Life Lesson 

From Jane's World

Early on, my dad taught me many lessons to help me learn to navigate the challenges we all face in life. One was to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” Another was “If you fall off your horse, get right back on.” I’ve prided myself on having listened to my dad. He was a hard worker. I wanted to be like him when I grew up. However, he never had the opportunity to teach me the lesson I learned the other day.

As a child, I fell off my horse, Lucky, many times and got back on. Lucky was sold a long time ago, but I’ve continued to fall in other ways. I get excited about ideas that don’t pan out. I try offering new classes, additional hours, and different locations for my fitness training business. Many times these ideas don’t work. I write an essay I feel is pretty decent, and a friend reads it and remarks, “I didn’t like it.” I decide to lose 20 pounds, and it never happens. The list of my failures and weaknesses is long.

One thing I know for sure is, like my dad, I’m a hard worker. That has been my saving grace. If I lose one of my jobs, I feel there’s no need to worry because I’ll just do something else. I’ll write another book, organize an event for the women in my area, or make new note cards with my photography. I’m not certain if such thoughts qualify as confidence or stupidity. Anyone reading this will have their own opinions. 

Recently something happened to me that taught me a new lesson. What I thought was the flu turned out to be Lyme disease—again—and a co-infection. It wiped me out. Completely. I spent almost four days in a hospital bed thinking, “This is it. I’m dying.” I’ve spent even longer at home trying to recover. On the flip side, I thought, “It’s a good day to die. I’ve had a great life.” 

The worst part was being unable to work. I couldn’t teach my classes, meet my clients, see my friends, pet my beloved animals, or go for daily hikes to my happy place. Heck, I couldn’t even eat for the first three days (not an ideal way to lose those 20 pounds).

Trying to pull myself up to a sitting position was tough—forget about the bootstraps. And getting back on my proverbial horse? It wasn’t going to happen. I was down and out. 

Everything I’d learned since I was a kid was being challenged. Working was impossible. I had been brought down to my knees. I had to learn a bigger lesson than any my dad had taught me. I had to learn to say “Help!” But at the time I couldn’t.

A friend asked if she could start a GoFundMe campaign to help me get back on my feet. I became emotional and croaked, “No!” I was afraid my situation wasn’t big enough to warrant that kind of kindness—that I wasn’t worthy enough. I was ashamed to let anyone know I was down on my luck and in over my head. Those two lessons from my dad kept going through my mind.

I was weak, both physically and mentally, from being sick with Lyme but I also had to deal with my own foolish pride. I whispered to my friend that maybe if I didn’t know about it, it would be okay. My irrational thinking was that I could accept her help if I didn’t have to see a post on social media, an article in the newspaper, or, God forbid, a poster around town. 

Instead of getting annoyed, my friend took action. She sent an email to eight other women whom I lead in a fitness program, and they apparently sent it on to more people. The following week this friend handed me a coffee can filled with money—money to help me stay afloat during hard times. My friend and many other people in the community pulled together and gave me the help I couldn’t bring myself to ask for. 

 I worried about whom to thank. I worried I would be judged. I still worried I wasn’t worthy. I worried all the way from the class where I was given the can to my bank, where I handed the teller the can and said, “I was just given this. I’ve been sick. I haven’t counted it. Will you count it and please put it in my account?”

I drove home with hot tears stinging my face. I thought about my dad. I thought about my work, my house, my animals, my friends. I thought about how undeserving I am. I thought about how wonderful my friends and community are. I thought about my life. I thought about what I love. 

Mostly I thought about what I’d learned. Needing help or asking for it is not a weakness. It’s a skill that I need to learn. Working hard is easy; admitting I couldn’t take care of myself was hard.

Thank you, dear friends. Thank you, loving community. I’m feeling deeply grateful and humble.

 

"I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma." —Eartha Kitt (and Jane)

 

Originally Published June 22nd, 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

A Perfect Moment

Excerpt From Jane's World

I react to all this chaos the only way I can: by going inside, getting my camera, and taking a few pictures. I do this out of habit because when I try to explain parts of my life or even one segment of my day, people seem to look at me in disbelief. I mean, who would make this stuff up?

Then I put Monkey in the house, get a broom, and use it to gently ease Mr. Bat off the porch. Thankfully he flies away, and before I go back indoors I watch him swoop and catch a few bugs, then soar and swoop and catch a few more. A perfect moment.

I don’t consider myself a quitter, so I regroup in the house and come up with a plan. I call all the dogs and cats inside, then I step back out with some watermelon and use it to entice Luna, Peepers, and Louisa back into their pen. Next, I go into the bathroom, where ten baby ducklings are temporarily housed, and I carry them downstairs and put them in the secure duck hall pen with a shallow dish of water and food so they can enjoy the sunshine too. I come back into the house, give each of the dogs a treat, then grab my book, check for my reading glasses that are now on top of my head, and go back out the front door.

I awake with a start when my book drops out of my hand. My cheeks are warm, my mouth is partly open, and I’m starting to drool. I can smell the freshly cut grass and hear the baby ducks talking softly to each other as my eyes start to get heavy again. I set the book down in my lap, allow my eyes to close, and luxuriate in the warmth of the sun. A perfect moment in time.

The beginning of this essay can be found in the Crawford County Independent and Kickapoo Scout

Originally Published June 15th, 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Little Ms. Bitty

Excerpt From Jane's World

I tend to be naturally drawn to the smallest of my ducklings. And so it was with Little Ms. Bitty.

When ducks are babies, several breeds look alike, but Ms. Bitty stood out. She was tiny and had beautiful markings and fine black lines on her face. I hadn’t ordered a mallard duck, but that’s exactly what Bitty is.

Bitty was a consolation gift. When I went to pick up my new babies from Chet’s in Richland Center, he had bad news for me: two of my ducklings hadn’t survived being shipped here. He offered me two mallards. I said I’d take one and that it had to be a female. After picking up a few mallards and sexing them, Chet handed me Ms. Bitty, saying, “I think this is a female. There’s a fifty percent chance I’m wrong. If so, it’s a male.”

I held Bitty in the palm of my hand and compared her to the rest of my new flock. She was petite and perfect. Chet offered to clip her wings for me, but I declined.

Driving home with a box full of ducklings on my front seat, I was in heaven. I loved listening to their soft noises, and I could hardly wait to introduce them to their new home.

Their first lodging was a black tub that fit inside an old wooden crib that I bought at a rummage sale. An L-shaped board wedged between the tub and the crib served as a hanger for the heat lamp. A clean, red-and-white water bowl and an old saucer full of food sat on top of clean pine shavings.

When Dane came over to see the babies, he noticed Bitty right away and warned me, “She’ll never stay home. She’ll take off first chance she gets.”

Read the rest of the story in the Crawford Country Independent & Kickapoo Scout.

Originally Published June 8th, 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Saving the Bees

Excerpt From Jane's World

Buzz buzz buzz buzz buzzzzzzz. There are bees everywhere. The noise is deafening. It looks like a scene from the Hitchcock movie The Birds, only with bees—our bees.

I run inside the house to phone Dane. He explains to me our bees have swarmed! By the time he gets here, the bees are all clinging to a branch in my crabapple tree, 15 feet above the ground, surrounding their old queen. There are thousands of them.

In order to manage their colony size and growth, bees will often swarm in spring and early summer. They head out, tens of thousands of bees (half or more of the colony) and look for a new home. Before they leave the hive, they fill up on honey like an athlete carb-loading before a big event. Once the bees are outside of the hive, the sky turns black with their presence. They will settle down in a nearby tree within minutes of swarming.

I’ve never witnessed a swarming or even known what it was. While we wait for our friend Devorah to come with a ladder and a new box for the bees, Dane explains that it means the old queen has left the hive with a large group of worker bees to form a new colony. This was the first winter our bees survived, after three attempts. It’s now apparent they not only survived the winter but they thrived.

Devorah arrives with the ladder and we devise a plan. My neighbor Tom brings over a hand-held saw. Dane goes up the ladder with a large pruning shears and starts cutting smaller branches off the tree and throwing them down. He clears the area around the swarm, leaving it exposed and easier to get to. The bees are so calm that he doesn’t wear any protective gear.

While the bees are resting in the tree, they are surrounding the queen for protection and warmth. A swarm can be as small as a big fist or as big as your thigh. Scout bees will go search for a new home in a hollow tree, a corner of a barn, or wherever they see fit. Sometimes this can take days and sometimes only a few hours.

Read the rest of the story in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout.

Originally Published June 1st, 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Timing Isn't Everything

Excerpt From Jane's World

Imagine this scene. Occasionally on Saturday or Sunday, after we’ve taken the pups to the woods, we like to treat ourselves to a “road breakfast.” That’s the name we’ve coined for breakfast at a restaurant. I order the same omelet every time. Dane occasionally shakes things up but usually orders two scrambled eggs with sausage patties, hash browns, and a side of pancakes with extra syrup. Sometimes he’ll order toast.

When our meal comes, I start eating, of course. Halfway through my omelet I look up and see that Dane is just putting down the salt and pepper shaker. He has buttered his pancakes with as much care as Leonardo painting the Mona Lisa, and has drizzled one container of syrup over them in a lazy, circular motion. The extra container gets poured ceremoniously in the same circular motion on the bottom pancake while he holds the top one up with the tines of his fork. Now he’s busy using the bottom of his fork to push his salted-and-peppered hash browns into a neat pile that doesn’t touch his eggs or, God forbid, his sausage patties.

When Dane notices me staring with my fork halfway to my open mouth, he smiles. I say, “I hope you’re able to start eating now. Nothing seems to be touching.” But I’m thinking, and apparently muttering, “Oh my gosh, you’re crazy!” This is enough to make us both start laughing.

Finally, Dane lifts his fork for his first bite of eggs, and I almost dare to hope that now he’s ready to simply eat—but I know better. I secretly watch him and I’m not disappointed. He’s using the bottom of his fork again to reposition those eggs that he seems to think got out of line with that first bite. He looks up, sees me watching, and starts belly laughing for all it’s worth as I slap my head and say, “Seriously!?”

Meanwhile, I’ve already finished my omelet and a piece of toast. Dane has finished nothing, except maybe his third cup of coffee. This is how it is every single time we eat together—at home, on a picnic, at my family’s, at friends’ houses. We have the worst food timing of any couple I know.
 

Curious about the beginning and end? Read the rest of the story in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout.

Originally Published May 25th, 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Soul Searching

Excerpt From Jane's World

The poet William Blake said, “For every thing that lives is holy,” and his words play over and over in my mind—every day, but especially today.

It’s May Day, and it’s been spitting rain all day. The clouds hover low, making it hard to distinguish morning from evening. This is the kind of day when I give silent thanks for my good fortune of having electricity. I’ve turned on the lights in the living room, hoping to inject some energy into Benny and Joon, the parakeets, whose lives seem to revolve around darkness and light. Put a cover over their cage and they go silent. Take the cover off and they chirp, squawk, interact, and play endlessly with their toys. 

I’m home from work, ill, and have been on the couch most of the day, a rare thing to happen any day for me. Farley the cat is pressing himself against my chest. Before he settles there, his front paws alternately reach out toward my chin. The motion reminds me of kneading bread dough. With every reach he seems to sink further into me. I find his purring soothing as its hum vibrates through my body.

Finn is under the blanket, sandwiched between me and the couch, pressed tightly next to the curve of my waist. How he can stay there, so still, except for occasional moans of contentment, is beyond me. I had always thought little dogs were constantly active. Not Finn. Finn is a master sloth. He’ll run with wild abandon in the woods with the rest of his pack, but at home he doesn’t move. Not even an inch, which can make repositioning myself challenging. Finn is a warm, lovable brick.

Raime, my hypervigilant border collie, is on the floor with his head shoved as close to me as it can get. Instinctively, as I pet him, my fingers search for ticks. I don’t even need to look, and with one quick twist I’ve detached a swollen one. I reach over to my empty tea cup and drop it in. I find another and repeat. Raime settles on the floor when I stop.

Benny and Joon have come alive with the artificial light and are busily sinking baskets on their miniature hoop-and-ball toy. They play loudly. When they first arrived here, a gift from a friend who could no longer keep them because of health problems, they were so noisy I didn’t think I’d ever be able to focus again. But as I began to watch them interact with each other and their toys, the noise became a non-issue. Now it’s when they’re quiet that I can’t focus.

I’m using this unusual gift of time to read Sy Montgomery’s book The Soul of an Octopus. Sy is one of my favorite authors. She combines science with heartbreaking humanness that fools me into thinking I can feel her books breathe. Although it’s difficult to hold the book around Farley’s slack body, I’m engrossed. I find myself smiling, nodding in agreement, and crying.

I do not find it astonishing that the octopuses Sy befriends have different personalities, nor that they enjoy interacting with their human keepers, are playful, can get moody and be depressed, can solve the puzzle of unlocking a small chest to get a crab treat, are master escape artists, and lovingly care for their eggs. 

I reread the section that talks about hormones and neurotransmitters, chemicals attached to love, fear, sadness, joy, and human desire. Montgomery’s book goes on to explain, “This means that whether you’re a person or a monkey, a bird or a turtle, an octopus or a clam, the physiological changes that accompany our deepest-felt emotions appear to be the same. Even a brainless scallop’s little heart beats faster when the mollusk is approached by a predator, just like yours or mine would do were we accosted by a mugger.”

Living the way I have chosen—surrounded by animals, and choosing to spend much of my free time in the woods, renewing my energy with the earth’s energy—it’s no surprise to me that a scallop can react in fear. Over the years, I’ve observed fear in my animals. Once the hard, gut-wrenching decision is made to put a beloved pet to sleep rather them watch them suffer, they know. It’s the hardest part about being a pet owner and also the most loving, unselfish act I can think of. 

I set my book aside and fall into a deep, much-needed sleep, giving my body a chance to recover from being ill. When I wake, Dane is by my side, telling me he has bad news. Blackie, the last of the first runner ducks that came to live with me over seven years ago, has passed on.

I’m shocked, though I shouldn’t be. Blackie was old, had a limp, and needed gentle reminders to come into the duck hall at twilight. Just last week, I was thinking about the craziness of me being almost 60 years old and hopping from rock to rock in the creek, eventually getting both feet wet as I tried to persuade Blackie to get out of the water and get to bed where she could sleep safely in the duck hall. As the days became longer this spring, Blackie spent more time floating in the water and napping in the grass than she did finding bugs to eat.

In pajamas now, groggy from not feeling well and just waking up, I ask Dane to please bring her to me as I try to wrap my head around the fact that I’ll never see Blackie out my bay window again. I’d always be searching for her, and whenever I spied her black-and-white body curled up by the pen, under her bush, or next to the creek, I’d relax. I wanted to see Blackie once more. I wanted to hold her and give her old, sweet soul the respect she deserved.

A short while later, as I set Blackie’s cold body down, Farley and Téte both come over to smell her. Death, after all, is part of life and is a universal thread that ties us all together, whether we have fins, feathers, fur, or skin. With a heavy heart I go back to the couch, back to letting my body heal while thinking of all the souls my house and yard encompass. I'm thankful that Blackie appears to have died peacefully while sleeping next to the pen.

Dane wraps Blackie in a blanket and places her in the snake shed, because the ground is too muddy now to bury her properly. Many times over the years, one of my furry or feathered friends has spent the winter in the shed until the ground thawed enough to make burial possible.

Like Blake, I believe that all things are holy. I fall asleep thinking if we would all just agree on this one principle, maybe our world would start to heal.

* Today Jane shared the full story. Please consider a $30 annual subscription to Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout. or wait for my next book!

Originally Published May 18th, 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

A Brighter Day

Excerpt From Jane's World

It’s National Surprise Week. Your mission is to go ahead and surprise someone.

Webster’s dictionary describes the word surprise as “an unexpected gift, party, etc.; the feeling caused by something that is unexpected or unusual.”

I grew up in a family that thrived on surprising each other—practical jokes if you will. Garter snakes in coffee cans. Crayfish in the plastic swimming pool. A cupcake on your dinner chair. Throwing a cup of cold water over the shower curtain. Rubber-banding the handle on the kitchen sink hand-sprayer in the open position. Spraying someone with the outdoor hose when they were sleeping in the hammock. Every one of these surprises led to payback time—and, as they say, paybacks are hell! The Schmidt house was anything but quiet.

My daughter still tells the story of when she was a teen and out on a first date. I paced the apartment that evening, watching the clock and waiting for her to come home. When I finally saw her date’s car pull up outside our building, I decided to hide in the gigantic walk-in closet near the door, where we stored our coats and shoes. Jessica walked in, opened the closet door, and I said, “Hi!” She screamed and nearly punched me in the face. Luckily she had lousy aim and her fist barely hit my shoulder. But when Jessica screamed, I also screamed—which made my bladder leak, which made us start laughing, which made us double over, which had us laughing on the floor of our walk-in closet. This story comes up a lot: “Remember the time you hid in the closet, Mom, and I punched you?”

But today I’m not talking about those kinds of surprises. If I were, there would most likely be hell to pay and crabby letters to follow. I’m talking about surprising someone with something pleasantly unexpected, unusual, or random. I dislike the bumper sticker that says “Practice random acts of kindness”—I like the concept but not the commercialism of it. So why am I encouraging you to surprise someone?

While I love being surprised, I love surprising people even more. I enjoy watching for opportunities to do something for someone else that will make them smile. How about an unexpected phone call? I hear people saying, “He or she never calls me.” Call them! Easy to do, and the person you call will be delighted.

* Read the rest of the story in this week Crawford County Independent and Kickapoo Scout. Or wait for the next book.

Originally Published May 11th, 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

The Kids’ Birthday

Excerpt From Jane's World

I’m not sure how my kids survived. It’s not that I was negligent. It’s more like I was breathing down their necks!

I was obsessed with bottle feeding. I worried the kids weren’t getting enough milk. At times I was so immersed in the babies and giving them their bottle that it seemed I might start to lactate. Whenever they saw me walk near their pen, they would cry, and I’d madly rush up to the house and start heating their milk on the stove. It never failed. I’d scorch the milk, making it unusable and stinking up the house.

I’d buy bag after bag of powdered milk from the feed store. When Dane nagged me to just let them drink water, I’d reply in frustration, “I tried, but they won’t drink water from the bottle and certainly not from a bowl.” I’d say this while standing in front of the stove, heating up the second pot of milk, having scorched yet another pan.

This went on for months as Luna and Peepers grew from babies to toddlers. This week the two of them turned four years old. They are healthy, happy goats, on the small side, a cross between Nigerian dwarf and pygmy. I’m proud to say their births were planned.

Originally Published May 4th, 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Dear Diary

Excerpt From Jane's World

I think spring is finally here!

I put my snow shovel away today. I'm not certain if this means I'm optimistic or lazy. Optimistic because today is a gorgeous, blue-sky, sunny spring day. I can almost see the grass growing and turning greener as the days get longer. There is, however, a good chance I'm lazy, because I've walked past that snow shovel for a while, and we haven’t seen snow for several weeks. 

We pulled the plug on the water bowl heaters for the goats, pigs, ducks, and geese three weeks ago. I've had to use the heel of my boot to break a layer of ice about a half dozen times since then, though.

I'm hoping today we turned the corner on winter. The flowers seem to think it's spring. Everything is coming on all at once. In one long hike through the woods and along the river I found bloodroot, spring beauties, may apples, violets, fiddleheads, Virginia bluebells, bellwort, hepatica, Dutchman's breeches, marsh marigolds, and skunk cabbage. 

My yard is the typical post-winter mess. Enough assorted deer bones to reconstruct the deer; a variety of dog toys, wringing wet and torn apart; leaves everywhere; more tree debris than you could shake a stick at; and leftover pumpkin stems from Louisa and the goats' pumpkin parties before the snow started falling. I anticipate being done with my spring cleanup by the end of May. However, I’m ahead of schedule this year with my mower. I already took it in to get tuned up, and it’s back in the snake shed, where it will stay until my grass grows another couple of inches. I'm not interested in rushing into mowing season. I'll need to dig out my mowing dress.

My back pastures are closed off to the donkeys to let the grass have a fighting chance to grow before Diego and Carlos sink their teeth into it. This means I need to stay alert. The donkeys, no different from all the calves we've seen sneaking under the fences, know that the grass really is greener anywhere but in their holding pasture. I've been busy brushing out their winter coats but they're not too interested in letting them go yet. A red flag perhaps? Maybe we will have more snow. Once the donks feel spring right down to their recently trimmed toes, their winter coats will let go all over the pasture and my backyard. The birds can hardly wait. They'll fly down and snatch that hair for their nests.

I've had a considerable number of daytime-flying bats in my backyard. I love seeing the bats, knowing how they help keep the bugs away. I'm not sure why they’re flying in the daytime, but my guess is that they too have been watching and waiting for spring. The umbrella I put up on the back deck gives the bats a great hiding spot. I put the umbrella down each night, and when I roll it open in the morning there’s often a bat or two sound asleep inside. I don't know why they choose this instead of the bat house I put up for them.

Springtime means playtime for Louisa and the goats. Today they were running all around the yard, having a gay old time. Louisa, short fat legs and all, can climb up the two steps onto my porch where I've been known to take an afternoon siesta. There is nothing more unrelaxing than trying to nap with the goats stomping around, the pig grunting and pushing my chair to see if I've dropped any food, Finn lying on my belly, Raime herding the cats into the corner of the porch, and Téte barking because she wants to play. Somehow though, it all makes me smile. 

I almost forgot to mention the ten ducklings playing in the house! They’re living in a tub that sits in a crib in my bathroom. Every year I add to my flock. It's amazing to watch them, even at this young age, take a drop of water and make it into a puddle. So busy until they tumble over and fall asleep, one on top of the other. 

Having the babies in the house is a sure sign of spring!

P.S. Louisa went in her pool today. She almost broke it. Good thing I have two spare pools.

Originally Published April 27th, 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Easter Traditions Old and New

Peepers finds the first banana

Peepers finds the first banana

Excerpt From Jane's World

"One of the stranger Schmidt traditions was bopping hard-boiled eggs on someone else's head to crack them open. I'm pretty sure Jack thought this one up. My parents would yell at us not to break eggs open on each other's heads, but we didn't listen. If someone grabbed an egg out of the bowl on the kitchen table, you'd need to move fast or be bopped.

There was a distinct skill to opening eggs on your family members' heads. You had to hold the egg firmly in one hand and act quickly before the unsuspecting sibling could move away. One good hard smack on top of the head, just above the forehead, would do it.

The one Easter that stands out most for me is the year Jack and I thought it would be fun to dye a couple of raw eggs from the refrigerator when my mom wasn't looking. The problem was we didn't keep track of which eggs they were. The day ended with egg running down Grandpa Mike's face and Jack and I sitting in our separate rooms.

My family's Easter traditions didn’t survive to my adulthood. You'll never see me serving ham (thank Louisa, my pet pig, for that). I don't even dye eggs. If I did, I'd likely try to crack one open on Dane's head, and that would create a problem. Instead, I scramble up some of my ducks’ eggs and throw in onion, green pepper, and mushrooms for my Easter dinner.

However, I do have an Easter hunt with dog bones, carrots, apples, lettuce, and bananas. My animal family loves it. A new Schmidt tradition!" 

Originally Published April 20th, 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout