Zelda came to us as a gift from Darryl, our friend and a farmer. He gave Zelda to Maria to kick off her sheep flock for the yarn she means to sell next Spring. Zelda, he said, was a great sheep, a show animal. She is a great sheep. She is the smartest sheep I have ever known and she has caused me and Red and Maria more trouble than all of the sheep I have ever had. She is wicked smart for a sheep, a leader and guard sheep and a master schemer and breakout artist. She is incorrigible.
The first thing Zelda did when she came to Bedlam Farm was jump the fence to be with the old sheep on the other side. We got her back in she jumped the fence again. We barricaded it and she found another place to jump. We left her alone. When the old sheep left and we tried to separate her, she knocked all of us down. When I first introduced her to Red, she ran right over him, not just once but two or three times. On the third effort, he grabbed onto some fleece and hung on for dear life as she dragged him around the pasture. Then, for good measure, she ran over me, knocking me down, sending me flying. During our sheepherding training, she broke into barns, knocked down cans, gave Red fits. When we had to give her shots for footrot, it was a huge brawl, wrestling her to the ground. If she spots an opening – a door not closed, a gate partly open, she charges through it.
When we got to the new farm, she led two spectacular breakouts up and down our busy road, leading her sheep a half-mile from the house. To do this, she led a charge right through a hot five-wire fence. She didn’t blink. She ended up in a farmer’s pasture, knocked him down and then ran over Red again as we tried to catch her. The old farmer slugged her and picked her up.
Then she led another breakout few days later through the new and not yet secure fence. I stood in front of the gate with Red and she charged at both of us, sending us both sprawling on our butts. She watches the fences and feeders and is always protecting her flock. When Red and I bring hay to her pasture, she watches until Red is out of the gate and then comes up to the feeder, ignoring even Frieda barking on the other side of the fence. If we touch the gate, she’s off.
Maria put coats on the sheep to protect their fleece during the winter so the yarn would be clean and Zelda got the coat off in a few hours. Maria tried again, then gave up. Of course, Maria loves her. She is now giving Zelda carrot bits. The legend of Zelda grows.
Heard a thumping noise in the basement and went down and found Ben in the cellar. He told me the wood around the old door – way over 100 years old – in the basement had rotted and the door was jamming shut so he built a new doorframe. He also put a cover on the heating vent from the dryer. And showed me that the sliding door on the barn had sprung a nut or bolt during the recent windstorms and was in danger of falling off. It seems sometimes it is as much Ben’s house as mine, I don’t notice these things. He told me I could come in and out of the basement any time, and I told him it was my ambition to never go in the basement. My wife knows about this stuff, but I have no business in basements. He laughed.
The big stuff is done, he is cleaning up the loose ends, things I would never see or think about. Because of him, the house has a different case. The roof doesn’t leak. The windows are tight. The doors and windows work, the pipes and wires new and efficient. The barn is dry and solid.
Ben does this great dance with Frieda, who has seen him on and off for the past three years, at the old farm and this one. She always grows and barks at him, and huffs and growls – she doesn’t like men, like her human. This morning, I found the two of them sitting side by side out in the dog pen where Ben was replacing the old dryer vent. Did she come after you?, I asked. Few people have ever braved a fence to get to Frieda. “Oh, she made some noise,” said Ben,” but she’s just an old sweetheart.” He knows the secret of dealing with Frieda. Don’t listen to her.
Ben has scoured the old farm and fixed things I didn’t even know where there. He comes in the morning, replaces a rotten sill or busted window, trims a stubborn door and fixes a swollen storm window, then goes off to his other jobs. We talked for a few minutes, and then he is gone. Ben is shy, quiet, and isn’t into transitions. I gave him a book on handmade knives – he loves handmade knives – and something to bring him into the digital age. He loves the book on knives, we’ll see about the digital age. I owe him a lot, and wish I could have given him more. I told him this is as much his house as ours and I think he feels that way. I hope he stays around forever, but when the gravel arrives for the driveway and feeding area, we’ll be done.
At least until he drives by and sees a shutter hanging loose.
About 10 years ago, I took my Labs Julius and Stanley for a walk and swim along the Battenkill River. It was a foolish walk, it had been pouring for days and I wanted the dogs to get some exercise before a long drive. I didn’t pay attention to the swollen waters and I was horrified to see Julius, an aging Yellow Lab caught in a powerful current, being pulled out into the waters. It was cold out, but I plunged in and almost immediately my legs were tangled in some thick roots and vegetation that was not visible. It took a long time to free myself and I nearly didn’t. I managed to grab Julius’s tail and then get both of us out and I heard sirens coming down the road. Someone had spotted the struggle and called the police. Mortified and freezing I piled the dogs into the car and fled. When I got home I looked at my daughter and asked myself this question: was any dog worth putting her through the loss of her father.
I thought of this story again when someone sent me a news story about a San Francisco family that drowned trying to save their dog. A boy went into the ocean to save his drowning dog. The father and mother followed. His sister, who stayed onshore, is the only survivor. I posted a message on my Facebook Page asking people if they would go into a dangerous sea to save their dogs. I got hundreds of comments almost immediately. Most people were very quick to answer, saying yes, of course, no question. Some wondered if they would subject their spouses or children to that kind of loss, of if the life of their dog was equal to theirs. I wonder if I have the strength to watch Lenore or Red or Frieda drown and stay on the shore. Or if I would pause for a moment and wonder if dog and human lives are really equivalent.
One woman posted a message saying her dog was her child and she would try and save her without hesitation. Another said she didn’t know what she would do, but she hoped she would think about it before she plunged in. She wondered about the sister of that San Francisco family.
Me too. It is not an answerable question really, but a mesmerizing one in so many ways. It speaks to the places animals like dogs occupy in our lives, to the changes in perspective we have seen about the importance of pets to us, and the ways in which dogs and cats and other pets are mirrors are where we are heading as a society. Is a dog’s life equal to ours? Some said it was more important, others disagreed. It is a telling reflection of our times that it would even be a discussion. Check out the comments if you can. One of the most interesting threads I have seen in awhile.
I’ve entered a different and powerful phase of my lifelong experience working to understand and control and shed fear, and it has been unusually difficult for me to write about it, as it is intense and disturbing and confusing sometimes. I am writing about it, as always, in the hope that it might be useful to others working to deal with fear and also because it is central to my creativity and my identity as a writer and a photographer. And because it helps me to understand it. Fear has shaped every element of my life and work, for better or worse.
A woman e-mailed me recently and told me she was living a loveless and meaningless life doing work she hated for people she disliked in a place she hated. She was bored and unfulfilled, she said, but she was almost never afraid. Why, she wondered, wasn’t she, why was I? I don’t know her, but she is almost precisely what I most fear and I could only imagine that she was not afraid because she took no risks and never changed. I have a meaningful and creative life and I have always known the gift of fear, it has moved me forward and forced me to awaken, shaped my best writing, poems, blogs and photographs. I have needed and used fear, much as it has damaged, even crippled me.
I was badly frightened as a child by a number of different things and that shaped my life and left me a legacy of fear, even terror. In the nights I would lay awake in fear, paralyzed and unable to move. I responded to it by hiding the fear wherever I could – in money, other people, quitting jobs, avoiding intimacy, lots of animals, giving away things to people, using people to soothe my ferocious anxieties. I have been trying to deal with this fear, which manifested itself in so many unhealthy and destructive ways, all of my life. In analysis. Therapy. With pills and medications, flights and retreats, books and photographs, and many material things, and through a long string of counselors, gurus, helpers. It is powerful, ferocious, a Sandy inside of me.
A few years ago, I stopped therapy and medications and began a different course and it has been a difficult but productive path.
It has taken me decades of continuous work and examination to begin to see the patterns of my life, and only recently in meditation have I come to see and confront the very damaged and yet curiously determined nature of my mind. The bad news was that my whole neural system was wrapped around terror, the good news is that I have always wanted to change that, every day of my life, for as long as I can remember. If I am damaged, I am also strong and determined to find love and bring it into my life. I work on fear every night, every day. It is, to me, like chipping away at barnicles under water, one piece at a time, not a process of revelation but of many small steps.
Now, there is no place for me to hide.
No more money to smother my anxieties, no more people eager to take on my life and problems, no more jobs to find, places to run, people to soothe me. Maria and I are as close as people can be, but I will not use her in that way and she will not be used in that way any longer in her life. My fear is naked, stripped, nose-to-nose with me, especially in the night, the old meeting ground. I can see it clearly now, it is hanging on for dear life, I am letting go of so many offshoots of it – anger, complaint, struggle, self-pity, argument and it is naked, as am I. It is wrenching and sometimes profoundly discouraging. I wonder every day if I am strong enough to deal with it at a point in life when most people are letting go of life’s struggles and turning to their pensions and IRA’s. It seems I am just beginning my life.
When I got divorced and broke down five years ago, I told a therapist that I would not spend the rest of my life loveless and afraid.
I have found love and I am wrapped around my fear, seeing it more distinctly than ever in meditation and with the help of a teacher, not a soother. When I told her a few days ago that I felt as if I were falling off a cliff, failing in my life and work, she told me I was full of crap and suggested I drop the old stories of my life and move on. I hear it. Whenever I called my doctor last week, a naturopath who has been my much loved doctor for several years and told him I hadn’t slept for several days and felt as if I were falling apart, he asked me one question: did you take a beautiful picture today?
I said I did, and he said you are healthy.
So I have decided to write about fear again, and share this critical part of the process as I have been doing for some time. Because every single day, every where I go, every time I look at my e-mail, I am at a crossroads, terrified to unleash this thing, exhilarated at the opportunity. Leap of faith, say the counselors. Close your eyes and jump. I don’t seek a life without fear any more than I want a perfect life. Neither is meaningful or rational to me. I am proud of who I am these days, and I can’t and won’t disown myself. You can change, but you cannot change into a different human being. A farmer’s wife came up to me at a recent book reading and she said she had been following my work for years and going to my readings when she could, and she said “you have changed, especially since you met this little lady, haven’t you?”
I hope so, I said, I hope so.
Fear is as much a part of me as walking, I cannot make it disappear. But I mean to control it, and not let it control me.