community

on being tender

Most days, these days, I count to 5 before I read the news. While I’m counting, I ask myself if my time would be better spent reaching out to someone or engaging in joyful pursuit. Or both. Not that I’ve put my head in the sand. Far from it. But I’m interested these days in boundaries that also allow for light. There’s a long, troubling haul ahead culturally, and sustenance for the fight, for me, is going to come from remembering both my impermanence and the importance of celebrating tiny, fierce, joyful things.

I’ve been thinking all week, since my book group meeting, about Brian Doyle.

I first met writer Brian Doyle through the pages of Orion magazine, where his pieces made me giggle and want to read them aloud or memorize them or lean into my husband and whisper them. Delicious series of words that tongue-twist and whirl and leap. “21 Laws of Nature as Interpreted by My Children” reminds we humans not to get too big for our britches: “If you can’t make a new ant, don’t kill an old one,” reads #20. “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever” pokes fun at the preachy earnestness of environmental writing, which so often bludgeons readers with stridency and dire prognostication.

Here’s his last paragraph from that essay:

“And finally the last paragraph. It turns out that the perfect nature essay is quite short, it’s a lean taut thing, an arrow and not a cannon, and here at the end there’s a flash of humor, and a hint or tone or subtext of sadness, a touch of rue, you can’t quite put your finger on it but it’s there, a dark thread in the fabric, and there’s also a shot of espresso hope, hope against all odds and sense, but rivetingly there’s no call to arms, no clarion brassy trumpet blast, no website to which you are directed, no hint that you, yes you, should be ashamed of how much water you use or the car you drive or the fact that you just turned the thermostat up to seventy, or that you actually have not voted in the past two elections despite what you told the kids and the goat.”

Doyle’s writing’s often silly, unwieldy as Faulkner, and this side-door play with language works like a water mark you can see when you hold the artifact up to the light, or a flavor you can taste hours later. That kind of fun with words piques curiosity, keeps you reading.

A few years ago, a friend gave me a copy of his novel Mink River, a book I read faster than I wanted to and stayed up late to do it a few nights running, aware that such fast tour through the pages was a disrespect to the writer’s deft ability to make prose read like poetry. Mostly, when I consider Doyle’s work, I think of the word wonder. I don’t know how he does it, but he manages to infuse his characters and their perspectives with an awe about living most of us seem to miss, busy as we are with the big problems, the minutiae, the plans and goals and hiccups.

Time with Doyle always makes me realize that in this short stint of living, I’d be better served to use wonder as my lens. There’s a choice about perspective, after all, and sometimes choice takes both purpose and a bit of work.

I recommended Martin Marten as my book group’s February read. The same friend who sent me Mink River gifted me Martin Marten in early summer as my son was about to leave home for college. It was the perfect gift, and I read it in the hammock in the week before we delivered Owen to his new chapter. Doyle’s story was a reminder that sending a kid out into the world is a new chapter for parents, too; when anyone you love peels off on his own path, he’s both inextricably bound to the place from where he’s come and forever separate in a new way. Both joy and sadness can set up shop next to each other in one’s heart, and that’s the vital rub of living.

Martin Marten, about a boy called Dave, his family, and the colorful collection of characters in their small Mt. Hood town of Zig Zag, Oregon (a town below where I’ve spent some time skulking about in the woods, a magical place), is another testament to Doyle’s wondrous outlook, to his fine ear and artful craft, to his bedrock sense that the world is a brief, glorious journey, and that the people along for the ride with us are full of wonder, too, even if they are also simultaneously curmudgeonly, or afraid, or confused. The novel unspools the twin coming-of-age of Dave, the boy, and Martin, the pine marten, and their stories weave and flirt together and apart as they’re both tossed and turned in life and love.

Dave’s younger sister is as precocious as any child you’ll meet in fiction. But I didn’t mind her ability to so candidly talk about feelings or her spatially gifted genius. Her words to her brother – the same words that ring long after the story is over – are to “be tender.”

Could there be any better words to adopt as your theme song? Especially now, when most days it feels like tenderness is a fleeting impulse, with so much hateful rage and fear on the wind.

A few years ago Brian and I both had stories published in the same journal, and I ginned up the courage to email him and tell him what a fan I was. I shouldn’t have been surprised that he emailed me back within a few hours with genuine enthusiasm and his signature silly swirl of language. Neither too important nor too busy to respond, despite his much more impressive publications. His swift, embracing tone of collegiality is something I’ll remember always and work to pay forward, too.

Our book group meetings always involve a writer review, and a friend came this week prepared to share Doyle’s accomplishments in fiction and essays, his background and family story, and his working life as editor of Portland Magazine. This story isn’t all about joy: I didn’t know until this week that Doyle was diagnosed with a brain tumor in November. He had surgery a few weeks ago and is recovering in the hospital after a complicated procedure that’s made post-surgery complicated, too, not to mention survival.

In Martin Marten, Dave spends a good bit of time exploring the “Daveness” of being Dave. In a note to his readers in the days before surgery, The “Doyleness” of Doyle sounds an awful lot like the character he built for us, so full of light:

“stories are holy and nutritious and crucial. Stories change lives; stories save lives. … They crack open hearts, they open minds…It’s more important than ever before to hold hands and catch and share stories of substance and grace and defiant courage and irrepressible humor…The alternative is to ‘allow nothing in our lives but sales pitches and lies.’”

“We could change the world if we told the right story,” Doyle said. 

Indeed.

I hope, Brian, that you can feel me hugging you from here with defiant tenderness. That you can hear my stories rising up with the stories of so many others.

Doyle Family Support Fund.

 

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Categories: book review, books, community, family, fiction, nature, publishing, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

hope that perches

Just after the election, while I was vacillating on the despair-o-meter between head-in-the-sand and rage, Riley came home from school with a list of actions for the future. That’s what she called them – “actions,” uttered with the most delicious conviction – and her brainstorm included ways to engage in the community. In class that day, they’d talked about the power of volunteerism (one of the many reasons I love her school) and the possibilities inherent in tapping into the needs of beings outside of oneself as the only way we’re going to move forward together.

On Riley’s list were actions that indicated what she loves best and not what she thought sounded good to someone else (from the beginning, it’s been clear I’ve had very little to do with her rock-solid self-awareness, which is strange terrain for a parent). Volunteering at the World Center Birds of Prey, at the zoo, and The Humane society. She threw down her backpack and got online to find out how an almost thirteen-year-old can work for her chosen causes. In her notebook, she made another list of phone numbers to call, dates she’d be able to participate, and paperwork required to make it all happen.

I hovered on the edge of her intent, preparing dinner, and marveled at this girl of mine.

After months of conversation and reading and listening to pundits, after months of classroom activities and learning about the democratic process, after going with me to the polls to vote and then staying up late to witness what felt like the world burning down, Riley had had enough of the adult version of solving problems. And who can blame her?

Admittedly, I haven’t been a very good role model in the days since. Each new cabinet appointment – which I take as a personal affront and further evidence every safeguard I value and respect is being dismantled and sold for parts – calls up fresh desolation and confusion. Fresh dystopian metaphors. As if the White House is a frat house, and Voldemort’s doling out bids to Death Eaters after rush. As if the Hunger Games contestants are all environmentalists, artists, scientists, educators, thinkers, philanthropists. The last one standing in the arena will be a reminder not to live against fascism. As if our new Big Brother positioned himself for office for no other narcissistic pleasure than because he cannot get enough of watching himself on T.V. Orwell and Huxley and Bradbury are turning over in their graves. I feel confident my future may involve standing in front of a bulldozer, literal or metaphoric.

What seems clear, especially to Riley, is that I’m no peach to be around. Also, I’ve forgotten my job, which, in addition to teaching her to speak up and question everything, is to model and encourage critical thinking, making connections with people we might not understand, working hard for the common good.

My resolution as we leave this odd year behind and face the new one is to take a page out of Riley’s notebook. To focus on chasing down what I love best with more joyful purpose. The byproduct, I’m hoping (I’ll work on my optimism here), will be to heal some of what feels so broken.

Onward then.

To gardening that nourishes the soul and belly, that becomes a reason to share.

To working with students to uncover what sings best for them, that seeds a new generation of mindful citizens, that becomes a reason to listen across generations.

To being outdoors and finding dark nights, that become a reason to preserve and to acknowledge how ecosystems are tethered, reliant upon one another.

To reading and writing stories that ask us to question what it means to be human, that becomes a reason to wonder, to seek  bridges.

And to rediscovering music, which for some reason that escapes me we’d taken a hiatus from in favor of radio and T.V. covering the election. A friend once told me she likes coming over because there is always music at our house. Looking back, I can’t remember at what point we turned this part of ourselves off.

This week Riley and I went to hear the O’Conner Band (with Mark O’Connor, known well in both bluegrass and classical circles) perform An Appalachian Christmas. We’re pretty enthusiastic bluegrass fans, and this seemed like just the right kind of medicine for a pre-holiday evening. You know you’re in the presence of something inspired when strings and voices give you chills, when they sound better live than recorded.

A few minutes into the fifth or sixth song, Riley leaned over and pointed toward Mark’s son Forrest, the mandolin player. “Listen to that mandolin,” she said. “Boy, can that guy play.”

We tapped our feet and sang along to a few Christmas tunes, and then the band played a new duet, the mandolin welling up in the space between voices. Riley leaned over again.

“That mandolin,” she whispered, grabbed my arm. “Mom. I think that’s my spirit instrument.”

All the way home we talked about the mandolin, where to rent it, if she’ll ever be able to make her spirit instrument sound like that. I’m tickled, of course. Our new season of action, it would seem, will involve more music. And even better, music from my capable daughter’s generous, curious hands.

We’ll see what happens; the journey is the thing. But I can’t think of a better sidekick for greeting the actions of the future than a girl who believes in possibility so fiercely, it’s emanating like light from within her. .

2012 India Trip #3 025

Riley at the Taj Mahal (www.lauramgibson.com)

Categories: community, music, parenting, writing | Tags: , , , | 8 Comments

canary in the coal mine

A number of years ago I spent an evening with some friends on a sleety winter night. It was dark well before evening, and these friends had just finished a rec room that featured a TV as big as a car. We decided the inaugural voyage for the media system should be something light, a comedy.

Over the next few hours we dropped into the world of Idiocracy, starring Luke Wilson as Joe Bowers, a man who’s a thoroughly average American soldier. Bowers is chosen for a “top secret” military hibernation program that’s billed as an experiment to test storing the world’s citizens for a future date, when they might be needed most. He’s joined in hibernation by Rita, played by Maya Rudolph, a woman who’s running away from her pimp. It’s a ridiculous experiment and plot line, of course. Scandal ensues, and the officials in charge close the program down and forget they’ve cold-storaged Bowers and Rita, who wake up 500 years later to a world that’s changed in every terrifying possible way. Mountainous terrains of trash grow as far as the eye can see. Costco is the central business of the world. Citizens subsist on a drink called Brawndo, supposedly rich in electrolytes, which has replaced water for drinking and is used for irrigating plants. A food shortage plagues the land.

Bowers and Rita are the Adam and Eve – the smartest people in the world – in the new landscape where every conceivable commodity is built around convenience, desire, and pleasure. Together they come to understand the call to arms set before them: they must educate citizens and ultimately serve a stint in the White House, run by President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho.

I made it through the film without falling asleep on the couch. Not because it was good. Like other Mike Judge work – Beavis and Butt-head Do America, Office Space – its satire is built around the sort of basement humor that’s somehow funny every time: farting and burping and other crude cultural jokes you’re slightly embarrassed to be laughing about.

Don’t rush to see this movie.

I’m writing about it here because I recall how it agitated me in the weeks after. It was absurd and low, yes, but there was enough possibility for reality underneath the idiocy, enough prescience at its core.

I’ve spent the last year mainly listening more than writing, as events in my own life haven’t left much bandwidth for creating words. A natural introvert, I’m on friendly terms with listening. This is how we quiet types make sense of the world. Writers especially listen in on the world, transforming what we witness and hear into story lines and scenes, eavesdropping on conversations to hear how people talk and what silences in conversations sound like.

It’s been hard to listen to the avalanche of words from both sides in the last few months. I’ve purposely not used this space for political discussions. But this last week, these election results, feel like what happens when the premise of Idiocracy and McCarthyism have a baby.

I normally love babies. What better testament to new beginnings, to love, to hope? But this baby is genetically engineered by people who don’t speak for much of what I believe in.

This baby is going to develop at an abnormal rate. It’s on its back in the crib, soaking in the shiny bright dangling mobile of hateful rhetoric, intolerance, and anger. It’s drinking the milk of corporate interests, of stripping away protections for the common good, of sowing the seeds of fear. This baby is walking and shouting and pointing a finger. It’s developing hand-eye coordination by using a sledgehammer. Swinging away at environmental protections, healthcare for the underserved, justice that makes sense for democracy, protection of the arts and education and refugees and carefully crafted global partnerships.

I’m a parent. A teacher. I’m concerned about the first years of this child. What happens when it goes to school and has to play nice with others? When it becomes a teenager? When a childhood devoid of wrangling with facts and compassion cannot curb the impulsive choices it makes because its frontal lobe isn’t yet formed?

And since I’m throwing around such loud metaphors, I’ll add one more. How was it so many of us missed the canary in the coal mine? I’ve been listening all year, hard, but I wasn’t, clearly, listening to the voices that could’ve indicated all the air would be leaving the chamber. How was it so many of us couldn’t hear – more, acknowledge as a possible majority – that frequency?

Tending to this rogue baby is going to take a village. The future will require all of us to listen to each other in ways we haven’t. I hope enough of us will be brave enough to try.

Categories: community, parenting, writing | Tags: | 6 Comments

tiny farm notebook

www.lauramgibson.com

Snow’s on its way. I’ve closed up the garden and turned my attention to indoor pursuits. It feels good.

In the last two seasons I’ve learned a few things about tending a tiny farm. It’s a ton of work, for starters, which I knew. But also didn’t. Just as I knew, but also didn’t, how raising a high school senior and keeping a garden bigger than the house would invade writing time.

Still, I’ve managed to harvest some bits of wisdom along the way:

Two roosters fight. Constantly. If you try and give one of your men to a gal pal with more land and a bigger flock, she will lecture you about why you should be made of tougher stuff. Real farmers suck it up. They do what’s necessary.

So, you research what to do.

No one else you know wants, or is allowed to raise, a rooster. If you list your FREE rooster on craigslist, he will be used as cockfighting bait for champion roosters to practice on.

You let your two fellas range in the pasture, hoping nature will decide. The red-tailed hawk that hunts on your land looks hungry for fresh chicken, but the boys are better than you thought at avoiding danger. This is the only activity during which they create an alliance in order to survive.

Weeks pass. Every time you feed the birds, you get assaulted by the big rooster Carson (formerly named Custer), who shows his irritation that you’re near his harem by flying at you sideways with his spurs out.

In the interest of taking care of your own business and being merciful, you have to kill him. Then you explain to your kids how not all living things on our farm are pets.

 Even though this is a lie.

www.lauramgibson.com

Bees sometimes swarm. When your bees flee, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. It’s not like 20,000 kids ran away because you neglected them. This just happens, according to experts who know. If your bees only get as far as the plum tree twenty feet from the hive, and you catch them after watching seven videos on YouTube about how to do it, count that as success! The dog, who tries to “help” and gets stung twenty-seven times, will be okay once the swelling goes down.

Try not to congratulate yourself too much. The next day, your bees will get attacked and killed by someone else’s robbing swarm, and that will be the end of that. Utter colony collapse.

There’s always next year. You have all the equipment now.

www.lauramgibson.com

Gardens get big. When, in your spring zeal to GROW a GARDEN, you plant three times more tomato, pepper, zucchini, and bean plants than your family can possibly handle, remember to preserve, can, freeze, salsa, red sauce, bruschetta, and chili your way through harvest. Once the shelves and freezer are full, you can SHARE the wealth. It’s important to hear poorly at this time. For example, when friends in August try to tell you they’ve got all the zucchini they can handle, it really IS okay to insist they take more. It’s their civic duty.

Also, you can leave presents on the porch when they’re not home which, let’s face it, is better than a visit from Santa.

www.lauramgibson.com

Labradors like birds. If a friend’s dog attacks your remaining rooster Willy (formerly named Napoleon), think carefully before you use your home as the infirmary. Chickens really do prefer to be outside. Once the injured fella is inside the house, there’s no helping the way the whole of your living space will smell like a barnyard. Several websites will suggest giving injured chickens Epsom salt baths and syringe-feeding them electrolytes, and you can employ these methods if you want.

However, it will likely make tending Willy’s psychic and physical well-being very heartbreaking. Your friend’s dog gave him a sound thrashing, and his legs are clearly broken.

Try not to be relieved when he dies on his own. You won’t have to subject your children to another round of murder, which, as they keep reminding you, will be the reason they’re in therapy later.

www.lauramgibson.com

Woodstoves are a hassle. If you have a tantrum about the inefficient woodstove in the living room that leaks and covers the furniture with ash and takes up too much space and MUST COME OUT, and if, then, you watch more YouTube videos about extracting the beast from your world, be careful. These videos are not nearly as entertaining as the ones you watched about bees. You might discover that woodstoves are quite heavy, and awkward to move, and you can’t do it alone. So you enlist your spouse, the foul-mouthed pirate, who helps you while he cusses the thing out the door. When it’s over, he’ll tell you that this activity does NOT qualify as an emergency, and that it would be nice if you could learn the difference between what is acute and what can wait for someone who knows what the hell they’re doing to help you out.

Also, when you remove something attached to the house, you will be left with HOLES in the wall and in the roof. Because you were a Girl Scout, you’ll be able to insulate the holes, and also fashion a piece of tarp to prevent any water from coming in through the roof.

But it will be a sad little Band-Aid of a solution.

Remind yourself not to let too much time pass before you arrange a drywaller and roofer to clean up your mess.

Because critters WILL find this space. Word spreads fast about the easy access your tantrum has created. You’ll likely hear them in the night, scratching and squirreling away food for winter and hiding whatever they’ve found inside the walls.

Fall is windy. You might hear the chimney cap you jammed back into the hole in the roof fly away one night in the wind and land somewhere in the yard. The next day, you’ll climb up there and put it back in place and wonder how a person who’s smart in so many ways could have decided to proceed with home “improvement” in this way.

You will have to get the roof patched. You will.

Kids leave home. If you’ve raised them right. Because hasn’t this been the point all along? To plant the seeds, to build the tools, to foster independence? He’s ready. He’s got the skills to drive his own life, mostly. He’s already making plans, one eye on the door to the what next, and he’s itching to walk through it.

But he’s wistful and tender, too, about his “youth,” as he calls it, which is almost as funny as when he calls himself “a grown man.” Because neither is true today, and both squeeze your heart. The little melon-headed boy who had two speeds: awake and busy with endless questions, or asleep and sweating, breathing too loudly. The young man: articulate, curious, driven.

You hadn’t reckoned on this. The way your boy is a man and still such a child.

Maybe you’re the one who’s not ready.

You’ve got seven months left, and you’ve been telling yourself  for a couple of years that you’ll have a party when that boy leaves the house and takes his stubborn opinions, loud music, cloying cologne, disgusting bathroom habits, and bottomless hunger with him.

And you will.

But now, you’re thinking about how quiet it will be without the hum of him, and how much bigger your tiny house will be without the size 11 shoes he dismounts from and leaves in front of the door and the bags of swim gear and books you trip over. You’re thinking about how the leaving, for both of you, is the beginning of the rest of his life disconnected from you but tethered to everything that’s come before.

It’s a lot to process. This joyful sadness.

 

www.lauramgibson.com

 

 

Categories: chickens, community, family, fiction, gardening, parenting | Tags: , , , , | 10 Comments

fog

This winter, a relentless inverted fog has shrouded our valley. We are weeks into this trend; I’ve stopped paying much attention to the forecast which, according to our weather folk, is simply: “Gray.”

From the table where I write, the black relief of deciduous trees against a white surround looks like the smoky aftermath of war.

To find sun I could drive up out of the inversion to four or five thousand feet.  Many people do this. Above the white sea of our valley cars line the shoulder, their drivers standing next to the road with faces turned to the light.  Up there I’ve seen picnickers on the hoods of cars, games of hacky sack, lawn chairs with umbrellas. On weekends, a driver bound for the very top of the mountain must aim, not unlike Tour de France riders in the mountain stages, through this carnival gauntlet of parked sun-seekers.

But I don’t much seek the sun. Truthfully, I’m delighted about the inversion. With little temptation to go outside, it’s easier to keep my butt in the chair and work. Soon, it’ll be gardening season, a hard set of months on fiction.

It’s not for wimps, this writing life.  Solitary. Time-consuming. Hard emotional work.  Craziness. Spending so much time with magical people sometimes makes me feel less adept at communicating with the real ones. Recently I left the house (late, always late) wearing two different shoes and only noticed once I stood waiting in line at the post office. There is never enough time. I struggle to reconcile the insistent knocking to create against the inherent selfishness of world-making.

Today, my house is filthy. The refrigerator is beginning to look like an artifact from a college dorm.  Plenty of condiments, some moldy cheese, and something in a Tupperware container no one can identify. There’s a pile of laundry – neglected, growing. My daughter has no pants that fit and can’t drive herself to the store to get ones that do, she reminds me. We discussed her clothing quandary long enough to make her late to school this morning. Also, there was nothing to put in her lunch, she told me as she got out of the car.  Can’t you please go to the market before you work?

She’s on to me.

On the way home from school I scratched out a list of life chores.  If I raced through them first, I’d have time to write and then everyone would win, at least for today.

I started a load of laundry, hauled out the vacuum cleaner, and then got distracted by a text from a friend who’d shared a clip of Bill Moyers interviewing Louise Erdrich in April of 2010. Here ’tis:

Lovely and humble as ever, Erdrich steps around being compared to Faulkner, Hemingway, and Camus (clever woman-what possible answer to this question could there be?). Instead, she speaks about how she’s managed to write so prolifically while also being a mother, how she’s given herself permission to let the small things fall away.  To answer Moyers, Erdrich reads her poem “Advice to Myself”  (from Original Fire, 2003. Thumbs up to Garrison Keillor for making it Monday, November 19th, 2012’s The Writer’s Almanac piece). Here ’tis:

Leave the dishes. Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
Don’t even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll’s tiny shoes in pairs, don’t worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic—decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don’t even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don’t sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in through the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.

One hand on the vacuum handle, I considered the way of the universe’s mysterious gifts. Into my confusion descended the fierce creative mind of Louis Erdrich via my tiny, fierce community of writer friends.

Fierceness, the order of the day.

Outside, rain fell through the white ceiling of fog. After school, after solitude, there’d be time enough to find pants the right size, to visit the market. Vacuuming could wait.

I settled into my writing chair.

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: community, fiction, writing | Tags: , , | 12 Comments

longing

quince

Over the weekend a friend invited me to make quince jam.  Quince,  I learned, is a “pome” fruit, a cousin of the apple and pear.  Some believe  it was the quince and not the apple Eve plucked in the garden, the quince and not the “golden apple” at the heart of the Trojan War.  Most Colonial gardens had quince trees.  Quince fruit is loaded with pectin but labor-intensive to access.  As soon as modernity figured out how to manufacture pectin, the virtues of quince fell away, and now it’s rare to find a quince tree growing in backyard gardens.  It’s an old story.

While the fruits in a bowl can fragrance a whole room, they’re too tough and sour to eat and need to be cooked.

Every year, in remembrance of her mother, my friend cooks up a batch or two of quince jam using her mother’s handwritten recipe.  This method requires more than twenty-four hours– day one you cook down the fruits and strain them through cheesecloth; the next day you boil the juice with sugar until it sheets in the right viscosity.  Although quince meat is white, once you process it for jam it blooms first a salmon color, and then the most gorgeous shade of amber.

I was honored at the invite to participate in this autumnal ritual, a tender communion between mother and daughter.  At the bottom of the page, faded and water-marked through years of use, her mother had drawn a little heart.

At our house, we try not to gobble up our preserved fruits too quickly.  It’s important, in March especially, to have access to a jar of peaches put up during summer’s heat.  To remember standing next to the tree and eating the perfect one.  We picked it, rubbed the surface gently to stand down the fuzz.  Golden and red, neither mealy nor too hard, the juice dripped everywhere.

As it always does, canning strikes me as an activity as much about celebration as it is about longing.  We gorge and revel in the fruits of our labors and that of others.  And yet there’s palpable yearning in our efforts – all those brilliantly colored jars are sense memories of summers recent and past.  We are desperate to preserve these as we steel ourselves for the dark season, for the uncertain future.  The inherent hope present in germination, the thrill and sometimes defeat of the growing season, the labor and satisfaction of harvest, the reflection necessary to begin the cycle again as we put up jars and save seeds:  These are the elements of stories that resonate.

I’ve had my head lost in writing fiction lately (thus, the radio silence here), so longing has been on my mind more than usual.  My characters are a lot pulsing with yearning, desperate in their quest for it; they make messes everywhere, then shamble through the messes they’ve made, hoping, still, they’ll get at least some flint of their desires.

Emily Dickinson, fond of the gardening metaphor, wrote about longing in far fewer words than I’ve used here. I would’ve like to sit down over toast and preserves with Emily.  After, we’d walk out to the garden and noodle about a place for a quince tree to live in our tiny orchard.

Longing is like the Seed

That wrestles in the Ground,

Believing if it intercede

It shall at length be found.

The Hour, and the Clime-

Each Circumstance unknown,

What Constancy must be achieved

Before it see the Sun!

*This is supposed to be two stanzas.  The first ends after “found,” but  I can’t drive the formatting well enough to make it look that way.  Apologies to Emily.

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how can i keep from singing?

More like an older sister than an aunt, Susie taught me to swim.  I was nine the summer she came to visit, and though I splashed around easily enough in the shallow end, nothing I did resembled a stroke.  Over the course of a week, Susie worked with me at our little community pool, teaching me to do the freestyle and be brave in water.  On day four I made the discovery that submerging my head wouldn’t mean sudden death.  After that I was golden.

Since that summer I’ve been a swimmer.  Not a competitive one, but a dabbler in the unstructured water play of paddling across lakes and rivers, jumping off rocks, bodysurfing, rafting.

In addition to last year’s big life changes I’ve probably written about too much here, in the fall I added swimming laps, a new skill that still feels humbling.  I was looking for another activity that might deliver the kind of focused non-focus of running, one I’ll be able to do for many years, long after my running knees give out.

That I was very bad at surviving laps in the beginning is an understatement.  But it was thrilling to engage in something at which I was terrible.  I had to learn to sustain swimming and breathing at the same time without panicking and stopping in the middle of the pool to gasp for air.  To put on a swim cap.  To wear goggles so they were tight enough to work but not so tight they nearly sucked my eyes out of my sockets.  To swim in a straight line and share a lane with another swimmer.  To “deal” with the wall every twenty-five yards.

At first, swimming four laps in a row left me completely without breath.  For the first month I could only swim ten slow, tortuous laps before peeling off, exhausted, to simmer in the Jacuzzi.  In the second month I tasked myself with braving the wall via flip turn, and the day I figured out how to plan for and execute a series of turns I was high on life the rest of the day.   The day swimming laps gave me a glimmer of the kind of meditation I feel while trail running was even more affirming.

Given the choice, I’d rather swim in a lake or bay over a pool, but I imagine no matter the space, I’ll be a swimmer as long as I can still walk.  I’m grateful about that.

It’s 2014, time to renew my vow to learn something new.

On a whim a few weeks ago, Riley and I tagged along with some friends to their choir practice.  Though we met at a church because that’s a space large enough for the group, the choir is secular and intergenerational.  I’ve never really sung before, unless I count the shower or those musical performances from grade school.  In high school I was both too shy and too busy playing sports to spend any time in the arts and theatre wing, a fact which I regret a now.  Despite a year or so of piano in middle school, I can’t read music, and I don’t have a great voice.  I’m on friendly terms with the voice I do have.  Singing in public terrifies me.

In a packed sanctuary hall the night of our first practice, we met and were wrangled by three local, professional musicians, our leaders, who believe so strongly in the power of the collective voice they’ve volunteered their time in this way.  A white-haired woman with a walker sporting orange tennis balls staked out a place at the back of the sanctuary.  With our friends, we squeezed four bodies onto two chairs next to her.  Kids of all ages wiggled and danced beneath the stage as we sang ten or so tunes, many we knew and some we didn’t.  Reading lyrics projected on a huge screen at the back of the stage, we practiced singing in harmony.  We sang in round.  Folk, pop, blues, tunes from around the world.

I spent much of the evening sweating, working to manage anxiety about whether and how my voice belonged. But there are three hundred of us, and we sound good together.  I can see that each week my fears will be allayed by my own efforts and being buoyed by the group.  Our sessions together will be about the community building of raising our voices in song, and also about preparing for a culminating performance in the spring.

Pete Seeger had just passed away a few days before our first choir meeting.  Even though he’d had a good run, dying quietly at 94, I’d been melancholy about his presence gone from the world.  At home I’d been playing over and over Springsteen’s The Seeger Sessions and thinking back to 2002, when John, Owen and I went to the Great Hudson River Revival, an annual folk festival Pete and his wife Toshi began in 1966 to raise awareness about keeping the Hudson River and surrounding wetlands healthy.

That June weekend in New York was a rainy, hot muddy mess of a festival.  Food vendors and magicians, hacky-sackers and jugglers, artists and storytellers filled the grounds.  The afternoon Pete took the stage toward the end of the weekend, it was still raining steadily.  John and I sat in our chairs, a blanket over Owen who slept across our laps, finally worn out, and for an hour we sang along with Pete and other musicians who joined him.  Songs we’d known since we could walk and sing.  This Land is Your LandIf I Had a Hammer. Turn, Turn, Turn.  We Shall Overcome.

Then, I was aware as I scanned the soggy crowd that we were in the presence of a kind of greatness.  Everyone sang, most eyes on Pete and his banjo, his enthusiasm and gathering spirit infectious.  There was nothing pretentious about him, none of that rock star stuff he might have deserved after decades of fame.  As I recall he wore faded jeans, a t-shirt, his signature cap.  Through a gap in the trees, the sloop Clearwater sailed by along the Hudson, loaded with passengers availing themselves of learning how to save the river.  I’m so grateful now we made that trip.

Owen navigating the rope bridge at the Clearwater Festival.

Owen navigating the rope bridge at the Clearwater Festival.

At choir practice, toward the end of the night, a photo of Pete filled the screen, and these words -“Participation!  It’s what all my work has been about.” Singing next to Riley whose voice is bold and clear and lovely, I was a little sad she’ll never get to sing along with Pete.  We stood up and grooved to a song Pete sang with Woody Guthrie, a fun kids’ tune about all working together with a “wiggle and a giggle.”  Kids twirled and fell on the ground and helped each other up.  This full-bodied interaction with music was exactly what Pete had in mind, for it’s not too far a jump to go from singing together to working together in all ways that matter most.

That night the spirit of Pete was all around us, it seemed, filling up our lungs and hearts.  We began “How Can I Keep from Singing?”, a song many seem to take credit for though I think it’s a hymn from the 19th century.  This song always makes me a little weepy, and I was struck that night by the gorgeous impermanence of the music we were making and the universal truth in some of those words.  Our individual and collective voices were vanishing into thin air, and yet long after the notes could no longer be heard, the people who’d gathered would remember the singularity of the effort.

I couldn’t really hear my own voice, though I knew it was a piece of the whole.  Still a little sweaty, emboldened by my plucky daughter who wasn’t nervous in the slightest, I tried to sing with bravery and intention, thinking of Pete, and of the way participating with hundreds of other voices could -was already- rendering a similar kind of grace I sought in breathing life into stories, in trail running at dawn, in gliding through water.

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cyclopean eye

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For the better part of a year, I’ve been agitated about selfies, trying to articulate what feels so Orwellian about pictures replacing words.  I know too many adults who have given themselves over to the selfie revolution.  A growing, navel-gazing army of teens is at the front lines of this surge.  You know the posture – one arm outstretched so the self-directed cyclopean eye of a cell phone tastes an experience in order to broadcast it.

It’s hard to be in the world these days without witnessing a selfie in the making.

At our house most technology is considered poor company for sitting down to eat, engaging in conversations, reading, doing homework.  Cell phones, computers and tablets are not invited to join us at these times, and this rule is largely true when the kids have friends over.  We’re mean parents and expect our kids and their friends to actually hang out together, use real words from their mouths, and also maybe some eye contact. Our kids are pretty accomplished at live conversation.

Still, I know when they leave the house the story is different.  Owen’s received a few alarming selfies of girls scantily clad.  One poor girl repeatedly photographed and texted “I Love You” spelled out with a variety of objects — chocolates, candy canes, Goldfish crackers.  I know about these photos because I check.  A lot of parents don’t.  I’m heartsick that for these girls, no one seems to be discussing self-respect and appropriate use of technology, and probably all sorts of other things too.

More to the point, though,  too many teens are free to use their devices without boundaries or guidance.  The result, it seems to me, is the crafting of a whole culture of self-consumed, image-obsessed, instant-gratification-seeking citizens.  Immediacy of everything is king.  Waiting of any kind is bad.  I worry about the fate of the good, hard work of face-to-face social interaction and conversation.  What about companionable silence?  What about the art of doing one thing at one time? What will happen to these important skills?

It’s hard to say.

Now is the time of year for retrospection.  According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word selfie has been so important to us culturally it’s 2013’s word of the year.  This sort of thing makes me feel I was born in the wrong time, and also feeds my sometimes unease that perhaps I’m just not seeing the world clearly.  I mean, if everybody’s doing it, maybe it has some merit. Maybe if I did IT, I would like IT.  Growth and change mean moving out of one’s comfort zone, after all.

Back in October, I decided I’d do a whole day of selfies, dawn-to-dusk.  First, I had to figure out my platform.  I wasn’t willing to have an Instagram or Snapchat account just for the sake of research, which probably means this wasn’t a valid experiment from the start.  But I was willing to text, so I enlisted my friend Heather.  We agreed to text each other all day to see if we could crack the code of what made selfing so attractive.

The next morning, my alarm rang at o’dark-thirty.  I used my phone alarm, so I could take a picture of myself still in bed, in the dark.  I picked it up and realized two things:  I had no idea how to use the camera directed the wrong way –where was that button anyway?– and also that I’d never taken a picture of myself.  Ever.  I HATE having my picture taken, which is plainly obvious in any picture with me in it.

John rolled over and pushed me to get out of his sleeping space.  “I know what you’re doing,” he said.  “It’s stupid.  Just don’t involve me.”

“But don’t you think it’ll be an interesting sociological experiment?  It might help us understand Owen better.”

“Get out of bed now, please.”

In the pre-dawn light, it occurred to me John was right.   What I’d signed us up to do was, frankly, kind of lame.  While I fumbled with the phone, thinking about calling it off, Heather texted a picture of herself waking up, so I went to the bathroom and took a bunch of pictures of brushing teeth.

Brushing Teeth

Because we couldn’t help ourselves, we also used lots of words, mostly about how foolish it felt to snap pictures of things like our ablutions.  Well, not all of them, just the ones involving teeth.

So the day began.

Heather’s two hours ahead of me.  One photo of brushing teeth is plenty.  Here’s one of her feeding the birds.  Look how excited she was to be involved in this research.  We were crushing it.

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There was get-the-paper selfie.  Drink-some-coffee selfie.  Start-some-laundry selfie.  Take-the-kids-to-school selfie.

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Another trawl through the interwebs informed the heap of options I’d already decided against taking pictures of:  my hair (a helfie), my backside (a belfie), my workout (a welfie, also called a gym selfie), my drunken stupor (a drelfie), and a funeral (a felfie?).

I opted for a kiss-a-beer selfie (my carrot later in the evening for doing this stupid experiment).

Running-with-the-dog selfie.  Maybe this qualifies as a welfie, except with no abs or mirrors –the rules about this one seem shifty.

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The dog-swimming-with-my-face-in-one-corner selfie.

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Each time I snapped a photo, I texted it right away.  Waiting for any kind of reply was excruciating.  Sometimes Heather took a whole twenty minutes to respond.  What the hell was she doing anyway, that she couldn’t make a quicker response?  Our experiment was serious business, social science.  Part of the deal was immediacy, because waiting is stupid.  I worried whether she’d aborted the mission, whether her heart was in it, whether she was offended by my zeal or thought my pictures were stupid. Later, in our debrief of the experiment, we discovered we’d been doing the same thing — snapping many pictures but not sending them all, worried that the barrage of photos would be annoying, anxious that we were overdoing it, ill at ease with completely embracing the selfie way of shouting PLEASE RESPOND TO ME.  I guess we’re not very good scientists.

By eleven that morning, I was running out of ideas.  I tried a duckface-gangster selfie, except mostly I looked deranged.  I mean, what grown woman pretends to be a gangster?

I sat down to get some work done and took some pictures of that.  (Don’t zoom in and read the words; I had to murder those darlings.)

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Then I tried to concentrate, but it was hard work because right next to me, the phone was silent.  What was she doing anyway? An hour later I took another picture of myself working, texted it again, and tried to concentrate some more.

Heather sent a picture of herself doing the same thing, and also, because she was running out of ideas, some words about why teenagers do stupid things in photos.  It seemed clear that when you’ve got your finger on the trigger all the time, OF COURSE you run out of material.

On a break from work, I googled selfie again and found an article by Alexandra Siferlin in TIME, “Why Selfies Matter.”  Siferlin suggests parents who are gripped about selfies need to unhinge themselves.  (Oh dear).  Selfies are just part of growing up in the digital age (shit).  What counts is to teach kids what KINDS of selfies are acceptable.  And then the article tacks south and basically says that selfies can be dangerous because:

A:  Kids don’t understand what’s an acceptable thing to take pictures of, even when you tell them (but hello, neither do plenty of adults.  I’m talking about you, Anthony Weiner).

B:  Selfies often make kids feel jealous and lonely when they see their friends doing what LOOKS like fun, and they are not.  This leads to risk-taking, potentially of the naughty kind.

And so, the jury’s out, maybe, still, on how all this digital stuff is shaping the next generations.

Back to the experiment, more hours passed.  All my pictures of working looked the same, so I stopped taking them until I left the house and had an experience worth documenting.

Later that day there were more driving-in-the-car selfies while I picked kids up from school.  A man in the car next to us at the stoplight caught us being idiots.  He shook his head and scowled.  When the light turned green, he sped up and cut me off.

Heather sent a driving-in-the-car selfie also.

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Back at home, Riley and I perfected the blowfish selfie.

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Then we did some yoga and took pictures of ourselves doing downward dog.  I can’t show those photos here because, in addition to our faces, the photo captures everything down the front of my gaping shirt.  Sharing them would violate our household acceptable use policy about privacy.  Our drumbeat of advice for the kids goes something like this:  Remember that there’s no privacy anymore.  Your technological presence is a PERMANENT DIGITAL RECORD. Let us be the voices in your head when you’re out in the world.  Also, while we’re on the subject of out in the world, remember that GENITAL HERPES can ruin your lives.  Please keep your pants on.

But.  I digress.

Like so many I see around me, I went through my whole day without letting the phone out of my sight.  Just in case there was a message responding to my message.  By dinnertime, I was weary of the mission, sick of myself and horrified by how much getting an instant response from one person had come to mean over the course of twelve hours.  What would happen if I expanded my recipient list?  Would I begin to move through my days, starting every sentence with I and forgetting to ask people questions about themselves? If I practiced this kind of relentless self-focus, would my frontal lobe leave my body, pinging around like a pleasure-seeking UFO that couldn’t find the mothership?

While dinner cooked, I flipped through a smutty magazine and enjoyed that carrot beer.  John came home and caught me snapping pictures of myself engaged in these two activities.

“Jesus.  You’re not really doing that are you?”

“What?  It’s research.  Come over by the fire and we’ll selfie together.  Although maybe if we’re both in it, we would dualie…”

“Oh great.  Now it’s a verb.”

Once John was home, I couldn’t experiment with the same verve.  It felt dirty somehow.  We ate dinner, and I left the phone in the other room, though I confess I did flirt with hiding it under the table in my lap.  Afterward, when I checked my texts, Heather had sent along a half-asleep-on-the-couch-and-goodnight selfie.

I took a last picture and sent it, quickly, while John announced from the kitchen that he was turning his phone OFF for the night and suggested I do the same.

Honestly, I needed someone to be the heavy and make some rules.  I was exhausted.

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the shoulds

2012 India Trip #3 025

My feet and hands, a little rough and scarred with the miles, are evidence of my wonky pursuits.

Being pampered doesn’t often rank as a way to spend time, but last summer I tagged along with a friend to a salon so we could soak our feet, have the skin on our heels scrubbed with a cheese grater, get our nails painted.  Above the sound of the motorized massage chair and the bubbles in the foot bath, we chatted, catching up while flipping through smutty magazines.  On a stool below me, a very small woman set to work on my feet, clucking about the dead toenails and calluses (thank you, running).  Ill at ease with the perch on my vibrating throne, I tried to engage her in conversation, made difficult by my general discomfort in salons, and also by the language barrier.

When I asked her about her day, she smiled and shook her head and pointed to the bottle of polish I’d picked.  “Empty,” she said, and then went to find another.

After that, I gave myself over to the experience of having my lower legs rubbed with exfoliating scrub and the pedicurist’s deft hands loosening up a tight calf muscle.

Next to us in the bank of chairs sat another woman, older by twenty years or so, who greeted us when we arrived and then sat reading a magazine while her feet were worked over.  Her long, white hair was tied back in a loose ponytail.

A half hour later, we all sat around the drying table together, cotton wedged between our toes, our flip flops on.  It was June.  The kids were about to be out of school, a busy time for families.  My friend and I were lamenting our long list of things to accomplish before summer officially began.

At a lull in our conversation, the white-haired woman leaned toward us and said, “I used to talk the same way.”

We assumed she was referring to our kavetching about kids, summer, or the eighty-seven end-of-year projects and parties.

“But one day,” she went on, “this wonderful friend of mine said to me, ‘Why do you do that?’”

In the pause that followed, I filled in the blanks for what she meant by that. Why did we make ourselves so busy?  Why did we bitch about our kids in public?  Why were we talking about Hollywood stars as if we knew them?

She leaned down and disentangled the cotton from her purple toes, then sat back up.  “Think about it this way,” she said, “there is what you need to do, and there is what you want to do.  But should?  This is a word you can take out of your vocabulary.”

“It sounds good,” my friend said, “but I have a big-ass list of things I should do today.  I definitely don’t want to do them.”

“Yeah,” I chimed in.  “I don’t know if I could break up with should.  I mean, what would I complain about?”

I considered her perspective, doubting its merit.  My life was full of what I should be doing instead of getting a pedicure.  Like playing hooky, escaping from the shoulds was part of the thrill.  In truth, the weight of my obligations felt heavy.  I’d been thinking for months about how to disconnect gracefully from several commitments, which involved going head to head with my guilt-lined Lutheran upbringing.  It’s an ugly, ongoing skirmish.  Also, I was kind of pissed.  I mean, I went to the shop with my friend to relax and not feel shitty, and here was this woman life-coaching me.  Who did she think she was anyway?

The white-haired woman nodded.  She reached into her purse and took out her wallet.  “Those are probably things you need to do. Go to work, clean the house, pick up your kids, make dinner.  Right?”

“But I should do them,” my friend said.

Gathering her things together, the woman shook her head.   “Try it, girls.  It’s very freeing.  Now I think of the world in a totally different way.  Before, I spent a lot of my time fulfilling the obligation of should.  It takes practice not to, because we’ve all been at this kind of thinking for, well, our whole lives.”  She paid the gal who’d worked up her feet, waved a goodbye to us, and left the shop.

My friend and I sat looking at each other for a moment.  “I bet she cruises the nail shop circuit,” she said. “She’s like a salon prophet or something.”

“Or full of shit,” I said.  “And also clearly has no relentlessly hungry kids to feed.  Probably gets her toilets cleaned by someone else.”

After we left the shop, I filed this encounter away, chocking the white-haired woman’s advice up to a world view of someone who didn’t pressure herself too much.  The bored rich.  A woman who read a lot of self-help stuff and hired out for every last thing.

Except I didn’t really believe that.  I kind of liked her calm, self-assured way of being, and also that she hadn’t dyed her hair or cut it super short to tame the wire out of it.  She seemed like someone I might be friends with.  We’d only had a few minutes’ exchange with her, but her words worm-holed within me all summer and into fall.  I couldn’t say should without thinking of her, without pausing to reframe my sentiment and edit out the shoulds.

Lately, John and I have been talking with Owen about choosing a college, about what he’d like to do in the world.  Our advice to him has always been to seek a path of joy and fulfillment, as well as one that will make him a living.  Every time we have this conversation with Owen, though, I can’t help but think to myself about the similar, parallel path of partnering need and want.

At the risk of seeming like a white-haired lady groupie, it occurs to me that fulfillment comes when want and need intersect in a singular pursuit or practice, and that this is a rare, precious thing.

Of course, it’s hard to hit the right groove all the time.  The dailyness of life isn’t all rainbow brilliant, shot full of light and unicorns and feel-goodery and self-worth.  My kids make me crazy. The state of the world is scary.  Fully in touch with my inner bitch, I’m not nearly as patient, loving or kind as I aim to be.

But living with purpose serves me well most of the time.  I need and want to raise thinking, compassionate kids in the world.  I need and want to write.  I need and want to garden, to know how to do things for myself, to be a good friend, to travel and know the world, to go outside and teach kids how to do the same.  There’s little room for should in any of these passions.

I haven’t quite been able to get to the same level of bliss about cleaning, driving or laundry, but it could come for me someday.

Meanwhile, in this season of thanks, I’ll sit down to the table with my family, enjoy a meal we’ve all pitched in to prepare, and know as certainly as I know anything that I both need and want to be spending my time this way.

2013 November 067

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flown the coop

2013 - February to August 054

Around 7:20 each morning in the yard behind ours, a very vocal hen lays an egg.  This hen’s egg-laying aria (a reenactment here) is followed by irritable complaining about the state of things, and then, since I can’t see her, what I can only assume is some active scratching and feeding.  Her sisters lay eggs much later in the morning, usually together, making their own duet.  To be fair, if I had to expel an object that size every day, I’d have a thing or two to say about it, too.

I’m comforted by these new birds, and by how many folks in our neighborhood have chickens.  For now, listening from my yard is as close as I’m going to get to owning birds myself.  We’re renting a house.  Zora is allowed here, but nothing else.  The lease agreement expressly forbids chickens, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, rats, mice, and any sort of reptile.  This list is followed by two exclamation points, which seems like a clause written for a bygone willful renter!!  Also in the lease is language about how I won’t do any yard maintenance, and that feels almost weirder than no chicken wrangling.

Hopefully, this limboed state of alert is temporary !!

Before we knew we were moving, we’d gotten new chicks, Ameraucana babies – Artemis and Athena, named by Riley.  I’d gotten them so we could diversify the flock and have green-blue eggs.  We brought them home in March, a cold one this year.  Because I was having problems moderating the temperature in their cage in the garage, the goddesses lived inside.

Chickens inside your house is a disgusting business.  Sure, Artemis and Athena were cute.  Sure, it was entertaining and unnerving watching the dog drool with longing, hanging her head over the side of the galvanized tub, quivering.  Sure, waking to the sounds of those little peeps from the breakfast nook (yes, they were near the kitchen, which is really, really disgusting), drinking coffee while listening to them practice being big birds wasn’t a bad way to start the day.

Sure.  They were cute and we held them and talked baby talk to them and told them how great their lives on our farm would be.  But chickens are filthy.  About week three the stink kicked in.  They shat in their food, in their water, on each other.  They scratched and made dust and filled their water dish with fecaled shavings.  Despite our efforts to keep the place clean, the dust from their quarters filtered into the house, as did the relentless scratching sound.  Artemis and Athena got older and smellier and the world outside got warmer, so we moved them to the garage to finish being babies before we introduced them to the big girls.

Giving the goddesses away was one of the first things we did when we decided to move.  They were high maintenance, they didn’t lay eggs and wouldn’t for several months.  I wasn’t so attached I was sentimental yet, so they went to live a few streets over with some friends of ours who’d just started their own chicken operation and had room for a few more.

The big girls – Ginger, Marianne, and Rainer (Mrs. Howell was a man.  We swapped her for Rainier)—were a different story.  My first bird children, I’d raised them up from babies, trained them to come when I whistled the opening bars of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, benefitted from years of delicious eggs.

Also, I couldn’t get out of my head a scene like something from the Beverly Hillbillies, our truck piled high and the chickens in a wire cage on top of a jalopied heap, their feathers trailing in the wind behind us.

Also, there was that business of the no pets !! in our lease agreement.

It was harder than it would seem to find homes for them, what with their “advanced” age.  No one wanted new-to-them chickens who were probably going to stop laying within the year, even if they were gorgeous and tame and cleverly named.  In the end, Riley’s soccer coach Brett, who owns land and has twenty or so chickens already, agreed to take them.

We drove the girls out to Brett’s property a few weeks before we left.  He was ready for us, a separate cage set up near the main coop.

“I’ll toss them in tonight with the rest of the girls,” he said.  “Works every time.  They’ll wake up tomorrow and the others will be like, ‘Hey.  How’s it going?’ and that will be that.”

Inside a huge chicken run, his birds – five or six breeds altogether—were gathered around cantaloupe and watermelon halves, clucking and gorging themselves.  Brett had built the coop, his own design, also large and set up so his kids could easily gather eggs and clean it.  The place was like Club Med for chickens.

His four-year-old daughter Shey led me over to the chicken graveyard under a stand of cedars.  “This is our pet cemetery,” she said.  “Rosy the cat is here, too.” Several rocks brightly painted were scattered on top of the needles there.  “Also Blacky, Whitey, and Socks.”

“Cats?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “Hamsters.”

She gave me a tour through each stone and what was buried under it, and then skipped off to play with Riley on the tire swing.

We have a pet graveyard at our house where we’d buried a gecko, some goldfish, a dead wren we found on the deck, and a frog Riley found in the mailbox that she petted too much.  They’re buried there for closure’s sake, because it mattered to our kids, and because we couldn’t eat any of them.

But chickens are different, I think.  Their presence in our lives had been about more than love and nurturing.  Having them was symbiotic – I did a good job and they did too.  Our house wasn’t a chicken pleasure cruise.  When the girls stopped laying, our plan was to harvest them and make soup stock, a reminder for our whole family about not wasting resources and knowing how to do things for ourselves.

Still, I was charmed by Brett’s kids, four girls, who were fully involved in caring for their animals.  He never gathered eggs, the two younger ones did that.  His elder two did all the feeding and cleaning the coop.  The birds also came out to “play.”  They sometimes wore doll clothes and went to the front of the property on leashes.  Another look inside the coop revealed a chicken-sized rocking chair, filthy with chicken poop, and a window with gingham curtains.

When I asked Brett about it, he shrugged and said, “It’s more a petting zoo than a farm.”  He rubbed at his beard and looked over at the girls swinging.  “There’s a lot of…uh…estrogen out here.  ”

For Brett’s family, I guess that graveyard makes sense.  My bird girls will have a nice retirement at his estrogen ranch before they join the others under the cedars.  No soup pot for them.

Birdless for now, I guess it makes sense to scratch off the chicken wrangling headline on this blog.  I’ll have to live vicariously through my neighbors’ birds and the yards they tend themselves.

Hopefully, it’s only for a little while. !!

Categories: chickens, community, gardening, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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