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The Barn at the End of the WorldThe Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd
By Mary Rose O'Reilley
Milkweed EditionsCopyright © 2001 Mary Rose O'Reilley
All right reserved.
Restless, I go down to the barn and attempt to dissect the concept of "peace ..."
As I help Anna clean out the lambing pens, my skirt pinned up under an apron, mind and body begin to alter their usual relation to each other. I cannot think about "peace"; I cannot think about anything. This is a natural consequence of doing the kind of repetitive work called "mindless" by those who disdain it. Yet my mind is not so much absent as still. It's not at its usual station in my head, but diffused throughout my body. Or, slid beyond the body, even, to encompass all that's going on in the barn.
My hands are efficiently chucking down clean straw and, as I watch the ewe position herself for the scrambling lamb, my nipples contract in the reflex of a nursing mother. If I were not well past the childbearing years, my blouse might be soaked with milk. This is a passing, negligible sensation, a product merely of being present. I do not stop working to examine it. A casual dissolution of boundaries body-to-body happens when you work in the barn. With animals, it's safe, and pertinent, to have no edges. It helpsyou to manage sheep and them to manage you. If I bother to retrieve my mind, I find it shared out among the ewes, who have made good time with it.
There is deep rest in this loss of self. Peace, which implies stillness, and ecstasy: every hair in motion. Thus lovers and people who read each other's poems breathe the other, if they love or read well. Thus music. If you play the fiddle, no matter how badly, and you go to hear a great violinist--as last month I went to a concert of Isaac Stern's--you hear the performance in the hollows of your own body (or has it ceased to be your body?)--that lilt of Stern's at the tip of the bow is in your fingers. If I am flowing in this moment through one pride of skin and not another, it's accident. And I test the limits of this bubble as once I tested the limits of the womb.
When you go down to the lambing pens you can tell from the doorway if something's gone wrong: a ewe whose lamb is dead will have slipped back in the fold with her sisters. Most animals are pragmatic and have little patience with weakness--perhaps you have seen how a mother cat will favor her strong, aggressive kitten and paw aside the runts. Last night Anna struggled till 3 A.M. to save a lamb too short to reach the teats, tubing colostrum into her stomach, then bottle feeding every two hours. This morning the lamb came to me with her tail shaking, a sign of health, and took two ounces of formula. In the barnyard, I try to volunteer a shift with Anna, sparing her the night work since I'm fresher.
But--"I don't think we will have to stay up tonight," she says. Her tone is the oblique and respectful one used by my dad and his pilot friends when refusing to pronounce the word crash. Over her shoulder I see four ewes in the fold where three had been standing.
We put the dead lamb in a plastic bucket, later to bury. "Poor little mauser," says Anna. "Still, she had some good hours."
Philosophers make distinctions between varieties of dispossession; it cannot be the same, they say, to surrender to love, to music, to animal creation, and to prayer. (But stand with someone you love, palm to palm, eyes closed, and sing a perfect fourth ...) Since I experience these slips of consciousness as similar, I can only speak from what I know. Intensity of presence is the common element, though in the next moment one could say, intensity of absence.
Without presence, the violence would be unthinkable: of God, of Zen practice, of lovemaking, and certainly of the farm. How disquieting to fight so hard for the life of a lamb and tomorrow meet its cousin tucked up in the crockpot. Namaste: I honor the god in you.
8 A.M. in the Sheep Barn
Sheep prolapse their rectums because they cough too much ..." Ben, the barn manager, was telling me as we headed into the morning's task, trimming necrotic tissue from the rectums of five two-hundred-pound Hampshire ram lambs.
I am capable of dithering for years over some foolish decision; but at other times, important shifts come with absolute authority, in the time it takes to sink a basket or fall dead. One day, after I came back to America from Anna's sheep farm in England, I found myself brooding over a question of lamb nutrition. "Phone Hank," a farming friend told me. "He's a professor of sheep science."
Incredulously: "Sheep science?"
"That's what they call it at the college."
A subsequent conversation with Hank about colostrum and intubation fascinated me so much that I blurted, "If I want to find out more about all this, what should I do?"
"Be at the sheep barn, 8:00 tomorrow morning," he said.
"OK," I said, and there went my plans for the next year and a half.
Hank put me under Ben's tutelage. Ben was a senior agriculture student, strong and competent, who had grown up on a sheep farm in western Minnesota. He had white-blond hair and wore a feed cap that said "I Care About My Animals."
"What makes them cough?" I wanted to know. Anna's sheep in England rarely coughed.
"If you could tell me that ..." Ben's voice trailed off as the stench of necrotic tissue wafted up from the hind quarters of the ram we were working on. "What I don't do for you guys," Ben said to the sheep.
The rectum is a straight tube of intestinal tissue, and when a sheep coughs repeatedly, the tube is pushed out and protrudes from the anus like an angry sausage. When that happens, our task is to wrap a heavy rubber band around the protrusion, cutting off the blood supply and necrotizing the tissue. First we plug the rectum with a syringe casing (there are always a few left over from routine inoculations). Through the casing, open at both ends, the lamb can continue to defecate. After a few days, when the tissue is dead, you cut it off. That's what we're doing today.
I hand instruments to Ben and hold the grunting lambs in the metal cradle that flips them with their feet in the air, bum presenting. This procedure does not make the lambs too happy, but they leave in better condition than they arrived, with a walk similar to the postpartum swagger of women on the delivery floor.
Bolting out of bed at six that June morning, I had suffered a fashion crisis. What to wear on a Minnesota farm? The older farmers I know wear brown polyester jumpsuits, like factory workers. The young ones wear jeans, but the forecast was for ninety-five degrees with heavy humidity. The wardrobe of Quaker ladies in their middle years runs to denim skirts and hiking boots. This outfit had worked fine for me in England. But one of my jobs in Minnesota will be to climb onto the industrial cuisinart in the hay barn and mix fifty-pound bags of nutritional supplement and corn into blades as big as my body. Getting a skirt caught in that thing would be bad news for Betty Crocker.
My favorite cotton shirt is printed with sunflowers and celebrates Organic Gardening Week in big green letters. I've decided this shirt might be impolitic. Organic gardeners are about as welcome in production farming as bird watchers in logging country. Finally I settled on lightweight cotton pants and one of my son's V-necked undershirts. This ensemble turns out to be perfect for trimming rectal tissue, and is soon covered in lamb shit.
When Ben gave me my inaugural tour of the barn, he made it clear that his major interest is in lamb production. Our Polypay flock, a mixture of Dorset, Targhee, Finn, and Rambouillet, is bred to bear young almost year-around. He doesn't encourage dependency. "When I started here," Ben told me, "the ewes would come up to me and groan and want help with the lambing. I make them lamb on their own. My goal is to make every animal in here independent of me."
Ben's hard-ass pose makes me think he would not be sympathetic to organic gardeners and vegetarians. I want to stay anonymous in my affiliations if only to avoid being stereotyped as the lamb-hugger I am. I long to be accepted as a worker among workers.
In return, I try not to stereotype Ben. He works hard, seems to love it, and is a natural, hands-on teacher.
I consort with a lot of liberals who are animal rights activists, and, while I respect their positions, I find they often do not know much about the practical order. In fact, investigating the essential facts of food production is one thing that's drawn me to the barn. One professorial friend recently scolded me about the "perverse and unnatural" business of breeding animals year-round. I don't know. Maybe. On the other hand, many third-world people, mostly women, depend on lamb production to make their living. I could count my English friend, Anna, among these marginal women. She runs about twenty sheep and each one is an individual to her, living out a fairly normal ruminant life except, of course, for the lambs, whose sale has put her sons through university.
Yet even slaughter--I do not shrink from the word--can be accomplished with respect. Anna takes the lambs to her local butcher two-by-two in a small van, because she believes the large cattle trucks frighten them. The butcher renders them unconscious with a stun gun and then cuts their throats. They are hung immediately and the meat is perfectly tended. Anna believes it's a mark of reverence for the animals to take perfect care of their meat and to waste nothing.
I told my friend that if I wanted to have an effect on animal rights, I would be inclined to follow Anna's reasonable example ...
"Mary?" Ben snaps across my line of internal chatter. "Stop thinking. Flip that ram for me, will you? Your body knows how to do it. Don't try to do it with your mind."
Ben has, in some cosmic transaction, accepted the position of my Zen master.
I would not say I am looking for God. Or, I am not looking for God precisely. I am not seeking the God I learned about as a Catholic child, as an eighteen-year-old novice in a religious community, as an agnostic graduate student, as--but who cares about my disguises? Or God's.
In childhood, exiled by rheumatic fever to a back bedroom, I existed for months in boredom so exquisite it approached, as it now seems to me, the threshold of satori. Next to my bed was a table, and on the table lay a thick glass to protect the wood surface beneath. Propped on pillows, a child could stare slantwise into a half-inch angle of refraction that disappeared into infinity. I longed to slip into this world under glass and drift through the dense sea of light where (something told me) no gravity governed the operation of things. Yet sometimes the prospect of liberation terrified me; tumbling into sleep, I would waken in horror at a dream of falling into a void between the glass and the table, drifting forever without even the minimal distractions of my confined life: soap operas on the radio, lunch, arithmetic worksheets, fear of the doctor, the click of my mother's heels when she came home from work.
When the temptation comes over me to say I am looking for God, this primal scene sometimes returns. Other recollections crowd in as well, many of them from childhood; all of them have in common the sense of brushing (with longing and fear) against a parallel universe. The young exist quite naturally in a liminal world; consider how children's books retain this intuition of possibility: that in the back of the wardrobe or through a wrinkle in time, down a hole in the garden, on the back of a sparrow, or in the company of Mr. Toad, you can simply chuck the grown-ups and be there, where things count. Plato, I believe, had long periods of indulging a similar whimsy. And so do most poets. "There are things I tell to no one," writes Galway Kinnell (telling):
Those close to me might think
I was sad, and try to comfort me, or become sad
At such times I go off alone, in silence, as if listening
I am saying these things to explain why, in the middle of my life, I found myself wandering away, as children do, sometimes alone, sometimes in silence. I went to Anna's sheep farm in England, to a Buddhist monastery in France, to a parsonage in rural Maine. I completed a certification program in spiritual direction, learning to talk to people who wanted to talk to God. I went back to serious work in my first college major, music, and traveled around singing and playing fiddle duets with Robin, the man who has long been my music partner and life's companion. My university job no longer interested me as much as it once had. Teaching English is (as professorial jobs go) unusually labor-intensive and draining. To do it well, you have to spend a lot of time coaching students individually on their writing and thinking. Strangely enough, I still had a lot of energy for this student-oriented part of the job. Rather, it was books that no longer interested me, drama and fiction in particular. It was as though a priest, in midcareer, had come to doubt the reality of transubstantiation. I could still engage with poems and expository prose, but most fiction seemed the product of extremities I no longer wished to visit. So many years of Zen training had reiterated, "Don't get lost in the dramas of life"; and here I had to stand around in a classroom defending Oedipus.
Or maybe it was twenty-five years of Quaker discipline that had made me suspicious of fiction; Quakers have, after all, some theology in common with that clique who shut down the theaters in 1642. The Society of Friends, with its practical focus, has tended to produce natural scientists, botanical illustrators, and manufacturers of chocolate bars. Quakers seldom write fiction and I can't, offhand, think of any who write it well. Our rather unimaginative testimonies about literal truth lead us away from what we, erroneously, take for its opposite: story. Once I was staying at a Quaker community that suffered flooding in the night from an ice dam on the library roof. Fortunately--or as it turned out, ironically--one of my goddaughters was staying with me, a young woman employed professionally as a museum preservationist. She sprang into action. "I'll call a friend of mine who knows how to dry out books," she volunteered, looking at the sodden volumes, many of them rare. "Oh, don't worry about it," the librarian told her. "It's only the fiction section."
I would not have majored in English and gone on to teach literature had I not been able to construct a counterargument about the truthfulness of fiction; still, as writers turn away from the industrious villages of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, I learn less and less from them that helps me to ponder my life. In time, I found myself agreeing with the course evaluations written by my testier freshmen students: "All the literature we read this term was depressing." How naive. How sane. One night I begged Robin, a scientist by training, to watch Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" with me on PBS. He lasted about one act, then turned to me in horror: "This is how you spend your days? Thinking about things like this?" I was ashamed. I could have been learning about string theory or how flowers pollinate themselves.
I think his remark was the beginning of my crisis of faith. Like so many of my generation in graduate school, I had turned to literature as a kind of substitute for formal religion, which no longer fed my soul, or for therapy, which I could not afford. With therapy, given luck, time, or medication, the neurosis wanes and one no longer makes appointments. Teaching English, the neurosis wanes as well, and then ... well, why do you think so many English teachers become administrators, or throw themselves into abstract contemplation of critical theory? For my part, I became interested in exploring the theory of nonfiction and in writing memoir, a genre that gives us access to that lost Middlemarch of reflection and social commentary. Quakers are, as a group, pigheaded individualists. George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, issued a famous challenge to his followers: "Christ saith this and the Apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light? ..." What could be more validating to the journal keeper?
I do not think, however, that a memoir is intrinsically more truthful than a novel. Indeed, the diarist should remind herself daily how subjective her occupation is, because she has the overwhelming advantage and responsibility of inscribing her version of events. She should keep in mind, at least--as should her readers--the old country-and-western song, "We live in a two-storey house. She has her story and I have mine." One kind of nonfiction is, I think, a subspecies of poetry, and poetry is a way to honor the stream of things by observation. Poetry affirms the hunger of our condition: for each other, for comprehension, for God, for the landscape outside self. But it is not botanical illustration.
Having come to doubt the reality of (literary) transubstantiation, I needed, as I do in any crisis, a practical focus. So I became a shepherd: a hireling shepherd. It's a job with good Biblical antecedents. I went to work in the agricultural division of a land grant college and took on two hundred sheep to be my spiritual teachers. It was a toss-up between that and joining an enclosed contemplative order. "Ora et labora," the Benedictines teach: work and pray. That's what I wanted to do. Though what would it mean to pray? I had no idea.
Thoreau--whom I could still read with pleasure--under similar duress had formulated his famous pronouncement:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear ...
Lovers of Walden will observe that in my quotation I have stopped short of Thoreau's full agenda: the part about sucking out the marrow of life, living sturdily and Spartan-like, cutting swaths and shaving close, driving life into a corner. Even as a tubercular thirty-year-old, he had more energy than I, as well as more tolerance for austerity. Besides, it was not my first foray into living deliberately: convent life had wakened that impulse in me. Marriage, bearing children, divorce, single parenting, work: all had confronted me with certain essential facts of life. I wasn't even unhappy. The fact is, living (somewhat) consciously, like eating wonderful food, had given me more rather than less of an appetite. I had found living so dear that I wanted to do it full time.
How is one to act as if? Start with what you know. What are your deepest instincts? What have you long denied? Over and over, through the years, I had denied the deep peace that came to me in a barn full of animals. I think that, to the extent we're well socialized, we habitually ignore impulses in our lives that don't fit the cultural script. Yet people frequently tell me about longings that arise as though from nowhere--the stock analyst who wants to write film scripts, the lawyer with a dream of building houses for the poor. When my friends tell me these things, I feel that I've been put in the presence of a tender mystery, yet they often reveal their hearts with a sad, dismissive laugh: "Oh, I know it's just a crazy fantasy." We fear these impulses because they have the potential to disrupt our social house of cards, our livelihood, our families. A fellow teacher who longed to sing opera made fun of herself this way: "It's as crazy as Zelda Fitzgerald wanting to dance ballet."
Cultural wisdom says, "Don't quit your day job." Yet I think these desires represent our psyche's stretch toward wholeness. And to be whole, as many religious traditions teach, is to make manifest a unique face of God in the world. We don't want to be irresponsible, yet for every accountant who deserts his family and sails for Tahiti, ten American men have heart attacks at their desks, after hours. And so I usually say to people who bring their longings to me, "Is there a way you can incorporate this need into your daily life, on a kind of trial basis, to see where it leads you? Take singing lessons, learn Italian?"
These kinds of conversations often happen in the course of spiritual direction--by the way, coming out of an egalitarian Quaker tradition, I prefer the term "spiritual companioning." Whatever you call it, it's different from psychology, but it makes a parallel effort to translate the subtle codes of the unconscious. I could not, back when I made the decision to tend sheep, understand the language of my desire. I didn't know what the barn was "about." In fact, I think it's a mistake to be too literal in our response to inner directions--it's when we're too literal that we make regrettable mistakes about sailing to Tahiti. Before you can follow your heart's desire, you have to examine your heart closely. It's a subtle instrument of inquiry, the examined heart.
I don't know why Thoreau went to the woods, rather than to England or to the Carthusians or to some nineteenth-century Mall of America. Neither could I say why, precisely, I went to the barn. And why did this need for deliberate life well up just then, in 1845 or 1995, for Henry David or for me? Thoreau, who elides as much as he tells, says he wished to transact "some private business with the fewest obstacles." And what was he looking for? "I long ago lost," he says, "a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove and am still on their trail."
Oh, yes. I know them. They slipped me, too.
Thoreau's brief catalog of longing and desire seems to me as unpretentious, tentative, and proportionate a description as I have ever come across of the condition of someone going on spiritual business. How unyielding, on the terrain of this delicate work, seem to me the hard-edged names of God. Years ago I resolved I would go to seminary if only I could somehow stand aside from theology's relentless dissection and categorization of holy things--a worthy activity for people of a certain temperament, but antithetical to mine. The study of spiritual direction, by contrast, grows out of contemplative tradition, where all the names of God rapidly become moot. "Contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere," says Thomas Aquinas: Gaze with love on God, share what has been seen with others.
Excerpted from The Barn at the End of the World by Mary Rose O'Reilley Copyright © 2001 by Mary Rose O'Reilley. Excerpted by permission.
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