in which we say: BLAH HUMBUG!

in which we say: BLAH HUMBUG!

Sparrows in the brush looking their puffed-up cutest…

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Maybe I shouldn’t say this out loud, but I’m having a hard time mustering up the Christmas Love this year. Of course, the weather isn’t helping. Mud season is the only time I mind living in Pennsylvania, and this year we’ve got plenty of it. Boot-sucking, slippery, filthy mud that is.

Mud and sloppy rain makes everything I do twice as hard.  It’s hard on the animals, hard on the farmer, hard on the wardrobe, hard on the spirit, and vehicles get stuck making chores super frustrating. Give me frozen ground and a pretty snow carpet any day.

Today, it’s raining and mushy and actually pretty warm. It’s gray and lackluster and not nearly sparkly or crunchy enough to put me in the proper pre-Christmas spirit.

But the Ladies don’t seem to mind the drizzle one bit. The brook in the front pasture is babbling which is hard to not be charmed by, the birds are scuttling around in the brush looking their puffed up cutest and my spirits are lifted after a brisk walk to check the fences.

Even at her most drab, Nature and her creatures give my heart a lift. No tinsel or store-bought ornament can compete with her humble yet awe-inspiring beauty.

So, I exercise my womanly right to change my mind and now give thanks that my heart has been filled with love and gratitude.

It’s hard to not be enchanted by the sound of a babbling brook no matter what the weather…

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I’m pleased to find myself filled with Christmas Spirit after all.  What lifts your spirits when you need some holiday cheer?

in which we ponder our American Thanksgiving Tradition

in which we ponder our American Thanksgiving Tradition

For a special holiday treat and insight into the hearts and traditions shared by our fellow Americans at Thanksgiving, visit www.thisibelieve.org and check out their special Thanksgiving features. What a great way to spend that long holiday drive....

As a kid (and an only child), I have to admit not feeling any special enthusiasm for holiday dinners. It was usually a long day of waiting, being polite,  car rides and lots of hanging around (I’m not a football or holiday parade fan).  Our tiny family didn’t have reunions of long missed cousins and relatives, so our holiday dinners were usually pretty much the same as our regular ones. Just with more food and a relish tray which was always a highlight for me.

Often the quiet day after Thanksgiving was the one I really enjoyed – a fridge full of holiday leftovers to graze from all day, no pressing business, a good book and the freedom to get lost in it.

I find myself wondering what Americans are really doing today? I know what we’re supposed to be doing and feeling, because TV tells me so. Frequently. And, probably not so accurately.

What Thanksgiving traditions are we passing on that actually have authenticity and significance? Most of us have cobbled together some hybrid of Norman Rockwell American mixed with the immigrant traditions from our own families. Throw in the latest features from popular magazines,  office water coolers, TV and internet and you have an American Thanksgiving.

Oh sure, if you have kids in elementary school there’s some dolled-up tales of Pilgrims and Indians and turkeys, but let’s face it – the holiday really has more to do with retail than with honoring our Pilgrim roots.

Sadly, I have no idea how my great-grandmother and grandfather went about shaping their Irish lives into American ones. My family hasn’t been one to dwell on the past, but instead to adopt the modern. The old ways, old dishes, and old stories of my ancestors have vanished without a trace. Today’s “old” ways are actually pretty new, compliments of Butterball, Pilsbury, Libby’s, Jell-O and Reddi-whip.

Magazines show in full color the traditional Thanksgiving we are all supposed to strive for; varnished oversized turkeys with lots of buttery, starchy side dishes and plenty of pie at the end. Now that was modern, stylish and sanitary and the inspiration for my modern career granny and her daughters as they set out to create their own version of Thanksgiving.

My mother and her two sisters are good cooks who started their adult lives with no binding holiday traditions. Each cooked somewhat similar meals, with a slightly different spin created by their different life experiences and magazine preferences. Three sisters, same childhood, different Thanksgiving tables. What could be more American?

I am not at all qualified to offer any factual sociological wisdom about the celebration of our national holiday, other than my fascination with people-watching and media.  I can’t help but see definite Thanksgiving variations that can now be considered actual traditions for many Americans.

A Menu of American Thanksgivings: pick one or mix & match

The Food Pantry Thanksgiving two ways: Volunteer or Guest: this tradition has lots of heart-warming variations and some sobering truths we prefer not to think about most of the year.

The All American Can & Jar Method: These traditions have been created by the marketing efforts of Big Food companies. Recipes featured in magazines, on the backs of cans and jars and now websites.  Canned green beans and cream of mushroom soup topped with dried onions and baked. Canned yams topped with brown sugar and mini marshmallows. Butterball turkey with the pop up hickey and prepared mashed potatoes and gravy from a jar. Prepared pastry crust filled with Libby’s prepared pumpkin pie filling and topped with Reddi-whip or Cool-whip. Pillsbury crescent rolls, jello salad, and please let me be wrong about this – Stove Top Stuffing?

The Store Bought All Inclusive Meal Method: all-inclusive, already cooked and ready to go. Does it come with plastic utensils too?? Am I really surprised to learn that this option is growing fast in popularity?

The Restaurant Method:  You don’t need me to explain this one do you? Family gets to meet in central location, split costs and no one is burdened with clean up. Beautiful in its simplicity??

Williams Sonoma Inspired: nostalgia for other people’s imagined &  staged traditions. Fun for cooks, expensive and guaranteed to be completely different next year. Requires storage space for the carcasses of never to be used again appliances and gadgets.

The Best of a Bad Deal Method: eating what you’ve got and feeling grateful to have it. Best when shared with upbeat friends and family and plenty of love. Can be bitter when seasoned with too much obligation and self-pity.

Black Friday Focus: this one may be extreme, but this girl has been camping outside of Best Buy for days now, and plans a picnic Thanksgiving dinner in her tent… I feel myself being a bit judgmental, but really, she seems pretty enthusiastic about her holiday. Maybe I’m the one who can use an attitude tweak….

A Long, Boring Day: don’t know what to do with self because everything’s closed. If this is your tradition, thanks to Target, things are looking up. Hopefully you have a strong internet connection and the biggest shopping day of the year starts earlier all the time.

A Prayerful Day of Gratitude: TV and holiday shopping don’t have much of a role in this spiritual friend and family oriented day. Menus vary.

Orphan Thanksgiving: You find yourself in a strange place with people you don’t know well who are also separated from their people and place.  Can be delightful and meaningful with a serendipitous pot luck menu…

The Anti-Consumer Thanksgiving: filled with buying nothing. It can be time-consuming to not shop, so it’s a good thing you don’t have to go anywhere. Do it yourself foods of varying quality and oddity and ranges from oddball to sublime.  Leads to either the ruination of America or her salvation depending on your source of news media.

Did I miss any? Am I delusional? I am pretty full having enjoyed a right sized meal made from things I either bought from local farms or grew and preserved myself.  Of course I still haven’t learned to make sugar yet, so I’m still leaning on the man a bit, but I’m working on it.

Wherever your Thanksgiving falls along the spectrum, the important thing is that it’s YOUR holiday to be celebrated however you most enjoy it. Deliberately and with intention. Best wishes for a true holiday that’s exactly that.

For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food, for love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

In which we give thanks for an Actual Miracle

In which we give thanks for an Actual Miracle

Dark. Really, really dark. Due to frantic scrambling and panic, no photos were taken during this event. I hope my words do it justice. In fact, it's better this way. Trust me, I was there...

It was a dark and stormy night. Well, thank goodness not really stormy. But windy. And dark. Really, really dark. See, we have no electricity at the farm so when it gets dark, I mean it is DARK.

Most of the time I really like that – all the halos from dusk to dawn lights everywhere obscure the twinkling beauty of our rural night-time sky. It’s so beautiful on a clear night and without distraction from all those lights, each individual star gets it’s chance to shine. Isn’t that the sort of thing that makes people want to live in the country? I mean – I love the excitement of city lights too – when I’m in the city. But anyway… I wander.

Sometimes though, things don’t go so right and a little electricity is a welcome friend. Like the other night. While doing my evening dinner check on the cows, I notice my friend Sprite off by herself sporting some strange posture.

She was standing hump-backed and her belly was blown up like a balloon. When she turned around to look at me, I could see she was all frothed up with foamy drool from her nose and mouth. This was not good.

I’m trying not to panic. You see, cows are in many ways like tanks. Tough. Steady. Relentless. Except when they’re really, really delicate. There are a few maladies cows can fall victim to that can send a healthy cow from normal to dead in a matter of hours. This could be one of those times.

If you’ve done much reading about the future of the environment and climate change, I’m sure you’ve read something or other about cows producing methane gas. Well I can tell you, it’s true. These kids belch a-plenty. Cows shovel their barely chewed food into the first chamber of their stomachs where it is partially digested by fermentation. If you’ve ever attempted to make wine or beer, you know fermentation can produce lots of bubbly gasses that either escape or explode.

Well, Sprite was about to explode. When cows eat too much fermentation inducing food and are unable to release enough gas, they can inflate until they reach a point where the pressure from their extended stomach presses so hard on their diaphragm it causes them to suffocate and suffer heart failure. Not a pretty prognosis for Sprite…

All is not completely hopeless yet – there is one last desperate measure a farmer can take; puncture the bloated cow with a knife. Yes, you read it right. When all is lost anyway, it’s worth a shot. With a little luck, your hole will expel the gas and the vet can then stitch up the hole. Next, you pray the cow doesn’t get any nasty infection from your non-sterile, unskilled surgical misadventure and there’s still a fair chance all will be ok.

It’s not dark yet, so I run to the barn, get a halter on her and call the vet. I’m hoping I don’t have to do any pocket-knife puncturing maneuvers by myself. The vet is on an emergency call, so I ask my neighbor if he’s ever punctured a rumen. Which he has. Once, a gazillion years ago.

Sprite is now laying down and in some real misery but still breathing. So my neighbor comes down, we tie Sprite to the tractor and attempt to walk her to the front of the pasture to be closer for the vet. The vet calls and is running earlier than expected and tells us to wait for him to get there before we puncture anything (whew!)

It’s completely dark now, Sprite’s not going for this walking behind the tractor business, breaks her halter and runs away (bad news, good news). Following is complete cow mayhem. The whole herd is really excited about all this unusual activity; I have running, bucking, squealing and mobbing cows everywhere. In the dark it’s hard to tell which cow is which, and the tractor doesn’t have lights. I have to call the vet back and tell him the cow has escaped. It was reassuring to know he was on his way; now my only hope is an Actual Miracle.

I ran back to the barn again to get the quad which is more nimble, the cows are used to it and it has good headlights. I manage to find Sprite again, but of course Rocco the bull is right by her side and he’s a little wound up.

But, amazingly, Sprite looks normal size! I keep doubting that I have the right cow, but no. It’s true! She’s pretty normal. Amazing because she was one mouth frothing, humped up blimp just an hour before. Thank goodness! It seems all the excitement and running broke up the slimy froth that was preventing the gas from escaping. As puffed up as she was, I’m surprised Sprite didn’t squeal away into the sky like a punctured balloon!

But no, there she was, four hooves firmly on the ground, standing with her Spritzer when I checked on her again later that night. She just looked at me like I was crazy – she actually had the nerve to be EATING GRASS. Same this morning. I am feeling very grateful and a little disbelieving. Without a trace of evidence, did any of this really happen? I just can’t believe the dramatic difference an hour can make. First the hour it took Sprite to inflate, then the hour it took for her to deflate and completely forget all about it.

Apparently, Sprite doesn’t appreciate her good fortune and the rarity of an Actual Miracle, because early this morning she was right back to her gluttonous apple-trawling ways….

What?? Are you looking at me?? Sprite quickly forgets all about her near death experience and continues her gluttonous apple trawling ways....

In which we are still under the spell

In which we are still under the spell

A door to another world....

I don’t read nearly as much as I used to. As a kid, our library trip was the highlight each and every week. I would take out as many books as I was allowed, I think 12, and couldn’t wait to get home to review, stack and prioritize. Which should I read first? Such abundance and possibilities….

Once I tore into the stack, I was relentless until I had finished them all. I was a re-reader too and some would be read again and again. Today, years and years later, I can still get lost in favorites like Charlotte’s Web, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and Harriet the Spy.

It’s sad that as grown-ups we have to leave behind that kid-on-summer-break abundance of time.  As kids, we struggled to fill that time up, staving off what was, after all, boredom really. But just on the other side of that boredom lies magic if we can just stick with it a bit longer. True creativity takes plenty of aimless meandering through tedium, boredom and solitude before it decides to kick in. I wish I could have a do-over so I can appreciate the lazy slowness of it more this time around.

Don’t you hate it when you’re wrapped up in a good book and see the pages coming to an end?  I know I’m about to be ejected back into my real world where the light is too bright, the noise is super loud and I have a clock to race. But it is nice to savor the feeling of being lost in the world of my book as I go about my day; a kind of country cousin to that delicious tweener place between being awake and asleep.

Anyway, I wander. This summer, I made it a point to read more. Not cookbooks or raising cows books or improving the pasture books but fiction. Or, if not fiction, at least books with a little enchantment and expanding vistas.

The Seasons on Henry's Farm by Terra Brockman

This week, I read a book that at first glance would seem to belong in the doesn’t-count category (it’s about organic farming) but in reality belongs in the counts-for-sure pile. I finished it day before yesterday and it’s with me still.

I learned plenty about the typical workday on an organic vegetable farm. Somehow, even without any farming experience, everyone knows it’s hard work; multiply that by ten and you’re getting warmer. Honestly, I don’t know if I could do it. Loading up that truck so many days each week with freshly picked and washed veggies of an impressive array feels overwhelming from the comfort of my living room. Could I manage to pull it off for real? Do I have the right stuff?

But that’s really just one element of the book. I never knew it before, but burdock roots are enthralling; I have a new crush on apples and a bruise on a peach is an incredible badge of honor. After reading this, who would want a whiny perfect one? Truly.

There’s magic in these pages – the kind of magic known by ancient Druids and fairies that’s only understood while lying on one’s back alone in the middle of a wintry field looking up at the nighttime sky. There’s also lots and lots of love. Love for the land, love of literature, the love of family, the love of good food and simple pleasures; it’s all there. A rich and rewarding read indeed. I recommend it highly.

As we find ourselves pinching pennies as individuals, families and a nation, it is so important to remember how important things like public libraries are. Many of us are a little spoiled by the ease of Amazon(dot)com – please take a moment to remember your local library. You may not be a user yourself, but the programs and access to hope, tools and possibility for those who can’t afford a bookstore habit is invaluable. Many people will never have the freedom to see places like Henry’s farm in person, but if they have a library, they too can know more about the choices and possibilities this great world has to offer.

Libraries are in need of your attention, time and donations; it’s one of the best ways we have to help others help themselves.

What are you reading these days?

Show some love for your local library!

In which we say: hello Sammy

In which we say: hello Sammy

Sally and Sammy enjoying a few days of room service

Is it wrong for me to have a favorite Lady?

I’m not admitting it or anything, but if I did have a favorite and if I told you who it is, you’d probably be surprised because we don’t talk about her much.

Some of the Ladies are hambones and always in the middle of the action and some of them are not.  Sally isn’t a flashy girl, but she is pure, sweet and true and we’re crazy about her.

It took me a while to figure her out when she first came – I wasn’t familiar with the ways of cows and she was a little different from the others. Neither a leader or a follower, Sally holds her own without being mean or bullying.

Sally is a little shy and still doesn’t like direct eye contact.  You have to be paying attention to understand that when she comes close and looks at your feet, she wants you to spend time with her. She really likes being around us and loves to be talked to and groomed.

There’s never been a been a kinder, more devoted mother than Sally, two-legged or four. 

Last year, Sally had her first calf, a heifer named Saralee.  Saralee is a real charmer and a sweet girl herself. Saralee was born in August during the hottest, most miserable weather of the summer.  True to form,  this year, Sally was again the last Lady to deliver and while it was in July this time, it was still the hottest, most miserable weather of the summer. The poor girl can’t get a break! But Sally never gets grumpy or complains.

Sammy on the move…..

 

This year, Sally had a boy. He’s peppy, chubby and really, really shiny. He has an especially beautiful coat just like his dad, Rocco, had as a calf.  We sort of joke that Rocco was super-calf racing around as soon as he hit the ground (I say sort of because it was no joke – Rocco was super charged). It appears this little fellow is a chip off the old block.

He kept everyone on edge his first day because he kept slipping out of the pasture and running off. Poor Sally was bawling and running around too. What could I do? A little house arrest was in order, so back to the barn for a few days of bonding.

He needed a little time for Sally to teach him the ropes before returning to the great outdoors. Sally was happy to have a few days of room service and we got the opportunity to get to know this sassy new kid better.  Happy to say, the plan was a success and Sally and Sammy have returned to their pasture.  Sammy’s a busy fellow learning all about running, bucking and kicking and chatting up Ladies. And respecting boundaries.

Welcome Sammy!

Sammy recharging his battery….

In which we are enchanted

In which we are enchanted

How much more mysterious and magical the world looks in black & white!

We’re moving. Again. Packing up all our worldly junk and putting it in storage.

You see, while we now have a home for the Ladies, it doesn’t include a house for us, so we’re off to transitional housing to plan our next move. Hopefully the final one….

If you’ve ever packed up everything you own, you know the best part is that all sorts of forgotten treasures are found. Which is exactly how I re-discovered my enchantment with Thomas Moore.

Thomas Moore is a contemporary writer and lecturer whose life follows a route like my own; filled with seemingly random twists and turns. Beginning his journey as a monk in a Catholic religious order, then becoming a student obtaining degrees in theology, musicology and philosophy, working as a therapist and finally an author, Thomas Moore is a man who is willing to live the questions without needing to know the answers first.

His most famous books are Care of the Soul and Soul Mates, but the two that most feed my soul are the The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life and The Education of the Heart. I found The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life first and of course had to plop down in the middle of the action for a quick skim. Here I found interesting observations about that uneasy tension between dreams and practicality so especially polarized in our American culture.

Most of us struggle to balance these equally important needs. For some, the standoff is more difficult than for others. A rare few are so blessed they are completely certain of which road they must travel and set right off on their journey. Along the way, they find doors that open just when they are needed, but even for these lucky ones, the door opens not one second before the darkest hour has been endured. Give up too soon and live with regret forevermore.

Including enchantment in our lives requires a willingness to embrace solitude and quiet and forces us to relinquish the need to know everything that’s going to happen next and why. Enchantment is a place where everything is gray and to appreciate it you must have faith that you will understand when it’s time.

People must have excursions into enchantment to survive:

“The soul has an absolute, unforgiving need for regular excursions into enchantment. It requires them like the body needs food and the mind needs thought. Yet our culture often takes pride in disproving and exploding the sources of enchantment, explaining away one mystery after another and overturning precious shrines, dissolving the family farm that has housed spirits of civility for eons, or desecrating for material profit a mountain or stream sacred to native residents. We have yet to learn that we can’t survive without enchantment and that the loss of it is killing us.”

Most people dismiss the need for enchantment as irresponsible, childish or silly; yet why?  Practicality and Enchantment are not opposing forces; in fact they serve one another:

“It isn’t easy to discuss enchantment in a disenchanted society, one that suffers the lack of a deep, solid, communal fantasy life, because enchantment stands our usual values on their head. What is central in the hardcore, hardware, hardworking world of the disenchanted has little or no place in a soft life of enchantment, and what is important to the charm of daily life may appear as a distraction to those who are dedicated to the kind of seriousness that excludes enchantment. Yet there is no essential conflict between enchanted living and practical, productive activity; they can serve each other: one delighting the spirit of ambition, the other comforting the heart.”

Food is a source of enchantment. For example:

“As a therapist, I’ve worked with people who feel their lives are meaningless, aimless, and generally depressed. In a number of instances, after discussions of family and tradition, these people have brought soul into their lives simply by phoning a mother, father, or grandparent and asking for some old family recipes. The familiar but forgotten smells and tastes restore (the meaning of the word ‘restaurant’) a long-dormant element in the soul – a comforted childhood, a feeling of belonging, the support of religious and cultural traditions, and family stories and personalities.

Is superficial and simple less important than complicated and academic? What feeds the soul is always simple; it’s buzzing human minds that love complexity.

 “Over the years, when I’ve lectured on food, cynical listeners have complained that I’m reducing psychology to the themes of modern living and gourmet magazines. When I first heard such objections I felt defensive and concerned. Was I not being clear about the depth of these issues? Then I realized that magazines about food and home may be more important, even if they are intellectually light, than thick tomes of research and philosophy. Now I don’t mind being associated with books of recipes and advice about furnishings and entertainment. Of course, they can be superficial and middle-class, but their simplicity is not a sign of their insignificance.”

And, how true is this?  The extra time real food demands of us is not wasted but serves the soul.

“It’s no accident that in our disenchanted times we have found hundreds of ways to short-circuit the production, preparation and eating of food, and so it makes sense that to re-enchant our ordinary lives we could approach the supermarket, the kitchen, and the dining room differently, realizing that the extra time real food demands of us is not wasted but serves the soul.”

Evening is a social time for the cows. The little ones scamper and play, tails flagging, wild eyed and silly or sometimes they are lazy and nap flopped together in a big, congenial heap. The Ladies are busy munching, grabbing their evening meal, especially when the weather is as stiflingly hot as it has been recently. To avoid the heat, they do most of their work in the cooler air of early morning and twilight, spending their afternoons napping in the  groves of shady trees.

And so this evening, we ponder the importance of two words rarely used anymore – enchantment and delight. Yet that’s exactly what I feel every day as I stand in the special glow unique to summer evenings, pumping water into the trough and watching the cows graze their favorite evening pasture. My chattering mind cannot overcome the magic and finally gives up. We are completely content, the dueling parts of my brain and I, if just for a little while. And, that enchanted moment is what gives me the desire to get up early and do all the scary, mundane, dirty, repetitive and/or unpleasant things I have to do.

Delighted.

The little ones scamper and play, tails flagging, wild eyed and silly