenously. Two years ago, our barn was similarly beyond repair—not worth the time and not even very useful by current economic standards.

Sometimes it feels selfish to save something. At the end of my emergency shift full of losses, I looked at the euthanizable kitten and felt unable to kill him. I saved him to save myself. After leaving many dear places, and seeing the destruction of our family farm, a fragile part of me resisted dismantling this old barn.

Buildings, unlike kittens, do not usually inspire my affection. Since childhood, I have mistrusted human structures. Tall buildings seem to waver. Bridges cross implausible spans. Parking garages make me cold sweat. So I surprise myself by sitting calmly astride century-old hemlock beams, firing a nail gun at chin level. This is an ailing dairy barn, built by Dutch settlers, that has been used and abused by generations until the foundation crumbled.

Now, this is our barn. We have spent months un-building and rebuilding it. My hands have learned various power saws, crowbars, sledgehammer, angle grinder, nail gun, a bit of plumbing. My body has been in a trench, up to my shoulders, and on a lift, forty feet high. Somehow I trust this barn. As it often happens, familiarity has dissolved fear.

This barn is no longer an unknown, and, being human, I tend to trust what I know. I understand how the posts and beams fit together. I have stood inside the barn and lifted it with my one arm pumping a bottle jack until thin daylight appeared under a post. Sturdy creaking sounds describe this movement, and I have listened with respect, but not panic. There is surprising strength in damaged things.

My work this summer relies on that strength. I go from removing a pair of underwear that clogged a dog’s small intestine to soldering a new joint onto the old water line. Taking off my surgery-stained scrubs, I pull on overalls smeared with the dark red of our new barn siding. Hoping my reconstructions hold and none of my plumbing leaks, I realize that the outcome depends on strength that is already there.

Repairing damages is not heroic; it is messy and ordinary. It is not solitary work. At home and at the vet clinic, I am shoulder-to-shoulder with people I love, people who teach me. Many times, things do not go as expected. Important boards break. Patients die. We estimate wrong. We communicate poorly. Healing is slow. Progress is slow.

In this work, we gain intimacy with each other and with the damaged, with our own damages. Again, closeness brings understanding. We feel less afraid. We keep working, and sometimes wounded kittens sleep with full bellies. A barn stands tall, ready for whatever the next hundred years will bring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

This Thinning Ice

Let’s be clear. The ice is thinning, and we are all out on it.

Today on our frozen wetland, Stella leads the way, feeling confident because the kids explored here yesterday with Andrew. She ducks under branches, encouraging me to hold onto them and move slowly. She knows I fall down easily.

Yesterday was colder, though, and things seemed more solid than they do today. Now a crack snaps at my right foot as if beamed by imaginary lasers from my toe and heel. I jerk my feet sideways. “So if the ice cracks under you, lie down on your belly.” I tell the kids, “Spread out your weight, and squirm along to safety.” Sam spread-eagles onto the ice, trying it out. Laughing.

We are out on the ice, and although the water is only a couple of feet deep, my fear threatens to paralyze all of us. Up ahead of me, I hear loud cracks under Stella’s feet. “Ok, sweetie, come back this way!” She doesn’t move. “Stella, when you hear those cracks you need to come back! Quickly. Come away from there!”

As my voice rises, I arrive beside her. I realize the ice is fine. Her boots were cracking frozen bubbles at the surface. Stella crumples to her knees in tears because now I have shared my fear with her. We redeem ourselves, though, by holding hands and making some jokes and noticing again the beautiful way the light plays on the textured ice and how the barn cat has followed us bravely.

We are out on the ice that thins and cracks in the warming temperatures of today. I struggle with finding our course across it. I want the kids to know the truth without scaring them. And truth is, these kids and I have a luxury of not actually being in real, immediate danger here—the water would not swallow us.

Elsewhere, there are families on thinner ice, over deep water. And many families cannot choose safer ground. Even imagining this kind of fear—trapped, moment-to-moment fear for the lives of my children—feels blue hot, searing my insides.

It appears that the white men at this country’s helm cannot imagine that fear, or they simply do not care about other human beings. In rapid-fire, hate-filled executive orders, they discard people—parents, children—and the planet that sustains all of us. There are no traditional politics, or even facts, that can combat such depravity. All of us with intact empathy are trembling.

But we do not cower. So many people are transforming that blue-hot searing feeling into something visible—un-ignorable—in streets and airports, with words and wallets, with friends, neighbors, and strangers. Truth is, safer ground is changing, and we will all find ourselves on the thin ice over deep water, together.

These days, Pete Seeger’s words keep singing in my head:

Old devil fear, you with your icy hands. Old devil fear, you’d like to freeze me cold. When I’m sore afraid, my lovers gather round, and help me rise to fight you one more time.

Old devil hate, I knew you long ago, before I learned the poison in your breath. Now when I hear your lies, my lovers gather round, and help me rise to fight you one more time.

Out on this ice where things look bleak, something keeps surging in me, as irrepressible as the marching crowds. Thank you, everyone raising your voices, placing yourselves physically and otherwise in front of this administration’s barreling train of destruction. I will join you as we gather round, and help each other rise.