Stress, strESS, STRESS!!! We rarely heard this word when I was a kid more than half a century ago. Now, however, it seems to be a plague upon modern society and its snake oil cures are exceeded only by those for weight loss.
When I think of stress relief, I think of my childhood and Jim Maconya’s cow. We lived in Roslyn, Washington, a little coal mining town in the foothills of the Cascade mountain range populated with Eastern European immigrants, Czechs and Slovaks, who worked the mines. Those of you who remember the TV series “Northern Exposure” are familiar with the town as the program was filmed there, though it was called Sicily, Alaska.
Our house sat high on a hillside on the very edge of town. Out the back door, across the alley and we were in a fragrant pine forest. Jim Maconya and his family lived next door. The only two things I remember about Jim are that he had a daughter named Lucy, and a cow I’ll call Bessie.
As best I recall, Bessie was a petite, brown Jersey. (Probably not, but I prefer petite and Jersey.) Jim kept Bessie in some kind of old shed in his back yard, maybe a garage or a coal shed. Since our houses were in town, she stayed in the shed all day, while Jim worked at the mine.
When Jim came home late afternoons, he took Bessie off to the woods for a couple of hours of grazing on the wild grasses. She had a bell around her neck so Jim could relax, stretched out under a tree on cushy pine needles. As long as he could hear Bessie’s bell, all was well.
When Bessie was full and Jim’s stress had pretty much dissipated for the day, he took her back to the shed, fed her a scoop of grain, and milked her. He squirted any residual stress into the milk pail and then went to the house for supper. Jim got rid of stress, the family got milk, and when there was any left over, they sold it to us for a little extra cash: fabulous, rich with cream, straight from the cow, never been pasteurized, raw milk. Soooo good!!
I suppose we all can see where the stress went. I sometimes think of getting a cow of my own. But hey, I live in Jonesboro with a small back yard. Also, I think there is some kind of ordinance against keeping farm animals in town. Besides, who’s going to care for her while I’m roaming about, camping and trout fishing? It’s hard enough to find a kid who will mow a lawn anymore, let alone one who will or can milk a cow twice a day.
We’ve got to think this through a bit further. Was the cow really the heart of the matter, or was there something else? I don’t think it was the cow so much as the ritual of caring for the cow. For two hours everyday, Jim was separated from his stressors. He could have just sat under a tree, but he would have been thought lazy. By turning his sitting under a tree into a chore, it was okay.
Fishing and hunting serve the same purpose. Go sit on the riverbank for an hour or two everyday and you’re lazy. Put a fishing pole in your hands and you’re a sportsman. Sit in the sun every day and you're lazy, but plant, weed, and water and you’re a gardener.
These all become simple rituals, opportunities for our minds to go blank. They give us an excuse to divorce ourselves from the stressful realities of life. There are many more such activities. One of my favorite, until recently, was motorcycle maintenance. Certain things have to be done on a motorcycle over and over again. I turned them into a ritual. My mind could go blank; I would go through the motion, divorced from the stresses of life.
All these stress reducers are ours for the taking, free of charge, if we don’t mess them up with our modern technology. When Jim and his cow went to the woods, they went alone, just Jim, the cow and Jim’s private thoughts. No cell phone, no handheld computer, and no Ipod (they hadn’t yet been invented). I have seen fellows standing in the middle of a stream, trout fishing, and talking on a cell phone. I hope I never become so important that I can’t just leave my cell phone in the car or at home when trout fishing. Why contaminate the ritual by taking a stressor with you?
Because I have so many fond, early memories of milking cows (It’s how I made my spending money as a teenager.), I favor Jim’s ritual, but I know it could never work for me. I’ll be happy with a fishing pole. You are free to join me or to find a ritual of your own.