When it Comes

The repeating sameness of the midwinter days gives the impression that nothing’s really happening, that time has suspended itself, that nothing changes except for maybe the monochromatic greyness of the sky, one day a bit lighter, the next a bit darker, the next sprinkling snow as if from a shaker. I wake, build a fire, make coffee, feed the cows, feed the fire, ski, work, more coffee, more chores, more fire, read, sleep, and wake to do it all over again.

But throughout it all everything is changing: Our elder son is hired to lead river expeditions from a base on northern California, and prepares to leave. Our younger son is hired to help build a sugarhouse and install 35,000 taps in time for the first sap run, and is out the door every morning long before light. Our old washing machine dies a clunking death. A neighbor’s house burns to the ground.

I try to place my attention where my attention is worthy of being placed, while simultaneously trying to remember that I get to decide what is worthy and what is not. I try to decide wisely. It’s a lot of trying. And still, every day: Build fire, make coffee, do chores, go to woods. Visit with my sons in the moments they’re home and in the mood for visiting, a confluence of circumstances that seems to arise with decreasing frequency, like a clock winding down.

The hard part of winter is over. Or it is for me, anyway. The days are getting longer, and despite that unrelenting monochromatic sky, the sun soon to return (I even saw it once last week!). It’s all downhill from here, a soft glide into the early days of spring, the first bare patches of ground on the south-facing slopes, the muddy, tire-sucking backroads, the rutted driveway, the sap running hard, tufts of shed cow hair stuck to my jacket, the near-empty woodshed, the skis propped optimistically by the front door for another outing or two if the conditions are right. The house often empty, or nearly so. The wet, fecund smell of the thaw. I remember that smell. I like that smell. I’ll try to give it my full attention when it comes.

24 thoughts on “When it Comes”

    1. I could be near Gualala, and I know his son! But alas, I bicycled right through it in Oct ‘19 and am now a two day ride away. But yes, Ben, Fin is of interest to us.

  1. Ben, I wonder if you also read, and were influenced by, yesterday’s NYT article by Charlie Warzel on attention.

    It’s time that we pay attention to where we pay attention. I thought of that while skinning up a mountain this morning, AirPods sharing interviews on the sense of smell + Corona symptoms, while my body zinged with an overdose of oxygen, the whip of wind, and the excitement of the descent soon to come.

    1. Yes! That was my inspiration. I thought to post the link, but assumed it was behind a paywall. (yes, it’s true, I pay $4/mo to get my fake news from the liberal lamestream media;))

  2. Ben….Southeastern New England has been monochromatic for most of the past week with a break in the clouds this morning that produced an incredible sunrise rarely seen. So I was told. That’s what happens when one sleeps in until 8:30, something also rarely seen.

    These darkish days usually carry a chill in them being surrounded by water here. The best wind is northwest as it’s dry but cold. We’ve had a few nor’easters this winter but yet to have that classic 3 dayer. Before winter ends I hope we get one. I’ll like the monochromatic flavor that comes with it and the sight of the Atlantic stirred into a froth. Visual exhilaration.

  3. Thanks for sharing again, Ben. Great to hear about the kids, or men. I still picture them suspended in time from a picture, one of your book covers, i think. Maybe 10 years back.
    I love hearing about your routines & suspect it might be a ‘secret’ to a satisfying life.

  4. Oh gosh, the boys have become men! My guess is they are 2 years older than what I thought they were. But, I guess that happens when we aren’t around to watch them. Has it been that long already?

    Sun is a precious thing in winter here in the northern tier. We had some today, thankfully, as it was only 18 and windy as could be. A brutal week ahead, but that much closer to spring where we are for sure. I miss being there, but I don’t miss mud season – you can keep it.

    You describe the simple life so beautifully – and we are blessed to be able to live it, aren’t we? Well, keep the home fires burning – winter ain’t done yet!

  5. It sounds like you did a good job – the boys are independent, doing things they want to be doing. So you give them your attention while they’re there, and then carry on.

  6. This passage: “I try to place my attention where my attention is worthy of being placed, while simultaneously trying to remember that I get to decide what is worthy and what is not. I try to decide wisely. It’s a lot of trying.” And I wonder if it is worth trying. I wonder what that even means. Do you try to turn away from suffering and does that perpetuate it?…It may be a point of faith in me but I think (or I think I want to think) that Life gives us what we need. Anyway, I can’t say I ever really feel in control of my attention. I can observe it though. And I can identify with it, or not. Do you get my drift? Anyway, I was just thinking about how you hardly ever write about your family anymore. Also, I noticed you started posting pictures again. Enjoy the down hill run. Half the wood and half the hay. Thanks as always for your writing.

    1. Is it worth trying? Maybe, maybe not. For me, I think so. Or perhaps, as you suggest, it’s enough to just be aware, to observe. Yeah, I don’t write about the family so much. Too many people starting to feel attached. My own fault, I admit. I’ve been enjoying taking pictures during my morning ski outings, glad you noticed. Half the wood, half the hay… huh. If so, we’re in deep trouble;)

    2. Control is relative, like my cousin. We can control our effort, and thereby exert influence, like what my cousin has on me.

  7. Ah yes, a nice capture of the depressing grayness and associated seasonal affective disorder so characteristic of a northern New England winter.
    I’m a bit surprised that you would comment of the sameness of your daily routine, as being a subsistence farmer with livestock to care for requires a certain amount of daily routine to keep them fed and producing. Almost every dairy farmers’ kid who I grew up around complained about never being able to go on vacation ’cause the herd needed to be milked every 12 hours regardless of how much the people doing the milking would rather be elsewhere.

    Glad to hear that the boys are well. ‘Hope that Rye will be sufficiently motivated to continue his home and on-site course of study toward a high school diploma.

    It is pretty monochromatic her in Omaha too. Gray sky, gray trees, and white snow, plus colder than usual temperatures and COVID isolation. Damn, just typing that sentence was depressing!

  8. My hillbilly arse had never heard of ‘fecund’…. I try daily to not ‘pay attention’, except to the sun, birds, trees, and whatnot. I have no control, except to let go of thinking I have control. Then I tell myself that by letting go of trying to control I’m actually doing something good, which is just me trying to control shit again. Whoops!

  9. So beautiful Ben! I’ve been thinking about attention lots lately. We joined Instagram in the beginning of Covid in an effort to share/connect more and also keep an eye on/learn with our teenage daughter who also created an account. Mostly it makes me feel terribly lost…both sharing and scrolling. However, my attention spent in this space has never felt wasted. We’ve been inspired by you all in numerous ways. Thanks for real words.

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