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Jan 13, 2024
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I’m wondering how to include pig castration on Ula’s homeschool quarterly report.

“It’s definitely science,” Jenn reminds me over lunch. “And don’t forget dissection!”

“Is that vivisection?” Bob wonders. No. That would be if it were for research purposes. I think it might be more of a surgical procedure.

All of this language would be suitable for inclusion in a homeschool report.

But none of it captures what Ula has been learning.

She’s exceeded my knowledge threshold. I joke that I’m the Lady Macbeth of the farm, deciding who gets slaughtered next, but rarely actually getting my hands dirty with the stuff of farm life anymore: moving chicken pens, butchering, feeding, birthing….castration. Both Ula and Saoirse know far more about animal husbandry than I do. Homeschooling, now, isn’t about preparing lessons for my child. It’s about getting her in front of the people who have the knowledge she craves.

Kate, our former herd manager, came back last week to teach our crew how to perform the procedure. Ula has helped hold the pigs in years past, but this year, she wielded the scalpel. She was frightened beforehand, unsure if she could even make the incisions, but also certain she didn’t want to retreat from the challenge.

I’m learning that, while there’s nothing I can teach in this situation, I can listen. She manages to perform five successful castrations. She finds me back at the cafe, and she’s soaring with excitement to tell me all about it.

“I did it, Mom! I really did it!”

I offer to make deviled eggs in celebration….A sort of doctrine of signatures approach to commemorating an important passage in the life of a young pig farmer. With the honorary foods chosen, the coming days turn to Ula’s processing of the experience. That’s where I witness the learning that doesn’t fit anywhere on the homeschool report.

“I needed the rituals,” Ula tells me after going for a swim in Mallet pond. “They calmed me down and kept me centered: washing my hands between each pig, disinfecting the scalpel, changing out the blade. I know all that cleaning was for hygiene, but I think it also had a lot to do with helping me stay steady.” A few minutes later she adds, “I had to learn to detach. Emotionally, I was feeling what the pig was feeling. And then I realized that the pig was picking up on my emotions, and then he was getting more upset, and we were in a feedback loop. The kindest thing I could do was pay attention to my rituals and detach. Then I stayed calm. And when I was calm and steady and detached, it went better for the pig.”

These words — from my fourteen year old daughter, who likes to don fake fingernails that she spends hours decorating; then elaborately paint her eyelids to match.

There are no lessons I can offer that would surpass her personal analysis. I can only be the listener who witnesses as she makes sense of her experience.

I’m pondering this a few days later while Bob and I are down at Ron and Jeanne’s storage unit, removing an old chest freezer. We’ve negotiated a trade with Jeanne: we get the freezer for the new honor store, and she gets a gift card for the cafe. The deal was struck a few days prior, when we visited Jeanne in her new apartment.

When Ron, one of my most faithful cafe customers, died from leukemia last fall, he left his wife Jeanne with three things: a rambling old 3 unit apartment house next to the town park, a note expressing his love; and some surprise debts. Jeanne was faced with mourning the love of her life while scrambling to figure out her next moves to survive.

In a visit over the winter, she told me of an idea she had: to move out of the largest apartment where she and Ron lived, rent it out at a higher price to cover her mortgage, and move into a smaller unit in the building. Her last phase would be to fix up the non-functioning third unit so that it could be rented again.

I am used to coming up with solutions, teaching, and giving advice…maybe even sacrificing myself like a good co-dependent farm kid to fix another person’s problems. But here was another situation when there was nothing to be done except listen. I held the calculator and crunched the numbers while Jeanne talked. Then she went home and made it happen.

This visit four months later to Jeanne’s new apartment is really important to me. We both mourn Ron still, but seeing Jeanne breathe deeply once more, smile from her heart and walk me through her new home, the one she created by her own wits, brings me deep peace. She shows us her beehives; her gardens are gorgeous. She laughs as she points out all the repairs that are still needed. “I can’t get as much done as we did when he was alive,” she admits. Then she pauses and adds, “But I’m learning I’m capable of a whole lot more than I ever thought.” And there, I see what is leading her through this period of mourning. She’s learning and growing. The challenges of the finances and the big ol’ house keep her engaged in a non-stop journey of self-discovery: painting and repairing, moving and planning, solving problems, juggling money, learning to trust herself to put together a life that works.

And that brings me back to Ula’s homeschool report. I’ll keep it simple for the record-keepers. I’ll list pig castration as one more example of advanced animal husbandry skills under the broader heading of Science.

But for myself, I have to sit down and write so much more. I need to linger at this desk and tap out words to record all that I’ve witnessed with Ula and Jeanne’s journeys these past few days, where I’ve been reminded that the season to teach is short, but the season to learn is eternal. And when we push through the challenges life presents, learning stimulates excitement and personal growth. It teaches us we are stronger than we thought, it brings us to new happiness, it helps us to heal and, even in our darkest hours, reminds us there will once more be joy.

Folks, don’t forget that my newest book, Redefining Rich: achieving true wealth with small business, side hustles and smart living, will be launching through BenBella Books this August. You can help me get the word out AND earn a summer-long discount at our online farm store. We are putting together a launch team of volunteers who can help promote it. If you’re interested in joining, details are at the top of the blog page at sapbush.com but basically, you’ll

  • Pre-order a copy of the book
  • Fill out our launch team form, which is found at the top of the sapbush.com blog;
  • Promote the book through your social media channels
  • Request the book at your local bookstore and library
  • Leave a review wherever the book was purchased

But WAIT! It gets better! As an expression of my thanks, here’s what you will receive in return:

  • A 15% discount code for anything in the online store at sapbushfarmstore.com, good through July 31, 2021
  • A free digital chapter from the book in advance of the release date
  • Entry into a giveaway for a signed copy of the book and a throw blanket from my store
  • Official graphics for sharing on social media
  • An invite to an exclusive virtual book club meeting so I can personally answer any questions you may have once you’ve received your copy.
  • So please sign up – just go to sapbush.com, click on the blog, and the details are at the top.

This podcast happens with the support of my patrons on Patreon. And this week I’d like to send a shout out to my patrons Pamela Cooley and Paige Eley.


Thank you, folks! I couldn’t do it without you! If you’d like to help support my work, you can do so for as little as $1/month by hopping over to Patreon and looking up Shannon Hayes.
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