Each year for many years now we’ve put together a letter that summarizes our family’s year and sent it out to a list of folks we thought might be interested. This year we thought we’d re-work that pattern a bit and instead send out an invitation to view a Year in Review post on this Encounters with Sustenance blog, which is our family’s record of events (Janelle’s version of scrapbooking) and repository for occasional deeper reflections on those events.
If what you are looking for are as many juicy details on our lives as you can get…scroll down! They are there aplenty in the posts of the past year. We’ll spend the few paragraphs of this post focusing instead on characterizing and distilling each of our years. We’ll start with the youngest and end with the post-forty-year-old.
Our ball-of-fun two-year-old is keeping us all hopping and laughing while we hop. She seems to have a straightforward and organized mind, especially when it comes to learning. When she doesn’t know the name of something or what it’s for, she’ll stop everything and ask—often several times in a row (e.g. “what dat name mama?”)—and then usually remembers it pretty well. She loves books; it doesn’t take her long to memorize her favorites, whether prose- or song-based, and she’ll often fill in words if we stop reading or she’ll sing along. Could it be more adorable than that?
She is curious and interested in all of her surroundings and especially the activities of her older sisters. But if it’s time to let the chickens run, all of a sudden she’s Daddy’s girl. She’s still soaking up lots of cuddles and nutrition as she continues to enjoy nursing from Mommy, but the rest of life can often distract her now for half a day before she remembers, and twice now she’s slept all night with no nursing break! She still sleeps in our bed…none of us are quite ready to give that up yet.
Terah has had a few close calls and mishaps physically. She dives headfirst into life, and this spring that got her into trouble. She adores watching and holding baby chicks (all things tiny and cute get her special attention), and one day she got to the edge of the wading pool we were brooding a batch in before I did. Eagerly craning her neck to see over the edge of the draft barrier, she stubbed her feet on the edge of the wading pool and over she went. Her lower lip caught on the plastic edge or corner of the barrier on her way down, lacerating it pretty nicely. We consulted with our ER Nurse Practitioner neighbor and decided to head to the hospital. The staff did a fine job, and one stitch later she was on her way to healing up. There is still a small scar, but there would have been a lump and a void, so we’re glad we took her there (even if Janelle is still working to make sense of the various bills we have received from that short adventure).
The same neighbor helped us in another instance, when as Janelle was tugging on Terah’s arm to roll her out of the futon, Terah started crying and refused to move her arm. After one question on the phone he said, “This is probably my favorite injury, I’ll be right over.” Nursemaid Elbow it was. A two-second maneuver put it to rights. He was all of our hero. Then one day Kali was watching her and it happened again. I remembered enough of the maneuver to do it myself, and it worked! Recently Grandma was the chosen one. This time the pain was referred to her wrist, so we were confused for a while, but when I was convinced to give it an honest try, click, I could feel and hear the ligament find its home again, and all was soon well. Now Janelle says I’m her hero.
If you want to make friends with Terah, get out a puzzle or the Memory game and help her when she wants help, sit down for a session with scissors and paper, or ask her to help you cook something. I can’t promise her neatness will match her enthusiasm!
Some predict Terah will join a nudist colony one day. Certainly she is found without clothing much of the time. This helps with potty training, which is going well and mostly not too stressfully. We try to keep this kind of thing light and fun and to follow her seeming readiness, and she seems to be happy with that program, especially if it means she gets to run around naked. The big question for Janelle and I: Will we have the courage to visit her at that colony?
She’s just come up to me and asked me three times, “What you doing?” But now she’s off dancing to Christmas music with Kali. You get the picture.
This is the kind of six-year-old who has a lot of things she wants to do. A special feature of her life is that many of those interests line up nicely with her Grandmother’s. So when Janelle’s Mom is around, they spend a lot of time together, to the benefit of both. Crafts, art projects, puzzles, and cooking could occupy almost all of her time, though we have noticed that she pays lots of attention to music and will often sing along with songs she likes, staying on pitch and in rhythm pretty well. Stay tuned.
Alida is learning to read on the gradual schedule. She’s gotten Green Eggs and Ham under her belt, but isn’t quite off and running yet in general. She is goaded to it by the annoyance she feels at not being able to perform this basic life function (in a literate society, that is) for herself, but isn’t quite hungry enough for it to buckle down and practice. Surely if she were in school she’d be reading steadily by now, which would be fine but we feel glad for her to be learning based on the pace of her own motivation…an important early major lesson in achieving something for yourself. So far it looks like homeschool is the most likely course for her, as it has been for her older sister, though it seems she might prefer a version that involves a more active social circle. That is, anyway, if her stunning ability to create and keep track of the lives of a whole cadre of imaginary friends is any indication!
She is often found in stylish (in her opinion) clothing, and declares once in a while that she thinks she’s the fanciest one in the family. We do not dispute this. Grandma Myers made her a “spinny” skirt for Christmas this year, and since the package was opened this morning it has stayed on her.
Alida loves and excels at soccer. She plays in the Shenandoah Valley United recreational league spring and fall, and this fall made a few friends that look like promising longer-term buddies. This fall, she and Kali together with a friend took a homeschoolers’ art class at a local art shop and studio. It was clear how much they enjoyed the concentrated instruction; they also seemed glad for the chance to bring the skills back and put them to use at home, which they have done. It’s fun to see their creations hanging on the walls of their room and sitting on the shelves! One of the downsides to homeschooling is that access to skilled teachers of particular skills is something you have to seek out. But they can be found, and all in all I’d recommend the unschooling model to families for which it is a good fit.
Kali is now fourteen years old. This is not really a believable fact, but neither can we ignore it. She continues to demonstrate the diligence and responsibility that overtook her at about age 11. Not that her distractibility and forgetfulness always help her carry out the duties she gladly assumes…but that’s a different story and one that I, Jason, have LOTS of empathy for. She spends much of her time inside her own mind, happy and content there. Thorough glimpses into her private thoughts are not easy to come by, but when she does come out with something she’s been thinking about, the results are worth the wait. Her greatest learning edge is how to effectively integrate her mental abilities and private personality with a world that often expects and requires some basic skills in efficiency and steady accomplishment of ordinary tasks. Goodness, if I knew how to do this for myself, maybe I could be of more help! Our greatest wish is that she will find a niche in life that values her substantial abilities; where she can feel she is contributing.
Meantime, she is enjoying being a kid, which is facilitated by her continued choice to homeschool. She reads books of all kinds as much as she can. She could just about curate a library by now, we thought, so we gave her one for her 13th birthday, but didn’t actually end up building it until after 2017 started. You may be familiar with the concept of the Free Little Libraries. It’s one of those.
Kali got braces this year. We were very clear with the dentist and orthodontist that we and Kali thought Kali was just fine as she was…if this were a question of an attractive smile, the work would be redundant. But in the end they convinced us that there were long term health questions in the balance, so we took the plunge. Once the decision was made, Kali got pretty curious what it was going to be like, and we’ve all been having fun looking to see if her teeth are moving. They ARE! And I am pretty sure her jaw is relaxing forward a little, which was one of the goals. She does a great job with the maintenance tasks and is tolerating the discomfort without drama of any kind.
She still plays soccer in the SVU Rec league spring and fall, and has improved so much over the years! Weekly playdates with one longtime friend plus other get-togethers with a smattering of others seem to fill her needs for friend time. She prefers deeper friendships with a few over being popular in a crowd. She approaches life with her personal blend of sound logic, outsized insight, sweet disposition and good humor. I nurse the conviction that if people knew Kali as we knew her they would be as in love with her as we are, but that it will be the lucky few who get that privilege.
Kali continues with her duck-keeping project, expanding into a new breed this year, the “Dutch Hookbill.” The goal was to preserve a rare breed that exhibits some of the traits she values for her purposes. She still has a special bond with Duckie, the duckling that imprinted on her a few years back. Unfortunately, this is her only remaining special pet, as this year we had to say goodbye to Buttercup, her faithful chicken friend of many years. It was a sad time during her decline and death; we are always amazed at the ability of children to grieve healthily when supported in their natural process. There is so much to be learned from children!
Kali’s time is also divided to helping care for her two younger sisters, which she mostly enjoys and does happily, though Alida can push her buttons at times. Terah sets her to giggling many times each day! We are so glad that, with the large age differences between our girls, they are spending enough time with each other to feel like true sisters anyway.
With whatever time Kali has left, she manages to advance her traditional academic skills (language, math, etc.) in decidedly non-traditional ways. Recently she has gotten more organized about this, with a weekly regimen of spelling practice and Algebra work, plus the odd book report. She takes an interest in foreign language; Italian is the current fad. Also there has been a recent surge in piano playing. For Christmas she taught herself “Jingle Bells” from an instructional book, and just tonight got into “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen.” Unschooling is an amazing process—at least when it goes well, as it seems to be for her—in that we often find ourselves nonplussed about how, where, when, and from whom she’s learned a certain skill or perspective. All we know is she’s got it, and she’s got it well. I feel so much gratitude for the years we’ve had together here at home.
Janelle’s year has been spent trying to keep up with the life she loves so much! She is a high-energy person and that is good, because the work that tends to fall in her purview both at home and at the CJP office takes a fair measure of it.
This spring will mark 19 years since she started there at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding (CJP). Her position has shifted and been re-worked many times over that time, but her steady presence remains unchanged, and is appreciated by those around her. This year has had its own special challenges, as EMU (like most small liberal arts colleges) is under a lot of enrollment and financial strain, and reductions in staffing and faculty are applying more performance and production pressure to already hardworking folks. It is our wish that EMU and specifically CJP can use this period as an opportunity to focus in on what’s most important; that this tough patch will concentrate rather than dilute their core values.
That job brings us some necessary cash, and furnishes Janelle with a sense of purpose and contribution, which is very valuable. All that said, the further our home place develops and the more comfortable we get with its operation, the more her energy seems to be shifting towards home. She works two days at the office per week and a few hours per day from home, usually during Terah’s afternoon nap. There are many times when, at the end of a nap/computer work session, she’ll emerge from the bedroom desperate to get back out to the garden work or into the kitchen. She’s always been a FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) person anyway, but with regard to the life of the farm, it’s getting worse!
Cheesemaking is a new obsession of hers this year. Cheeses she has learned to make in 2017: Buttermilk, Cottage, Mozzarella, Farmer’s, Farmhouse Cheddar. Ricotta she already had down. The raw milk dairy down the road that we own a share in still has copious extra milk this year; it’s our chance to figure out what milk products work for us before we would take the plunge to a dairy animal of our own. So the Myers-Benners have been consuming cheese at a remarkable rate, as noted by our neighbor, whose pigs are now eating the whey she produces (ever since we butchered our three in early December). The cheddar has proved more challenging than the others, but she is determined! We’ve had two ok batches and one fabulous wheel of cheddar so far, and three are waxed and aging as I write this…that’s enough to tantalize and keep the learning process going.
Her interest also continues in birth and babies. Nothing can grab her attention like a good birth story! She is looking forward to helping a friend and neighbor with her first birth this coming winter, and if things go her way, this will just be one of many more chances to be a Doula (birth companion) to a woman in the motherhood transition!
Among her most significant passages of the year was the moment when she pulled her phone out of my backpack on a hike to check the time, and dropped it on not one but two rocks, spiderwebbing the screen in two spots. That precipitated an experiment in phonelessness that turned into a choice. She has felt freer ever since.
So far the rule in my life has been that my favorite year is the one just finished. No exceptions for 2017! I take delight in the development of my children and my marriage, and none of those were anything like stagnant for this year. I’m right where I want to be!
My most distinctive highlight of the year was a trip Janelle gave me for my fortieth birthday. Her dad, my dad, and myself hopped in a car and headed west to see the Sandhill Cranes that gather en masse annually at the Platte River in Nebraska to recover from the first half of their migration before heading north to their breeding grounds. Why is that worth the trip? See the March edition of some writing I did for the TanglyWoods.com website to get the details, but suffice it to say they are the oldest known persisting species of bird, they are three feet tall, they sound like dinosaurs, fly like my dreams and there are 500,000 of them gathered in one place at that time. I want to say it was unreal, but the truth is it was more real than most of what we experience, and that was the point.
I continue to watch the kids and tend the home during the hours that Janelle executes our family’s gainful employment, and most of the rest of my time is allocated to developing and maintaining our gardens, animal projects, and other features and functions of home. We continue to work at systems that help us each fill our roles well, and a development we’ve emphasized this year was more regular and intentional planning sessions for Janelle and I so she could use her skills at helping organize the activities of the day in fulfillment of the goals we establish together. My skillset seems to be in designing systems and carrying out tasks and projects: more or less the two ends of the spectrum. So while my body and half my mind are occupied ticking items off the list, the other half of my mind is working on the next idea to bring to the planning committee. The better we get at relaxing into our natural roles in this way, the more fulfilling and meaningful this life is for me. I am so grateful for our shared vision and teamwork! And to have some enthusiastic helpers in my vicinity (some are more helpful than others, but they are all welcome!) from time to time warms my heart as well.
The learning curve is still steep, which is probably why I am still liking this life so much. Sometimes I doubt it will ever flatten out much. Getting involved in ecological agriculture is a way of entangling one’s mind with the vast mystery of life on this earth; each new insight cracks open a fresh can of question worms. Each year is a chance to review and refine the knowledge gained the previous year, and even if we never brought any new species on board but only improved our ability to work with the species we already manage in relationship to each other, I could easily never get bored. Phew! That’s a relief. No boredom in my future, assuming I can continue to stay away from office work.
I continue with my chicken breeding thing, whatever it is. I sold my first sizable batch (50) of Shenandoah pullets this month. We shall see if that happens again. I still have more ideas than I have chicken coops to grow them out in, but I don’t expect that is going to change. Despite not making anything like serious money on this, the progress I see with the development of the strains I’ve come up with does nothing to discourage my interest. If anything I am shocked at the potential for using the chicken genome creatively. And friends, that is one species!
And so the work continues also on the spinach and onions and corn and etc., and how I keep from getting dizzy as the years spin around me and the species caper on all sides like horses on a carousel, I am not sure. All I know is it’s now moving too dynamically to understand fully…I have to join in the movement if I am to keep up at all. Oddly, this is not a story of panic, but of homecoming. It’s the closest thing I can imagine to the way our ancestors, far better integrated to their environs than we can hope for in our generation, must always have lived. It’s a definition of peace. We humans are not ok until we are participants, and you don’t, it turns out, have to know all that is happening in order to participate.
Some elements of the learning curve are steeper than others. I’ll identify some of the steepest of my year: 1) Hog butchering. I am challenged and inspired by the ceremony of taking a creature’s life for food, and doing it respectfully and well. Beyond that moment, it’s about awe and joy, as we work with the bounty we’ve harvested. It looks to me like the myriad ways to make a hog into delicious food is enough exploration for a lifetime in itself. Is there a more versatile food? 2) Masculinity. Understanding and working with mine, that is, and maybe advancing the general understanding in my sphere of association. This interest has been brewing a long time, I think, but was catalyzed this year with the voluntary surrender of my fertility in February. All went well with the procedure, and the group of men I called together to help me process the transition were a helpful support. Earlier this month some of us met for a second time to discuss other experiences of maleness in our culture. It will probably continue in some form, and seems likely to be important. 3) Enough. What does that mean? One thing it appears to mean is that not every great idea I ever have must be accomplished in the real world. This year, for the first time, we allowed a garden patch to return to weeds and grass.
That was hard. It was great.
For our whole family, there were a few events of note:
Tangly Woods was host to its second wedding this summer. We actually got to attend this one! What fun to see the place transformed for the occasion, then for all the guests to stream in to celebrate, then all of a sudden everything gets quiet again. Maybe we’re crazy, but we like that kind of thing.
This is not exactly an event, but it is worth noting that we all benefitted in so many ways all year from the monthly spells of intergenerational living that are an important part of our life here. Janelle’s parents had built a quarters onto our home a number of years back, and for the time being they are in a pattern of spending about a week or ten days per month here, joining in our hubbub or enjoying their place by themselves. Their presence is always welcome and life is easier for us when they are here. Dad takes turns with the animal chores and other around-the-house tasks and Mom provides much child care, plus contributes to the kitchen processes. But by far the most important thing is the sense of connection we get to establish with them through all this regular contact. For the girls especially this is priceless, and we are grateful that it’s working out this way.
A major happening in our family’s and neighborhood’s history was the death of our neighbor, former employer, mentor, and friend Samuel Johnson this August. His death was done very well by he and his family, but the adjustments to his absence continue for all of us. The reminders of his life and legacy are with us daily as we go about our life on Fruit Farm Lane. We miss him!
Our neighborhood also lost a much younger member in July, when my sister’s husband’s sister’s child, Blake, died suddenly from a freakishly rare complication of a not uncommon virus. Blake’s life and death touched so many, and we felt like we were just getting to know what a special little guy he was!
This October 30 would have been our daughter Nora’s tenth birthday, had her genes allowed a more normal lifespan. We celebrated with a blood drive as usual as well as a gathering of folks who have been near and dear to us along the way, and I marked the anniversary by finishing the rock work in Nora’s garden such that adults can now find surprisingly comfy seats for contemplation or conversation and kids can now enjoy clambering over the arrangement. Thanks to the attendees to my birthday party that helped haul rock for the project!
No doubt I could go on and on, but I’ll stop there. I think you’ve got all the opportunity you need to hear about our lives by way of this blog and more about our farm at TanglyWoods.com. You are welcome to sign up to get updates of new posts on either site if interested in more than a yearly synopsis. If you want even more than that, you’ll just have to come visit us!
As we think back over this year, we see so much beauty in our world, and we can’t ignore the many thorny problems facing our community, our nation, our species, our planet. This being Christmastime, maybe I’ll end with song lyrics by Linford Detweiler of Over the Rhine (one of my very favorite music groups). It’s excerpted from “Another Christmas”, found on their Christmas album Blood Oranges in the Snow (highly recommended):
…This old world so sweet and so bitter
Seeds of violence we humans have sown
And these weapons we still love to handle
May our children have strength to let go…
…‘Cause we’ve committed every sin
And each one leaves a different scar
It’s just the world we’re living in
And we could use a guiding star
I hope that we can still believe
The Christ child holds a gift for us
Are we able to receive
Peace on earth this Christmas?...
ps. For fun, we took a family photo on the 1st of each month, attempting to do it in the same order, in the same location and in whatever state we found ourselves. We mostly succeeded and were grateful for Mom filling in when Jason was on his 40th birthday trip!