Saturday, February 1st, is my fourth Penguin Plunge into Lake Paran in North Bennington, VT to help raise money for Vermont Special Olympics. I’ll be happy to be on the other side of that day, and if you ask this California-gal how I got myself into it in the first place, you’d learn that it’s one of the many gifts of being a parent.
A few years ago my youngest daughter joined a friend to dive in to the local lake through a hole cut in the ice, and somehow, some way I tagged along thereafter. Our team of youth and a couple of parents have a silly time dressing up in ridiculous outfits and jumping into the icy water with hundreds of other crazy Vermonters. I use the event as a hurdle to cross to get myself from one month to the next during my least favorite time of year. While I’m inspired and grateful to Martin Luther King, Jr.,the month of January just doesn’t hold enough sunshine in it to sustain me without throwing in some additional celebration. Putting the Penguin Plunge on the calendar furnishes a goal. Additionally, this month, the bonus was that I would get to see my girls, home from college, to participate.
My farm hands have been reduced, and what a cold month to lose help in the barn. If you’ve been a friend of the farm and followed, you’ll know that my right-hand-woman is Char. My amazing Char. I could count on her to always help me with anything. She can build a cage or shelter, she can treat a sick animal, de-worm a thousand pound horse, settle a wound-up pony, she can dig and muck and haul and then bring you toast and coffee, or tea, or water, or anything. She’ll find your favorite playlist and keep the mood upbeat and you can count on her for efforts to cheer and lighten any situation. She’s a problem-solver and troubleshooter and makes excellent Pad Thai. She sews and creates with an eye to detail and story that I sometimes can’t fathom. She sings at the top of her lungs all ’round the house and farm. She quotes everything and anything, relevant or not.
She headed to college this semester and now I have to share her with the rest of the world so that they can reap her amazingness also. Can’t keep her to myself.
It has been 23 years that I have had my kids home with me, homeschooling them from the time Char was 4 until the last couple of years when she enrolled at a nearby highschool for outside tutelage to complete her secondary schooling. My eldest got his undergrad degree last May and my middle daughter has just a few courses left before she’s completed hers.
Though I’m not entirely empty nest, it is a giant adjustment to not share my days and nights with my kids within earshot. My husband, relatives, furred, feathered & community friends and neighbors are all excellent company. For example, a barrage of beautiful children’s art decorates my refrigerator lest I am saddened by the solitude. Loving locals won’t let me languish as they call on me with cups of chai, dinner invites, events and parties, text messages to save me a seat, offers of help. I am so touched.
An example of my knights-in-shining armor is friend Tara, pulling up one day mid-morning, hooded and huddled after spending hours mucking her own barn. She arrived to check on my status, bearing baked goods to share. Her timing was impeccable. I was about to attempt to move the harassed, of late, alpacas to a different pasture, keeping the ramming ram and feisty buck at bay while shooing and dancing with gates and crooks and electric-mesh fence jumproping.
God sent me an angel in the form of a hoodied, honorary daughter who can wrangle a ram with the best of them.
I’m spoiled rotten.
But still, I’m doing a lot of talking to myself. And to the pets.
I had big ideas for my personal-curriculum once I had this imagined empty chunk of life in front of me. My son texted me on my first “alone” day, “How are the bon-bons?” in response to the forecast that when I was home alone I would sit around eating confections on a chaise.
Not one to hold back from a good cry, for a few days I worked hard suppressing the huge sobs that I knew would set me back in this dark, cold time of year so as to be useful to myself, my family and friends, my responsibilities. It was a good move. Checking my quivering chin at the door, I have poured myself in to my work.
I’ve learned a thing or two from parenting and farming, and that being that there’s more to come. One of Char’s methods of coping and navigating the murky social waters of highschool relationships was to avail herself as an encouraging, motivating individual. She’d bolster up a blue pal by giving them a pep-talk, accompanied by a written to-do/check-list of pros, cons, blessings to count, things to work on. I like to picture her, the voice of reason, chatting up some 16-year old that was overwhelmed, stressed by school and life.
What a kid. I’ll always be proud of her pulling out the stops to cheer up some chap or gal that probably didn’t even know she wrestled with her own demons during that troubling time. (She wasn’t a huge fan of the high school-scene, but that’s another topic, another day.)
The Special Olympics provide physical opportunities for those with intellectual disabilities and supports the positive growth of so many youth and adults that might not have such enrichment otherwise. Participants have the chance to experience joy, new relationships, added skills and challenges. Somehow being directly involved in helping this cause serves me more than I am serving it by fundraising. I’m only participating in a stunt to draw attention to the need that is not mine. And that feels selfish.
I know the lake is going to be biting cold and the shock of it will take my breath. I’ll be looking for the helpful hands of the rescue workers that surround the ice when I come up and out of the water because my heart does seem to skip a beat or two afterward….but still…intrinsic rewards, right? Back to that old quandary of whether true altruism can exist.
So there I am, out in the frozen barnyard, kicking icebergs of horse manure to loosen them before I rake them up and toss them like miniature, percussive boulders into the wheelbarrow. Goats stepping on my boots, little Angora kids cuddling up next to my knees, curious to hear what I’m chatting about. Alpacas mewing at me across the way. Horses up in the back paddock, lifting their chins and dialing their ears my direction. Sheep chewing cuds in their pasture, following me with their eyes as I to and fro, back and forth putter around the fields. Poultry party going on in the coop-yard, parting seas while I set thawed buckets of fresh drinking water down for them. Princess Peppermint, the piglet, responsively squealing and grunting, tagging along.
I channel my youngest daughter and focus on the tasks at hand, the plans for the days, weeks and months ahead. The excitement of projects to begin, to complete. Wallowing can’t happen here now or anytime soon. There’s really just not time…nor is it a good time of year to do so. Peppermint, the Pig, will tell me that much – the snow and ice mean the only place she can wallow is in a dusty, straw-filled stall and I’m just not willing to spend that much time in there with her.
I haven’t changed much from when I was a teenager with a broken heart, finding relevant lyrics in every song that plays on the radio, and I don’t apologize for it. Sara Bareilles says “There’s too many things that I haven’t done yet, Too many sunsets I haven’t seen, You can’t waste the day wishing it’d slow down” in Many the Miles.
I’ve been too busy to get myself some bon-bons. Come to think of it, I’ve never even had one.
So, add that to the list.