Dear Family and Friends –
I apologize for the extreme tardiness of this year’s letter. I’ve no excuse except for the crush of farm construction activity in the waning days of 2018 and the burst of real estate activity in the dawning days of 2019. I’d love to tell you all about it, but it’s best to save that til next year’s letter when we see how it all pans out.
In the meantime, I offer you the following tale. It’s beyond bloated. There’s been no time to edit and it’s my usual inappropriate oversharing (times 10!). But if you slog through it, I promise a more streamlined letter next year!
2018 dawned quietly. I spent it engaged in minor winter projects (scanning old family photos) in between a surprisingly active real estate market. As you’ll see from the paltry photo gallery below nothing worth documenting actually happened.
But towards the end of the month an opportunity arose which set in motion an entire year of assessing and reassessing life goals, and thus endless navel gazing pondering my mortality, the pursuit of happiness, and all my other constant obsessions. What happened was this – in late 2017 someone gave us a very good offer to buy our farm. You were spared that whole episode of “what ever shall we do?” at that time because it all came to naught. Since you already know that my entire sense of self and self-worth is tied up in my farm and what I’ve carved out of these fields and forests, it would be tough to give up. But we did consider the offer seriously. There is one place that Keith agreed we could give up the farm for, but as it was in the process of being sold to someone we knew, we politely declined the offer.
But… the whole exercise, indeed just contemplating the ideal of selling the farm, came at one of those inflection points in life that started us thinking… … so when the news came at the end of January that the property Keith and I had always liked was back on the market, we had a ‘now or never’ moment and called our buyer. Was his offer still good? It was. So we accepted his offer and made an offer on “The Maples.”
My Hamlet-like dithering began in earnest in early February when it looked like this deal would go through. Financing was in place and a plan to downsize the farm was developed. Yet a growing sense of dread permeated every new step towards this transition. What was I doing?? The prime reasons for making the move were (and are) inarguable: 1) I’m not getting any younger and physically farm work is demanding; 2) over the past few years farming has definitely become more a chore than a joy; and 3) barring a lottery win – we will never be able to afford a proper house if we keep the farm. The arguments against are more emotional: 1) for the past 22 years this farm has been my heart and soul.
So while the wheels set in motion ground toward the sale, I wavered from moment to moment. We’d finally have the Federal/Georgian/ house of my dreams! But, we’d have neighbors – there’d be no privacy! We’d finally have a proper house with guest rooms, dining room, clothes closets and everything! But – think of the taxes and utility costs! I’d have a more manageable landscape to putter around in! But what would we do with our swans – not to mention the donkeys?
After three weeks of this constant hand-wringing, the fates intervened in the form of a “family emergency” that caused the buyer of our farm to put this deal on hold while he rushed overseas. The owner of the house we wanted to buy wasn’t comfortable waiting indefinitely for his return, so the deal collapsed.
If truth be told, when this happened I felt an enormous sense of relief. But… at the same time the damage had been done. Having raised the possibility of having a “normal” life, suddenly all my farming work, daily chores, and ongoing expenses were exposed to me as a crushing burden. I started questioning the need to carry that burden and was depressed about this for the rest of the year.
And there, Ladies and Gentlemen, you have my year condensed into less than two months. You can stop right here and consider yourselves all caught up. But if you want to take the long road back to this point, read on…
A good while ago my sister decided that we siblings were all to meet at my mother’s house in Tryon, NC for a surprise family reunion on our mother’s 80th birthday. As I was hankering for a road trip to clear my mind I decided not only to drive down, but also meander a bit on my way. My first stop was Abingdon, VA. I had wanted see the town and surrounding area as it was used as a backdrop to a small indie film that I liked. Of course, I wasn’t counting on the rain and clouds to make sight-seeing nearly impossible, but there were a few old places of note in the half hour I spent wandering the main street. The next stop was Bristol VA/Bristol TN. Lots of traffic on State Street in Bristol. I wanted to stop at a little antique shop on my list (did I mention I had already stopped at two of them in Abingdon?), but the lack of parking and the steady drizzle almost made me keep on going. Still, I finally found a place to park and then wandered around the shop. On my way out the door, the salesclerk asked me if I saw anything I liked. I (somewhat) jokingly replied, “I do like a sideboard that you have back there, but only at half price.” The truth was I did like the sideboard, but it was too big to transport and too expensive, despite being kinda what I’d been looking for for a good long while. As I opened the door to leave she shouted, “Wait!! Which one?” So I came back in and showed it to her. She didn’t think the dealer would let it go for what I wanted, but she called him just to find out what his “best price” might be. She told him I’d take it for half price. Well, he wouldn’t let it go for half price, but came darned near close to it! So I wavered. I told her that I was sorely tempted, but that it wouldn’t fit in my car. “Well, why don’t you measure it to be sure?” she suggested (talk about hard sell!). So I took her measuring tape and measured the length and width. Then I went back to my car and measured everything with the seats down and the back space empty. Width-wise no problem. But length-wise I had 59 inches and the sideboard was 61 inches and that was with the front seats scrunched up as far as they could go. So, no dice! Unless…. There were two inches or so where the back seats bumped up about 3-4 inches above the surface of the rest of the folded down flat bed. Maybe if we rested the sideboard on that bump it might just fit lengthwise, but would it fit in terms of height?
I went back into the shop and told them it probably wouldn’t work but could just possibly, and the only way we’d know for sure is if we took all the display items off the sideboard, and carried it back to their loading dock and then tried very, very carefully to squeeze it into my car. I didn’t think they’d do it, but surprisingly they were game. So while one person carefully unscrewed the backboard, and two others removed all the surrounding antique stuff and doo-dads on and around the sideboard, I stood there thinking – what am I doing? I don’t even have a house to put this in! Why am I doing this, and how am I going to drive another 4 hours to Tryon and then 9 hours back to Amissville scrunched up with front seat of the car smashed in to the steering wheel. Am I nuts?? Well, you know the answer to that one already. So we got the thing disassembled and carefully loaded it into the back of my Ford Escape. And you know what? It fit – just barely. So barely in fact, that we had to pad the edges and gently close the tailgate, but it worked. So all my luggage and stuff was smushed into the passenger seat, and I was smushed into the drivers seat and I went on my way. I called Keith and told him I bought him a very nice Valentine’s present and then headed through Tennessee on to North Carolina and then down to Asheville. There were some interesting antique shops in Asheville but of course, no room to buy anything else (well, maybe two small sterling candlesticks).
I made it to Tryon in time. I did surprise my mother (whom I hadn’t seen in nearly 8 years – but that’s another story). All of her children were there: (including Jennifer from Germany, Eric from Boise, Wayne from Chicago, Geoff from Greenville, and Ray from Atlanta). We had a great dinner and at great time back at Mom’s house reminiscing about old times. (Unfortunately the only photos of the event are extremely blurry). The next day, despite my cramped space in the car, I decide I’d continue my road trip and meander further. So I went east to Winston-Salem (meh) and Greensboro (meh) and then up to Danville, VA, which was surprisingly interesting. It’s another sleepy Southern town that’s seen better days. But, the old tobacco warehouses along the river Dan were being gentrified into cool looking shops and condos and the downtown main street showed some interesting architecture too. But there were no people. It was a ghost town. Where will all the people come from to live in this new “River District?” Dunno, but Danville might be worth another trip back someday.
Heading north I came to Lynchburg, VA. This is the town that is dominated by Jerry Falwell’s Liberty “University” and dominated it is. I didn’t see much of the town at all, but what I did see was an enormous campus (and construction cranes) of really ugly oversized cartoonish versions of Greek Revival and Federal style boxes. Imagine Donald Trump’s version of what the University of Virginia would look like and you’re probably not too far off. The whole sense of scale and proportion is distorted in every building. Oversized columns or domes plastered onto red brick high rise dormitories. Everything reached heights of vulgarity that I did not think possible in the Old Dominion. But the impressive thing was the scale of the ugliness. It was huge and sprawling! Complete with Jerry Falwell Boulevard, and Jerry Falwell airport, etc. Ugh! I had no idea there would be that many people in this country who would pay that kind of money to build such an edifice to what? Ego? Stupidity? But then again, P.T. Barnum warned about this years ago.
At any rate, north of Lynchburg the scenery improved and once I hit Charlottesville I felt I was back in home territory of tasteful rural gentility. Unfortunately I had to wait until the weekend when Keith was home to unload the sideboard into our garage “dining room” – but I’m very pleased with the result. It’s clearly a 20th Century piece and I’m not sure who the manufacturer is – but it’s a very nice mahogany Hepplewhite sideboard that fits in perfectly with my dreams for an actual dining room someday.
March dawned mildly, but within 24 hours a major nor’easter with hurricane force winds ruined everything. For once our farm escaped with nothing more than a few downed branches, while lots of neighbors lost a great many trees. Our power was out for 6 days – enough to ruin things in fridge and freezer – but the main hardship was trying to get water to heavily pregnant ewes without a functioning well pump.
Once power was restored things didn’t get much easier. It snow about 5 inches on the first day of Spring. March was raw from beginning to end, and it made a disappointing lambing season even more so.
Lambing came late this year and was a disaster from the get-go. Lambs dying mysteriously, ewes dying mysteriously, and the numbers were way down. Lots of singles and only a few twins. Needless to say this did nothing to revive my flagging interest in farming. Farming is tough work in the best of times, but it’s at its toughest when you’re trying to save a life on limited sleep and energy and all the while making the mental calculation “is it cost effective to call the vet?” There were several times when I could have done so and potentially saved a ewe and/or her lambs, but one of things that wears me down about farming is remembering that these animals are livestock – not pets. They’re worth only so much, and that worth needs to be substantially greater than the price of medical intervention. More than the hard physical labor, or the anxiety, or late nights in the barn, it is the cold economic and heartless decision-making in putting animals down that gets to me the most. At no time does nature seem crueler than when she imposes death on new life. And at no time does farming upset me more when I have to let this happen.
The happy part of the month was my birthday. It wasn’t a milestone one, but Keith surprised me nevertheless with a wonderful schnitzel dinner for two and the following night his sister Yvonne joined us for a feast fit for a king at the Inn at Little Washington. It’s clear that they really do like Keith there – as we got the royal treatment and then some.
Otherwise the month proceeded along with the usual anticipatory dread for the Spring growing season of mowing, pruning, planting, weeding, hatching, etc, etc.
The best part of March, however, was that someone, somewhere, decreed that it was once again permissible, and indeed, desirable, to buy a large farm in Virginia. In sudden succession, three of my largest listings (including one 400 acre farm that I’d been trying to sell for the past 5 years) found buyers. All at once. The market seemed to be booming and that made me very happy and very nervous in equal measure.
A wintry March bled into April without any sign of Spring. While lambing season finished in early April, we were way behind on the rest of the usual Spring fecundity. The hens weren’t laying, it was too cold in the pigeon loft to pair up birds, and it was so cold that it looked like they might cancel the annual Old Dominion Hounds Point-to-Point races. The races took place, but we wimped out. The blustery winds and snow flurries proved too much for us, but not for some of our stalwart friends. We gladly handed over our space at the rail to Nick and Nessa. Nessa’s father had a great time watching the races – and they stayed until the bitter end. Being upstaged by a 92 year old Irishman put us in our place. Next year we’ll show up no matter what the weather.
Spring finally broke through and the world began to green up and I scrambled to photograph a slew of new farm listings, and plant the garden and get the sheep on pasture all at once. In the midst of all this we had family visits from my brother Geoff and sister-in-law Sandy and niece Mindy, and then from the California Miller nephews, together with a mid-month break for Ann Marie and Denis’s beautiful wedding on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Just when the weather righted itself we had to leave – for a real vacation! Two years ago, our faithful ex-farm hand agreed to watch things while we were off in Oregon quaffing wine by the gallon. Upon our return, he very politely let us know that it would be the last time he’d have time to do so. It was just a bit too much for him to do with a full-time job elsewhere. Now if even our über -competent Jeremy found it draining to farm-sit this place, could we ever thinking of leaving again? I didn’t think we could. But here we were, due to be Southern California for Keith’s best friend’s 50th and we had no farm assistance, much less a farm sitter. Or did we? My brother Wayne was gracious enough to suggest that he would come back and finish working on the garden pavilions he designed for us last year. What if I could convince him to come here and do so and ‘babysit‘ the farm while we were in LA? Hmmm…….. My sister-in-law Audrey extracted a tough bargain (and we still owe her!), but she agreed to let Wayne spend 10 days here and play carpenter/farm slave. Wayne’s only condition was that he be allowed to bring his dog “Guppy.”
Now Wayne is probably the most laid-back of all my siblings. Nothing phases him too much, and he’s pretty competent in most things, so I though this was a good solution all around. Until I met Guppy. I’m sure Guppy is a very nice and well mannered dog in her own territory, but she seemed to think our farm was a combination of “Dogs Gone Wild” and a Spring Break Frat party. After several frantic tears around the house, Keith decided that our leather sofa might want a vacation of its own downstairs in the garage.
But with Wayne supplied with instructions and bachelor provisions, we nervously left for California. After a long, cramped, and crappy flight (sorry folk, no internet today and no place to plug in your screen to watch our expensive in-flight craptastic movies!), we arrived at LAX. It was 8 pm and we were due in Palm Springs that evening, but Keith being Keith (sigh!), decided that a detour downtown to eat at an expensive restaurant with an extensive wine list was was worth the extra three hours of drive time. Keith and the sommelier nattered on like two old biddies at a church social, while I wondered what kind of excuse we could come up with for our host in Palm Springs when we got there hours after we were expected. During the late night drive to the desert I was treated to non-stop commentary from Keith about the vileness of the suburban sprawl that washed over us on either side of the freeway. He made a little retching sound at name of each municipality as it passed by. Who knew my husband was such a snob? But it was his home turf, so who am I to judge? At any rate, I have to admit I was a bit taken aback by the endlessness of it all. I hadn’t been to Palm Springs since 1989 and at that time it seemed to be far from anywhere. Now it seemed like there were just a few miles of open desert before the sprawl of ‘suburban’ Palm Springs started.
We spent a wonderful day touring Palms Springs with Keith’s old friend Dave Yeager. Dave did up his guest bedroom in true hotel style – complete with pricey mini-bar (but it turns out drinks were on the house). He was a great host. Not only did he not complain about our very late arrival, he even made us breakfast the next day and then gave us a great tour of the town. Palm Springs is sited beautifully against the mountains in the desert. Even the Target parking lot had stunning views of the scenery. But the whole thing was just kinda…. I dunno….dull. I can appreciate mid-century modern for a weekend, and it really does fit into the desert – but I don’t think I could live in it 24/7. Still, it was great to visit and see the sights, and the added bonus was that we got to catch up my old friend Chris Harris for lunch at the Purple Palm too. Thanks Chris!
The next day was really Californian – driving on the freeway to LA. Freeway traffic was horrific, but the goal at the end of the road was worth the stress. Drew & Michael’s magnificent mansion in Los Feliz was straight out of central casting. I think every set designer wanting to evoke upscale LA living visits their house to take notes. Pretty posh. We had just enough time to soak in our surroundings and change for Dave and Brad’s drinks-and-dinner tour of Downtown LA – this time in the flower district. Now Keith is the only one of this group to have actual downtown street cred (he lived there back in the day when it was all pretty much an extension of Skid Row), but I have to say these ex-pats from the East (and Vancouver) really know their territory. And it’s changed substantially from just the few years back that Keith and I visited the last time. It was a fantastic evening of bar-hopping and dining with the cool and hip millennials and made me wish I was 20-30 years younger.
Friday morning Keith hit the gym while I went to the Getty Museum. Very nice setting and architecturally wonderful (and totally different than the Villa). But the exhibition space was pretty incoherent and collections a bit sparse and random. Still, the gardens were impressive. Then home to prepare for a dinner party that evening. Drew & Michael invited a good chunk of the East Coast expat crowd and it was good to see them all, and to listen to them lobby us on how we need to pick up stakes and move west too… Hmmm… could we?
The next day we headed to Keith’s teenage stomping grounds in the O.C. Huntington Beach was looking pretty nice and spiffier than I remembered it. This was the whole reason for the trip. We were there for Kaycee Harding’s big birthday party. Kaycee’s husband James had suggested we surprise her by showing up in California for her birthday. But we were the mini-surprise – a decoy for the bigger surprise of her actual surprise party, which in turn had another surprise, which was that he had flown in her favorite band from Europe to play at her party. He planned the whole thing flawlessly and she enjoyed it immensely. It was a great evening and terrific fun meeting all these folks I had heard about over the years. It was also quite revealing to see Keith interact with all his old high school buddies, and they were definitely curious about me too. Keith hadn’t seen a lot of them in a long, long time. He arrived dressed and ready to party like it was 1983. They, of course, having seen each other more regularly through the years, were happy to stand around dressed like the suburbanites they’d become, trading photos of their grandchildren, and getting home before it was too late. He was shocked, absolutely shocked, to find that most of them don’t even drink any more. Though he tried not to show it, I could tell he was a little annoyed that they had all grown up and become middle aged while he was away. Sigh… Living with Peter Pan isn’t easy some times.
The next day we headed back up the coast through endless traffic on the 101 and the 405 (the one constant of LA life it would seem) to brunch at Heike and Richard’s cool little house overlooking the beach in the Pacific Palisades. Heike, of course, put out a great spread and put Richard on grill duty with the bratwurst. We all sat around and had a very enlightening conversation about the politics of energy and water and sprawl in Southern California. It’s great having so many intelligent and thoughtful friends who know what they’re talking about. I came away with new respect for the challenges of life in the area and the solutions the Californians are considering. If only our national political scene were as reasoned.
After brunch we headed through traffic yet again to see Michael Boh’s yacht in Marina del Rey. It’s a gorgeous boat, and we were promised an afternoon cruise, but unfortunately Michael had had a rather rough passage getting back from Catalina that a.m. and was still a bit shaken after getting his boat cleaned up and then dealing with the damage to his mast. So instead of a cruise we sat in the galley and heard his harrowing tale of rogue waves and nearly capsizing on his way to meet us. Then back through the traffic to head up to the rarified atmosphere of Jerry Bloom’s spectacular Richard Neutra house in the Hollywood Hills. The last time we had visited Jerry the house was under renovation. This time it was all completed and – wow! just wow! If all of California was like this, I’d be signed up in a second. Jerry threw together a fantastic last minute dinner party for 8, cleaned up afterwards, showed us to our room and then excused himself to pack for his business trip early the next morning. Pretty amazing energy.
The next day we had the house to ourselves and pretended that we lived surrounded by movie stars everyday as we puttered around and made breakfast. Then reality intruded and we headed off to meet up with Kaycee and James and Heike and Richard to tour the Huntington Gardens. Traffic to Pasadena was as wretched as elsewhere, but I decided I could live in Pasadena and never travel anywhere else. In my mind, Pasadena and San Marino are exactly what Southern California is supposed to be, but isn’t. We had a leisurely lunch and then spent the afternoon touring the gardens. Then tea afterwards, then cocktails in downtown Pasadena, and then dinner as well. It was about as properly bourgeois a day as we’d ever had. Dinner at The Arbour was about as old school Californian as it gets. So prosperous and sleek with blond wood and steel and perfectly coiffed matrons drinking their California chardonnay as they caught up with their friends.
Leaving the next day made us a bit wistful. Obviously being wined and dined by such generous friends gives one a biased view of life in LA, but if it weren’t for the hordes of people and the endless sprawl, the earthquakes, the mudslides, the wildfires, and the water shortages, we could probably see ourselves living there.
We came home to find that Wayne had done the expected excellent job in holding down the fort while making great progress on our garden buildings. Also, despite Keith’s fears, it appeared that Guppy hadn’t destroyed everything either. So we lucked out all around.
The rest of the month was rather quiet and rainy. But it is worth noting that on May 19th at the Costco in Manassas, VA, for the first time ever in my life, I got in the “right” checkout lane.
It wasn’t until June that we noticed something odd about the weather. True, we had a huge windstorm in March, and snow in April, but in June it was too noticeable to ignore. We were having a lot of rain. A LOT of rain. The rain seemed to come in two speeds – steady drizzle and full throttle buckets. Mid-month it rained heavily one day from 2 am to 11 am without a break. This monsoon resulted in our pond nearly overflowing its banks and threatened to cause the dam to burst.
While a blessing to the kitchen garden and the pastures, the heavy rain prevented a lot of long-term projects from getting underway. We had hoped to fence some pasture, re-gravel our driveway, and finish the garden outbuildings my brother had nearly completed the month before. But none of these projects could get started in the downpour. We did manage to get new gutters on the house (in the nick of time), but haymaking was completely out of the question.
Keith found this a perfect time to disappear for two weeks in Burgundy, hobnobbing with the world’s best wine producers and being very grand. I stayed at home and stared at the sheets of rain preventing me from moving forward on any front. There was a silver lining among the endless clouds, however. I finally had the downtime necessary to really focus on my predicament and stop dithering. Not knowing What To Do was really weighing on me. Since a very early age, I always had a plan for my life. I could probably out-five-year-plan any number of communist countries. Everything I’ve ever done, every choice I’d made, was predicated on how it would or could move me forward to the next goal. Yet here I was at a crossroads without a plan. My options appeared to be: 1) sell the farm and downsize or 2) stay the course and revisit option 1 in ten year’s time. But what if I just lived with ‘options’ for while? Indeed, what if I just expanded my options and see which one worked? Most people didn’t even have life plans and seemed to survive just fine. Could I? So my plan was not to have a plan (at least for a while), and in the meantime solve the major issue on the table: what to do about my weariness of farming? The solution was remarkably simple. Have someone else do the farming.
This new plan fell into place rather quickly. We would stay on the farm and complete several unfinished projects. At the same time, we would list the farm for sale and if we found a buyer that would let us purchase The Maples we would do so. But if no such buyer appeared, we’d stay put. In the meantime we’d begin switching the farming operation from my sheep flock to my neighbor’s cattle herd. He’d be stuck with all the pasture maintenance, hay-making, fence clearing, and the trials of livestock farming, and I’d have time to focus on my booming real estate career and maybe even have a chance to travel more and relax in my gardens. On paper it seems like a perfect solution. So why did accepting this feel like a punch in the gut?
Rain, rain, rain, rain. More rain than could possibly be imagined. Even vegetables in the kitchen garden were starting to swell and split from too much moisture.
The first week of July saw a brief respite however. We had a week without a drop. Our neighbor Brian Adams and his brother managed to make hay in the hayfield, center paddock, and the long paddock and do a really nice job of it. And it went a long way toward making me feeling comfortable with having him working our farm. Drew & Bill opened up their beautiful Avon Hall for another perfect Independence Day concert, and I was able to have a few people over to watch the fireworks from Hammock Hill. The only thing was the fireworks were barely above the treeline. So at the very last minute we had to all pile into the gator and drive through overgrown fields to where we could see over the trees to watch the display.
Little did we know that that brief amount of time would be the longest stretch of days without precipitation for the rest of the year. The rain started up again in earnest. Apparently the same jet stream anomaly that was drying out northern Europe was pouring all the moisture on us. By the end of the month we had already exceeded the average rainfall for the entire year. We had quick visits from brother Geoff and Mindy to see young Will continue to conquer the equestrian world and sister-in-law Beth made an epic cross country journey with all four kids to hang out with us for a few days which was fun as well.
It’s fair to say that August was a complete disaster. Endless rain meant endless mowing (of mostly crabgrass) in between raindrops. But the super-saturated soils were starting to cause some serious problems for us and neighboring farms. Here’s a list of the partial rain-related disasters:
- A huge oak tree fell over in the middle of night with a loud and vibrating whump! Luckily it missed our new fencing by four feet.
- The unfinished garden buildings sat soaking up the moisture and warping my brother Wayne’s careful carpentry. I could not find anyone to finish the work to secure it from the rain damage.
- Birds started dying. I first noticed dead crows in the field. Then our female Swan died, then our blue-eared pheasants died, and then several of our younger pigeons died. West Nile virus was highly suspected. This is the first year we’ve ever had mosquitoes on the farm and it was a bit unnerving.
- When Phoebe the donkey started not feeling well, we were concerned that West Nile had affected her as well. This turned out not to be the case, instead it was a hoof abscess caused by soggy pastures.
- Our rather miserable lamb crop this year grew more miserable as lamb after lamb succumbed to worm infestations. My worming medicine was no match for the explosion of Barber Pole worms this season.
- A sick donkey off her feet and overgrown pastures meant that I wasn’t aware that coyotes had dug under the fencing in the back paddocks. We lost 5 ewes over the course of three nights before I discovered the gaps in the fence.
- The sheer volume of water coursing through the pond’s outflow culvert started seriously eroding the pond dam. This was impossible to fix given the sodden state of dam itself. Any attempt at earth moving would weaken it further.
And yet despite all of this, Keith and I managed to survive and have a few nice evenings of quiet dinners and generally enjoy ourselves. Towards the end of the month the rain abated (briefly) and I dashed to get caught up with mowing and field work and work started on our driveway repairs. “Repairs” is maybe not the right word considering all the regrading, reditching, new culverts, new drainage, etc that went into the project. I had always thought our driveway was 9/10ths of a mile long. It turns out, it’s actually just slightly over a mile. Who knew? One thing I certainly did know after starting to pay for it all, was that I could have had a nice brand new luxury car for the price of a new driveway.
September was one long constant never-ending rain storm. Notice a theme for this year? It rained the entire month. This meant that nothing was done on the garden outbuildings, nothing got done on finishing the driveway, and nothing got done on the farm. There were two days without rain in September. One day was the very self-congratulatory Innstock at the beginning of the month and one was the day we hiked Old Rag at the end of the month. You’ll know from past letters that I’ve been hiking up Old Rag on a fairly regular basis since 1979. But this year the hike seemed so much more challenging than in years past. I ached in every joint and it was a real trial reaching the summit. Of course I’m getting older, and my arthritic hip didn’t help matters much, but the achy-ness I thought might have been another bout of Lyme disease really knocked the wind out of my sails (note: it wasn’t Lyme disease – but rather a common and painful side effect of the statin my doctor had prescribed me). At any rate, I pretty much collapsed when I finally reached the peak. Sprawled on the rocks, I told my fellow hikers “I’m not moving for the next two hours.” Yet within two minutes of this utterance, shouts of “Alan! Alan!” rang out. There in the middle of a group of stragglers making their way to the top was Keith looking pale and pained and holding his ring finger aloft. It was bent at a very odd angle. Groaning as I got to my feet, we left the rest of our party at the summit enjoying their rest and their lunch and we headed back down.
Needless to say heading down the mountain was rather tortuous. Keith’s finger, though alarming looking, was more numb than painful, but both he and I so achy and cautious on the wet slippery rocks on the descent that the rest of our group actually caught up with us and passed us. When we finally reached ‘base camp’ at Chuck McDonald’s deluxe retreat, I was so grateful that Keith suggested we ‘rest’ for a while before heading to the hospital. So we actually stayed with the group for
cocktails self-medication and dinner before hitting the E.R. X-rays showed that the finger was dislocated and not broken. That was good. They popped it back in place but then wanted to remove his wedding ring. They were worried about further swelling and thought about cutting it off. “Do you know how much that ring cost?” I demanded. “Cut off his finger instead.” The doctor actually thought this was funny. Keith did not.
Usually my favorite month, this year October seemed, I dunno, kinda bland. Real Estate was still keeping me hopping despite the rainy weekends. But the glorious fall colors I expected due to all the rain never happened. The trees just stayed green and stayed green and then just sorta faded. Very disappointing. Meanwhile everything on the farm was still at a complete stand-still. We couldn’t finish the driveway or get any of the other repairs done due to the constant rain. Still, the prospect of cattle arriving on the farm made my seasonal clean-up a bit easier for once. I still mowed (most) of the paddocks but was yelled at for mowing too much by my neighbor who’s going to be putting his cattle on the farm. I do like a neat and tidy farm, and cattle aren’t as neat and tidy as I’d always like, so it will be interesting to see how I adapt to this change. But not having to manage pastures any more came as a huge relief. Surprisingly so.
Otherwise the usual stuff happened, and Keith made a memorable feast for our 5th wedding anniversary, and we had a nice cozy dinner at one of his favorite restaurants. The best part of the month, however, was visits from friends. Kaycee and James came from L.A. on an East Coast tour to see the fall color. Luckily they got a good dose of that in New England, because Virginia wasn’t cooperating. We had a great time with them touring around the neighborhood, including a fantastic dinner at the Foster Harris House and after dinner drinks at the Inn. Then Geoff Fox blew in from Australia and Camilla and Jim Brown put on a mini World Bank reunion which was a lot of fun. Geoff was my boss at the Bank and a finer boss and mentor there never was. Then Sir Roger Scruton kindly invited us to attend an award ceremony honoring him in Washington, DC. We hadn’t seen Roger in quite a while, but the real treat was seeing Sophie after such a long time. Not sure how she manages to cope with Roger and always look relaxed and fabulous. Wish they still lived in the neighborhood.
I was a bit of Halloween Grinch this year. I didn’t go to a neighbor’s annual costume extravaganza and passing out candy to the kiddies in Little Washington was just ….. meh. Can I blame my lack of enthusiasm on the dreary weather?
November zoomed by with only one real notable moment. Our friend Bill Fischer decided to throw a party, not necessarily to celebrate, but to gather all his friends together to give them an update on his cancer battle. It was both fun and moving at the same time. Bill’s out-sized enthusiasm for life was on display as he charted his cancer treatment over the past year. In typical Bill fashion, he’s turned his frustration over lack of reliable data into a new non-profit foundation to create a database of cancer patients and their responses to various treatments. Pretty awesome. The rest of the month could have used some Bill Fischer enthusiasm. It was rather dull. Even Thanksgiving was an abbreviated quick meal with Keith and his brother Christopher. To make it even less of an occasion we had chicken instead of Turkey. But we did make an effort on that cold and blustery day to visit Arlington National Cemetery to pay tribute to Keiths’ grandparents, parents, and uncle who are buried there. We also felt a strong obligation to pay our respects at the Tomb of the Unknown solider to mark the centenary of the end of WW1. “He who shall not be named” had decided to forgo a visit to that spot on November 11th so we felt it only right to honor their sacrifice on a day of Thanksgiving, despite the rain.
December brought, yes, more rain, and we officially set a new record for the rainiest year – ever! Ever! The passing of my old boss brought a sad note to the Christmas season and made me mourn for the loss of the world that he represented. I wish we still could live in that world. But instead we live in a world where our Christmas office party was held in the exact same spot where his funeral had been just the week before. It was a good party, but it felt somehow sacrilegious to be enjoying it.
Christmas was busy with all kinds of events, and since this year was the first in a long time that Keith had the day off, we headed down to Richmond for a big family celebration at his sister’s. It was a great time filled with too much food, too much drink, and too many presents. It was perfect. When people asked Keith what he got for Christmas, he replied “fat!” After Christmas – just when I hoped for some quiet time to write this letter – everything happened at once. All the projects which for whatever reason never got completed or never even started, suddenly started to come together. The driveway at long last is a gravelled thing of beauty, the garden outbuildings are not only getting completed, but they’re getting all their fancy moldings and trim and columns and shiny new roofs, and after standing nearly 20 years, the garden walls are getting their overdue stuccoed finish and stone caps. New fencing and stream crossings for cattle are also being set up. The whole burst of activity has made it nearly impossible to finish this letter in time.
So that’s been my year. Soggy, with a lot of delays and “holding patterns” on a number of fronts, but yet not without its pleasures and accomplishments either. It was a fantastic year real estate-wise, in fact, my most successful ever. Despite our aches and pains, Keith and I are still having a blast together and life is good. Having to reassess one’s life now and then is a positive thing, and despite being a bit depressed (okay, a lot depressed) over not knowing which is the best way forward, this past year of soul-searching has really caused me to appreciate the wonderful things I do have in my life. A small example of this was a decision in late May to try and find one positive image in my day that I could record in a photograph. I’ve been posting these to Instagram (follow my feed here) on an almost daily basis ever since, and just the act of viewing each moment as a potential photo-op has opened my eyes to the stunning beauty I have all around me every day, and forced me to live a bit more in that moment as well.
I hope you are able to live more in the moment in this new year as well. Life can be challenging at times. Weather can torment us, politics can frustrate us, and letting go of dreams can be disorienting. But underneath it all life is good and there are thousands of points of light all around us. Be a point of light.
7 thoughts on “2018 Christmas Letter”
Wow! You should be a writer! So enjoyed reading your letter. Yes, all of it!
You write in such a way that you take your audience with you. Many of the experiences reminded us of our own. Have lived in Fullerton, Calif., daughter was an actress so many of the places you mention are familiar. Alot of what you talked about reminded us of our years on our 40 acres up in north central Minnesota. I hear you getting to the place we did before we left. We still live rurally but not with all the overhead.
Your comment about how you’ve always had a plan for your life since you were little, sounded very familiar. It’s only been in the last 10 years or so, those plans have faltered since our direction due to age and physical ability has changed considerably. When you are really that “directed”, it is very disconcerting to have a lifetime of “direction” be altered. Have been directed all my life! The price of getting old. (75). Husband 78. You don’t anticipate how much your life and dreams can be altered by time and age. At least we didn’t. We could take another 50 years if we hadn’t aged!
So enjoyed your letter and your experiences. Amazing since we don’t know each other that well, how similar in some respects, direction and thoughts, were so similar. Guess there is a family connection. Thanks, for the memories.
Edna and Bob
Robin Leach (“Lives of the Rich and Famous”) would be green with envy. Great photos!!
I love your letters, Alan. And the photos! Your insights are beautiful and your willingness to share sometimes takes my breath away. Big hugs from twelve time zones away! xoxo, Ted
It is always a pleasure to read your letters. Hard to believe that it Haß been only years since we celebrated your marriage. By the way, figuring out options can be quite as sattisfying as reaching pre-planned goals. I for myself never expected to land in THE whine region in germany, not to mention meeting my better half at a conference. 😉
All the best to you and Keith! I hope we will meet each other some time in the not-too-far future!
I looked at EVERY photo, Alan. What a year. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for sharing we all enjoyed reading you letter. You are such a great writer and your photography is outstanding.
Debby & the boys
Alan, once again … you soar in your writing. Thanks for your honesty and passion. Sitting in SoCal, pining for my East Coast life (seems so long ago!) and living vicariously through yours and Keith’s wonderful/complicated/challenging/thrilling life is a gift. Thank you.