Postscript Bedlam Farm: Sunday Photo Essay

Bedlam Bird Bath

Still experimenting with my new-old Nikon, still fooling around with free photo editing. I have a long way to go and the reality is I’ll need to pay someone to teach me. The October Bedlam Farm open house happened on a weekend that could not have been more picturesque and photo-worthy. Revisiting these images, playing with them, posting them here: it helps shore up this Southern girl for what is coming any second now. Fall is a gift.

Horse II

Chloe

Sheep with Dogs

Ninja Fate

Sheep with Fate

Sheep

Red with Doug

Farmies

Red

HCB

Donkey I

Donkey II

Donkeys III

Puppy II

puppy I

Jon and Maria

 

Rituals And Boundaries: Important Life Lessons

Butter Dish III Edit

Yesterday I hollared to Handsome Chef Boyfriend, Hey, don’t put a new stick of butter in the dish ’til I have a chance to polish it—it’s looking a bit gnarly.

You must be feeling better, he said.

It’s true, I was. For the first time in over a week I was feeling somewhat restored after the first full night of sleep I’d had in as long. I have not been this worn down by illness in recent memory. I can power through a head cold as well as the next guy, and have been known to teach ballet with laryngitis on occasion. But this stuff is sinister.

Last week was a blur. My workweek rituals were derailed right out of the starting blocks on Monday with my request to telecommute, the workday spent on the sofa in my jammies, no routine packing of a lunch or gym bag. I felt grateful for a compassionate employer and work-at-home privileges.

But boy, did it ever get so much worse before it got better.

And however unwelcome illness, the derailing of daily rituals is as objectionable, speaking only for myself.

I recently saw a candid piece of video shot on a U.S. Marines base playground. In it a handful of kids are seen swinging and playing, while in the distance can be heard the first few trumpeted notes of evening Colors. Instantly and without provocation, the children stop playing and swinging and stand respectfully at attention. There are no adults seen in the video. The music ends and the kids return to their boisterous play. (Go here if you want to see it.)

It is obviously an important ritual the children have learned to respect. The video felt timely to me,  upended as my own cherished weekly rituals have been and will be a bit longer.

That little video got me thinking of all kinds of rituals, and how they serve humanity.

It also recalled an embarrassing moment in my brief life as a ballet school director. I had a guest artist at the school teaching an open master class, meaning I had advertised the class and made it available to the general public. A couple of my own students were there, but the class was attended mainly by kids from other schools in the area—whose decorum and general deportment were beyond my control. While the instructor was in the classroom getting his notes and music organized ahead of class an unknown teenage girl blew into the classroom and flung her dance bag in a corner, kicked off her street shoes, and shoulted across the room at him: “Hey! I saw you at DEA Nationals!”

Stunned, he looked up and said, “Excuse me?” “Hey, weren’t you a teacher at DEA Nationals?” “Yes,” he said and put his head back down to his notes. “I thought so,” she said without so much as a smidge of shame.

After class I apologized to him and underscored she was not one of my own. He laughed and said, “That girl obviously has NO sense of boundaries.”

Seems nobody ever taught her to stand quietly at attention for evening Colors.

If ever there were a universe fraught with ritual, it is classical ballet. From attire and grooming, to entering and leaving the classroom, there are time-honored rituals observed in classical ballet institutions across the globe. Long hair is swept into a classical bun. Class ends (and sometimes even begins) with the ritual of révérence, a formal display of respect and gratitude to the teacher, the purveyor of the art form, and often from one student to another. In some schools children enter the classroom in a formal way, when they are invited, in an exercise called pas marché. It is a lovely thing to observe, and an excellent way to teach a young child respect for the learning environment. In the professional world, every day begins with the ritual of ballet class; a famous dancer once likened it to brushing your teeth in the morning. It is how you reorganize your body after sleep, said another.

None of it is frivolous. We sweep long hair into a neat classical bun to keep it from interfering with movement, and to show the face and the neckline. Even the act of combing the hair and fastening it to the head is an important ritual that helps ready the mind for the discipline that is about to unfold. The rituals of pas marché and révérence teach the important skills of walking as one would walk on the stage (much more difficult than you might imagine), and of taking a bow in a show of gratitude at the end of a performance. And, of establishing all-important boundaries, from student to student, and student to instructor. And even from performer to spectator.

The professional begins each day with class to organize and prepare mind and body for a busy day of rehearsals. All of it, from the tiniest ballerina wannabe learning to take a tentative curtsey, to the professional warming up in  class, making a careful head-to-toe inventory of potentially bothersome injuries and other concerns for the rest of the day and the workweek—it all matters.

Important rituals reach into every corner of our lives. Nighttime bathing and stories prepare a young mind for sleep. Daily exercise maintains the body and prepares it for the rigors of life. The ritual of holy baptism (and rituals of other faith traditions) nutures spiritual lives collectively and entrusts an entire community with the spiritual stewardship of an individual life.

And what of animals? Rituals exist in the pasture and barnyard as much as they do in our own back yards. Bestselling author Jon Katz documented the braying of his beloved donkey Simon, which happened almost on cue, every single morning—it was Simon’s “call to life,” as Jon said. A ritual through and through.

None of it feels silly to me. With rituals and boundaries come preparedness for life and a sense of peace in a world over which none of us has much control. And daily rituals create an environment ripe for intellectual life and creativity. At least, that seems to be what happens in my life: rituals build a framework that somehow allows me to think and create, and also to handle the curve balls that are thrown my way from time to time.

No gym bag again tomorrow. Butter dish looks great, though, and I’ve spent some time today thinking and writing. How satisfying.

 

 

The Day The Sheep Shearers Came

Sheep Shearing 3

You need not go far in my home state of Vermont to find a farm. Lots of people live and work on them, the rest of us drive past them going to and from. Same thing applies to upstate New York, a stone’s throw away. Writer Jon Katz and his wife, fiber artist Maria Wulf live on a farm there. They have sheep and other animals, but the thing I find most appealing about their sheep in particular is Maria’s use of their wool for her work; she also sells some of it to other artisans.

It was sheep shearing time at Bedlam Farm last weekend.

Sheep Shearing 1

At one point during the nineteenth century sheep outnumbered people in the state of Vermont three to one. (HCB leaned into my ear when Jim-the-Sheep-Shearer said that, and lamented it was too bad they couldn’t be taxed; there are not many of us here in Vermont, which means we can’t put enough into the state coffers for important things like keeping our roads plowed in the winter. If you want to test this theory, drive across the state line after a winter storm and compare.)

Also, Jim-the-Sheep-Shearer said cows have never outnumbered people in Vermont. You’d never know that, judging from our collective waistlines. But not from Jim’s.

Sheep Shearing 7

He is fit as a fiddle, a performance artist through and through (although Jon insisted he never gets the same treatment without a crowd around). Jim and his colleague Liz expertly sheared Jon and Maria’s small flock in a matter of moments and made it look like child’s play. Jim sang and recited poetry while he worked, and at one point even did a little yoga for comic relief. As if any were needed; sheep are so silly.

Sheep Shearing 4

Sheep shearing is athletic and dangerous. I know this to be true after watching Jim and listening to his stories about near misses with private parts. And even here you can see the sheep is all up in his business.

Sheep Shearing 5

From observers came questions about shaving all that wool just before winter: wouldn’t they be too cold? I get that all the time, he said. Turns out sheep don’t actually need their wool anywhere near as much as people do. At least, that is what I understood from his answer. He said before cold weather arrives in earnest the sheep will have had a chance to grow about three inches of new wool.

Sheep Shearing 9

The white sheep go first so that their wool is not “dirtied” by stray fibers from the black sheep when it goes to the mill. Jim told us all kinds of other relevant stuff about sheep, shearing, and shearing equipment, including the shearer’s clothing, which is pocketless for safety reasons (take a look at the photos above and you’ll understand), and the shoes, which are specially made for comfort and pliancy.

Red-the-Border-Collie was invited into the barn enclosure to keep the flock cornered as they waited. I have never really seen Red stop working, at least not in earnest, but it did not take much for him to maintain order. The sheep have a profound respect for him.

Sheep Shearing 6

And lo there were nekkid sheep, who seemed relieved to be out of the barn.

Sheep Shearing 8

Observing someone who clearly loves what he does, and who is an expert: that is a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon.

There was a lot of that going around last weekend on a perfect New England fall Saturday.

Sheep Shearing 2

 

Pruning Away Neurons (And Re-Growing Them)

IMG_20151013_183742

Of his own writing Evelyn Waugh famously quipped, “I put the words down and push them around a bit.” In Freshman Comp 101 you’d identify that literary device as understatement, of course.

Sometimes I worry an entire generation of writers may be losing the penchant for pushing words around a bit.

If I could distill writer Jon Katz’ message to a roomful of engaged writers and writer wannabes last weekend, it would go something like this: publishing is no longer the sole domain of the traditional publishing house—anyone who desires to write and publish can do so without running the gauntlet of the old-style vetting process. And a subset of this idea: the World Wide Web is the primary venue for writing these days, romantic or wistful notions of conventional books notwithstanding.

The very idea of putting down your thoughts on (virtual) paper, clicking “publish,” and then broadcasting them across the world thrills and inspires the imagination. It’s also terrifying: in the last few years social media sharing has become a big part of the publishing equation. Incredible, powerful relationships have been forged in this way. But that platform—social media—also serves as a voice for the deranged, the unstable, and the downright idiotic. Plenty of their work has also been published in the traditional way, but never before has it reached so many so quickly, and so (sometimes) anonymously. It reminds me of hideous billboards dotting an otherwise unspoiled landscape.

Lately I’ve observed what I think you could fairly call a lack of substantive content in many online publications: websites are littered with adverts, banners, and popups that disrupt the reading experience. And once you’ve peeled back all the layers of that onion, you’re often left with little language at all. (It is true of print publications, too.) I wonder what this experience is doing to our collective intellects. If we could compare a PET scan of our modern brains with one of our century-ago brains, would we see something shocking? Some piece of higher functioning anatomy reduced to a peanut?

I have no scientific evidence, but for my own part, I am more likely to pass over a lengthy bit of online prose for something shorter. Tight schedules, distractions, mental and physical fatigue,—especially at the end of a long workday—these could be the culprits. But sometimes I wonder.

Jon sat next to me during our lunch at the workshop. I was a bit whiny, complaining about the difficulty of working on my own writing when I have just spent the last eight hours sitting at a desk and writing professionally. I explained I am a copywriter and editor by day, for a digital marketing company.

Do you enjoy your job, he asked? Yes, I said: I get to earn my keep using the only other marketable skill I possess besides teaching classical ballet, an avocation that is out of reach for the time being.

I’ve had occasion to reflect on my answer to this question in the intervening days, and of course there is much more to it. The expanded answer goes something like this: I am thrilled and delighted to write professionally. The work I have is hard to come by. It is not unlike the work I once produced in grad school: I am assigned a piece of writing, I research it as thoroughly as time permits for that particular assignment, and I synthesize my findings in a document I hope our company’s clients appreciate. I also hope it is interesting reading.

And there is another dimension to my job, Search Engine Optimization. So I am not merely producing an online publication, but one designed—through the strategic placement of keywords—to drive readers to the doorstep of a particular client, versus someone else’s. It is a huge challenge to do this and to do it well: to write something that “reads” genuinely, that various search engine bots will grasp as authoritative and not “spammy.” Depending on the type of content I am asked to produce, I can be on a single piece of writing for a couple of days. There is nothing diminutive about that, nothing abbreviated. And because I always felt comfortable in an academic setting, and because there is most definitely an academic piece to this work, I thoroughly enjoy it. In fact, I am privileged to do it.

So until I find my tempo, to borrow language from my erstwhile career in classical ballet, my own personal writing and publishing probably will suffer indeed, and that is how the cookie bounces, as one of my professors liked to say many years ago.

I wonder how Mr. Waugh would view the writer’s landscape nowadays. One thing is certain: my own writing muscle is actively engaged. Every single day.