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.

Testing

We completed our state-mandated testing a couple of weeks ago. North Carolina is a very easy state in which to homeschool. Basically, you need to keep attendance records and administer a standardized test every year (all rules and regs for NC can be found here). The results are not reported to any state or local office, and merely need to be kept on file at home.

Vincent loves taking the test and he tests very well. That choleric fire comes out and he rises to the challenge. Me? I will admit to a twinge of nervousness. After opening the envelope and thumbing through the test booklet, the chatter in my head goes something like this: “Oh, we haven’t done that.” “We’re not doing that until next year.” “That’s a fourth grade concept?” I let myself have about five minutes of this useless, ridiculous, unfounded anxiety. The scores don’t even go anywhere!

I will save my verbose rant about “teaching to the test”, and merely say I think when we reduce education to a correct answer on a generic test, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. Education is bigger than punctuation, isolated vocabulary, and poorly written word problems. Are the mechanics of grammar, the love of words and the concepts of mathematics important? Absolutely. However the measurement of them in isolation is flawed at best. At least this is what I tell myself after my five-minute panic.

We have made the choice to homeschool our children. Our decision is not reactionary in any way. It is not a rejection of something, but rather an embrace of something else. Even though the number of families choosing to homeschool is growing, we are clearly in the minority of those with school-aged children. As Waldorf-inspired homeschoolers, we are a minority within a minority. This is where we have chosen to be, and I would not change our decision for anything.

On our second and final day of testing, Jude chose a book of poetry for me to read during storytime, which included the following stanza from “Rose Pogonias” by Robert Frost:

We raised a simple prayer
Before we left the spot,
That in the general mowing
That place might be forgot;
Or if not all so favored,
Obtain such grace of hours,
That none should mow the grass there
While so confused with flowers.

After storytime, both boys went out to play. Vincent was trying to catch butterflies in a field of clover. Not an hour later, my neighbor came to mow that field. We waved to him and watched him from the back porch. The English major in me couldn’t resist getting the book and reading that stanza again. No explications or explanations. Just the words. The perfect words to name that sweet sadness. Natasha Trethewey, our new poet laureate here in the US, says that poetry finds a way to “speak the unspeakable.” I couldn’t agree more.

On our final day of testing, I was taught a lesson that I seem to have to learn and relearn – again and again. What we do and how we spend our days matters. This is the education we have chosen and that we want for our boys: something that fosters thought, encourages connection and speaks truth. Ultimately what we teach and what we learn should reflect, engender and celebrate all that is. On that day, education looked like a tractor in a field. It smelled like freshly cut clover. It sounded like poetry written before I was born. Above all, it felt like home.

The View From Here or How to Read this Blog

This is one view from my back door.

This is another.

The difference comes from moving my camera about six inches to the left.

I will be honest with you, I am relatively new to the blogosphere scene, so I am going to make a sweeping generalization from a miniscule amount of experience: Blogs aren’t real life. I know mine isn’t. Is what I write true? Absolutely. Does it give you a window into my world? Yes. Does it tell the whole story? Not by a long shot.

Take the photos above. The first shot is of a hillside so lovely it takes my breath away some days. It is right outside my back door, and I stare at this vista every morning when I have my coffee and feel so, so lucky to live here. However, if I turn my head about a quarter turn, I see the unsightly pile of cinder blocks that has no signs of going anywhere in the near or distant future. This unsightliness is also in my line of vision, and although I see it and know it’s there, I don’t focus on it. It is not how I want to spend those rare quiet moments I have alone on my back porch.

To me, this blog is like the first picture. What I write here is what I want to focus on. The majority of my posts are and will be about plans, ideas, successes, and those moments (both good and bad) that have taught me something. It doesn’t mean the “cinder block” moments don’t exist; it just means I am not going to overly focus on them in this space. Whatever does get posted here has been sifted, crafted and edited from a very ordinary day. Everything has been reflected on in hindsight – even if it is just the hindsight of a day or two. My day might begin at 5:15 with the dog throwing up, be punctuated by the antics of two boys who are determined to push all of my buttons, and dealing with the diesel fumes from the tractors baling hay for the third day in a row. This same day might end with a yummy dinner, a glass of wine with my husband, the dog at our feet and the boys running among the hay bales. All of it is true. All of it happened. Guess what I want to focus on and remember?

When I think about you reading this blog, it is also like those rare quiet moments on my back porch – except with a friend. If you happened to drop by my house in real life, I can say with confidence that it would not be clean. I would mentally hope the toilets were flushed and the seats were down. I wouldn’t worry about the overflowing compost bucket or omnipresent dog hair and dust bunnies, because honestly I don’t notice them anymore. You would likely find something freshly baked (or quickly defrosted!), fresh flowers on the table (courtesy of our CSA) and coffee, tea or wine at the ready. I would be very, very happy you were there. We would sit on the back porch, sip, talk, eat, talk some more. Above all, I hope we would garner a couple of gems from the shared conversation and also remember that pretty view.