By Christy Neider
"I wouldn’t say I’m restless. I just wonder a lot. And the wondering creates change as I seek."
I was once an animal lover in theory. And now I sing to the cows.
We moved to the rural landscape of the Central Coast of California from the Rust Belt late last summer. In Cleveland, Ohio, my family lived along Lake Erie where we had one eye on the barges and another on the Terminal Tower, still rising to define an industrial town puffing with steel production, determined to redefine itself as a town for foodies and tech.
“I can’t decide if I am a city girl or a country girl,” my five-year-old daughter cried out in our first few months on our 11 acres in ranch and wine country.
Her existential crisis mirrored my own in so many, many ways. Trading the blue-collar clouded skies for bucolic green and sea salt air was just one metaphor for the profound change in my life. A diagnosis of progressive lung disease at 43 rendered my life almost unrecognizable. The germs of children evicted me from over two decades as an educator, complete with a doctorate and a contract as a head of school. My hometown, where my family lived and my children would grow up, iced me out, too extreme in its temperatures; it’s air too moldy and disturbed for my lungs. The Midwest, home to almost everyone I hold dear - best friend from college, the girlfriends from my first job, the kindred spirits still connected since childhood – could no longer sustain me. No more quick weekends together without kids. A time difference prohibitive of even phone calls.
What remained, what felt at all familiar, after this move were two things: my family of husband and two children and Christy, me - the woman forever on an existential and spiritual journey with an evolving Higher Power despite her resistance to change of any kind.
My daughter and I arrived at our new home close to midnight. I drove the short ten minutes from the airport across a valley of vineyards and up the side of a mountain IN THE PITCH BLACK. The only light in blinked from the airport. I’m sure there was a breathtaking array of constellations above, but there were NO STREETLIGHTS! HOW DOES ANYONE DRIVE SAFELY WITHOUT STREET LIGHTS?!
What the hell have we done? What the hell have we done?! What the hell have we done? I let my tears fall silently so as not to disturb the lolling-headed sleep of a child in a car seat.
Under the sun’s rays, the land soothed, no doubt. But within days, we learned we had to be on guard against snakes just to walk around our property. The children refused to play outside.
By night three, we discovered the reason for the name of our street, Coyote River Road: Coyotes, who greet one another at 11:30 pm in high howling yips,
“Oh my god, like, here I am. Here you are. OMG, whoohoo! Like, we’re here! Can you, like, believe it?! Hoowee! Let’s, like, go and find food and have fun and, like, WOOOHOO!”
A pack of tweens who hadn’t seen each other since the last recess two hours ago. I am annoyed to tell you that their parting ritual at about 5 am is as long a cacophonic ritual as their hello.
And cows. So many cows. Long horn steer roam the south hill of our property, always accompanied by one buffalo, one white donkey, and…if you can find the donkey, you can usually spot his BFF the zebra, camouflaged like a rock. Guarding our neighborhood, albino cows chew cud. Those quintessential black and white kind of cattle mill up and around the hills down the road to our house. And our nearest neighbors, permitted to graze just beyond the front of our property and then at the end of our drive, are velvet coal black, nose to hoof.
As I drove the expansive hills in our neighborhood of ranches, vineyards, and mountains in the last months, I slowly acquired some footing, from the rug having been pulled out from under me. I found a balm in the quiet of tilled and grazed creation. I could start to ask myself, in alternating angsty and centered tones, who am I here? How can I be Christy, a (hopefully) recovering invalid, without my expected future, in this foreign land?
Change has defined my life, if I’m honest. This move was big, but it was hardly the first transformative event that happened to me or that I provoked. I’ve found myself in new physical environments, but also, I have adjusted the dynamics in my relationships, no longer joyful taking responsibility for other people and ignoring responsibility to myself. I have shifted the focus of my religious life of duty to a spiritual one engaged with something or someone so profound that I am currently in a state of bewilderment. I’ve lived from standards and principles and, chaffing under the constraint of such limitation, experimented with a life lived in response to the Voice in my heart.
Change, ironically seems to come from a constant within me: I always seek something. I seek Truth. I seek Light. I seek Love. Hard to name definitively. But I know it when it resonates. I wouldn’t say I’m restless. I just wonder a lot. And the wondering creates change as I seek.
Today, I see how who I am consistently created change constantly.
And this is how I find myself singing to cows. Singing, another constant, is my way to my deepest truth. I can sing and weep and have no idea why. Saddled with a sullen adolescent in the passenger seat, my mother knew she could connect with me by suggesting I open the hymnal in the glove compartment, and we’d sing, in harmonic thirds and fifths, the tradition of our faith.
So I stand on the balcony of my home, surveying countryside and cows, and I do what I’ve done my entire life. I belt out my truth in song. The first time I did this, a herd of those velvety black cows grazed before me, and one looked up at the first note I uttered. Three more stopped walking. As I threw my heart into Pink’s Just Give Me A Reason, I had an audience of seven cows, who did not move again until the song was over.
On Christmas Day, my family and I went caroling, herd to herd. The long-horn paused. The zebra stepped out of the shadows toward us. For fifteen minutes, these beasts attuned to the music.
Yesterday, the velvet cows were at the gate next to my driveway. I stood nearest them at the fence and whisper sung a Psalm. A lady, pools of black eyes and a nose that filled and softened her face, approached me three halting steps at a time. She moved only when I looked away. At the fence with my face turned to her companions, who also neared me as I sang, I leapt slightly in surprise by her moist nose on my hand. I turned to her, still softly channeling song, and she tilted her head through the fence again. This time, her immense, yet elegantly tipped block of a tongue tasted my sweatshirt three times. She retracted a bit, clearly assessing the cotton as inedible. But this lady kept her head resting on the gate, ears to my song.
Communing thus, I wondered, beyond my once-certain Rust Belt future so full of humans: what energy draws the cows and I to one another? What does this say about God? Who am I to these weighty beings of calm?
There I am, wondering-singing-shifting. Still Christy.
And yet, More. Because I am here and not there. Now and not then.
Honoring cows with song, for goodness sake!
Yes. So much more, I am.
Christine Neider is a seeker and educator. She’s as likely to be in the midst of a family dance party as she is to be in fellowship about Light, grace and communion. Christy lives on the California coast with her husband, Samuel, and children, Jonah and Phoebe.