Friday, November 02, 2012

The value of stillness

Stillness. I took a trip last summer that changed my life. The very next day after school got out, I took my two girls off the grid to live in a 100 year old tobacco barn on a biodynamic farm 2 hours from my house. We were so remote that my phone reception failed 30 minutes before reaching the farm and I was unplugged for three beautiful weeks. The barn was romantic and dilapidated and airy, with wide gaps in the boards and critters large and small roaming its crevices during the night. The barn is used for storage and we slept on the floor on an old mattress, with our sleeping bags and a mosquito net to ward off spiders. I brought with us a solar powered globe that I would charge in the sun and bring into our ‘room’ at night, to do tick checks and find our way to the ‘bathroom’ during the night. The first night we arrived late, and I didn’t have the opportunity to charge the globe and wasn’t yet familiar with which rooms of the barn had no walls. We were sleeping on the second floor and there were many areas of the barn that were wide open and you could step off the edge if you weren’t paying attention. That first night was restless and wild with screaming owls and the night was so black that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. I had to pee and I’ll tell you that I made it as far as I could to where I imagined the drop-off to be, and then just had to squat right there and pee on the floorboards. This was only the first layer of inhibition that was to be shed on this journey. Peeing like a toddler was liberating but I was certain to make charging my light a priority the next day. To be fair, the ‘bathroom’ was merely a 5 gallon bucket with a toilet seat and compost so it’s not like peeing on the floor was that crazy.

We slept in a barn, pooped in a bucket and went to bed with the moon (that means 8pm!) and woke with the sun. The resident little boy was delighted with the new barn occupants and would race to the boards under which we were sleeping and would pretend he was a rooster or a wolf and howl out a wake up call luring his little ladies to come and gather duck eggs and begin their chores. My girls would literally fly out of bed in their pajamas like bats out of hell at 4:30 in the morning, grab their coats and race at full speed down the barn steps to run after Ira and let out the chickens and ducks and gather their eggs.

My intentions for the trip were many but to name a few: to give my children an experience they would never forget and to expound on the gardening block offered in the 3rd grade Waldorf curriculum, to take a hiatus from the internet and all things electronic, to help the farm family with their three children so they could focus on the garden and each other and to see how long my armpit hair could grow.

 My days were spent mostly in the kitchen, but standing barefoot in an outdoor kitchen pavilion cooking freshly picked organic vegetables for a mass of children is pretty much my idea of bliss. The baby hung out with me in the kitchen most of the time. She is two years old and was the most content child I have ever experienced. A duckling died and she wrapped it in a bit of purple cloth and played with it as though it were a doll. Nobody told her to wash her hands, nobody said put that down it’s yucky. It was so beautiful in that purple cloth and her complete immersion in self play that I felt pangs of guilt for every moment that I interrupted my girls’ play to do what I wanted to do when they were little. In the kitchen, I would shoo the hens that would stand on the table and chase after the ducks that would eat every scrap I happened to drop. In the afternoons I would do yoga in the grass for so long that the ducks would form a circle around my body watching me curiously. Every night, we would walk to the top of the gardens and pick blackberries and blueberries. I would marvel at how symbolic a blackberry is to just about everything in life. You absolutely would not find a ripe juicy one until you reached through wasps and thorns and your hand was bleeding. The kids would then grind wheat and corn with a hand grinder and I would make pies with the fresh berries. My girls would spend their days doing whatever they wished. They would take journals and a camera and disappear for 4 hours at a time looking for fox dens and baby deer and catching fish. I allowed them to roam freely with the exception of the creek and to stay with Ira at all times. I had to let go of the hovering mother and embrace their journeys of excursion and discovery. If I had any questions about safety I would just ask Ira. Ira never wears shoes and can run on shards of stones as though it is velvet and Ira knows everything.

The shocking bit of truth and I had a lot of time to think about this, is that Ira at age 8 has MORE SURVIVAL SKILLS THAN ANY adult that I know. Ira can grow any kind of plant from seed. The seed he knows to save that is not genetically-modified. He can grow vegetables, he can identify every tree in the forest, every snake, every bug and bird. He would laugh when I would mistake a box elm for poison ivy. He can kill a fish with a slingshot and a stone. He can build a fire and he can find his way in the total darkness through 250 acres of forest. If he had to forage his food, he knows what nuts and plants and berries he could eat and which would kill him.

Ira is the Bird Boy and though only 8 years old has $900 in a cigar box that he sleeps with. He’s earned every penny by selling eggs at the farmer’s market and knows everything there is to know about chickens and ducks. His companions are two little ducklings; one with only one leg called ‘one-legged’ that followed us everywhere we went. We took our baths with the ducklings in the crystal clear creek and cooled off every afternoon with a swim. I had hours on end to sit on the creek bed and stare at the rocks below. After hours had passed, the rocks would take the shape of crayfish and I would begin to notice life tucked within the rocks that I would not have noticed in the first hour or two. I started realizing that I had been missing many of the details of life and that I was beginning to truly see myself. I was beginning to experience stillness for what was probably the first time in my life since I was a child. I’ve always been on the fast track and was never one to waste time.

 My husband stayed behind to work but visited on the weekends. Upon arrival, he walked past a field of cosmos flowers and stopped and commented on the brightness of these flowers. He must’ve stood there for 15 solid minutes soaking in the neon orange of these flowers and I realized in that moment that he is my perfect match. I learned to be grateful for him when he used to drive me crazy that he didn’t multitask the way that I did.

Around the second week, I started feeling hungry. The family drinks a lot of raw milk for protein but I have been off dairy for a few years. We have always used raw dairy at home (for the child that doesn’t have a dairy allergy) but I felt the preciousness of food and didn’t feel it right to take too much. Before leaving home, I told myself that I would not bring my usual stashes of food that I travel with everywhere being the mother of two children with food allergies. I told myself we would only eat what we pulled from the ground that day. What a detox this trip was! We were there prior to the peak of summer so dinner often consisted of sweet potatoes stored from last fall and perhaps breakfast was leftover rice or oats. I normally eat a ton of protein so quickly found myself almost fixated on food and I started to sneak nuts out of the jars reserved for the farm interns. When the food was put on the table it was devoured in minutes with not a scrap left over. The two year old’s leftovers were the dog’s ONLY source of food. I had to teach my girls to elbow their way in and get something to eat or it was all gone before they realized it was their turn to grab a scoop. They are used to chatting and dancing around the table recounting every detail of the day and only eat when prompted. They learned to be grateful and to finish their food on this trip.

My hunger turned into an obsession and it was to KILL. (Note: I was very strictly vegan my whole adult life until I became pregnant. For 15 years I did not eat anything animal) The first time I was aware of the desire to kill, I was walking along the path to the creek and saw a toad and thought to myself that I could fry it in coconut oil. During the next few days I started thinking that if I am going to eat chicken, for example, I should earn the right to eat it, not only by observing the death of a chicken, but by actually doing it with my own hands. I started asking questions about how to do it, how brutal it is, could I handle it but most of all WHEN would they let me kill a chicken? Oh my god, I was hungry. I have Jamie Oliver’s fantastic roasted chicken recipe committed to my memory, access to fields of sage and raw cow’s butter that I could slide up under that skin and salt it and roast it to perfection if only I could get my hands on a chicken! Surely, they will let me sacrifice just ONE on this visit! They have hundreds up on the top of the hill. I was not only ready to do it but insisting like a kid in the backseat of the car asking ‘are we there yet?’ every five minutes.

Sigh… I didn’t get to do it because Calfy Calf was having a calf and the calf was stuck so she was in labor for days with the farmer looking after her. Sadly, she delivered stillborn and I never got to kill my chicken. Gratefully, I no longer feel hungry enough to remember wanting so badly to kill a chicken and I’m sorry to all the vegetarians out there for writing this (our products are cruelty-free!). But, I learned to be truly grateful for what I have, the food and family that I have and that material possessions not only do not matter but are a burden. I would joyfully sacrifice my phone and go back and live there forever if my city husband would have it. It is the most beautiful life one can ever live…. And I am forever changed for the better because of it.