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Saturday, January 25, 2014

From one farmwife to another: get writing, already.

Occasionally I get emails from other farmwives around the world. Many of these farmwives were not ‘to the manner born’ but rather married into the farm scene, like I did. Sometimes the messages are hand written on notepaper, folded into envelopes, stamped and mailed to me, a reminder of a time when things were a little slower, and simpler. One of those letters was sent from a seniors’ home. The letter writer said my column reminded her of her early days as a new farmwife: learning to deal with the birth and death of farm animals; that feeling of being exhausted but satisfied after a hard days’ work in the garden or the stable; knowing that your efforts meant something.
Recently another farmwife contacted me after stumbling upon my blog. Killarney Sheffield is enjoying life as a writing farmwife too. Here is an excerpt from her note:

“The life of a farmer’s wife can be pretty tough, always satisfying and rewarding, but I needed more. I always had my showing and horse training career, but found it difficult to work around my role on the farm and five pregnancies, toddlers, diapers and naptimes. I always had an interest in writing and one day I pulled out a pad of paper and penned my first historical romance. Then I penned a second and a third. What did I do with them? Nothing. Yup, nothing. I mean I was just a lil’ ol’ farmers wife with no formal writing training. Who was going to want my books? I fell into a little occasional freelance journalism for a local newspaper. That was fun, but it was often hard to run out and cover a local news story between the kids and the farm. As luck would have it my editor mentioned in passing that he loved my writing and I should consider writing and publishing a novel sometime. Well, that was the kick in the pants I needed to get some courage and submit my novel to a couple small Canadian presses. Imagine my surprise to find they loved it and wanted to publish me! A couple years and seven books later saw me make the leap to a large American press and acquire several awards. Marketing and public appearances are still tough, but now I have this little corner of the world to call my own.

Killarney’s letter came at the perfect time, because I have been trying to find the motivation to get back to work on my own book. It certainly is hard to find the time to write when you live on a farm, host International students and your day job has you up between 4 and 5am. But I think my biggest problem is that I want to know what the book will look like before I begin. I have ten years of columns now, so no shortage of material. But as three of those years were columns about culture shock in Asia, before I became a farmwife, there is a real divide there and I’m not sure how to make it flow into a book.
So there you go. For the people who keep asking, “how’s the book coming along?” It’s not that I’m a perfectionist. I’m far from it. I’m just trying to find the book among all those stories in my brain. I’ve got most of them on a usb stick and I keep shuffling them around like a deck of cards or a bouquet of flowers – trying to arrange them into something interesting, and moving.
I believe we all have stories within is. But for some of us, those stories are constantly trying to get out. We don’t feel settled until we get them out and down on paper – or the computer screen. I find this weekly column very therapeutic. It keeps me sane. And one day, hopefully soon, I will take this 100,000 word raw manuscript that I’ve compiled and find the book hiding inside.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Kickin' butts and takin' names at the bovine hotel.

The barn has been altered once again to meet the needs of the ever-growing cattle family – this time by the Farmer and not the cows themselves. Before Christmas the cows busted into the birthing area and knocked down all the pen walls with their big butts.
The Farmer brought in new feeders and reinforced the pen walls in time for the first birth. Julie went first, then Ginger, then Mocha. By the time Betty went into labour we had to admit adapting the sheep pens to accommodate a mama cow and her calf was not ideal. We had to keep throwing old, dry hay down to sop up the mucky mess they were standing in. On a mild day, we turned them all back outside.
Then that polar vortex blew into town and Q-tip decided to give birth. Really bad timing. She gave birth just after our last check of the night, outside. We didn’t realize she was ready to birth, so we didn’t put her inside. As a result, her baby froze. The next day she stood outside the door where the Farmer had taken her dead calf, and she bawled. Then she went back to the spot where she had given birth, and just stared at the ground. It took a few days for her to stop looking for her calf. The cows had access to the barn for shelter, but it wasn’t enough.  We knew we had to do something to convert the barn so that the cows could come in and be warm.
The Farmer and the boys set to work securing metal gates across the middle of the barn, dividing it in half. With just eleven remaining sheep, a horse and donkey, they don’t need much room. Just a shelter from the windy, wet weather and access to water.
The cows got the other half of the barn, plus access to the inner room that is toasty, dry and warm in comparison. They could come and go, in and out as they please.
At first there was a bit of a power struggle. Julie would stand guard at the doorway to the inner room, tossing new calves aside with her big head. She wouldn’t let them in to the best room in the hotel. Then Betty realized she could crane her neck over to the stacked bales of hay and pull one down like a buffet. What a mess she made. I’m just glad she didn’t pull the huge bale down onto a calf.
I yelled at Julie and she looked startled and then ashamed. I swear she understood. We are very gentle with our animals – we have given them a smack on the butt to get them moving at times but they are never treated unkindly. Julie has become very tame, like her mother Mocha. I pushed the other mothers’ calves into the warm room with Julie and watched as one by one she sniffed them, then snorted and walked away. They do eventually work things out among themselves.
With eleven cows , one bull and four new calves, it’s time to start thinking about naming the rest of our herd. For some reason I didn’t get around to it last year. We don’t name the males, because they will be sold by the end of their first year anyway. But naming the females just makes it easier for us to keep track of them. We bought Ginger and Big Betty at auction, and I named them (although the Farmer insists on using the prefix “Ugly”). Anastasia named Mocha. Julie was born on the 1st of July. Q-tip looks like her tail has a cotton tip. Then we have two white-faced black heifers I have named “Left Eye” and Lola and four pure black girls. One of those four has a big curl on her head, like Gina Lollobrigida. She will be named Gina, and the other three can be Rosie, Bessie and Kate. But I still can’t tell them apart. The two female calves I have named Bandit (for her mask) and Bonnie. 
Maybe I can get them some kind of scarves to wear that will distinguish them from each other. Or brand them with a wee smattering of paint on their ebony sides. As their personalities emerge it will be easier to tell them from each other.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

In memory of Dad, and Daron.

Some cultures teach that it is better to ignore loss. They have short, emotionless burial services and they do not speak of the dead after they are gone. They return to work immediately and don’t spend any time or energy mourning the loss of their loved one. But here’s the thing. Grief lies in wait. It is very patient, but it doesn’t give up. It will come to you when you let down your guard for a moment, and it will force you to go through the healing process, because you have to. It doesn’t always appear as grief, however. Sometimes it manifests itself as depression, or illness, pain, fatigue or anxiety. That’s why I’m glad we live in a culture where we push ourselves through a few days of a ritual mourning. A wake, a funeral, a celebration of life service. It is perfectly fine to sob openly about the loss of someone you loved. It’s ok to do nothing but walk around in your bathrobe for a few days. And for the next several years, it is absolutely normal to burst into tears when memories surface. We do speak of the dead. That’s how we keep their spirits with us.
There is no way to escape death. It will come into your life eventually. I made it to my 40th year before losing someone close to me, when my father passed away. Everything became surreal for a time, like when you first have a child. You enter a new realm. A club where people share your experience and understand what you are going through. And now life has more depth to it. I appreciate things more. I let things go a little more easily. Death taught me something.
Six years ago, when I lost my dad, I wondered how many years it would take me to stop exploding into tears every time I see his photo or hear his name. I have learned to incorporate his death into my life. To preserve his memory, and to keep his spirit alive, we repeat his favourite sayings (especially the naughty ones) and mention him often. But if I watch him on video, or thumb through a photo album, the floodgates open again. That will likely never change.
We never know how our experiences are going to affect others. I just write my stories every week, as one would a journal entry, but sometimes I hear from readers with their reactions to what I have written. I received an email last week from a reader, that affected me quite deeply, and I will share it here:

Dear Diana: I thought to write you on how much your article meant to a friend of mine and his mother. These friends were Daron and Donna Graves, the mother and son who tragically passed away last winter, when their car went off the Quyon Ferry in Fitzroy Harbour, 100 metres from their house. Their anniversary is coming up on January 17th. After reading this week's article, it really brought back to me how much Daron loved reading your stories every week. Your article was always Daron's favorite, so much that he used to clip your stories out and keep them on the fridge all week until the next one. He would laugh, because he could relate to your stories, as his family had animals too years back. I plan to clip the article I have and leave it with the two roses I'm leaving when we go to pay our respects next week. I just thought you might like to know how much you meant to them as an author without knowing it. It's funny, because every time I read one of your stories now, it brings back a lot of sentimental memories of Daron. And I know he's probably still reading them, just on another plane. I smile when I think of that laugh he used to give when he would read out loud. So I just want to thank you for that. Writing is a powerful expression. ~ Justin.

This week’s Accidental Farmwife is dedicated to Daron, and to my Dad, who have left the world but live on in the hearts of many.