Keeping bees with Sylvia Plath

I began beekeeping in 2018, the same year my son was born.

I’d been fascinated by honeybees for years before his birth, but that happened to be the year I committed and got bees of my own. He was just two weeks old when my first bees arrived, and the day I transferred them from their “nuc,” or nucleus housing to their actual hive, I got stung seven times.

Those seven stings felt so amazing, taking me away from the pain and depression of being a new, tired mom who saw her life fading away as her boy came more and more into the world. Those stings pulled me out of my body and dropped me squarely in the middle of some non-time, non-space existence. Those stings felt like the pure, non-corporeal enlightenment I’d been seeking all my life.

Those first bees did not make it through their first winter, and some of my second bees have made it thus far through their first winter. I’ve got my 2021 order of bees in place, and I’m looking forward to another year of beekeeping. My son has survived his first few years, and the week I get my 2021 bees, my boy will turn three.

Becoming responsible for another human life has been hard, and much of the past three years has left me in a state of suspended existence unlike the existence I felt the day I got those seven stings. The past three years have been filled with joy and laughter as much as they have with tears and sadness and depression, but the hard stuff always feels harder than the good stuff feels good.

To get through some of these times, I’ve been putting together ideas for a collection of essays that explores beekeeping, motherhood and post-partum depression. My first essay is almost ready to be sent out to the world, hopefully finding a home before May (I know, I know, that’s not much lead time in the publishing world!), but yesterday, I came across something that has me itching to get working on some research and another essay: Sylvia Plath’s poem “Stings.”

Although I really enjoy Plath, I don’t know her body of work well. I know what most people do: “Lady Lazarus,” “The Colossus,” “Daddy” and The Bell Jar. I know she married the poet Ted Hughes, they had a couple of kids and she put her head in an oven to end her life. I know she was brilliant but troubled. And as a mom who has wanted not to put my head in an oven but find an end in other easier ways plenty of times in the last three years, I have a newfound compassion for what I once thought was just crazy selfishness.

And with my introduction to Plath’s poem “Stings,” and the revisions housed by Smith College, I have a newfound curiosity for Plath and her work. Beyond that, I feel this sense that perhaps my ideas to explore beekeeping, motherhood and post-partum depression aren’t so weird after all, that the confluence of the three things isn’t something that speaks to just my moment on this planet.

It’s hard to feel the promise of Spring and new life when I look out my window to falling snow, but I know it’s there, like the promise of a new idea bubbling under the surface.

Death and creation

“Why do we tell stories?”

It’s a question I ask in every course I teach, and it always has a different answer. This is something I expect, as all students come to the idea of story with different experiences and perceptions. But the answers differ based on the class in which I ask the question.

Take my lit class, for example. After students offer their suggestions (suggestions such as “to entertain,” “to share ideas,” “to express emotion,” etc.), I tell them we tell stories simply to convey something that happened. Their answers aren’t wrong, but that’s the “why” I’m looking for in that class, at least at the outset of the class, when I first ask this question.

In a creative writing class, because my students are there to be writers, not just readers of others’ stories, their answers are a little more personal and nuanced.

“I tell stories because I would die if I didn’t,” someone says. “Because I have all these worlds and characters in my head and I have to do something with them,” is another answer. For them, storytelling is an emotional, personal, life-giving event. These students are like Joan Didion, who wrote in 1979 that we “tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Sometimes even my Composition students see the writing they are doing (basic academic structure writing) as a chance to find meaning in something they already know about. A student once wrote an essay about why America should allow the consumption of horse meat, and although he went into that topic knowing something about it and having opinions about it, in an end-of-semester reflection piece, he wrote that he had learned something new about himself as he researched his topic. He said he’d never be able to eat a dog, although some people do, and as he pondered this line of thought, he was able to see why most people couldn’t get behind eating horse meat. He got there, of course, by including a personal anecdote, a story.

The art and craft of storytelling is on my mind at least in some way every day. Lately, it’s been on my mind because in September two stray cats showed up at our farm, and last week they died. Well, what I know for sure is that last week one of them died, because I found him in the midst of dying, after both cats had been missing for a few days. I haven’t seen the other one in a week, and given what happened, I’m sure she’s dead too. These cats bring story to mind because of how they worked themselves into my farm life existence, because of how they gave me something to talk about with others and because of they way they brought up memories of the cats of my childhood. I told them stories when I talked to them, and my son told me stories about them. Pumpkin patch visitors told us how much they enjoyed seeing the kitties, and petting the calico, the friendly one. And when I took the poor gray striped kitty to the vet, the one I found on his last day, I told her his story, of how he’d come to my farm, how he’d been so skittish and had just finally started letting me pick him up. It was a short story; he’d only been around for a month and a half, but it was his story, or what I knew of it. As she euthanized him and he fell asleep one last time, snuggled in my arms, I sobbed and sobbed, remembering that farm life is so hard on cats. In the days since, I’ve sniffled and sobbed a few more times, thinking about how hard farm life is on me, too. Those dang kitties had become my friends, other living beings to interact with in a time of isolation and loneliness.

When I sat down to write about this, I thought I’d write more about the kitties, tell more of their story here and let them live on in the pixels and electricity of the screen. But storytelling is a funny thing. On the one hand, writers who do this work for a living know they can’t wait for inspiration to write; they can’t wait for that shadow of a cat that is story to come forward from the bushes and rub briefly on a leg before darting away again. They must write, doing what they can to bring forward the slightest wisp of a story. On the other hand, some stories need time to grow and be known. If we tell stories to live, we must do some living in order to understand how events shape us and others. With that living comes the passing of time, the sorting of feelings and the ability to know something new and different.

I can’t write about these kitties yet, although I want to. I don’t know what to say about them, or if there’s anything there that really matters. But what I have learned through having and then losing them is just how lonely life out here really is. And through that realization, I’ve remembered that in loneliness, and in the craft of story, we can still find ways to live.

Another prompt poem

Well, I’ve continued to fall behind in my National Poetry Month prompts, but today I tried to combine poetry with a WordPress prompt. The folks at the WordPress Discover blog are offering a prompt a day throughout the month, and today’s prompt was “curve.”

I started out imagining the curve of my boy’s rump as it pushed against my belly when I was pregnant, then saw my husband holding the baby in his hands. He’s growing so fast now (as when I was pregnant!), and it seems as if someday soon he will be off and exploring the world away from our farm on his own. That’s both exciting and sobering, and good inspiration for a quick writing session.

To give this poem some structure, I threw in a four-syllable line count. And voila!  This isn’t anything special, but it was fun to follow a line of thought through to the end and come back from that musing with this.  Ooh, another curve that became a circle!

Horizons

Cupped and curved,
in his hands,
our boy, the world.
Life comes back ‘round
time and again,
with each season,
with each new dawn.
The horizon
isn’t curved
from my spot here,
the family farm —
and yet I hope
my boy, the world,
always returns.

Finding a flow

Maple trees tapped with hoses to collect sap for makingmaple syrup.

Are you struggling with social distancing or staying put in one place? Is it hard for you to feel connected these days? This might seem crazy, but my life as a work-from-farm educator has taught me one thing, the same thing, about how to get through this.

You need to find your flow. Yep.

As I collected maple sap this morning, I thought about all that has happened in the year since I last did this. My son has started walking, talking and terrorizing the dogs. The farm has gone through its blossom and bust cycle of seeing new green shoots pop from the ground and then months later, explode with seeds. My partner and I added a new home preservation item to our pantry (the maple syrup). My creative writing workshop students have congratulated each other on “finding a better flow” in their papers in every class, in every term.

This all seems like a lot, and not much at all.  But when I think about it all, the metaphors strike me.

Cedar has learned to put one step in front of the other, and now he runs all over. The weeds and flowers and intentional crops came up, lived there lives and then generated new seeds to further their lineage for the following year. Sean and I harvested, consumed and ran out of sap/syrup. And sap is now running, once again. I am working to find my own “flow” as a busy human and a writer.  Even though there has been a lot of chaos and randomness in the last 366 days (heyo, leap year), there have been so many patterns.

It’s not easy to find peace and balance in the midst of a storm because we’re caught up in the swirl of energy. Yet what I sensed while gathering jugs of sap and reflecting on my past year is that any pattern we can create for ourselves right now will be one more tool for getting us through whatever the next 365 days look like.

I’ve seen lots of calendars about  snack patterns,  meal charts, homework or work-from-home setups, and most of them are jokes, memes. I think the humor is great, and it’s another thing that is keeping me smiling. I’m sure I’m late to the game and several articles exist on the importance of establishing a schedule during chaotic times, but I really think that putting together some sort of routine would be helpful for me. It would:

  • provide (at least the illusion of) control over the day
  • create something to look forward to
  • establish clear breaks in the day and clear days
  • lead to a sense of accomplishment

I’ve been working from home for the last three years, and although I miss my friends from the office more than anything else about the office, I’ve recognized in this time that not having a schedule is both freeing and damning. Even though  my schedule now is loose,with a toddler on hand it’s definitely got some structure I can’t avoid.

So no matter what your daily structure might like, shoot for something. If you fail, try again. That could be a way to get through the days.

We can’t control what’s going on with our neighbors or city officials or national government, and we definitely have no control over the virus instilling all this fear. But just like the dandelions or all the babies that will learn to walk over the next few months, we can prepare for the future and look forward to it by following whatever cycles we can in our present lives.

And yet here I am

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In this blog, I stay away from writing about the farm I live on because I want my writing life to be my writing life. I want my blog to be about education, writing, news, culture…things that interest me.

Yes, the farm interests me, but not in the same way these other things do. Until tonight I hadn’t really put much thought into why I want the farm to be and occupy a separate space. But as I overheard my husband talking with a former hemp colleague, I understood why I want this distance.

The farm is a shared place for us, and a shared interest. I like my multiple gardens, the space we have and the joy our son experiences when he’s outside. But the isolation of farm life, the struggle and uncertainty…these things I don’t like. And although things didn’t feel uncertain on the farm I grew up on, the isolation is one thing I wanted to leave when I left the farm of my childhood at 18. And yet here I am again, living on a farm. 

For those of you finding this blog for the first time, as strangers, the farm I live on is spectacular. Huge 3-story turn-of-the-century house (as pictured above)a Quartz foundation, with frogs and rats and water in the spring.  Eleven acres of fruit trees. A greenhouse. Strawberry, raspberry, rhubarb, currant and asparagus patches. A history that goes back to my husband’s grandfather, making our son the fourth generation to live here. It’s a lovely place to live, and when we moved here, we had huge ambitions.

But last year we grew industrial hemp, and we encountered many issues that prevented us from making any money on it. In fact, we lost money. We lost investor money. We lost partner money. And worse yet, we’re now in litigation over the crop. I’ll write more about that as I’m able; with a court case in the works I’m censoring myself.

That bit of backstory brings me to tonight
A hemp partner on the East Coast told my husband that he’s selling his farm. He went all in on hemp in 2019, and like so many other hemp farmers, it broke him. He has a family to support, and bills to pay, and he has his land.  So he’s going to sell it. I was heartbroken for him for a split second, and angry, too. Angry at hemp, and ag and my own situation. And as I dealt with the twin pains of anger and sorrow, I thought about this farm and how much it takes to just LIVE HERE. I thought about dreams and aspirations and what it means to sacrifice for your dreams. And then I remembered that it was never my dream to return to a farm after I left the one in Nebraska, where I grew up. And yet here I am.

My husband wants me to sell the house I own in town, but I haven’t been willing to do that in the three years we’ve been here, and lately, there’s nothing even remotely inspiring about that idea. What if we too, must sell this farm? Or, what if I simply want off of it, away from the stress and the expense and the isolation? We pushed through two challenging years of getting the land around here cleaned up after years  of neglect, and each winter I feel the bite of wind cut through non-insulated walls, windows and doorjambs. I feel thefarmer depression that some news organizations report on from time to time. And I wonder, is there a better way o do this? What if we just returned this land to land. I don’t mean move off of it; I mean, what if we just lived here, in this house, on this yard, with these trees? What if we didn’t farm at all?

The idea comforts me and gives me something to look forward to. I don’t want to take my husband’s dream away from him, so for now I don’t need to drag him off the farm. But holding on to my dreams of writing and experiencing the culture of a city need to be part of what it means to be out here. I knew this when we moved, but I didn’t think it would be THIS hard.

And so, here I am, writing about the farm.