I woke up this morning and came down to my office. I should have done yoga. I should have meditated. Instead, I fixed my attention on the wood stove. It’s late May, for Pete’s sake, I shouldn’t need a fire. But I couldn’t stop shivering. I stumbled through the dark outside until I had some kindling and firewood. Without even realizing I was doing it, I came back inside, and fabricated an excuse to wake up Bob and ask for his help.
I remember realizing how all the pressures I faced in school would fall away as I walked the mile up the road to their farm on Saturdays and Sundays.
He came downstairs bleary-eyed and dutiful, tripping over the dog bones and scraps of kid projects littering the floor. I groped my way through the curtain of laundry that was hung to dry from the tie rods on the ceiling and met him halfway. And there I fell into his arms, clung to his waist, and burst into tears.
“I had a bad dream,” I whimpered. “You left me.”
“Where’d I go?”
“Back to grad school.”
“I think that would be my idea of a bad dream. You forget how bad grad school was for me.”
“No,” I giggled, still crying, “you got tired of all this. All the mess and all the chaos, and all the busy-ness. So you just slipped away, rented a room someplace, and that was that. And I was so busy, you were gone a month before I realized it.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
And then he held me and I cried and cried and cried some more. Some days, I need the cry more than the yoga.
It’s spring. In the past six weeks, the longest stretch of time I’ve had alone with my husband has been the 45-minute drive to our farmers’ market, which opened this past weekend. He’s gone every morning to help at the farm, while I remain behind to see to homeschool lessons, weeding, yard work, planting, kids’ activities, bookkeeping, appointments, errands, customer correspondence, and fixing lunches, in between work sessions to make sausage, pâté, soap, salve, and candles for the market.
The grass has grown halfway up my shins, the kitchen cabinets seem permanently sticky from slap-dash efforts to clean up from last week’s honey bottling disaster, the dishes are piling up, soap batter has spilled and hardened to my kitchen counters, I’m riddled with guilt over explaining to Ula that she is NOT helping me out by dumping all of her plush toys in the center of the living room so that she can help me relax by performing a puppet show, and I’m beginning to wonder if Saoirse will understand long division before she turns 21. Oh, and my oldest dog is now incontinent, needs medication twice a day, refuses to take it, and confronts me at the beginning and end of each day with a locked jaw that requires a level of mutual coercion and bullying that she and I have never encountered in our 13-year friendship.
As I write all this, I think back to my life with Ruth and Sanford, elderly subsistence farmers who lived up the road from us who took me on as a granddaughter-of-choice when I was younger. Any time that I wasn’t in school I could be found up in their pastures, out in their barn, mowing their grass, or sitting at their kitchen table.
Even if I’m crying in my husband’s arms in the dark hours of an early morning, I know this is still what we want.
Ruth and Sanford were very influential in this life I’ve chosen. I remember vividly realizing how all the pressures I faced in school life would fall away as I walked the mile up the road to their farm on Saturdays and Sundays. When there, time seemed to stand still. I was able to breathe, be a part of my ecosystem, and feel entirely free. Nothing ever felt hurried. My worries vanished.
But here I am, trying to model my life after their path, and I feel breathless as I try to make my way through each day. What’s different?
Ruth and Sanford were subsistence farmers living on just a few thousand dollars per year. We’re small scale production farmers. When I knew them, there were no longer children living in their home. And when kids did live on the farm, they left on a school bus every day. I’ve chosen to homeschool mine, and have accepted the time commitment that entails. I’ve also chosen to accept the creative challenge of being a writer. But the biggest difference, I suspect, has to do with the fact that every spring, while they confronted the majority of the repairs, the tilling, the chores, the planting, and the calving, I was tucked away at school, completely oblivious to what they faced. My only exposure was on the weekends and summers. By virtue of being a child, I was spared the difficulties that all grown-ups encounter with this way of life.
Contrary to my memory, time never stood still for Ruth and Sanford. It only stood still for me because their life represented a “vacation” of sorts from my school world. And as a result, I developed an image in my mind of what this life was supposed to be: ample time on the back porch, a rocking chair with a pile of knitting, naturally well-behaved children who clean up after themselves and dutifully study their lessons without my intervention, old dogs who sigh contentedly and don’t pee on the rug, well-crafted books and essays that seem to write themselves, gardens that weed themselves, a husband who is never too busy or too tired to light a tiny fire for his wife in the pre-dawn hours of a chilly May morning.
Even if these romantic ideals can’t be realized on a daily basis, they are still important. They are my reminders of what I desire, of why I chose this path. Even if I’m crying in my husband’s arms in the dark hours of an early morning, I know this is still what we want. He wants to be outside fixing and tinkering. I want to pull the weeds. He wants to tend the bees. I want to write and teach my kids. He wants to weave baskets and stack firewood. I want to plant a garden and cook. We want to drive to our farmers’ market every Saturday, we want to see our family thrive, we want to live in this place.
So when the sticky cabinets are finally wiped down, the garden is finally planted, the chores are done, the day’s essay is written, and the sun has warmed the earth enough to allow Bob and me a brief moment to sit quietly on the porch, the respite we’ve earned will feel all that much sweeter because we will have come by it honestly, tiring ourselves doing the things we have chosen.
- “We have a lovely home, we eat well, we have lots of fun, we’re warm, and we don’t worry about how we’ll keep the lights on.” Shannon Hayes on how she has managed to live a fulfilled and happy life without going broke.
- Sometimes Shannon Hayes finds herself missing the days before she was a mother. But the circle of familial give-and-take love makes the trade-off worth it.
- Breaking our families into nuclear units has an ecological and emotional cost. Could the multigenerational farm remind us where to turn for a viable future?
Shannon Hayes writes, home-schools, and farms with her family from Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. Her books include The Grassfed Gourment, Radical Homemakers, and Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled.