Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Today while shaking out rugs

When I was studying Zen Buddhism in my twenties I found myself at a small rural temple in the mountains of western North Carolina. Sometimes after a meditation session students could ask the monk who ran the temple questions about our practice. Once a fellow lay practitioner asked about dealing with bad news? How to find peace in trying times?

Our teacher told us a story about a monk she knew who was diagnosed with cancer. How he was asked the same question. How he continued to practice Zen knowing he was dying, and that a life of seeking enlightenment had thrown him this fate. He answered with one sentence.

“The cancer wants to live, too.”

I can count on my hands the times I’ve heard something that made me shake. This was one of them. My entire life no one had ever come to the defense of cancer. It was the one thing everyone agreed was bad. I had run in races to beat cancer. I had lost family and friends to cancer. I knew the pain and horror cancer riddled the world with, and here I was being told about a man who found compassion for the disease that was killing him.

I think about this story more these days. I had forgotten it for a long while.

Today while shaking out rugs in the muddy front lawn a small SUV pulled up. It had professional stickers on the doors, NY STATE AG & MARKETS. My stomach dropped. I knew what this was. A few weeks ago the State Police were here along with Washington County animal control. They were sent because of complaints filed by a person from Vermont who was reporting practices they read about on my blog they felt were bad.

The visit with the police and animal control went well. They were both kind and I always oblige any requests to see my animals, their housing, bodies, food and water, etc. The officers saw no issue with my animals or my farm. They were kind and appreciated my cooperation. I thought I was done with surprise inspections. I was not. Here was another agency. Also here because of an online complaint about my farm.

I was told by the folks in the car they were here on a Swine Feeder Check. That they had gotten complaints and wanted to talk with me and inspect my herd and their housing/facilities. I had to physically control my shaking. I was terrified.

I wasn’t terrified about my animals or their care. I was terrified of the thing I’ve been terrified about my entire life: getting in trouble for something I didn’t realize I was doing wrong. Having a government agency show up unannounced because I write books and a blog was reason enough to be shaken up, but I wasn’t scare of the people with clipboards. I was terrified of the people who sent them. And this was happening now. And this was real. And this was because I choose to share my life online as a public figure.

I put the dogs inside. I talked with the experts. I had to get myself together for the entire farm.

I showed them the barn where the pigs spend most of their time. When I opened the door there stood my two largest males, Gunther and Garth. They were standing under the light I had set up in the rafters, like a spotlight. They stood on a pile of fresh hay. My barn is far from magazine-spread ready but even in this muddiest and most disgusting time of the year my pigs were clean, dry and comfortable. Their water was fresh and crystal clear. They were healthy and hail and walked in and out of their nesting area to watch the man with the white beard and the woman with glasses and a clipboard.

The inspectors took photos and asked questions. I answered everything and explained how this small farm raises a few pigs a year and sometimes breeds them but usually I buy in feeder piglets to raise for my small CSA. They explained what was going on in the state and why they do inspections like this. They were worried I was feeding my pigs garbage because that is what the complaint had told them. My pigs do get kitchen scraps from my farm and baked goods, but I have never in my entire life fed a pig garbage. And there was zero trace of garbage in their barn or paddock. They explained all was okay here and I exhaled but remained tense as a hawk on a wire. I hope I wasn’t rude to them.

They shared pamphlets and information about diseases that could really hurt farmers and pigs. They were kind and listened to me. Over their long visit I started to realize how helpful they were to agriculture in general. What they were trying to avoid and prevent. At no time did I feel scared of them, but I did find myself sharing how scared I was of the people that kept reporting me. They listened.

I know my farm is scrappy, but I am proud of the animals I raise and the life they live. Yet I was still brought to tears a few times. I explained how scary it’s been these past few weeks. How trolls online who never met me or my farm have been sending officers and agencies here, all unannounced. I explained that I was a public figure sharing books and my blog for years, and I have to deal with all sorts of anonymous harassment. They were professional and compassionate. They told me that my farm was doing everything right. They complimented my animals, asked questions about falconry, and left me with helpful information and their contact numbers. When they pulled away I felt like I made two new friends.

I don’t know if your state’s Ag Market people are as good at therapy as New York’s but they might be? Offer to let them inspect your pigs. It’s nice.

Then they pulled away with a wave. I stood there alone. My dogs watching me from the front window. I collected the rugs I was dusting and took them inside.

I felt this anger fill me. I felt my heart race. I knew it was the start of a panic attack. I knew the idea that, once again, strangers were following my life so close they were making sure government agencies inspected my five pigs in hopes I was caught doing something wrong. I felt that anger come into me hard and I saw it. I watched it burn. I came inside and ranted on Twitter because I wanted a witness. And then I realized I needed to stop and process what was actually happening. I needed to sit with this feeling.

I ran for a few miles without music.
I took a long hot shower.
I meditated as I was taught.
Here’s what I decided:

I need to be more compassionate towards the people who dislike me because they are me. We are exactly the same. We are people drawn to the freedom and idealism of homesteading. We are people who love animals. We are fiercely independent, strong minded, driven people who have used one farm to distract themselves from much harder issues in our lives.

I needed this farm like a blood transfusion. I needed something pure and wholesome to flood all the poisoned parts of me. I spent ten years distracted by every aspect of this farm; the animals, the plants, the hobbies, the dream… because I was so scared of dealing with myself. Inside I was a woman terrified to come out as gay. I had so many body issues, yo-yo diets, dysmorphia and disorders. I have a complicated family dynamic. I have dealt with self hate so perfectly distilled there was nothing, no comment or snark site, that could say anything about me I hadn’t said to myself a thousand times over. How does that song go? “Baby I could build a castle out of all the bricks they threw at me.” Only I was throwing most of the bricks. I had built the castle I call Cold Antler Farm out of my own disdain for me. You guys, you were mortar.

So if you are reading this as someone who hates me; I see you. I see you and am grateful for you. Because of my fear of you, because of your constant calls to offices and agencies the animals of this farm are never without the most pedantic care. The kind of care that I am 30 minutes late to any dinner or hang out to make sure everyone has their water topped off an clean bedding before I dare leave this place alone. Because of you I have professionals come to this farm, look me in the eye, and tell me I am doing the right thing and I am okay. Because of you I feel paid attention to. I feel like I matter. I feel seen. I wish it was on kinder terms but I understand what you need from me.

You need me to be wrong. You need this place to be a sham. You need my story to be broken, a lie, a scam. Maybe because you tried to have a farm and life hurt you or ruined that chance? Maybe you tried and failed? Maybe you were too scared to try? Maybe circumstance or choices took away your dream? Maybe you feel sad or isolated? Maybe everything about Cold Antler Farm makes the quiet parts of you shake? I hit a nerve. I made you throw bricks.

I am sorry I caused this pain and anger in you. I am sorry I let you down. I am sorry I am not someone you want to forgive or understand. I don’t know the story you tell about me. I don’t know what your truth is. I do know that I see you, and I appreciate you, and I think about you with kindness.

I hope you are safe, warm, and well fed. I hope you are fueled with meaning and justice seeking by what I write that you hate. I hope that you have found community in others that dislike me. I hope that people who you post about me with ask about your family, your kids, your life? I hope that you have discovered a family and support online like I have. I hope that even if your idea of Cold Antler Farm is a nightmare that it helps sooth the scared parts of you. That distracting yourself from your own life by calling some pig division of NY State gave your day a jolt. I hope that you told your friends about it and they congratulated you for fighting for your beliefs. I hope your are as active and helpful to your own communities and friends offline. I hope that hating me is good.

Thank you for caring so much about my farm. Thank you for caring about my animals. Thank you for going out of your way to make sure all is well here, and that my practices are good. Thank you for keeping me vigilant. Thank you for seeing me.

Thank you for teaching me that the thing I think only wants to hurt me, only wants meaning and purpose, too.
That we are the same.
That we are trying to be good and right.
That thinking of you as my enemy is only going to hurt me.

I see you.
I love you.

I only want you to live, too.