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.

As the Water Rises

A cedar waxwing almost brushes my forehead, drawn by mosquitoes who are drawn by my warmth and my breath exhaled into the evening. I am standing at the edge of the water on our land. The sweet bright air seems absurd against the backdrop of floodwater rising in Houston and Miami, in the St. Martin and Barbuda, in India, Bangladesh, Nepal. So many people waist-deep in the streets. Islands destroyed. I feel acutely aware of my dry feet, dry home.

Across the wetland in front of me, common gallinules shout to each other. They are new here, with their purple-black bodies and red-orange bills voicing raucous sounds—clucks, whinnies, cackles, squawks, and yelps. I am glad they are here, drawn by our cattails and wetland expanded this spring by beavers. I welcome the beavers, too, but they are aggravating the neighbors and the township that clears their dam from the culvert to keep water below the road.

Like us, beavers engineer water movement and levels to suit themselves. Effects on others simply happen. Some species, like the cattails and gallinules, share the beavers’ priority for more open water. Some, like our human neighbors, require dry land for roads, hay fields, and one guy’s private landing strip.

I consider the widening wetland-now-pond in front of me. Drawn by gravity, water moves downhill until something blocks it. Both beavers and humans spend considerable time helping water defy gravity. We stopper flowing water, backing it up into reservoirs that spread over previously dry land. Or we guide it away from low wet places, draining them into livable, workable landscapes. When our engineering is destroyed, we rebuild it the same.

Humans not only rearrange water, however, we also rearrange carbon, dragging from deep in the earth and burning it, releasing it. Beavers’ activities change the landscape; our behaviors have changed the entire planet.

In this changed world, water misbehaves. A year’s worth of water falls from the sky in a few days. Water surges from the ocean. Having been so tightly reined into unnatural riverbanks and reservoirs and gutters and sewers and channels, all of this extra water no longer absorbs into wetlands or flood plains or deltas or shorelines. Water rises, now seeming to defy gravity on its own.

One more stride from where I stand, and I will be calf-deep. Do I deserve to sink into the wetland, being unprepared for this moment, having walked towards the water wearing only my worn leather boots, not quite paying attention? None of us has the right shoes on at all times. I do not deserve misfortune, even for my mistakes. I do need, however, to pay attention. My actions have consequences, and not just for myself.

My actions and my lifestyle have contributed to what seems like a tiny shift—just one degree of warmth in an ocean. It’s not tiny though. Even a small change on a large scale can have big consequences—melting permafrost, epic storms.

Standing at the edge, I am lucky. I have the option to step back onto dry ground, to return to a dry home. We work hard for our home, but we would not have it without both help and luck, neither of which I earned any more than I earned the nose on my face. Help and good fortune mean that I am more buffered than some people from the consequences of our actions on this planet. Many people live in vulnerable places. Many people do not have options.

The evening here is so calm it is hard to believe there are catastrophes. It is hard to believe that those catastrophes have anything to do with me. But I am not separate or alone. I am here with the beavers, gallinules, and cedar waxwings. And with my neighbors—that is to say, our neighbors—Houston and Miami, the St. Martin and Barbuda; India, Bangladesh, Nepal. Now is not the time to struggle with believing what is abundantly evident—we are creating disasters. Now is the time to stop changing the climate. We are all here together.


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.







Our Hens Hold These Truths to be Self-evident

A Delegation of Independence

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to dissolve the political bands that connect us with an amoral leech, we must take action. Governments are instituted among Men and Women, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, yet another reason to emphasize what we mean by consent.

Many voices are demanding impeachment. For my part, I will be sending a delegation of representatives from the farm to Capitol Hill.

Electing these representatives proved tricky, since the ducks accused the sheep of gerrymandering, and the hens’ low voter numbers raised suspicions of fraud. As a result, I have dispensed with democracy and appointed the delegates by process of elimination. Our dog and cats are needed here. The sheep cannot think independently, and ducks are homebodies, so the job falls to our chickens. They are ready.

Actually, they are angry—in a productive way. I understand their anger, given that the White House harbors a greedy incompetent intent on slashing any aspect of government that makes the world a better place. Like many of us, our hens value mercy, education, health, and the planet. So they are angry and ready.

I have appointed six hens. The speckled Sussex will lead the delegation. Her regular escapes from containment show her ability to think outside the coop. Last summer, she disappeared for weeks. We presumed her dead, but she returned unscathed, and seemingly wiser. Now Specky is unperturbed by group pressure, and can lead calmly and objectively.

I will also send Fancy, our Silkie. Her petite fluffiness, coupled with uncompromising toughness make Fancy an important delegate. She tolerates no insult, never instigating a conflict but commandeering respect from everyhen.

Although we hate to be without her, the delegation must include Buffy Bon Foo. She is approachable and kind, always a diplomat. She can be quietly firm when necessary, assertive without ever raising her voice. When she gets broody—as she is right now—she ruffles to twice her normal size and becomes formidable.

I was ambivalent about sending Exxon—named because she spent all winter perched on the waterer, crapping in the water. Also, her feathers obscure her vision, giving her an fossil-fuel-burning short-sightedness. While not our smartest hen, she sometimes surprises me by actually figuring out what’s going on. She has a strong presence, though, which is useful, and she could be seen as representing corporate interests.

Camilla will go, despite my misgivings about her tendency to be a bit aggressive. She has flown into my head at least twice. She is fearless, pushing the boundaries of chicken life, so she adds something crucial to the delegation. After all, well-behaved hens rarely make history.

The last hen does not actually have a name. Last Hen is always the first to find worms in freshly turned soil, which shows initiative and perhaps some intelligence. I feel a certain gardening camaraderie with her, and maybe guilt for not naming her (appointing delegates is complicated). Anyway, the delegation can use her sharp eye and quick beak.

All representatives have accepted their appointments, as far as can be understood. We will send these brave patriots to speak for logic and justice, to call for impeachment of the reigning self-serving idiocy. And for support of this Delegation, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, our Eggs, and our sacred Honor.

Last Hen


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.