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.


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.




A Barn on the Brain





I have been quiet here for months. And now the purple asters punctuate goldenrods along the roadside, and the tomatoes sink into weeds. The twelve-foot tall sunflowers, keeling over, seem to have drained their warm colors into the pumpkins. Summer’s upward projects slow, pause, relax—the barn is secured for the winter, spaghetti sauce in jars, book writing complete. Fall brings its spectacular grand finale of sky and color, and a permission to settle ourselves into routine. My brain is grateful.

The barn, in particular, challenged us this summer. Even 18 months ago, our 200-year-old barn gave us headaches, looking dilapidated, but still housing the previous owners old cars and piles of junk. Last fall, finally empty of junk, the barn was dizzying with its crooked beams and floor. Over the winter, we felt vaguely ill watching the barn’s north wall bending in the wind. This summer, the barn pained us both, for different reasons.

Andrew led the restoration efforts, starting by clearing out almost a century of hay and tearing down a filthy dropped ceiling and old electrical wires. With his dad, he carefully jacked up all posts in the leaning north end, some requiring 18 inches of lift. I fretted, declaring that I’d rather bulldoze the barn than see anyone get hurt, but they were careful, and raised the barn safely onto stacked wood towers.

We hired an Amish construction crew to excavate the ruins of the foundation and pour a new one. Friends and neighbors helped to further straighten the barn with giant come-alongs and chains. Meanwhile, I was painting the stack of barn siding, with more help from friends and family, until the afternoon I became the only person injured in this whole summer of barn work.

The fateful doorway

I was heading out behind the barn to paint siding, but detoured through it to admire the progress, enjoying a quiet moment alone. After a few minutes, I decided to get to work. Striding from the main barn through the even-worse side barn, I ducked out the low back door. But—distracted and wearing a ball cap—I miscalculated. The doorjamb’s blow to my head whiplashed my neck and sent me backwards onto the ground.

While I spent the rest of the summer wrestling with worsening, then finally improving concussion symptoms, the barn crew performed miracles. They set the barn down on its new foundation, replaced huge rotten beams, cranked the barn into straightness, and painted the rest of the siding.

I still have some residual headaches and neck pain, but I am much better. We still have some barn doors to build and another year or two of work on the remaining half of the barn, which will include tearing down the concussion-causing side barn, but the main barn is much better. As the fall sky fills with wild geese and the green disappears, our minds have a respite, knowing that the main barn and I will both remain standing this winter.









Sketching Shenanigans

photo credit: Sam Gascho

Instead of washing the dishes, I run a half-dull pencil across one corner of someone’s school paper I just flipped over. Hours of talking with an unstable client at work this weekend have left me without words. My fingers want to trace clean lines, simple forms. I need something quiet and directly satisfying, completely under my own control. The papers pile up as I draw a kestrel, geese in formation, barns, a wood frog.

photo credit: Stella Gascho

Around home, we compile shenanigans. We chug to the hilltop with Eloise the Tractor and her trailer and our tent. Pitching our two-person tent that takes me back to our honeymoon fifteen years ago, but now, I pitch it with and for our kids to snack and read while Andrew and I scuff across the newly disked fifteen-acre field, picking rocks. We move our rainbow rangers—adolescent meat chickens—from the kitchen brooder to a chicken tractor, fortified with cardboard and heat lamp against the chill, and rearrange the brooder to make room for new chicks this week. We work on cleaning out the barn, tearing down ceilings that release a foot of dust, mice, hay, and more dust.

Skip, always helpful, finds a duck egg and totes it so carefully in her mouth that her teeth don’t even scratch it. Sam, always zooming around, plays soccer and baseball and football in cleats, pausing to hug passing chickens. Stella makes dirt soup, tricycles, calls Skip with a high-pitched “HooHoo” that Skip always comes to, and also hugs the chickens.

wood frogAt work, I often have several patients at once—a lacerated paw, a hard-breathing dog, a vomiting cat. At home, there are competing noises—Sam yelling, Stella yelling, hungry birds, the cacophony of toys covering the living room floor. Right now I am drawing this frog.

Somehow, probably while I was a work, Andrew has replaced a board in the ramp leading into our barn’s top level. The gaping, leg-tempting hole across the ramp is gone, as if it healed. That one board changes my whole outlook. What seemed unsightly, un-useful, treacherous for the past year is now strong and whole. Inviting. One board, making all the difference.

onenewboardI pause in sketching because a gawky Barred Rock chick has managed the jump to brooder-edge, where she poops over the side onto the kitchen floor. These laying henlets will need to move outside soon, too, following the meat birds. Silkies and Polish chicks and Mille Fleur d’Uccle chicks will arrive this week, completing our three-ring poultry circus. In the next two weeks, we will plant close to 300 trees, and we’re scheming with our neighbor to install a fence around our lower field.

Our April activity rivals the spring peepers in frenetic volume. The wood frogs, though, early and brief heralders of spring, have chuckled themselves into silence. They are still, like a pencil drawing of a wood frog on a quiet kitchen table near midnight.


Muscle Memory with a Pitchfork and Banjo



We are the music makers,

and we are the dreamers of dreams…

Arthur O’Shaughnessy

I keep my nails lopsided—long on the right hand, short on the left—just in case I find the time and gumption to play my banjo again. This house has never heard the bum-ditty of that spunky instrument.

The banjo has waited in its case through our construction dust last winter, hidden in the closet through a busy summer, and has been tugging at me this fall and winter. Finally, one late February day, I unzip the case.

I lift its perfect, round face into the light, imagining the words encircling the head of Pete Seeger’s banjo: This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It To Surrender. The time seems right for music. I wonder if I can still play it.

Photographed from Pete Seeger’s How to play the 5-String Banjo

My return to banjo stumbles along, but my fingers surprise me by how much they remember. I play clawhammer style. A left fingernail strikes a string, lifts, then strums, A high pluck of the thumb on the fifth string punctuates each strum. It’s an old-timey, sing-along sound that brings me pure delight as I create it.

Callouses form again on my left fingertips where they press the wire strings. Sometimes my hands even act independently of my brain, as if by instinct. But this is different from the instinct. Instinct drives my chickens to scratch forward, then step back and dart their beaks to the ground. My banjo-playing movements are learned with meticulous repetition. Once taught to my confused, unwilling muscles, this music-making seems to have entered my cells.

Our bodies store memories. The smell of your elementary school. Stubble on an unshaved cheek against your lips. A dog’s ears in your hands. Mint tea from the garden—sweet on your tongue, cold down your throat.

As spring approaches, callouses form again on my palms. I lever a pitchfork into two-feet of hay and petrified sheep turds that linger in a small corner room of our barn. The shove, pry, lift pattern plays old scenes in my mind of other places I’ve used a pitchfork or a shovel. Sweating in stalls as a teenager so horse-crazy I felt honored to handle their feces. Turning compost in our red dirt garden in Alabama. On this farm, I push wheelbarrow loads to the garden, where the well-cured manure will fuel our vegetables.

We are always teaching our bodies something, whether or not it’s what we want to learn. I have learned to ride a bicycle, to drive a car, to tie surgical knots. I have learned to carry my shoulders high and tense and to bite my fingernails (must resist…need them for the banjo).

Movements repeated, like my fingers across this keyboard, become unconscious. We cannot unlearn them, although they can fade with disuse. I wonder what other actions I repeat without realizing that I’m coding them into my body.

Maybe one day I will play the banjo as fluently as I ride a bicycle. It will keep me company and make me laugh. It will invite other voices and their own harmonies. The banjo has no agenda. It offers me no guilt or frustration, only song. It takes my moods and stress and fears and creates something more hopeful. My banjo needs its own slogan—one that rings true for me. Maybe: This Machine Digs Into Shit and Turns It To Fertilizer.