Racing the Clouds

“I know a lot about dinosaurs.

My favorite is the Velociraptor.”

“Is that a big one?” I immediately regretted encouraging this boy to carry on with what was clearly going to be more information than I could…or would want to… process.

We were at a birthday party, and my little son was playing ball with a few older boys. I had been standing in the shade in a rare moment of solitude when the dinosaur boy came upon me.

He answered the question that I wished I hadn’t asked.

“No, it’s small. It’s the size of a turkey. It has a tail that’s all feathery.”

The boy was six or seven years old. His dark brown hair was neatly trimmed. He wore a golfer’s polo with a collar that fell just right, pressed tan shorts, and clean running shoes.

He continued, offering words that I did not expect to hear on a sunny Saturday.

“And they eat meat. YOU are meat.”

With that haunting thought, I took my attention elsewhere.

Three has been a challenging age this last time around.

“Shut up, Mom. I hate you.”

I thought of that Velociraptor, coming at me when my back was turned.

I know they are just words, circles and lines from the tongue. Still, I fall in defeat. I cannot stop them. I cannot stop him. I cannot stop anyone.

For the times that I stood alongside you yet could not hear what you were saying, for the times when my own thoughts were too loud to hear your words, for the times when you felt that what you had to say did not mean enough to me, I am truly sorry.

I took the three little boys to visit Sam and Emily at their new house. The drive was nearly three hours. We spent a great day in the late summer sunshine, and before we were ready to go home, night had fallen. As we drove into the darkness, the stark evening sky called up emotions from my soul as a tiny three-year-old voice.

“I see the moon.”

Indeed, it was bold and full, holding stories and mysteries of cheese and an enchanting man who lived there. This small boy, too, would know them.

“I hate you, and I love you.”

Moving from one highway to another, across an illuminated trestle bridge, into more darkness…senses reeling. I still had a vision of the string lights as they lit up the backyard at the house of my grown son, my small child, my backpack baby no longer.

We were not used to these evening drives.

“It feels like we’re racing the clouds,” piped one boy.

“You’re like a race car driver! We’re going to win,” announced the youngest.

The oldest of the little boys sat in quiet solitude, but I know he heard everything.

We drove on into the night, stripped to our senses, and I was grateful for the chance to share the space in the old black van, alongside an abandoned camp backpack, a couple of baseball mitts, and treasures from today’s trip, with these three small beings that have given me the chance to care for them, to be their mama, and to take a day’s journey in the car to visit a brother who was once this small, and who would still appreciate the wonders of the night sky.

Three hours is a long time; twenty-four years is the blink of an eye.

There was truth in what the dinosaur boy told me, whether I wanted the information or not.

Sometimes I hear you, but I don’t know what to say. Though my words are elusive, I am listening still. Your chatter confuses and overwhelms me. YOU are meat; WE are meat. Please, keep talking. Keep talking, my son. Help me face what I cannot see.

Race the clouds with me. The moon is amazing, just as you are.

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Sunsets and Storms

“How long do you think I’ll last? I mean, when do you think I am going to die?”

Ethan’s questions still sometimes catch me a bit off guard. I am not sure I ever give him answers that satisfy or even make sense to him.

I had to come up with something. “Well, Grampa is eighty. You could live a very long time.”

“Grampa eats fruits. If you eat a lot of fruits and healthy stuff, then you can live a long time. I don’t eat that many fruits.” He went back to what he had been doing before. The conversation was enough for him, though to me, rather unsettling and incomplete.

There are times when nothing makes sense…to anyone…at all.

I had hoped to hide from my embattled reality for at least three minutes. Just as I turned the lock to the bathroom door, I heard the skip that is unmistakably Aaron, embodied, bounding upstairs.

“Mom? Are you up here?”

He knew where I was; there was no hiding, no refuge to be sought. I was glad that he spoke first, before my annoyed retort for befallen peace sent him away, certainly without skipping this time.

“Mom? It’s a beautiful sunset. You should come see.”

That’s why he had come upstairs. That’s what he wanted to tell me: that the sunset was beautiful. He wanted me to see.

My little son knew that tonight’s fleeting gift of God’s creation would be worth more to me than a little time alone in the bathroom.

My birthday is coming up again. I am keenly aware that I am at the brink of the manifestation of the sunset of my life. While the future had once been something to envision from a great distance, that tide has now caught up to me, and my steps are not defined as I had expected that they might be. They melt; they disappear into a million grains of sand, indiscernible from the tracks of those who have gone before.

I wonder how my son, my child who views the world through a black and white lens, would make sense of the loss of a child. I wonder how anyone would.

The behavior specialist from Ethan’s school called last week. After analyzing the data from the past year, she was pleased to report that though the incidences of physical holds had increased, the overall challenges with his behavior had decreased to the point where he would be dismissed from her caseload. This, for us, is a type of victory.

Are the days that follow the second half of what has already happened, or is it a new start? Is it the end of the beginning, or will there be an entirely new purpose?

Olive Chickens (thanks, Elliott, for the middle name) does not appear to know where she is going in a given moment. Her feathers hide her eyes, and one wonders how well she can even see. Somehow, though, she finds her way home, or close to it, at night. Once, though, she almost didn’t.

I had taken Ethan to the specialist out of town. The driving rain made travel hard, and it was well after dark when we finally returned to the farm. Dan and Aaron had locked the other chickens down for the night, but Olive, who had been with us for just a handful of days, was nowhere to be found. She was certainly scared, cold, wet, and tired, if she had even been spared. After what seemed an eternity in the darkness of the still-stormy evening, I heard her unmistakable peep. I was a child on Christmas morning: Olive Chickens had wedged herself in a less-than-two-inch wide space between the coop and the run. She was trying to get home. She was scared, but she was okay. With the help of a rake and some urgent prayers, she was soon safely perched with her coop mates.

The boys were waiting for me when I finally made it inside. Ethan was first to approach. “Mom, you really care about that weird chicken.”

If only he knew.

So when the storms are inside, coming from a now medium-sized boy, and they overtake an hour or a day, I remember that we have come far. I remember that the beautiful sunsets had been further between. I only hope that we won’t run out of time before we make it home.

When I am gone, when my days are done, I hope that someone will be glad that he is alive, that someone will search for him when he is lost in the storm.

Here’s to eating lots of fruits, always finding our chickens amid the thunder and lightning, and never, ever missing out on a beautiful sunset.

Mirrors and Empty Containers

Maybe he didn’t intend to leave it here, but I’m happy that he did. The whole kitchen fills with the smell of good coffee, because it’s whole bean, and I have to use the grinder, which makes me appreciate the roast even more, when I already feel like I am getting away with something by using what may have been accidentally left behind.

There was a little caddy with a handle, one that held the toothbrush, deodorant, and, among other things, the particular lotion with the patchouli-lime scent that my younger son wore every day. I could tell when he had been in the room; it was undeniable. Now, though, the scent has faded, and the little caddy has nothing inside.

There were some other boxes and baskets, also empty. He no longer needed them. He left them behind when he moved away.

I could fill them with something else.

Strip me down, bring me to the hands of my Maker, when I am empty, when there is nothing left inside. For I was full from my love, from my experiences, and from those that have shared my life. Without these things, I am merely an empty container, for it is the collective sadness and joy that has created me, filled me up, and left me in the wake of what has been, what remains, and what is yet to come, with its own containers waiting for their fill.

A daily rhythm is of such importance to our young children. We can read volumes on the importance of consistency, of predictability, of bedtime routines….I would argue, too, that my own days are ordered with a sameness that helps me to move forward. The sun rises, the rooster crows (well, my rooster actually crows at all hours), and I let the chickens out, turn on the coffee pot, pack the lunches, and prepare for the day’s offerings.

The rosy cheeks of a feverish child, the harrowing evidence of a predator’s attack, the unexpected visitor that bears news: good or bad; the return of a grown child, if just for a short visit, and the stark absence of another at the Thanksgiving table…the rhythm breaks, and we are left, hands outstretched, for strength to carry us in this moment.

Chickens are very much like people. Teenage chickens are very much like teenage people. I have had several sets of teenage chickens (and similar numbers of teenage children), so the rhythm and characteristics of these unique breeds has been observed over the course of time.

Chicken teenagers like to hang out in the chicken run even past dusk, well after the rooster and the laying hens have retired to the coop for the evening. Teenage children like to hang out on the front porch or on one of the couches well into the morning hours, when parents have long since gone to bed.

When the big kids are home, even though I may not see much of them, still they are here, and the familiar circle of wholeness is tighter and safer.

Teenage chickens also love looking in the mirror; one hangs in their chicken run. They cannot seem to walk past their dirt-splattered reflections without stopping for a mouth-gaping stare. I have also known many teenagers like that.

My sister visited the farm this week. She stayed a bit longer than usual, and we had time to sit together, which is just what I believe we needed. On the morning that she left, I heard a song on the radio. It had been the hit song by a band that my sister and I had seen together just after our sophomore and senior years of high school. My sister and her two friends took me and my first boyfriend to see Asia, and at some point we had picked up a hitch-hiker. This terrified me. I remember trying to catch my breath, pushing my teenage self as far as I could into the car door, hoping I would not fall out, yet fearing the alternative fate.

I am not sure what I was afraid of. I was with my big sister, and I knew she would take care of me. She always did.

And when I heard that song on the heels of her visit to the farm, it reminded me of the passage of time, but also how fleeting our time here must be, and how deeply we must love while we can.

I see my own image in the mirror, at the same time a woman of half a century and a girl of seventeen. Some thoughts are the same, but there is now a realization that what’s next is really just in front of me, and if I carry on, in a passing glance, it will, inevitably, be revealed.

Maybe we spend our days trying to fill our containers, looking in all the mirrors, rehearsing our lines, trying to figure out who or what we are supposed to be…until our days are done.

When the curtain closes for the final time, if I am not yet sure what I am supposed to be, I will hope that it has all been enough. When I have been emptied out onto this earth, may I keep rhythm with the sun and moon, to become part of where I have lived and loved.

I would like to think that my son left the coffee behind on purpose, because he somehow knew what I needed to fill me up.

If ever I meet up with that hitch-hiker again, I hope I will have more to offer than fear: at the very least, a cup of good coffee.

Dandelions, Cranberry Sauce, and a Fairy Tale

Had I paid more attention to the dandelions, these years may have made more sense.

I figured that’s just how it was going to be. So many times I have thought about how it could have been different, how I could have been a different mother, how in different circumstances the fairy tale might possibly have come true.

My mind sometimes goes to a place well into the future. We are at the farm, and it’s Thanksgiving. Through the happy chaos, amid the carved turkey, cranberry sauce, and sweet potato pie, I know that my grown children…at least some of them…have come home for the holiday. There is a new generation, too, taking places at the table, the same table that has served us so well through these years, the table where our friend drew scenes of our family’s favorite pastimes, pastimes which may again be lived out in these new days. When I would look, though, as hard as I would try, I could not see her there.

What is it that moves you to put your brushes to the canvas, to sing out the music in your soul, to move your body to rhythm or beat, to put thoughts on paper with the furious movement of a fountain pen, or to do whatever it takes to exercise the baring of what is inside of you?

It must be the same as that which allows you to cry out with a deep, soul emptying force in an attempt to destroy, or at least damage this wall of grief which has held you back for too long. It must also be the same as that which allows you to rejoice with such passion that tears well and flow in honor of what seems infathomable joy and grace.

We paint, we sing, we dance, we write, or we otherwise release our inner turmoil and exaltation, and all our passions, into the air around us. And herein, our humanity, the thread which serves to connect even the unconnected, is revealed, is stripped to sameness. We are one another; we are one.

At times it seemed an arduous race. There would be no winner. The time crawled as the pins dropped, but there was no quiet. Then, in the blink of an eye, we somehow crossed a finish line, closed a door that we did not even know existed.

Through the separation, the days filled up in ways different than before. There was strife and worry and wonder, and many days that turned to weeks absent of word. It could have been a natural part of growing up, of growing away, had it not felt so purposeless and empty.

I had done the best I could…or had I? I was the mother that I had been, right or wrong, confident or fearful, steady or shaking, and at the mercy of my best intentions. A child, my child, was no longer, for she had navigated herself, with or without my guidance, to the world of grown ups.

The mower had put an end to the sunny bursts of yellow atop the hollow, thin dandelion stalks. By late afternoon, though, new flowers shone with equal brightness to once again decorate the fields at the farm. How did this happen?

I wondered, if I had stared at the lawn through the hours of just one day, if I had had the patience to just be, would I have actually been able to see the dandelions take form from bud to bloom?

When I turned around with my eyes open, she was already a flower.

I guess it just might be a different kind of fairy tale. It’s not that she wasn’t to come home again. It’s just that in that moment, in the reverie that played as a familiar song, that I heard as a story, that I felt in my soul, that was painted in oil on canvas, I hadn’t seen her. Like my dandelions, though, I knew that she would come in her own time, when I was least expecting her.

True Story: A Crack in the Egg

The sun was just beginning to set as I finally made my way out into the evening, leaving the confining walls of the hospital, alone, as I had done more times than I might like to recall. Hoping, beckoning, begging, crying out that this will be the end, the catharsis, the transcendence, the awakening…the time where the past is swallowed into the promise of the future. Nothing about this sunset was remarkable or beautiful; maybe they are never much to behold from this part of the city. I, though, have seen the other side. I know the glistening orange and candy pink, the fairy tale mystique that shows itself when I need it most and that assures me there is something beyond.

Fried Chicken had been sitting on her eggs for 21 days. I know I annoy her when I lift her wing several times each day to check the eggs in her nest, but this day was different. She pecked my hand hard in a protective gesture for the tiny blackish brown downy chick that she kept warm beneath her. There was new life, and Fried is a good mama.

Chicken keeping presents a good bit of anxiety; there is much to learn. If I can step back, though, and watch nature’s mysteries without trying to carry them, the chickens…and the children…will teach me what I need to know.

Another chick, this one black with a splash of yellow atop its head, emerged from a sandy brown egg at some point in the wee hours of day 22. Later that day, both baby chicks had made their way out of the coop and were learning, under Fried’s constant surveillance, to drink from the waterer and to forage for food.

If something is not fully mine, only entrusted to me for a tiny space of time, is it up to me to intervene, to try to make it whole, or is it best to carry the hope, knowing that there is a much bigger breath behind this, a breath stronger even than the fiercest wind?

The sun was warm; it seemed the arduous hold of winter’s aftermath had finally given in to the renewal of spring. This, I thought, would be a good day to prune my elderberry bushes.

I didn’t think Fried Chicken would go back to her nest, as she was busy keeping track of two lively, miniature chicks. If she were to leave the babies alone, they would be easy prey for barn cats or turkey vultures. I wondered about the five eggs that had been left behind. When I checked the box, I noticed a crack in one of the green eggs. This was at once fantastically magical and utterly terrifying. I could not just leave the egg to perish.

I took the advice of my chicken keeping friend, and I put the egg in my shirt.

The bushes were not nearly finished when I heard the peeping. My first thought was that one of the babies had somehow gotten separated from Fried. Then, I remembered the egg. It had opened further, and there was blood. The peeping had stopped, and my heart sunk.

What would I do with this egg, which surely had been alive, working it’s way to this world, just a short time ago.

The tears were for what I had done, for what I couldn’t fix, for loving so hard to be distracted from what is before me, and for the lost souls, chickens and children, for which the world seems to hold no mercy.

I didn’t know what to do, so I set the cracked egg in a nest of pine shavings under a heat table that is used to keep baby chicks warm in the brooder. I knew it couldn’t survive. I decided to wait until morning, though, just in case…of something.

Before my little son, my best chicken helper, left for school the next morning, he visited our baby chicks. He also checked on “the egg.” I never know if he is telling a straight story when he gets the sideways sparkle in his eye.

“It’s bigger. The crack is bigger. And it’s moving.”

And it was. All night long, that little chicken had struggled, working its way out of the compromised egg.

I met my friend at the park. I told her about the chicken, and we traded difficult stories about our children. I felt better having been with her, and I returned home to find a grayish black bundle staggering on the pine shavings.

I had been close to giving up, to burying her. Then, Hope was born.

I don’t know how long this is going to take. I am not going to be the one to say it’s over, to say it’s good enough.

I put the four remaining nest eggs in the makeshift brooder along with our Hope, because truly, this is not up to us.

My children struggle, but my chickens show me the way. They stop along the way to peck at some grass or to chase after a worm, so the path is anything but predictable.

At the end of the day, I took Hope to the outside coop, “returning her home”, as so often happens in our world of fostering. I did my part, and now I hope, for Hope, and for all the others, with feathered wings or angel wings.

The next morning, my chicken helper again came to announce that a new chicken was laying in the nest, out of his egg. This time, I believed him right away.

The sun warmed my soul early this afternoon as I cut away overgrown lavender wood. The mint was just beginning to green up, and its aroma was stirring. I heard a chorus of tiny peeps and looked up to see Fried with her original babies along with Hope, who she had taken under wing without a second thought.

I hoped I had done my part, but I know it was just another step along the way.

Am I Good?

There’s true magic to outshine the first bloom of an orchid when, through self-study, patience, crossed fingers, and a bit of fish emulsion, buds emerge on nearly-two-years-barren stalks, only to show themselves in quiet succession with breathtaking beauty, sugar plums in shades of violet and pink, worthy of the most compelling dance of the Nutcracker Suite.

I think I could hear music coming from the little pot on the windowsill; I think I could see the blooms dancing, until my eyes were opened.

“You’re the worst parent.”

Springtime, though not without the graceful unfolding of ordered beauty and renewal, holds its share of struggles. As the snowdrops and crocuses burst forth to herald a new season, also awakened is the force of hurt and anger which has little mercy for those standing in the way.

Just three feet tall and a spritely vision of wild happiness (until he turns tempest), my smallest boy puts his boots on all by himself. He has had plenty of practice this long winter. They are nearly always on the wrong feet, and he likes it that way.

“I don’t need any help, especially not from you.”

My longtime friend loves chickens nearly as much as I do. He has been incubating eggs and hatching them. Just a few days ago, and perhaps against the advice of most chicken experts, he assisted in the hatch of a few of his newborn chicks. He had been worried that the shells were too thick and that the babies could not get out on their own. I wondered about those little chicks through the night, and I know my friend wondered, too, if he had done the right thing.

“All made it and are good.” That’s the message that came through from my chicken friend. He was brave and did what he thought was best. And now, three tiny Marans have made it to their brooder.

Through the uncomfortable blanket of fear and insecurity, we make the choices as they are handed (sometimes not very nicely) to us. We step up, we stumble, and we rise to our weary feet once more.

That’s the message I hope to one day hear: all made it and are good.

Do I help him switch his boots to the right feet? “I’m good,” says his three-year-old self. Yes, my boy, you are.

There are eight blooms on my glorious orchid; a ninth is poised to open. The blooms were very long in coming but as rich in beauty as ever a flower, or anyone, could be.

Get Me Some Milk, You Idiot!

Pillars of light danced from the early evening waters of the lagoon, a thousand glow sticks from a summer’s festival stood mid air. The moon would rise, and the lights would fade as the sky’s darkness would give in to what had been its destiny all along. If there had been magic, still it was there, but hidden away, beneath the angst, the long lists, the confrontations, and the harsh reality of the face of today.

“I said, ‘GET ME SOME MILK,’ you idiot.”

I know him, and I understand, though his delivery is harsh, that his immediate desires, perceived as urgent needs, override magic words and kindness.

We have come a long way, but I turn around and the baby, and now almost the little boy have gone. Sometimes, the look is far away. The eyes are glazed by words that cannot find form. When it all makes sense at last, will there still be time?

Maybe it’s good that I’m not a maple tree…a silver maple, or, especially, a sugar maple. I’ve heard the sap flows freely…

Before you know, maybe it’s simpler. Before your eyes have opened, your sleep was the peaceful comfort of a down blanket with the softest satin edge. A dollar for a dozen grocery store eggs, perhaps even eighty-eight cents during the Easter specials. Each precious egg, colors of green, blue, or brown, was laid by a hen with a story, a hen that spends her days roaming the farm property, trying to sneak food from the barn cats, peeking in visitors’ cars, and running to greet me as I come from the main house with a handful of millet. The eggs from our hens are part of nature’s rhythm, and we cannot put value on that.

A light so bold, fierce, amazing, and brave, once was and still is.

The sap from three trees drips into buckets at our farm. We gather it daily and have been boiling the contents once a week. Eleven gallons of sap, gathered and boiled, boiled for hours and hours on a Saturday, slowly evaporating and condensing into sweet syrup, just over one quart, which tempts us straight from the bottle. We wondered if it would turn out, for all the hours and guesswork, for all the hope.

Maybe it’s a little like parenting; we keep going, because it’s what we’re here to do, and even with experience as our guide, we falter. We falter, until one day all of our gallons of labor have boiled down to one quart, one childhood, to which we gave all we knew.

There had been so many horizons ahead, some which were yet unknown, when the turn in the path finally answered. What is before me is greater than what has been.

The sap drips at a good clip when the sun warms the day. I can’t keep the tears back when I am reminded of the steps not yet taken, the steps to places where people are just expected to go, the steps where I will no longer walk with my child on this earth.

The tears are for him, that the vague and diluted questions may find answers which satisfy for all the seasons of toil, when we did not understand where we were to go.

He asked for the maple syrup the night we had pancakes, and he did not call me an idiot this time. There was a lilt to his laughter, a new sound that rushed in to fill the air. There was a dance and a magic, as the light on the water, to remind me that he is here.