A Wish List

A few years ago I penned an excerpt to remind myself, perhaps better phrased to reflect to myself, what I desired in a partner during a life altering breakup. I found it today cleaning out an old box, and I thought about how far I’ve come. How somber the world felt the night I penned this hopeful wish list. How grateful I am that I closed that chapter of my story, but mostly how grateful I am for the journey. Life is never certain, but it is always good.

Attachment.png

Jan. 2018

What do I want?

Happiness isn’t found in picket fences or diamond rings or six figure salaries or trips around the world. Love doesn’t grow in checking accounts or IRA’s or neatly tidied and organized homes. Life is not meant to be just be survived from day to day, what is life without joy? What is love without comfort? What is home without peace?

I wish for humble joy:

I want a man who’ll let me and our babies run barefoot through mud puddles in the spring, and even if he doesn’t feel the need to join in will greet us at the door with a water hose and a warm towel.

I want a man who will own the grill on the 4th of July, with an ice chest of glass bottles beside him, who won’t be too proud to canon ball into the pool and will brag that my homemade ice cream is better than heaven.

I want a man who will tolerate watching “Its a Wonderful Life” every single Christmas Eve while we wrap gifts from Santa, and who, the next morning, will then lay in the floor and excitedly put together legos and Barbie dolls and not be in a hurry to clean up Christmas.

I want a man who makes a big deal out of birthday candles and who never buys a gift that doesn’t bark or sparkle.

I want a man who longs to see the world and suck the marrow out of every experience life has to offer, and yet who will find contentment in a nap on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

I want a man who will hold my hand in the comfortable silence of a long car ride, a man who will kiss me on the forehead in the still of the night, a man who is generous with simple expressions of affection.

I want safe certainty:

I want a man who will take out the trash when it’s full and unload the dishwasher or change the laundry—because he lives there too and sees the need, not because I told him it needed to be done.

I want a man who will sit by my hospital bed and hold my hand instead of checking his email, who’ll worry and pray over me, who’ll hold my hand or my hair and not make me feel weak in my moments of weakness.

I want a man who will raise babies who know they can crawl in our bed at 2am when they’ve had a bad dream and want to feel safe again, and who will foster an environment that as they grow they can confidently reach out for support and find a patient, loving father waiting.

I want a man who will have the courage to tell me I’m wrong, who will defy my evil eye and brave my retort, because he is centered enough in who he is and he respects me enough to correct me when I need it—but perhaps will do so in a way designed to make me better, not make me feel small.

I want a man who is sure and solid and steady, who I can count on when the chips are down and the stakes are high. A man who will share the load with a willing spirit, who can face uncertainty with strength and candor, a man I can go to war beside.

I want a man who is consistently present and resolutely safe. Who will never leave me to question my own worth or force me to weigh his loyalty. Someone who will allow me to evolve and love me through all my seasons and choose each day to stay.

But mostly, I suppose, I pray for a man whose strength is rooted in faith, whose faith is in possession of generosity and kindness, but whose soul is still alive with laughter and mischief—

A man to go to war beside, to take a nap beside, to grow old beside.

I can’t wait to love a man like that.

Ellie’s Christmas Letter

View More: http://gabbywigleyphotography.pass.us/kate-miller

 

Dear friends:

For those of you who follow along, you’ll know that I, Ellie Bellie Banana, run Kate’s world. She has been begging me to write this letter since Thanksgiving, but as an enthusiastic 10-year-old (1.5 in human years) I am far too busy to sit still to write a note. She did finally bribe me into this with a brand-new tennis ball. So I am dictating this with ‘THE BALL’ in my mouth while bouncing like the pure, unadulterated ray of sunshine that I am.

View More: http://gabbywigleyphotography.pass.us/kate-miller

It has been a busy year. I’ve chased many balls and hiked many trails and I’ve vomited on the couch three or four times. (When you come over, watch where you sit.) But in order to properly catalog the events of the year, I suppose I should start at the beginning.

  1. Mom moved from Iowa to Denver to Arkansas. It all happened pretty fast. I spent so much time in the back seat of the car I chewed the seat belt in half, but most of the time when Mom stopped to get junk food someone gave me a piece of bacon or a french fry because I am apparently “sooooooo cute.”
  2. When we moved to Arkansas, I got a new yard. I’m not sure it is related because I am a dog, but dogs in Arkansas take way less baths than dogs in Iowa.
  3. I got a sister. Her name is Maggie. Apparently, she was Mom’s ‘first baby’. Maggie isn’t so bad, even if she scares the neighbors. She taught me how to get into the trash and where to find the best cat poop to eat. But she smells funny and is pretty lazy, but she talks back to Mom in a way I could never get by with…so I think I’ll keep her around.
  4. Speaking of cat poop, mom is THE neighborhood cat lady. Apparently when you turn 30 and buy a home as a single woman, the house just comes with a cat lady starter pack. Mom pretends not to like them, she calls them Lucifer 1-3. But when no one is looking, she slips them warm milk. Every. Single. Night. She is a softy. Don’t let her fool you
  5. Mom can’t keep a boyfriend, but I have one. His name is Major. He is all muscly and slobbery and he loves to play tug-of-war with me. He also peed on Mom’s couch, which is what really sealed the deal. It was love at first furniture destruction.
  6. Mom and my Uncles are now ranching. They have a bunch of big black dogs (cows) that require them to spend all their Saturday’s running around the world’s largest playground. Major and I like to spend the whole day running in the field, so we miss out on what they are doing for the most part, but I think it has to do with fences to keep the mean dogs in mostly.

View More: http://gabbywigleyphotography.pass.us/kate-miller

Well that about sums up our whole year. I think this year can best be described as ‘running wild’ from start to finish. We have put some miles across the country from the mountains of Montana to the swamps of DC, from the beaches of south Texas to the snow-covered plains of South Dakota, and from the volcanoes of Guatemala to the vineyards of France. We have played on mountains and in rivers and in mudpuddles. We have jumped on the bed and snuggled on the couch and we are candidates for the naughty and the nice list in equal fashion. We have laughed and cried and loved and been broken-hearted. But at the end of 2018, we can look back at the days and the weeks that created this year and see that there was joy and love and living packed into every single second.

2019 has some exciting adventures in store: Ireland and Scotland and Egypt to start and remodeling the house and chasing Brangus-Limi cows all over the Nunley metroplex. Maggie hopes to steal more bread and work on getting second dinners, Ellie hopes to play tug of war and snuggle more. But most of all 2019 we intend on continuing to run wild and barefoot and free.

If you find yourself in southern Arkansas, come by! If you find yourself in need of a friend, we hope you call. We hope that 2019 we can love you and celebrate life with you.

With all our love and even more hair: Ellie, Maggie, Kate and Lucifer 1-3

View More: http://gabbywigleyphotography.pass.us/kate-miller

When You Are the Grinch at Christmas

The magic of the holiday season is upon us.

For most of my peer group, this week will be marked by Thanksgiving celebrations among family and friends. Turkey and ham and pies will undoubtedly fill my social media timeline, amid football scores and successful hunts. November in the south is a marvelous time of year. In a culture who embraces tradition, the annual events that mark the holiday season are as comfortable as they are familiar. My heart will never grow tired of pecan pies or camouflage or measuring seasoning in egg shells—following the generational recipes that my great-grandmothers passed down. In many ways, Thanksgiving is my favorite time of year, a time where the world pauses to celebrate being thankful for this year’s blessings over comfort food. It is simple and pure.

But following Thanksgiving, the Christmas season begins. Where Thanksgiving earns the title of preferred holiday, Christmas the past few years has arguably represented the opposite. Where I celebrate the things in my life I am thankful for in November, December is often marked by the absence of things I have not yet accomplished. December is a reminder for better or worse that I am both growing older (birthday) and that I am alone.

As I blossomed into adulthood, there were visions I held inside my mind for how my life would be, dreams I had set aside that represented how I wanted my life to feel. Christmas was a large part of that vision. Growing up, I remember making Christmas candy. Martha Washington’s and chocolate fudge and decorating sugar cookies. These were traditions that had imprinted on me as a child, and in the earnest desire of starting my own family I had this notion that I would know I had proverbially arrived when my kitchen was dressed ceiling to floor with flour and royal icing. I could see Maggie (the chocolate lab) scavenging broken cookies and rogue sprinkles, with sticky little hands decorating the most disastrously ugly cookies that Santa perhaps had ever seen.

But that night, amidst the chaos of a dirty kitchen, there would be a plate of milk and cookies for Santa sat out of reach of the dog by the mantle where the stockings were hung with care. Just like my dad read to us the The Night Before Christmas, I too would carry on that tradition. Before sending the anticipating little minds to bed, only to be woken up in the wee hours by the same scampering feet—all giggles piling into my bed exclaiming with great joy that Santa had indeed come in the night.

Like the Grinch, my heart grows three sizes thinking about the shredding of paper and the shrieks of delight on Christmas morning. All of us, begrudgingly as they got older, in matching pajamas enjoying the spoils of the holiday season. Leaving the mess for as long as it suited them, knowing that as the years passed by they would play less—so for the years their joy was palpable I would remind myself with ease to let the mess go and to build the train set or the doll house and worry about the trash later. There would be waffles and hot chocolate and hopefully family that would flow in and out of the house.

This would be my Christmas. This would be the highlight of the years of small children and this would be the time of my life that I would flip through as the years slipped by and recall with such fondness. I had believed that Christmas mornings in my thirties would be quite simply the most wholesome and innocent of my life.

Reality indeed had other plans.

I have not lamented this condition because for 48 weeks of the year being childless certainly has its perks: there is no stomach flu, no endless piles of laundry, practices to shuffle to or parent-teacher conferences to attend. I sleep in on weekends and I travel and I live a lifestyle that is carefree. One that many of my friends with children remark that I should be grateful for and I no doubt am.

But the reality remains that my carefree lifestyle grinds to a sudden halt during this season.  For many years now, I have left Christmas decorations packed neatly away in the closest. I could still enjoy the season through holiday parties and through celebrations with family and friends, but I didn’t need to go to sleep staring at stockings that Santa would have no part in. I cannot speak for everyone, but the magic of Christmas is best experienced through the innocence and joy of children. With that core component of wonder missing, Christmas has indeed mostly felt like a commercialized chore.

Indeed, alone in my cave with my dog, I have been at risk for turning into the Grinch. I have felt my heart becoming smaller through the years, content to sweep through December and not be reminded of the dreams that did not manifest. Content to forget Christmas, while being mostly annoyed at the demands this time of year brings: from shopping to travel to complicated schedules. Christmas was all work and no play, and for the most part I was content to just survive it.

And I had decided on that plan again this year.

Until the haunting thought creeped into my mind: what if this is all the Christmas I will ever have? What if while I am sullenly waiting on my Christmas wish to come to life—I am spoiling the gifts of Christmas present? Worse yet, what if the years continue to pass and I wake up one day and realize that I have missed the Christmases of my life clinging to an ideal that never materialized? What if I wasted all my Christmases?

Sure, at 31 this is not the life I had imagined. But does that make it any less meaningful? Perhaps my home is not filled with children of my own, but my life is filled with people I love. I only get one Christmas of 2018. Am I content to sit with my grief instead of living in celebration? That does not align with my core values in other areas of my life. I have not yet once decided in any other facet of my life that because my plans had changed that I would simply stop living with joy. So why am I allowing myself to sabotage Christmas?

‘You are being dumb,’ I told myself. And much like Dr. Seuss’s Grinch, I puzzled until my puzzler was sore and concluded that Christmas perhaps is not tied to a singular, linear dream. Perhaps the spirit of Christmas is found in the joy of celebration and giving and time together, and suddenly a holiday which has historically made me feel profoundly alone was less hostile. I am surrounded by love here and in this season I find that worthy of celebration.

For the first time in four years, I unpacked Christmas decorations. I put up a tree, before Thanksgiving, heaven help us. I made a list of things I would accomplish this holiday season from cookies to giving to parties to cards and pictures. I have an ugly sweater on order and I am intent on winning the white elephant exchange.

img_4683

And so even if I will quietly hope that my dream of Christmas morning someday will be fulfilled, for now I am content to celebrate Christmas 2018 within the life I have now.

I can sleep in AND make waffles.

Even Santa is jealous of that.

A Review of Beef Politics

I am a third-generation rancher.

I do not say this because it makes me better or worse than anyone else. This is simply part of my identity. It is part of my heritage, and the fact that for 52 years my family has run cows on the same patch of ground in southern Arkansas is something of which I am incredibly proud. I love telling people the story of how 52 years ago my grandfather leveraged his work ethic on piece of property and through his sheer stubborn will and amazing ingenuity we are still here five decades later figuring out how to make it work.

img_3524

I love telling my story of being the third generation to ranch here because it connects me back to the family I love and how we share a collective set of roots and experiences.

But I have been told recently because I am third generation, I had everything given to me and I am not self-made. I have been told recently because we haven’t been in business for 100 years that we aren’t storied legacies like that of western cattlemen. I have been told that because we run more than 40, we don’t understand the struggle of small farmers. I have been told that because I don’t run 1,000, I am a statistically irrelevant producer who the industry subsidizes. I have been told that because I am partnered with my brothers, I don’t understand the struggle of going at it on my own merits. That because I have a corporate job, I am a hobbyist. I have been told I am a ‘silver spoon’ who has never had to do the dirty work.

I have rarely been subjected to more outright brutality in my lifetime, as I have experienced in the last eight weeks since my Tomi Lahren rant went viral.

The cruelty has not come from animal rights activist or extremist propaganda. The snide comments and arrogance and belittlement has come from within the animal agricultural community. From the very community of which I have given my life to, from the community that I have historically been so proud to belong within. The community that for me symbolized the best of core American values like work ethic, entrepreneurship, conservative values and an independent stubborn will.

I have always been proud to watch cattle graze on green pastures in the spring and nothing beats the excitement of new babies in the fall. I have always felt at home in a barn or the cab of a dirty farm truck that smells like coppertox and oil and dirt.

Until the last 60 days.

I spoke out against a political pundit that was using food safety and failed legislation to call consumer confidence in the beef value chain into question, and I have been punished. I have been mocked. I have been called ugly and ignorant. I have had vile things spread about me online from overt sexualized commentary about my appearance to having someone post on my page that I engaged in sexual congress with a former president. I have been called a corporate shill. I have been accused of a number of offenses and had my words twisted and carved into outright lies. I have had threats of violence against me and I have had people contact organizations that I work for asking for me to be fired or punished. I have had conspiracy theories about being packer funded or a plant by an NGO.

Why?

Because I dared speak out against a political pundit? Because I dared question a producer group on their use of economic data? Because I questioned undermining consumer confidence in OUR products to promote a political agenda?

Here is a fact for you: I want to see us all make it.

Whether you have 4 acres or 40,000. Whether you have 12 cows or 1,200 or 12,000 on feed.

I know my farm is different from my neighbors. My neighbor doesn’t run cows the same way the guys in south Texas do. The Texans don’t do it like feeders in Nebraska. The corn huskers have a different model than the old ranches in Montana. And they do things totally different than the guys in central Florida or New York.

And that I believe that is just fine.

It takes all of us. It takes seedstock producers and cow-calf operators. It takes backgrounders. It takes feeders big and small. It takes large corporate packers and regional players and local processors. It takes organic and grass fed and local programs. It takes commercial cattlemen of all sizes. It takes mom and pop meat shops and it takes mega-retailers. It takes Certified Angus Beef and no-roll. It takes Wagyu carpaccio and ground beef tacos.

It takes all of us. Doing our part. Doing things, the way that work in our region, the way that works with our economics, the way that works with our time and land management.

This growing brand of ‘my way’ ranching and politics is a toxic powder keg with a short fuse. This self-important diatribe that says, “there is one way and if you are not like me than you are wrong” is dangerous and defeating. This brand of disillusionment is demoralizing to this industry. Where we are all perched on the dangerous ledge of consumer sentiment, this festering inter-industry drama digs a chasm between producers pitting us against each other. While we are all squabbling over the table scraps of production methodology, we lose sight of the forward-facing vision of the industry’s future and we continue to fall behind in consumer confidence.

This is not just a beef industry problem, this is a cultural problem within America. But the fact that is has hit here, in the industry I love and remain committed to and leveraged within, is concerning. Agriculture has long been prided as the centerpiece of American values. I see that eroding and I feel the sting of those implications personally. I have blood in my mouth from the hate and the punches that keep rolling in because I am unafraid to speak out against the growing wave of malcontent.

There is no legislation, no program, no producer group that can fix this. It is our ultimate responsibility as a shared industry to put down the hatchet. To stop the insanity and ask ourselves when did this cultural shift occur? When did it become wrong for someone to not ranch like me? When did we stop supporting each other as fellow producers?

And most importantly, how do we fix this?

The answer is not in more politics. The answer is not in membership revenues or checkoff programs.

The answer is in returning to the notion that we are people first.

Just because we do things differently, we still have common ground.

Our ranches may be different, but our hearts are probably the same.

We love the land. We love our cattle. But at some point, we stopped loving the people beside us in the industry.

If we are going to survive, we are going to have to bring that back.

The Amazing Life of Sally Miller

This has been a week of celebration.

On September 11, 2018 my grandmother Sally Shannon Miller, wrapped in the loving arms of our Sissy Sandy, lifted the veil between this life and the next. While we grieve the loss of her physical presence and we grieve to know we could not be there to surround her in love as she prepared for her journey, we have a deep abiding peace knowing we honored her final wish to walk into eternity in her home.

It is hard to know where to begin.

When I think of my Nina, I think about breakfast. Gathered around her kitchen table in the morning hours in bathrobes and pajamas, I was introduced to the most intimate kind of fellowship. The table was set with a hearty mixture of southern delicacies: homemade biscuits, sausage gravy, fried eggs, and the holiest of offerings: her butter laden fried apples. Of the tables I have sat beside throughout the world, none will ever rival the decadence and familiarity of those breakfast feasts. It was a familial communion, and the joy and raw intimacy of that congregation will be hard to ever replicate.

In my youth, it was a home filled with joy. The day beginning with the afore mentioned celebration, where coffee and laughter began the day, was followed by a continued stream of unbridled enthusiasm. In the summer there was the pool. Where my grandparents were equal participants. As a child, my Marine grandfather insisted on teaching me to swim properly. These lessons were often interrupted by diving contest and finding new ways to go down the pool slide.

We would take breaks from the pool for Sally’s famous tang slushes, and we would sit on the porch and find shapes in the clouds. They were not only present, they were fully engaged. They were not stoic with age in the golden years, they were alive and were not too proud to fully immerse themselves in the worlds of their grandchildren through play and imagination.

There was an abundance of affection. At no time was I out of range of a hug, there were no boundaries when it came to snuggling next to each other on the couch. There was an abundance of praise. They made everything I did seem extraordinary.

To simply say they loved me is not an accurate characterization.

As the years passed, the realities of living 800 miles away became more acute. This distance did not diminish love, but limited the opportunities to know the daily realities of each other as people. With the passing of time came new challenges in the wake of the bodies process of aging and disease. Time leaves nothing untouched, but as they taught me about love and family during their life—their death too leaves an indelible mark.

When my grandfather passed away in 2011, I consider it one of the defining moments of my life. As the family gathered around his bed, soft hymns being sung as we said our goodbyes, my grandmother sat beside him holding his hand. Among her last words to him were: I love you. You can go home, wait for me by the river.

Moments later he breathed his last.

I watched Sally’s devastation in the following days. How for 56 years he had been her best earthly companion, for the previous six years she had been his constant caregiver and his fiercest protector, and now their walk together had ended. Half of her soul was missing.

Wednesday I was introduced to a piece of parchment that my grandfather had written for my grandmother. We do not know when the verse was penned, only that we discovered its existence during the end stages of Sally’s life. She carried this paper in her purse, and in the final months of her life would hold it within her hands, its worn corners bringing her comfort.

The lines read:

Across the years I will walk with you,

In deep green forest,

On shores of sand,

And when our time on earth is through,

In heaven too you will have my hand.

Their life was defined by this love. This love that was so certain that even if they spent a lifetime together it would not be enough time, and so too in eternity they knew they would walk hand in hand. The kind of love that as we went through their cards and letters conveyed such a deep appreciation and unbridled affection that we occasionally blushed. They were not just husband and wife. They were the deepest of friends, they were the most passionate of lovers. The marriage they gave their life too defined them. The love they created in their home defined their lives and deeply affected those who were touched by this love.

This is what gives me certainty that this is a week of celebration instead of mourning. Not only did she redeem her promise of salvation through Jesus and his crucifixion, a fact she demanded to be preached at her service so it would be remiss to not mention it here– but I know on Tuesday, as she was ferried between this life and the next, Hugo sat waiting by the river of life. On that day, for the first time in more than a decade they met as equals. Their souls restored and reunited. I can only imagine the joy in that reunion.

I have spent much time in the following days reflecting on the rarity of their match. How they knew, the night they met at that Christmas Dance in 1954 that they were destined to be together. How they were wed the following June, and how they spent 56 years fully enjoying the companionship of one another.  Their life together was a powerful testament to faith, family, commitment and the rare gift of genuine love.

There is peace in knowing they lived a life that was fulfilled. There is joy in knowing that the depth and breadth of their life was marked by joy and accomplishment and love.

But there is such sweet sorrow in knowing that for those of us left behind, the physical experience of that love is over. Knowing the memory of that joy and comfort must sustain us, and that we will never again find respite in the old Kentucky home we loved. Instead we are now tasked with developing that love as a testament to their legacy within our own homes. What a lofty goal that will prove to be.

I have added many things to the catalog of my life this week, not the least of which is the importance of never-failing love. But mostly, I have spent the time reflecting on the simple moments we shared together, and how I wish there had been more of them throughout the years.

For the living, there is never enough time. But just like their love story knew that ‘in heaven too, you will have my hand,’ I too have the hope that in eternity there will be a breakfast table of fried apples and sausage gravy.

And we will dine in love once again.

47,001 Things You Must Know as a Rancher

The easy part of ranching is taking care of cows. Really. If all there was to this gig was animal husbandry, it would be almost downright dull.

It’s the other 47,000 things that you have to be mildly proficient in to survive that make things squirrelly. Like today, we have had to be electricians, mechanics, exterminators, private investigators, foresters, vet techs, junkyard dealers and off-road truckers.

img_3524

This ranching gig comes with the expectation that you are capable of doing just about anything, regardless of whether or not you feel competent. It requires having some degree of instinctive knowledge: like being able to predict the weather or being able to read broken gauges. (One must know if the diesel tank is dry before charting a course, even if there is no fuel measuring device. One must also remember to check the oil. Always check the oil!)

It requires being able to adjust in real time to the discovery that you have no power steering and no brakes. Cause Jesus isn’t taking the wheel when the trailer brakes don’t work. That’s between you and Satan today.

But it’s also being in that moment and hearing your grandfather tell you to slow down and think about what you are doing. Being able to remember him being at his best when something was going wrong. And with the door actually falling off of the driver’s side of the truck and the smell of engine oil burning and over the hum of the transmission screaming, being able to take a breath and adjust.

Not because you think you know what to do. Because no one specifically prepares for a calamity involving a Dodge pickup and a stock trailer down a dusty dirt road. Survival isn’t about what you think you know. This ranching thing is about being able to tap into what you don’t know that you know.

It’s about that muscle memory that takes over because you’ve seen someone else do it a thousand times. And for some reason, you just know how to do this thing too. So you do the thing without a Google search or phoning a friend.

And when it’s over, you find yourself laughing. Unsure if it is fear or joy, since a hot mix of adrenaline and pride flows through your veins. Mostly you celebrate because you aren’t dead. No one else has died either. Among the chaos, two things you can be real glad about.

But a little part of me wishes that the voice inside my head wasn’t just inside my head. I have missed my grandfather terribly throughout the years, but I felt him with me today in a way I have never felt before. I could actually hear him laughing in my mind. But I’d trade all the tea in China to have him see us here now.

But I know, don’t ask me how, but I know he is watching. And as sure as I am that he would not condone the beer I’m having for dinner or the thrashing I gave that transmission earlier, I know he would have been proud and amused to see how today unfolded.

Because he didn’t just teach us about ranching. Through the farm, what he taught us was so much bigger, so much more important than just taking care of cows and always checking the oil.

And that’s why we are here. We don’t do this because we like being outwitted by salty brindle heifers or particularly enjoy trying to find new ways to engineer questionable equipment (and if the equipment is still broken, somehow manage to turn it into water gap material). For us, it isn’t about the 47,001 things a person must know how to do to survive being a farmer or rancher.

For us, the 47,001 things all boil down to one very simple principle: home.

But if you are in the greater Nunley metroplex, and you run across a brindle heifer with a blue tag in her ear, it is a sign I have once again been bested. Please let me know where to find her.

Moses the Matriarch

There is one universal truth that accompanies working cattle: What can go wrong inevitably will.

After spending a lifetime doing farm labor, I have amassed a catalog of empirical evidence to support this claim. Cattle, as a species, are much smarter than they appear. They can always smell the rat in your best laid plan and given the opportunity to shun your appointed mission they will do so with flair.

These are not things they teach you in Animal Science 101. No fancy text book will tell you how to be prepared to be outsmarted by a ruminant herbivore, but every cattleman has been bested by the beast. This usually occurs because of that one cow in every herd who makes group decisions. The one old alpha-female. The Commander in Chief. The matriarch. If you got her, you got the day whipped. But in most instances, just like the human species, she will spook when provoked and rain hellfire down on your day.

One of our matriarchs is named Moses. Not every bovine in the herd has a dually appointed name. This is often a result of privilege or incident. The trick with one family group in our care has always been to get Moses the Matriarch to head in the right direction, and the rest, like the Jews out of Egypt, will follow. Not every animal is a strategical elitist, but just like her Biblical counterpart Moses never fails to have a few plagues up her sleeve.

The day began before dawn. Gates were set. Tennis shoes were laced up, because thou cannot run on freshly dewed grass in cowboy boots, and tactical gear must be appropriate to the battle. We were preparing for war. Going into this mission, we knew as four pseudo-awake, pseudo-adults armed only with our theorized superior intellect and sorting sticks that we were facing a worthy adversary in open pasture.

The goal was simple: funnel them across flat land to an inconspicuously open gate. But Moses, she was onto us from the start.

We chased. We followed. We went right and then left and then right again. Up the creek and down the creek. Down the fence and through the fence. For 45 minutes we pleaded and prodded and begged and coaxed and cussed and prayed. To no avail.

Eventually I got booted out of the truck with the tactical mission to flank the main group to prevent them from turning and heading into the wooded high ground, and most of all to get Moses pointed in the right direction. Armed with a flimsy plastic stick with a flag on the end, I bellied out my best ‘yah’ noise and tried to urge them forward. Moses, intrigued by the flag on the end of my pretty orange stick, mistook me for a Spanish bullfighter. Looking for a fight and mistakenly sensing a formidable opponent she decided to head toward me, instead of the open gate. Instinctively I stood my ground. They can smell fear, you know. I shewed at her, waving the stick. This merely served to heighten her interest in eating my lunch.

Now I know that her 1200-pound frame of lean muscle and leather is a healthy match for my (weight undisclosed) frame that is built mostly of chili dogs and butter pecan ice cream. I’m losing that battle. 100% of the time. My only course of action is to retreat, and my ability to do that efficiently is even severely limited by my standard operating procedure to run only when chased. The human form requires running to be practiced routinely to be a skill that has any sense of mastery, and I am admittedly much more proficient with a fork than a treadmill.

But I digress. It is said that you cannot be a coward and a cowboy, but I remain entrenched in the belief that the modern cowboy is more practical about the status of his cowardice based on the balance of his health insurance deductible. So like the responsible adult I am, I ran. My fellow patriots, hearing my shrieking and witnessing the uncoordinated evacuation of my post, returned to rescue me. And as I crawled into the truck, the herd now encircling us, dissipated in every possible direction except forward toward the gate.

We sat dejectedly watching as the entire herd filtered around us, heading in the opposite direction of the gate we needed them to mosey through. They trotted past us in defiance, leaving us to debate whether we wanted donuts or biscuits and gravy for breakfast. Now that the morning was a failure before the sun was fully even up, the best course of action to pacify a bad start is always to eat your feelings, preferably with something delicious.

Just as I was getting excited about picking up a pallet of donut holes, Moses stopped. She stared at the truck, and on her cloven hoof pivoted. She first began to walk in the direction of the open gate. Her walk turned into a fast trot, and within a matter of minutes the entire gaggle of black hided heathens fell behind her in line. They filed past our stunned faces, just as efficiently as they had run by us moments earlier. I can now say I have seen the Spirit of the Lord move.

We all nodded in agreement that this was in fact an act of God. We would love to take credit for being superior stockman, but any witnesses would have called us bold faced liars. We had nothing to do with this victory. Moses simply had enough of us chasing her in circles and had called the brigade to move out.

We watched as she led her people into the promised land. Too scared to move for fear of changing her mind, we sat perched in the Dodge just like Pharaoh on his throne until they had crossed the proverbial Red Sea.

Who is the superior species? Pride says the jury is out. But the scoreboard reads clearly: Moses-1. Ranchers-0.

Originally published by The Mena Star July 11, 2018

 

Coming Home

After a decade of metropolitan living, I packed my things into boxes and with my courage and an aggressive dose of Tylenol, began the 18-hour pilgrimage back home in U-Haul truck that was built, I theorize, without a suspension system.

I had become something of a nomad over the last 12 years. Bouncing around Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa and Colorado. Until one day while looking out over a subdivision where I could see clearly what my neighbors were having for dinner, I realized I could not tell you any of their names. Nor could I tell you the names of any of my neighbors for the last decade. I could tell you that one liked to sing mariachi in his back yard on Sunday afternoons between 2-4pm when I was trying to nap. One burned everything he tried to grill based on smoke levels and aroma. Another often would smoke cigarettes in the wee morning hours sans pants. Their habits I knew, but I knew not a single name.

Metropolitan living comes with its share of challenges: traffic, neighbors, taxes. To simply name a few. But it has natural advantages too. Proximity to airports, shopping malls, fine dining. But most of all city living comes with a natural obscurity. Regardless of who you are you can blend in with your surroundings and live off the radar. Growing up in Mena, this concept was somewhat foreign in the beginning, but after a few years I had in effect become a professional hermit. I could be surrounded by people, and waltz through a crowd and no one around me would raise an eyebrow. On the city sidewalks of Houston or Dallas or Denver, you are simply a number.

Coming back home, I had taken for granted some of the finer points of differentiation between urban and rural living. A few of which have taken some time to modify my behavior to fit back into rural society. Take Wal Mart for example.

In the midst of the city, there is glorious anonymity at the grocery store. Being back home, one must confess there is an extreme amount of pressure to look put together to simply make a trip to Wal Mart. Should you find yourself out of breakfast cereal or toilet paper, this requires a shower, a hair cut and a fresh pair of clothes. You are after all destined to meet no fewer than a baker’s dozen of your intimate acquaintances while perusing the aisles of the super store.

This is lovely for me most days. Gliding through the produce section, tenderly selecting avocados like I am picking them freshly ripened off the tree in a Californian orchard myself. (If you see me doing this please know that there is no skill in selecting an avocado, I am merely looking for the one that will take the longest to fester and rot on my kitchen counter. Perhaps a piece is necessary on the losing campaign I have between groceries and Cruizzers.) To run into someone in that space, with a cart full of fresh herbs and all the trappings of a Martha Stewart-esque meal, is a veritable dream come true. Admittedly, this happens to me indeed all to rarely.

It is the darker side of Wal Mart that poses problems. You know the aisles where one must select other necessities like hygiene products, deodorant or laxatives. To be awkwardly trying to swipe a tube of hemorrhoid ointment into your shopping basket, usually occurs in tandem with meeting that very chatty semi-friend of yours you know from church. Suddenly you can’t go back to Sunday School because she knows about the trouble you are having with your anus and it just might end up on the prayer list.

The prayer list is another beautiful sentiment of home town living that I had forgotten in my years camping in modern Sodom and Gomorrah. Even in my distant migrant living, I occasionally found my way onto a local listing without my knowing. Imagine my surprise coming home occasionally, sitting down as a visitor to hear the Easter message, and finding my great-grandmother has put me on the prayer list. For what? God and this congregation must know. For me however, the list was too long to narrow down one single episode that would have compelled the matriarch of the family to add me to God’s watchlist. If God is truly merciful, perhaps I shall never know what intimate details she shared and to what degree they were true or not.

But now sitting in the pews of the local church I have adopted, I am moved by the testimonies the prayer call brings forth and the sentiment that they express. There inevitably are the request that come from ‘that one parishioner’ in every church who asks to have the burden of their suffering lifted from everything from bunions to bowel movements. But it is the spirit of the sharing that I find particularly inspiring.

The sharing of the load so to speak. Where in this community we can all share in the thanksgiving of a neighbor who has been healed, and we can all equally share in the battle of this life together.

That is the thing about small town living. Through feast or famine, you have a neighbor who cares to share your journey alongside you. There is solidarity in times of struggle. There is joy in times of triumph. You are never far from an outstretched hand. You are never in the trenches alone.

There are many things I love about this town, from it’s scenic views to the blessed perfection that is the salsa at Chiquitas, but without a doubt the best part about living in Mena is the familiarity of a community.

It is the people that make this small slice of earth home.

Just don’t judge me if you see me sneaking through Wal Mart in yoga pants, some habits die hard.

Originally Published by The Mena Star June 27, 2018

The Legacy of Blossom

11209361_10205199352956548_4182312603504127969_n

Today, our Blossom crossed the rainbow bridge.

It is a remarkable thing to truly love a dog and to be loved by one in return. How many people can you say love you unselfishly? Asking for nothing in return for all they give other than your faithful companionship. How many people greet you with full bodied enthusiasm simply at your arrival, how many humans relish just the experience of sitting beside you? The stories that cause our family to howl will laughter like when she shit on Jacob (both times) or the toilet brush games of fetch or the time she peed in the AC vents would not resonate with you as they do with us. They are our precious memories of life filled with hilarity and wonder, and to condense all she was into a single post would be impossible. But as she was the matriarch of our family and the valiant protector of our brood, I’d like to memorialize all she meant to us and share a brief glimpse of her story.

A white Labrador puppy was born the runt of the litter. In May 2010, after a woman in Minnesota failed to pick her up from the breeder in Little Rock, my dad brought her home to the little white trailer house on the edge of town where we had taken up residence. She was tiny, timid and quiet. That was until the first weekend she spent with my brothers. They broke her out of her shell, and life has never quite been the same. After that first weekend, she realized we were her pack, and as the troop leader we were under her protection. From that moment on, she filled our lives with energy and love.

11150808_863218710431078_2604725386182177842_n

She was the glue that pieced our family back together again. For each of us she was something different. She freed Dad from the familiar plane of loneliness that sets in following a divorce, she was the smiling face that greeted him at the door each day. For Fonda, she was the faithful companion who never left her side, communicating support and love with just the pitter patter of her feet. For Joel, she was the non-judgmental source of hope and love in the years when it was hard to find an ally. For Jake, she was his protector, guardian and best friend when Joel and I left home. For me, she was the physical embodiment of home in a time in my life when I had lost mine. She was for us all a fresh start. She didn’t care that our living room furniture was mostly a deep freezer. She didn’t care what we came from or where we were going, whether we were rich or poor or what stories colored our history. Her only concern was whether or not we were going to throw the toilet brush down the hall for her to chase and if you were going to share your dinner. She loved us without exception and without fail every day of her life.

12801108_947786128641002_849846678993603827_n

In her life she taught us a lot about living. She greeted each day with 100% enthusiasm, she was always fully engulfed and present in the moment. She lived loud, always full of joy and she never balked at an adventure. She greeted everyone she met as if you were her very favorite person, with the bellowing thunder of her hurdling toward you and the sticky slobber of a warm kiss and a cold wet nose. She reveled in life’s simple pleasures: a shared snack, a good poop, a good scratch behind the ears and pancakes on Sunday mornings. She was just as happy with a new rawhide as she was with an old dish towel to tear up. She never once complained, she embraced each journey she went on fearless with bright eyed wonder. She aged gracefully through all her life’s phases maturing from the vibrant puppy to a wise protector of her elder years. In this last season of her life, she taught us about facing adversity with grace and enthusiasm, and that even for a little while you are still young if you believe you are.

11150661_10205199350476486_8350710765088646352_n

She loved a good bath and was terrified of thunderstorms. She loved Italian food and peach cobbler, but if you weren’t looking when you were shelling beans she would sneak one of them too. She loved breakfast on the weekends. She’d bite your hand off if you were just sharing dinner, but she would delicately share a Popsicle if you’d let her. She loved an outdoor adventure whether it was scaling a mountain or swimming a river or chasing ducks or turkeys. She swam hundreds of miles in my grandmother’s pool, and is one of few dogs I know that loved to go down a pool slide. She packed fifty years of memories into her ten years and two days with our family. That’s the cruel irony of loving a dog, you almost never out live them. The joy she brought to our life through her idiosyncrasies were innumerable, even though her days with us were too few.

11241028_812969985455951_5543849248417320584_n

Taking shelter from a thunderstorm. She always hid in the bathtub.

In many ways I wonder about the timing of life. Through a series of misfortunate events, she came into our life when we needed her most. She was the ball of energy that brought our family back to life. As importantly, she was the dog of Jacob’s boyhood. A constant in a sea of change for him as Joel and I transitioned away from home. Jacob’s last day of high school was Friday, the same day as Blossom’s kidneys began to fail. She had raised her man cub to adulthood. Her mission on earth in many ways was done. She gave us back our family. She made her boy into a man. She could go home in peace.

11209655_10205199351916522_4340317663322202868_n

She could shred a squeaky toy. It was one of her favorite things. In her younger years, she chased live frogs, but became to distinguished for that in her later years.

Yesterday we celebrated her life with her. Her eyesight was failing, but we played in the yard. She ate most of a pizza, some ravioli, a rotisserie chicken and some brisket sandwiches. She ate in competition with Maggie, who proved to be a worthy adversary. We spent the whole evening rubbing bellies and scratching her ears. She climbed into my parent’s bed and slept between them contentedly. She was full of life and she was surrounded by love until the very end.

For man or beast, I do not believe there is a more touching tribute than to cross to the other side in a room surrounded by the people you love. She let us know that it was time, her eyesight completely gone and kidneys failing, and as her best earthly companions we honored her request. She went peacefully, as if she was falling asleep, in the arms of Fonda, Joel and Jake. She knew she was loved down to her very last breath, and when she went there was peace. We brought her home wrapped in her favorite jacket of dad’s that she used to chew on, and we buried her under an old shade tree in the yard. We surrendered her to eternity, and tears transitioned to laughter as we told our favorite stories of her ten years with us. Even in our grief, she helped us come to terms with losing her through the memories of all the joy she gave us.

11150766_10205199350956498_8982846585009274003_n

I don’t pretend to know much about the afterlife. I won’t debate scholars on the validity of heaven or hell, but I know that all the dogs we love along the way will be waiting for us with cold, wet noses on the other side. I know that wherever we go when our name is called Blossom true to form will be bouncing behind the gates of eternity ready to welcome us on for our next adventure.