March 23, 2021

The chickens came with the house. Neither of us have ever owned a chicken but I am determined to be a good mama to my flock. I quickly learn to tell them apart and I name them…Hazel, Beatrix, Hattie, Fern, and Harriett. Harriett is number one in the pecking order. Harriett is a born leader. Harriett is a total badass. She has been sick and  visibly suffering for the past week. We’ve tried everything from warm baths to salves and nothing has worked. I’ve finally reached the end of my rope and my nerves are shot so we’ve put her in an open box with a soft blanket and made the hour-long drive to the chicken doctor. Jim and I are sitting in the parking lot of an exotic pet veterinary hospital and it is a bone-chilling, dark, wet day.

We’re not allowed to be with her for the exam because the pandemic is still going strong, so we wait together with our last bit of collective hope. The doctor calls from the inside with the heavy news of a massive tumor and a terminal prognosis. Harriett is not coming home. We just sit here in the truck and the rain and the sadness and cry.

We are only two months into this Third Act of life with our new little farm we call Flying V.  A year ago, we could have never imagined loving a chicken or each other so much.

 

March 2020

I had just returned home to North Carolina from my first trip to Cuba, and then another visit to my beloved Ossabaw. I’m back with new film and not a care in the world. Within a week the world shut down and Quarantine began. Early on, I actually thought I was pretty damn good at it. The immediate family was okay. Our oldest son had graduated from State and was paying his way with a good job in Virginia. The twins were in their first year of college and Jim was working from home. The dogs were happy. I stayed busy, albeit in pajamas, but plenty busy, making things I’d never made before; mostly creature comfort projects and nothing particularly serious.Time kept ticking along and I was still organizing my shell collection and painting rocks for god’s sake, and then, I finally faced the fact that I was avoiding photography. I began to question everything, and I mean everything. What had I actually been chasing and why? Did any of it matter? Was my best work behind me and was it ever relevant? My spirit was whooped, my fire extinguished, my vision was murky, and I wasn’t interested in being saved or saving myself really. I wonder if there is some truth to the notion that sometimes you need to hit the bottom in order to launch up and out to an entirely new reality.

 

Quarantine Darkroom Sale Changes Everything

It sounds crazy because it was. I made the whole thing up late one night, in about an hour, and it went live the next day. It was radical and difficult and it took all of me. In hindsight, I now see how I needed to be taken entirely -out of my own mind and tossed into a physical challenge that required all of my faculties at full attention. I sold hundreds of prints, mostly to my peers, over the course of ten days. I completely cleared my super-top-secret credit card debt and had money in the bank for the first time in my career. A few months later I did another sale, and then another. Jim Vrba was following me around like a shadow because he’d never seen anything like this from me. It wasn’t long after, that he officially retired from a job he had held for thirty-nine years. He was very good at what he did and yet, he always hated it. I was, for the first time, contributing to my family’s financial life, and he was relieved of dead weight. He then became my full-time assistant who, I’m happy to report, shows up for work on time with a good attitude.

 

We Bought The Farm

So maybe you’ve finished your cup of coffee or your glass of wine and maybe you’re wondering what happens next…well, a whole lot. Aside from our two senior citizen dogs, Jim and I were living in an empty nest; our family home of fifteen years, in a family neighborhood of Chapel Hill, with the best school district I could find. Jim Vrba has never been big on change. I run towards it…I would rather be scared than bored. I felt ready for an adventure. Thirty years together and every home was chosen with the children as the priority. I started to wish for a little land. I was blown away when I finally mustered up the guts to say it out loud and he liked the idea. A few months later we randomly stumbled upon a little farm house in the horse country just outside of Hillsborough. We could only walk through the backyard that first evening. I was wearing pajamas. The bucolic scene was beyond anything I had pictured in my mind. It was big sky and romantic with animals grazing as far as you could see.  A goat named Lucky ran up and jumped on the fence to eagerly introduce himself. I turned around and said, “we have to live here.” We had not stepped foot in the house. Twenty-four hours later, we did in fact, buy the farm.

 

The house is less than half the size of what we left. I’ve made my studio space above the detached garage. I refused insulation or real walls and instead painted every inch in a warm white. It feels chapel-like and I love it. I am almost finished building the darkroom which is below the studio. It is the stuff dreams are made of. I don’t think it would have happened if not for Jim. He tolerated my self doubt and constant questioning but he never seriously entertained the idea that there wouldn’t be a working darkroom. It certainly helps to have people in your life who believe in you when you do not. He never waivers in his support of my work. Thankfully I have him, and a few others.

 

So here at Flying V, I wake up early, pour my coffee, spend time in my very first real garden, feed my four chickens and the goats, make the bed, take a good look around, and then get to work. Homa owns the barn next door and he pops in to talk about the weather or the animals or life. He helps us and we help him. He’s become family.

 

Thus far, art for me has mostly come from a place of absence, or what’s missing, loneliness to some degree. I don’t know where it will come from now because I am filled to the brim. I don’t know if I’ll make great art. I do know I’ll grow old here trying. Doing. Making. Loving. It is enough. I’m fifty-seven years old and this is the happiest time of my life. Never ever give up. Ever.

 

I still think about Harriett. I miss her. She was a mighty force and she ran a tight coop. I want to be just like her.

 

-lori vrba