Sewn Together

*Five years ago this week: Sandy Hook Elementary School, which should have been enough. This post contains gunshots. And sewing. With love. 

For reasons I do not completely understand, I am sewing a small sleeping bag, by hand.

First I cut a pattern from the large brown paper filler in the shipping box. I hold it up to the doll, who is blinking her eyes closed, lying still in her box. Her shiny two ponytails come to the waist of her cargo capris, which meet her wooly socks. She wears little pink hiking boots but can switch to even pinker crocs, presumably around the campsite in the evening. All eighteen inches of her will fit inside the sleeping bag.

For two dollars, I bought a yard of robin’s-egg blue satin. It was the closest thing I saw to whatever slippy material makes sleeping bags. This mini mummy-style bag will be extra silky—prom dress meets outdoor equipment. My palms smooth the satin onto our card table, and I pin the paper pattern onto it, as if I have done this before, but I haven’t. I also bought a lime green zipper, as if I know how to install it. Without consulting You Tube, my fingertips bend the satin along the zipper. I want to feel my way through this pretty, frivolous project.

I can sew. Last Sunday, I spent two hours sewing together the muscle bellies, then the skin on the underside of a dog’s chest. As I cleaned hair and dirt from deep inside the wound, I thought about the path of the bullet—perpendicular to the dog, grazing the sternum. My curved scissors trimmed away singed-grey tissue to reveal pink. We flushed and flushed the wound crater, trying to wash away what contaminates a body. Gunshot wounds are ugly. I imagined emergency doctors facing a person with such wounds—or, as has become frequent, many gunshot people in one event.

Gunshots in life—more abrupt than this wound alongside a holiday sewing project. Now it is bright blue satin and a camping doll for Christmas. Now it is flesh inverted, blown open. Our hearts bleed. We race towards the wounded. Then, when we could change the rules to help, we look away.

I understand that a gun can be a tool—a device held in your hand to perform a task. It can send a single bullet through a single deer in a field behind our house. In this animal, I leave the ugly wound, and we trim away the flesh for our freezer. We do this together, quietly, with mixed feelings. Even here, the gun is a tool for ending life, nothing else.

When do we need tools for killing? What do we gain from the freedom to have tools that destroy many lives, in moments? We gain people dying en masse, while learning, dancing, praying, gathering for music. Why do we cling to the right to inflict ugliness, when there are so many tools to create beauty?

For reasons I do not completely understand, I am bent on sewing this doll sleeping bag, so needlessly warm and sturdy. I pour hours into it, as if one person can mend everything by making something lovely.

Snow falls outside, and I watch the needle dipping in and out of prom-worthy fabric, not so different from satiny pink muscle. A needle is a tool for pulling things together, trailing a strand that will stay behind, holding. The edges draw closer. With time, the muscle will heal, and the fabric will thin—our brief lives, in some small way, sewn together.

Grass on my Pajamas

Something about using our giant weed eater makes me feel competent. It is easy to use, really. I do not even need to wield it with my arms, since it rides on a harness-belt thing. I am sporting a safety-first helmet with attached face shield and ear covers. My right index finger holds the safety trigger while my thumb revs the motor. Grass flies, flecking my thin flannel pants. I am in my pajamas.

I am moving our sheep to fresh pasture. Rhubarb and Parsnip, our two ewes, announced their disdain for the current pasture by escaping and nearly joining the kids in the car on their way to school. Unable to secure the sheep long enough to change into jeans, I am wearing my softest clothes. The weed eater zips a line though tall grass for the electronet fence. I move the white netting, then drag their little shelter, freshen the water, rattle some grain to entice them inside. All this before coffee.

Later, folding laundry after coffee, I notice that my socks say Darn Tough, which seems reassuring. I am glad to have these on hand. There is no promise of each next day being the same as this one, with problems I can solve.

In the evening, I scoop chicken feed into a bucket, but on my way to feed the hens, I am arrested by the ducks. Their gabbling and waddling captivates me—holds me captive—for fifteen minutes, which I do not regret, against the orange-for-now trees and dry cornstalks.

The ducks never let me touch them, but the hens relish a good scratch. They croon and sidle up to me, then hunker down, lifting their shoulders and tapping their feet. It is their receiving-a-rooster posture, so I know it is not a display of specific affection for me. But I pretend it is.

After chores, after supper, Stella and I return outside in time for waves of wild geese to pass over our heads. Hundreds of geese fill us with their brassy calls, coming across our field, our house, towards our neighbor’s large pond and sloped field, where they will cover the ground tonight. Among the raucous noise, Stella is yelling, “Over there! On that side! So much geese. So so much!” Then only four geese fly quiet and close overhead. We echo their silence and hear the rhythmic squeak of their wings.

This one day does not make much of a story. There is no real plot, just characters and—when all goes well—mostly repetition of other days. Tomorrow morning, the kids will resist crawling out of bed. The animals will need to be fed. Some days, though, carry too many stories, and I need those Darn Tough socks.

Today I have the grass on my pajamas, the hen feathers under my fingers, my six-year-old’s arms spread to the sky in rapture—so much.

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.”