There was a time, many of you remember, when I was not so quiet. Most days, my voice was broadcast to thousands of people, a surprising percentage of whom actually cared what I said. This was a rare gift, a privilege, and I did not take it for granted. Unfortunate events then occurred, turning me into the reluctant spectator I have been for the last decade or so.
First, my amplifier was taken over by shadow warriors. I am not talking about video games or Benghazi, but about shadow warriors as defined in the Zen tradition: those individuals who seem well meaning but are in fact mercenaries out to sabotage and destroy. In my case, they embodied two of the worst of human vices: hubris and duplicity. I’d sworn going into the job to be vigilant against these warriors. And I was for over ten years, because amplifiers, while themselves neutral, are always at the mercy of their manipulators, and power, after all, does corrupt. I knew these things. What made me drop my guard? I was lured into the game, I suppose, seduced by the trinkets. I imagined myself invaluable, irreplaceable, and no one ever is. And at an opportune moment, for whatever their reasons, I became attractively dispensable. Many people missed me, but no one effectively came to my defense. I missed the microphone. It had become a part of my identity. I attempted to recreate it in a variety of ways—from public radio to social media. The former was a bad fit; the latter a poor medium for intelligent discourse.
It was then I created Lightcap Farm and Publishing Company, which I refer to as a real farm, a word farm, an idea farm, a book farm. I knew even then if I were ever to have a microphone again, I would have to control the amplifier. In my new Queendom, I first began to work hard in the dirt, planting everything I could think of from tomatoes to cilantro to basil, usually grown from seed. For the first time in my life I successfully got out of my head and into my body. (Most of the photographs on this website are testaments to the beauty my husband and I created those first couple years.)
Shedding the expectation of redirecting my voice, I silently immersed myself into the earth, the seeds, the water. It was then that I realized to what extent I’d naively used my voice to promote the consumption of a seemingly organic but actually toxic Left Wing Koolaid, and I was embarrassed. In my first introductory essay about the farm, quoting Wendell Berry, I wrote, “’A culture disintegrates when its economy disconnects from its government, morality, and religion.’ Chronicling that [process] used to be my world, my mission to bring its details to my readers and listeners. I’ve found a different mission. You can find me where the dirt meets the stem, where the bee meets the basil flower.” In those days, fingernails crusted with dark soil, I was indescribably happy.
Two things rose up to challenge me then. First, my mother became ill, and the next five years I commuted from the farm to her home in Abbey Country, southeast of Tucson. (I wrote several pieces about my adventures there, adventures she would sometimes accompany me on when she was well enough, and I published them on the little blog I’d created for the farm, something I hoped would grow into my new microphone. You can find these in the archives under “Abbey Country”.) I increased my work-for-wages hours to help with the cost of commuting by air all those months, and both the schedule and the emotional gamut took their toll. To complicate things, a mentally ill member of my extended family infused each situation with explosive difficulty. (Given that one out of four of us is mentally ill, nearly all of us have a mentally ill person in our family. Perhaps out of cowardice, perhaps out of consideration to others, I am vague about my situation.) When my mother finally left me, on a bland October afternoon in 2014, I was exhausted to the bone. In the months that followed I helped my beautiful sisters clear out the physical existence of a woman who had morphed from my mother into my best friend, and who in the end felt like my infant dying in ICU. In those months, I was a robot programmed to work and to grieve in a silent hell. Without realizing it, I’d become mute.
Physically, my mother’s death crippled me. What began as a tight hip joint that insufferably hot summer in Tucson turned into a half frozen socket. As I had lost my voice, I then lost my mobility. Still somewhat agoraphobic–an after effect of allowing myself to fall victim to the shadow warriors a few years earlier–I increasingly sequestered myself, relying on my family to be my physical presence nearly everywhere but my classroom. There, I developed a curriculum about mental health to increase awareness of the mental illnesses that affect all of us. I hobbled around my classroom with my cane, something I still do on bad days, and my voice was so rusty and tentative I took medication to ensure it was audible and not choked with phlegmy doubt. My hip locked stubbornly; I could not move enough to exercise and I gained weight: an iron-like shield of fat that continues to protect my heart and my gut. My throat kept up its stubborn refusal. These realities humbled me, cured me of all vanity. Outside of my classroom, I felt as if I had nothing to say. I seriously considered shutting down the little blog, the tiny microphone that seemed inconsequential in my new reality. At my darkest moments, I saw no way out of a bleak, silent limp of an existence. My husband’s love, steady and quiet and without condition, sustained me at this time.
Meanwhile the drought entered its fourth year. Each year, we delayed our plans to develop the farm. Each year the productivity of our well diminished. The orchard was tabled, and tabled again. Seeds sat unplanted. Dust devils whirled up in the big field, which was now as dry as my throat. We thought about moving and started looking around.
I often refer to my mother as my angel, and I’m not being metaphorical, but rather referring to the imaginal. Her voice fed me determination in those days. I’d hear it as I remembered it as a child: authoritative, clear. (One of my sons remembers her as fierce, and I suppose she was in her day.) The daughter of a teacher, I found solace and strength in my profession. I realized that I was happiest when I was working, so I asked for even more hours, and I began volunteering for extra duty by facilitating workshops. I used my vocation as a rope ladder, pulling myself out of grief’s abyss with agonizing slowness, arm over arm. And my grief finally stirred, slowly transforming from debilitating to motivating. I felt her approval.
Still, the drought kept a daunting grip on our intentions. “Tell me what to do,” I begged my angel in a whisper. She answered: “The Word Farm. The Idea Farm. The Book Farm.” I felt a tenuous stirring in my exhausted core. I couldn’t do anything to bring on the rain (though there is a joke on Facebook about me and my rain dances), but I could proceed on other fronts. At first, I did not have the stamina to begin, to stand straight, or to speak with strength. But I felt that if I did not move, if I did not speak, if I did not try, I would die. At times I was okay with my end seeming near (which can be chalked up to menopause, so I’m told) but at other times I felt too selfish to leave my husband and sons. I also have very young great nieces and nephews I dote on; I wanted to watch them grow. I wanted to have a voice for them. And I thought finally of my mother, how her body had dwindled away while her mind remained razor sharp and her soul held its resolve to stay with her daughters as long as she could. Slowly, cautiously, I ventured out, only to trip, my frozen hip catching itself on a variety of obstacles, delaying my recovery. I also encountered more shadow warriors, embodiments of indifference, unkindness, and malice. Again I saw how naive I had been in the past to lower my guard against them, even for a moment.
My hip slowly, painfully, came to life. I could pivot again, and on good days enjoy a stroll among the cedars and Doug firs on the farm, something that was once a staple of my serenity. I traded in my cane for walking poles, able to pick up the pace. My voice grew stronger every day, and I found I had new content to pour into it. I began imagining a proper web site for Lightcap Farm. Always handy with a scythe, I cut away every shadow warrior relationship that was not serving me. Or so I thought. I began working in earnest on the web site, a daunting task with many set backs. I was extremely vulnerable at this time, susceptible to the ulterior motives of each shadow warrior I continued to encounter. As I had so often said to my mother, recovery is two steps forward, one step back. An integrative therapist I was working with turned on me, projecting her own issues upon me with venom. Escaping, I hobbled home. Then, soon after, the tipping point came, and predictably it was a minuscule event that did the tipping. A web designer and teacher I was working with refused to send me a simple file—a common courtesy that I, as a teacher, extend nearly every week. Her curt expression of apathy seemed in the moment to be the sum of every unkindness I’d carelessly internalized over the last decade. It seemed impossible in that moment that I could ever again trust, ever again believe in inherent goodness.
Overwhelmed, and once more about to surrender to the feelings of futility I’d been battling, I reached for my computer’s mouse instead of shutting her down. I did a simple Internet search. As if by magic, a smiling new teacher and web designer popped into the center of my screen, and she greeted me with enthusiasm and patience. (The beauty of this site is her doing!) Soon after, a good friend guided me to a breath work therapist whose professionalism was healing in and of itself. A few weeks later, the magic continuing like a good game of dominoes, my former Glee Club director agreed to be my voice teacher, and I started singing again in the car. The next day my niece’s very buff friend wrote me, offering to mentor me in nutrition and exercise so that I could regain balance in the physical. My team had assembled itself. Now, the cynicism that I’d protectively lacquered on my insides felt like a stubborn crust of dysfunction. It took the premature arrival and then the quick, devastating departure of a special baby girl, my newest great niece, to crack my heart open, inexplicably healing it as it lay pulverized. She showed me the power of trusting innocence and goodness while remaining ever vigilant in the presence of the shadow warriors.
Today, although I walk slowly and still limp, I am already well enough to help with this year’s planting and I’m looking forward to being able to get down on the floor and play with my great nieces and nephews. Today, I find myself wanting to speak, having things to say I have never said before. Most importantly, I feel that my voice is now autonomous, stubbornly independent. As Leonard Cohen sings in “Democracy”, I am now “neither left or right, I’m just staying home tonight.” But unlike Cohen, I do not feel “lost in that hopeless little scream” any longer. I’ve emerged from a surreal, decade-long tunnel, strangely reborn, rebooted.
Here on the farm, it rains or snows now almost every day. The well has recovered, and our bare root fruit trees are heeled, soon to be planted in the space we’ve held for our orchard for a decade now. We have staunchly recommitted to this unique three and a half acres of the planet. The website just went live—on soon after what would have been my mother’s 95th birthday. The cynicism that almost destroyed me washes away with the blessed water as it falls on me. I am getting a grin and a thumbs up from my favorite angel, and from my new angel who has just joined her. “You almost gave up,” they cheer. “But you have so much left to experience, to enjoy. Get to it. Get busy.”