The Long Intro: Grief, a Snowman, and Hope This Solstice
This fall was one of loss for our family and for so many I know. Before our Fall Equinox issue, writer and professor Stephanie Gross reflected in the Farmer-ish blog on fall as being the time of year when the spirit world comes to meet our world; she couldn’t have been more prophetic. Five people I know, including myself, would lose animals who were very close to us. Another woman I know lost her husband. All of these losses occurred within six weeks. I remember thinking, after three of my dear friends lost their beloved animals, the spirit world was coming for me. It was a feeling I couldn’t shake.
And then, one night, I heard a screech owl. It was so loud and so close and so unusual that I thought, at first, I was hearing a human screaming. I heard this owl regularly for a week. My great grandmother, who was my favorite human when I was a child, was Cherokee. She told me so many stories, legends, and folktales. I know the message the owl brings.
One day, I heard the screech during the daylight hours. The owl was sitting in the trees right next to our chicken yard. Owls will make anyone with chickens and ducks nervous, but this call was something extra, something so haunting I couldn’t get it out of my head.
I would find out the following Monday what was coming for me.
Our family farm dog, our Great Pyrenees, Gus, had an aggressive lymphoma. He had been noticeably sick only a week. Test after test kept giving us more bad news. By Monday night, we understood that we may have just a few days left with our boy. As I sat with him outside in the cold that night, we looked up at the stars together. Gus was that kind of creature—one who enjoyed life to its fullest and took time to watch the clouds and look up at the moon and stars—and I tried to just be present with him. But, as I sat with him, I heard the owl’s screech again, this time in our front trees, less than 20 yards from where Gus and I sat.
“I get it,” I said. “Go away.” I shook my fist at the owl, or the heavens, or just anything that might care.
I have rarely felt such anger. Gus was very young, just four and half years old, and the shock of it all felt like too much to bear, too much to hold in my body. I remember telling my husband I felt like my chest was going to break. How could the universe take our Gus so soon? He loved life. He lived it fully. He enjoyed it. He savored it. He did everything big.
Of course, neither my fist shaking nor my anger would change our fates. We had to have Gus euthanized that Wednesday.
There is nothing to do but cope and learn. I learned, years ago, anger hurts my heart too much, so I set out to learn from my grief, and though I will continue to learn from this loss for years, one thing I know for certain is this: I want to live my life more like Gus.
As we move from fall to winter on this important day, despite the loss—or maybe because of it—I feel joyful for the light that is coming as we leave the dark behind, the hope for life as we continue to repeat, over and over, our cycles of life and death. With all the uncertainty we are facing in our country and in the world right now, there is certainty in the cycles, the patterns of Nature.
One day, I will be in the ground with Gus, but today, I am alive, and I want to soak up all the life I can. This issue, to me, is about treasuring our lives, finding the cozy in winter and the hope that comes with our cycles.
Enter the snowman.
Many months ago, our Farmer-ish artist in residence agreed to create a special cover for our Winter issue—before the fall, before the loss. I met with Max over the summer and gave them a laundry list of ideas and asked them to work their magic.
I had no idea just how personally magical Max’s cover art was going to be.
When I was a little girl, I grew up in an abusive home. I was scared a lot. We were not allowed to watch children’s programming unless my stepdad was at work, but one time, I took a very big risk.
I was sitting in the living room as my stepdad flipped through the television channels, and I saw, just for a moment, a short bit of the animated film, The Snowman. I heard classical music playing for a moment as my stepdad whizzed by the program. I had never been exposed to classical music, but I was drawn to what I saw—and what I heard. I was 8 years old, but I was clever and determined. I made a plan.
I looked at the television guide to see if there was any chance The Snowman would be on in the next month while my stepdad was at work. The only time it was airing was at 4:00 AM one morning. It was so risky. If I was caught, the punishment could be serious, but somehow, I was determined to take this risk, and I was not a risk taker.
I made a mental note of the date, and the night before, I set my alarm for 3:55 AM. I shot up as soon as I heard the alarm and turned it off. I sat and listened. Had I awakened him? I could hear his snoring. I was safe.
I made my way down the hall and turned on the television in the living room. I was quick, quiet. As I turned on the power with my right hand, I kept my left hand on the volume knob. As soon as the power was on, I had the volume down to zero. I listened again. Snoring. I was safe.
I turned the volume up just enough so I could hear the music, and I sat on the floor with my ear against the speaker and my face right in the television screen. I was mesmerized by the music. A full orchestra played the soundtrack for the animated film. My favorite part was when the snowman took the little boy flying through the night sky. The little boy and the snowman soared over snow-capped mountains, trees, the ocean with whales, and then they arrived in a land with the northern lights.
Growing up in Texas, I longed for this world—a safe world where there was snow and northern lights and lots of trees and friendly people. I dreamed of better.
I did not get caught. I could hear my stepdad snoring as I walked back to bed. I realized I had completely gotten away with it. In hindsight, I am amazed at my bravery, and I wonder if I had a little bit of Gus in me all along.
As you might imagine, when I saw Max’s snowman, the snowman on this cover, I felt it in my chest. It was beautiful. The snowman face seemed to indicate it knew something, maybe something about me. Sometimes, the universe speaks to me so powerfully I can’t ignore it, though I will try very hard, but Max’s snowman reminded me of history and of my dreams.
I realize I made my dream come true. This winter, I will be cozy with my family by the fire in the middle of the snowy woods. There will be a snowman for sure, but most importantly, there will be love and security, just like the little boy in The Snowman had. I have done my best to give my children a better life than I had. I have done my best to give myself a better life.
On this beautiful Solstice, I am so proud to give you the gift of this issue, centered around a movement away from grief and into the warmth and light. We have a powerful essay by Lauren Kessler who lost her husband and made soup. In honor of Lauren’s soup as solace and warmth, we have a soup recipe important to our family and other cozy recipes to warm you in the cold.
We also have the gift of poetry in this issue. We had hundreds of poetry submissions. It was difficult to turn many of them away, but the poems I am able to share with you here truly feel like treasures. I hope you enjoy them. My husband is sharing a villanelle, the first form poem published in our journal. I love the lyricism of a villanelle–the repetition brings comfort, the form brings nostalgia. It is my hope this issue will bring you comfort.
We also have some magnificent essays from some of my favorite writers, some from Farmer-ish regulars, some from writers who I hope will become Farmer-ish regulars. We have book reviews, cookie recipes, and farmer profiles. The stories in this issue are powerful, and the common threads you will find speak volumes, I think, about the connections we have to each other. There is loss but hope in Katharyn Privett-Duren’s essay, in Sarah Kilch Gaffney’s essay, in Wanda Taylor’s essay. I am learning through Farmer-ish there is a tie that binds us all.
On this Solstice, it’s time to come to the part of our cycle where we rest as much as we can, treasure as much as we can, find our cozy, and feel gratitude the light is coming back.
I recently read a comment from a Farmer-ish reader who said this journal feels like a break from the dark reality of everyday life, a calm, a respite. I mean this issue to be extra so.
I hope you enjoy.
In This Issue
“Snow Fence” (poetry) by Jeff Burt
“Travel Notes” (poetry) by Kathryn Sadakierski
“Winter (Return Refrain)” (poetry) by James Sands
“The Solace of Soup” by Lauren Kessler
“A Conversation with Julia Bouwsma (Maine’s Poet Laureate)” by Crystal Sands
“The Farm Dog Star” by Katharyn Privett-Duren
“Snow Bird” by Ilana Silver
“Winter Song” by Sarah Kilch Gaffney
“Living Sustainably…Profile of Jj Starwalker” by Allison Burden
“Dad and Old Bob” by Sandra Keifer Szalinski
“The Spirit in Our Food: Interview with Jayme Oates” by Katharyn Privett-Duren
“Gus” by James Sands
“Make Your Own Fat Archie Cookies” by Vanessa Chiasson
“Quick and Easy Crockpot Minestrone” by Crystal Sands
“The Story Was Written in Their Hands” by Wanda Taylor
“Book Review of Processed Meats by Nicole Walker” by Crystal Sands
“Snow Bank” by Amy Bowers