November 15, 2015
The calves were weaned two three months ago. Standing on a fence rail, looking at calves, I know weaning is never an easy time—for anyone. The calf is on the teat and the next day not. That makes for an upset mama and calf, which can lead to steady bawling for a day or two. When you have fifty cows and fifty calves in the corrals and those corrals are located next to home, like our closest neighbor, no one sleeps well for those couple of days. No, weaning is not easy for anyone. Standing on the rail, I know another stressful event for these calves lies ahead.
Yellowing leaves of autumn trees is the signage of fall roundups and selling of spring calves. Leaves falling from trees mean it is time for me to buy spring calves. Calves will spend twelve to fourteen months on the farm, so I look for weaned calves weighing between 400 and 550 pounds. Weaned because calves gain little, maybe lose, weight during those first days after separation from mama. After weaning though, they come into their own teenage identity and become capable of dealing with the stress that comes with a change of place. (Isn’t moving hard on all of us? Little matter if it is for a great job or family, moving to a new place—even a few blocks away—always gives us apprehension and stress).
The perfect change of place for calves means I choose them from the rail, load them at the neighbor’s ranch, trailer them to JustLiving Farm, and unloading into the corral. Seldom is that the case. More often than not, the calves are trailered from the ranch to the auction barn where I bid and buy. They are then loaded and trailered to the farm. Because life is seldom perfect, we do what we can to minimize stress. Therefore, we make sure the feeder is full of hay and the trough full of water when they unload off the trailer. Once calves make their way around the corral once, and know where the food and water are, we walk away. Belinda and I figure, at that moment, they are not looking favorably upon the two-legged animals who have taken them away from the landscape of birth to who knows where—best to let them alone.
Over the next two weeks calves will eat, drink, chew cud, and sleep in the corral. I move in and out during that time filling the feeder with hay, filling the water trough, and having short conversations. My work during those weeks is to watch their movement, their noses and eyes, and anything else that might indicate a need for doctoring or special care. Mid-way during their corral stay, their right ear gets a numbered JLF ear tag—Some folk wonder about piercing the ear with a tag, but if ear piercings and earrings are good enough for all the women in my life and many of my male friends, they are good enough for cattle. Finally, after the stress of moving has resided and everyone is healthy, physically and emotionally, they are turned out with the other cattle wandering the farm.
I have morning coffee a day or two each week at the Cougar Den in White Swan. I arrive around 6am, settle into a corner booth to read and write. School begins at 8am, so about an hour later, students arrive, shoot the bull, and walk across the street around five till.
Not long after I sit, a young man often arrives. He takes the booth directly across from me, places his backpack against the wall, and goes to sleep until five till or a friend wakes him. Two and a half months have pass since school began and I have yet to know his story.
While there is a story to learn, the broad brushstroke is likely not unique. Like the ten year-old who sleeps with her head on table, and the twelve-year-old who mothers her three younger siblings waiting for the elementary school bus, he is one of many whose young life is unreasonably complicated and stressful. On any one morning, sitting comfortably in the corner booth of this rural town, it is clear too many have their head on a table, sleeping. Too many are hungry. Too many have a twelve-year-old sister as parent. I find many folk prefer to think this is simply rural reservation life. However, a friend who lives in Oakland, another in south-central Los Angeles, one in Louisville, and another still in Flint, Michigan, tell the same story.
I am nearly upside down as the dental hygienist talks to me. Over the years we have mutually learned our two brands of Christianity are different, but she asks questions just the same. “My daughter (she is 30-years-old) is living with her boyfriend. My husband and I are upset because they are living in sin. What do you think?” She has packed a lot into that question, so I figured to take on the obvious when her hand gets out of my mouth. Once out, we had three or four minutes before she was back in there working with some utensil handed down from the Middle Ages. (Dental appointment conversations, a little weird, one-sided, disjointed, and often last for years.) “We use that word sin too freely.” I said. “Sin matters, but two adults living with one another without the benefit of marriage is not sin, for me. Rather, putting our energy into how our and our neighbor’s adult children—who are happy—live their lives takes our attention away from true sin. And maybe that is sin itself? For me, we can reserve that word, sin, for acts that matter, that hurt and damage creation.” No solutions that day, but maybe the hand in mouth conversation continue during the visit.
Christianity gets played out in a number of ways and we all need to find a little more slack for those who do it different than ourselves. Yet, I tire of preachers who promote theology that has made little sense for a number of generations and strives to damage the lives of healthy consenting adults. Such sin theology, which is more about them than I, is easy on the congregants and safe for the preacher. Good sin theology is not easy and calls everyone to know, own, and act against the hurt and damage inflected in our generation(s), and learn sin is not theirs but mine.
Sin, for me, is when cattle on the Farm have better housing, food, water, and rest than reservation and inner-city children and youth. Sin is when I worry more about middle-class adults living together outside of marriage, who folk have sex with, and if someone fits the legal framework of US residency, than I do about the anxiety that is the norm for poor and abused children. Sin is when I do not provide all of the resources needed for better parenting, better housing, and better health. Sin is when my neighbor’s child goes to sleep without a kiss and a full belly. Sin is when I, personally, do not know one child who lives a worrisome life and have made their life my own.