A question of “independence”…

“Our reverence for independence takes no account of the reality of what happens in life: sooner or later, independence will become impossible. Serious illness or infirmity will strike. It is as inevitable as sunset. And then a new question arises: If independence is what we live for, what do we do when it can no longer be sustained?”
― Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Among the pile of books on my bedside table, here in the guest room of my mother’s house, is Atul Gawande’s masterwork, Being Mortal. I recognize it as the copy my husband was reading when we came to visit her some years ago. At the time, Scott’s father was facing some health related issues, as were the parents of many of our friends. Gawande’s wise and compassionate book was much in the news, and Scott felt it necessary, if uncomfortable, reading.

My mother and step father were in their 80’s at that point, and although they appeared to be as alert and spry as ever, there were signs of future trouble: my mother was rapidly losing her eyesight due to macular degeneration, they were increasingly fretful and forgetful, driving with either of them at the wheel (especially in busy London) was getting riskier by the day. The cautions and advice we were reading about in “Being Mortal” seemed perilously apropos. We were keenly aware that both of them were on the precipice of what could be a steep decline, even though both of them refused to admit that anything was in any way different, or any change needed to be taken into account.

My step father died two years ago, his intestinal issues made unbearable partly due to the fact that my mother continued to cook their meals, even though she could not see, and each new meal brought with it the possibility of the house burning down and that the food was probably contaminated by poor hygiene and improper preparation. His death precipitated the need for a full time carer for my mother – someone to live in the house, and tend to her needs. The pretense of independence is gone.

Due to Covid and distance (I live a continent and a timezone away), my visits are infrequent, and each one carries the possibility that it will be the last. The care my mother now needs is substantial, she now needs assistance for every task. Still, she has the luxury of living in her own home, surrounded by a lifetime of things she has collected, arranged, and enjoyed. The scope of her day is limited to essential tasks, very restricted movement, and (it must be admitted) monotony. She cannot see to read or watch television; and advancing dementia has robbed her of remembering what was said or done five minutes ago.

Every once in a while there is a great flash of frustration, a raging against what she has become and a sorrow at all she’s lost. And, in those moments, difficult as they are, I see my mother again: independent, fiery, strong willed, and impatient. And, in a strange way, I am glad for that.

“…consider the orderliness of the world…” when things get disorderly…

“The Leaf And The Cloud” (excerpt) by Mary Oliver

When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world. Notice
something you have never noticed before,

like the tambourine sound of the snow-cricket
whose pale green body is no longer than your thumb.

Stare hard at the hummingbird, in the summer rain,
shaking the water-sparks from its wings.

Let grief be your sister, she will wither or not.
Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also,
like the diligent leaves.

A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world
and the responsibilities of your life.

Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away.
Be good-natured and untidy in your exuberance.

In the glare of your mind, be modest.
And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling.

Live with the beetle, and the wind.

This poem came to mind as I sit in my mother’s garden, considering the circumstances of the day. My son and I are here in London to celebrate her 95th. birthday, we were to have left today, the day after the celebrations. But…my son tested positive for Covid, and now we are in a holding pattern until he tests negative and is cleared for flying.

The garden itself is a mess, my mother being long past her gardening days and her carers not willing to tidy up her formerly immaculate flower beds. In my current state of mind, agitated and annoyed, I am hard pressed to follow Oliver’s advice to be “beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling”, to put aside my irritations and remember that “a lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world”.

But, when I do, I see that the hellebores have bloomed, and the fuchsia are about to. The pond at the garden’s center needs to be skimmed of its thick layer of algae and leaves, but many little insects hover and land on its surface, their little wings iridescent and delightful. None of the lovely urns she had filled with all manner of flowers and shrubs have been pruned in some years, but new leaves and buds can be seen among all the old detritus: primrose, hyacinth, Pulsatilla, foxglove, and allium. It’s April in London, but there is no sign of rain in the blue sky above.

And, in the moments I took to put my black mood aside, nature seems to have revived my spirits in so many small yet lovely ways.

The first taste of Spring…after a very long winter…

Dandelion, by Ted Kooser

The first of a year’s abundance of dandelions
is this single kernel of bright yellow
dropped on our path by the sun, sensing
that we might need some marker to help us
find our way through life, to find a path
over the snow-flattened grass that was
blade by blade unbending into green,
on a morning early in April, this happening
just at the moment I thought we were lost
and I’d stopped to look around, hoping
to see something I recognized. And there
it was, a commonplace dandelion, right
at my feet, the first to bloom, especially
yellow, as if pleased to have been the one,
chosen from all the others, to show us the way.

Every last bit of snow and ice has left every last bit of the farm, and after two weeks of unceasing rain, the color green is once again returning to our pastures. This morning, while hauling out the flock’s breakfast of hay, I caught glimpses of baby dandelions poking their merry yellow heads up through the “snow-flattened grass in Kooser’s lovely poem. They are a magnificent sight for a winter weary soul.

I’m not exactly sure why this past winter proved to be my hardest yet here at the farm. Perhaps it was because there was so much ice to maneuver around, just layers and layers of impenetrable ice which made moving the sheep (and myself) a daily white knuckle task. Or, maybe it was the way Covid struck at Christmas time, laying waste to plans of enjoying the holidays with all three children under our roof once more. Or the unlucky spill our dog Bowie took while watching over her flock, which has left her with a slow to heal torn ACL. Or an attack of shingles which coincided with ringworm, the latter of which was courtesy of the above mentioned Bowie. At some point in December, a black mood took hold and established itself with some tenacity.

But, the dandelions of this morning, coupled with blue skies and a lovely breeze, as well as the sweet freedom to be outside at the picnic table unencumbered by winter garb, have broken through that bleak mood.

Today, I resisted the urge to pick up the flats of pansies that tempted me at the feed store. It’s much too soon to plant anything yet, but the very sight of those happy flowers dancing in the morning sunshine was enough to banish the last dark thoughts. Spring is here…and not a moment too soon.

“Trust” by Thomas R. Smith

Trust ~ Thomas R. Smith

It’s like so many other things in life
to which you must say no or yes.
So you take your car to the new mechanic.
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.

The package left with the disreputable-looking
clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit,
the envelope passed by dozens of strangers—
all show up at their intended destinations.

The theft that could have happened doesn’t.
Wind finally gets where it was going
through the snowy trees, and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place.

And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
is delivered, even though you can’t read the address.

November has arrived, and with it winter. Frost is on the ground every morning, and daylight hours shrink with each passing day. This morning, I found my thickest wool gloves and hat at first reach, which proved to be lucky – it felt winterly cold enough to warrant both.

Four babies arrived last week, Clun Forest/Shetland, and joined the rest of the flock out on the pasture today. Bowie, my livestock guardian dog, wandered among the sheep, brokering various disputes and causing new ones. Morning frost melted as the sun rose, and as the day warmed up under blue skies, I began to doubt my morning preparations of pulling out the hayracks for this evening’s chore: hay for the flock’s dinner . Then great grey clouds marched up the valley, bringing sleet and snow showers.

It’s just about four in the evening now, and the sun has dipped behind Bunker Hill, which means that I have about an hour of daylight left in which to finish up evening chores. Two loaves of french bread sit on the hearth, rising gently in its warmth. There is some leftover squash from the batch I roasted two nights ago – bread and soup for dinner. I see that both the house cat and the barn cat have taken up their respective haunts at this time of evening: front porch door, back door. It’s their dinner time now, and this is how they let me know.

This poem, which has been rattling around in my head for the past few days, seems appropriate for how I feel at this particular moment…a life, my life, has been somehow faithfully delivered.

Here’s to my first flock…

Auggie…a shepherd’s dream

Bringing the sheep back into the safety of the back pasture is both nightly chore (many steps to assure this) and a delight (time for mutual appreciation and thanks). Tonight was no exception, save for the fact that tomorrow we welcome four new flock members. That, on this little farm, is a very big deal.

Whatever vision I had for this little farm when we first signed the papers that made it ours, has shifted and morphed with time and what time has a way of doing: changing everything. The one constant has been sheep – the desire to bring sheep back to these hilly pastures to graze, clear our acreage, and recreate memories of the Cotswolds and the Lake District.

My first flock arrived as babies – just-weaned lambs from the farms of two shepherds I trusted and revered. They taught me everything I know about actually being a shepherd, and somehow we’ve made it through two harsh winters, and the gentler seasons in between. There have been many challenges, and many a time when I’ve questioned what the hell I’m doing even having a flock of sheep in the first place.

My flock, however, never seem to question me. I am their shepherd – they just expect that I will care for them, and they have faith in me because, I guess, what other option do they have? So, even on those days when I have the least faith in myself, their trust alone carries me through.

This evening, we gathered together before nightfall as we usually do. The sun had set, and southbound geese were crossing the lilac sky calling to each other with urgency: winter is almost here, after all. It was cold, and the wind whipped around with a bite to it. One by one, my sheep sauntered by for a chin scratch and a nuzzle. They seemed to sense that I needed the extra reassurance: good shepherd, I imagined them saying, we’ve taught you well for the new lambs arriving tomorrow. You’ve got this.

Poetry Friday: “October”, by Robert Frost


O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.

~ Robert Frost

The first weeks of October are so lovely here in upstate New York. The day begins and ends with a bracing chill, but the hours in between are still warm enough to warrant little more than a flannel shirt. The grass is still green, but leaves everywhere have shed their greenness in favor of yellows, russets, and reds: Nature’s final burst of color. Leaves float to the ground all day, and some trees are already bare.

Frost’s poem speaks to my longing for Fall to tarry just a bit, to let those yellows, russets, and reds hold on to their trees perhaps a day longer than planned…slow! slow!

Poetry Friday: “Still Life” by Carl Dennis

Still Life” by Carl Dennis

Now’s a good time, before the night comes on,
To praise the loyalty of the vase of flowers
Gracing the parlor table, and the bowl of oranges,
And the book with freckled pages resting on the tablecloth.
To remark how these items aren’t conspiring
To pack their bags and move to a place
Where stillness appears to more advantage.
No plan for a heaven above, beyond, or within,
Whose ever-blooming bushes are rustling
In a sea breeze at this very moment.
These things are focusing all their attention
On holding fast as time washes around them.
The flowers in the vase won’t come again.
The page of the book beside it, the edge turned down,
Will never be read again for the first time.
The light from the window’s angled.
The sun’s moving on. That’s why the people
Who live in the house are missing.
They’re all outside enjoying the light that’s left them.
Lucky for them to find when they return
These silent things just as they were.
Night’s coming on and they haven’t been frightened off.
They haven’t once dreamed of going anywhere.

On this first day of October, I pause at these September photographs, the last gifts of my Summer garden. The sun is moving on here in the North Country, where the sun dips away into the horizon at an unsettlingly early hour by the day.

I find myself holding fast to the season past: the stray flower still in bloom, the rosemary bush straining to keep going. And then my eye catches the sumac trees here and there on our pasture lines, crimson now. The tree under which I usually park at the grocery store is beginning to look like a ripening apple – less green than shades of almost red. The maple tree in our front yard shows signs of gold. And the hostas have lost that last violet bloom – they hang their heads now, spent and ready for winter’s rest. I understand that, I feel the same way.

I love summer, but every season has its gifts, and I am forward looking to what Fall offers.

Lessons from the river…

The Battenkill River wends its way from Vermont to just south of Saratoga, where it feeds into the Hudson River. In our neck of the woods, it is often visible from the road and open for kayaking and swimming at various points along the way. Over the years, the river has been part of our life, a favorite source of comfort in those sweltering summer months.

This Saturday, Scott and I joined other volunteers in the annual Fall cleanup effort. It’s been a very wet Summer, and the river has been running high and fast; it’s also been a busy Summer, and though we’ve meant to throw our kayaks in the truck and head out for some river time on many a weekend, farm chores and weather conditions seem to have got in the way. So, the clean up was the perfect opportunity to get back on the river one last time.

We had the perfect day: blue skies, and quite warm for this time in September. As we set off to comb the riverbank for whatever trash we could find, I could tell that the current was very strong. Rainstorms had brought down quite a few trees, which had to be carefully maneuvered around or under; the put in and pull off points I could previously recognize were now under water, and the river itself seemed vaguely unfamiliar. Nevertheless, it was wonderful to be back and I gave myself into the experience of being on the water.

Pretty soon after we’d begun, and perhaps because the mission of the moment (cleanup) was forgotten for the sheer pleasure of the moment, I found myself ahead of the group. A grey heron seemed to shadow my journey, soaring over the river from one hiding place on to the next. There were families of ducks, of course, flitting from one cove to another and taking off in flight and skimming back. At one point, I spotted a pair of deer grazing in the woods, utterly oblivious to the sound of my paddle dipping through the water.

At some point, I realized that I was too far ahead of everyone for comfort. I had passed under Route 22, the usual pull off point, but had not seen the small beach and path up to the roadway. The river had picked up speed as it came around a sharp bend, where I saw several soda cans caught in the branches of a downed tree. As I was reaching out with my paddle to extricate them, it was ripped right out my grasp, and GONE in a flash.

Up a creek and without a paddle, literally, I pulled myself up to the bank, wedged the kayak into some suitable tree roots, and sent my location pin off to my husband Scott, hoping that he’d manage to somehow find me.

Before long, it became clear that no one would be able to find me as long as I hung out by the river, kayakless, paddleless, and also running of power on my phone. It must have been that thought which gave me the adrenalin I needed to somehow clamber up the vertical incline and onto safer ground. Any relief I might have felt at being able to do so evaporated at the sight of the cornfield that stretched before me. Now what?! One end seemed to end by woods, so I took the other and prayed that it was the right call, which it was, thankfully.

Unfortunately, I now needed to walk up the two other sides of the cornfield if I was to ever find another living soul who could point me homewards. Still clutching my life vest, and still sopping wet from the waist down, I trekked past more corn than I have ever been so up and personal with. At last, the field gave way to an enormous barn full of dairy cows, eyeing me with placid curiosity as I trudged on to the farmhouse I hope existed beyond.

It did. The farmer was so kind and sympathetic, and he didn’t laugh. I used the last 1% of my phone’s charge to call Scott with a more precise location than “somewhere on the riverbank”. Scott before too long, smirking at first and then right out loud laughing.

I was too tired to muster any shred of affronted dignity. It will be a long while before I kayak again, and then I intend to carry an extra paddle.

Full moon nights…

We’ve had lovely, clear nights as the moon waxed into its fullness. On nights like these, the valley lights up in a beautiful, mysterious way. All that is so familiar and predictable, and all that feels so known and safe, slides into something quite different.

I am always conscious of the fact that we have coyotes living in the woods around the farm. They are rarely heard during the daytime, unless a kit wanders too far from the pack, in which case the entire pack takes up a keening call so that the errant kiddo can find its way back to the den. However startling this may be, I find comfort in the sounds of tractors, sheep, and roosters that are also part of daylight soundscape.

On most nights, I rarely hear the coyotes as they prowl the valley and hunt. I know they are there, of course, and am grateful for the spotlights we have put up in strategic spots around the farm so that I can go about night time chores feeling (somewhat) safe.

As the moon reaches her fullness, some ancient instinct leads coyotes to howl in some sort of unified praise of moonlight. It’s a different sound, the kind of sound that sends shivers up my spine even when I’m in the house or barn; all of a sudden, I am conscious of how close really they are!

Before Bowie came to guard the farm, before I had a flock of sheep, I would listen from the comfort of my bed, and somehow manage to drift off into sleep. Not any more. Bowie answers each and every howl with her own bark of warning: you shall not pass this farm’s way. I may be in bed, but sleep is out of the question. I worry about Bowie, a lone guard dog against a pack of hungry coyotes. I worry about my sheep, hoping they have given up their favored sleeping place high up on the pastures for the greater safety of their pole barn. Not even the fact that our fences are secure can reassure me. Sleep is impossible.

And here I am, greeting this sunny day with bleary eyes, in need of a few hours of dark and quiet, and sleep. Bowie lies stretched out by the barn, sleeping off her long hours of patrolling and barking, while I go about farm chores with daydreams of napping at some point.