A Few Words on Life

The sheep were on the hill grazing as I walked out to feed the hogs. It was a picturesque site –forty some sheep contentedly grazing, despite the fact that it is now late December. The grass is still green due to our unusually warm temperatures of late. I spotted Tess with her twins, less than a day old. She didn’t like the fact I was trying to take her picture – because I’m not a sheep I must be related to a wolf (sheep thinking).

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In the last 24 hours, we’ve had 6 lambs born; two sets of twins and two singles. That makes 7 this week, with more on the way. Each morning has been like a rebirth of Christmas for my youngest daughter. Grace loves the flock and names each new addition, in spite of the fact they are meat sheep. Of course, this does lead to emotional trauma several times a year, but I digress.

New life is simply a miracle. Despite the fact that we can scientifically explain how it happens in the remotest of terms, once you’ve been a part of a birth your outlook on life is bound to change. Today, I had the chance to be a part of the process one more time.

April was out on the hillside with the rest of the sheep, but it became obvious she was in heavy labor. I noted the time and that she appeared to be having some difficulty. I finished my rounds and went in for a quick breakfast.

The sheep will sometimes get out and invade our yards, looking for the “greener grass.” I had just finished making the coffee when I noticed they were literally at my doorstep. I rounded them up and drove them back to their pasture. April was still in labor and not progressing, laying down, pushing, getting up, bleating, looking bewildered. Two small feet and a tongue presented. It was time to intervene.

Did I mention that sheep think everything other than another sheep is a wolf? It was impossible to approach April in the open field – she just ran away. She would have to go up into the sheep/hay shed. Once there, I still needed to pen her in a small space in hopes of working with her. I set up a place, but she had other ideas – she wedged herself between two large round bales of hay.

I had taken the time to grab several pairs of vinyl gloves and some baler twine (for attaching to the feet in order to pull). I simply didn’t have time to utilize either – I grabbed a little hoof and began to pull downward. April went down on her side and began to push. I reached in and freed the lamb’s head. Within seconds, the lamb was out. I did a quick check to see if there was a twin, but no, April had had a healthy single lamb. I’m happy to report mother and baby are doing well.

Life is precious. We don’t realize that until we are confronted with death. And yet both are completely natural – to decry death is also to decry life. We are part of a circle. What the ancients feared most was not necessarily death, but sterility – the inability to bring forth life, whether human, animal, or plant. In late summer, weeds begin to produce seed at an amazing rate, animals in heat seek a mate, humans have that clock thing going on. It’s nature way of saying, “Be fruitful and multiply.”

I’ve delivered calves, kids, piglets, and lambs. In all kinds of weather. With all kinds of outcomes. Breakfast was late today. The coffee was cold. But I saved a little lamb and his mom. There’s no need to hear any other sermon on a Sunday.

Christmas Tidings

I’ve a bit more shopping to do before Christmas. I know it’s late for this sort of thing, but my excuse has always been that I’m a guy, and that’s just how we do things. You know, drive around the mall parking lot for hours looking for a parking spot on Christmas Eve, just so we can find the perfect gifts for everyone on our list. Except that we have absolutely no clue what those “perfect” gifts might be. I’ve met a few guys who do early Christmas shopping (you know, before Dec. 1) but I think they are genetically modified…

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Our slogans for the season tout peace and goodwill. Of course, those traits vanish when two drivers head for the same parking spot, or a brawl breaks out at Wal-Mart over the last favorite toy available…until tomorrow. We are not a species constitutionally given over to peace and goodwill. We are not content. I am not content.

One of the principles I learned in management class many decades ago was that money is always a dis-satisfier. No one has ever said they have enough money with a straight face. Of course, there are varying degrees of this monetary dissatisfaction. Some are more driven to be dissatisfied than others. This is not unusual, or even a purely human phenomenon.

I’ve raised and tended to animals all my life. I bet when you read that sentence, the thought of cows and sheep contentedly grazing on a hillside pops into your mind. Or perhaps the hours spent tending to a weak newborn, or cutting hay in the summer to insure the animals have enough to eat in the winter. Yes, these are all accurate pictures. Then there is that old saying, “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Yeah. Always.

I’ve spent more time chasing animals back to where they should be than any other activity on the farm. Given the right pasture and rotation, cattle tend to be the most content of the animals I’ve kept. Horses are pretty good too, though they are pasture killers. Both will exploit any weakens in a fence the moment they become dissatisfied.

And then there are sheep. Specifically, my sheep. They are a breed specifically designed for meat, shedding their wool/hair, and apparently, breaking down fences. They are simply not contented animals. I’ve had them destroy older barbed wire fences that have held cattle and horses for years. They laugh at an electric fence, their wool being a perfect insulator. If they want something on the other side of a fence, they will figure a way to get to it. I’ve had them push through a seven-strand barbed wire fence – brand new. Frustrating.

My youngest daughter is the farm shepherdess. Her physical education consists mainly in rounding up the sheep from where they shouldn’t be. My temporary answer to all of this has been to expand the list of places they can be. Off-limits now consist of the highway, the neighbors’ flowers, and my front yard (most of the time).

Contentment is an elusive commodity. If you’ve acquired it, congratulations. You’re at peace. The rest of us, not so much.

When the angels proclaimed peace and goodwill to the shepherds in the field, what were they saying? My take is that with the presence of the Christ child, the Almighty had entered our world in a unique way in order to bring about a peace that would reflect His character. Jesus became God’s unique expression of peace and love to His creation.

What we sometimes miss in the story is the fact that Jesus spent the first 30 years of his life preparing for the last three. Or perhaps we can say, maturing.

The fact that I have not arrived at the point of contentment and peace only means that I am still on a journey and the question isn’t so much about the my present location (in the weeds…) but the road and the destination I’m heading toward. John Bunyan wrote a book a few years back entitled “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” It’s about the journey, folks.

Western Christians tend to be pretty cerebral about their faith. Just browse the R. Catholic catechism. Eastern Christians are a bit different. Faith in the east has always been harder as it’s been up against other well-formed, dominant religions for centuries. It is a faith lived out against the backdrop of conflict and persecution. It is truly a life lived in prayer for “our daily bread.”

I’m tempted here to get all theological and write about Dante, theosis, and yoga. But nope, need to keep this focused. Just like the rest of life. Perhaps the key to finding peace this season isn’t so much looking at the big picture (“look at all the grass on the other side of the fence”) as focusing on the small. Here. Now. Our daily bread.

My wish this season is for each of us to be in the moment, but to also realize you are on a journey of incredible importance. You are loved, not by an impersonal force, but by the Creator who has plans for us for peace and goodwill.

Merry Christmas!!!

Presence

There are times when I sit down to write and I have a pretty good idea of what the piece will look like when I’m done. This is not one of those times. It may end up being one of those essays I share with a few friends and tuck into the back of my blog; then again, it may see the light of day as the sun burns through the mist and lifts onto a new day.

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Mist. I often forget the beauty of my farm in the morning, especially this time of year, as the mist settles into the small valleys we have and then gently begins to lift. All too often, I make a note of the beauty but rush to accomplish the tasks of the day. This morning was different. From the window of my hovel, I saw the mist against the trees in the distance.   I strolled onto the hill, took the photo, and enjoyed the beauty of the present. Magical…

There is beauty in the moment that is all too often overlooked. I believe most Westerners, and certainly most Americans, are oriented to the future. We get wrapped up in the “what’s it going to be like” mentality, the planning of success, the desire for more. When we are fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the moment, it’s brief. We are constitutionally unable to hold it for long – the future beckons.

I love the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. It is brief, yet economy of words doesn’t equate to poverty of meaning. Jesus asks us to live in the moment of the day – “give us our daily bread.” He tells us to forgive in order to be forgiven – “and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus calls us to live each day with a clean slate; make your worries small and your heart generous.

I’m now well entrenched into my “middle ages.” My worries are not small. My generosity for forgiveness is under repair. It’s simply earth-shaking to wake up one day and discover you’re the Pharisee you’ve always preached against; to realize that I am the “eldest son” in Christ’s parable of the Prodigal. And then to grapple with the fact that the first person on the list to forgive is yourself.

Choice and change are the currencies of life. Change will occur; the choice of how to handle it will dictate who you become. My choice is to begin to live more in the Present. I’m encouraged to do this by friends who are already there – “Future cares have future cures…” a friend shared with me (from Sophocles). While we need plans to move ahead with the future, we live in the moment with family, friends, and ourselves.

The Christmas season, a time that should bring joy because of it’s profound message of peace and reconciliation is often the time of tremendous stress, anxiousness, and depression, largely because we are not at peace with ourselves, nor are we reconciled with others. I am quite frankly dreading the holiday season. I’m sure I’m not alone. How exactly does one manage a family situation that has become absolutely toxic?

My proposed solution is to live in the Present. To let the gift to myself and others be the gift of “Being There.” To let the future wait. And how does all this happen? Prayer.

Prayer is a wonderful thing really. While we pray about things past (forgiveness) and future (petition) we are wonderfully anchored to the present, in the presence of the God who lives in the eternal now. All things are “Present” before the Almighty. When we are able to be “Present” with ourselves and those around us, we extend the gift of God to them.

To those of you who read this, be present. Be present with yourself. Be present with others. Enjoy the life you’ve been blessed with. Breathe deep, don’t let important things go unsaid because of fear, live secure in the knowledge that we are all loved. That is what this season is all about.

 

 

A Cry Will Do You Good

Fifty years ago today, I received a gift. I don’t remember Brenda coming to live with me, since I was only the tender age of 18 months. But I never really knew life without her until 22 years later when she died of melanoma lymphatic cancer. I’m crying today for the first time in forever. There’s a lot going on and I guess I’m feeling the loss more than I have since she died.

If you were lucky enough to know Brenda, you understand my loss. She lived a life that touched everyone around her. She was the golden child, the smart one, the kind one. She knew what it was like to be a friend and what needed to happen in order to make friendships grow.

Brenda was the Farm Queen, the Fair Queen, the Tobacco Queen (yep, it was those days in Southern Maryland). She was 1st runner up at the Maryland Farm Bureau contest. She played French horn in the high school band, played piano, and sang. She won her trip to the National 4-H competition in Chicago. She simply excelled in everything she did.

She was fair skinned and blond. She wanted to tan. What she got was a mole on her knee that turned out to be skin cancer. She was 18. The doctors removed the mole, and declared her well. Brenda went on to Grace College, graduated in 3 ½ yrs. and married Rick. Everything looked great for them and then Brenda began to have a pain in her leg. The rest is statistics. The experimental treatment spared her the long death.

It’s been said that life is made up in the dash, that dash between Dec. 6, 1965 – Feb. 2, 1988. A good friend of Brenda’s called me about 6 months later. She told me she had had a dream, a vision, and Brenda came to her and told her she was all right. However, the family she left behind was not.

It has taken me nearly 3 decades to acknowledge the depth of that loss. I can only do so now as I look at the death of another relationship, the undoing of another family. Change should be embraced and even celebrated, since our lives are made up of changes. Some changes need to be mourned and grieved. And then there is the change that one feels the need to fight for whatever reason. But change can be unacknowledged and ignored, left to fester in the soul. There is poison in that well.

Brenda would choose to embrace and celebrate the change. As a Christian, I believe I will see her again. In the meantime, I must be mindful of the dash.

Intimacy

Not your typical farm-related blog title.  I have an intimate knowledge of certain things on my farm.  I know it’s plumbing and electrical systems.  I know the mechanical systems in the houses here.  In all these examples, I know them because I’ve either installed them or worked on them.  I know the soils of this farm.  The field right behind the brick rancher where I grew up will never warm up early in the spring.  It slopes toward the north and is heavy with clay.  A mid-spring planting suits this field best.

 The field out in front of my grandparent’s house was acquired in the 1970’s and it’s five acres are suited to fast growing vegetation.  The heavier soil on the rise toward the back is much better land.  The British probably burned the house that was there during the war. 

 We push old bricks around in certain fields, the last remnants of a culture too long here, not far enough gone.  The old orchards are gone now, cut done to expedite the use of the tractor and haybine.  Many apples fell to be consumed by the lowliest of farm creatures – the groundhog. 

 The barns are filled with the acquisitions of three generations.  The workhorse harness of my grandfather’s still occupies the same pegs in the old stall that it did when my father gave them to me – the day after he buried his father.  My harness gear is on the other side of the barn, in the “new” shed, my attempt to recreate what is probably forever lost.

 Intimacy comes in all shapes and sizes.  Yet there is a common thread, the binding element: Care.  Care to prevent harm, promote well-being, and most importantly, to understand.  Intimacy can be lost through neglect and carelessness.  The greater the knowledge, the deeper the intimacy. 

 True intimacy is something that is worked out over time.  It takes some living and some failures to bring it out.  I did plant that field behind my mother’s house in early spring peas one year.  I know whereof I write. I’ve seen love blossom because of intimacy; I’ve seen it die without it.  Love is a funny thing, but I digress.  Who’d read a farmer’s take on love anyway?

 “Pep” recently had a C-section due to complications of her labor.  Both lambs were lost, but the ewe was saved.  I am blessed to have a great veterinarian.  Yet the procedure cost far more than the ewe was worth, dollar-wise.  But there were other levels of valuation in play here.  “Pep” is the friendliest sheep we have.  Too friendly.  Bottle-fed as a lamb, she was raised on the back porch of an Amish farmhouse.  When I purchased my flock, Micah threw her in the deal, just to get rid of her.  I soon found out why.

 “Pep” didn’t view herself as a sheep at all.  She viewed herself as a human.  She’d have gladly accepted a room in the house and completely rebelled against the idea of being part of the flock.  Getting her off our front porch and putting her back with the sheep was a daily (hourly?) routine.  To this day she does her own thing, and is always the last to come when rounded up for the evening.

 So, why spend that kind of money on “Pep?”  There are other traits about her I like, not the least of which is her name.  “Pep” is my children’s short for the Spanish pequeno (little).  When she came to us, she was the smallest little lamb we had.  And she wormed a place into all our hearts.  Maybe a farmer is allowed to have a pet after all.

 Intimacy is what you make of it, much like all other things in life.  Water it, and it will grow; starve it, and it will fade.  Choose well.