The Dance

words and images:Jessica Sowards

Time has a way of wooing those who will dance with it. And it is because of the dance that I’ve begun to embrace a different level of changing seasons. The cycle of life and death is no longer a disconnected thing. The processes of mourning and joy, resting and working, planting and reaping, are just part of the dance.

Every September, something heavenly happens. Usually towards the end of the month, sometimes entirely without warning, summer begins to loosen his grasp and autumn begins to push his way in. The season won’t actually change until October. The weather won’t firmly break open into cooler days for weeks to come. But in September, I will walk out early one morning with my milking pail and mason jars filling my arms, and I will stop in my tracks. The screen door may slam startlingly loud behind me, and the goats may scream, demanding my progress to their barn for milking. I will pause, unmoved by their demands, for one precious minute and drink in the first brisk morning of the year, like a letter from a lover promising, “I’ll be in your arms soon.”


A million years ago, before my mornings were run by demanding goats, back when my life was not built around my little farm, the changing seasons did not move me quite as they do now. Oh, I always appreciated the cycle of the year. I would thrill as the scenery of the store shelves changed, and I would anticipate things like impending football seasons and holidays. But commercialism, in all its greed, pushed the envelope. Bathing suits found their way onto racks in January, and Christmas decorations began to be unpacked when the thermometer still read ninety degrees.


I pulled back, as anyone would from a pushy pursuer who demands affection before the proper romance. I became somewhat dulled to the way time shuffles around the calendar year. It seemed almost a dance separate from me. The changing season changed my wardrobe but my life and routine mostly remained consistent throughout the year. My unwavering routine set my heart into steady monotony, unmoved by the cycle of time. Then I became a farmer and everything changed. I learned to dance with the changing seasons, and I fell wildly in love.


This summer was hard. The heat came early. The fight to protect the garden from pests was a fight I lost, so the plants dried up early and the harvest was cut short. The rain was relentless and we buried three goats because of parasites. Our chicken flock contracted a respiratory disease that they would never fully recover from, and the unanimous advice from wise farmers well versed in biosecurity was to cull the flock and start fresh. So we did, and I hated it. Then, on a morning in July, a knock on the door informed us that our sweet and faithful dog lay lifeless beside the road.


You would think that a summer like that would do a farm girl in. It was such a tremendous amount of loss wrapped up in a few short months, but if I’m being honest, it didn’t hit me like it used to. Back when the changing seasons were marked by retail stores, that level of disappointment would have cut me too deep to stop the bleeding. My heart might have dried up like my tomato plants. Had these blows of summer come sooner, back before I had been romanced by seasons and time, I might have given up.


I didn’t give up though. Because I had learned to dance. When summer stomped my toes and twirled me too hard, when he shook me to a rhythm that hurt my heart, I simply looked forward to my next dance partner. At some point, towards the end of this month of September, I will step outside and find autumn calling. It will come on a single brisk morning. I’ll smell it and know it’s almost here to twirl me into what is next. The fall garden will bloom and begin to bear root vegetables and leafy greens. I’ll can bushels of apples and pears from nearby orchards, and we will prepare for the coming cold. Autumn is the reprieve at the end of the long haul of an Arkansas summer. It is a romance where the world burns crimson and gold and even the light ignites the deepest places of the soul.


Then winter will take my hand. Winter, with its icy kiss. We will meet in the morning on a gray and dormant farm. Winter is a slow dance, a familiar one where you rest your head on its unyielding shoulder. As I glide through winter, I will break the ice in water troughs multiple times a day and carry hot mash to our animals. I will retreat into the warmth of a waiting farmhouse, with its roaring fireplace and worn rugs. In the winter, my kitchen is as a womb and my family grows and rests, preparing for the birth of spring.


Spring is the season of promise. It’s like waking up after a long sleep. It is the dance partner that doesn’t even have to ask. It is the one I throw myself headlong into. There are plans to be made and work to be done. Spring is when muscles grow and ground is broken. The babies come. Bouncing goat kids abound and peeping fluffs crack out of eggs. Milk begins to flow and food begins to break forth on berry bushes. Spring encourages you that it was worth the winter. It was worth holding on through fruitlessness.


A farm summer, though, is a different kind of dance. It’s one I have not yet found the strength to last through. Every year, it leaves me winded and feeling a little like an inadequate partner, but I keep dancing. I dance as my skin turns golden brown and my hands grow calloused. I dance out of bed when the alarm goes off in darkness, and the chores demand the hours before the heat becomes unbearable. I dance through milking goats until my weak arms scream in pain. I dance until I cannot dance anymore. When the loss mounts in the heat, I dance for what is lovely.


Time has a way of wooing those who will dance with it. And it is because of the dance that I’ve begun to embrace a different level of changing seasons. The cycle of life and death is no longer a disconnected thing. The processes of mourning and joy, resting and working, planting and reaping, are just part of the dance.


I never saw that, back when my life was marked by what lined the shelves of Walmart.


But now I wake up to demanding goats on a dancing farm in the middle of the woods. Each day, the night gives birth to the morning, and the evening births the night. Day after day, season after season, and the years pass so much faster than I ever imagined they could. I bury the bodies of lives I committed my life to nurture. I put my hand to the birthing of new lives and nurture again. This is the nature of life and time. To everything a season, and to every season a dance, and to every dance, my hand.

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