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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When the Gates Go Down: So Much I Wish I Could Say

I’m sorry.

I understand.

I mean I don’t understand, but I think I might know why. Not exactly…maybe…

I watch you. I can see you clutching your secrets tightly near your heart as you melt, ever so slowly, as a candle burning to nonexistence, into your grave.

I tried walking beside you, leading the way, following. There mustn’t have been room on the path, or maybe you couldn’t bear the thought of having company.

Let me help you with your bags. They must be heavy. Today, I am strong. I can help you bear your burdens, if only you let me.

But you don’t.

And you won’t.

I understand.

There’s no little crack, but rather the instant shattering of glass, with tiny fragments piercing my skin and creating a danger zone for anyone that should pass by.

We try our best to clean it up, but we can never put the glass together to make it whole. It has been broken in pieces for too long.

It’s former self is unrecognizable, as am I.

I am comforted by the rhythmic creaking of the rocking chair, and though the small beings have gone to sleep, the shadows are very much awake at this hour. Here, right now, is mystery in what is nearly still.

Someone that I had known half a lifetime ago comes to mind in a flood of tears. I don’t want her to pity me, stuck within the wrath of the minds of my own children.

When Elliott was a tiny boy, we would wait for Dan’s train to come in to the station. Sometimes, while we watched through the windows in the playroom, we could spot it as it made its way to the station. Our little bungalow on Clinton Avenue would shake just a bit at the passing of a train, and still that faraway rumble holds such wonder for me.

I am a messenger, here for a purpose that I have yet to discover. Sometimes, it seems , I am walking close to the gates. The horn blares, the lights flash, and I can feel the rumble of the nearby train coming from a distance. It’s too late to cross, for there would be too much to risk.

I thought I heard the voice of my friend. There was the flash of a hundred boxcars, red, brown, gold, and blue, shaking and shifting, keeping me from the other side. My heart raced as the last cars passed to the exaggerated blare of the train horn.

The gates lifted again, but my friend was not there. It had been too long. I may never see her again. Behind the danger of the gates and glass, there is a soul crying out for what it does not know.

And I understand.

Photo credit to Jeannette O’Toole, wherever she may be❤️.

Laughing

Sometimes,

I can see it getting closer,

But mostly, it’s really far away.

I try hard to keep it from coming back, but I can’t.

It’s fierce, lively, bright, sharp, glorious, and terribly sad, all at the same time.

Even from a distance, its force brings me to my knees.

I try to catch it, to hold it, to contain it. Rings of sage and flashes of yellow burst forth, laughing,

Laughing at me.

You’re a fool for trying.

I push it away, but it surrounds me, invades me, makes me small.

It’s always there. It’s everywhere.

Have mercy on me.

I’ll fall on my way back to where I thought I was going, again.

Again.

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.

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.