Open My Eyes; Take Me To My People

It sure is cold outside.

She was as sweet a baby as ever I have known, and I was so happy that she was mine.

But actually, she wasn’t mine.

The first time I took her to the social services office to visit with her mom, I had dressed her in my daughter’s outfit, the one that had been my favorite from her early childhood. It was the softest pink cotton, a one-piece jumpsuit with rolled ankle cuffs. I have memories of my little girl wearing this in her first days home from Korea, when she was just the same age as my foster daughter. They both wore the leather little bird shoes, too, that I had saved all these years.

“They’re ugly.”

I looked up, perplexed.

“Those shoes. They’re ugly.”

The seasoned caseworker must have felt my heart sink . “I think they’re cute.” Her voice trailed away, but I know she knew.

I had entered the office, confident in my abilities of parenting another person’s child, but having no concept of the depth of feeling and emotion that each interaction could present. I left the office with someone else’s baby, and the first-hand experience that this journey was not going to be just about a little girl and her foster family. The picture was much bigger, much more important than that. The foster family, I would find out, would take a seat in the second row. This was about supporting families…this mom and this baby…not about a walk through my own pleasant memories as I dressed someone else’s little girl in my daughter’s jumpsuit.

Have I been blind? Have I been lost inside myself, in my own mind?”

–Natalie Merchant, “Carnival”

She had come with several bags full of clothing, some still with tags and others worn. For the next visit, and each visit thereafter, I chose an outfit from those bags.

It wasn’t really about clothes, though, for either of us. I was given the task of taking care of someone else’s child, and it was my job to do just that, and to never forget that she had someone that loved her first and best, and that I was a mere bridge of support between the two, for this moment in time.

It wasn’t long before this sweet baby was moved to the home of a relative. Family connections are so very important for children in care.

She had outgrown all of the clothing that had come along with her. The day she left, she was dressed in a brand new jogging suit that I had bought for her; the caseworker said her mama was going to love it.

She left in a driving snowstorm. My son, ten at the time, dissolved into a heap of tears on the floor of the bedroom where this little girl had slept for four months. He loved her deeply, as we all did. She was someone else’s child, and we were a stepping stone on her path. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but I didn’t think it would be so hard.

These days we have a therapist here for one of the boys six days a week. We are grateful for the support, which has been long in coming. The outbursts, the holes in the walls, and the fear still abound, but now we have someone to share the burden, to stand by our sides, at least for the two-and-a-half hours while he is here. Most importantly, we have someone who sees the magnitude of the behaviors and its effect on the whole family; someone who acknowledges that we are, through it all, trying our best.

I was trying my best to be a good foster mom. My eyes are open, and I see that I am merely standing by, reminding myself of what is most important…because I know, until I don’t.

There is an online support group for chicken keepers. I am so worried about my precious flock in these arctic temperatures. “They’ll be fine” was the overwhelming response when I shared my fears with these people that I have never met. My wise friend, not a chicken keeper, but a keeper of much else, suggested some extra straw. I took her advice and added a bed of straw to the coops, right on top of the pine shavings. And I hoped.

I sometimes wonder if the therapists that work with our son believe that there is hope for him to learn other ways to express his emotions. I wonder, but I am afraid to ask. There is promise in the unknown. For me, too, there is fear. And for this boy, fear. For the young mother who watches another woman care for her daughter, there is an uncomfortable fear for what is or what is not to come.

Keep me safe, lie with me, stay beside me, don’t go.”

–Natalie Merchant, “Motherland”

I may be okay to lay here with my eyes closed, hoping tomorrow takes its sweet time in coming. I’m afraid to open the door to the chicken coop. Afraid to face another long day with no programming, I am secretly hoping that the challenging behaviors might take a snow day.

I found out some years later that my first little foster baby has thrived with her family. We had been a tiny part of this story, a part of our collective purpose.

About a month ago, I had an exchange with a fellow foster parent. She offered words that have carried me through more than just that day. She assured me that there would be healing, on this or that side of heaven. What she said has offered new hope and fuel along this often tiresome journey, where I have learned to rely on the support of others, of my people in faraway corners, of my tribe, in so many ways.

My lungs burned as I breathed in the twenty-degrees-below zero afternoon air from the quick trip to the coop to check on the chickens, but my hand was warm in my pocket from the egg laid by a hardy hen. I can do this, for another day, forever, as long as I am in good company.

XO🐥❤️

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See Ya, Buttheads

It was the wax bottles, the Maryjanes, the sixlets, and the caramel bullseyes, along with a vast array of other vintage candies that held my attention until I looked to the direction of my son. We were at a downtown sweet shop, and he was engaged in conversation with a young girl who looked to be about his age.

“What grade will you be in?” asked the girl.

“I’m already in fifth,” he answered.

“Who’s your teacher going to be?” I don’t ever remember a longer spontaneous conversation between my son and anyone else.

“Well, I’m in a special school, and I am already in fifth grade because I went to summer school.” Ethan spoke without emotion. This was the first time that I had heard him volunteer this information, and I am not sure if I was relieved by his matter-of-fact delivery, or saddened that he recognized the difference that separated him from another fifth grader.

“Oh.” The girl turned her attention back to the television screen. She must have deduced that since they would not be in the same class, the conversation was no longer worth pursuing.

I can’t tell where one cloud ends and another begins.

Maybe it doesn’t even matter anymore, or maybe it never did.

I’ve been hit in the head with a size 10 toddler light-up boot one two many times this summer. I am ready for something.

I’m getting coffee, and you’re not. I am not really mean, and I certainly hope I don’t qualify as an idiot, whatever that is. Is that self-care, going through the drive-thru for coffee? I think it qualifies, and I think I am not obligated to buy cake pops for all of the trash-talkers in the back seat. They, of course, think differently.

I don’t talk to the clouds for fear that they might talk back.

Aaron spent many hours at the orthodontist’s office as a baby and toddler while his older siblings had their turns in the chair. On this day, he was going, brothers in tow, to see the doctor for his own orthodontic consult. We sat in the chairs in the waiting room for a few minutes, and then a bit longer. When Aaron’s name was called, our ill-behaved, complaining parade filed past perhaps a dozen teenagers, all in various stages on the path to straightened teeth. Some of them were accompanied by parents or companions. None seemed to be accompanied by little brothers, at least not cantankerous, impatient ones.

One brother carried on (loudly) about how long it was taking. Another performed full-body stunts on the dental chair. The third just kept running away, until I offered to take him back to the lobby to see the waterfall. On our way out, he proclaimed, “See ya, buttheads!” to the captive audience of orthodontic patients whose mouths probably hurt when they laughed at him…or maybe, more likely, at me.

School started this week, and with it comes a highly anticipated (by me) break from our summer rhythm (or lack thereof). Here I am, with three hours in front of me. A blank canvas, no obligations, and embodied inspiration that has left on the school bus.

I think I miss them.

Olive is such a silly chicken. It’s hard not to love her best, with her downy fro, her frantic postures, and her unmistakable charm as her feathers fall in her face and she accidentally collides into absolutely anything in her path. I wonder if she is lonely, if she longs for someone to explore the farm with her. Earlier this week, she seemed to have found a friend. One of the Cream Legbar hens, the type that is supposed to lay sky-blue eggs, had joined Olive in her usual hiding spot under the roost. By midday on the second day, I shooed the two young hens from the coop. It was a perfectly sunny day, and though I was delighted for Olive that she had found someone to keep her company, I thought they should get some air.

Olive’s friend had trouble standing. Her breathing was labored, and her eyes were half-closed. I separated her from the flock and tried to figure out the best way to help her. Olive looked on, likely wondering why I had taken her friend from her. By nightfall, the Cream Legbar was gone. She had settled under the roost not to keep Olive company, but to seek refuge from herself. Maybe, deep in her chicken heart, Olive knew this. Anyway, I know she was grateful for the company, however fleeting, and I’m sure the Cream Legbar was grateful for a companion to see her to the other side.

We’re trying to find our places here. Maybe they are determined from the beginning of time, or perhaps they are made clear as we grow, evolving as we do.

The sinister tides of trauma and mental illness overwhelm me, engulf me once again. Mine or theirs? I cannot tell.

Maybe the time spent in the waiting rooms, struggling, frustrated, and confused, helps us find what we’re looking for, even if we don’t understand what that is, as we stand (possibly wearing light-up cowboy boots and eating caramel bullseyes) at the threshold of a new relationship, a sacred friendship, a new school year, or an unexpected journey.

And if there were never clouds, how would we ever appreciate the rarity of a clear blue sky?

I wonder what color Olive’s eggs will be.

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.

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.