The Old South Can’t Solve the New Covid

Recently, both the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama, unlike other colleges who’ve gone online, are dealing with Covid-19 outbreaks. It’s not surprising considering the South had the highest number of Covid infections this summer. Sadly, many southerners can’t afford to go to the doctor or hospital either. Nine of the ten poorest states are in the South. And, if these southerners are looking for federal help to cover their medical expenses, they probably won’t find it in their home state. Of the twelve states still holding out on Medicare expansion, eight of them are in the South. What’s going on Down South anyways?

There’s a lot to love about the South. I know because both my parents were born and raised there in Kentucky and West Virginia. It wasn’t until after they married that they moved north looking for work other than coal mining. I have such deep southern roots my great-grandfather’s name was Stonewall Jackson Lankford, named after the confederate general of Civil War fame. My grandmother was such a hillbilly she chewed tobacco, played the banjo, and regularly exclaimed, “Lord have mercy!”

I’m not sure when or why the South lost ground, economically and in other ways. When my mother went to Beaver High School in Bluefield, West Virginia, one of her older classmates was John Nash, the subject of the movie, A Beautiful Mind. Nash went on to eventually win the Nobel Prize in economics. My dad never graduated from high school, but his school was Big Creek High School. Big Creek was also the alma mater of Homer Hickam, the former NASA engineer who trained the first astronauts, and gained fame as the leader of the “Rocket Boys.” These southerners were not just open to new ideas, they were the ones instigating them.

When I taught history I told my students about the differences between the North and the South before the Civil War. The North was founded by religious separatists like the Puritans who worked hard to build a life in the New World. The South was largely colonized by British nobles seeking to extract tobacco wealth from the land. Georgia actually began as a penal colony. One part of the country industrialized, and the other part was more agrarian and wedded to a medieval economic system based on slavery. This history set the stage for the humiliating defeat the South suffered at the end of the Civil War. Parts of the South still seem in retreat.

I recently gave my mother a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, that wonderful classic by Alabama author, Harper Lee. I didn’t know if mom had read it before, she reads so voraciously, but, she seemed delighted with my gift. This week I visited her again, and asked how she liked the book.

“Oh, I loved it! I read it all in one day! I couldn’t put it down. She (Harper Lee) really got the way things were back then, the way I grew up (in the South),” mom told me.

Of course mom enjoyed this book: history and tradition are important to her. Lots of southern music is about tradition and the old ways: fishing in the creek and driving a beat-up pickup with a dog in the back. There’s nothing wrong with this, except sometimes the answers we need now, for example how to deal with this pandemic, can’t be found in the past. Country music star Eric Church gets this. I listened to a song of his the other day on my car radio:

“…Jails are full, factories empty,

Momma’s crying, young boys dying

Under that red, white, and blue still flying…

Stick that in your Country song…”

 

Image Credit:  Stonewall Jackson         Image Credit:   Eric Church

Reality TV Has the Answers

I am not a voyeur.  Yet, when Covid struck and channel surfing seemed more likely than ocean surfing, I clicked the remote until I came upon a couple of reality TV shows that hooked me.  My 600-Pound Life and Naked and Afraid are both full of lurid, ooh-ah moments designed to keep the TV viewers tuned in.

What can I say?  Last summer at this time I was reading a prize-winning book about brain chemistry, and this summer I’m into fat and naked people.

(Please note I didn’t combine those adjectives:  Six Hundred Pounds, Naked, and Afraid is a TV show still searching for an audience.)

These TV shows may offend more discerning tastes, but I have to say, I’ve learned a few things about human behavior watching them.  For example, people will eat anything, ANYTHING, when they are hungry.  A dieting, obese person will claw through the garbage, past coffee grounds and slimy peach pits, to get to the bag of potato chips they nobly threw away the day before.  Naked people may be afraid of the panther in the jungle, but they’re fearless about eating stinky skunk meat.  I’ve also learned will power is not necessarily won’t power, as in I won’t abandon this challenge.  People will “tap out” of the jungle and put on a pair of underwear if the chiggers get bad enough.  Obese people will go back to fried mayonnaise sandwiches if their only other option is lettuce (I don’t blame them).

A fascinating lesson from these shows has to do with resilience, the very trait needed to get through tough times.  I’ve thought about this lesson a lot lately with our pandemic, job losses, and social unrest.  How can we still be okay when life gets difficult?  How do some people on Naked and Afraid survive 21 days without food, water, or shelter being provided?  How is the 600-pound woman able to withstand a year of only 1200 calories-a-day, or less?  They somehow find the resilience they need to meet their challenge.

From the comfort of my couch I cheer them on, thankful I’m not in their situation—but wait, I AM in their situation.

We all live with some kind of struggle.  It may not be worthy of a reality TV program, but we all have some kind of problem we have to deal with, often on a daily basis.

One thing I try to keep in mind about reality TV is how orchestrated these shows are. There’s a certain amount of character and plot manipulation going on (remember that 1998 movie, The Truman Show?)  Yet, there’s also obvious instances of genuine human suffering on reality TV.  I’ve noticed successful show participants think and act more flexibly.  They demonstrate their resilience by making things better, even in the worst of circumstances. The couple abandoned in the wilds of Indonesia built a cozy hut and figured out how to turn a piece of bamboo into a water filter. The 600-pound man found a way to make his meals more appetizing without the extra calories.  He added colorful chopped vegetables and began experimenting with fresh fruit. They made their hardship less hard.

I thought about reality TV when I visited an old friend of mine who’s suffering from a re-occurrence of her cancer.  I’d been meaning to visit her, to see how she was doing, but couldn’t find a good time.  Finally, one day when I was running errands I stopped by her house.  I felt bad about not calling ahead and hoped, considering her recent bad news, she’d feel like talking with me.  I rang the doorbell and when no one answered, peeked into her back yard.  I’m not sure what I expected to find, but I didn’t anticipate my friend smiling and sitting with her husband in lawn chairs.  They were drinking a glass of wine and looking at the lovely white phlox blooming in her flower bed.  In the background I heard the sweet strains of violin music coming from speakers mounted above the patio.

My friend may only weigh 120 pounds, and she would never think of leaving her home without her clothes on, but she does have something in common with the people on reality TV:  she’s knows how to be resilient in a challenging time.

 

 

Image Credit:  Naked and Afraid    Image Credit:  photo by Diana Hooley

Image Credit:  Resilience

Science Doesn’t Care About Your Feelings

Who was my grandfather?

It was a family mystery I attempted to solve several years ago when I visited ninety-five year old Uncle Clay.  Clay was the only one left alive who could tell me if it was true, that my dad’s adopted father, Charlie Holland, was in fact my true, genetic grandfather.

“Hey girl?” Uncle Clay whipped his head this way and that, trying to use the pigeon-holed vision he had in his one remaining eye to see me.  I sat about two feet in front of him.

“I’m here,” I reached out and touched the loose skin on his bony hand.  “So Grandpa Holland had an affair while he was married to grandma, and then adopted the child from that affair, right?  Nobody knew dad was Grandpa Holland’s real son, but he is isn’t he?”

“Charlie …” Uncle Clay began then stared blankly into space for a moment, “okay…sure, sure.  It’s what you say.”

He might have been mostly deaf and certainly blind, but Clay’s acknowledgement of the truth of this story was good enough for me.  I wanted the riddle solved.  I wanted to believe Charlie Holland, the grandfather I’d known all of my life, was also my real grandfather in every sense of the word.

Ancestry-dot-com had not even entered the scene when I visited Uncle Clay back in 1998.  It would be some time before I, like 26 million other people (according to CNBC), used consumer DNA tests to find information on my heritage.  With a 99.9 accuracy rate, DNA testing is not wishful thinking, it is science and as such, these tests are not swayed by the emotional needs of their customers.   So it was with great disappointment that I eventually discovered I have Scotland and Ireland in me, but no Holland—either the country or the surname.  Uncle Clay had fudged the truth.  Of course, I set him up and lead him to this lie.

I pushed my frail, great-uncle (by adoption) until he told me what I wanted to hear.

After I found out about my ancestry through DNA analysis, I called an old friend of mine who I don’t see very often, just to talk and catch up.  He confessed how disappointed he was with DNA testing too.

“I know I’m a quarter Cree Indian—I don’t care what their test says,” my friend was adamant.

He and I both grew up in the 60’s when claiming Native American ancestry was counter-culture and cool.  Paul Revere and the Raiders sang songs with lyrics like, “Cherokee nation, Cherokee tribe, so proud to live, so proud to die…”  A movie came out in 1971, Billy Jack, starring a handsome lead actor who played a part-Indian, Viet Nam vet with some serious butt-kicking skills.  Obviously, my friend had been taken in by these romanticized images of being a half-breed.

“But your DNA tests show your ancestors were from Europe.  Surely you’re not going to argue with the science?”

But he could argue, and he did. “I’m not too big on science anymore,” he said as easily as disclosing he didn’t like broccoli.

I was dismayed and surprised by this comment.  If he didn’t trust or believe in science anymore, why didn’t he get rid of his cell phone, computer, and car?  Conveniences like these were given to him by science.  My friend had become very religious though.  He told me he preferred to trust his feelings rather than some DNA laboratory.

This summer I thought about that long-ago phone conversation when I read a New York Times op-ed entitled:  “The Religious Right’s Hostility to Science is Crippling our Coronavirus Response.” Some lies are harmless and maybe even make us feel better:  Grandpa Holland is, and always will be, my grandfather.  Other stories we tell ourselves though, can be absolutely deadly.

 

Image Credit:  Grandpa Charlie Holland        Image Credit:  Ancestry Dot Com       Image Credit:  Billy Jack

I’ll Cry Tomorrow…

In the midst of a pandemic I find myself late afternoon channel surfing and old movies always catch my eye.  Today I watched the 1955 biopic, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, about the Broadway star Lillian Roth and her descent into alcoholism.  Roth eventually found her path to sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous.  My husband thought the movie and its formulaic ending dated and archaic, but I was fascinated.  I realized how much attitudes about alcoholism have changed since 1955.

Today, alcoholism is classified as a disease, and a certain segment of alcoholics prefer to manage their addiction as opposed to fully abstain.  Sixty years ago though, alcoholism was viewed as a slippery slope to Hell, a shame-filled tragedy.

Watching I’ll Cry Tomorrow brought to my mind an encounter I had with a friend of a friend, a man who’d been to rehab for alcoholism and met regularly with his AA group.  I saw this man not too long ago at a gathering where the alcohol flowed.  I left the party early and was surprised to run into my friend’s friend in the parking lot.  He was just standing there with his hands in his pockets looking out toward the lowering sun.

“Hey,” I greeted him as I passed by on my way to the car, “That was some party, wasn’t it?”

“Yep,” he nodded, noncommittally.

I stopped and looked back at him.  There was something about the tone of his voice.  I added, “But I’m not a drinker—so it was past time for me to leave.”  I nodded toward the horizon, “Nice sunset though.”

As I drove away I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw my friend’s friend open his car door.

Four years ago when my doctor mentioned the adverse effects of alcohol on aging internal organs, and that it was a known suspect in breast cancer, I decided to quit drinking.  It wasn’t that hard for me, but I did miss having a glass or two of wine when I ate out at restaurants.  I don’t really understand how difficult it is for an alcoholic to give up alcohol.  But I do know a little about being human and having limitations.  Like most people, I’ve had personal situations in my life where acknowledgement and acceptance were the greatest things I could do.

That was probably the most powerful part of I’ll Cry Tomorrow for me.  I choked up when Lillian Roth finally went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to get the help she so desperately needed.   She stood courageously before a group of men wearing boxy 1950’s suits and women in pencil skirts, and said, “My name is Lillian Roth and I’m an alcoholic.”

My husband shook his head when he heard this. “She shouldn’t have to shame herself like that,” he said.

In a way, he was right.  I taught educational psychology at a local university and I warned my students how damaging labels and labeling were.  Still, for adults, confession can be good for the soul.  It can be cathartic: a letting go, in order to begin anew.

In 2015 an Atlantic Monthly article criticized AA and their 12-step program, saying the program had no scientific basis.  The article, “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous” said that other more modern treatments like therapy and drugs worked better. Interestingly, five years later, this past spring of 2020, the Stanford School of Medicine finally remedied the absence of research behind AA.  The Stanford article entitled “Alcoholics Anonymous Most Effective Path to Alcohol Abstinence” stated:

After evaluating 35 studies—involving the work of 145 scientists and the outcomes of 10,080 participants…AA was nearly always found to be more effective than psychotherapy in achieving abstinence.  In addition, most studies showed that AA participation lowered health care costs.”

For the many people that have been helped by AA, this is probably not news.  We are all individuals with our own unique paths.  Sometimes though, the old ways, the solutions used by our grandparents in the 1940’s and 50’s, still have merit.

 

Image credit: I’ll Cry Tomorrow           Image credit: Sober

Remembering an Easter Story During the Coronavirus Plague

When I was a little girl my parents didn’t go to church much, but my grandmother did, and she encouraged me every summer to attend Vacation Bible School (VBS) at the neighborhood church.  It was there that I heard Agnes Gibson, or Sister Gibson as she was called, tell wonderful Bible stories using a teaching tool called Flannel Graph.

The Flannel Graph board was mounted on an easel, and as Sister Gibson recounted the Bible story, she’d press paper cut-out Bible figures on the clingy flannel-covered board. 

This Easter, as we all deal with what feels like the coronavirus plague, I’m remembering Sister Gibson telling our VBS class the Passover story of Moses and Pharaoh.

“What do you think happened next?”  Sister Gibson was a Socratic teacher, always asking questions.

“Whatttt?”  The gap-toothed children in her audience (including me) sat with our mouths opened wide.

Well, she told us, Pharaoh still wouldn’t let the Israelites leave Egypt, even after all the plagues God sent to torment the Egyptian people. Sister Gibson covered her flannel-graph board with cut-out Egyptians, arms over their heads and legs lifted as if running for their lives.

“Will God be able to change Pharaoh’s mind?”

We didn’t know, but God was really angry with Pharaoh.  I suspected God would have to do something even worse to make the Egyptians obey him.

He’d already plagued them with “boils” which sounded a lot like the mumps to me.  Then, he sent a lot of bugs called locusts to eat all the trees and shrubs in their yards.  Sister Gibson carefully placed a paper cut-out of Moses wearing a long bath robe and holding a big cane called a staff on the flannel board.

“God told Moses he was going to have to punish Pharaoh again.  But the Israelites could escape this punishment if they stayed in their homes and marked their door.  The Angel of Death would pass over them and not kill their first-born son.”

At the time I’m sure I considered this a good reason to be born a girl.  I remember thinking how lucky I was to be female because I’d never get drafted and have to go to Viet Nam like my cousin Bobby. Sister Gibson finished telling her story as we children raptly listened.  She pressed a cut-out of a sad Pharaoh, head hanging down, on the flannel board.  In the end, Pharaoh was forced to obey God and let Moses and his people go.

As I sit here writing, I’m thinking of how many parallels there are between the Passover story and our current Covid-19 crisis.  Moses told the Israelites God wanted them to shelter-in-place to avoid the ravages of a new (novel) plague he was sending.

Though God didn’t send us the coronavirus, the message of staying home to be safe certainly resonates.

There are other Bible stories that take on new meaning in the time of Covid 19.  Old Testament Jews had several rituals related to being clean and cleanliness.  Both foot-washing and hand-washing were routinely practiced.  They didn’t wash their hands for 20 seconds through the “Happy Birthday” chorus, but still, good hygiene was a part of their culture and faith.

Maybe the most significant Bible story I heard at my grandmother’s church, and the one that has such an inspiring message for us today, is the Easter story.  As we grimly watch the death toll climb from Covid-19, it feels good to consider the story of how Christ conquered death.  Whether you believe in the resurrection or not, the message of life after death is an undeniably hopeful one.  The greater meaning in this story for me though, is that fear and sorrow eventually pass away.  The Israelites were finally freed from their bondage.  They made it safely out of Egypt, leaving despair behind.  I believe we will too.

 

Image credit: Flannel Graph        Image credit:  Moses and Pharaoh        Image credit:  Shelter-in-Place

 

 

 

 

 

Retreating from Coronavirus

Circle the wagons!  We’re in retreat!  This wagon (me) has been circling and circling my living room the past couple weeks, building tension as I try to wait out this coronavirus. The social isolation has gotten so bad, I’m envious of the cow herd in the pasture. At least they get to hang out together.  As for this human—honey, I’m STILL home.  It’s like I laughingly complained to a friend: I just don’t get out enough.  But retreating doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  I can view it as running from crowds and disease—or see it as moving toward myself and my own inner landscape.

For centuries religious aesthetics retreated into monasteries to meditate and refresh their spirit.  As Easter approaches, I’m remembering the story of Christ, how he retreated into the garden of Gethsemane for just such a purpose.

One time, my husband and I took a trip north, and just for fun, I reserved a room in the guest house at St. Gertrude’s Monastery in Cottonwood, Idaho.

We’re not Catholic, but I thought it might be interesting to spend the night in such a unique setting.  The cathedral was impressive, but it’s the atmosphere at St. Gertrude’s that I remember. The nuns seemed busy, yet I saw several contentedly going their own way, either praying alone in the church sanctuary or wandering the pine-covered hillside above the Cathedral.  No one spoke at breakfast the next morning.  It was a time for contemplation.  When we finally drove away from St. Gertrude’s, I resisted the urge to turn on the car radio. I just didn’t want to interrupt the quiet.

If I look at this retreat from the coronavirus in a positive way, I can see lots of opportunities for learning and growth.

For example, there are many, many, projects I’ve put off doing because they take time and focus. For the past few years though, my inner metabolism seemed permanently set in a buzz mode. I’ve rushed through one experience after another.  I guess I could blame my pace of life on the freedom of retirement.  Retirement’s the time to go and see and do.  But as a former teacher and professor, I know the value of slowing down and paying attention. The big battles I fought in the classroom had to do with keeping my students attention long enough so they could get their assignments done.

This was my nephew’s learning problem.  He was labeled attention deficit and took medication so he could calm down and focus on his school work.  Still, he struggled throughout his schooling, eventually dropping out altogether.  When I got the bad news he was in trouble and going to jail, I was understandably upset.  What could I do?  How could I help him, I wondered?

I considered that maybe, since my nephew would be forcibly confined and without the noise of the outside world to compete for his attention, he might be motivated enough to read a book.  So I sent him some great young adult novels, full of adventure and interesting story lines.

“Aunt Di,” he eventually wrote me, “I love all the books you sent me.  I really like reading now.  It’s awesome!  I started reading Ready Player One (by Ernest Cline) last night, and can’t put it down.  Thank you so much!”

Though my nephew can’t physically go anywhere, with reading he’s now traveling far and wide. It’s a lesson for all of us in this time of retreat.  A full life can be had even sheltering-in-place.  It’s all a matter of perspective.

 

Image credit:  St. Gertrude     Image credit:   Ready Player One

Corona virus, Shopping Sprees, and Misadventures with a Bat

This is a terrible time to have your immune system suppressed.  My husband just had a kidney transplant and is taking medication so he doesn’t reject his new organ.  Then the “corona” virus broke on the scene and scarily, had nothing to do with Dale’s favorite beer, and everything to do with our worst fear.  Coronavirus has not only stole our peace of mind—but emptied the grocery store shelves of toilet paper.

“What’s with people hoarding toilet paper?” my daughter asked me over the phone. She’d called to check up on her dad.

“I’m not sure.  Herd instinct?  No one’s stocking up on toothpaste.”

Recently, I saw a YouTube of an employee at a Costco store awarded a three-minute shopping spree—but toilet paper was not on her list. In three minutes time, the employee and her designated helper managed to grab over $25,000 worth of merchandise, including flat screen TV’s and computers.  She evidently missed the message that T.P. stands for Too Precious and is currently being scalped online for outrageous sums.

In the age of the coronavirus, our big shopping spree likely would be through the pharmaceuticals.  In fact, our survival stockpile should include a three-month supply of Tacrolimus, Carvedilol and other exotic-sounding medications my husband takes daily to keep his immune system from staging a revolt.  With our current pandemic, we’ve been a little concerned about a breakdown in the drug supply chain. On the evening news though, I heard the government had protocols in place for any supply chain disruption.

Maybe my anxiety about the coronavirus partly stems from watching too many apocalyptic movies and reading horror novels.  In the 1980’s I read a horror novel by the King of the genre (first name Stephen) entitled The Stand.  The terrifying beginning of this book had to do with a cold-like virus that ran amok, nearly wiping out civilization.  I’ve thought about The Stand several times watching the rapid spread of this bug.  I have to remind myself this virus is, relatively-speaking, mild, and only fatal to less than 2% of those who contract it.

Actually, I may have been thinking of the wrong horror novel with the coronavirus—but I hesitate to tell my husband this.  Dracula might be a more fitting literary link. According to the Center for Disease Control, bats have been considered a possible source of COVID-19.

“Bats?  I hate those creepy creatures!”  Dale shivered.

Bats may be creepy but they’re actually related to lemurs and other small monkeys. They’re mammals (like us), but I didn’t mention this to my husband. Dale has every right to feel freaked-out over bats. When I first fell in love with him years ago, I was a young woman in college in Virginia, and he was a farmer from Idaho. One night I got a long-distance call from an Idaho hospital and Dale was on the phone.

“Hello?”

“Hey,” he said.  “Just thought I’d call.”  He sounded muffled like he had an entire pack of chewing gum in his mouth.  He told me he was having trouble talking because his face was swollen twice its size.

“What happened?”

“I had a reaction to rabies treatment.  I had this problem with a bat…”

Then, the whole sordid tale came out.  Dale had been living in a little, rustic cabin near his farm, and sleeping in a sleeping bag on the cabin floor.  One morning he woke up, felt something moving in the bag, and leaped out, scratching his leg in the process.  A bat flew out of the bag behind him, and then Dale whacked it with his boot.  The bat, unfortunately, turned out to be rabid.  Even though Dale wasn’t bitten, it was close enough to his scratched leg, he needed a course of rabies vaccines.

Since that time, bats have been the least favored of all of God’s creatures for my husband.  With the coronavirus our current plague, I’m beginning to not like bats much either.

Image credit:  Diana Hooley      Image credit:  The Stand

I’m Going Back to the Plough

 

Before the coronavirus raised its ugly head and scared everyone away from the city, I lived there part-time while I taught at a local university.  Earlier this year though, I boxed and taped my city underwear and moved back to the farm permanently.  According to Allied Van Lines making moves and changing locations is not that unusual.  On average, most people change their address 11 times during a lifetime.  My mother, who’s less a rolling stone and more a streaking comet, moved nine times within a five-year period.  The majority of moves we make are local though, from an apartment to a house in the same town, for example.

But people in my age group, the baby boomers, are the least likely of any demographic to make a big move. 

Generally, older adults have finally paid the mortgage off and are unwilling to take on any new debt, especially house loans.  And if they do change homes, they want to live closer to town, not further away.  They want to be nearer goods and services, and especially medical facilities as they age.

None of those issues mattered to me when I decided to move back full-time to the farm.  I’d become fatigued of sitting in lines of hot cars at traffic lights.  The charm of living among hundreds of interesting and colorful people was spent.  The evening before I moved out of town, I watched Rocketman, a biopic about classic rocker, Elton John.  The next day packing boxes, I found myself singing one of Elton’s songs:  “So goodbye yellow brick road, where the dogs of society howl, you can’t plant me in your penthouse, I’m going back to my plough…”

The farm does have plows, which means work, so country living has not always been my panacea.  For twenty years after marrying a farmer I plied, if not plowed the land.  During that time I often walked field roads dreaming of city streets and city lights.  I’d become a hay seed, but I longed to make hay in the big city.  I couldn’t shake wonderful memories of being a college coed in a big city back east where I grew up.  I loved the city parks with their beautiful fountains of sculptured winged gods spouting water.  Down the boulevard were magnificent museums and large libraries, repositories of learning.

I finally got the chance to leave the farm once my children were raised, and I became a university professor.

I moved into my little part-time apartment in the biggest city around: Boise, Idaho, population 226,570.  It wasn’t the Big Apple but it was a fairly large potato.  When I made that move a farm girlfriend of mine asked me, “What does the city have that the country doesn’t–besides shopping?”

I thought (but didn’t say): you plebeian!  A country girl could never understand the excitement, the energy, of so many people working and thinking and creating, in one big, buzzing place.  Even Michelangelo said, “I have never found salvation in nature.  I love cities above all.”

But I came to discover my plebeian friend had a point.  Though cultural centers too, for most people cities are basically shopping meccas.  In terms of daily living, this is their biggest draw and greatest drawback.  I soon found I had only so much time and money to spend in big box stores buried in concrete canyons.

Another friend, Donna, said, “Won’t you be bored living out on the farm again?”

Maybe.  But I’m beginning to understand the upside of boredom, how it motivates you to engage with all the little things you missed before, like the litter of kittens out by the barn.  Besides, every day’s not meant to be a bell-ringer.  If you can’t stand the lethargy of time, you’ll die young—or at least sooner from rushing about so much.

So, it could be I moved back to the farm to save my life—or savor it.  Really it doesn’t matter.  If I’m honest, it’s how you live, not where you live that matters.

Early this morning, when it was still dark, I opened the door to my back patio.  I heard the river rushing past, and when I looked up, I saw a spray of stars in the sky.  Mornings on the farm are the best.

 

Image Credit: packing boxes        Image Credit:  Rocketman        Image Credit:  old barn photo by Diana Hooley

 

 

The Job of My Dreams

I was offered a job teaching kindergarten two mornings a week in the little village of Hammett, Idaho.  I considered taking the job even though I’ve spent my career teaching older students, adults and teens.  It was a thrill.  It was a challenge.  It was a nightmare.  No, not a nightmare—it was a dream.  My head nestled deep in a pillow, I’d dreamt about the Hammett job offer.  It wasn’t real.  I know some people still dream about their jobs, their careers, long past retirement:  waiting on tables, writing reports in an office, dealing with co-workers.  My farmer-husband woke up one morning this past summer and when I asked him over coffee how he’d slept, he said, “I worked all night.”

“No you didn’t,” I took a sip of my hot coffee.  “You snored all night.”

“That wasn’t a snore.  That was me grunting, trying to keep up with the farm (bailing hay, moving irrigation pipe, fixing the tractor).  There was too much pressure.  I had to wake up just to get some rest.”

Even though leaving our work identities behind after retirement can be both freeing and frightening, our careers, our work leaves marks on our psyche as deep and wide as Big Foot’s tracks on the forest floor.

This is why retirement for many people is such a dramatic sea change. It’s not just changing our behaviors, it’s changing how we think.  In light of such a big transition, some of us choose to hang on to our jobs. I hiked with a friend in the foothills north of Boise, Idaho the other day, and she told me her brother, at 76, plans to keep his career as a communications professor at Portland State University, as long as he can.  Sitting on a restaurant patio last week, I ran into another old friend, Fred, who’s been a practicing mental health therapist for at least thirty years.  Fred told me he’d probably work until the day he dies.  And like the great therapist he is, Fred didn’t want to talk about himself, he wanted to talk about me.

“So Diana,” he said, “I hear you’re doing a lot of writing these days…”

My husband and I have another friend, Bob, who has a decidedly different take on retirement.  Bob said, “It takes guts to retire.”  He went on to talk about the courage it took for him to sit with feelings of boredom and aimlessness—a perspective I found interesting.  Some people say they’re busier than ever in retirement.

Still, Bob had a point.  Retirement is often a process:  binge-watching Netflix shows until you feel ready to move on to something else.

Ironically now, I remember what a drag having a job was when I was a teenager in the 60’s and 70’s.  Maynard G. Krebs, the deadbeat beatnik on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis show expressed the sentiment of me and my peers on the topic of work.  Whenever Maynard heard the word, “work,” he repeated it with a shout, like he had Tourettes and work was a dirty word.  Then there’s the Civil War era poet, Walt Whitman, for whom having a job was—a distraction.  Whitman’s family lamented his “laziness,” but Whitman didn’t want regular employment with its “usual rewards.”  He preferred instead, to wander the beaches of Long Island and create great masterpieces of poetry like his collection, Leaves of Grass.

For many years, my job meant a lot to me.  I liked the routine, the money, and the title: Dr. Hooley. 

But when I retired, the veneer of self-importance fell away, and I was left with just me.  Not the professor, or coach, or director, or committee member.  Just me.  And for most of us, that’s not such a bad thing.  Retirement means we finally have the time to consider what we want to do, instead of what we have to do.  And honestly, being a kindergarten teacher in Hammett, Idaho was never high on my list.

 

 

Image Credit:  Hammett sign    Image Credit: The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis        Image Credit:  Walt Whitman

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Harsh Reality of Life on the Farm

Life gets real on the farm—meaning sometimes cruel.  Those of us who live more urbanely, shopping for hermetically sealed dairy, meat, and produce in the supermarket can easily forget this fact.  But your grandparents or great-grandparents, and if not them, your pioneer forebears knew all about the farm’s morbid facts of life.

Having lived on a farm myself for nearly a lifetime, I’ve been largely desensitized to the prey-predator drama enacted on many farms every day.  For example, I often tap the fence around our livestock pen with a stick when I walk by to roust Shirley, our pig.  She’s a curious creature, always ready to shove her wet snout through the fence slats to get a sniff of my pants.  I smile until I remember Shirley, at nearly 300 pounds, is almost butcher weight.  Honestly, if I thought about this much, I would turn vegan—or Muslim—but sadly, one of these options in America today might predispose me to being the one butchered (at least metaphorically-speaking).

This past summer I watched a charming movie, The Biggest Little Farm, about a city couple, a husband and wife from Los Angeles, who loved animals and wanted to try their hand at sustainable farming in California’s Central Valley.  It’s always fun to watch city people “do” farm life.  I think of that silly early 2000’s reality show, The Simple Life, about a spoiled heiress, Paris Hilton, and her manicured best friend, Nicole Ritchie, slogging through cow dung in waders.

But John and Molly of The Biggest Little Farm were much more serious about going “full hayseed.”  They wanted to be a model, an example, that food, both plants and animals, could be produced in humane and sustainable ways. 

Pesticides, chemicals, and fertilizers were a no-go.  They wanted to prove that a bio-diverse environment, with a variety of plants, animals, and other creatures, would find a rhythm and harmony that was not only natural, but profitable.  I was cheering for them every step of the way in my movie theater seat.  If they could do it, maybe bigger farms like the one my husband and I operate, could too.

To their credit, John and Molly created a relatively honest film.  Which means—the way they controlled pests like aphids, snails, gophers, and coyotes—was by letting nature take its course.  It other words, allowing animals to eat each other, i.e. prey-predator cycle.  Of course, there was savagery in this, and not all of it was planned.

Oopsies happened, like when the coyotes broke through the fence and ripped the throats of baby lambs.  One of the trusted guard dogs even ravaged the beloved pet rooster, Greasy, Greasy’s entrails scattered across the barn yard.

As animal-lovers themselves, the way life and death played out on the farm became an unavoidable nightmare for John and Molly.  Yet, they were determined.  They acclimated.  They watched stoically as the sweet, little piglets they helped birth, were hauled off to sale and slaughter.

By the end of the movie the before/after pictures of John and Molly’s farm were not quite as dramatic as a 600-pound woman post stomach stapling surgery, but it was impressive. Where once the southern California dust skittered over alkaline patches, fruit trees bloomed and herds of sheep roamed through grass meadows.  John and Molly though, looked older, more haggard, and less enthusiastic.

It took seven years to realize their sustainable farm—and it came at a cost.  The price appeared to be their idealism.

And did they make a profit?  That was less clear.  Something my businessman-husband picked up on immediately.  For despite the Garden of Eden John and Molly had managed to nurture in the California desert, my husband’s one comment at the film’s end was:  “I want to see their spreadsheet.”

 

Image credits:  The Biggest Little Farm        Image credit:  The Simple Life        Image credit:   Diana Hooley, Hooley’s commercial, desert farm