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.

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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.

Sparkles and Fear

She didn’t say a word, and neither did I.

It may have seemed like just a piece of paper, but to me it represented much more. For nearly eighteen years, I had held on to it and kept it safe. And just as I handed it to her, she let it slip away.

Wendell was our first rooster at the farm. He was aggressive and would flap up at us randomly. We loved him, but we were all a bit fearful of him, because he sometimes hurt us. Wendell died suddenly last September; he had not been with us even two years. A few unsettling weeks passed for our vulnerable hens before we got Ben, our new rooster, from a farm in Wisconsin. He fit right in with the flock. He has been as gentle as Wendell was ornery. Not once has he approached any humans with aggressive tendencies. I can fill the feeder with Ben standing right beside me, patiently awaiting the fresh crumble. Still, though, whenever I make my way to the chicken coop, as the flock follows me from behind, my guard is up. I turn around every few steps to make sure Ben is not getting too close or coming at me. I guess I am so programmed from my angry rooster, that I can’t quite let go of the thought.

I think this is a tiny window into the minds of our kids who are hyper vigilant every moment as a function of a traumatic past. The fear, the worry never quite goes away.

Ben is the sweetest, kindest rooster. He stands near the door of the chicken house, eyeing the pie tin filled with warm oatmeal and buckwheat groats, likely wishing that the hens will leave just a bite for him, just this once. He dares not even try to join the others. His first priority is to make sure he guards his flock. But it’s not about Ben. It’s about what we remember, about what happened before. It’s about the fear that is still so raw, that becomes part of who we are.

I know she can do it. She just wants to forget what she can’t remember, but she must remember that she will never forget. She is strong enough, but her eyes must open so she can see.

I love the new fallen snow. It sparkles like glitter across the acres. As I trod over the property to open the coop in the nearly knee deep blanket, the ornamental grasses that surround a nostalgic metal tractor…garden art, in summer…bend slightly under the weight of winter’s latest gift. The colors are bold and definitive, showcasing nature’s artwork, marking the seasons in a new, unexpected way.

My son sent a miniature orchid for my first Mother’s Day at the farm. It was delicate and profuse in its blooms of lilac and pink, striking beauty for my kitchen windowsill. As spring turned to summer, the last blooms had gone. I read about orchids. I fed my plant with fish emulsion. I watered it regularly and saved its place in the window. I gave it a bigger pot. All the while, I wondered if it would ever bloom again. Nearly two years later, almost overnight and to my utter surprise, seven buds have appeared on a single stalk that looked, until days ago, just like the shoots that have come and gone without flowering.

I’m different than I was a couple decades, even a decade ago. There’s fear in having experienced more, in knowing more and less at the same time, but there’s also complacency in knowing that the hope will find me, that there will be something, no matter how small, to let me know that I am still on the trail…even when I have to turn around every so often to make sure the rooster hasn’t turned on me.

I can hear my little boy laughing from the other room. For him, it has taken much more than two years. It has taken twenty-eight medications and most of his young life to find a few moments of stillness, sparkling as they are, in this space of time. I don’t know where this will take him, or what this even means. I know, though, that it’s a better place than anywhere he has been in a very long time. It doesn’t mean we don’t look back, wondering if a torrent is coming from behind. I think we always will.

We had to get a new paper, a new declaration, to replace the one that had slipped away. There’s a painful lot, though, that we can’t replace.

When the snow begins to melt into a messy slush, I look, but I can no longer find the sparkles . That doesn’t mean, though, that they were never there.

Impatient


Even though the plant’s tag read “full shade,” I was sure that if I planted it in a bright, sunny spot, it would do even better.  I have learned much about plants over the years.  I have learned that more sun is definitely not better for impatiens, and that tomatoes will not grow well if planted in the same spot, year after year.  I have yet to learn, though, how to protect the vulnerable from the forces that strike when we do not expect them, and when they are far from welcome.

But there really aren’t any directions, at least not any reliable ones.  I thought things were better, but then it comes screaming back.  I guess it never quite settles, though it seems to from time to time.  We might look okay, like the blooms of sparkling fuschia and the sun’s cheer of yellow that spill boldly forth from the repurposed white enamel pot.  Nobody would speculate that they had been picked at, stripped, and stomped on by my curious flock of chickens before being salvaged, repotted, and resurrected to glory.  They were almost lost, but it wasn’t time.

How long is this going to take?

I did learn, though, in those early years of gardening, that real lavender leaves and blossoms smell just like Yardley of London pump soap, and that this enchanting herb will grow into a fanciful, robust hedge in just a few years’ time.  And recently, I learned that the chickens will leave lavender alone.  That, to me, is victory.

“Let the chickens do all of your garden work for you.”

Here comes Wendell with the hand weeder and his pair of gloves to pick  the stray grass from underneath the tomato cages.  Jenny is not far behind, equipped with twine to tame the snap pea climbers.

I really didn’t think that would happen, as some books and articles had promised, but I still don’t recommend adopting the belief that your herbs will be pruned to prize status by your flock.

They fertilize the land.  What more could I ask for?

There will be destruction, devastation, even regret.  Things will not come out even, and maybe we will be less confident than before it all began.   We will work for nearly nothing, and our bodies will be stiff and sore.  We just want to lie down and rest.

Maybe it will be seasons, years, even decades before we see the sun.  It seems to be ready to peek forth from behind the clouds.  There are a few glorious rays, but then we can no longer see.  Darkness comes over us, and again, we wonder.

I figured out that I can fasten a length of wire fencing into a dome to protect my new plantings.  Of course, the chickens can knock them over or pull them apart, but sometimes, what I have done is enough…at least for one small chamomile plug on a windy Sunday morning.

The richness of what they have left for us must surely be enough to feed our souls as the land for a while longer.

I guess it is best to follow directions, at least the obvious ones.  They don’t tell you, though, that even if you plant the impatiens in the shade, feed it with fish emulsion, and provide plenty of water, a curious chicken may still cause it’s demise.

We don’t know.  How could we ever be expected to?

In all of the amazement and surprise of a baby hatching at the farm, I hadn’t given a thought to the true possibility that Kitty May could be a rooster.  She looks different from all the others, and she seems a gentle, independent, spirited little hen…or rooster.  One day, she will either crow or lay an egg, and there will be no more questions.  Until this day, though, I am content in my hope that Kitty May will be joining the other girls in the nest boxes.

It must be okay not to know.

Darkness had long since fallen when I returned from the hospital without my child.  When I passed by the garden, there was enough light coming from the window in the main house that I could see that four of my young plants had been uprooted, surely the work of curious chickens.  I was tired, so they would have to wait until morning.

And I guess it’s alright to wait for lots of other things, too, especially when there aren’t any rules or instructions.  It’s just not time yet.

This spring, the lavender has come back rich and strong, with just a few bare branches.  I know, too, that in time, however long it may take, and even if a new rooster crows on the farm, the holes will begin to fill in, and we will admire the flowers in their magnificent resilience.

Lions and Lambs

Darkness had already fallen when I finally made my way out to close the chicken door on this cold March night.  I was almost startled by the nondescript, shadowy figure that mimicked my gait against the grain bin, until the motion sensitive light snapped on, taking me with it,  back to the reality that it was just my own image.  It could have been anyone, though, in the dark.  I could have been anyone.  

My first semester of college was going just fine.  I had a fabulous roommate who quickly figured out how to make me laugh until my stomach hurt, at things that noone else might even find funny.  I fell head over heels for the university city, which held such treasures as Cracker Jax, a vintage haven beyond worthy description; Record Revolution, where I found rare music and, later, my best job; the balcony in the old public library where I could spend hours buried in the musty air among the stacks of books; and the nondescript square stone wall, which, to me, held promise and mystery at the same time, and which was just the right place for people-watching, in a clandestine downtown alley.  

I went home for Thanksgiving break, which began abruptly after I sheepishly turned in my exam to my PolySci 100H teaching assistant named Tom, who, as the story goes, once had a Cheerio stuck to the inside of his glasses for an entire day.  

When the turkey, cranberry sauce, and all of the leftovers were gone, when my friends were on their own journeys back to their college towns, when darkness had fallen, I said my words of farewell to my family and began the short drive back to DeKalb.  Though I loved the freedom of living on my own, there was part of me, that day, that just wanted to go home. I wanted to turn around and run straight back into the arms of those who raised me.  I didn’t really want it to be over. Not yet.

Wish us back to the day when we wanted to be where we are now.  What, really, was behind our hurry?

I’m not sure where it came from.  It fell from somewhere as I was moving the March china girl and some other little things on the top of my dresser.  I had given it to a young teenager on the day of her baby brother’s memorial service. A simple silver chain bearing a tiny fairy who held a sprig of lavender: this was my attempt to bridge meaning to what had happened, and to show this young girl that as I had loved her baby brother, who had come unto this earth without a fighting chance, I, too, had loved her. When you spend hours of days that stretch into years as a helper to a family, if it ends, a part of you is still there. Years passed, though, and chance encounters told me that our time together was done. Meeting the eyes might be too painful.  Maybe they didn’t remember, or maybe they needed to forget.  And then there was the fairy; how did she get back to me?  Perhaps this was not the same charm?  Perhaps it was a message from the little boy that I had so loved so many years before?

I have never taken my children to the mountains, where they could shout from their souls and breathe freedom.  I want to take them to the seashore, where they can abandon their burdens along with their shoes, taste the salty waves, and let the sun turn their hearts warm.

Just when I have heard so much of the endless string of words, random facts woven through stream-of-consciousness chatter and reiterated movie scripts, there is silence. I look back at him, and his eyes are glassy. His pink lips are slightly open, as if the words had somehow been halted by an outside force.  He is turned to the window, but he seems to be somewhere else.  

“I want to go home.”

Sometimes, the thought of my own shadow is something to fear.  I long for one more story through the silence.
When it was over, when this moment’s tirade of impossible anger had passed, he lay over me in a puddle of grief.  For the first time, his fear for his own future was palatable.  He cried out for things that a nine-year-old should not have to hold.

My boy, if you have nothing, if you have nowhere to go, I will come for you.  I will find you, and I will bring you home.  I will take care of you.  You will never be alone.

After a while, we can’t really go home anymore.  We can’t go back to where we long to be, because it isn’t there anymore.  The scenes change: the street signs read differently, and the chairs around the table hold different memories.  Home is no longer a physical space, but something more.   I could have gone anywhere, and I could have been anyone. Still, I am going home.

The brightness of pink that lit the otherwise black grayness of the night sky was a beacon: the connection, the recognition, the fairy that materializes to remind me of a past encounter, the way I feel after a spirit-cleansing cry. We are not in this space forever.

Home is where we are on the inside, and, someday, when I take you there, we will find the air more crisp than that at the top of any mountain, and the sand will be as white as the heavens.

What’s In Your Egg Basket?

Something happened.  Something went wrong, or maybe it didn’t.  Words that interrupted my idle thoughts as I stood at the kitchen sink,  face-to-face with dinner’s aftermath, cannot be taken back.  Even as I feel the blood rush through my legs and the empty space grow in my soul, I find solace in a cupcake.  It’s the last one, hidden in the back corner of the freezer, leftover from a forgotten celebration.  Rich chocolate of the most devilish kind, with a perfectly swirled pink vanilla piped frosting, made extra special with a fairy dusting of sparkling sugar…gone in an instant. The experts would probably call this emotional eating.  Alone on it’s plate, it beckoned, and I ate it.

If I get out to the coop at just the right time, I can get an egg that still feels warm to the touch.  Fresh from it’s laying hen, this egg rides in the cup holder of my car as I take the baby in to town for therapy. It acccompanies me across the road to the mailbox.  I hold it gingerly in my hand as I look around the farm, thinking of the blooms that will pepper the summer’s garden and imagining the tiny herd of goats that might one day entertain us in the pasture.  Everything seems to hold a bit more promise as I am reassured by the blue-green chicken egg that brings so much to me.

It’s an egg.  I could get a dozen eggs for a little more than a dollar at the grocery store.  

After what seemed like two hours but was actually just over ten minutes, I could feel his body melt into mine.  He made his way to the pink chair, my favorite one.  The storm had subsided, and Dan was home by now.  There were no more cupcakes, but I could get my egg basket, and I could see if there were any eggs to gather.  Even if the hens were done laying for the day, I would breathe the peace of the outside air and know that in this moment, I am okay.  We are okay, right now.  Even if I returned to the house with an empty basket, I would know, because of what it represents, that the basket is actually quite full, if not of eggs. 

There might be different things inside the basket on a given day. Pink sparkly cupcakes, my best well worn sweater, the anticipation of my sister’s visit, my special water bottle, the thought of my fairy roses and my Christmas milk punch: these are in my basket.  In it I can also find the way it feels when all is quiet, when I am washing the last plate, when bedtime has blanketed the little ones in a soft hush (at least for a few hours), when I am able to sneak down to the cellar to start my onion seeds in their fresh peat pots, and when the promise of spring is tangible in the form of garden catalogs that have begun to arrive two-a-day by mail.

To me, it’s much more than just an egg.

There are people, many people, in my egg basket, which is also full of robust donut shop coffee and baseball.  These people fill me up when I most need them, and even when I don’t know what I need.  One brings me ice cream in the middle of the night, another sends me a message that makes my stomach hurt from laughing, and another came to sit with me and did not mention one word about the cheese that stuck to the bottom of her shoe as she walked through my  kitchen.  

When the questions are bigger than the answers after a quarter century of parenting, when the pancakes burned because I had to step away from the griddle to mediate a fight, when I don’t want to look past today for fear of what I might see, and even when someone has eaten the last secret cupcake, I can go to the chicken coop with my egg basket, and I know that I will feel better for having gone.  Experts might think that this is emotional egg gathering.  Though I am far from an expert, I think it might be.  

I don’t think we can really know what is in someone else’s egg basket, at least not everything, anyway. It’s probably not even an egg.  For our deepest friendships, yes, we sometimes do know some of what the basket holds, or we can do our best to try to figure it out.  And even the thought of someone trying to understand what is inside can be enough to fill it up.

When the bread is baking, when my grown son calls to share his excitement at his new venture, when I take a minute to look at my vintage cookie jars, when my daughter’s eyes flash so brightly that I can nearly feel the warmth of her happiness, when the little boys drive their construction trucks in rare harmony, perched together atop the gravel pile; these are the times that I have enough to share my basket with others.  

I might miss the glory of the Northern Illinois sunset if I don’t hurry out now to close the chicken door for the night.  While I am out there, I will be sure to check for eggs one last time.

Frostbite 

I didn’t even want him.  I certainly didn’t expect to love him.  It wasn’t until he was at the mercy of another, in danger of demise, that I realized how deeply I loved him and how I would fight to save him.

Four new baby chicks will be coming to the farm this spring.  By the end of the summer, these new girls should be laying eggs alongside our other hens.  

Hens lay eggs.  Roosters don’t.

I was careful to repeat my request several times to the gentleman that was taking my order: “all females…two of each.”  This time, I chose a hatchery out of Ohio as the birthplace of my chickens.  It didn’t seem to be much of a factor at the time, but last year, when I picked up my “reserved pullets” from the local feed store, I also chose a few extra from the “I’m pretty sure those are females, too, bin.”  I guess that is where things went wrong, or at least took a bit of a detour.

We usually kept the door closed to the main bathroom at our old house in town.  This sometimes confused people, as there were several similar doors in a small corner of the house.  Each led somewhere, but we thought our guests would benefit from a telltale sign on the bathroom door,  so they could be sure.  I found a small vintage wooden sign with a raised image of a little child on a chamber pot.  It was perfect, and nobody ever asked where the bathroom was again.   

When we moved to the farm, I brought the little sign along and attached it to the guest bathroom door.  It looks as though it has been there forever, although it hasn’t.  

It had been a pretty good day until, at some point, something didn’t happen the right way.  There was warfare of the sort of whatever was in his reach being catapulted at whoever was in striking distance.  Thankfully, the afternoon’s biggest casualty was the relatively new Oscar the Grouch garbage can which now slumps slightly sideways and no longer closes properly.

Nobody would know that my little  sign had previously announced another bathroom in a different house, and that I had simply mounted it here using double sided tape.  Nobody knows where it’s first home was, and if there were many places between.  

People that I don’t know certainly remember the little sign from one place or another, but nobody knows it’s whole story.  In some ways, now, the story of the bathroom chamber pot sign starts here, with my family.  We cannot properly honor what we don’t know.  Still, though, we can know that there was something before, perhaps even a long, hard, road,  which cannot be separated from today.

Wendell has not been his usual self since he was attacked, innocently enough, by the dog.  He had always been a great protector of the hens, but he had also been inquisitive, guardedly social, and the first chicken running to check for leftover cat food when allowed to range free.  He let Aaron tote him around, and he only used his “power of intimidation” when he must have really felt at risk, as when someone ran at him while wearing red shoes.

Now, though, there is much more to his story.  Yes, he has a few black spots on his comb where the harsh winter left it’s mark.  But deeper and not visible to the eye, is that which cannot be seen but is very much there, and that which changes everything.  

I am on guard now as I gather eggs or throw feed, and the children must be aware of where Wendell is at all times.  Wendell moves to attention when I enter the coop, and he watches with a new hypervigilance my every move.  And I am just a bit scared of Wendell.  Several times, now, he has flown up to me in fight mode.  I feed him, I take care of him, I love him, and still, I am afraid.  

The black spots tell of frostbite.  Something happened.  But what about when we can’t tell, when the pain of past trauma is deep and, though it affects my child’s every step, nobody really knows.  There are no words or warnings, no tangible reasons, just emotions.  And there is a story, never to be told.  

This morning’s sky was as bold an azure blue as ever I had seen; it looked like some sort of surreal stage curtain draped behind the used-to-be white farmhouse on what might be the last unbearably cold day in this long winter.  Beauty could still be found in the bitterness.  We, along with the chickens, have made it through the worst part of this season.   The chickens have survived their first Midwest winter, but not without a little evidence of frostbite.  

The “chicken experts” advise carrying an aggressive rooster around to ease his combative behavior.  Likewise, we carry on, continuing to support our children through their own angst and battles, with reverence to the unknown, and while looking  forward to the new season which will, inevitably, bare its freshness when we need it most.