Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Susan Haldane : My (small press) writing day

I’ve always wished I was one of those writers who rise at 4 a.m. and write (by candlelight) for a few hours before heading off to their day job (in banking or insurance). Truth is, I like sleep. And the joined forces of aging, parenting and arthritis make sleep hard to obtain. So, while the radio comes on at 6, my feet may not find the floor until 6:45. My conscious day might actually have started hours earlier, but that cold wood floor makes it official.

My husband and I operate a farm in northern Ontario, raising sheep, cattle and in summer a few pigs. So after breakfast comes chores: watering everyone, feeding hay to the few in the barn (octogenarian pony and others), wading through excited pigs in their paddock to pour mash in their trough. I walk out to where the sheep are grazing. Through the summer and fall, the sheep flock is moved daily to fresh pasture-- it's part of our effort to make best use of the land and mimic the animals' natural tendencies. This morning, the grass is decorated with all the tiny webs some creature spins overnight to capture the dew. Sandhill cranes are making their rusty-door calls, and four deer are picking their way through a neighbouring field. 

I'm back in the house at ten after 8, with 20 minutes before I need to be at my desk for my Real Job. I have a full time job in communications for a charity, and I'm lucky enough to have my office in a corner of the living room. But, I can't write poetry at my Real Desk because I can't not think about work there. So I plop onto the couch. There's a poem that's been simmering in a pot on the back of my brain. I open a notebook and scribble a few lines and phrases. Most of my writing happens in my head -- in the small hours as I lie sleepless, or while I'm out working in the barn or fields (setting up electric fences can be quite contemplative). I repeat and repeat a line or phrase in my head until I have a chance to write it down. I live in fear of forgetting something brilliant before I can catch it and pin it to a page.

This morning, there are enough fragments to offer that buzz of excitement that hovers when a poem is coming together. I jot numbers and arrows beside lines, and trust that it will still make sense when I come back to it later. 

At 8:30 I'm at my desk -- emails, phone calls, writing articles and reports etc. til noon. Usually my husband and I have lunch together since we both work at home. Lunch hour might give me a chance to read something on craft -- currently I'm dipping into Poetry: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology. There are generally some noon chores -- those pigs do like three squares a day. Then the short commute back to work.

I try to wrap up my desk work somewhere around 5, although I'm not always successful. Another round of chores comes before dinner, and after dinner there are generally some other farm tasks. The work flows out of the seasons -- spring is lambing and calving, summer is haying and pasturing, fall is marketing and equipment maintenance, and winter is a little quieter with a focus on feeding the animals and keeping the water in liquid form.

Much of what we do on the farm is time-consuming and some of it is just hard physical work. There are a million worries. But there’s also a zen to repeating tasks you’ve done a million times; walking through fields you’ve been walking for years. Sometimes, poems grow up out of the grasses or trip my rubber-booted feet.

My husband (who makes space in our lives for me to write) is away for a couple of days, so I spend this evening setting up portable electric fences for the sheep’s next paddock -- the electric charge is crucial to protecting the flock from wolves, coyotes or bears, although we also keep a llama with the sheep, serving as a guardian animal. Each fence is about 135 feet long, with 12 fibreglass fence posts joining strands of plastic wire, spun through with steel filament. I need to bundle up each one, haul it to the square of fresh grass and stand it up, pressing each post into the ground. It's like a giant game of dots and boxes – four fences equals a paddock, or three new fence lines with one existing fence as the baseline. The sheep are thrilled to rush through to their new turf and put their noses down into the knee-high blend of grasses and legumes. I bucket water out of their trough, drag the trough to the new paddock and refill it. Fence, check; water, check; everyone where they’re supposed to be, check.

In the evenings, I may power up my laptop and do some revising or submit some stuff somewhere. Or I may just stare at a baseball or hockey game until it’s time for bed. But spring through fall, if the weather is decent and barring meetings and other commitments, we work outside until the light goes. September brings the mercy of earlier evenings. Tonight, even at 7:30 the sun has dropped behind the western hills and mist layers into the low places. Soon the fog and dark extend til there's nothing left but the lit house, and I go in.

Susan Haldane’s writes and farms on the edge of Northern Ontario. Her poems have been published in The New Quarterly, Room, The Malahat Review, CV2 and Grain. Her chapbook Picking Stones is due out from Gaspereau Press late in 2018.

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