Archive for the ‘goats’ category

Peace of the Sunday Morning Stable

March 23, 2009

I spent the weekend at my parents’ home, the place I grew up in. They were out of town, visiting a brother of mine.

Life this time of year can be stressful for everyone, because it seems that everything is due “right now”–taxes, forms, insurance payments, reports, results.

Lately, I’ve gotten so caught up in all the tasks I think I have to do that I’ve let the time for quietness get pushed dangerously low. This, I think to myself, will help me get more done, and then I’ll feel better.

But it only makes me feel more frantic, and then I get less done, and feel worse!

On Sunday morning, I did chores by myself. My younger sister was at home, too–she’s still in high school, but she’s an accomplished horsewoman, and the mantle of caregiver has been passed from me to her.

I grew up among goats–milking, delivering babies, bringing in hay, walking pastures. Someday, I tell myself, I may return to it, because it is a life of hard work, but it is also one of intense peacefulness, deep connection to the land and the animals. There is no escaping the spirituality of seeing a creature born, or of standing beside one as it breathes its last. Among the goats, beneath the open sky, you can’t hide from what’s in your heart and mind.

There was no milking to be done this weekend, and there were three horses where there had once been only one. There were two newish barn cats, Pickles and Pepperoni, who had arrived feral and were now all too anxious to twine themselves between your legs as you walked, demanding to be picked up and petted.

It’s amazing: If an animal knows it is wanted, loved, and cared for, fear gradually subsides and is replaced by an abiding trust.

I saw this firsthand with my dogs, Kiefer and Ecko, who each came to me a bit mistrustful of people, but who are both totally devoted to me. Kiefer, at 15, doesn’t follow me around everywhere anymore. His hearing is failing, so he won’t respond if I just call him. But when he wants me, he wants to be right close by, where he can smell me and feel my presence.

As for Ecko, he’s the follower now, the watcher. Wherever I am, he wants to be, especially if the surroundings are out of the ordinary. And he knows my emotional weather better than anyone. He won’t let me get away with leaving things in my heart unexamined. He’ll lean his head against me, then his whole body, and he’ll demand that I first pay attention to him, and then sort out my own internal ambiguities.

Anyway, there was deep healing and comfort for me in the barn yesterday morning. The goats bleated to me and stood up with their front legs on the fence rail, craning their necks to be petted, nuzzling me for kisses, even though I’d just filled their manger.

The horses whinnied to me and kicked up their heels on the way out to pasture–luckily, I was behind a stall door, well away from their friskiness.

The cats meowed at me until I fed them, ate their fill, and came and meowed some more, just to let me know they were still there.

I stayed out there until my hands were good and frosty and I was certain I’d begin to make the people in the house wonder if I’d gotten into trouble. On my way out, I made sure to pet every four-legged creature and thank them for their attention.

It’s Monday morning, and I can think of a long list of things I really have to do–taxes, bills, reports. None of it thrills me, but all of it is necessary.

But just for a bit longer, I’ll stay here, quiet and still, and savor the peace of the Sunday morning stable.

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Six Steps to Optimism: Day 6

October 4, 2008

“There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality: and then there are those who turn one into the other.”—Douglas Everett

Optimism and living one’s dream is like planting tiger lilies in your garden. Once they take hold, they grow and spread, and pretty soon, the whole place is filled with the brilliance of their blossoms.

When you make the choice to be an optimist, and then follow that with a series of actions that will further your dream, opening yourself to the experiences and wisdom of others so that they become captivated and energized by your enthusiasm and begin to put their strength behind you, and when you consistently take the opportunities that come to you, optimism will become an integral part of you. Even in moments of doubt, indecision or hesitation, it won’t be suppressed.

Take a minute and think about someone you have known who always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Perhaps she was a colleague in business whose passion for her work was infectious, and no matter who she was working with or what project she was assigned, she got bigger and better results than anyone could imagine.

Or maybe it was a doctor who spent years pursuing research that everyone else passed over because it was too tedious, too unglamorous, or just too damn hard. Yet he persevered and ended up discovering a breakthrough that no one expected.

It could be the kid next door who was terrible at every sport. Everyone made fun of him, and he always got picked last for teams at school. Yet he kept practicing, kept trying, kept asking coaches how he could improve and then went back and actually tried to put their suggestions into practice. He might never have gotten onto a pro team, competed beyond his small town, but he became a coach and led another group of kids just as unlikely and unassuming as him to victory.

Over the years, all these people probably heard, countless times, “Why don’t you just give up?” They were told, “That’s foolish, you’ll never make it.” People whispered about what a waste of time and talent these people’s lives were.

Still, every one of them heard those words and chose to ignore them. They followed their hearts and were rewarded by seeing their dreams materialize into their reality.

Living a dream isn’t walking through life in La-La Land, completely oblivious to anything outside yourself. Living a dream also isn’t fighting so fiercely for chances and then guarding them so jealously that you jeopardize other people’s dreams just to get yours.

There are enough dreams in the universe for every one of us. The universe is limitless in its abundance. So while we’re striving for our own personal crown, we can take moments along the way to help another person get theirs, too.

Dreams unfold and fill our lives. Just as some people see tiger lilies as a nuisance or an undesirable weed, plenty of folks will just shake their heads in befuddlement when you tell them what your dream is.

A few years ago, I had a thriving goat herd. I was passionate about it, and I was good at taking care of it. I loved trying to make each generation better, stronger, more beautiful, more productive than the last.

At the same time, I had a very busy and successful piano teaching studio and was beginning to do a lot more traveling for performances.

When I was away at concerts, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. And when I was surrounded by the goats, I could think of no better thing to be doing.

But while I was able to reach a certain level of excellence in both areas, I had to choose between them. Goats need care every day. There are no vacations, no paid leave, no sabbaticals, no sick days. And the piano demanded time every day, and not always at home.

I loved my goats, and I still love goats. But I chose to follow the path the piano was leading me on, and for that, the goats could not go with me.

It took me months of internal struggle to reach my decision, and the first day I actually spoke it aloud, I cried. My heart felt as if it was being broken beyond repair. I had nurtured countless does and their kids from birth to their last days on earth, and wen the world seemed too crazy or confusing, the pasture and the barn was always a place of peace and reassurance. I could curl up in the hay and feel the warmth of whichever doe was herd queen at that moment, or I could channel anger and frustration into the hard, clarifying rhythm of stacking hay or cleaning stalls. Even the bucks accepted me with respect and without judgment, whether they were well-mannered about it or not. And for pure nurturing and expression of unconditional love, there is no replacement for carrying a newborn kid around nestled in my arms, or under my jacket if the day was cold, and feeling it nibble my chinn or nuzzle against my cheek with the milky velvet of its nose, feeling the fast, strong beating of its heart beneath my hands.

I still spend blissful moments among the goats at my mother’s farm, savoring the chances to milk or play with new babies or hear them bleat to one another from across the pasture.

But once the choice was made, the actions followed. Things began falling into place and carrying me toward much higher achievement at the keyboard. Now, aside from my old dog, there isn’t a whole bunch of critters who need me to feed them or, when I have to be away, find someone else who will.

I said that I wanted to be doing something musical every day of my life. I am living that dream now. There is no telling where my reality ends and my dream begins because they are one and the same.

My goats were invaluable companions on my journey. I learned countless lessons from them about compassion, integrity, perseverance, and any number of other attributes. I learned what unconditional love was so that, when I encountered it in another human being, I would recognize and appreciate it.

At some point, each person has the potential to have a life so filled with their dream that, to them, reality is not in a different sphere. There are many forks in the road to this dream, and each one can raise painful choices.

As I have often said, we make the best decisions we can with the information we have and the tools we possess in each moment. Hindsight has a way of making many people second-guess themselves or regret what they’ve done. But we have no way of knowing that, with a different choice, we would have unlocked a different outcome. People often get stuck in hard or unpleasant situations and react emotionally by saying, “I should have chosen differently—then I’d be happy”. Or they blame others, when in fact, we are the only ones who can choose or act for ourselves, and the consequences of our choices and actions must be completely owned by us.

Once the choice is made, the action begins, and the dream takes flight.

What choices have you been faced with in pursuit of your own dream? Looking back, how did the decisions you made shape the journey you experienced?

The Universe Holds Its Breath

September 9, 2008

For many people, dreams are what go on behind closed eyes while we’re sleeping, forgotten when we’ve awakened and gotten back to the real business of daily life. That’s one interpretation, and a valid one, backed up by the ever-evolving science of brain imaging.

But there’s another meaning to dreams. They are the stuff that we spend our lives pursuing, wide awake, devoting moments stolen here and there, or days, or even decades to achieving, depending on our choices. Call it destiny, or God’s Plan, or your “chosen path” if you like, but every person has it buried within him or herself, waiting to be unlocked.

Yesterday, I read Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”. I’d bought the book in Braille months ago, and I set it aside, waiting for the “perfect time” to read it.

Earlier in the year, my 16-year-old sister said she was reading it.

“Oh, I’ve got that book,” I said, excited. “How is it?”

“Pretty good,” she said, which is high praise coming from a teenager. I made a mental note to check it out, and sooner rather than later.

I kept my word, dipping into the first paragraph and skimming some of the blurbs on the jacket.

As blurbs go, this book is loaded. I’m not easily swayed by blurbs, but when you start seeing them from all over the world, and the words “life-changing,” “profound,” and “timeless” are being thrown around, I’m not sure whether to plunge in with even higher hopes or congratulate someone on really savvy marketing.

I grew up on a farm, raising goats. I had eleven brothers and sisters, and, by my own choices, I was always taking care of some two- or four-legged kid or other. I had a passion for goats, and a lot of what I learned about life I got in the barn. So, when a book starts with: “The boy’s name was Santiago. Dusk was falling as the boy arrived with his herd at an abandoned church.” … well, I’m in!

But, I didn’t do any more than dip into that first paragraph after my sister and I talked about the book. Sensing a good thing, I said to myself, “Oooh, I’ll save this for later,” kind of like a really good piece of chocolate you want to savor when the moment is just right, to treat yourself to something special.

Over the past year and a half, I’ve been hit with some profound lessons of the heart, all revolving around love, compassion, and how we express those things not only to ourselves but also to those who choose to walk beside us on life’s journey. I’ve lost people so dear to me that sometimes, going through a day without hearing them speak is my greatest challenge, and my heart aches because I don’t have the convenience and ease of their physical presence to reassure me and must hold on, by faith, to the knowledge that, now that they have slipped the bonds of this physical existence, they are without limitations and can be with everyone who held them dear, all the time, no matter how many of us there are or how far we’re scattered across the earth.

But I’ve gained friends whose love is more profound than anything I’ve ever experienced before. Any sooner, and I would not have been ready to receive it or understand what to do with it. Any later, perhaps, and my heart would have taken longer to open to it and blossom under its nurturing.

Anyway, yesterday, I picked up the book. When my grandmother was alive and I was a small girl, she read to me out loud often. It became something we treasured, and when she could no longer read for herself, we switched places and I’d bring my Braille book and read to her.

It was in these times that I began to learn just how powerful the spoken word can be, especially as an agent of comfort and sustenance. Even if you can’t be with someone physically, the sound of your voice can often provide the tangible thing that they take hold of and use to begin pulling themselves toward light and renewal.

It’s also just plain fun sharing good books with other people. So, I began reading “The Alchemist” on cassette so I could give it to one of my friends as a Christmas gift.

One other benefit of reading aloud: It forces you to pay attention. You don’t want to be stumbling over words or reading in a monotone that puts your listener to sleep. At the same time, at least for me, as a person who is always thirsty for new knowledge, I wasn’t about to read the book first to myself, then read it again onto tape. Once was enough.

At least that’s what I was thinking when I started reading yesterday morning. But by late evening, with the turn of the final page, I knew I was not only going to be revisiting this book more than once, but I was going to be passing it on to the people I knew might also be able to understand its message.

That message is deceptively simple, and as a consequence, either misunderstood or not even known by a majority of people. The message is this: Everyone has their own purpose or dream in life, which comes from the heart, that is a direct link to the soul of the universe (or God, if you like). We are put here to achieve this dream, and every day of our lives, we are presented with choices which can lead us further along the path to fulfilling it. When we are on this path, the whole universe conspires to help us reach our dream because that dream is in accord with the soul of the universe. Even though we will be tested along the way, the tests are simply lessons that strengthen us and prepare us for the moment when the dream is within our grasp. If we pay attention to our heart and to the signs laid out before us in our lives that point us on the way, then we can not fail.

It’s a good thing we don’t spend every day constantly receiving such profound wisdom, and we don’t put such huge significance on every single choice we make. If we did, our minds would explode and we would never get anywhere because we’d feel the impending weight of the consequence of choosing Cheerios instead of cornflakes for breakfast. But we do receive insights, flashes of intuition, and these provide the impetus for us to progress on our road to discovery.

I didn’t sleep much last night because I was relearning many of these truths for myself, and also because I was keenly aware of how, throughout my life, I have gradually been taught how to read the signs, not only for my own dream, but for the dreams of others.

For instance, how is it that a girl who grew up among the goats has gone on to make music that has reached across the world and, one by one, touched the hearts and souls of people whose language I don’t even speak?

How is it that a young woman in Indonesia, who dreamed of becoming a piano teacher, happened to find me on the Internet and, over the course of five years, learned enough and persevered enough so that she is now a full-time music student?

How is it that a man who had spent his days trying to solve the computer problems of countless angry people left his job, went back to school, and achieved the desire he’d had since he was ten, namely, to become a healer?

And how do you explain to a woman, young or old, that, when they get on a bus in Minnesota, they will meet another person who will teach her some of the most profound lessons about life, love, honor and the pursuit of an art?

I used to think that love was something that bound people together. It does, but not in the way I’d imagined. True love sees the dream within each person and doesn’t hold them back.

True love sees more value in a person’s freedom to pursue and achieve their own dream, no matter where the pursuit leads, or what shape achievement and fulfillment take.

True love recognizes that, while physical proximity and the certainty of days going on, one after another, in their usual, unchanging way can be comforting, change is inevitable when we are striving to grow beyond who we are in each moment.

Many people will tell you that dreaming is a waste of time, the province of lazy people, fools and children. They’ll tell you it’s not productive, that being happy doing exactly what you are designed to be doing is so rare that you may as well give up and just get a real job, be responsible, and most of all, quit talking about fanciful ideas that go nowhere.

People will tell you that, if you dedicate your life to your dream, you’re obsessive, anti-social, selfish, wasting your talent.

We’ve been so conditioned by generations of this kind of thinking that, now, it’s rare to find people who can even hear what their hearts are telling them, and rarer still to find those who act on what they’ve heard.

When I was reading yesterday, I was forcefully reminded that, at least in my opinion, all the really great stories seem to start among the sheep and the goats. When God was looking for a king for Israel, He found him in Jesse’s youngest son, a small boy named David who spent his days playing his harp for sheep. David went on to compose some of the world’s most enduring poetry in the Psalms.

When angels wanted to announce the birth of Christ, they went first to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in the middle of the night.

When a girl named Clara learned to walk despite what everyone else believed was impossible, she did it high in the mountains, surrounded by true friends and a few goats.

Santiago’s story, though the details are different, carries that same message, and I, too, hold it within my own heart.

The word “conspire” comes from roots that make its literal meaning “breathing together”. It’s a word that’s accumulated a lot of negative overtones, what with crazy conspiracy theories and such.

But last night, while I can’t remember any specific details of my own dreams, I do remember a few clear sensations. So many people, when presented with true love and the freedom it allows, are still paralyzed by fear, and they choose not to take another step. They think, “I’m too old,” or “I’m too busy,” or “I’m too tired,” or “No one will understand”.

True enough. Many people won’t understand, and this lack of understanding, especially when it comes from family, friends, or anyone else we love and value, is painful.

But the other thing that was clear last night was that, at this moment, for me and for anyone else who has heard their heart and chosen to follow their dream, the universe is holding its breath, waiting to see what we will do next and, based on our action, will respond with all the love that is at its core.

My dream is to be a great pianist and a great composer. Music is one of those truly universal languages, and whether I’m working on a piece for someone I know personally or someone across the ocean who doesn’t understand a single word of English, I know that, because I have learned to hear what the universe has to say to us, the music will be right, no matter how it sounds.

Whether I am standing up playing an electronic keyboard for a church service, or painstakingly learning notes for a technical exercise on my piano at home, or playing the music of a man who lived hundreds of years ago in front of a recital hall filled with people, I am also doing exactly what I was made to be doing.

So why am I sitting here now, using a totally different kind of keyboard, when I “should” be practicing?

Because the universe conspires. Just because you have a dream doesn’t mean that you won’t take side trips along the way. In Coelho’s book, Santiago the shepherd boy turns out to be quite an adept salesman of crystal. He didn’t throw away the chance to sell glassware because it wasn’t exactly his dream. In fact, it became part of the path, a stepping-stone that allowed him to gain invaluable knowledge and experience that he used later on his quest.

For whatever reason, I’ve been given a gift for words. I enjoy reading them, writing them, and many times, people enjoy reading the ones I’ve written. So, while it may appear, on the surface, that this blog has nothing to do with my dream, it does. The universe conspires … it holds its breath … what will I do next?

Adventures of Harley the Cat

August 28, 2008

About fifteen years ago, my family adopted a cat. Actually, my Mom adopted her, and, since what she said almost always became law in our house, none of us could do anything except tease her about becoming an old cat woman. The cat was maybe a year and a half old, calico, and had extra toes. She also had the misfortune of possessing a naturally very round belly, so her previous owners threw her out their car window thinking she was pregnant.

The night the cat came home from the shelter, I took my 4-H club to a children’s concert by singer and storyteller Bill Harley. Later, when it came time to name the new cat, there were so many votes for “Harley” that Mom finally gave in.

So, Harley started her days on our dairy goat farm living in a crate, wearing an Elizabethan collar so she wouldn’t take the stitches out of her incision from being spayed. She lived in the same barn as all our baby goats, and she was very shy. You couldn’t pick her up, and we all were read the riot act about leaving the barn doors closed so she wouldn’t escape. Farms are tough places: You either survive, or you don’t. But my mother was going to give this cat as many chances as she could.

When the stiches were healed, she started leaving Harley’s crate door open. Harley took a liking to the baby goats and would curl up with them, or just sit on a fence rail and watch them. We kids had a theory that Harley actually liked the heat lamp hanging over the newborns to keep them warm rather than the kids themselves, but …

One day, I went down to feed the kids their morning milk. I was bent over, a bottle in each hand and a third held between my knees to feed our newest set of triplets. Suddenly, I had something with claws and velvety fur on my head, yowling and hissing like a banshee. I screamed. Bottles dropped and spilled milk everywhere. The baby goats bleated in protest at an interrupted breakfast, and I stood up fast, expecting the worst, but only bonked my head on the heat lamp in my hurry.

It was Harley, and, in the fuss, she had leaped onto the nearest fence rail. Now, all I could do was laugh. We had a guard cat!

She took her guarding seriously from then on, although she soon learned I was the “Source of Warm Milk” and gave up her head-crashing tricks on me. That didn’t mean she spared others, though.

As Harley grew, we all fell in love with her. She soon figured out that I wasn’t quite like the other children. I didn’t always succeed in catching her when I wanted to, where the other kids always did. She must have also noticed that I never looked at her eye to eye.

When spring came and her babies graduated to the big barn, which was further from the house, she took to meeting me at our back gate every chore time and going ahead of me on the path, meowing and making soft trilling sounds in the back of her throat. If I didn’t come fast enough, she’d throw herself on the ground and roll around, making rustling noises in the grass or dry leaves until I almost stepped on her. Then, she’d scamper a little further down the path and do the whole routine again, leading me to the barn and her baby goats.

One night that summer, we had a huge windstorm. It blew so hard that a hundred-year-old grandstand at our local fairgrounds was blown down, then caught fire and was completely destroyed.

That night, we all ran all over the farm, closing up barns and securing some old cars in preparation.

In the morning, all was well. No trees had come down and we still had power. But Harley was nowhere to be found. She wasn’t there to greet me for morning chores, or for evening chores, or for any of my trips to the barn the whole next week.

After the second week without her, we all resigned ourselves to the fact that, as many barn cats do, she had gone off somewhere away from us and died.

Three days after that, I was cleaning stalls. The walk to empty wheelbarrows led me past lots of bushes and an old Volkswagen van that my Dad had closed up tight for the storm.

As I walked by, I heard something that sounded like “Meow”. I stopped. It was too soft to be a catbird.

“Kitty, kitty, kitty?” I called out.

“Meow,” came the reply. I thought I recognized the voice.

“Harley, is that you?” I could hardly breathe, and tears pricked the backs of my eyes.

“Meow! Meow! Meow!” She must have recognized my voice, too. I ran to the house.

“Mom, Mom, come quick! It’s Harley!”

She came, and we found her in the Volkswagen, very thin and dehydrated, but overjoyed to see us.

On a farm, you either survive or you don’t. Well, Harley had survived for seventeen days, licking water out of little cracks and crevices in the van, perhaps catching a mouse or two. Whatever any of us had initially thought about Mom going to the cats, we were all in love with the calico with extra toes now.

The winter after her ordeal in the Volkswagen, I got my second guide dog, Kiefer, and he began making all the trips with me to do chores. Harley didn’t take kindly to an intruder in her realm, least of all a DOG! If I was feeding baby goats in one of the front barns, which has a Dutch door, I’d have Kiefer sit and wait for me (he wasn’t very good at holding bottles). Harley would walk back and forth across the top of the door, easily in his view but just out of reach, daring him to chase her, teasing him mercilessly.

Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth she’d go, flicking her tail slowly. He never moved, but she was stubborn. For weeks she tried to tempt him.

He never gave in. Instead, he learned to find gates, show me where pails were in pastures so I could bring them in for washing, and even learned to keep groups of goats together when we went for walks in the field behind our house. What he never learned to do was chase Harley. She sulked for awhile and wouldn’t go to the barn until I was already out there milking. But when she realized that the dog wasn’t going away, she resumed her daily greetings, as well as her version of guiding a blind person.

She may have never had kittens herself, but her maternal instinct was strong. When Mom brought home a “house cat” from another shelter, Harley made daily deliveries of a freshly dispatched mouse, probably figuring the poor thing couldn’t do anything for herself, trapped as she was behind our big glass door.

The following year, when my Mom brought home two barn kittens, the yowling and tree-scaling and hissing that accompanied their forays into Harley’s domain were titanic. She made sure all the other cats knew who was queen. After that lesson was thoroughly learned (with occasional updates and reminders), she taught them to be formidable hunters in their own right. Now, there is a “guard cat” in all three of our barns, and one of the kittens even learned Harley’s grass-rustling and trilling tricks for escorting me to the back sheds where our male goats are kept.

Harley lived at least another seven years after that, and by the end of her life, she was almost completely deaf and toothless. But if you caught her on a spring day when she was feeling good, you could still follow her, meowing and trilling, rolling in the grass along the path to the barn and whatever crop of baby goats she was watching over at the moment.