By The Skin of My Teeth

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The sump pumps churn in the basement alternating forceful, consistent blows of water from the concrete foundation, up and out of the house. Ten inches of snow melt seeped into the November soil followed by two days of consistent rain, asking too much of the ground below to hold. Freshly emptied water buckets under the dripping roof have been poured into the sink and returned to their kindred tile homes eager for new collection of earth which spills inside. I boot up and take a light to the basement examining the streams that press in from the walls, remembering salamanders dwelling there during flooded days of early spring when the water ceased to keep from the walls. One half brick and two lengths down in the corner on the north wall is a mental note I make to myself where water pours in. Under the chimney boiling up from the floor. Another hole high up above one sump pump where water cascades down the wall, three holes apparent building a stream, and one room of the basement ankle deep with too much water to assume there is only one culprit spot allowing in the flow.

The kitchen is filthy and frigid, my belly hungry with cold in my bones. I take a hot shower first so that the water will warm my fat allowing me a more pleasant mood to cook a hot egg and warm some bread in a pan which will warm me from the inside. My skin begins to cool the longer I cook, but thoughts of the hot yolk slipping down my throat are promising. There is still no insulation in my ceiling, and when the heat kicks on part of me sickens visualizing dollars I do not have evaporating out of the cracks and through the roof. I part the blanket separating the living room and kitchen to get under blankets and a heating pad to eat my steaming egg and rosemary bread.

There are moments on this farm where I feel like I have the help of the world, and this is a truth. It is also a truth that I am a single woman, and all of these trickles of water and slips of heat are burdens all my own. There is no one beside me hustling pastries, sewing goods, planting for spring, making soap, or caring for babies to make an income to put into the roof or the walls. My saviors are my two hands, my hurting legs which still allow me to move and walk, and a sense of capable self worth and gratitude which prevents me from wallowing in disbelief in the power to accomplish and provide for myself.

This is no plea for pity. It is a truthful analysis of my days. They are both sweet and tart. “Three things of joy, one of grief, that makes a living thing,” I keep this statement alive in my brain when I feel simultaneous gratitude and truthful pangs of struggle. I am alive. My shower curtain is weeping with hard water, stained from the family who lived here formerly, and never replaced new when I moved in. Lady bugs cluster together on the ceiling in the bathroom where there is still insulation and the steam of the hot water enlivens them again, and they start to skate around the ceiling resurrected. Who am I to kill them when they cluster for warmth as I would if there was a belly to my back? Seeing their shells meet I feel an affinity to them as though we are in this together. I thought to myself how to so many people this house is unsavory and gross with its many issues and the wildlife it tends to harbor. To me, it is my home.

“As long as you’re in no hurry, it doesn’t matter how much work your house needs,” a neighbor once said to me among a corn field. With certainty, there are many accomplishments that will come in slow time. In the meantime, it is imperative that I fight for each dollar in the jobs I take on because my time is worth it, my skills are worth it, and my heart is pure in every job I take on. If I make you food, it is with a yolk colored of the sun down, rich, and labored by a hen who mustered what she could with the dwindling light of the season. If I care for your baby, I give them my heart and my hands, and if my body was willing I would lend them my breast. When I give you my time, I give you my life. When I give you my word, I give you my heart.

Just now, I am supposing I simply wish the world knew. I wish that all of our employers, all of those in positions of power with dangling dollars, could see what our individual lives hold, and how hard we are working to put those dollars into warming our walls. And in so, perhaps those employers would limp their wrists and let down the dollar easy and say, “I see how you love my child. I see how cold your kitchen is. I see how your work is the earth’s work. I see how you nurture life among the land and life among our homes. I see you are trying. And because I am in this position of power, and because I honor what you give to my family and what you give to the world, and how you honor your word, I, too, will honor my word and will stay true and giving in the reciprocity you provide for my family and the sleep I collect because your hands and heart are at work in my home, in the heart of my child, in the heart of the earth wherein I am absent. I cease the negotiation of your time.”

But what more to do, than to speak the truth, illuminate what we can, and move on where our light is not seen. Praise be for strong friends who remind us of our capacity and our worth. Praise be that I live among these lady bug companions who remind me that all I ever wanted were simple walls that I would enliven into a Home, and land wherein I could be free. So be it that the sump pumps wanted one more workout before the coming again of spring rains, and so be it that the kitchen has yet to keep its warmth. I am grateful for all I have, for I have much more than I have not. I have life, freedom, mobility despite pain, a warm bed, myself and animals fed, my praise of days, loving friends and family, capable and hardworking hands, and a heart so full that it only continues to multiply in love for all the earth harbors.

I might be making it by the skin of my teeth, finding it difficult to ask for what I need, but I am asking for what I need, and by the skin of my teeth, I am making it and fully alive, a living thing.

Abby Juanita Rodriguez, November 2015.

Notes From a Rainy Market Day

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They predict an inch and you are in for three. Or more.

The Earth decides the way of the rain, and whether the gladiolus will rot or bloom,

If what is planted will strive or shrivel,

If fungus will be the final word.

If there will be enough flowers for the wedding, and which will be the surviving variety upon which celebration rests.

No one can prevent the course the Great Mother takes, though we may pray for healthy crops, we cannot demand that hand.

We can hope next year is better. Or next week, or month, or weeks until the frost comes.

There is comfort in the camaraderie of fellow farmers.

Everyone is in prayer and a furrowed in-flexed brow wears upon each forehead.

At least I know my sheep has a break from the mosquitoes and heat in the shelter from the downpour.

And though adaptations prove difficult for humans and animals to move from 70 degree weather to three sun’s heat over 100 degrees, we will find our adjustments.

And though the roof leaks, and the basement floods, and the field (in places) holds water –

I have a roof. I have a basement. I have a field.

And, thankfully, the weather and seasons flux with the ephemera of a flower.

May the elements be on our sides.

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Spring is here, Spring is dear!

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Today is the first day of Spring! Little sprouts of green have begun sprawling along the fields. All that was dormant and all that was dead is now enlivening. This is the beautiful stage where budding trees color the horizon first with red, umber, hazes of yellow on willows, and pale lemon fuzzes about branches before the grand explosion of greenery. The color is an amalgamation of hibernation unfurling and it is just the very beginning, like a birthday, a new start, a baby.

The picture window I once looked out of at snow covered fields has now melted its last pile of white. What used to be a mountain big enough for myself and a child to sled down is now melted down under, its waters preparing a bed of flowers to come, or some vegetable to feed. The bees are again buzzing, flies are awake and in search of muck, and the overwintered lady bugs of my home frazzle at the window wanting out. These are the days of everything changing. These are the baby days wherein we stare out at this blank canvas and we have hints, hunches, so many dreams of what we intend to paint, but what those fields will look like come July we do not yet know.

But we hope, I hope. And I dream. And I believe.

I believe in the fertile fields, in my own sweat and hard work, and the helping hands of community and family, in the grace of the land and all of the possibility that lies within her soil. I believe it is my job to make this world a better place not by schmoozing with political figures or taking my angst to the streets but by putting my hands directly to the Earth and planting food for myself, family, and community; sowing the seeds that will unleash the greatest flower foods for the bees, and making a field for the butterflies to thrive within. My greatest goal is to make the nectar for us not to simply subsist on, but thrive – to get better with, to heal with, to go beyond with, to bring joy.

Today is not only the Vernal Equinox, but it is a new super moon, a solar eclipse, and a day of fertile menstruation within my own body. The capacity I hold within my belly is reflected in the fields. This day I bleed makes room for another cycle to take its rightful place in my body and actions. The seeds that have begun will continue to transform and grow, and the ones not yet sown will soon to be germinating, and it is the beauty in these teeny tiny steps that transforms a life, a world, a body, a day. The now minuscule leaves, or the unseen steps of germination, are the very ones that will aid in someone’s celebration, birth, grief when they come into bloom. They are the tiny steps that will feed and nourish a body, whose succulent leaves of green will fill the belly during another cycle, or feed the baby of a woman who has new life growing within her own womb.

Isn’t life the most amazing gift?

To think we can take our own hands to the soil and effect change in so many ways, to bring joy to our neighbors and partners in life, to bring sustenance, hope, and proof that what we do today impacts our tomorrow, our children’s future, and the health of our Earthly companions.

And the rest of the world will whirl on in its gruesome activity saddled with glorious miracles. And my heart will still be soft and attentive to what makes me hurt within the happenings of the world; the injustice, the inequity, the harmful and the dark. But this is the best way I know how to seed light – to take in all the harsh realities of the world and still grow a petal, craft with my hands, listen to the soft wind, the changing song of the world within the seasons and try to make better in some shape or form. This is the cycle that has no end and it truly life’s work. I lend my heart and warm shoulder for those who may need it and I will devote my time and days working with the Earth to make her, and her inhabitants nourished and joyous, heard and felt and supported as much as I can.

Within all of this lies a belief in time, belief in our time alive. I believe that our lives matter and that our days matter. I believe that what I do not accomplish this year there is room for next year, and this is where growth lies as well. No one is ready for everything at once, and so here is where I stand right now. The field is still crispy grey-brown and taken over by the looks of old daisy flea bane. My kitchen has no ceiling or insulation, the bathroom floor is sagging with rot in some locations, and the old slate siding is muddied with some vegetation growth and stains of years striped upon its exterior. But this is my sacred shelter, the place I will call my home for years to come, where I will have little babies running around. I am eternally thankful for after more than a year of floating about in different people’s homes and years of rental properties that I finally have a home where I can settle and grow. This is still something I mutter to myself on silent nights outside as I take a look around at everything that surrounds me, “I have a Home. I have a Home,” as though there is something in me that hasn’t quite settled yet out of disbelief of its reality. But here it is, my home, my field, a place for me and the babies that I have promised them, and a place where we will all grow according to our own speed. They are out with their noses to the ground, nibbling little mouths moving so quickly catching the freshest greens as they sprout from the soil, grateful to be in new season – returning from the season from whence they came one year ago. They changed my life.

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I am happy where we are. And as scary as it can be to sit in so many unknowns and so much newness, I have faith in us and faith in this place. I have faith that the field I see now will be fertile and show signs of my hard work come July. I have faith that despite whatever hardships will come I will find a way to learn from them and work through them. I have faith in all possibilities, my wild dreams, and the hands and hearts of everyone who has risen to help me along the way.

May your seasons be kind and may your seasons be bright. May there be joy in your hard work and praises within your day. May your muscles throb with the pleasure that you have lived a day with the vegetation and dirt in your bones. May you prosper in the good Earth with healthy animals, healthy family, and healthy children, and may you prosper with joy and vitality. And when you grieve, as grieve you will, may you remember the feeling which comes with the look of the still yellowing willow and hazy budding trees that possibility is bred not just at new beginnings of seasons, moons, or cycles, but in the daily steps of our in-between. Whatever ails you will eventually, like all things in nature, cycle and unfurl into something new.

Whatever the outcome, let us all join hands and bare witness to one another and this beautiful Earth, in all of the seasons of our lives and days. For what greater way is there to live than together in joy, grit, and hope?

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Sunny’s Big Skip

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Yesterday I took Sunny, the little lamb of my heart, to the large animal clinic at the University of Illinois at Urbana. It was a big experience for both of us as we had never been to a vet that specializes in livestock animals. He had never been in a vehicle and I never drove a lamb anywhere. We took to the highway as an odd yet fitting couple under a cloudy morning. As we pulled out of the driveway I stopped shortly to put some grass in his basket to nibble on the way. I kept the music at a soft level and smiled when I looked over to see a long piece of grass being nibbled at the root and hanging out of the side of his mouth as we wheeled away. The cloudy light struck just enough in his eye to reveal their chocolate nature as they peered up at me.

Since taking him into my room in attempts to sustain and encourage his life to thrive we have formed a remarkable bond. He gets cozy on my chest and folds his legs underneath him, rests his chin upon my clavicle, and falls asleep making the slightest of breathy sounds. I have retired the notion that death is an option and have continued to love him deeply and nourish him whenever he cries in the night and day. I have been very pleased with his gradual improvements and caring for him is a practice in patience. I have never expected him to bounce up like a completely healthy lamb because that was not the start he was handed in life. He was handed a different set of obstacles from the beginning and so if I expected anything it was slow progress. I have been so happy to see him make improvements while continuing to research lambs, conditions they may be susceptible to, and illnesses that follow suit to the symptoms Sunny appears to hold. There were many markers of health which indicated positive growth; he had continued to gain weight, his eating had been more vigorous and steady on the bottle, and his lethargy improved bit by bit but in the most incremental of ways. The latter of which has been the prime point of my concern.

It worried me to see him gaining weight but remaining relatively still for most of the day. His joints appeared stiff and difficult to move. I began to wonder if he suffered from joint ill, polyarthritis, or a bacterial arthritis which would explain why he would get up, take a few steps, and lie back down. I have learned that some lambs suffer this condition, continue to gain weight, their joints become so stiff that it is painful and they remain lame while only getting larger. Sheep as such end up needing to be put down due to their illness. If caught early, however, a simple antibiotic treatment would prevent all of that. I felt the joints in the front of his legs which seemed to be slightly swollen and I wondered if he was in pain.

The veterinarian, students, and vet techs were all fantastic and knowledgeable. Upon entering the clinic everyone fell in love with Sunny immediately and fawned over him as they donned their baby animal cooing voices. I loved to show him to everyone as he shined so brightly and made everyone flourish with happiness. They would say, “Look at that little sprout of white hair! Little Sunny! Are you the sunshine?? You sure are!” and I would say, “I call him my little Sunshine Sprout!” and kiss him on the head. There was not one person that we passed who did not fawn over him and give him their special voice.

I brought a bottle and jar of extra milk for our road trip and brought it into the clinic with me as well in case the doctor wanted to see how he nurses. After bending his joints, feeling around, assessing his walk, watching him lie down after a tiring small walk, taking his vitals, and watching him nurse, an assessment was made. The doctor did not assess that Sunny suffered from joint ill, specifically because of the way he would lie down when tired as he would lay with pressure on the joints- whereas a lamb with polyarthritis or joint ill may lay to the side or completely abandon use of a limb. He did agree that Sunny’s joints did feel swollen, his gait was entirely stiff and guarded, and appeared to have more hampered movements of his front right leg. So, we ran some blood work to see what his vitamin levels are and how much colostrum he received from mom shortly after birth (I am still amazed that this can be assessed by blood work!), and to check for any other potential infections that may be occurring to cause his symptoms and developmental delays.

Sunny was given an anti-inflammatory for his joints and potential pain in the meantime while we wait for blood results. The veterinarian said that if he had inflammation and pain that was preventing him from walking, and contributing to his lethargy, that the medication would show immediate results within a day. I felt it imperative to write now to say that today has been Sunny’s first most healthy day which was filled with such remarkable vitality! Although he sleeps in a playpen in my room, I take him outside during the day to get fresh air and to give him the opportunity to be among his natural elements and walk around. Typically he will just lie in the grass, get up to take a few steps, plop back down, nibble around, and will not leave the area from where he was originally placed. It is as though you sat a turtle down, came back to check to see how far it had surfed 20 minutes later, only to find it moved a few feet. Today he followed me around the barn as I did chores! He would still stop to rest in little nooks as needed but he would get up and move around on his own and he would sometimes follow in a tiny gallop!

Just this weekend I said to a friend, “I hope to see the day where Sunny skips like a lamb in the pasture.” He said, “You will. Your love is keeping him alive!” That made my heart soar and buoyant with more hope as we fed him. Today was the day of Sunny’s great skip. He had a delightful little trot with momentum and gained speed. He rose energetically to follow me multiple times, wiggling his tail as he followed suit, and even braved the slippery tile of the living room to follow me entirely into the kitchen! I laughed because it delighted and surprised me to see him speeding behind me to catch up, moving with abandon of such lethargy I had been used to seeing in his movements. Simply nursing from the bottle used to tucker him out so much that he would lie flat on my thighs after suckling and immediately fall asleep. When the doctor mentioned immediate results should be seen if inflammation and pain was his issue, I thought to myself, “In Sunny-Time that means it will be at least 3-4 days to see any differences,” but after two doses of medication he is quickly becoming a spritely young fellow.

Today, Sunny turned an entirely new leaf. It warms my heart immensely to see him easing out of pain and growing into himself as a healthy lamb. The doctor said, “It seems to me that the persistent nursing and love has treated Sunny quite well, Mom,” which all felt so good to hear. I have cherished my moments with him in the rocking chair feeling in my heart that it was a special time for us, knowing that he would not always be so tiny, and knowing that in time he would be so big that he could no longer knee up on my chest, nor would he cry for me in the night to feed. He is sprouting before my very eyes and I savor exactly where we are, not wanting to miss a beat in his development. Sunny’s flowering hour is upon us. 

Love wins. It always does. Sometimes, it even gives us new legs and new leaves.  

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