For some time now I’ve been asking myself why. Why did I choose to work a ten week stint as an animal caregiver at Farm Sanctuary? Even some of my best friends have looked at me all confused as if my choice contradicted, well, something.
Before I arrived, I had a quick answer that rolled off my tongue—I sought intentional separation from real life where I might focus on something other than myself for a while. I also wanted to put my body to good use in the service of others. Finally, I hoped for some quality writing time in an unfamiliar landscape. My reasons all made sense. Yep, it was going to be awesome.
During the first couple weeks I had to consciously keep my attention off of me, but still my mind kept revisiting loose ends back home. Took all I had some days to keep my focus on the present. This mental struggle made days seem extra long. And some of them were, especially if I made a mistake that forced me to scramble to get things done before sunset. I tried to reframe my perspective, opting instead to consider how my actions affected the animals and people around me.
I did my best to learn my new job, and before too long I had mastered the daily puzzle of feeding nearly 400 animals multiple times per day. It wasn’t just about setting up troughs and dumping in a bucket of feed. No way. Many animals were on special diets, many needed to eat separately, and they all let me know when I was late. But I managed to settle in, and most nights I was ready for bed by 8. I always woke up two or three minutes before my morning alarm went off at 4:30am. My life became clockwork.
By week six my cracked hands were healed and I could pull my belt a few notches tighter. But I also started feeling like I wasn’t the right guy for the job. The pervasive sullen nature of the overworked staff took a toll on my outlook. I found myself only wanting to work, eat, and sleep. It was about the closest to depression I’ve ever come and I didn’t like it.
Full disclosure — I am not an animal lover. Probably better to call me an animal liker. That difference (and the fact that I am wildly allergic to anything with fur) is likely why I don’t have an animal companion, and also why I am not keen to get all lovey-dovey with others’ creatures. That being true, I strongly believe that animals, especially farm animals, need human advocates. I signed up for this temporary position at Farm Sanctuary because I wanted to help in a way I am able. Plus, I wanted to satisfy my desire for some good ol’ manual labor. The bonus was that I’d have two days off to visit my family in Rochester each week.
But as time passed, I couldn’t help but compare myself to my coworkers. Their levels of empathy and concern left me in the dust. Left me wishing I was as dedicated. When they cried after the death of an animal, I felt like a jerk. Disconnected. Reminded me of when I was in my early teens and attended a charismatic Christian service under a circus tent. Folks around me speaking in tongues and flailing on the grass while I just stood there watching. Mostly I judged myself for feeling nothing, but I also unwillingly elevated others for their commitment to the cause. It was all too evident that the holy spirit (or whatever) wasn’t interested in me. That’s how I felt, anyhow.
But I did my best to maintain my composure and kept plugging away on the farm. With the exception of the occasional radio call, for eight hours I’d speak only to animals. My broken Timex became my competitive partner; each day I’d try to complete my duties a minute or to earlier than the previous day. I became robotic. I carved trails between barns and moved fast enough to sweat buckets in sub-zero temps. My saving grace off the farm included a morning yoga routine, listening to The Black Tapes or Serial podcasts during lunch, and taking a 15-minute nap before starting my afternoon duties.
When I got word that my private moments were soon to be compromised by a new roommate, I knew my chips were down. I put in my request to depart early, it was granted, and after a total of eight weeks on the farm, I was done.
On my last day I made fudge for the crew with hopes they might remember me for that, and not as the half-in dude who quit before his time was up. Or as the guy who left them scrambling to fill my feeding shifts. I recognized that these thoughts were mostly my projections, but my struggle with being accepted is a real one, a limiting one too.
I believe it’s important to know my limits. And without sounding cocky, fact is I rarely reach a true breaking point. I may whimper and whine a little bit. Who doesn’t? But very rarely do I pull my own card. In 2009 I had to throw in the towel while running the Angeles Crest 100-miler. At the second to last aid station, mile 89, I dropped. I had been running too fast, lost too much weight (18 lbs), and my hallucinations of Mexican cowboys were becoming my reality. As the race official snipped off my wrist band, I wept. Not because I was sad, but because I was witness to the summit of my ability.
Since I hadn’t planned to be home until the end of February, the way I saw it I still had three weeks to kill. So I redeemed some soon-to-expire Southwest credits and flew to Mexico City. Call it a writing and wandering retreat, call it an opportunity to reflect and reset.
Seems my edge was a gift after all.