Held through the Worst

Bones and I sat in the living room practicing songs for church. It was a lovely afternoon and we sang easily and joyfully together. I felt calm and happy. The tunes were simple and uplifting.

“Wherever you go, God is with you;
Wherever you go, God is there.
Wherever you go, whatever you do,
You are in God’s care.”

As we finished, I got hit with pain in my eye, about a 7 out of 10, enough to make me arch me my back and wince in pain but I could stay seated. Bones noticed the pain and asked if I wanted ice. She retrieved a bag of frozen peas and brought it to me. “Why does this keep happening? “ I whined.

The pain was such that I could no longer hold still. The knife in my eye pierced and I tried to relieve the pressure by smashing my face against the side of the piano beside me, writhing in my chair as I did so. Soon I was alternating between the floor and the chair. Finally, on my hands and knees, face pressed to the floor pinning the bag of peas. My breathing was heavy. Eventually I lifted up, aware that the pain had stopped, but that my eye was swollen, tearing and beginning to twitch. Through half sobs I said, “I can’t keep doing this every day.”

After a few seconds to gather myself, I stood and walked to the kitchen to put the peas back in the freezer. Just as I turned the corner to come back into the living room a hundred knives hit my eye all at once. The pain was a full 10 immediately. My knees buckled and I just caught myself on the doorway. After ice, an energy drink is my next line of defense against these headaches (I didn’t yet have oxygen). I’m not sure I could even really see or think through the pain at this point, but I swung around and reached for the fridge. I managed to grab one and started ripping the packaging open. Seeing the crazy amount of pain I was in, Bones called out to me to take one of my shots. That seemed more reasonable, so I dropped the bottle and pivoted for my bag where I keep the shots. I managed to grab the shot case, but I could hardly even flip the case open before I hit the ground in pain.

I can’t possibly describe this pain to you . It was the most searingly awful thing I have ever felt. Crawling across the floor, clawing at my face, smashing my head into the cold, hard ground, anything to relieve the pressure and the sharp, piercing knife that was cutting my eye out.

I fumbled with the shot package, in my pain I couldn’t break the seal on the dose to load the shot. Finally I handed it to Bones. She got the top off the dose and I was able to get the syringe loaded. Although it turns out when you are in the worst pain of your life, remembering which direction is counter clockwise is nearly impossible. I administered the shot to the back of my left arm. I can usually feel the medicine move through my body. There is a warm sensation as it travels. In the past it has felt almost calming. Each part of my body relaxing as it passes, with a metallic taste in my mouth right before it hits the place I need it most. This time its effect was more violent, like the medicine had to wage a war against the demon that possessed me as it battled to regain control of my body. I felt the warm sensation, but rather than calm, my muscles shuttered and heaved as the medicine passed. Finally the metallic taste came followed by convulsions of relief until I collapsed into sobs on the floor.

Exhausted, I dragged myself over to Bones and laid my head on her lap. She stroked my hair for a bit. It was over.

That was just one headache, albeit the worst one. I’ve been doing this nearly every day, multiple times a day for 10 months. My body is tired, my soul is tired. The constant fear of the next attack has left me anxious and depressed. My own kind of PTSD, except the trauma keeps repeating itself. I have tried everything to make these go away. A slew of medications, chiropractic, accupuncture, massage, reiki, therapy, prayer, meditation, dietary changes, mushrooms, cbd in so many forms, supplements, oxygen, caffeine, exercise, rest, you name it. I’ve been checked and examined every which way. Each new doctor or practitioner or well meaning friend is peddling some kind of hope that if I just try *this* my pain will go away. Some things have helped. Oxygen is the closest thing to a miracle I’ve ever felt, taking the pain of the headache away within minutes of breathing it in. But I have to be home near my oxygen tank when it hits, and it doesn’t stop them from coming, just relieves each individual attack. A new once monthly injection is giving much longer pain free periods, but it’s not over yet.

I don’t know how to make sense of that much pain, especially given the irony of what we were singing only seconds before this happened. How was I in God’s care in that experience? I felt nothing but utterly abandoned. And yet, as I look back over the last 10 months, I have been anything but alone.

In one desperate moment, deep in feelings of despair and aloneness, I cried aloud while driving to market, “Doesn’t anyone hear me screaming?!” The tears flew, only drying up just as I pulled up to unload for market. That evening, my therapist, who I’ve never seen at that market, walked by and spoke to me for a few minutes. Later, a friend from church was buying some beans from me when a headache hit. She took over the stand till the pain passed and ended up spending a couple hours sitting with me. When it came time to pack up, another headache hit. This time I had to take an injection to stop it, which left me feeling nauseated and confused. As I debated the safety of driving myself home, two more friends showed up, packed up my stand, and drove me home. Three visits, three answers to my prayer, three affirmations that I am not, and never have been alone.

All along the way, when I pay attention, I can see that I am being carried and loved by those around me. Bones who has been living her vows of in sickness and in health with grace and steadiness. My kids who are so tuned in to their mother’s suffering, providing comfort and distraction and hope. My parents whose willingness to drop anything to care for me or the kids reminds me daily that I do not have to walk this alone. The friends who have reached out with love, a listening ear or a helping hand around the farm. My church and my pastor for the meals and help weeding and the way they hold me in prayer. My nurse practitioner who has been so caring and thorough in trying to help me fight this awful condition and all the side effects the meds bring. All the folks in my cluster headache support group that I’ve never met in person, but are always ready to provide an encouraging word of solidarity online.

As I write this, the pain behind my right eye is beginning to build. I’ve slipped on my oxygen mask and I’m at peace with it. Really. Being a cluster head sucks, but I’m not afraid anymore. I’ve got the tools I need to cope with it and I am surrounded by an abundance of love. Even if the worst one happens again, I know that it will end and that I am not alone. Where ever I go I am in God’s care, and God’s face looks an awful lot like the folks around me.

jake holding mama

A Woman’s World

Throughout my life I have often engaged in activities that are stereotypically male. Silly things like playing the trumpet. Why are the vast majority of trumpet players men? There’s nothing inherently masculine about the trumpet. Or things I can’t help like having a low voice which puts me in the tenor section of the choir. Other things I chose like playing on the boys lacrosse team in high school. And of course, my two chosen professions – ministry and farming – are overwhelmingly filled with men. Despite my buzzed hair and preference for men’s jeans (it’s mostly about the pockets!) I identify as a woman 100% and feel great frustration that the these activities and vocations I engage in are so difficult for women to gain a foothold.

 
Of my two professions, farming is by far the more difficult to navigate as a woman. Mostly it is little things like men asking to deal with my husband when arranging work, customers at the market who don’t know me yet ask if my husband is the farmer, men loading my truck with manure feel compelled to caution me that my truck will get dirty (conversely, women who load my truck never say this).

 
To be honest, there are physical limitations. I’m not ashamed to admit that in general the men I know are physically stronger and bigger than I am. I have never been blessed with much upper body strength. Most farm equipment is designed with these bigger, stronger men in mind. It doesn’t mean I can’t handle it, but it does mean I have to work differently. Bones is genius at coming up with mechanical solutions to aid our lack of brute force – pulleys and levers abound around here. We use round fence posts as rollers to move heavy objects. Ramps to push things up onto the truck. I can’t easily change out large implements on the tractor by myself or muscle a large tiller through unbroken ground. I can’t physically restrain a large animal or grab a 100 pound pig and toss it in the trailer. I can’t wield a large chainsaw and my shoulders can usually only last through one tank of gas wielding the weed whacker.

 

All of that means I have to work differently. The mechanical aids are wonderful, but it is more about being gentle. I use a smaller, walk behind tractor called a BCS. The implements are smaller so I can manage most of them. Even then, I try to use it sparingly. The rotary plow opens up new ground for making garden rows, but after that I use a broadfork each time I prep the row for planting rather than tilling. I can’t muscle my animals, so I spend a lot of time getting to know them, making sure they are comfortable with me, knowing their needs and natures. When it is time to move them, they need to move on their own, willingly, where I want them to go. Mostly this means leading them with a bucket of grain and a gentle call. When I need to load them on the trailer, again, grain and some gentle prodding, aided by them being familiar enough with the trailer to make it easy for them to willingly enter. Smart men do these things too, but my lack of brute force ability means I don’t have a choice.

 
The most challenging part of farming as a woman though is not being taken seriously. Part of it is because I farm differently than the large-scale, conventional farmers around me. The folks at the feed store, the farm service agency, the local suppliers and contractors don’t view me as a real farmer. My questions and ideas are dismissed. About two years in, I had a guy from NRCS come out to look at our place and help us come up with a conservation plan. As we walked around the farm I shared with him my dreams and plans for the operation. He dismissed most of them, not outright, not with hostility, but in subtle, dismissive comments about how that wouldn’t work here, or that I’m taking on more than is practical. The only project he approved was a high tunnel installation. He had to come back to inspect the high tunnel after its installation to approve the distribution of funds. In that year and a half since he’d been there I had implemented a number of the projects he was so dismissive of, even without their funding. A friend later told me that when he came to their place a couple of weeks later he commented on how I was the hardest working farmer he knew.

 
I have heard this time and again. Now several years in, folks come out to visit our place and marvel at the work that we have done here. So many admit that when they first heard our plans they didn’t think we could do it. Part of that is a reflection on our not having been farmers prior to moving here, but there’s also the reality that they wouldn’t have had the same feeling if I were a man. I take the compliment about how much I’ve Aaccomplished, but I also feel the undercurrent, the doubt that exists. As a woman, I have to prove myself above and beyond to be taken seriously as a farmer.

 

The lectionary text for this past week included Jesus comparing himself to a mother hen, a decidedly feminine image, especially given it’s juxtaposition with Herod as a fox. In the face of death threats and violence, Jesus chose to describe the Divine as a loving, vulnerable embrace. The opposite of what one would expect. And he did this often, upended the expectation, turned the imagery inside out to show us a better way.

 

I’m not saying that female farmers are better. I know some pretty awesome male farmers. But perhaps, looking at the ways we female farmers upend the expectations and approach farming with a wholly different stance might open up the agricultural world to new ways of feeding and caring for this world.

Touch

KIMG1955

It happens every time, I schedule all the pigs of market weight (225-250) to go to the butcher on the same day. Usually that’s around 4-5 pigs. We talk big about getting them familiar with the trailer and easy to load, but loading day always seems to catch us by surprise. I’ll save the crazy loading stories for another day, but the result is almost always the same – we fail to load all the pigs. This last time one female got left behind. I’ll call her Miss Piggy. I considered just keeping her, adding another sow to our breeding program, but that didn’t really fit with my plans. I rescheduled Miss Piggy for three weeks later at the butcher and left her in the pen by herself. Something you should know about pigs is they hate to be alone. The next morning I found her in the pen with Wendell, Mickey and their piglets. Not wanting her to get pregnant, I moved her to a pen well away from Wendell. She stayed put for about 2 days before I could tell she was getting antsy to find some fellow porcine friends. About that time the piglets, now just over 2 months old, kept escaping from mama’s pen. Knowing it was pointless to try to make them stay put, I decided they must be done nursing and opted to lock them in the chicken coop for a short time while I figured out a better plan for them. Miss Piggy must have smelled them nearby and decided she could no longer be alone. She busted out of the pen where I was keeping her. When I went to feed the piglets in the morning, I found her lounging outside the coop. As I opened the door to feed them she rushed in as well. I left the feed bucket and went to get more feed, resigned to just leaving her with the piglets. When I returned, rather than joining in the tussle of the morning feed, she was snoozing contentedly while piglet after piglet climbed all over her. She was starving for the touch and companionship of another pig.

 

This morning I could hear Jake coughing heavily from his bedroom. It was still too early to wake him, but I went up to check on him anyway. The poor guy was restless from coughing and breathing heavy from a fitful night of sleep. I laid down with him, elevating his head against my chest and wrapping him tightly in my arms. His coughing stopped and slowly the pace of his breathing changed to match mine. As I felt his body relax into my embrace, I thought of Miss Piggy and the desire for touch and companionship. I also thought of those who don’t get to experience a loving touch. How hard it must be to go through life without that closeness to another or worse, to only experience abusive touch.

 

The stories of Jesus healing the lepers comes to mind. Jesus reaching out to touch another, violating the norms and even religious laws of his time. Which was the greater healing – the healing of the leprosy through the divine touch or the restoring of dignity and humanity through a simple human touch? I know where Miss Piggy comes down on that question, the hunger of her belly could wait until the hunger for companionship had been sated.

The Weight of Snow

I wrote this after a big snow before Christmas.

We got almost of foot of snow yesterday. The kids and Bones were both delighted as the snow brings fun and time off from school and work. I’m not a fan. Freezing temps alone make caring for the critters harder. Their water needs refreshing throughout the day either by breaking the ice on the surface or hauling water in buckets from the house. Most of the critters also hate the snow. They hide in their huts, shivering and crying for more hay and bedding. Since the ground is covered, they can’t graze or root around for acorns, so I fork hay into their pens and bring them extra grain to stay warm. A light dusting of snow isn’t a big deal, but trudging through almost a foot of snow carrying five gallon buckets full of water is no small feat.

 
Last night, as it began to get dark and the snow turned over to sleet, I became worried about the high tunnel plastic giving way under the weight of snow. We ran a small propane heater in the tunnel hoping the little bit of heat would encourage some shedding of snow from the tunnel’s peak. It was moderately successful at shedding from the lowest parts of the tunnel, but the peak was heavy with snow. Just minutes earlier I watched as our wash station roof (admittedly poorly constructed) collapsed under the weight of wet snow. I didn’t want to see our $10,000 tunnel follow suit. So, with a long pole covered in some cushioning at the very end, I set about knocking the snow off the tunnel. Standing inside I could reach all the way to the 15 ft peak with the pole and shake the plastic enough to get the snow moving. Big swaths of snow cascaded off the tunnel creating huge piles on either side. Inside, the warmth of the heater had created a layer of condensation on the plastic which rained down on me with every thrust of my pole. It took over an hour to shake down the bulk of the snow weight. Soaking wet from the condensation rain and my arms shaking with exhaustion, I finally had to concede that I couldn’t get all the snow off. Perhaps I had lessened the weight enough to prevent collapse. We left the heater running, hoping to keep the sleet from forming a sheet of ice on the tunnel overnight. The next morning, the tunnel was still standing and most of the remaining snow had slid off in the night, its way paved by the clearing I had done.

 
Every weekend Bones asks me if I have anything on my list to get done on the farm over the weekend. I always respond that there is always something on my list. I can’t imagine that my farm to do list will ever be complete. Completion isn’t even really the goal. Each season brings a new set of chores, a new project, a new harvest. Every season has more work than I can accomplish. In many ways, farming is an exercise in becoming comfortable with the incompleteness of the world. I keep a to do list, because it keeps me focused, not because I have any hope of crossing off every item. Today, my list contains an array of building projects and fencing repairs that I put off till winter. But there’s a foot of snow on the ground. They’ll have to wait while I spend more time with tending the animals, knock the snow off the high tunnel, and bake some cookies with my kids. I could feel anxious about all the things I can’t do today, but that does me no good and the job still can’t be done. The truth is, it will never all be done.

 
Meanwhile, clergy friends of mine just went down to the border to provide support and advocacy for the migrant caravan. I have watched their actions online. Leaving home, spouses, children, jobs, they put themselves in danger to stand up for the most marginalized among us. I watch their actions with a mix of admiration, grief and guilt. Should I go too? Should I be putting myself on the line like that, using my voice and my body to stand up for another? But who would take care of my animals? Who would feed and water them in this storm? Who would keep my high tunnel from collapsing? Who would tend my kids?

 
Sometimes I feel overwhelmed when I think about the enormity of the world’s problems. I want to be engaged in making the world a better place. That’s why I farm. That’s why I am in ministry. That’s why I am involved in my community. I can’t do it all though. You can’t do it all. I take comfort and encouragement in this passage from the Talmud.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” – From The Talmud, 303.

 

I am responsible for the things in my sphere of influence. Raising my kids to be thoughtful, faithful, engaged citizens of this world. Tending the critters and land in my care in a way that honors the them, conserves energy, regenerates the landscape, and provides healthy food for my community. Sharing what I know about how to grow food, how to feed people, how to care for our earth through a more gentle and respectful form of agriculture. Feeding people in my community both in body and in spirit. Being an engaged member of this small town, rural community where I live, supporting the business and individuals here, participating in the civic life to help improve conditions for my neighbors, supporting the school system, being a voice for those on the margins of this community. These are the weights I can bear, the weights I can work to relieve. Focusing on this does not relieve me of caring about the world, of being informed and engaged, of providing financial support to organizations of individuals working in other areas. It is however, the work I can do, the work I am called to do. My producing food allows another to focus on the work of advocacy. Sometimes I look at my fellow clergy folks who put their bodies on the front line at the border, in protests, on the streets, on the steps of our nation’s capital and I feel a twinge of guilt that I am not there. The truth is, I put my body on the line every day. I put it on the line of producing good, clean food. I put it on the line of feeding my community. I put it on the line of standing up for those on the margins of this community. I put it on the line of providing support and comfort and hope to those around me. We need each other and all the ways each of us puts ourselves on the front lines each day.