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.

The Land, She Provides.

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Scrawled in many-a-journals lies the repetitious message that each In-Between merits authoring. I can be prone to mulling in my days, wondering what is worth it to mark with words with a document that will last throughout time. The fact of the matter is that each day we go through is significant because it is a place where we have never arrived before. The day might be wrought in pain, but it is a different pain, or confusion, or celebration unique unto itself.

Now is the time of a great In-Between for me, filled with a plethora of unknowns, frustrations, surprises, insurmountable gratitude, hope, and faith that is growing from seedling to solidifying sun grown stalk. I am the sunflower with its seed hat still cusping the tender small leaf and it is no doubt we mirror one another right now. The sunflower may be asking itself in the field, “Am I going to grow? Seriously? What if I don’t? What if my flower is weak? What if I never get a flower? And if a curious and derisive wind pummels me in a snide fury?” and the ever popular follow up question, “…then what?!” is the caboose of each question mark. And the flower says, “I don’t know. This is my first time being a flower. I still have my seed hat on. In the meantime, I’ll just get some sunshine and water, and we’ll see how it goes.”

And likewise in my own days follows the internal dialogue that of a self questioning seedling. A litany of uncertainty followed by self mentoring that this is my first time farming by myself and I will just have to give it my all, give it lots of sunshine and water, and see what happens above all else. I spend a lot of time in my own company and lately I have been instating mental laws like, “If you wouldn’t say it to your best friend, then you can’t say it to yourself,” knowing that if I am going to accomplish anything flower farm wise or creatively, beating myself up and questioning if it is all going to work out or not does absolutely no good, and is in fact energetically combative.

The last two weekends have brought me my first solo farmers’ market experiences as well. I have been selling bouquets and sewn handmade goods. I have included hyacinths in many bouquets, alongside muscari, and the errant non deer chomped tulip. I coupled those flowers with some apple and cherry blossoms, newly budding branches, phlox, lilacs, sprigs of evergreen and cedar, and elements of dried grasses that still linger tall in the prairie. I felt those bouquets resembled the true world of spring. The last couple of weeks have exemplified that glorious sweet spot of spring where the whole world is in bloom and nearly each specimen in nature is first a flower before a leaf, before all else. There are pent up buds moments away from unfurling at any moment. What seems so compact and days away from emerging its wild show of color and true form only takes hours, an evening, a piece of day. You forget to check on something in one day and the following day the world reveals more of its natural progression and surprises.

Now is an especially exciting time because this farm home of mine is new. Though I visited the place contemplating buying it last summer, much was already green and leafed out. I never got to experience each living thing blossom and become. And indeed, there were many features of this land that I knew nothing about and have made themselves known to me only now. Not until spring began to thaw the fields did I know that there was a huge strawberry patch out in the field. Tonight I had the pleasure of weeding the patch of still green berries and flowers as the sun set. Two geese flew by sounding the pastel melt of night on the horizon, Venus a’glow from behind. I stood tall with old daisy flea bane stalks in hand and a clump of rogue grasses plodding soil below from its hanging stance. “Some great force is on my side,” I felt. Overwhelming peace was among me in the strawberry patch, thinking, “The land, she provides. Don’t be afraid.”

I turned to look back at the house and could see the reflection of the lingering bits of orange cream sun pastel and milky in the windows, warming the view. My ram stood silhouetted in the distance, watching with quiet. I stood awash in a gratitude resounding in my body. There in the strawberry patch lied no need for fear. “Everything you need to eat will come from this soil. Sow seeds each day, and you will be okay.”

I have not mowed any part of the land since I have moved in, and in doing so I have found many surprises that would have been dormant, unknown, and destroyed had I taken the shears to all that grows in the name of “keeping a nice lawn.” Last week revealed lamb’s ears and salvia. Today revealed many tiny maples, the beginning sprigs of a rose bush, and an entire peony eager with buds! With glee ridden bones I smiled and hollered a pleasant “AWWW!” aloud. The raspberries and blackberries are getting bushy bottom leaves. The apple and cherry blossoms are long spent and now preparing their fruits. And since many of the trees are fully leafed the air lends itself to a percussive sound that was absent in the hanging winter silence. The breeze hushes a new tune between the trees, soft harping among the leaves. I rise with dirty paws, bulbs in tow, and watch the beauty spread through the pasture with a praise that never tires my eyes with old. I could watch the silver backed leaves chime the live long day and never cease of its unexpected silver, nor would the sheen that rivers in the wind ever reside predictable.

Sunny was also sheared for the first time over this past week. He was so round appearing to have no neck. As I clipped his jacket off he appeared youthful and relieved to be unburdened by a year of wool. The wool closest to his body was a deep, silken black, saturated with a musky lanolin that I would put my nose to over and over again. I massaged the lanolin into my skin and repeatedly brought my hands to my face, breathing in. The large masses of wool clipped were placed into a bag and the smaller pieces attempting tumbles and release in the grass were tucked into the top of my summer dress for collection. My chest was coated in lanolin, grit, and bits of wool sticking to my sweat and oiled skin. It was a day that warranted a good shower at the end but I refused simply so I could go to bed smelling myself and rolling over catching scents of lanolin and sweat in the night.

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And so here I am, writing in the wavering depths of the unknown, with a sometimes alarming sense of peace. There is fear, oh there is fear. But fear has no space allowing its rule of me. I am feeling the love and support of my friends, family, and new community members I am meeting through the farmers’ market and feeling there is no option other than for good things to come on this farm. There will be trial and error, there will be failures and successes, good weather and the poorest. There will be everything, because that is living.

And to be living is so, so good.

The Glory of a Mother’s Garden

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We are already past our first week in May and today is Mother’s Day! I’m praising the mommas of the world and those in my own life. My mother has always been an incredible inspiration to me for her strength and wisdom. It was just two years ago that I had started to experience death of friends. My own brain got a bit muddied at that time and I had a seizure that left me pretty wrecked. But, in reality, those difficult and then paralyzing events were the passageway for where I am today. I have always known the ephemeral qualities of our days but that reality was kicked into high gear a couple of years ago. I had been reaching and striving to meet my goals as the owner and sole operator of a dog walking and pet care business in the city of Chicago. It was my way to commune with animals and be outside – two things that made me a happy person and feel right in the world. I wanted to save enough money to give it to my parents so that they could retire early. And I also wanted to save enough money so that I could get a little piece of land and hopefully farm one day settling down near my birth area, raising babies, and being close to my parents, fully aware that our time together is short.

The memory that I have, post-seizure, is one of terror, fear, and consolation. My father loves to watch TV and it is common that if the family is spending time together, on his terms, it is around a television which is the exact opposite of how I spend time in my own home or with others. I came home to visit and see a slew of neurologists and so I stayed with my parents for a week. Dad had on a gruesome killer war story and with everything happening in my own life the program was just too painfully real to watch. I asked him if we could turn it off but he refused. I tried to handle my mind, “It’s just television, Abby…” but, “No, these things really happen in life and it is sick ‘entertainment’, just leave the room,” was the voice that battled back. After digesting the first voice and trying, I failed, and I got up and said the latter out loud to my folks and withered away crying on the back steps. I was not proud to be as fearful as I was, or to have to ask to turn it off, but it just pounded all around me. We’re going to die. And everything, and everyone I love, at any moment, will follow this truth, and it hurts.

I knew it was a significant pain, however, and a truth of life pain. It shook me up and rightfully so. Here I had been spending my days focused on a business to pay tribute in a way that was meaningful to my parents (financial success), but in the meantime I was hours away and married to a business that I had a hard time getting away from for visits. So I cried on the back step losing my mind a little, and my mother followed me in and rubbed my back in just the way that soothing mothers do. “It’s okay,” she said. I said it wasn’t, and that I was so deeply sad. She told me that I was growing, that was all, and, “Come with me. Let’s go pick some berries.”

The sun was hot and tears were rippling down my face and she talked about how vigorous the berries were, how healthy and supple they were that year compared to others, that there were way too many to pick and she needed help. She had a little bucket for me and we sat down in front of the bush and as I plucked each juicy berry it hurt with the glory of life. I looked at my beloved mother, the sky, the berries and the healthy leaves, heard the pluck from the bush and the thud in the bucket and a terrific, heart-full pain rang through my body with the lingering taunt of death deep in my bones. She rubbed my back, but kept on picking, telling stories to try and rip that reality from my bones or placate the mind, and I knew that it was because it hurt her to see me that way and she wanted to divorce me from the experience, even if only temporarily.

And as I started to linger in the beauty of the moment, grateful as all for it to be happening there, picking berries with my mother, my father stuck his head out the window with a camera and said, “SMILE!!!” and I lost it all over again. My dad is not one to cater to emotional difficulties and nurtures in his very own peculiar Dad Way. But sure enough, he took himself away from the TV and came outside to my mother and I in the berries, set up a self timer on the camera and plopped it into the grass, ran over near my mom and I, and he took a picture of us three near the berry bushes crouched down. I was crying and sun squinting with berries in my hand, and they were kneeling down around me squinting and smiling as though this was a Normal Family Photo. Though it may not be “normal”, it is probably the most Real Family Photo we have ever taken together.

No one wanted to talk about the death in all of our bones, and so we supplemented that conversation with actual Living by picking berries and commemorating a Day Alive.

Sometimes, often times, I find myself living speedily, rushing to goals, and making sure to milk my days, because the truth of our ephemera lives like a hawk on my shoulder. These days I try to just feed the hawk, and know she is there, but take the slow time to just be, and have faith in my time alive with the truth right now that I Am Living.

It is still just as precious to be decisive about how we spend our time and who we spend it with, but when it comes to family and dear friends it is significant to always make the time to care for them and be with them. Pick berries with them. Make them something with your own hands. Invite them into your life to share time. You never know how it may change your own life or theirs. A day or two after the berry picking day with my mother I woke at sunrise to eat eggs in the back yard and there by the berry bush I thought of how that little piece of land was worked by all of us at some point in time. My grandfather kept diligent care of his gardens after his life as a farmer; my sister and I took care of the garden and yard after he had passed to help my grandmother; my grandmother took care of the yard as a means of joy and maintenance; it was in the back yard near the berry bushes where she had been working alongside my mother when she had a stroke and there began her parting with this world; and it became a sanctuary for my mother to continue her big garden and where she would find joy in taking care of the little plot with my father. All of this coalesced within me, with a burning desire to Just Live, and it made sense to me that farming and gardening was burning in my bones just as much as the taunt and reality of our short days.

When my mother took me into her garden to soothe me something changed in my brain and upon much meditation on those experiences I decided that I was no longer going to continue the dog walking and pet care business, and that instead, I was going to find a way to farm and make my way back home. Last year on Mother’s Day I came home from a farming internship in Cornell, Illinois and brought my mother fresh chicken and turkey eggs, handmade maple syrup, and a bounty of fresh lilacs and flowers. And this year, I am going to bring her fresh eggs from my own farm, flowers grown by my own hand, and a cheesecake I made from scratch in the wee hours of the night. Part of me felt the pressure to go to the Sunday farmer’s market to sell the last few bouquets and handmade goods that did not get sold at yesterday’s market, but I am tuning out of that same striving that led to my internal demise with the dog walking business – the pressure to always be there, the pressure to always do better. For today is not about making anything but time, love, food, and honor for my mother.

And making a berry compote atop the cheesecake.

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