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That was before the two goats arrived at the Farminary at Princeton Seminary, where I was studying theology and working as a farmhand. Maybe, I told him, we could even make cheese. When it was my turn to milk the goats, I wrestled Daisy onto the milking stand, put a bucket under her, and reached for a teat. She responded with a sideways kick.
I tried again; she tried again. Within minutes, I was sopping and sweaty. Most days, I got no more than a couple of tablespoons, which included whatever was in the bucket when Daisy inevitably kicked it over. That morning, I got enough, maybe, to fill a shot glass, and it turned out to be the high-milk mark of my time with the goats.
Daisy and her kid, August, were essentially visiting teaching assistants, borrowed for six weeks for a class on the society of ancient Israel. The idea was that the students might get a sense of life in a bygone pastoral culture by tending to them. I wasn’t enrolled in that class, though I was at the farm almost every day doing other chores. During those weeks, August became one of my greatest teachers. She helped me heal long-standing shame about my body and then showed me, in her goatliness, exactly how to love it again.
The farm often reminded me of my physical shortcomings. I blacked out while weeding. I was useless at splitting wood. I struggled to close a particularly unwieldy barn door. Every failure resurrected the hot humiliation I learned to have about my body as a kid. I hated its shortness and its weakness and its lack of coordination. I hated my slanty eyes and my coarse hair — reminders of my difference — and my tricky elbow, damaged forever by a Chinese-American childhood spent playing the violin. Most of all, I hated the invisible scars I carried from when I was raped. I was 15 years old, but it feels like the attack has replayed interminably ever since; what happened in a matter of minutes metastasizing throughout my life, my body, my spirit, my soul.
To assault a person sexually is to take something good, a source of pleasure, and turn it to evil, a source of pain. The evangelical Christian religious tradition in which I was reared has plenty to say about God’s love and its healing power. The core claim of Christianity — that God is love and we are loved — sounds simple enough, but I’ve found that there isn’t much distance between hope and hypothesis.
Sometimes I say that God rights all wrongs because I want it to be true. Often I argue that we are given community because we can’t always endure on our own. It doesn’t mean that I always believe these things.
With each bleat and every playful kick of her hooves, August chiseled away at the hard shell I developed in moments of doubt. Underneath it — it was almost as if she knew — was a heart that longed to be understood, a spirit that wanted to be brave enough to be vulnerable.
Whereas Daisy regarded me daily with what I read as a mix of pity and contempt, August always welcomed me into their pen and always seemed delighted to have me around. Every time I squatted next to the milking stand, she tried to squeeze onto the little bit of lap that appeared. When I pushed her off, she might circle the stand, and then she’d try again, nuzzling me to reconsider.