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.

 

Immersion in Asparagus

I have just learned how to plant asparagus from a nice man on YouTube. I found him shortly after I cut open one of our cardboard boxes from Stark Brothers Nursery. The asparagus crowns lurked in plastic bags—strange, white, squid-like plants, unlike anything I’ve ever planted. The asparagus video reveals a much more intensive process than I anticipated, but luckily I tend to be energetic and naïve at the front end of a big project. So I dig in.

I hack a long trench that will become our asparagus bed. Soil piles up along the trench’s sides, and the chickens arrive to poach juicy worms. Muscles awaken in my arms and back; they wake up a little grumpy. I am having fun, though, and trundle past the garden to the compost pile. After I fill the wheelbarrow with dark organic material, I can barely push it upslope, but the chickens help me churn it into the trench bottom. I add a wheelbarrow of crushed stone, mix, then hoe two mounds lengthwise in the trench. It is finally ready for asparagus crowns.

I have heard bringing book into the world compared with having a child, but this analogy is not my experience. For me, writing a book resembles planting asparagus, or trees—not flowers, but plants who demand serious digging and delay our gratification.

Yesterday, I knelt in the heavy drizzle, mud soaking my jeans while I planted pawpaw trees. At this early stage, the trees were glorified pencils, with a few tiny branches. Most of each tree was underground. I tenderly fanned out a sapling’s roots and palmed soft soil around them. Here it will anchor and grow into a life of its own. Six years ago, I held something equally spindly, mostly underground—the beginning of my book—and decided to let it take root.

Now I kneel again in light rain, in the asparagus trench. Not being one to hamper my creative momentum with excess planning, I find myself revising extensively. I space the asparagus crowns one foot apart, until I am halfway down the trench and realize they need to be farther apart.

After several rounds of scootching asparagus forward and hopping them to the end, I discover that at 18 inches apart, the 32 plants exactly fit my trench. With the book, I also found myself leapfrogging sections, cutting an entire chapter, splitting one chapter into two, and writing most of a new one. I could have measured things better from the start, but perhaps the process was necessary for me.

Tossing soil in the trench, I race against the chickens. They dart their beaks at the white worms of asparagus lying across the mounds. My reluctant muscles are angry, but I finish tucking all the soil back into the bed as the rain relieves me of watering responsibilities.

Now it is springtime for my book and our farm—full of newness and promise. I’ve brought home four small Romney lambs in the back of our Honda Fit. Two boxes of Red Ranger meat chicks—125 of them—have arrived from the post office. We are planting in the rain and after dark to keep up with deliveries of trees and berry plants. And two weeks ago, my book released into the world, as if finally bursting into bloom.

The fruit from my book is sweet, and I have already begun to taste its ability to connect me with longtime friends and new people. As my book finds readers, I am savoring the space created between us by these words, which bear more fruit in the mind and life of a reader. As with the asparagus and pawpaws, it seems that the book will grow into a life of its own.

But there is an important difference. At the end of the asparagus video, the nice man stands with shovel in hand. He says, “Then be happy that you’ll never have to this in your lifetime again, and you should have asparagus for 10, 20, 30 years.” While I do feel that relief about asparagus planting, I am already scheming about my next book.

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.”

Our Bleeding Hearts

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Old devil hate, I knew you long ago
Then I found out the poison in your breath
Now when we hear your lies, my lovers gather ’round
And help me rise to fight you one more time

No storm nor fire can ever beat us down
No wind that blows but carries us further on
And you who fear, oh lovers gather ’round
And we can rise and sing it one more time

~Pete Seeger

A hard wind thrashes my bleeding hearts. They are a gift from my mom, as are most of my perennials and many of my personality traits. Eloquent, pink flowers dangle at the end of their down-curling stems, reminding me of bowed heads and tears.

The wind was already blowing when my parents arrived last week with a carload of my mom’s green thumb—various hostas, black-eyed Susans, Echinacea, lavender, pink coral, daisies, Solomon’s seal, spiderwort. My mom and I each pulled on one of my sweatshirts against the sudden coolness of June. We planted them together in two large beds, alongside plants from a friend, re-rooting the legacy of womens’ attention to beauty and life.

Then we traveled to my sister’s home for a party. On June 12, our family celebrates two women—my sister and my mom—and their initiators into motherhood—my niece and me. This year, we are all together on this birthday. I awaken inexplicably weepy, emotion trickling over my internal spillway, feeling the world, without even seeing the news. I walk into the kitchen, straight into a hug from my mom, who has not yet seen the news either.

One of my mom’s best gifts is throwing her arms wide open. When I was a kid, my mom’s good friend, Joe, died of AIDS. I sat beside her and dipped a needle into dark cloth, helping to stitch Joe’s panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. We wept at his funeral, held at our Mennonite church; any objections to this location for a gay man’s funeral were smoothed over by our wise and loving pastor. As Joe had requested, a recording of Carly Simon swelled against the rafters that day, singing, “Let the river run / Let all the dreamers / Wake the nation.”

Gay and lesbian friends and relatives have always shared our lives and our home, with or without partners. So I am lucky. My parents strive to live generously, with intentional acts of acceptance—working to know how to love, why to struggle, and when to grieve. This way of living is both instinctual and learned. We do this together, on purpose.

I want to let my mom’s gifts flow through me, so I practice astonishment at flowers and the sky after a storm. I open up big laughs and cry easily. Children and dogs receive my most patient compassion, and adults receive my open arms. Echoing my mom, I give people food and flowers as they have come to me. I become an ally.

I spend my birthday this year moving in and out of hugs—my parents, my sister and her husband, Andrew, Sam and Stella, and even the guests for my niece’s first birthday party, strangers who quickly feel like friends. We have all seen the news from Orlando by now, and it scrabbles at our insides with sharp claws. I carry a full well of emotion, overflowing here and there. In this warm afternoon, though, we cheer for my niece as she raises her cake-smeared index finger triumphantly into the air—One!

There are so many fierce and joyous ways to galvanize our communities against hate. There are so many ways to love each other. There are never enough words to describe devastation and the aftershocks of tragedy.

Back at home, the gusting wind—even at its worst—does not destroy our bleeding hearts. Instead, they dance. Among the rocks in my garden, these tender, vivid flowers will return every spring to remind me, reassure me. The music will play again in my mind: “Oh lovers gather ‘round, and we can rise to sing it one more time.”

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Good Neighbors Make Good Fences

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It begins with walking. We walk back and forth between each others’ houses to share food or sledding invitations or canning efforts. We walk to the top of the hill to pick rocks in our fields. Living in a rural area, the only destinations within walking distance are our neighbors’.

Our neighbors, Sue and Neil, teach high school chemistry and physics. Their interests complement our medicine and ecology backgrounds so that we form a quartet of science lovers, energetically farming and raising kids alongside other jobs. As our kids discussed things the other day, I overheard their son, Thomas, tell Sam, “I’m not officially a guest. I’m your neighbor!” And that’s how we feel too.

A farm cannot exist in isolation from the people and landscape that surrounds it. Air and soil and water ignore boundaries of property ownership. Plants spread seed and grow across fences. Wildlife traverses. Kids toss baseballs and footballs and sticks for the dog. Our farm’s ecology—human and otherwise—seems most healthy when we commute and communicate across boundaries.

fencebeforeWalking the edges of our field—the five acres that lie between our house and their cow barn—Neil’s long strides measure a perimeter distance. Then he walks across to our door, sits with us at our little oak kitchen table, and we scheme over the constant peeping from the chick brooder.

Our neighbors raise beef on grass, and they’ll need more grass this summer for their growing herd. We, at this stage, raise grass, with no ruminants to graze it into meat. This situation is a match, we decide. All that’s missing is a fence to keep their cows in our pasture.

fenceafterSo we walk again, choosing a path for this fence. There is always walking, to place stakes and to stretch string and to measure, to talk with each other at each corner. Neil and his tall son, Andrew, dole out fence posts along the line. We are following relatively new boundaries, since our properties were once one larger farm, and our property has no fences. We are inventing the future.

We walk behind Eloise, which pulls a beast of a post-pounder, stopping to drive each post solidly in the ground. We are a slow procession, a parade with the music of the two engines and percussion so strong it vibrates your feet standing nearby. My dad drives the tractor; Neil’s dad lines up posts. Finding plumb takes a team, each eyeing the post from our own perspective and talking in sideways nods and hand signals to get it straight.

A few weeks later, with grass thickening the pasture, Neil and Andrew stretch the last piece of woven wire. Their hands are stiff and nicked from twisting wires. It’s demanding work—needing attentiveness and strength—to weave two separate pieces together into something stronger. It’s the right kind of work.

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