Category Archives: relationships

Remembering Slavery: The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The central theme in The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new novel about slavery in 19th century Virginia, is easy to grasp: memory is life. In the words of Harriet Tubman, a character in the book: “To forget is to truly slave. To forget is to die… memory is a bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom” [sic]. The corollary of this theme is less accessible:  the act of remembering, Harriet insists, is “just like dancing.”

The Water Dancer has a lot to say about how the memory that liberates works. For Harriet, as well as for the novel’s narrator, Hiram (Hi) Walker – a slave, or one of the “Tasked” – the act of remembering feelings and experiences provides a way to access a magical power called Conduction that they can use to move themselves and others from “the coffin” of the South to freedom in the North. It is when Harriet is teaching Hi how to go on this memory trip that she says: “It’s just like dancing.” But how?

The Water Dancer begins a year earlier in the middle of Hi’s second experience of Conduction. He is nineteen, and drowning in a river at night, when he sees a vision of a woman wreathed in blue light, dancing with an earthen jug filled with water on her head. “No matter her high knees, no matter her dips and bends, her splaying arms, the jar stayed fixed on her head like a crown.” He recognizes the water dancer: she is his mother. Her dancing guides him towards the light. He is found on land, two miles away from the river, not knowing how he got there.

Other than this tantalizing vision, Hi cannot remember his mother. When he was nine, his father, the white plantation owner Howell Walker, or the “Quality,” sold his mother Rose, a Tasked, to another of the Quality. When Hi was eleven, his father, appreciating Hi’s otherwise phenomenal memory, invited Hi to work in the big house. Hi learned to read and write, and served as a slave for Hi’s older brother by a different mother. When thinking about his mother, all Hi sees is fog.

Hi cannot remember his mother, and he also doesn’t dance. When his friend Sophie asks if he can, he replies: “Not even a little.” The excuse he gives is that, in this respect, he “favors” his father. Like the Quality, he doesn’t dance. Sophie chides him: “Ain’t about favor, Hi, it’s about doing.”

Later, as the Tasked celebrate the Holidays together and dancing begins, Hi just watches. He notices that the dance begins and blooms “seemingly of its own accord.” A circle forms, and in the middle he sees Sophie, dancing a water dance, “a flurry of limbs, but all under control,” just like his mother in his blue-lit vision. Sophie sees Hi, slides the jug off her head, and gives him a sip. He drinks the whole jug, but still doesn’t dance.

Hi then spends the bulk of the novel gathering the experiences that will enable him to access his memories of his mother and his power to Conduct. He tries to run to freedom and is jailed, chained, molested, tossed in a pit, hunted by night, and finally freed into the care of the Underground. He learns to spy and hide; to forge documents and find friends; to trust and be trusted. He learns that freedom is its own kind of master, requiring his service. He trains as an agent for the Underground. His love for Sophie carries him through, and he vows to save her from slavery, as she has saved him.

As Hi matures through these experiences, he also learns the significance of dance. Dancing is not only what his mother and Aunt Emma did fabulously well when the Tasked would gather together in the woods at the end of the week, far from the eyes of the Quality. Nor is it only what his African grandmother, Santi Bess, did when she led forty-eight Tasked into the River Goose, and disappeared.

As his first contact with the Underground, Corinne Quinn, explains to him: “the most degraded field-hand, on the most miserable plot in Mississippi, [knows] more of the world than any overstuffed, forth-holding American philosophe… And the lords and ladies of our country know this. This is why they are so in thrall of the dance and song of your people. It is an unwritten library stuffed with a knowledge of this tragic world, such that it defies language itself.”

Corrine is Quality. She is also Underground, fighting for freedom. From her vantage point between worlds, Tasked dancing affords insight and wisdom that escapes language. As such, dancing not only appears on par with a written library as equally illuminating, it also reveals the hypocrisy of those who claim exclusive knowledge over others. As Corinne claims: “Power makes slaves of masters, for it cuts them away from the world they claim to comprehend.”

As dance scholar Katrina Hazzard-Gordon explains, in the Yoruban traditions from which many of the Virginian Tasked came, dance is the medium in which  people learn about, commune with, and are moved by the spirits or Orisha. Of particular importance to  enslaved Africans was Yemaya, the water goddess, Mother of All, Mother of the Ocean where all life begins, and the fierce protector of mothers and children. Dances performed for Yemaya consist of swirling, spiraling movements, like waves snatched by the wind. Water dances.

Yet, Africans relocated to the United States didn’t just bring knowledge of how to do particular steps. They brought knowledge of how to use dancing as a medium for creating relationships with the powerful forces in their lives. Their ability to dance was the primary means left to them for exercising their autonomy and creating a way of life for themselves distinct from that of the slave owners. They not only used familiar patterns as material for communicating in new ways with one another across ethnic and linguistic differences, they evolved new dances. Through dancing, the enslaved had a method for moving with joy in the world they were given. For feeling free. For remaking the world.

Still, Hi can’t dance. Now free, attending a large gathering of people fighting to end the slavery of women, children, Africans and more, he hears the drums and songs of a dance beginning. “I felt them tugging at me, I felt myself swaying in the August heat. It was all too much. I left and went to roam.” The next day he meets Harriet who teaches him that memory is the key to Conduction.

In the end, Sophie is the person who helps Hi understand the significance of the water dance, and thus opens a path to remembering his mother. She tells Hi a story of an African king who took control of the slave ship that was carrying him and his people across the ocean. When the army of Quality approaches, the king tells his people to dance on the water, “to sing and dance as they walked” because “the water-goddess brought ‘em here, and the water goddess would take ‘em back home.” Yemaya. Sophie continued, “And when we dance as we do, with the water balanced on our head, we are giving praise to them who danced on the waves. We have flipped it, you see? As we must do all things, make a way out of what is given… ‘It’s like dancing.’” To flip it. To find a way out. To feel the joy amidst the losses, the freedom in the midst of slavery. To remember it all, and keep dancing.

Hi finally realizes what is keeping him from remembering his mother. “I was too young to survive with the memory.” The memory was too powerful. It would have wrenched him apart and destroyed him. So he had to forget it until he had learned how to “flip it,” how to “stay with the sound” and the story, how to hold open sensory space in his bodily being for accepting both his losses and his loves, his Quality father and his Tasked mother. As he insists, “there is no pure.”

Hi is finally able to embrace “the warmth of the muck… The facing of facts”: he vows to love as his own the child that his father’s brother forced upon Sophie. Only then can he access the memory of his mother, of himself, that enables him to Conduct his first slave to freedom. As he does, he sees people dancing – his mother, his aunt, and many others — and then in chains. “I do believe my mother, my aunt Emma, danced as they did because they knew what good there was could not last.” Hi vows to keep remembering… so that the dance may continue.

The Water Dancer renders vivid the task of remembering slavery for everyone involved, regardless of race. It is not just about recalling life-denying experiences of oppression; it is about staying with the sound of the story; feeling the tug of the drum and moving with it. It is about cultivating the sensory strength to feel the pain as a reason to choose love over anger, vengeance, and pride again and again, in the midst of the muck. It is creative and bodily; it involves discipline and skill. It’s just like dancing.

The Perils of People Pleasing

It is a sentiment familiar to most humans: a desire to please the people around us. We want people to be happy. We want people to be happy with us. We want to be the good friend, partner, mother, daughter, colleague, or relation. So we act in ways that we think will make another person happy… with us.

Often, when rooted in a genuine concern for the other person, a desire to please pleasing works beautifully. It impels a person to pay attention to the feelings and well being of other people. It inspires thoughtful and considerate actions. People pleasers are nice.

When a people pleaser’s words and actions land well, those pleased often respond with corresponding acts of appreciation and consideration. This exchange creates abundant good will, as well as feelings of closeness and understanding. The two feel that they can trust each other to look out for them, and take care of them in times of need.

However, the desire to please does not always work. Sometimes a word or deed intended to please can rub the wrong way, trigger an angry response, or hurt in ways that baffle the person who wants to please.

In such moments, the perils of people pleasing surface. A people pleaser may attack the very person he is trying to please. I have witnessed this dynamic in many relationships – in families, workplaces, communities, and among friends.

For example, one people pleaser, Amy, says something that Bob finds hurtful. When Bob shows signs of being hurt, Amy protests: “It’s not my fault,” “I was just doing what you do,” “You’re too sensitive,” “It’s just who I am – how I talk,” or “I didn’t mean it.”

In such a moment, Amy is invested in pleasing Bob: she doesn’t want Bob to be hurt; she doesn’t want to have caused the hurt; she doesn’t want to be blamed for the hurt; and she doesn’t want to be wrong. So she ends up arguing why she has every right to do what she did in hurting him.

Bob, further upset by her response to his pain, responds: “Yes, you did mean it!” “It is your fault!” “It really hurts!” Bob defends the fact that he is hurt; he feels compelled to explain why he hurts, so that Amy gets it. He dramatizes it. He blames Amy. In doing so, Bob pushes Amy to harden her stance. She is indignant to be criticized so harshly for something she did not want or mean or intend to do. Each response escalates the encounter, fueling feelings of resentment and distrust, without going anywhere or solving anything!

The great irony of such moments is that a deep desire to please ends up fomenting the very opposite of what it wants.

Rather than dig in and defend her actions, Amy needs to move with Bob. She needs to apologize and let it land – to say sorry – not necessarily for what she did, but at least for the fact that Bob feels hurt. Amy needs to move with Bob long enough to defuse his hurt and open space in which they can see one another.

Why is it so hard – in those moments when our people pleasing fails to please – to find the energy and the courage to move with the other?

A desire to please can sometimes lose its moorings and float free of genuine concern for another human person. When a people pleaser succeeds in pleasing, that feeling can be addictive. The people pleaser can start to rely on those feelings of succeeding in order to feel good about herself. She relies on those feelings in order to feel like she is doing a good job as a teacher, mother, sibling, or friend, etc. In such cases, a desire to please can easily slide into a need to control other people so as to avoid conflict, or a strategy for protecting oneself from other people’s disappointment or distress.

If a desire to please is unmoored in these ways, a people pleaser is vulnerable. He may be terrified by the feeling that he is not succeeding in pleasing another. He feels threatened. He may panic, afraid that the relationship is in danger, or that he is not “good enough.” He gets stuck. He cannot move with the other, and instead attacks.

So what can people pleasers do to stay flexible and responsive?

I found myself in a such a situation this week. I was with my kids at a local pond, and we were all doing back flips off a floating dock. As each child took a turn, I offered comments and suggestions meant to be helpful. One child was having difficulty starting – because he wanted to do it perfectly – and when this child finally launched, I said “Good job!” without giving specific feedback. I didn’t want to block his progress.

By the time we got home, this child was furious with me. Why? He said that I was treating him differently. Not giving him the same constructive criticism as I gave the others. I was thereby admitting, in his mind, that he was not as good.

I felt my own need-to-please rise within me. I wanted to say: “You were so upset I didn’t want to make it worse.” Or “I was just trying to help!” Or “I didn’t want to say the wrong thing! That wasn’t my intention.” In other words, my first impulse was to defend myself and prove to my child that I was being a “good mom.” What would he hear? That I was blaming him for being unreasonable and difficult. That is not what I wanted.

I swallowed hard and moved with him. Inside his anger, I could see what he wanted – affirmation from me – which is exactly what I wanted to give. I spoke: “I’m sorry. Thanks for telling me. I understand better what I can do next time.” His anger shifted. It released just enough that we could find our way back to a sense of connection and move on.

The moment reminded me of how people pleasers help ourselves move with the people we fail to please.

First, know that the fact that you feel like you have failed means that you wanted to succeed. It means that you know what it feels like to succeed. Affirm this desire to connect as good. Know that whether or not a gift is received as you hoped, the giving is good. Let yourself give!

Second, know that every time you fail, that failure is not a judgment. It is an opportunity. Don’t take it personally. Use it to learn more about how to communicate in ways that will be received as love. Know that failure is an illuminating step on a journey towards mutual understanding.

Later that day I found myself on the other side of a similar people-pleasing situation: someone else in my life was trying to please me. She was holding back from being honest with me because she was afraid I would get upset. When she told me this, I felt angry. Judged. Even attacked. I wanted to fire back: “I don’t get upset!” “What do you mean?” “Why would you say that?”  But I took a breath. What good would that do?

I took another breath. “Thank you for not wanting me to be upset. I will be more upset if you don’t tell me what you think.” Then I stopped and tried again. “The point is – don’t be afraid! Honesty is so much more important than fear! When you are honest with me, I know I can trust you. I know that you trust me. That is what I want.”

The moment reminded me of what we can do when people pleasers in our lives attack us when we are not pleased by what they do?

Take a deep breath and stand. Don’t fire back. Hear their anger – not as a desire to hurt you – but as a desire to please you. Honor it. Respond to that desire, and ask clearly for what you need. Give the other person the information that she needs to order to succeed in connecting with you.

In the end, whether you are the one trying to please or the one who isn’t pleased, the challenge is the same: to root your responses in genuine concern for the other and in a deep affirmation of your own impulse to connect.

Be vulnerable enough to notice how people around you are thinking and feeling, while strong enough to give them space to feel what they are feeling; clear enough to know that you cannot control their feelings or take them personally, and flexible enough to learn from every moment how better to communicate.

In the end, you can’t control whether or not what you do pleases someone else. You can’t make another feel what you want them to feel. You can trust your impulse to connect, and know that you are OK, regardless of how the gift lands.

How Living with an Ox Changed My Life

IMG_6089Thursday, February 14 — The door flung open, and my son Jordan (23) rushed into the kitchen. “Where are my spikes?”

“What happened?” I asked. Twenty minutes earlier, Jordan had left the house to yoke up Bright and Blaze, his pair of oxen, and retrieve a load of cut elm logs from the fields that he had felled the day before.

“Bright slipped on some ice and can’t get up!” Jordan was gone.

Bright is big. He weighs 2,000 pounds and stands nearly 6 feet tall at the highest point on his back. He had to get up.

“C’mon Leif! Let’s go.”

I loaded my youngest (age 9) into the car, and we drove a quarter mile to the access road that leads to our back fields. Thirty feet off the paved road, down a steep, snowy bank, Jordan’s one-ton ox was lying on his belly with his hind legs spread, one sticking straight out to either side, his head surrounded by the branches of a prickly hawthorn tree. I left the car with its hazard lights flashing and slid down to where Jordan was standing.

“He can’t get up.” Jordan and I looked at one another, wanting beyond anything to pick up Bright’s massive frame and set him soundly on his feet. Had he broken a knee? Dislocated a hip? Should we call the vet?

“What can the vet do?” Jordan asked. As our thoughts churned, Bright lay there calmly. He did not thrash or bellow. His left leg was trembling. From time to time, he moaned softly.

Having an ox slip happens from time to time on mud or snow or ice. But usually they scramble to their feet and are fine. Bright was now 10, larger and less limber than he had ever been. We cleared the hawthorn branches from around his head and cut down a sumac sapling that seemed to be stopping his left hind leg from moving forward. We had to do something.

Without warning, Bright lurched upward. His front legs and right hind leg powered forward, while his left leg swung out to the side, straight and not bending beneath him. He stumbled a few yards and crashed down again, farther from the access road, deeper into the bushes. This time, however, he fell with his right leg tucked neatly under him, and only the left one stuck out to the side. We could at least see it. I stroked the injured leg. He lay there calmly, looking at me as I circled him, cutting away branches that poked his face.

We called Geoff. We called Jessica (in her second year at vet school). We called the vet. We talked to a neighbor. Geoff and Kai (13) arrived on the scene. We debated our options. The sun was setting. The temperature was falling. Bright was starting to shiver. The distance home felt immense, and we were face to face with a fierce and unforgiving fact: We had no way to help Bright stand up. A tractor, even if large enough, couldn’t get down the snow bank to where he was. Still, we didn’t want to leave him there on the cold snow over night. If he couldn’t stand, we should probably put him down. The thought socked me in the stomach. My heart ached. For Bright. For Jordan. For me.

We left Bright and drove back to the house. I called our neighbors. Would they be willing to lend us a gun? The firearm they owned wasn’t large enough. Jordan and Geoff drove to two other neighbors. No one was home. On the way back to our house, they drove by Bright again. By some miracle of his own making, he was standing. He was standing! If only he could stand…

Jessica, on the phone, explained, “Leaving him alone may have been a good thing. Bright is a herd animal. Lying down in the dark, unable to move, defenseless, all alone, away from home — that is his worst nightmare!”

We went into action. If Bright was going to stand, then we were going to do all we could to help him. We decided to dig him a path to the road, bank him with hay, make sure he’d be comfortable overnight, and see what happened. We stuffed our station wagon full of hay and tossed in a couple of metal shovels for chipping away the ice. I got in to drive back to Bright. The car wouldn’t start. Parking for hours with the hazard lights on had killed the battery. We jump-started the station wagon with our Prius and drove both cars back to the access road. By then, Bright had managed to turn himself around and was facing uphill and the road home.

We started cutting a path through the frozen snow bank. Kai and I ran back to the house for more shovels; we kept digging. Bright stood there, placid and patient, watching our flurry of furious activity. Then suddenly, without even registering a movement, Bright had moved. Sideways. Closer.

It was as if Bright knew exactly what he had to do — wait for the pain to subside and his will to crest into a blast of effort that would launch his 2,000 pounds a few feet forward. Each time, we cheered and kept digging. We made sure we were not in his way. We let him choose when to move, where to move, and how.

We finished clearing a path down to the grass, and spread it with hay. We stood in a semicircle, watching Bright watching us, all of us wanting the same thing. It was dark. The moon was beaming and nearly full. I sent everyone home to eat dinner while I waited for Bright’s next eruption.

The stars were sparkling. The night was brilliantly clear. Though the air was cold, I was not. I wrapped myself in deep silence. From time to time, I talked to Bright and encouraged him. I stroked his injured leg. I sat nearby. I got up and danced. He watched. I could hear Jordan down the road, shoveling out a path to the stall in our barn where Bright would hopefully soon be. After another half hour, Bright had scuttled another 6 feet. He was 3 feet from the road. I was ecstatic. If he could make it to the road, all that awaited was gently sloped pavement leading back home. I knew he wanted it.

He made it to the road. Thirty feet in three-and-a-half hours.

At this point, it made sense to call the vet. Fifteen minutes later, she came. Bright’s left hind leg was not obviously broken or dislocated. Jordan took his halter rope, and we nudged and pushed Bright down the road to the stall. With each step, he lurched, swinging his left hind leg in a circle, putting as little weight on it as possible. The vet gave Bright a steroid painkiller and told us he had to stand up at least three times a day, otherwise his right hind leg would go numb and start to atrophy. If it did, Bright would be unable to stand, and would go downhill quickly. “Give him three days; you’ll know.”

That night, we were hopeful. Bright had been with us for over 10 years — a long life relative to most male bovine — but we still were not ready for this arc of our lives to end.

Ten years. Jordan was 13 when he told us he wanted a pair of bull calves to train as oxen. I bought him a book. We already had three Jersey cows, a quarter horse named Marvin, a flock of hens, and a clowder of cats. Oxen? But Jordan wanted a source of farm power — something we could use to haul firewood, and maybe mow hay or plow. He was so sure. When a friend of his from 4H called to say she had a pair of Milking Shorthorn bulls born a week apart, there was no good reason to say no. Jordan named them Bright and Blaze. Geoff and Jordan drove them home in the back of the same station wagon we had filled with hay. The bulls were 4 and 5 weeks old, still drinking milk. The kids fed them with half-gallon baby bottles.

Soon after the bull calves arrived, Jordan began their training. To train a pair of oxen, you need a yoke. To get a yoke, you need to make one. To make a yoke, you need to bend hickory into U-shaped bows. To get hickory, you need to fell a hickory tree, cut long rounded pieces from the trunk, and then set up a steaming device — which we did — with a pasta pot and PVC tubing on top of our wood stove. Every day after school, Jordan would place his yoke on the necks of his baby bulls, tie a small sled to the yoke — sometimes with 4-year-old Kai aboard — and drive his team around the yard, teaching them their commands: Giddap! Gee! Haw! Whoa! Back! Step in! Step out! Head up! Stand.

As the bulls grew, they needed a new yoke, and the new yoke needed metal hardware. Jordan asked for a blacksmith shop so he could make the hardware himself. At 6 months, our vet steered the bulls, and Jordan began using his team to haul logs from the woods to burn for fuel.

With the simple act of pulling dead trees from our forests, Bright and Blaze changed our lives: how we lived and what we wanted; how we related to each another and to our land; what we could imagine possible all evolved.

Rather than burning fuel oil to heat our house, we started burning wood. We exchanged our decorative wood stove for an efficient re-gasifer (with a window!), and sliced our oil bill by two-thirds. We redesigned our living area so that we as a family could all gather round the wood stove — the heating heart of our home. And we do. All winter long.

By pulling our firewood, Bright and Blaze pulled us outside to find it and fell it — to walk the property, keen on discovering which trees were dead or dying or overcrowded. We learned to see the trees — to identify the types, knowing which would burn well and which would not. We learned to fell them safely, process them efficiently, and load them onto the oxen’s sled. The oxen gave us reasons to spend time together outside as a family on our land, engaged in meaningful work, and ever admiring of the strength, the beauty, and sometimes stubborn will of such formidable creatures.

By pulling our firewood, Bright and Blaze pulled us to a place of wanting to do more — more of what is possible to do every day of our lives to protect the well-being of the natural world. We wanted to use their manure to grow more of our own food; we wanted to take care of our pastures, so they would have good grass and hay to eat. We wanted to clean out and shore up our barns, so they would have places to find shelter. We wanted to create a world in which they could be safe and healthy. Bright and Blaze encouraged us to engage directly with the workings of the natural world — not as sightseers, but as participants locked in a life-enabling reciprocity. They depended on us. We depended on them.

Friday, February 15 — Jordan went out to check on Bright the next morning, found him lying down, and got him to stand up. Around lunch time, Jordan checked again. Bright was down again, and this time would not stand. “We need to get him up,” Jordan said. He tried. I joined him in the barn. We tried. Bright stuck out his neck and refused to move. I suggested we give him his dose of steroid and try an hour later. It worked. Jordan got him to stand. Bright was up. Again, I felt euphoric. If we could just keep him up.

Saturday/Sunday, February 16/7 — After standing all day Friday, Bright stood all day Saturday and all day Sunday. My daughters, Jessica and Kyra, came home. We could tell from the patterns of hay on the floor that Bright was dragging his leg around his stall. When he stood, he would rock from side to side, shifting his weight onto the injured leg and then back. It’s what a body knows. He otherwise seemed fine, eating and drinking and pooping. All good. On Sunday morning, feeling optimistic, Jordan and Jessica tried to take him for a short walk. Bright was still not bending his left hind leg.

Monday, February 18 — Bright was lying down again. Jordan tried to get him up. Jordan and I tried to get him up. We called in Geoffrey, Jessica, Kai, and Leif to help get him up. With all of us together pushing, we could not even roll Bright from one side of his body to the other. I suggested calling the vet.

“Steroids and painkillers are not a long-term solution,” said Jordan. It was his decision. The very tissues in Bright’s leg that needed to heal were the ones Bright needed to use to keep the rest of himself alive.

We called a man who would come to the farm, shoot Bright, end his life instantly and painlessly, and then process the meat for us. The butcher rearranged his schedule to accommodate us. He’d come at noon the next day.

Tuesday, February 19 — I went into Bright’s stall to sit with him for a while. Large patches of fur were missing from each knee, scraped off by the concrete floor. He had obviously been trying to crawl his way to standing and couldn’t. His back left leg was stuck out and so stiff I could not bend it. He looked at me, rolled onto his right side, and lifted his straight left hind leg up into the air, as if to say, “See this? It hurts! It won’t work. Can you do something please?”

I couldn’t. I wished that I could. I scratched him under his huge chin, the way he likes. He stretched his neck long, so I could reach its full length. I massaged the muscles in his hurt leg. His whole body was trembling, as if in pain. I talked to him. I thanked him. I cried.

The rest of the family gathered in Bright’s stall. The butcher came. Pop. It was over.

Death, even for a creature as massive and seemingly unstoppable as an ox, is so close, separated from life by the thinnest of membranes. The light on the side of the living is just bright enough that we usually cannot see through.

Jordan asked the butcher for Bright’s heart. It was as large as a soccer ball, and looked like burgundy fudge. That night, Geoffrey cooked part of Bright’s heart on the grill, and the omnivores in our family ate it. In a couple of weeks, we will have hundreds of pounds of meat. We will not let Bright go to waste. He taught us that.

Now, I can’t help but remember Bright . . . watching me intently, as I open a new pasture, and being the first in. Tossing a 300-pound hay bale with his horns and galloping after it as it unrolled down a hill. Wrestling my newly planted fruit trees and hemlocks to the ground, and winning. Breaking through the fence at 3 a.m., and prowling in the yard under Geoff and my bedroom window. Running our herd of cows down the middle of the road — the middle of the road! — in search of greener pastures. Reaching his large head into the calf stall to check out newborn arrivals. Standing, when I wanted him to move. Listening, as Jordan guided him where to pull. Gentle with the smallest children. Working hard. Grazing peacefully outside my window, as I went about my work inside. Always present. Fully embodied. There.

I miss him — knowing too that he lives on in all he has enabled.

Thank you, Bright.

Live Theater: Do We Need It?

 

How do we build the skills we need to live a good life?

My latest post is now up!

It was inspired by the wonderful experience I have had working with the high school students in Granville on their spring musical, Sound of Music!

Live Theater: Do We Need It?

Enjoy!!

 

The Meaning of Milk

IMG_3329As Geoff and I make dinner, Kyra (age 12) carries a stainless steel bucket in from the cow barn, bracing her small frame sideways against its weight. White froth laps at the rim, floating atop two gallons of milk, just pulled from Daisy’s udder by Kyra’s strong hands. I help Kyra lift the bucket onto the counter. She smiles. I smile. Well done! Milk! She goes back out into the evening’s dark, headlight on, to feed the chickens.

I pull a stainless steel pot from the refrigerator that is filled with milk from this morning’s chores. The surface of the milk is firm with cream. I grab a quart jar and our bell-bottomed skimming spoon, and begin to run the edge of the spoon across the yellowy surface. A thick layer folds in front of the spoon, buckling on top of itself, before yielding in a mass to the curve. I lift my arm, spoon the cream into the waiting jar, then return and repeat.

Suddenly, as my arm completes another arc of skimming and spooning, I feel a rush of tears. I haven’t skimmed cream in over two months. We had dried Daisy off before her due date, and had no other cows to milk. Then, on October 19, Daisy gave birth, and so here we are again—back in the milk. Here I am again—skimming—and crying?

Why? How ridiculous! I am just doing my ordinary chore! Yet, I feel relief. I feel gratitude; I feel joy. But most of all I feel love. A large love. A seemingly religious love. While skimming cream? What is going on?

I ponder this strange sensation as I continue to fill my quart jar.

Am I happy to be drinking raw milk again? Yes, I am. I believe in raw milk. I believe that pasteurization kills beneficial bacteria as well as enzymes that aid in digestion. I believe that homogenizing ensures that those dead particulates don’t settle into silt at the bottom of a carton. This milk is alive. It glows. But that isn’t it.

Am I glad to be eating locally? Yes, I am. This milk did not require any diesel-burning trucking or train-ing to get from cow to kitchen, and I appreciate that. But that isn’t it either.

Is it just that this milk is so delicious? True, it tastes so good. Everything we make from it tastes so good—the ice cream, of course, but also the hard cheeses (cheddar, jack, parmesan), the soft cheeses (mozzarella, ricotta, queso fresco), the butter, yogurt, half and half (for Geoff’s coffee), and the skimmed milked itself. Everyone in our family agrees (though some are less enthusiastic about the sharper cheeses). Now we can make more of these goods again. But that isn’t what is making these tears well.

No, as pearly white milk shines from beneath the cleared cream, I realize that these tears mean something else. As I skim and spoon and stir and pour, making these simple bodily movements, this milk is for me a direct, living connection to the earth.

I helped my son buy this cow seven years ago. We have raised her, cared for her, fed and watered her; built fences for her and hauled bales for her. We have done the work together. Our kids have done the work together. Daisy, in turn, has spent countless hours munching grass from our hillsides and fertilizing the soil with her manure. Year after year she has taken that grass and given it back to us as milk, pulled and carried from barn to house by Jordan, Jessica, and now Kyra.

This milk is more than just milk. It is a one moment of an energy circuit streaming from sun to soil to grass to cow to bucket to child to cheese and back again—back through the movements those milk-fed children make in caring for the cow who fertilizes the earth that supports the sun-catching grass.

Standing at the kitchen table, spoon in hand, I know. I am part of it. I am a mere loop in the chain, a small but enabling arc of this life-enabling circuit. Standing at the kitchen table, spoon in hand, I know myself as someone who is participating in this rhythm of bodily becoming, making it real, making myself real as an expression of it. And it feels like love.

This milk is just milk. Yet it is more than just milk. It nourishes our bodily selves. It nourishes more than our bodily selves. Working for it, with it, by virtue of its enabling calories, I am flooded with feelings of gratitude for the abundance—for the family, the farm, and the great green earth—that it represents. This milk nourishes spirit.

I pour the skimmed milk into half gallon glass bottles, wash the stainless steel pot, fill it with warm milk from Kyra’s bucket, and place the pot back into the refrigerator, where it will wait for 12 hours—until the next skimming time.

*

I can’t stop thinking about this skimming moment from over a week ago. It was so unexpected! And the fact that it was so unexpected is itself revealing. My surprise was indicative of our cultural perceptions of pleasure, especially around food. I offer three thoughts.

First. Our processes of food production and distribution—from far away farms to supermarket shelves—have so narrowed our sensory experience of food that we associate the pleasure of food primarily with eating, and then again, with taste and amount. It is what we know. It is what we can buy.

Pacing the supermarket aisles, we are met by row after row of distilled substances pressed ‘free’ from the bran, the chaff, the skin, the seeds, the crust, the meat, the fiber, the bulk, and then processed with copious quantities of sugar and salt. Seeking more taste and larger amounts, we opt for foods that have been stripped and sliced, whitened and washed, juiced and refined, even already cooked and served.

Once these distilled substances blast through our sensory selves, we who consume feel full and empty all at once. Our pleasure is partial; we assume we need more of the same. And so, shopping and consuming, we become addicted to foods that train our sensory selves to ignore the spectrum of possible pleasures that making food can provide.

While grabbing a plastic gallon from the refrigerator compartment enroute to the checkout, we forget the pleasures of calf kisses, chin scratches, and fuzzy winter cow coats. We forget the sounds of milk pinging the pail, or of baby bleats and mama moos. We forget the smell of grass growing and cut, wet and dry; or the vivid splashes of sunset and sunrise.

When pulling a block of cheese from one shelf and a carton of frozen dessert from another, we forget the resilient stretch of a newly made mozzarella, or the melting sweetness of freshly cranked ice cream.

Sure, there is muck and mess to remember as well. Cows poop. Calves slobber. Buckets topple. Milk sours. Cheeses mold. Ice cream clots. But somehow, having a personal experience of everything that can go wrong serves to amplify and expand that feeling of pleasure when it all goes right.

This line of thinking pulled into view a second. The sensory training to taste and amount that we receive not only teaches us to forget the pleasures of the food-making process, it teaches us to forget that pleasure itself requires a process, else it does not fully engage and satisfy our capacity for it.

Pleasure is an arc, a rhythm—not a one-stop shop. It unfolds in time, over time, through the movements we make, and especially in relation to food. The waiting. The watching. The growing. The picking. The making. The baking. The bonding. The stopping. The beginning again.

Finally, as our experiences of buying and eating food narrow the range of known pleasure, it become possible to imagine that pleasure, even as a process, exists for its own sake, for personal use. It does not. This idea is an ecological hazard.

What is lost when pleasure narrows to the question of personal satisfaction is not simply sensation. We may actually experience quite exalted states from our refined food substances. Rather, what is lost is an internal array of sensory experiences that can guide us in making earth-friendly decisions about what to eat, when, where, and how.

We forget that food is our primary connection to earth. We forget that food is earth making more of itself. We forget that we too—in how and what and when and where we eat—are part of that process through which the earth becomes what it is.

Alternately, the channels of pleasure we can open through our participation in the food making process provide us with the surest guide we have for giving back to the sources of what pleases us. Pleasure points us and propels us to do what we can and must to enable its sources to grow and thrive. In so far as we know that the pleasure of food comes from participating in the earth’s bodily becoming, then, we will do all that we can to give back to the earth what it needs to continue giving to us.

We come to want the health of the soil and water and air; of the animals and plants, of our children and of ourselves. And we are willing and able to persevere in pursuit of it because we know what that health feels like.

Am I saying that everyone should own a cow? No, of course not. But everyone can find some point in relationship to food to cultivate sensory awareness of how he or she is participating in the ongoing life of the earth.

Does having a cow protect our family from making choices that addict us to unsustainable resources? No. We are not immune. But it is my hope that, because of our milking connection—and the pleasure we feel in nurturing it—we will be more apt to notice what we are doing, more likely to be troubled by our own actions, and eventually, more willing and able to make a change that brings those aspects of ongoing life in line with what we are learning matters most.

Also posted on: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-body-knows/201310/the-meaning-milk