Raccoon Vs. Chicken Vs. Me

As far as I could see, the gravel road stretched into the expanse of the dreary midday. The road seemed to lead to nowhere, but I felt as though I knew where I was going.

I must have waited at the edge of the road for at least twenty minutes. The wild grasses were so tall by this time of year, whatever time of year it actually was.

It wasn’t going to change; no matter how long I waited, watching for nothing in particular, I was not going to be able to see. I just took the risk, running along the edge of the road, where the gravel met up with the wild grass, faster than I had been able to move in recent memory.

I made it to the other side.

For a very long time, just over 30 years, I had been pining for a particular tattoo. The image is a simple moon and stars design, artwork from a formative album from my college days. A lifelong fear of needles and the audible thoughts of others over the years kept my little wish tucked away as just that, until last year when my son, already very much decorated, took me to a tattoo shop on our spring break trip to Florida.

In much the same way as I had to trust to get to the other side of the road, I got up in the chair and waited for my assigned artist, who just a few days earlier had to have his man parts repaired after what sounded like a most unsettling situation that was the topic of one-sided discussion for most of the nearly three-hour process of the manifestation of my dream.

Nancy, my Lavender Orpington hen, has been through some things. As a tiny chick, she spent time in isolation after a neck injury. I fed her with a dropper and before long, she was back with her young flock. Another time, she came up with an alarming cough for which we gave her a special chicken respiratory remedy for several days. Once again, she bounced back. Last fall, she again fell ill and, after several days of taking up residency in a brooder in the bathroom, she had a ride in the car for nearly an hour to a vet that had experience with chickens. She was okay.

One day last week, Nancy was not in her usual spot on the roost at dusk. It was a frigid night, with temperatures going well below zero by the morning. My post on social media inspired a trail of good wishes, and the next morning Nancy was discovered behind the feed bins, safe and warm.

On the day that I crossed the gravel road, I was wearing a light cottony dress which had caught upon some relenting brush and ripped in a few spots. Though winter’s aftermath had left great frozen shapes of black-gray which I often mistook for bear-or-raccoon vs. car mishaps along the road, I was wearing flip flops, one of which I lost as I hopped the fence in the snow…but I had to keep going. I didn’t want to look back, but I was afraid, too, of looking ahead.

Somehow, I had found my way into a school. There were gangs of people going place-to-place with stern determination. I had no purpose here. The heavy din of hurriedness broke momentarily. People gawked and stared as I asked for help.

“Can you show me the way out? I’m just trying to get outside.” I no longer felt assured that I had a destination, or even a purpose.

The small design on my arm was looking pretty good. It hurt, but it felt different from how I had expected it to feel. Then came the green.

“I’m having trouble with this color.” This time I felt a different kind of pain, less tolerable than before, and I wanted it to end. My artist again went over the area and seemed to cut deeper into my skin with each trial. Still, I envisioned the perfection of my finished design.

“Done!” The artist proclaimed his completion of my tattoo. He sprayed my arm with something before wrapping it with plastic and masking tape. I was hopeful.

The day after Nancy had been found safe in the coop, she fell victim to a raccoon attack. It was a young raccoon who, after the battle with Nancy that left her injured and motionless behind some plywood in a corner of the chicken run, stretched out in a corner of the coop in anticipation of meeting up with the ten-or-so chickens that perched on the roost in fear.

Nancy is not doing very well. We brought her in the house and treated her wounds. A stuffed rooster is perched on the bathroom counter, keeping vigil by the brooder that has all-to-often served as a place of safe-keeping for this ill-fated chicken. I fear she may be joining those flock mates that have gone before.

My tattoo is healed. The ink has faded, and I am left with a bit of scarring. The imperfections in the color are very evident, but only to those who know the original design. To others, that’s just how it is. I guess I like it that way. I like knowing that in spite of some unexpected challenges, healing can happen.

Once I opened the door to the school, I had no idea where I was or even where I was going. Even when I opened my eyes, still I didn’t know.

I think I like it that way.

When I look at Nancy, resting atop her fresh nest of pine shavings, with no competition whatsoever for the sunflower seeds and mealworms before her, sometimes she seems okay. At other times, she doesn’t. I think I am a lot like that, too. I think we all are.

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Circus Freaks and an Animal Parade

I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.

I had no idea what to do, so I did nothing.

Still, the days passed, and there was another sunrise, a ball of red-orange casting a spell of yellow softness onto the white snow, but only for a short time.

The hours pass with little fanfare, until dusk, until a strip of the brightest pink opens the clouds, swallows them up, and draws the curtain of darkness onto the night as my eyes close.

I am afraid of what I cannot see.

We were not expecting to be more of what we have already been. We didn’t know, though, that we would become less.

This winter season has seemed endless. One more day of short-stepping my way across the many-times-frozen expanse of the driveway, crunching along the top layer of compacted ice and snow to tend to my chickens, who attempt to venture only a few feet outside the run on most days.

The season of angst, too, has carried on. And that’s how it is.

We are circus freaks or an animal parade, embattled, defeated, yet still called to continue. I guess we’re not done yet.

Our eyes are open, but we can’t see.

The magnolia tree is budding out with the first hope of spring; I noticed it yesterday through the still-frosted living room window. It’s true: this season will yield to the next. The chickens will begin laying again, prolifically, and the baby chicks will arrive at the farm.

We don’t know what you have been through. We don’t know what has broken you. We don’t know how to uncover what’s real.

I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing. I hope, with all that’s inside of me, that you can hear me.

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🐥❤️

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.