March 5, 2012 § 7 Comments
Down in M’s barn last night, we stood only a few feet from the hind end of one of his cows as it dripped afterbirth into the gutter. He’d gotten a heifer out of her, and this seemed to put him in a good mood; when I’d seen him earlier in the day, he’d told me he was expecting a bull calf. “She’s 11 days late,” he said, rather irritably. “Probably another bull.” According to M, late calves are most often bulls. I have no idea if there’s any scientific basis for this, but the guy’s been farming for something like six decades, so who am I to argue?
Anyway, we were talking about the state of things today. This being a frequent topic of conversation for us. Specifically, we were talking about what seems to be an epidemic of depression and general dissatisfaction with life in twenty-first century American society, how people are unable to extract themselves from the ruts in which they increasingly seem to find themselves entrenched. M told me how, shortly before he was born, his mother had given birth to a baby girl. The girl (he didn’t tell me her name) died four months later, of pneumonia. “My father told my mother she had two months to grieve, and then it was time to get back to it,” M said. “So that’s what she did.”
I was a bit taken aback: Two months? To grieve your dead baby daughter? But of course the times were different; they demanded able hands, a strong back, and the presence of mind to make use of both. M’s parents owned a dairy farm. It was the early 40’s, or thereabouts. There would be no long, drawn out period of depression or grieving, because there could be no long, drawn-out period of depression or grieving.
I thought about this in the context of my own life, how every so often I’ll wake up in a foul mood, or feeling unmoored for reasons that elude me. And how it is that my morning rounds to the animals never – and I mean never – fail to bring me around. Sometimes I don’t even realize it until later; I’ll carry my pissy mood through chores, and perhaps even into breakfast, wishing like all get out that I didn’t have to do chores on just this one day. But of course, that’s not an option and inevitably, at some point shortly thereafter, something shifts, and I find myself whistling, or singing under my breath, or simply feeling lighter. Maybe it’s the physicality of our choretime ritual: Throwing hay, hauling water, shoveling snow. A little sweat on the brow, the stretching and flexing of muscles in ways so familiar they have become nothing short of ritual. Or maybe it’s the animals themselves: How can you be in a bad mood when you have so many loyal friends depending on you for their survival? Probably, it’s some of both, coupled with the humbling recognition that I am incredibly privileged to begin my days in such a manner.
I’m pretty sure I’ve never been truly depressed the way some people get depressed, so it’d be presumptuous of me to suggest that chores are an antidote to the epidemic of emotional malaise M and I were talking about. Yet I can’t help but wonder: If we still inhabited a society where people had something real to grab hold of each and every day, something that needed them to be there without fail, even in moments of frailty and sadness, if everyone could just begin their day by cutting the twine on a bale of hay and breathing the scent of summer, would we not be better off?
Yeah, I know, I’m biased. But I’m putting all my chips on my faith that we sure as hell would.