It is a cold and still morning. Nothing moves. Pink light seeps through the icicles.
A month off in near isolation and reflection is a precious thing.
For the start of this new year, we took a month off. Not really “off” in the typical way of imagining it. No, for all but about 6 days of it, we worked. Hard physical work, demanding work, work to empty the mind, finally, of clutter and conflict.
Many years ago, I read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, and was struck by this passage:
Another row, and yet another row, followed–long rows and short rows, with good grass and with poor grass. Levin lost all sense of time, and could not have told whether it was late or early now. A change began to come over his work, which gave him immense satisfaction. In the midst of his toil there were moments during which he forgot what he was doing, and it came all easy to him, and at those same moments his row was almost as smooth and well cut as Tit’s. But so soon as he recollected what he was doing, and began trying to do better, he was at once conscious of all the difficulty of his task, and the row was badly mown.”
This passage has come back to me many times in my life when I was working hard physically, or attending others as they worked. I have no intention of making this a college essay analyzing a literary passage; I wanted to see the words in print here again, because I have felt them so many times. There is a release that comes with physical work and exercise - a clearing of the mind, an easing of the perception of hardship, when one lets go and reaches past the stage of considering giving up. If I do get all philosophical here, it is only to take this truth into a wider consideration.
Last year was a very hard year. I do not exaggerate when I say that I have never in my life been happier to welcome in a new year, with a new start and new changes. Somehow, last year was a year that became a series of situations that relentlessly took a great deal from me. There were many blessings and delights as well, and I am grateful beyond words for my amazing husband, for the earth that sustains us, for those around me who gave me hope and brought me smiles. But at the end of that draining year, I found myself deeply in need of renewal and restoration of damages.
I thought at the start of the month off I would write a lot. This winter I gave in and joined a blog “challenge” - the Dark Days eating local challenge. I have been a past skeptic of, for example, local foods challenges, because I have observed people go about them as just something to get through - okay, that’s done, whew, I did it, let’s go get some junk food, or some fruit from Equador to celebrate! I felt bad being a skeptic, because these challenges are such a good thing, to raise awareness, to result perhaps in some permanent changes for the better, to teach others from your experience, etc. I thought it would be easy, because what we eat through these dark days of winter still is, to a large extent, what we have grown ourselves and stored in the pantry, the canning closest, the freezers, or what is still on foot and on the ground outside, despite winter.
And that part was easy. What was not easy was wondering why I was doing this exactly, when this was the way we ate most days anyway. And I found that I did not need another deadline in my life to meet, just at this moment. When it’s 10 pm after an exhausting day and a post is due at midnight, it just suddenly takes the joy out of writing and becomes one more depressing unfinished task. I did not like the feeling of trying to prove myself to other people on one more level, or to meet their requirements, kind-hearted even as they may be. Self-doubt is sometimes only enhanced by trying to prove yourself too much. And was it getting competitive? Was there some kind of glory we were all seeking in a see-what-I-accomplished sort of way? Sigh. With some clarity of meditations, I find I just don’t need that. I find I will be freer to just be, and share, and write of what we live, without trying to meet a challenge. So I’ve let my part in the Dark Days Challenge go, with much respect. Nothing’s changed; we’re still making salad out of jerusalem artichokes, celery and cabbage that have been in storage since October, eating chicken we raised from the freezer, and our eggs, but it’s such a day-to-day, permanent, lifestyle that I am not going to document it as though it’s a novelty.
There is a very humorous side to this, as well. My old digital camera has started showing its age, and one day when it was being uncooperative, I borrowed my husband’s IPhone to photograph the process of making yogurt from the lovely local milk we enjoy - for, you guessed it, the blog and the challenge. Now, IPhones can be slick slippery devils at times, and somehow, after many shots of all the steps of the process, the thing slithered out of my grasp suddenly, and as luck would have it, submerged immediately in the bowl of 112 degree fluid milk-and-yogurt mixture. Completely submerged. Of course, I yanked it out before I’d even really registered what had happened. Fast forward through several hours of agonized phone triage, and somehow, it survived seemingly unscathed.
That was camera episode one. Camera episode two came while photographing some other soup or stew-making process, this time with my own camera, and from a place of being deeply engrossed, I became aware of a burning plastic scent wafting through the kitchen. Searching the source down, I discoverd I’d turned on the wrong burner, and edge of my camera was sitting on, and melting to, the heating empty burner I’d carelessly put it down beside when my hands were full. Amazingly, the camera mostly survived this too, but is even less reliable with how it uses batteries now. So - there are hazards as well to photo-documentation of a cooking process!
And, so, I find myself in need of simplicity and joy. There is so much to navigate as the world tries to bring in its drama, darkness, depression, and neediness. I take inspiration once again in the beautiful passage of Levin’s work, above, and its lesson: first he fears he’ll fail, fall behind others, and works in competition and strain. But by the end of his work, all that slips away, and he is working in satisfaction in the work only, and enjoys the peace found there.
“Another row, and yet another row…” and so we go on, into the next chapter. Happy New Year, everyone.