One of the gifts of having been a teacher is that sometimes grown-up former students stay in touch with you, and it makes you feel that somewhere along the line, you mattered. I have a few of these former students in my life to this day; one of whom (I’ll call her Ming) was in my class as a 6th-grader in the early 1990s. Not long ago, Ming came out for a visit and a walk, along with a mutual friend named David, who happens to be an equine veterinarian. For no particular reason, we decided to look at the cattle scale at the corral at the western end of this ranch, the oldest such scale in Santa Barbara County.
We ventured up and down a hill or two, and across a railroad track to an area where fencing, cattle chutes, and other old structures from the ranching operations are clustered. The wood housing that encloses the scale had recently been rebuilt, but the scale itself has been in use since 1892. It is still used today and is known for its accuracy. Based on the design and time frame, David speculated that it is a Fairbanks scale, and he told us about the Fairbanks brothers of Vermont — Erastus and Thaddeus — who developed a reliable weighing machine in the 1820s.
An enthusiastic explainer, David pointed out the route the cattle would take to get onto the platform. He showed us the balances and counterbalances, and he talked about feed conversion, weight loss, and profitability. There’s a whole science to this, and accuracy is crucial. A red-and-white seal showed that our scale had been certified by the Santa Barbara County Department of Agriculture Weights and Measures.
But by now I found my attention drawn to the beautiful rippled patterns and complex texture of the weathered wood fencing, the comforting chug and whistle of a passing freight train, and the familiar golden hills framed in the window of a barn. From the broken limb of an ancient oak, there sprang a bough of new green leaves. A hawk glided by, like a king of the sky. Everything was shining, being.
Meanwhile, Ming had discovered a tiny, emaciated calf with a patch over its eye in a nearby corral. At first glance, David didn’t think the prognosis was great, but maybe, with the special care it was evidently getting, the little animal might manage to pull through. We talked and fell silent in comfortable waves. Ming had life events to share, the kind that seem to come at you fast when you’re young, when the ground keeps shifting and you’ve barely found your footing. “But it seems like everything we care about is threatened,” she said. “I guess I don’t feel hopeful anymore.”
I knew what she meant. Life seemed easier when I wasn’t bombarded moment by moment with terrible news near and far, when I thought that suffering was not in vain and some kind of everything-will-be-okay-ness ultimately awaited. Now it all weighs so heavy, it’s hard to stand up. But despair, like hope, is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
To be alive is to have your soul carved out with grief and then discover that the cut has left you lighter and more akin to stardust. To be alive is to strive for meaning while at the same time accepting absurdity. To be alive is to connect to other kindred souls, but to stand alone in the dark sometimes too, as steadily as you can, feigning courage. Our hearts are heavy, but we’re trying our best.
And although my teaching days have long passed, I remain one of hope’s intrepid foot soldiers, and I’m always seeking symbols and sturdy stepping-stones. The oldest scale in Santa Barbara County is still truthful. That bottle-fed calf survived. The tree you plant today may well outlive you, and the things you knew were right still are. I like the way Rebecca Solnit puts it: “The future is dark, with a darkness as much of the womb as the grave.” And look how the earth sometimes holds its breath. Unanticipated events are yet to happen, and some of them will be good.