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.







This Year’s Work

The biggest tree in our woods has split apart, and it is squashing its neighbors. Its trunk crosses our uphill trail, so I walk underneath it, trusting those smaller trees to keep it from falling on me. These neighboring trees must be strong, might be suffering, and bend low under the intrusion of the tree that should have held itself upright—it had soaked up the resources and grown large enough.

This summer, we found the keeled-over bitternut hickory tree while hiking. Sam shimmied up the angled trunk, and Andrew followed, scheming about the chainsaw acrobatics required to deal with it. A tree that has fallen, but still hovers at least partly in the air, is known to foresters as a widowmaker. Liberating the smaller trees from the weight of this giant will be risky work, as it often is when tackling a bully.

Later, Andrew hiked out with his chainsaw and trimmed the tree’s branches, making all but the final, riskiest cuts (to my relief). But the tree remains. I stare at it, wondering about the work ahead of us. What personal risk will any of us take to lift some weight from the shoulders of others?

I think of the tree as Stella and I play a board game in which we are engineering ants. The game is cooperative—we win or lose together—requiring us to build gadgets to get past obstacles and free other ants. At the piranha river, I am thinking of a boat or plane, but Stella decides to drain the river and walk across. Faced with the giant spider, I am lifting the rope to suggest tying it up, when Stella whispers, “Let’s make the spider very sleepy.” As we tiptoe past the “snoring” spider, I thrill at her solutions that never occur to me. Together, we win the game.

Although the obstacles are huge, and the little guys are trapped under the big guys, Stella reminds me about creativity and cooperation. Our work on the farm this year—if we do it well—will foster different thinking and working together.

This year, some things will need to be dismantled. One corner of our side barn is caving dangerously, so we will take it apart—saving the beautiful and useful pieces, then gouge out its cracked concrete floor. This work seems easier than dismantling the hatred that appeared as swastikas painted all over a nearby town, hatred given permission by the guy we’ll inaugurate as president in 17 days, a man comfortably crushing his neighbors with his entire weight.

This year promises some risky work. I’m finding hope in creativity and cooperation, readiness to dismantle big obstacles or to devise new ways around them. In my better moments, I trust that the strength of compassion is greater than the power of oppression. When we take down the side barn, the farm will be safer, and the pieces will build other beautiful structures. When we figure out how to remove the broken, heavy tree, its neighbors can be free to straighten and thrive.


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.









I Pledge Allegiance




I pledge allegiance to the space between the half-staff flag and the top of the flagpole, one measure of the distance between where we are and where we still need to be, one national gesture of respect for individual lives,

and to the kids—my kids—in the elementary school by which it flies, who can elevate us beyond half staff,

and to the adults who stand with hands over hearts in this gymnasium, having taken two hours off necessary jobs to see our kids sing together,

and to the churning differences in our bodies, religions, assumptions, and what fills our plates,

and to the hills behind the school, rolling through neighborhoods and towards our farm where I will crawl on my hands and knees using my fingers to separate weeds from the delicate parsnips, following my urge to stay close to this soil.

I pledge my allegiance to the seeds slow to germinate this year, nasturtiums and kale still surprising us by poking upwards just when we thought they had rotted in the dark.

I pledge my allegiance to the space between this soil and other soils, many distances between me and people I know and love more than the back of my hand, between me and strangers I know have similar maps on the backs of their hands; and to the water and air, particles connecting us, flowing through us in one global gesture of living.

I pledge allegiance to the flag

of my partner’s shirt in the wind on the roof; to my dog’s thick exuberant tail; to the two great blue flags of the heron’s wings flapping over our house towards the wetland; to the grasses raising their thin green flags across the field into a fine second hay cutting that will feed our neighbor’s beef; to the hands of our neighbors, flagging greetings as they drive past in trucks or tractors; to the yearning, many-storied people

of the United States of America—an improbable set of agreements and disagreements still somehow holding as a definable country—

and to the republic in which we stand,

one nation of many nations,

under god only knows how many names, illusions, auspices, impressions, guises, expectations, seeming

indivisible only because it is already divided into kaleidoscoping images that tumble around but stay together and create a whole picture,

with liberty and justice being more complicated than we hoped, but drawing us towards some past and future vision of a place where all of us—a phrase still demanding emphasis on all—will finally benefit from those slowly germinating seeds, and just when the promises of long-planted seeds seem rotten, tiny stems will unfurl with a bounty of beauty and food and

liberty and justice

for all.



A Creative Mind At Work


This time, I’ll mow better. I’ll try to maximize the long, straight runs and minimize turns. Even though we made a triangular set of beds in our yard and interspersed fruit trees and a chicken enclosure, I can start at the top of the yard and mow diagonally to the bottom. Whoever wanted curving, asymmetrical yard designs (me) had never used a riding mower. The geometry of this mowing seems incompatible with efficiency, but by the time I’m done, all of this grass will be shorter.

Riding mowing must have some tricks; I just don’t know them. I think I’ll actually start at the other top of the yard and mow horizontally, then vertically for a bit, just to trim around the rectangular chicken fence, and, while I’m heading this direction, I’ll shave down those burdock on the path to the compost. As long as I can make this U-turn, I won’t have to reverse, which disengages the blades and interrupts my Zen I’M SO CLOSE IF I JUST TURN HARDER. Nope. So, I’m still getting the feel of this turning radius—no harm done, just reversing.

Back to the long diagonal, I’m humming along now. In fact, I’ll just bump up the speed here to get done faster. There does seem to be a bigger change in speed between gears five and six than there was between four and five. Now every jiggly part of my body is flapping around erratically and making me giggle. Also, the ruts and bumps are tossing my bottom around in the seat—hilarious.

I’ve just realized I forgot my ear covers, but I guess they wouldn’t fit with my big floppy sunhat anyway, so basically I’ve chosen hearing impairment over skin damage. Ear plugs, though, would work, if I could find WHOA THAT WAS A NEAR MISS. I’ll slow down here.

BuffyandbushesofhateAt the end of this long diagonal strip, I’ll mow the perimeter slowly so I’ll have a buffer and not run anything over, like the only time I drove a riding mower as a kid and sent it straight up my Grandma Landis’s lamppost, much to her amusement. I wonder when our kids will start mowing. Oh, I missed a parallelogram-shaped patch over there. I’ll get it later.

On the other side of our new fence, the cows are grazing shoulder-high in grass—so lovely to watch cows and hear their teeth tearing the grass, if I could hear anything over this mower. They even eat poison parsnip, those amazing cows. If only they could eat our thorny hedge, which I call the Bushes of Hate, since weeding around them earlier gave me a thorn splinter that kept hurting in the same way that festering hatred pains the person who carries it embedded inside them, which makes me think that Donald Trump must be suffering horribly from all of his hate, unless he is so soulless that even the hate is simply a giant, asinine act for WHERE AM I GOING?

Mowing over here behind the barns was not the plan today. I’ll head back towards those long, efficient rectangles. And how did I leave all of those unmowed triangles over there?