One of things I wrote in my journal at Taproot Farm this summer was the sentence: “Teach out of your joy.” Poetry is an effortless way for me to bring an unbridled joy to my boys every single day. Before we start our main lessons, we take time for poetic recitation. Hearing poetry spoken aloud brings a musicality that is lost when the same words are read silently. I don’t stress diction, meter or meaning during this exercise. We simply read our poems, relying less and less on our papers as the month progresses. More often than not, we end up memorizing our own poems and each other’s poems as well. Some poems stay with us throughout the year and into the next; others are forgotten quickly. I believe the lines we can recall at the slightest provocation are true sustenance for the soul.

My personal spirituality is closely connected to specific poets and poems. Sometimes it is the entire corpus of a poet that resonates: Wendell Berry, John O’Donohue, Mary Oliver and Robert Frost come to mind. Sometimes it is single poems: “Sekhmet . . . ” by Margaret Atwood, “Winter” by William Shakespeare, “Your Laughter” by Pablo Neruda and “Full Moon” by Kathryn Stripling Byer. And then there are those exquisite individual lines that resound – a few words put together that make my heart melt. That famous line from Tennyson – “Though much is taken much abides”  – is one of those lines. I have recited it countless times since I first underlined those words in a tissue-paper edition of some Norton anthology I had as an undergraduate. I find a quiet yet forceful strength implicit in that line to accept that which remains in the face of loss – acceptance without denying or discounting loss. It is just six words. Six words that I repeated over and over during a memorial service this time last year. Six words that somehow helped me to begin to frame an unbelievable loss. Six words that have carried me through a year of grief. Though much is taken much abides. Yes.

Below you will find the first poem I assigned myself this year. It is by Carl Sandburg and is one that has stayed with me. It perhaps better expresses what I am trying to say, and ultimately what I am trying to do when I set aside time every morning to focus on some words with my boys. Enjoy.

 Little girl, be careful what you say
When you make talk with words, words –
For words are made of syllables
And syllables, child, are made of air –
And air is so thin – air is the breath of God –
Air is finer than fire or mist,
Finer than water or moonlight,
Finer than spider-webs in the moon,
Finer than water-flowers in the morning:
And words are strong, too,
Stronger than rocks or steel
Stronger than potatoes, corn, fish, cattle
And soft, too, soft as little pigeon-eggs,
Soft as the music of hummingbird wings.
So, little girl, when you speak greetings,
When you tell jokes, make wishes or prayers,
Be careful, be careless, be careful,
Be what you wish to be.

Pushing Boundaries

Most times when I talk to my neighbors there is some kind of physical barrier between us. Usually it’s a creek, barbed wire, a cattle gate or some combination of the three. They are usually working on one side. I am usually walking with my dog on the other. Fencing is a big deal around here, and the famous line from Robert Frost, “Good fences make good neighbors” often echoes in my mind when I am walking their mishmash, yet meticulously kept, fence lines. Recently I went back and read the whole of that poem, “Mending Wall,” and was struck by these words: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offence.”

Metaphorical fences have occupied a lot of my inner work this past year. And unlike my neighbors, who have dozens and dozens of four-legged reasons to keep building and maintaining their fences, I have worked hard this year to dismantle some of those boundaries that no longer serve me. I have repeatedly asked myself Frost’s three implicit questions: what was I walling in? what was I walling out? and whom was I offending? The answers to these questions surprised me, as they were the same in practically every situation. Always, always, always, I was walling in myself – well, me and my fear. On the other side was a sense of freedom, usually some sort of creative self-expression. And the kicker – who was I offending? – no one!!! Nobody even knows the stupid fence exists except for me.

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I have a deep respect and an unabashed love for my neighbors, both the people they are and the work that they do. Back in the spring, I spent what I now refer to as “the lovely day” with two of them. They were cutting oats in the field that borders mine. It was one of those days that seems somehow suspended in time – long, languid and sweet. After they put in a hard day’s work – baling some 8,000 pounds of oats – we spent about an hour or so talking. That day was a touchstone for me – the balance of intense physical labor with easy conversation. The lesson that there is time for what is necessary.

So many times I wanted to capture that day on film – well, on my iPhone. But I was too embarrassed and afraid of what they would think. I surreptitiously took the shot above, but I was standing rather far away. It is one of the few photos I have ever edited for this blog. After that day, I decided I was going to muster my courage and take some proper pictures. I told myself they probably weren’t going to think anything – or anything worse than what they already think! The first time I asked my neighbor to take his picture, my hands were shaking so badly, the shot came out blurry. The second time, I simply said, “Don’t move,” and snapped the shot.

Fast forward a couple of months. I spent a Saturday evening in late summer with these same two neighbors. We were way back in the cow pasture, and I took 70 photographs. Most were of Holstein steers, but many of my neighbors too. That evening led to this post that I absolutely love. I love chronicling this part of my everyday life. My neighbors are an intimate part of this landscape that is so dear to my heart. So I will continue taking pictures of them on their side of the fence – mending barbed wire bare-handed, baling hay, working the land – while I enjoy the freedom I have found on the other side.

Farm Cred

Apparently, not many people today can say they have driven a 1959 601/Ford tractor. I can. My neighbor is giving me tractor driving lessons, and a couple of weeks ago we went for a nice, long drive in the pasture. This is the piece of land I can wax poetic about to anyone who will listen. (I have several times in this space. This post most especially.) In the twelve years I have lived here, I have never been to the top of the ridge line. I honestly didn’t think the view could be much better than the one I have from my back porch, but on this clear Saturday in late July, the panoramic mountain vista brought me to tears.

My neighbor is highly indulgent of me, I guess in the way most 77 year old southern farmers can be. Despite the fact that he once told me I was the strangest woman he’s ever met (which at his age is really saying something), it is a mutually indulgent friendship. He stops by my house a couple of times a week bearing gifts: tootsie rolls for the boys and usually a mess of vegetables he’s just picked that morning for me. Recently he’s started bringing me buckets full of old, rusty nails, because I happened to mention that I save any I find. I have a lot of old, rusty nails now.

His grandparents moved into the house where we live in 1903. His dad was 4 years old. They raised 9 (nine!) children in this two bedroom farmhouse. It is still known locally as “The Bridges’ House” and always will be. From the top of the ridge that day, he showed me the boundaries of the original farmland that belonged to the house – all 800 acres of it, all farmed with mules. The thought just boggles my mind. Just over 2 acres remain with the house (that’s what we own), and I blush to think of all the diesel-powered machinery used to tame that relative postage stamp.

We spent about 2 hours on the tractor that day. His driving directions are a litany of requests delivered in a soothing mountain drawl: “Kindly go to the left here.” “Think you could mash the brake before we reach the gate?” “Cross the branch and go up over that gap.” While he is perched on the fender (see photo above), I am trying to drive, keep my eye out for stray cows, watch out for ruts in the field and ultimately not, not, not drop him over the side. It was a resounding success that day, and I learned a lot while I was behind the wheel:

  1. Farmers don’t wear linen tank tops and shorts when driving a tractor; you get too much sun.
  2. They also don’t wear rubber boots; the heat of the exhaust almost melts such footwear to the clutch pedal.
  3. The power and freedom found behind the wheel of a tractor is hypnotic.
  4. News travels fast that a woman has been seen driving a man around on a tractor.
  5. You get a whole ‘lotta farm cred just for showing up, staying on and bringing it back.

I can’t wait for my next lesson.

If a Tree Falls . . .

Sometimes I feel like I cannot scratch an itch without it being seen and talked about in this little town of mine. My neighbors keep a close eye on all that goes on around here. Which, truth be told, is not much. Cows graze, rain falls (or doesn’t), gardens grow, fields are tended, people drive up the road and then back down the road. This dearth of activity produces a soothing predictability that has laid claim to my heart. Big news around here can sometimes be sitting in a field one usually walks through. Such an aberration on my part caused a neighbor to get in his truck and come make sure everything was all right. I assured him I was fine. It was a quiet Sunday morning, I had a good friend singing in my ear and I couldn’t think of any better way to spend an hour than to sit in this particular field and watch the grass grow. I was told the story of my deviance from another neighbor of mine who owns the field. He said he had told yet a third neighbor that if he saw me sitting in that field that everything was probably okay. Although as he said this, he did give me a slight tilt of head, as if questioning the sanity of someone just sitting in a field.

Most of the time, I am appreciative of these watchful eyes, as I know their intentions are heartfelt. So you would think when a 50 foot black walnut tree came down in our front yard during a crazy storm one afternoon, my neighbors would be all over it. I expected phone calls, pickup trucks in my driveway, offers of tractors and chain saws, advice on tree removal, stories about cracking the nuts that came from the tree. The silence that followed the storm was deafening. It took a full 24 hours for one neighbor to putt-putt over here on his lawn mower to investigate. He looked at me funny and said, “What happened?” I stated the obvious, and told him the tree fell during the storm we had on Monday. He responded, “Well I didn’t see it.” I didn’t quite know what to say, but I did feel slightly complicit in some sort of vague subterfuge.

Another neighbor (the one who saw me sitting in the field from a good quarter mile away) was standing in my driveway on Wednesday morning, 36 hours after the tree had fallen and not 20 feet from it, failed to notice the wreckage. After we had made small talk for about 5 minutes, I idiotically said, “I have a tree in my front yard.” He looked in the direction of our garden and said, “Well, my grandpaw, he always said those trees would make good shade one day.” I didn’t think this was the proper response, and I began to question his sanity. I then said, “Do you see the tree laying in my front yard.” He turned his head a fraction of an inch and his jaw dropped. “When did that happen?” I told him the same thing I told my other neighbor: “Monday during the storm.” “Well how come I didn’t know about it?” I didn’t have an answer for him either. Yet a third neighbor stopped me on Wednesday afternoon and said, “I think you’ve got somethin’ a-layin’ in your yard.” He probably had driven past my house at least six times since it happened. I told him that we had a tree come down in the storm on Monday. He looked at me incredulously and said, “But I just now noticed it.” Again, what was there to say?

Now that the news is out there, the offers of help and equipment, much advice and many stories have poured in just as I expected. I have lived in this house for a dozen years and have only now just discovered this little parcel of privacy. If I ever do get an itch or want to just sit and watch the grass grow, you can rest assured I’ll be doing it in the middle of my front yard.

PS. Amazingly we suffered no damage to our house. The tree fell just to the right of our power lines and just shy of the front porch. It clipped the gutter, but only dented it slightly. I love it when something nutty happens and the only thing to come out of it is a good story.

PPS. In deference to my neighbors, you really couldn’t see the tree unless you were standing on our front porch. Between the chest-high hay fields and the way our house sits, it was perfectly hidden from view.

Destination: Taproot Farm

I leave Thursday to attend a homeschool teacher training that Barbara Dewey runs at her home, Taproot Farm in central Ohio. I have mentioned it before in this post and also here. I consider it my annual retreat – even though this is only my second time attending. It is wonderful being surrounded by so many people who homeschool with Waldorf-inspired methods. Singing together, doing Eurythmy, eating together and just talking shop is a real treat. Not to mention getting to spend 7 hours (both ways!) in the car with my one and only, real, live and in-person homeschooling friend. (Hi Andrea!) That is a lot of gab time, and I have no doubt we will fill it.

My time at Taproot last year had a radical impact on my resolve and attitude toward homeschooling with Waldorf. It made me “get my head in the game” as they say. Before I went to Taproot, the majority of my Waldorf study time was spent online via yahoo groups. (Now let me just say, these groups were a lifeline to me in the beginning. I am eternally grateful to everyone who answered my queries and questions – especially Melisa Nielsen and Lauri Bolland on Melisa’s yahoo group.) However, these daily digests were becoming a combination Trojan Horse/Rabbit Hole (Trojan Rabbit, perhaps?) to me. I would read the messages, click links that had no bearing on what I was doing, get caught up in the little dramas that seemed endless last summer and basically waste a bunch of time. Returning home from Taproot, I realized if I wanted to homeschool with Waldorf in any meaningful way, I needed to do some serious reading and some serious inner work. For me, this was not going to happen online. So I dropped out of all the yahoo groups, cleaned out a bunch of stuff I didn’t need, and began to follow 3 rules I was given at Taproot.

  1. Know the child in front of you.
  2. Ask the angels for help.
  3. Be aware of the world around you.

I don’t know if these dicta are direct from Steiner or a distillation from his lectures, all I know is they shifted the center of my universe and connected me to all that is essential: my children, the heavens and the earth. The rest is really just fluff. Big Lesson.

This year I have no expectation of another Big Lesson, as I feel the one I received last year will keep me busy for years. I signed up to take classes on grade 5, form drawing, painting and child development from an anthroposophical perspective. I am hoping those fifth grade ancient mythologies will permeate my understanding a little better – because let me tell you, they are not really resonating with me right now. Being able to think and plan for next year without anything else demanding my attention feels absolutely luxurious. Oh and I am also looking forward to being completely unplugged. There is no cell service or wi-fi at Barbara’s house, so expect a double “Habit: Reflective Friday” when I return. If you are signed up to attend Taproot, please, please, please leave a comment. And if you’re not, please, please, please think about attending next year. You can find more information here.