“Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.” Wendell Berry

“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

― Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution

The morning begins. Those first sleepy moments are driven off by the cold in the mudroom as I tug my thick overalls and muddy boots on over my pajamas. There is something to knowing you’re needed, a mutual, satisfying feeling between the animals and me. We always say that every day is a good and pampered one for the animals except for their last.

I can’t imagine the loneliness of a farm with no animals. When we must load lambs off on their last day I cry and seriously consider giving it all up. But then I remember how sick I was without meat, and think too about the state of factory farming, and how life is a series of compromises. Not a single human soul is truly pure or innocent.

“I dislike the thought that some animal has been made miserable to feed me. If I am going to eat meat, I want it to be from an animal that has lived a pleasant, uncrowded life outdoors, on bountiful pasture, with good water nearby and trees for shade.”

Wendell Berry

When you raise animals you tend not to waste their sacrifices. I laugh at the ram lambs as they gambol about and admire the proud ewes as they murmur sweet nothings to their newborns. They clean and dote over them with such soft looks in their eyes — looks that disappear after the little brutes get bigger and nearly upend her seeking milk.

Every night there’s the big sky in its various moods as I trudge down to the barn. The wind, the snow, the sun, the autumn leaves in little whirlwinds in the apple orchard — all things to keep me forever in the world, forever in the seasons, forever dirty, forever unfinished.

For the curious there is always so much more to learn. For someone like me who is so attached to the past, there is nothing better than discovering how my ancestors went about doing the same chores I do now.

Eric Sloane feeds my soul.

Work keeps me sane and the seasons keep me from ever complaining about the monotony of chores. Yet chores aren’t really monotonous. Chores are dependable. Every night I announce, even when we have visitors, “Okay, I have to go do the animals.” It’s funny to think that for ten years I’ve said it exactly the same way. Not a single word changed. The tone is almost a complaint, but not really. Once I’m alone and outside I’m happy to be there.

“He who tills his own land has food in plenty, but he who follows idle pursuits is a fool.”

Proverbs 12:11

The mini horse with his big personality always whinnies at the sound of the house door slamming. He still likes to push me around but I’ve charmed him into doing things I want to do as well. We’ve become friends. Every year I get quieter. I think it’s a spell that comes over some people who grow lots of things and keep farm animals. There’s so much to witness, tiny signs and bugs that hint at future doom or survival. Intuition, that feeling in your gut, becomes attuned to the dull look in a sick sheep’s eye. Sometimes in this quiet you know exactly what that dull look means.

I love the sound of a ticking clock. When I’m writing I prefer that to be the only noise. The other day the house was silent but for the ticking. I sat to write but was nudged by some spirit to go to the window. There against the white snow stood a fox staring right into our chicken coop. He looked curious, but I’m pretty sure he was just deciding which color hen he wanted for lunch.

The indoor farm dog was sent out to chase as I stumbled into my boots shouting from the garage (as if a fox would ever listen to me). The snow was so bright I was nearly blinded and didn’t get to the coop as fast as I would have in better weather. We lost one chicken. I spent much of the morning trying to corral the frightened flock inside for safety. Some regarded me as their savior and let me carry them into the coop. I felt complimented. The chickens are lucky. We take the eggs they couldn’t care less about and they live until they die of natural causes (whatever that means for animals with so many predators loving the taste of chicken).

Nala after losing the scent of fox still looks as regal as she acts.

I’m so happy that there are young people as entranced with the old ways as I am. The ideal of total independence is just that — an ideal, but without a grassroots embracing of the small and local, our land and independence will be swallowed up by an ELITE FEW who want to control (and change) our food supply. Slavery starts when the few control the very sustenance of life.

How Eric Sloane Retold American History

Wendell Berry Food and Farming Quotes

Writing as a Search for Wisdom

THE POET by ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON
The poet in a golden clime was born,
     With golden stars above;
Dower’d with the hate of hate, the scorn of scorn,
         The love of love.

He saw thro’ life and death, thro’ good and ill,
     He saw thro’ his own soul.
The marvel of the everlasting will,
         An open scroll,

Before him lay; with echoing feet he threaded
     The secretest walks of fame:
The viewless arrows of his thoughts were headed
         And wing’d with flame,

Like Indian reeds blown from his silver tongue,
     And of so fierce a flight,
From Calpe unto Caucasus they sung,
         Filling with light

And vagrant melodies the winds which bore
     Them earthward till they lit;
Then, like the arrow-seeds of the field flower,
         The fruitful wit

Cleaving took root, and springing forth anew
     Where’er they fell, behold,
Like to the mother plant in semblance, grew
         A flower all gold,

And bravely furnish’d all abroad to fling
     The winged shafts of truth,
To throng with stately blooms the breathing spring
         Of Hope and Youth.

So many minds did gird their orbs with beams,
     Tho’ one did fling the fire;
Heaven flow’d upon the soul in many dreams
         Of high desire.

Thus truth was multiplied on truth, the world
     Like one great garden show’d,
And thro’ the wreaths of floating dark up-curl’d,
         Rare sunrise flow’d.

And Freedom rear’d in that august sunrise
     Her beautiful bold brow,
When rites and forms before his burning eyes
         Melted like snow.

There was no blood upon her maiden robes
     Sunn’d by those orient skies;
But round about the circles of the globes
         Of her keen eyes

And in her raiment’s hem was traced in flame
     WISDOM, a name to shake
All evil dreams of power–a sacred name.
         And when she spake,

Her words did gather thunder as they ran,
     And as the lightning to the thunder
Which follows it, riving the spirit of man,
         Making earth wonder,

So was their meaning to her words. No sword
     Of wrath her right arm whirl’d,
But one poor poet’s scroll, and with his word
         She shook the world.

Attachment Issues

Every single grace comes to the soul through prayer.

Saint Faustina

A mentally ill child tried to kill me this year — more than once. I knew she was serious by the hollow look in her dark eyes. I now know that the local sheriff is a history buff because he’s visited the house more than once. There’s a part of the brain that shuts down in the face of prolonged rejection. It’s the part that makes you care about being rejected, the part that makes you care about the person who rejects. I never really needed this child to love me. I suppose, looking back, that I needed her to at some point heal.

This past year I’ve prayed a lot. I say this not as a boast, but a confession. My prayers have often times been like the dried and shriveled roses above. A few times I’ve prayed about viruses and mask mandates, but most times the words stayed closer to home.

My prayers have been weak because I have been past the point of caring, or more to the point, past the point of trying to be successful. The idea of tip-toeing in blog posts over the minefield of masks and politics was beyond anything I could even consider because our house was a minefield. It still is — every time this kid with gaping emotional wounds comes home from the hospital.

I don’t fear death. I look forward to it with much curiosity and enthusiasm, but I don’t want my teeth knocked out or stab wounds. Unlike a soldier in an old-time hand-to-hand combat situation, self-defense against a child who weighs more than you and is psychotic is a risky venture anyway. I don’t want to go to jail. I prefer to calmly gather up the things I don’t want broken, shoo the dogs to their crates as the situation escalates and suggest to the child that she call the crisis hotline. Sometimes she does this. She calls them when she doesn’t want to read for school and hangs up on them when they tell her all children have school work.

This last time she called the police on herself and told them that if they didn’t get the f**k here soon she was going to kill me and set the house on fire. I knew that with a captive audience (the police dispatcher) she would not come at me so I was able to tidy up the place before the police arrived. When the officer arrived, this child greeted him at the door with the remains of a frothing, raving anger dried at the corners of her mouth. he commented on it, said it was a chemical reaction to an unhinged mental state though at this moment she was calmly telling him that she had dreamt of killing her brother and father too. She was only being honest, she said. They took her away and two weeks later she was home again and worried that she would not be able to control that desire she had to murder me.

After a year off blogging I go with this story, right? What am I thinking?

I could pretend it was a good sabbatical year. In some ways it actually was a good year. I wrote a decent amount, I traveled alone to my favorite place, I kept a sense of humor, but it was definitely a hard one.

I usually go about two days being pretty sure I’ve given up on the kid. During those days I sometimes beat myself up for not being more clever. It turns out I’m weirdly brave in those crazy moments when she wants to do damage, but I do have trouble sleeping some nights imaging lurid outcomes.

I want to know what real bravery and self-sacrifice feel like (because I’m often timid). I mean the kind where you want to be brave and self-sacrificing, not the kind poisoned by resentment and indifference. I’m not even sure that exists. I’m writing about a soldier (and cousin) from a time when most people seemed to realize that life was basically suffering and that self-sacrifice and bravery were pretty cool things but ordinary too. Now I begin to see how a young man swept up in his country’s enthusiasms makes a decision to serve. How the naiveté wears off. How the true test begins. How when the charge comes you fight or flee.

I think I’ve grown this year because I don’t have any sense of victimhood. I don’t care about rewards or if this kid likes me. I volunteered for a fight that looks pretty and noble on paper with flags flying and spectators cheering you on as you disappear to the reality of blood and guts. It no longer matters what the crowds say. There are so few good field hospitals for a kid with this type of hurt. There are so few people (even doctors) who understand the battle. I sure as hell didn’t (and don’t even now).

I only begin to understand my small part in it, like a single foot soldier I almost can’t see a thing. Unlike a real soldier I’ve only been up against death a few times and can call in the police so it’s a faulty and kind of obnoxious comparison, but the question still stands. What does bravery look like — for real? Is there a point when you know you’re brave? Do you have to be a little out of your mind?

I’ve noticed that when you stupidly pray for something to grow in your life you tend to be given opportunities to grow it. And it’s seriously always painful.

The kid calls me every day from the hospital and we talk about how she wants to kill me, but how she really doesn’t want to and how some doctors misdiagnose her with bipolar and jack up her meds and how others see that she’s just an unhealed gaping wound and say no amount of drugs will help a kid who had such a shitty bio mother.

I don’t know how this fight or flight combat situation will end. I’m hoping we make it to armistice. The weird part is that we still love each other.

Sensitiveness by John Henry Newman

Time was, I shrank from what was right,
      From fear of what was wrong;
    I would not brave the sacred fight,
      Because the foe was strong.

    But now I cast that finer sense
      And sorer shame aside;
    Such dread of sin was indolence,
      Such aim at Heaven was pride.

    So when my Savior calls, I rise,
      And calmly do my best;
    Leaving to Him, with silent eyes
      Of hope and fear, the rest.

    I step, I mount where He has led;
      Men count my haltings o'er;
    I know them; yet, though self I dread,
      I love His precept more.

Homeschooling and the Intellectually Disabled

I’m one of those people who spends a lot of time complaining about the state of education in America yet fails to attend even a single PTA or school board meeting.

My only excuse is that I’m too tired in the evenings because I get up at five A.M. My husband likes to point out that the family members from the 1800’s I’m researching for my next book probably got up even earlier to milk cows and probably went to school meetings, but he doesn’t go to PTA meetings either.

When we took in our now adopted daughter, our local, tiny school was very accommodating despite M’s first day from hell when she announced she was going to kill herself with knives and made her fourth grade classmates cry.  In my typically controlling way I dressed “M” to look “normal” and hoped for the best. By Friday she was in the psych ward and would stay there for months before returning to the now wary school.

Again the staff took her in with open arms (much to their credit), but there were problems.  M’s trauma had forced her to become a very charming manipulator. She was hungry all the time so they gave her access to treats in every classroom (despite our pleas against the practice) and gave her free lunches even after we insisted that it was unnecessary since we packed her enormous lunches every day.

This was the first button pushed for me. I’ve always found it galling that, despite the obesity epidemic among our children and the mandatory health education classes taught in schools,  teachers still give out so much “food” in their classrooms. The school psychologist was the worst offender, but it seemed to be common practice especially among the special education teachers.

It was obvious that some on the staff considered us overbearing  quacks because we noticed an uptick in insane behavior whenever school was in session and whenever M was allowed tons of junk food — and she was getting tons of junk food daily.

  • She ate breakfast at home.
  • Just off the bus she ate a second breakfast and loaded milk and muffins into her bookbag from the Share Table to snack on during the day.
  • She ate the lunch we packed AND another lunch.
  • She scarfed down the candy offered by her special education teacher and during counseling.
  • She was even given money to buy MORE food from well-meaning volunteers when she said she was hungry. Yes.
  • This happened DAILY.

The school psychologist even told us that the staff’s job was not to monitor children’s eating habits.

I countered that if a mentally disabled child with impulse control issues was deathly allergic to peanuts the staff would probably monitor that, but to no avail. For three years we begged them to stop overfeeding, to stop being manipulated, but it only got worse.

By the end of last school year M had convinced certain teachers to keep secret clothes for her in bins so she could change into them at school and change out before coming home.

She had teachers who gave her their own pierced earrings to wear despite the fact that we told M she had to wait for her ears to heal after she let them get so infected that the skin was growing over the backs of the earrings.

M has strong compulsions related to her abuse and frequently sought out inappropriate and terrifying things on the internet — things so terrifying to her that she insisted on being taken to the mental hospital a few times so we asked the school not to give her a Chrome Book.

Here again is a pet peeve of mine: if we are being told that too much screen time is frying kids’ brains then why are we giving them more screen time in school?

I once quipped during a special education meeting that pretty soon teachers would be unnecessary. The staff members laughed uncomfortably. My husband rolled his eyes. Of course M was secretly given access to the Chrome Book.

One teacher who took our concerns seriously said that M might do well in her class if she would just settle dowwn. She had so many balls of lies and craziness in the air she was like the Cat in the Hat on steroids.

Her double life led to sleepless nights, suicidal thoughts and rage. She fantasized about living at school or at a friend’s where she had vaped once. At our most recent school meeting (just before the Covid lockdown) the staff suggested M be put in total special education lockdown. They didn’t say lockdown. They were nice about it, but admitted their belief that she couldn’t possibly pass the state exams to graduate high school. M cried when they suggested she could still “graduate” with her class but would not receive a real diploma.

Now I’m not unrealistic. I don’t think she can pass the state exams. The idea of M languishing before a computer screen munching on cookies for the next four years just seemed wrong. To be fair, the school district does not have the means to offer truly individualized care for their struggling students. Kids with disabilities have to share space with other kids who may have behavioral issues. There’s not a one fit computer program for the problems kids come to school with. We talked about special schools, but we live far away from most and they can be really expensive. My husband and I would take turns saying, “We don’t want to homeschool but …”

When Covid swooped in to take away most freedoms, one freedom remained: we could bite the bullet and give homeschooling a try. I informed the superintendent (who is a nice guy) that we would be keeping M out of school for at least the rest of the year. He probably sighed in relief as I was becoming more and more aggravated and annoying. I immediately bought a CURRICULUM FOR SPECIAL NEEDS STUDENTS and my husband installed a huge white board on the landing to our basement.

All kids are at home now, but I’m pretty sure I won’t be sending M back ever. M hasn’t had a single episode of crazy, suicidal spiraling. She’s sleeping a solid eight hours. We aren’t fighting — AT ALL! 

M is conjugating LATIN verbs(!) and reading Greek Mythology with great enthusiasm. She’s developed a love for Laura Ingalls Wilder and no longer has to deal with dystopian themes like the ones constantly being fed to her at school. She’s not using a calculator to do simple math. It’s challenging but that’s the very thing she needs. Now M doesn’t get on honor roll just for showing up with a smile. She works. She’s intellectually disabled not doomed.

I admit that the idea of doing this for the next four years is daunting, but so far the experiment has been far more fruitful than I could ever have imagined.

How about you? Is anyone bothered by the double-mindedness of educators who constantly reward children with food or do you think I’m nuts? ♥♥

homeschool kid
M taking an afternoon nap after a productive morning 🙂

 

 

 

Therefore I Exist

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A dying barn …

Yesterday was the beginning of Lent for Christians.

This was the first time in years (or maybe ever) that I was excited to get the ashes smeared on my forehead. Going back to Confession was a big step for me since for the longest time I hated the idea of a priesthood set apart. I wanted to be on equal footing with everyone and liked the idea of having “accountability partners” who basically were just as flawed and untrained as me.

It’s a rare friend who tells you the truth about your missteps.

The priest I went to see was pretty hardcore (in a nice way). He didn’t downplay my tendency to jump into family gossip and self-righteous back-stabbing of my adult siblings. After all everyone in the family does it. The priest shook his head. “No, that’s a bad sin.” Of course he was far more eloquent about it.

Friends tend to help you find excuses for your bad behavior. After a while all of my “accountability partners” became suspect. It started to bother me when they soft-pedaled around things. I’ve done the same, thinking to myself this person is a train wreck but not saying it. I mean, calling someone a train wreck isn’t helpful anyway, but you know what I mean. I didn’t have the faith that the friendship could survive an honest appraisal of the person’s behavior.

A priest at Mass recently talked about how draining  it was in this time of priest shortages and bad-apple priests to carry the weight of parishioners’ sins. Until I “got” the sacredness of the priests’ position I would not have understood what he was saying. He intercedes for us! Now that is a burden for sure!

Last night I took my puppy to her PUPPY CLASS. You can follow her on INSTAGRAM here: Comfychi_golden

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Down … stay … good Comfy!

I was tempted to wipe the ashes from my head. I was torn because some teach that wearing your faith on your sleeve (or forehead) is offensive to the sensibilities of others, and I so enjoy being liked. Some say you should proclaim your faith in actions and behavior. In the end, since I’ve decided to fully embrace traditional Catholic culture I went ahead and wore the ashes to class.

Totally by coincidence, the judge who was involved in the adoption of our daughter was taking the same class with his tiny pug-like dog Wolfgang (which is the cutest name ever). It’s always funny to see people outside of where you put them in your head. Obviously the judge doesn’t wear his robes to class (and he doesn’t command the same authority with his dog that he does in the courtroom).

He smiled when he saw the ashes (by now I had forgotten them). “Oh, I forgot today was Ash Wednesday,” he said, “but I went to a Fat Tuesday pancake dinner last night. It was really good.” He sheepishly laughed again. How could he have forgotten after a full night of pancakes? I laughed too.

We all care so much about what people think. 🙂 As a writer I care about every last review and fret when people on Amazon find the few negative reviews from when I first published MY NOVEL “helpful” because this lands those reviews as Top Reviews. I tried to explain to an Amazon rep that it would be better to set the default on reviews to Most Recent (since my book has been thoroughly re-edited and getting good reviews for a while now) but to no avail.

I found this this helpful:

“To realize how desperately we depend on the ‘existence’ that recognition by others gives us, and how hopeless we are without it until God gives us feet to stand alone on. I have those feet sometimes, but once again, let me realize that there is no absolute ‘standing alone’ — only awful poverty and insecurity and clinging to God in one’s need of others, and greater appreciation of the smallest and most insignificant of communal verities.” THOMAS MERTON

Going to puppy school has been a good thing for me. The tendency to keep in my hermitage actually makes me more desirous of outside praise and notoriety. I don’t want to be that bitter person who compares likes on Instagram and lives for new followers, but it’s an easy trap to fall into. At puppy class everyone goes without their authoritative robes. We are all at least partially dependent on the whims of the puppies. Learning to let your guard down and take your lickings and laugh when you can’t make puppies stay is the best kind of humbling experience. And in this most insignificant of communal experiences I find, as I already know but forget, that we are all the same and live in this mystery of loneliness and friendship.

comfy 2 27 20

 

Are Artists Selfish?

“How good life is when one does something right and just!” The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

I read somewhere that Dostoevsky originally intended for The Brothers Karamazov to be three times as long as it actually turned out to be. If it had been, I definitely would have followed his characters along. Despite being a huge book with questions worth pondering for a lifetime, I was left aching to know, when I finished, how each of the brothers fared after the decisive events following the murder of their dissipated and malicious father .

IMG_1569As a novelist I have to force myself to be alone to write. It’s not that I hate the idea of being alone. I love it. But … as artists we have to say no a lot. No to the people who love us and wish we’d call more. No to the husbands who wish we’d acknowledge them first thing in the morning instead of rushing past them to get in some writing before the kids and dogs wake.

If we are not making a handsome living at our artistic vocation it can appear to be a fool’s errand we are on. Isn’t it more saintly to serve others with our presence and maybe some fresh cooked pancakes? I used to hate the idea of serving God above all else — as if God was a selfish and egotistical slave master. I realized the reason I hated this was because I wanted people to elevate me in God’s place. It was not because I felt such loyalty to humanity that I wanted to serve them above God —  though that’s what I told myself.

Making art is a strange thing. It can feel  self-indulgent at times. It seems to serve only the artist, especially when the calling takes the artist into a private world for hours and days. Years go by and the artist may be preoccupied with the call, the words, the ideas, the images that God is pressing into his soul.

But making art and saying yes to the call is like entering a sort of priesthood of beauty and truth.  All vocations are like this.

“The particular vocation of individual artists decides the arena in which they serve and points as well to the tasks they must assume, the hard work they must endure and the responsibility they must accept. Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labor without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a ‘spirituality’ of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people. It is precisely this to which Cyprian Norwid seems to allude in declaring that ‘beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up.'” Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II

Alyosha Karamazov takes his calling literally and seriously. It is not enough for him to “give two roubles instead of ‘all,’ and only go to mass instead of ‘following Him.'”

In Alyosha, Dostoevsky gives us the beautiful and ideal. He tells us that Alyosha is for him the hero of the story. He is the fulfillment of everything good that his mentor Father Zossima talks about and all of the other more troubled characters are drawn to him.

I wonder if the artist’s most important job is to document beauty, not only the easy beauty of a sunrise, but also the beauty that so often arises after great suffering. Alyosha is the sunrise and sunset. His brothers are all of those in-between moments of recklessness and inner spiritual turmoil we experience in life.

Some people simply accept the gentle nudges of the Savior, some resist all the way to the end, but those in-between people are the ones it’s so interesting to read and write about. Dimitri Karamazov lets his sensuous desires run amok in search of love and happiness, while Ivan, the intellectual middle brother avoids intimacy and despairs at the suffering of innocent children under a “just” God. Both men suffer, but their suffering offers enlightenment and beauty if they will accept it (as Alyosha does). Smerdyakov, the illegitimate half-brother, refuses God’s grace evidenced by his suicide.

The beauty of the story is not that we are given the answers to all mysteries, but that we are given the ‘beauty to enthuse us for work, and work to raise us up.’

There are some people who say being a Christian is as simple as doing what Jesus says. The What Would Jesus Do? crowd. As artists we are given the task of peeling the onion, of suffering dark nights and loneliness of the soul. Sure, we are also given sunrises and sunsets and these need to be captured enthusiastically as salves for humanity’s suffering. Jesus is all-knowing, all-loving goodness, truth and beauty — we mortals struggle.

I like to think that most people love children and puppies and sunsets. But some people go afar off track following an idea — a lesser idea that puts God in the passenger seat (or the trunk). I understand the impulse. Human theories are applauded and celebrated for being progressive paths to happiness and enlightenment, yet they so often fall flat — many lead to great evil — like communism. I struggle to think of a single human achievement that has not come with an entire host of unintended consequences.

The celebration of something beyond us, bigger than us, more beautiful than us has brought us cathedrals. The celebration of us has brought us Walmart box stores. The Brothers Karamazov brings us before God with big human questions while so many other books talk about self-help and the sensual pleasures of this life and this life only.

True artists are not selfish for locking themselves away for hours (there is a time and place for family gatherings and playing with puppies of course) but we need art like we need God to help us remember our mission as humans to seek out truth, beauty and goodness in the midst of suffering.

This week on the farm there has been a lot of miraculous, “simple” beauty. I hope your week had its share of beauty too. Let me know if you are a “selfish” artist in the comments! 🙂 How do you manage your time?

8 THINGS JOHN PAUL II WANTED ALL ARTISTS TO KNOW

AN ARTISTIC REFLECTION ON JOHN PAUL II’s LETTER TO ARTISTS

 

Is There a Perfect Age to Die?

Is it better to die young or old? Isn’t it true that when we hear of a young person or a child who dies we feel it to be terribly tragic? On my travels this past summer I visited my dead relatives in a forgotten cemetery surrounded by state forest where the trees are planted in far more uniform lines than the grave stones.

scythe

An uncle of mine was the cemetery sexton over a century ago who’s job it was to dig the holes when the ground was thawed for burial of the little community’s dead. In his neat 19th century script he kept records of the friends and family he helped to bury for a fee, making sure to note who had paid and who had not.

My grandfather (4x) was all paid up in 1860. In that same year his four-year-old son had died and his married daughter too.  On my summer trip I met distant cousins who made a picnic for us by the pond so when we went to the cemetery I wasn’t really able to soak it in as much as I would have liked (though meeting my  cousins and feeling instantly attached to them made up for the little disappointment).

XVXW1091I made sure to take a solitary trip in the fall to commune with my dead. People talk of soul mates but do they talk of soul places? The place my soul is drawn to is a bleak and beautiful county in Upstate New York. If I could live beside the cemetery I would be quite pleased.

IMG_0138

On this second trip, with the wind causing the pines to whisper all around, not a soul stirred for a mile. So much of the county is deserted now and all of my family farm land is owned by the grabby hands of the state. All of the woods chopped by my New England ancestors are back to “forest” though there is hardly a wild feel to these managed rows.

Back to the dead.

I entered the cemetery through the opening in the rock wall that surrounds the place. Once an iron banner stood over the entranceway, but someone had carried it away for their antiques collection or had destroyed it for fun. Nobody knows.  The stones stood white for over a century until acid rain  became a thing and turned the limestone black.

IMG_0098And still I avoid talking of the dead — though I have no fear of death because of the very people I came to visit. As the wind picked up and the loneliness of the place heightened my awareness of the longing I always have to time travel I found my grandfather’s stone. My grandmother’s had broken in two and lay beside her husband’s.

No one believed way back then that this grandfather would keep the faith after his conversion but he did and made sure that his stone would declare this faith with the Holy Bible carved at the very top. He had one made for his wife and even his adult daughter. Of course in a God-fearing community of Baptists the style of stone could have been the basic model, but not everyone in the cemetery have such stones.

My aunt (4x) and even the sexton who was her husband are buried close by, but little Jesse, my Grandfather’s son who died at the age of four, lies close beside his grandfather’s stone. Jesse’s stone is ornate in comparison to many of the others and has a long and hard-to-read epitaph. I knelt before it in the moist grass and scratched the moss from the stone to get a better look. Much of the epitaph has been worn away but there are words about eternity, sorrow and love.

What is the most tragic age to die?

Is it even a tragedy? As a mother of adult children I still pray that I die before my children do, yet I totally believe in the eternity of souls. I was thinking the other day that a long life carries with it far more suffering than a short one. I was reminded of this idea  when reading The Brother’s Karamazov:

“Add to that that he was to some extent a youth of our last epoch — that is, honest in nature, desiring the truth, seeking for it and believing in it, and seeking to serve it at once with all the strength of his soul, seeking for immediate action, and ready to sacrifice everything , life itself, for it. Though these young men unhappily fail to understand that the sacrifice of life is, in many cases, the easiest of all sacrifices …”

This is not to say a child is seeking after all of this. The cuteness of children, the holy innocence of them is maybe why we hate their loss the most and miss them more terribly (if that is true and I’m not certain) amidst this worldly corruption. When young men and women (but still mostly men) sacrifice themselves for causes and wars the thing is terrible, but glorified. But to live on and die an average age, to experience the death of others, to be diagnosed with disease, to fail at work, to be stuck in deep depression or chronic pain … most of these things are reserved for the middle-aged and the elderly.

In the Catholic Church it is not a sin to talk to redeemed souls, to ask after them, and to beg them to pray before God’s throne for us. We can also pray for them. This absolutely thrills me. I’m in no hurry to die, but I long for the day when I will meet generations of family.

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By the road side where my soul lives …

I feel strengthened especially by those who lived long and hard lives, who learned things from deep suffering and carried on with mystic purpose. In ways that I can’t explain, I feel especially close to some of my dead. I know and have experienced signs that we loved each other deeply in another place. Some people would say it’s a coping mechanism or the product of an active imagination, but the older I get the more I feel it’s true and the less I worry about the end.

Have you ever been in touch with dead souls? Let me know in the comments!

 

A Letter to Artists

“None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands. A glimmer of that feeling has shone so often in your eyes when — like the artists of every age — captivated by the hidden power of sounds and words, colours and shapes, you have admired the work of your inspiration, sensing in it some echo of the mystery of creation with which God, the sole creator of all things, has wished in some way to associate you.” Letter of John Paul II to Artists

Isn’t there something thrilling in the idea that God, through some mysterious inspiration, taps our shoulders and asks us to birth beauty? Artists are graced especially with a sense that we are given something from nothing. We take an idea only just now occurring to us and bring it into this dimension of reality. When we have taken our inspiration seriously enough, we sense the importance of it or the goodness within it even in its embryonic stages. Though our limited talents may always disappoint us, there is a sense that this idea, this vision was given as a gift — if even a more humble one than others receive. Yet is any gift small if it is meant especially for us?

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When we keep our eyes on the gift before us, we feel that expansive breath and excited heartbeat. It transports us to the heavens — if only for moments of time. I don’t know if everyone is gifted with such moments or if it is really only given to artists. I do know that we have a choice to accept the grace or not.

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For twenty years I ran from God’s call on my life like Jonah, and I too was swallowed by a whale. I had caused many storms and needed to be thrown overboard. I turned back to God and the creative call only after everything else that seemed more practical had failed.

But it doesn’t matter anymore. Saying yes to the art that God asks us to make puts you in a special mood — one that makes life very simple even when it’s difficult. Listen and obey.

Have you ever felt called to do something? Did you run from it or embrace it instantly? I’d love to know in the comments!

 

Losing Faith & Finding It Again

“Finally, there is another reason, well known to Job, why even good men must drink the bitter cup of temporal adversity: in order that the human spirit may test its mettle and come to know whether it loves God with the virtue of religion and for His own sake.” St. Augustine

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A recent reviewer of one of my books wondered if I was depressed when writing it. They were seriously worried for me.  I found this kind of touching. I probably was depressed at the time because I borderline always am. I no longer fret about it though. The sounds of train whistles and small planes buzzing in the sky bring me delicious sadness that I’ve learned to embrace.

Suffering is such a big part of the human experience I cannot imagine how to avoid writing about it. I used to worry that my characters were too flawed.  I suppose the real worry was (and is) that I’m too flawed. It’s a funny thing though because I’m drawn to and adore really flawed characters, historical figures and Saint Peter in the Bible — not to mention my family.

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A little grace …

But there is a delicate balance in life. Little graces abound in times of trouble and those things, even though small, sometimes transport our spirits far more than the big joys on happy days.

I’m drawn lately to the Catholic Church’s view of suffering and how even our sufferings can be offered up to souls waiting around their tombstones for some love. Suffering with purpose makes a world of difference. One word from a friend has brought me back to the Catholic Church this year with all its stupendous flaws and breathtaking beauty.

To walk into a Catholic Church, after years of time spend singing songs in plain white rooms and drinking coffee during sermons, is to walk into a visual, virtual heaven on earth.

While Notre Dame burned, my heart burned for Western Civilization with its novels and stained glass and deep theology. The smoke did not blind me to the scandals of the Church (and of all churches and all people). The smoke alerted me to the desert my heart had become.

Why did a Catholic Church burning have any meaning for me? What did it matter to me in America? It made me think of the death of beauty. The death of truth. The death of goodness.

Not that these things are dead. They sit waiting for us to return to them especially in times of suffering, but we’ve made the atmosphere smoky with lesser things. My adopted daughter takes selfie after selfie to find beauty in herself when the source of beauty comes from being part of a trinity of beauty, goodness and truth. A filter can’t do that.

A year of suffering in ways that some would find trivial made it impossible for me to stomach writing blog posts. I didn’t feel like faking and I didn’t feel like whining or bitterly debating politics. I read from the mystics and the early Church fathers and embraced the beauty and transcendence of the Latin Mass at the risk of alienating my husband. I realized that not pushing your ideas upon people too hard really does leave space for reconciliation and grace — especially in marriage.

The suffering of mine took many forms this year as time in a self-imposed desert can do, but it opened up a world of new ideas, of new people — here and in the great beyond, it brought the sacred back.

TRUTH. GOODNESS. BEAUTY.  Is there need for anything else?

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A farm trinity of beauty and cuteness!

Sheep Therapy

Okay, so here’s my solution:

Let me back up to let you know what the problem is.

We suddenly have a ton of cute and cuddly animals I don’t want to eat. My husband has been diagnosed with a weird form of arthritis that only seems to respond well to a strict vegan diet. Our sheep are meat sheep.

But the sheep are more than their supposed foodie purpose. They are distinct personalities who in many cases adore human friendship.

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So here’s my idea: sheep therapy or basically sheep chill time. I’m not a therapist and don’t want to be one (I already have the high maintenance little girl to contend with).

But I’m wondering if people would enjoy coming by the farm just to hang out with the friendly sheep, goat and horse.

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I’m envisioning a very quiet version of a petting zoo … maybe?

There are some concerns though. I do want to get back to writing some day. Lately I’ve had to begin training myself to be a horse trainer. I’ve had to help a few ewes give birth and our daughter has ratcheted up her boundary breaking (a common after effect of adoption) so I’m not sure how many days I could even devote to this new plan.

 

Any ideas??? I’d love some input from you all. Do any of you have daydreams about opening shops or selling tea online? Let me know in the comments and be sure to leave any advice you might have!

Look! My books are in the library!

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The Tenafly Road Series
“Characters so deep you follow them into the abyss, hoping to come out unscathed, but never returning the same. They will haunt me forever.”