Friday, I helped my dad with the morning milking. It had been years since I helped, but that morning his usual help was gone, and I filled in.
The barn was as I remembered. The cows were the same: poopy, fat, and slobbery, their sides splattered with bits of dried manure. I wondered where the sweet, grass-eating bovines of old stories originated. I have never known such cows. Ours are only dusty-sided, sloppy things who lick in their noses and lumber to their feet and shift their weight when you try to put a milker on them.
I usually avoid the barn. My dad is a poor farmer, and I am a poor farmer’s daughter, sharing the inherited tendencies of practicality and self-reliance–but in this matter of cows we deviate. The barn is only 250 feet from the house, but it might as well be 250 miles, as far as my involvement in it is concerned. On the rare occasion I do enter its barnish precincts, I step carefully, avoiding cow pies, wrinkling my nose in distaste, and hurrying back to the house as soon as possible, hating the pervasive odor that lingers on my clothes.
Friday, though, wearing old clothes I’d picked from the castoffs down our basement, I was prepared to get dirty and prepared to enjoy the experience. I fit easily into the old rhythm of scraping cow pies, of dumping wheelbarrow loads of silage, of scattering squares of hay down the long mangers, of watching the cows nose and shift and shake their heads. It was easier than I’d remembered it: the cows less threatening, the hay bales easier to handle. I fed the calves, and they bucked in the same way I remembered, and dribbled milk on my dress, but I was not disgusted as I used to be. I was sympathetic with them, knowing they were just learning to drink and did not do it on purpose. Their small calf noses were wet.
Dad talked to me, his voice friendly and unhurried, and I felt like a girl always does who’s working with her dad–that she is special and smart and useful, and that in this closeness of working she is as near to his sacred man-ness as she’s ever going to get. In the early morning, a cow had been down with milk fever, but he had dragged her out before I got there. “I could kick myself,” he said. “Shoulda given her a tube of calcium, but it was her second calf. I thought she’d be okay.”
This is part of my dad’s life as a farmer. Sick cows, bent disc bines, sputtering tractors.
I imagined the rich in their smooth-pressed houses, having no idea of the daily struggles that occur outside their houses on the farms, no idea of frozen water pipes and downed cows and flooded gutters. As I imagine them, their lives tick along, and if something breaks down it is not just another daily occurrence, but a BIG DEAL, over which they will stress and complain and blame the manufacturers.
My dad is not like this. Something breaks, he gets quiet. Maybe makes a pessimistic comment or two about the nature of life and his role in it. And then he works to fix the problem. Hours later, when it is fixed or else in holding, he comes inside and eats dinner and says something like, “Well, we had quite a circus this morning.” He has done this hundreds of times on hundreds of different days. It is his life, and I wonder at his patience, his ability to go steadily on, and to maintain a sort of grim cheerfulness through it all.
After the morning chores were done, I came inside and took a shower and tried to scrub off the stink. Then I took I nap–“just a short one,” I told myself. “I know I have a lot to get done, but this will be an energy-booster. I’ll wake up in ten minutes, and then I’ll work through my list.”
When I woke, I was different.
Maybe it was the calf noses that did it. Maybe it was my dad’s unhurried, friendly voice while he did the milking; maybe it was how he dragged out the cow with milk fever and got on with his day.
Whatever it was that changed me, this is what I thought when I woke: “I’m almost thirty years old–a few more years, anyway, and I will be. And I am forgetting to live. Every day I have a list of things to do. And I am in a cage. And I want to do one thing today that will make me happy, something that’s not on my list.”
So I went for a walk in the field. I carried an umbrella and wound a scarf around my neck, because it was rainy and cold.
The field was misty, and I looked at it through raindrops on my glasses.
I twirled the umbrella, and drops fell in a twirl around me.
The grass was heavy green. At one place, a dandelion crushed in the green.
I pushed the umbrella back from over my head. Rain silent, on the corn.
Umbrella over my head again. Rain loud, a crescendo.
I cried, stooping in the field, cried for a minute and was done. This is how my tears come when I am alone. Deep, and then they are gone. Because crying is as natural as laughing, as natural as lifting your face to the sky, when you are alone.
“I am fooling myself,” I thought. “Every day I make myself lists, and every scrambled miserable minute, I try to work through the list, judging the day by how much I have accomplished in it. That isn’t living. It is listing. Caging. Pacing. Worry lines. Eternal burden. Eternal misery. It is Algebra and Trigonometry. Straight lines, composed. I can follow the formulas, and my answers are perfect, because I have always known how to give the right answers. But it is not understanding the concepts, and it is not the inside of living. It is only reading formulas.”
I thought about the thing I love to do most, and that is writing. And I thought of how I was trying to build my career as a writer: how I wrote down words, and how I set myself deadlines, and how I tried to find people to read the words. Because this is what I had told myself that writing was. I had been to the writing conferences where they told me writing was all about connections and popularity and building a platform. And I wanted to be a writer, so I tried.
Now I realized they had lied.
Writing is not about popularity or connections or building a platform. It is about dung and damp calf noses and a twirl of raindrops and a dandelion crushed in heavy wet grass. Writing is about seeing these things and transcribing them, because I cannot do anything else. It is the deepest and most natural of the gifts God has given me. It is not a writing, really–only an observance and only a transcribing.
But to transcribe these things, I cannot list. I must life. I must life with patience and enjoyment, with open eyes and honesty and a refusal to imitate formulas.
We have all been given life; we have all been given hours. We are given them in the same precise measurement of minutes, with the same potential for misery or enjoyment, every morning. The rich are not given more minutes than the poor; the successful do not claim more enjoyment than the unsuccessful. In this one bestowment of life and hours, we are equal.
In the field, beneath a circle of raindrops, I decided to quit listing and start life-ing.
Because my dad is a poor farmer, and I am a poor farmer’s daughter, and I learned my life-ing from him.