When a fleece is sheared from an animal, the fibers, grown from millions of microscopic follicles, get released from their dense insulative existence. They spring collectively up and off the animal and then pour down in wave of foamy loft. As the blade passes right next to skin, the thicket of strands form an instant blanket. What comes off is is so much larger than the animal it came off sometimes it causes onlookers to gasp. The undergrowth that hasn’t seen rain or wind or snow, shows itself as the fleece lies face down on the barn floor. This side, once against the animal’s skin, is exquisitely soft, clean and pure. Once off the animal, a fleece blanket will stay together in one sheet as if it remembers where it came from. It’s not like human hair on the loor of the salon, all clumpy and flyaway. The shearer, his clipper, the animal, have all synced in a tsunami of beauty. The moment, when I pick up the fleece and roll it like a sleeping bag is miraculous. My fingers squish softness as the wave of animal elegance rolls. I stuff it away in a plastic bag. It is now infinite handmade potential that leaves behind a near naked and chilly animal who just didn’t see it coming.
Grief had that same surprise effect on me last night. At dinner, John talked about his grandfather fondly. He was the one person who nurtured John’s fascination with science. The one person he attributes to helping him make it in the world. And when John turned to me and asked if my father had ever expressed pride in my accomplishments, I said no. I was quick to tell him that my grandparents had. And even better, I added, I didn’t feel I had to do anything to be loved by them. I hadn’t missed my grandparents in a while but the mention and the vulnerable description of my Grampa Bill’s decline with Alzheimer’s started a wave of grief.
It was as if, by remembering, the shearing had started. The undercoat of my love for those two special humans showed itself to me in it’s soft, private, close to the skin existence. I told about my grandmother’s music and her huge piano hands. The grief wave started to rise up and expand. The densely packed blanket of love that shields me from harsh elements of life was falling away in my hands. I was relishing its beauty as I continued to remember my college graduation when grampa bill’s speech was mostly gone, but he came anyway and gave bear hugs to us all. I like to imagine that mine was the longest.
By the time i lay in bed, after the conversation had turned to dog agility training and other more mundane subjects and our guest had said goodbye, i was left bare, stripped of warmth by the telling and the remembering. I had been swaddled in it all without knowing. And now, once sheared, I had to pick it up and feel it. I couldn’t just leave it there on the barn floor per se. It wouldn’t let me, it was so lovely, so painfully soft and beautiful.
I summoned my grandmother in my imagination. She came to me and asked for tea. She called me my pet name, “Lisa Love” and smiled with her, in this new house of mine, here on an island, chosen in her memory. And then my grampa bill barreled in, his girth and bear hug approached me. My heart pinched at the sight of him and then flooded with love as he asked for a farm tour. And from my bed, i walked him around the farm and introduced him to the animals. He laughed at the baby goats and admired the guanacos. My doggy girl adopted his heals as hers. Then, I slept in flannel and felt held all night long.
I think the undergrowth, the downy fluff closest to the skin, can only truly be appreciated if the animal is sheared. We can pet it and pull at it while it is still growing, still sheltering the wearer. But to see it, to really acknowledge it, the shearer must pass his blade right against the skin and the animal must feel cool air and then the cruel absence of the once dense fleece. It’s only then when we are stripped of our protective cocoons that we realize how truly vulnerable we’ve been. This soft armor is exquisite as it falls away and leaves us both bare and new again, ready to grow another coat for another winter.