The mesquite trees are bare for the winter. When we walk in the morning, the lack of winter vegetation allows me to see the dogs better than in the other seasons, where the foliage and understory are thick. I let them run off leash, trotting down the trail and veering off it to inspect the burrows of small creatures.
Small creatures aren’t out much during the day this time of year. There is not enough cover for them to hide. So they pop up in the garden after dark when the daytime predators don’t see as well.
As a result it is safe to let the dogs run without too much fear they will chase rabbits or armadillos or possums or skunks or porcupines, all of which keep burrows on the property. Ginger is insatiably curious about skunks, not one of her most alluring qualities.
The dogs run ahead on the trail, sniffing the smells and feeling the ground under their feet. They investigate holes and stumps and logs. Their delight is evident in the way they move, tails swishing joyfully as the trot along.
Curiosity is a generally wonderful quality, if you leave off skunks and are only modestly curious about porcupines. If we were not curious we would trudge through the day doing the basics we need to survive and then what? Iron your t-shirts? Life would be insufferably boring.
Instead, you see a lovely beaded necklace on the neck of someone at the grocery store, and you come home and take out your beads and thread them, working out how the artist got the sparkling beads to do that scalloped lacy thing around the cabuchon center fire opal. Art is born from curiosity.
Or you have an innocuous exchange with a friend that for some reason makes you want to slap her. Curiosity makes you dig into your ire, to write a poem about how and why you got so mad. Suddenly you have a new insight into yourself and what makes you tick (and ticked). Maybe you find compassion for your friend or maybe you realize you want a new friend.
When you are consumed with the daily tasks of giving care, you don’t have as much capacity to nurture and develop your curiosity, but keep the spark alive. Smell the smells. Watch for movement in shrubbery. Turn over a log to see what’s under there. When you have a few moments, bound along a trail in the crisp morning air.
When I visited the neighbors’ hens, they didn’t invite me into the henhouse. I just went uninvited and opened the cover over their nesting boxes. Thinking about that now my behavior seems kind of rude, but the hens were unfailingly gracious. They climbed up their ladder and stood by their nesting boxes as if they were vendors at a flea market, showing me the wares in their booths.
While I looked, more hens kept coming into the henhouse to see what the excitement was about. A customer! Admiring our eggs! They seemed happy to show off their spacious house, their cozy little nesting boxes, and their colorful eggs.
The hens are clearly accustomed to people peeping into their nests and collecting the eggs. They also seem quite willing to share a nest. Once a hen has laid an egg, she doesn’t defend the nesting box. She leaves it for the next hen. Perhaps they have a way of knowing whether an egg is fertile and therefore worth sitting on.
The ability to tell if an egg is fertile would be such a helpful tool, saving lots of wasted effort and ensuring that her effort was directed in a fruitful way.
We humans lay little eggs too in the form of starting projects. It’s important to have lots of ideas and project starts because a significant portion of our projects won’t come to fruition in the way we envision. If we don’t start things, nothing ever gets done, but if we don’t know when to walk away from an egg instead of sitting on it, we waste a lot of time.
I worked on a project for several years, gathering information, interviewing people, analyzing my results, and writing a first draft of a book. I spent quite a long time sitting on the egg. When it eventually became clear to me that egg was not going to hatch, I walked away and left the nesting box for whatever was coming next.
Once we have spent a long time on something it is hard to give it up. But what time we have spent is not coming back. All we can decide is how we spend our time going forward. As soon as you get the first whiff of that rotten egg smell, no little chick is going to come out, and no amount of sitting will change that. Walking away allows you to lay new eggs, more likely to hatch. Continuing to sit is both futile and smelly.
Count the eggs in your nest today. Not every egg will hatch. What ones do you want to keep? To leave? To invest time in? A caregiver needs less work, not more. Mindfully choose which eggs deserve your warmth and attention.
Earlier this week I was thinking about making realistic wishes. I didn’t want false hope. When I picked something I could really hope for, I wished to see a cardinal. I wrote about this in a post a few days ago called Waterfall. Not a half hour after I made that wish a cardinal landed in a tree beside me. Of course I had the good sense not to wish for a penguin, which would have been out of the bounds of reasonable in my part of the world. Still, we don’t see cardinals every day, and one appeared.
Here he is in all his majestic red glory, perched in a small hackberry tree, a sight so lovely it can only have been arranged by Glenda, the goddess in charge of minor miracles for caregivers.
When I see this picture I think, “I need to carry a tripod with me at all times. I need to learn how to edit out the top of the t-post.” I want the pictures to be brighter, clearer, more beautiful. Self talk like this propels me to make changes and to improve my skills. I can do more with photo editing than before. I at least have a tripod, even it I don’t faithfully carry it with me.
If my self talk gets too critical, though, it works in the opposite direction of propelling me to make positive changes. Too much correction or criticism is deflating. We need some balance of constructive feedback to ourselves and a pat on the back, and it is hard to get the balance right. If we spend all day patting ourselves on the back, we have little motivation to learn new things or develop new skills.
Most of us wobble back and forth between being self critical and self indulgent. If you have trouble finding the balance that works best for you, that would make you normal. It is worth focusing on this for a day because making intentional adjustments in our self talk can help a lot in getting through the day.
A caregiver needs a lot of kindness in his self talk. Maybe today was the day you got a call from the assisted living facility. The manager called to let you know your father was found stealing items from other people’s rooms. You dealt with all that and now it is the end of the day. You don’t need self talk around how you could have done a better job for your dad. This was a hard day. Speak to yourself in a kind tone of voice. Say something appreciative of your efforts. Let yourself know how well you’ve done.
If you drive on country roads in Texas you see signs announcing that a cattle guard is coming up. A cattle guard is an area of the road that has been dug out and replaced by a series of pipes across the road. When your truck crosses a cattle guard, the wheels rumble.
Cattle guards can contain livestock that are roaming free because hoofed animals have trouble walking over the pipes. Areas inside cattle guards are not fenced to keep the animals away from the road. You can imagine this doesn’t happen on busy interstates, where the cattle and traffic might disrupt one another, but it happens frequently in our small rural town. When you cross a cattle guard, you slow down because a cow in the middle of the road could spell disaster for you and the cow.
You might think a cow would defer to the heft and steel and speed of a vehicle. Nope. Cows lumber slowly along, taking their sweet time. If one is lying down on the road, prepare to come to a stop or to slowly drive around her. She is not moving just because you have somewhere to go.
On a small road not far from the Bossy Spa, we rumbled over a cattle guard and came upon this girl, standing in the shade of an oak right beside the road. You can see she could just step out on to the road if she chose.
She has a pretty nice spot. On this sunny day she has found a patch of shade. The big tree makes her safer, since cars will avoid the tree, even if they don’t see her. There are some low-hanging branches just the right height for her to get a good back scratching.
Survival for cow on open range depends on correctly figuring out when to move and when to stay put, and that is a challenge for us too. If a black cow misjudges and sleeps on the road at night, she might get hit by a vehicle. If she perpetually accommodates passers by, she loses her good spot under the tree and ends up running around in response to everyone else’s priorities.
We caregiving types run around a lot. We spend time wiping and stirring and washing and scribbling and calling. Some of these things are vital. If we don’t take care of them, we may get run over. Others, though, made it to our to-do list, but may really be someone else’s priority. Today, don’t budge for those tasks. Whoever’s priority that is likes his truck too much to run you over. Stay put. Trust me, he’ll slow down and drive around you.
This photo definitively answers the world’s least asked question. What does it look like to stand between two miniature donkeys? The answer, as you can see, is it looks pretty darn cozy. If only someone would ask you this today, you are all prepared. Don’t ever say the Bossy Spa is of no practical use.
When I stepped between these two ladies, they didn’t mind, as I had been scratching their heads for awhile, so they knew I had no ill intent. They also knew I wasn’t there to feed them, so they let me step between them, their warm, wide bellies pressing against my legs. If the problem is cold, a couple of donkeys could be the answer.
These are two of the three donkeys you met here. When I visited them our neighbor told me more of their story. He got a call from a woman who had owned them and given them away. When she went to visit them in their new home, there was not enough food or water. She was worried, but couldn’t take them back.
My neighbor brought a trailer and roped and loaded four of the five donkeys and brought them back to his place. He wasn’t able to rope the fifth donkey, but he knows that someone later went back and got that one. He has four, one male and three females. You haven’t met the male yet.
These two ladies are usually shy. They won’t come up to the fence if I have the dogs with me, but in their own home with their owner nearby, they are brave and friendly. They had been eating the hay you see on the ground, but they discontinued breakfast to visit with me.
Their bellies are so wide that the neighbor first thought they were pregnant. You can imagine how much he needs more donkeys. Somehow, even though they socialize with the male, they have not had babies the last four years. Wide bellies are just part of their charm.
I love the striping down their backs and over their shoulders. These markings can be found in horses too, and are considered primitive markings, from an ancestor common to all the equine species. These stripes are often accompanied by horizontal stripes on the legs, called zebra bars.
These common elements across different species are reminders of how we are all made of the same things and share common origins. If you go back far enough we share common ancestors with all people. If you go back even farther we share common ancestors with all creatures.
Even if you are in an isolated town, caregiving with such intensity that you rarely leave the house, you are not alone. You may have a sister from your same parents, who loves you from far away, but don’t despair if you don’t. You can go back a little more into your history until you find your brotherhood and sisterhood with all living things.
Caregiving can be lonely. You don’t have much time to build and maintain relationships, but we humans are social creatures, and we need at least some contact with other creatures.
Today you are warmly embraced in the family of all living things. If you are lonely, step onto the porch and listen to the birds for a bit. You don’t have to send them email or call or comb your hair before you see them. They are just there because they are your neighbors, and we are all family.
On a walk by the creek this week in a grove of cedar elms, I saw these long dead trees with their complex root systems still holding on to one another. For some reason I thought of the time when we sisters were small girls. In times long past three cedar elms seeds dropped onto the creek bank. They sprouted close to one another. When they were little seedlings, they looked like separate trees, one over here and another over there. Over time as they grew bigger, they had to make accommodations, so each could grow, and one would not be too much in the shade of another. The three trees grew for years on the creek bank. They saw the water level rise and fall, saw fish and turtles and the dry cracked mud of drought. They were there when little fawns were born in the spring and when old deer came to the creek to refresh themselves in the heat of the day. Turkeys and songbirds roosted in their branches. They saw the pasture turn from thicket to plowed field to the wildflower meadow that it is today. For some years cows grazed on the opposite bank; for some years there were sheep. As the trees grew large, their branches formed a single canopy, where sunlight got to all the leaves and there was a shady understory below. Their roots intertwined, each adding stability to the others. Seasons turned, and eventually they stopped growing and dropped seeds of their own. The grove today largely descended from these original three. The trees got old. About a century after they sprouted, the three died within a short while of one another. Today, even though most of their bark has sloughed off, their tall trunks still stand close together. Songbirds and turkeys still roost in their branches. Woodpeckers find insects in holes in their wood, and their roots even in death are intertwined and holding on to one another. Everyone in all the world should have sisters like this. How glad I am to have you.
If your little dog were here at the Bossy Spa, she would be in the creek. It is sunny, and after their morning romp Annie and Ginger both went in, despite temperatures below freezing. We have been cooped up more than we’d like because of the cold, and no one could wait for summer before getting in the creek.
Your dog might not go into the deeper water, but she is just the right size for the jade green section of creek in the picture. She would wade in from the edge, swim a bit, and even brave the small rapids downstream. She could climb up on the sloped edges to get out of the water and shake herself.
Once she was out of the creek she would look reproachfully at you for having let her get so wet and cold, and you, being you, would carry her back to the house where there is a warm fire in the wood stove.
Even though you are taking care of a human person, you have other things in your care too. I was thinking of your dog, but you also have your friendships, your plants, your work, and yourself.
These caregiving activities are rewarding in different ways. Your colleagues appreciate your intellectual and leadership contributions. Your plants bloom for you. Your friends and dog love you back.
Spend a few minutes looking at your situation through the eyes of someone in these other relationships. Maybe you pick your dog, who visibly droops when she thinks you might be leaving. Her world is less joyful when you are gone, and she knows it. Her whole body lights up, wagging and bouncing, when you come into the room,
We humans have perhaps overdeveloped our capacity for long-term thinking. This can lead to good things, like saving for retirement, but it can also yield massive doses of anticipatory dread that other creatures seem to avoid. I can spend years dreading the possibility that one of my parents will fall ill, and this may happen, but years of dread are big sinkholes of time and energy and enjoyment, whether or not a parent ever falls ill.
A certain amount of dread is useful. It steers you away from situations you don’t want to encounter, but there is no end to what you can dread. Dread is a bottomless pit.
Today zero in on the time frame that your little dog focuses on. Enjoy the warmth of the fire. Cringe if someone tries to brush the tangles out of your hair. Dread just a little, right before your favorite person leaves the room, but quickly recover in time to enjoy the smell of roasting goodness coming from your neighbor’s kitchen.
I know the last thing you need is a kid, but I couldn’t help myself. This is our neighbors’ baby goat, about a week old. He looks like a cross between a goat and a domino. There were a dozen or so little goats and their mamas in this enclosure near the barn. They can go inside and out as suits them. This little fellow decided to sun himself on a bed of straw.
The little goats are more comfortable with people than lambs are. This guy came up to me and sniffed my pant legs, looking to see if I had gotten into anything interesting. I had, since I had been out with the dogs that morning. The little goat found the dog smell intriguing. Or maybe it was the me smell. I’ll never know. In any event he found my pant legs fascinating.
With my neighbor’s encouragement I picked him up and he settled comfortably into my arms. His fur was clean and soft. When I rubbed his head I could feel hard bumps on the top that will grow into horns someday.
Baby creatures are ridiculously endearing. They are tiny, yet almost always perfectly formed. Something about them just makes the heart go squish.
Suppose this guy wanted some of your lunch. Could you refuse him? I think not. This little goat doesn’t do anything productive, yet he is adorable, worthy of care and concern and maybe even your lunch.
You, though, somehow got the idea that you had to be productive in order to be lovable. First you need to take care of this thing, then another. Only when everything is all checked off your list can you take out the fantasy novel you have been saving for just the moment when you were worthy of reading it. How can a baby goat be worthy of love just by being there, but you have to complete your list of self-assigned chores in order to qualify?
You are lovable even with all your chores undone. The only one who believes otherwise is you, and you can just quit that. Yes, there are things to be done, but if you feel like curling up in a patch of sun today, just do it.