My day job makes daily milking impossible. That is to say: it makes it impossible if I choose to abide by natural sleep patterns and such. Today, I needed to be south of Houston before 10am making a morning milking completely out of the question unless waking somewhere around 4am in order to squeeze in the chore, then a little self-grooming, time enough for some coffee and toast before the 3 hour drive into the big city. By the time I arrived, I’d just completed the solitary journey from here to there. It’s a distance that cuts through piney woods and rolling prairie and, in some places, the blue bonnets have started rising up out of this confused late-winter soil. I stopped at Hruska’s bakery/gas station in Ellinger for a box of kolaches (it’s unforgivable to pass through Czech country without buying some) and leaned against the car while I filled the tank, chewed on a poppy seed kolache just when a weathered rancher stepped out of a busted old farm truck. He looked sturdy as oak but his back was so gnarled from wear that he leaned sideways. His leather face considered me for a full second before he nodded his head; the twitch of a smile flickered before he shuffled on inside. The way his legs bowed, I’d guess he spent the better parts of his life on horseback, and as his pearl snap shirt fluttered against stained jeans, one quick hand reached back to tuck it in. I caught sight of his hand then, so deeply lined, grime caked in the nail bed, trimmed down to the quick. It was skin that had baked in the sun, been cut up and bitten. A good, strong, storied hand.
The click of a full tank knocked me out of a reverie. Popped the rest of the pastry in my mouth, wiped hands on my skirt and got back in the car. By the time I reached the meeting, everyone was already arranged around a table, pressed neatly and ready for a day of polite discussions. I went around for introductions (“Hi y’all, how are yeeeww?”), shaking hands, saying hello. The women tapped manicured fingers against the table or used them to tap out texts into phones. Most of the men were equally well-groomed. Inspecting my own hands I realized how dirty they probably appear to strangers. My dry skin is cracked from constant washing but there’s still places where the dirt grinds in and stains the creases. No matter my vigilance, a faint black line fills each nail bed. The nails themselves are kept trimmed close now because of milking, since I think it’s just rude to milk an animal with fingernails. Each hand currently has wounds healing. One is from an unfortunate tangle with mesquite, but the other? There’s no telling. As long as the hand works, then it’s not worth further discussion.
But I did worry momentarily today, whether the state of my hands would somehow be noticed, such a stark juxtaposition against my clothes, my makeup. I shook hands timidly at first and then thought, aw hell, let them see. Let people ask, let me tell them the truth about how the other half of me lives. I sat in the meeting for four hours, discussing policy, rules, regulations, but my mind was back in Ellinger. If only I had walked up to the man I saw outside Hruska’s. If only I had met his eye, introduced myself, shook his hand. If I follow you, where would we go? Can I borrow your hat and perch there on the back of your truck? I can help you feed the cows, if that’s where you’re headed. I can stand out in the field and watch this storm come in, pray for rain with you over the oat seeds just sowed. We can sip coffee and eat kolaches in the pasture, talk grain and hay prices. And you can read me stories from your hands, or teach me something that they know about mending fences.
It’s not that my day job is bad work; it is actually fairly exceptional. But it’s not really my work, anymore. Answering phone calls and facilitating meetings feels silly compared to the important job of tending the animals, sitting on the milk stand at sunrise, carrying the pail inside, turning the milk into food. The past few weeks were deeply exhausting. Emotionally. Physically. At the meeting today I stared at my hands, turned them over – palm down then palm up – looking for new lines, seeing if scars have emerged yet from this recent chapter here. After being dormant so long, these hands delivered a goat, trimmed hooves, milked (milked, milked), carried babies, rescued hens, and dug a grave for one of my dearest animals. Do those stories tell there, somewhere? Are they etched across my face, yet? Will years of this life make me stoic and hard or strong and sassy? At what point can I no longer keep the day work separate from the farm – a feeling that is a pressure building, like a dam just before breaking, me pushing against it with all my strength.
Someday, I hope “professional development” will mean introducing myself to ranchers outside bakeries in small towns. I hope that jumping into the back of a truck for a drive out to the barn will represent more of a “growth opportunity” then a distraction. I hope day dreams on long drives to meetings become less fiction, more biography. Does anyone know how to write that story?