Category Archives: Chickens

The Eggs and Us

When our next-door neighbor phoned the other morning to ask if we could spare an egg for the pancakes she was making for breakfast, I laughed out loud. Of COURSE we could spare AN egg! How about a dozen?

Our family’s life over the past month has been dominated by eggs. Eggs – those round or oval reproductive bodies produced by the female of certain animals – are everywhere: in our yard, in our refrigerator, on our kitchen windowsill, on our plates.

The most obvious reason for this is our acquisition of ten hens (and a rooster) from friends who were thinning out their flock. The chickens are all at least two years of age, which is around peak laying age. The good thing about this: We got eggs right away! On the other hand: It’s all downhill from here.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

Floored by Vacuuming

When I was growing up in Northern Virginia, I had a number of friends whose families were of Asian origin. Whenever I visited these friends at home, the rule was to remove one’s shoes immediately after walking in the door, leaving them in the front hallway, vestibule, foyer, or whatever the entryway. Back then, this seemed like an exotic practice, one that I associated with bamboo floor mats, Hello Kitty!, and rice served in delicate blue-and-white porcelain. In my own house, we wore our shoes all the time.

Just typing that last sentence fills me with horror: We wore our shoes all the time. Now, I can’t imagine ever wanting to wear shoes inside the house. Now, it goes without saying, the rule in my own home is to remove our shoes immediately after walking in the door and leave them in the mudroom. This has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I’m married to a man whose family is of Chinese origin; it has everything to do with the fact that I know where our shoes have been.

Click here to continue reading about our house of horrors in my latest “Faith in Vermont” column for The Addison Independent.

Planting Panic

Next year, I tell myself, I’ll know better.

Next year, I will commit to very little between April and June, and I will clear our family’s schedule for an entire month beginning two weeks before Memorial Day.

No signing up for preschool snacks. No dinner or birthday parties. No expectation that dishes will be washed, laundry folded, or floors swept. No newspaper columns!

I knew that gardening and poultry raising would be a lot of work. I expected labor. What I didn’t expect was the massive to-do list that seems to regenerate endlessly within my brain: chop off some tasks and, like an earthworm, it just grows more. I didn’t expect to track the weather forecast like a day trader tracks the stock market, my heart dropping with every raincloud icon that threatens to keep me out of the yard (yes, I know the rain is good for the plants.) I didn’t expect to feel intense frustration whenever I’m not outside digging or dumping or planting — the sense that all life not involving dirt is somehow wasting my precious time. I didn’t expect to rush off to so many meetings with dirty fingernails, muddy knees, and hat-head hair. I didn’t expect to keep finding myself outside, staring at a patch of dirt, until my husband or children call me in to dinner.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

The Second Day

 

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The two oldest Gong Girls started 1st and 2nd grades today. We did it! Or, as Dora would say: Lo hicimos! We survived another summer vacation!

Of course, it’s not all that clean and simple. I have complicated thoughts about school starting. For instance, all day I have had to respond to the repeated query of my lonesome two-year-old: “Where sisters?”

As I was mingling with other liberated parents over coffee and muffins in the school gym this morning, I remembered this post from a few years back. All of the parents were swapping stories about that first drop-off: Some children had been fine after suffering from weeks of anxiety, some had had terrible mornings, some had raced into their classrooms without looking back.

This was my fifth first day of school, and our morning went quite well as it turned out. But I’ve learned never to trust the first day: It’s always, always the second day — and the month that follows — that requires true parenting elbow grease. 

For the record, most of this essay still rings true: The chickens are no longer with us (for now), and Campbell has graduated to saying “poop” instead of “poo,” but the rest stands. 

***

Fiona and Campbell started preschool at the end of August. For Fiona, this was a return to the same preschool, same classroom, and same teacher as last year. Her fellow students, however, were almost entirely new to her. (Because of Fiona’s November birthday, she was placed in the four-year-old class last year; because the cut-off date for kindergarten is September 1, Fiona and a few other classmates will spend another year in the four-year-old class, while most of their peers from last year move on to kindergarten).  For Campbell, starting out in the three-year-old class next door to Fiona, the whole experience was new.

Both of them were hugely excited for the first day of school — but not as excited as I was!

There’s a lot of build-up before the first day of school each year: anticipation, nervousness, new clothes and shoes and supplies. Even I felt a little nervous, although my main priority was just getting the kids out of the house. I hoped and prayed that Fiona would make friends and be happy with her new peer group. I hoped and prayed that Campbell would respect her teachers and be kind to the other students and avoid inappropriately using the word “poo-poo” — at least for the first day.

But, having done the first-day-of-school thing last year, I also knew this: It’s not the first day of school that’s the issue; it’s the SECOND day.

See, the first day, everything is fresh and exciting. There may be jitters, there may be wrenching goodbyes — but in my experience, adrenaline mostly carries everyone through. I’ve been the mom patting myself on the back after the first day of school, proudly relieved that my child had NO PROBLEM saying goodbye.

And then the second day hit.

By the second day, the kids have wised up. It’s not fresh and exciting anymore; instead, they can see past the new clothes and school supplies to the rules, expectations, and social minefield that they’re going to have to navigate EVERY SINGLE DAY. You mean I have to KEEP GOING?!? their eyes seem to say.

I was thinking about this as school began, and I realized that much of what makes life hard has to do with The Second Day. It’s not always literally the second 24-hour day, but it’s the state of mind we face when the newness has worn off. Think about it: You get married, and at first you’re swept along through the wedding and honeymoon, but pretty soon comes that Second Day, when you stare at your partner across the table and think, You mean I have to KEEP GOING?!?

Or, say, you have a baby, and you’re all jazzed up because you survived labor and now you have this cute little munchkin and you’re getting all sorts of attention and your house is stuffed with nifty new baby supplies…but then you come home from the hospital and have to face the Second Day, when nobody cares anymore that you have a new baby (except your parents — they’ll always care), and all your clothes are covered with bodily fluids and that munchkin is STILL waking up every two hours and you think, You mean I have to KEEP GOING?!?

OR maybe you do something really great in your profession/vocation/calling/art: you win an award, or obtain a degree, or invent something new, or create a painting/performance/book/film/play/blog post that people really like. Congratulations! You feel like your existence is finally validated…for about 24 hours. Because then comes that Second Day, when you have to sit at your desk or computer or easel again, and you think, You mean I have to KEEP GOING?!?

OR EVEN, let’s say you move to a small town in Vermont, and everything is new and wonderful. You love your new house, your new friends, the new landscape — your entire new lifestyle. But then the second year rolls around, and suddenly nothing’s quite so new anymore. You’ve seen all these seasons before, done just about everything there is to do at least once. And one dark and freezing winter morning, when you’re heading outside to feed those damn chickens AGAIN, you think, You mean I have to KEEP GOING?!?

Hey, it could definitely happen.

That Second Day is no joke. Based on the examples above, I’d venture that it’s the root cause of many cases of divorce, postpartum depression, and personal and professional burnout. I myself have experienced it plenty. In fact, I abandoned my first profession — teaching — because after four years I just couldn’t face a lifetime of Second Days in the classroom.

I have no tips for avoiding the Second Day phenomenon. It’s an inescapable part of life. Nothing stays new forever; if every day were a FIRST day, life would eventually become hyperactive and exhausting. All I have is this insight: the Second Day is difficult and depressing, but if you persevere through it, that’s when things start to take root and get really interesting. Marriage and parenting will always be HARD WORK — filled with multiple Second Days — but when I think back to my husband on our wedding day, or my kids when they were first born, I realize that I love them now with much more richness and complexity. I wouldn’t go back to that first day for anything.

I suppose the best way to handle Second Days is to anticipate them. I know now that I need to be just as prepared — if not more — to help my kids navigate that second day of school. I need to linger with a few extra hugs and kisses at the door, maybe even slip a little love note or special chocolate treat into their lunch bags. I need to offer encouragement that the most worthwhile thing in life — deep and genuine LOVE: for others, for what you do, for where you live — requires pushing past that Second Day. Perhaps we should all treat ourselves accordingly when we face life’s Second Days. Especially the extra chocolate treat.

So, now I’ve thought this through, and I feel more equipped to tackle those Second Days. But you know what?

I still have to get up tomorrow morning and feed those damn chickens.

In Which I Butcher Some Chickens

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“So, what does one wear to butcher chickens?” I asked my friend Courtney over the phone. We were confirming our plans for the following night; I was focusing on the priorities. (The answer, in case you were wondering, is: anything that you don’t mind coming into contact with blood, guts, feathers, and – above all – that chicken smell.)

Courtney had emailed the week before: “Do you want to butcher three chickens with me? Your family could have the three chickens for your freezer. I have a vegetarian friend with three meat birds….”

Who would pass up an invitation like that? Not me.

Click here to continue reading my latest “Faith in Vermont” column for The Addison Independent. 

Changing My Mind

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It can be humbling to write a bi-weekly newspaper column: Few things more effectively highlight one’s capacity for change – or inconsistency, denial, and flip-flopping. I’m not convinced that this is a bad thing; isn’t the point of individual human existence to grow and change? Isn’t it natural that the ideas expressed in a column should evolve along with the human writing that column?

For some reason, though, we expect writers – particularly writers of regular columns – to emerge with a fully formed set of ideas that remain consistent for the life of their column. Writing, it seems, sets one’s opinions in cement, and to deviate from a previously written opinion is to reveal a weak character.

If that seems extreme, imagine Ann Coulter suddenly begging our forgiveness and espousing the ideology of the liberal left, or Nicholas Kristof announcing that he’s been wrong and human trafficking is really just a natural extension of free market capitalism. One scenario might be wonderful, one might be awful, but each would call into question the journalistic integrity of the writer.

It has been nearly three years since I began writing “Faith in Vermont.” In terms of genre, “Faith in Vermont” is best described as a “lifestyle” rather than a “political” or “opinion” column. But lifestyles, politics, and opinions are all subject to change, and such change has happened in our household:

Last month, we joined the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op.

Click here to continue reading my latest “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

Lust for Land

My desire for land started gradually, until suddenly it had gripped me like the unbearable compulsion some pregnant women feel to eat dirt. It was a primal urge. I felt it in my mouth, back near my molars. I felt it in my hands, which wanted to clutch.

To clarify: I never felt the need to eat dirt during my pregnancies. My strongest craving occurred during my third pregnancy: It was 9 o’clock at night, and I had to have walnut shrimp (an Americanized dish served at most Chinese restaurants: batter-fried shrimp and walnuts slathered in a creamy sweet sauce.)

“I would crawl over broken glass for walnut shrimp,” I moaned to my husband, who tracked down the only place where it could be obtained so late at night: the Panda Express at the Oakland Airport.

My craving for land was like that.

It began rationally enough, almost as an intellectual exercise. I was researching Vermont dairy farming for a book I’m working on, and I kept reading heartbreaking stories about the demise of small family farms: farmers who could no longer afford to keep farming, children who didn’t want to continue farming, land that was worth more to sell off or develop than to keep.

In the five years since our family moved to Vermont, I have come to love this place passionately. I want to raise my children here, and when they grow up I hope that some of them will choose to stay, because I certainly plan to grow old in Vermont. So the fact that part of what makes Vermont Vermont was at risk — small farms, undeveloped land, local agriculture — hit me right in the heart.

What could I do?

I’m married to an economist, so I’m somewhat of a realist when it comes to the ability of government programs or agricultural subsidies to effect change. But what I could do was some version of Voltaire’s exhortation at the end of Candide: “We must cultivate our own garden.” What I could do was to get a plot of land in Vermont, care for it, and not develop it.

Once I had this idea, it was difficult to shake. It also seemed do-able. Vermont is the second least populous state in the nation (after Wyoming); due to an abundance of supply and lack of demand, it is possible to buy a house with multiple acres of land in Vermont for a relatively reasonable price.

The more I thought about it, the better it seemed. Our current house is a perfectly lovely 25-year-old cape set on one wooded and rocky acre along a paved road in a neighborhood where the houses are close enough together that we can see four other homes from our windows (when the leaves are off of the trees.) After five years in Vermont, this seems suburban and wimpy.

I craved a hundred-year-old farmhouse down a dirt road on multiple open acres with outbuildings. Such a setting would allow me to garden without my spade hitting solid rock 1/2 inch into the ground. It would allow me to plant vegetables and fruit trees and flowers that need at least partial sunlight in order to thrive. It would allow my children to range freely, without my having to worry about cars on the paved road out front. It would allow us to try raising chickens for a second time. (Our first flock of hens was massacred by neighborhood dogs; I know that massacres are a rite of passage for chicken owners, but these dogs had broken easily into our coop because we couldn’t sink fence posts securely enough into the rocky ground.) It would allow for the future possibility of larger animals: a few sheep, a couple of pigs, perhaps even a horse one day if our daughters continue to love riding.

This would be a lot of work, but it would be my work. Writing is a stationary and solitary profession. The idea of caring for some livestock and land in between hours of sitting at my computer was appealing: I could be a female version of E.B. White or Wendell Berry. And yes, we have four children: four children who, in another year, will all be in school at least part of the week. Four children who could help with chores, fondly recall their childhood on the family farm, get married on the land where they were raised.

It made so much sense to me, on both an idealogical and a practical level.

Notice that all of the pronouns thus far have been in the first person singular. And I am no longer a first person singular: I am part of a marriage, a family of six. In order to make this dream a reality, I would have to convince my un-dreamy, un-handy, and un-willing-to-take-financial-risks husband — and, to a lesser degree, my children — that it was a good idea.

So I put some logical limits on my dream. My children are incredibly happy in our town school, and nobody wants my husband to have a longer commute, so this land would have to be located in our current town. It should have 3 or more acres, and preferably some usable outbuildings. Odds are that the house wouldn’t be a new construction, but it couldn’t be a dump, either. And, of course, there were financial limits.

I kept my eyes open as I shuttled our children around town, and narrowed my focus to three or four properties that would be appealing if they ever went on the market. I settled down to wait; we weren’t going anywhere, so I was in a great position to be patient and watchful.

Then one of those properties went on the market.

It was an 1890’s farmhouse with 5 outbuildings, set on 16 gorgeous acres of mostly-cleared land with stunning views of the Green Mountains. It was actually closer to town — to the schools, my husband’s office, and my parents’ house — than our current home.

Of course, the timing was terrible: Our entire family is relocating to California for the first five months of 2016 for my husband’s sabbatical.

Also, it was outside our price range.

I went to look at it anyway, first with my parents and all my children in tow, then with my husband. The house needed a complete interior lead paint abatement and re-painting, a new perimeter drain, possible asbestos tile removal, and there were five rooms that appeared to have gone untouched — used only for storage — for 40-some years.  Still, the potential was there if we were willing to work towards it; I could see the beautiful house it would become over time.

So I held onto hope, because that’s what you do when you have a dream, right? I held onto hope for 25 days, up until that house sold. And then I mourned it hard.

It has occurred to me that this desire for land is my version of a midlife crisis; that, at almost 40 years of age, I’m hoping to rediscover my purpose and youth in a plot of land rather than a sports car or a tattoo or an affair. And it occurs to me that there are two ways of responding to a midlife crisis: either you come around to peacefully accepting that all the paths that once seemed open to you have narrowed down to the path that you’re on — or else you get bitter. Maybe I need to accept that my life — our life — is not going to end on a multi-acre small-scale farm. As I’m constantly reminding my daughters (and quoting Mick Jagger): “You can’t always get what you want.”

But maybe, maybe, this isn’t so much a midlife crisis as it is a natural desire: the desire to find a little corner of creation and sink roots down deep, to have the ability to raise your own food, to preserve some of the world’s beauty and pass it on to your children.

My husband and I had dinner with a couple who’ve lived in Vermont far longer than us, who have first-hand experience with farming. We discussed my dream of land. “Feel free to talk me out of it,” I quipped.

They didn’t. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to own a piece of Vermont,” said the husband. “Go down the rabbit hole.”

His wife’s response was more serious. “This is what we were made for,” she said. “We were created to be stewards of the land. And if that’s what God is prompting you to do, then maybe you should listen to it.”

Maybe I should; maybe I will. In the meantime, there’s a book of Wendell Berry essays beside my bed, a brand-new membership card to our local food co-op (finally!) in my wallet, and our weekly CSA starts up next month. I guess that’ll do.