“I’m heading back now, I’ve got to clean the chicken coop,” Naomi said as we stood at the edge of the ocean watching as herring seiners vacuumed the sea. Above us, in the sky, squalls of gulls circled and plummeted, scooping up silver shards left behind by the seiners.
“I’ll come and help,” I offered, but my eyes were still fixed on the sea.
“No, you stay. Relax. Watch the ocean.”
“But I feel like a bad house guest,” I protested. “I can’t just sit around staring at the ocean while you work.”
“Sure you can,” Naomi said, her words gentle with a kindness I could barely receive. “You came here to rest, not to work. That’s the kind of house guest we want you to be.”
“Thank you,” I said. She began to walk away, then turned towards me, sending one last and honest grin my way before yelling across the pebbled beach: “Be a bad house guest. That will make us happy.”
I stood at the edge of the sea a few minutes longer and began walking in the same direction as Naomi. But I stopped short of following her all the way to the chicken coop. I stopped short of fetching the wheelbarrow, of joining her in shovelling chicken shit and soiled hay, of forking in fresh straw and filling bowls with food and water. I stopped where the sand met the dune grass, my steps blocked by a large and well-worn log stretching its welcome across the land. I stopped and sat down, facing the ocean once again.
I sat there for at least another hour; jacket zipped up against the March breeze, hood up to keep the early spring mist off my neck. I tucked my hands in my pockets and leaned into my knees. I thought of nothing other than what was happening right in front of my eyes. The seiners motoring into place and spreading their great winged nets, workers dropping hoses into the sea and sucking up thousands upon thousands of herring.
Observing the mechanics of industry, so fast and relentless, I wondered: would those workers be weary by the end of the day? Were they fishers or factory workers, pushing buttons instead of casting out a line? Did they rest in easy assurance that they would catch everything rather than wondering if the fish would bite at all? Were they even thinking about work? Mostly they seemed to stand around while vast nets and hydraulic pumps delivered the catch.
I sat on the log and stared out to sea, tethering my attention to the seiners, willing any thoughts of my own work far, far away.
A month earlier, recognizing I was approaching – or had perhaps already landed in – a state of mental and emotional exhaustion, I had phoned my friends, Naomi and Ian, and asked, “Can I come for a visit? I really need a break.”
I’d just come through a gruelling six months of work, logging at least 30 days of overtime and only a couple of days of vacation. The organization I work for was in transition and for a long time the only way I could see my way through was to work harder.
Eventually, though, I came to the realization that work was sucking the life out of me. I knew I needed to press pause, to figure out how to reset things. And the best way I knew to do that was to ask if I could visit the farm.
“Come,” Naomi and Ian said to me when I called them. “Come and rest.”
Their island farm on the west coast of Canada is not large – a dozen beef cows, raised mainly to keep the herd going and the fields clipped, a few pigs and 35 chickens, who also make their contribution to the farm. The pigs root out weeds and brambles and then eventually give their lives so Naomi can sell pulled pork sandwiches at the farmers market and pork roasts to anyone who drives up the lane. The chickens lay eggs, which Naomi sells and gives away by the dozen.
The farm, surrounded by fields and bordered by forest and ocean, is settling into its second century of life. It has a settled, easy feeling about it, especially now that Naomi and Ian have been tending it with love and diligence. There’s always work to be done– cleaning the chicken coop and sweeping the barn, harvesting hay, weeding gardens and pulling vegetables from the earth. But such tasks never feel like work to me. Nor do the other chores that take up space in a day: washing dishes, baking biscuits, mopping floors, walking Duffy the dog (that’s not actually a chore) and collecting eggs, putting out fresh hay for the cows and mucking out the pig pen (although Naomi often spares me from that).
I’ve been visiting the farm for the past five years, sometimes for a weekend, now and then for a week, once for a whole, glorious month. I feel fully alive there, which is why, when I felt so depleted, I knew it was time to return.
Once I got there, I realized I needed respite from my obligation to duty as much as from my day-to-day work. I was raised to do my duty: to be a good worker to anyone giving me a job, a good houseguest to anyone giving me hospitality. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to distinguish what I ought to do from what I need to do.
Ian and Naomi understood this about me. They also understood what I needed. Space, time, a pause. They are wired to understand this, not just about me, but for the scores of other people who find their way to the farm, often needing restoration.
Don’t misunderstand. Naomi and Ian appreciate people who help with the farm chores. And laziness does not go unnoticed. Such a houseguest might not be readily invited back. But restoration is something they are in the business of – of farms and their fields, of people and their souls.
And so, I took Naomi’s advice and set duty aside. I spent my days sitting on the beach, walking Duffy through the woods, exploring a great cathedral of a forest. I played more than I worked, sometimes with Naomi and Ian, sometimes by myself.
One evening we launched the canoe and paddled in the Pacific Ocean while dozens of eagles flew over our heads, setting down on sand spits to gorge on herring. Spring came early and the days warmed enough that I could sit in the apple orchard with a blanket across my shoulders and my book on my lap. I didn’t read much; my mind was too tired. Instead I watched the chickens grubbing about my feet and laughed at their antics. I wrote a poem without realizing it was a prayer. I went often to the beach and into the woods with my camera, capturing colour and movement as I stood still.
My mind began to clear.
I did things that brought me joy. Things like looking and listening, wandering and pausing, pondering and playing.
I marvelled as herring spawn turned the ocean from molten steel to the coolest aqua. I watched gulls circling overhead and eagles swooping down to the water. I listened to the grunts of sea lions and the squawk of sea birds. I smelled the salty brine of the ocean and the dank darkness of seaweed. I was mindful of the right place to set my feet as I walked across the pebbled beach. I felt the ache of my calf muscles after trudging a mile through sand.
And day after day I watched the seiners, my heart sinking into sadness even as my spirit was lifting. I wished they would stop scooping more herring out of the ocean than could ever be necessary. I wanted them to go back to a gentler more measured way of fishing, one that takes more time and less fish.
I wanted the seiners to slow down, to pause, to see if there might be a better way. I wanted that for the herring and their ocean home, just as much as I wanted it for myself.