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Death Comes to the Coop

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When the first chicken disappeared, it wasn’t a big deal.

She’d been one of eleven chickens – ten hens and a rooster – of indeterminate age, passed on to us by friends. We’d always considered this our “starter flock,” and planned to add fresh chicks in the spring.

We live in a predator-rich area, so every night we lock our chickens into a sturdy coop behind an electrified wire fence. But because we held these chickens loosely, and because it seemed to go against their nature and purpose to keep them confined to a 400-square-foot yard, we let them free range during the daylight hours.

This system worked beautifully for about two months, until the night I counted the chickens that’d come home to roost and came up one short.

She was a black bantam hen, one of three black bantys who scuttled nervously around Elvis the rooster all day long, like a jittery teenage fan club. After she’d been gone for two days, we declared her “missing, presumed dead.” My daughters were a little wistful, but not for long. Nobody had been particularly attached to this hen, whose personality was all humble subservience to her mate. We’d never even given her a name; in order to have something to write on her rock-tombstone in our animal cemetery (which joined the memorials of three deceased tadpoles), my daughters named her “Dianne” posthumously.

Because we’d never found a body – not even a feather – Dianne’s disappearance was shrouded in mystery. Lack of a body indicated that a hawk or a fox was the likely predator. We kept our eyes open, kept the chickens confined to their run for a couple of days, and then assumed that the threat had passed. Some days, we even joked that Dianne had gotten sick of following Elvis around and faked her own death; she was probably living a life of adventure in the treetops, or lounging on Palm Beach.

Then, a week later, Henrietta disappeared.

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

Two for One!

Despite what feels like far too long a stretch of grey skies and rain, spring is truly springing in the Green Mountains, with all sorts of green and flowery friends reemerging every day. So I guess it’s appropriate that this has been a productive week for writing: I have not one, but TWO new posts up over the past two days.

Here’s my latest installment of “Our Favorite Things” on the Minibury website, which focuses on tips for gardening with children.

And here’s today’s “Faith in Vermont” column for The Addison Independent, in which I describe three recent experiences in community.

When You Feel Like Your Family is Killing You: Thoughts On Washing Feet (and a Little Bit of Politics)

Have you ever felt like your family was killing you?

I don’t mean killing with intent, of course; I’m talking about a slow and steady nibbling away at your emotional, physical, and spiritual health. The sense that your blood is flowing directly into their veins, and your breath is being sucked up by their lungs. The fear that it might really happen: You may not be able to take one more step, answer one more question, or get out of bed tomorrow morning. The joy-sucking realization that you’re giving and giving, they’re taking and taking, and the equation will probably never be balanced.

I have felt this way. My neck and shoulders become cement and I feel like I’m carrying three times my body weight — the combined total weight of my people. My people, who want me to answer “How long does it take to get to the Moon?”, slice them an apple for snack, listen to their latest piano piece, and admire their newest Lego creation — all at the same time. My people, who throw themselves down screaming in front of a whole schoolyard full of people when I won’t carry them to the car — because I’m already loaded down by three backpacks. And that was just yesterday.

The endless dishes, crusty countertops, overflowing baskets of laundry, popcorn and Cheerios crunching underfoot: These things seem to sit on my chest and crush my breath.

Many’s the time I’ve longed for a diagnosis — not a terribly bad one, of course, but one in which the doctor says, “I’m sorry, the only cure is for you to spend a week in bed, in total silence.”

The last time I felt sure my family would kill me was two days ago, in the pre-dawn hours between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Earlier in the day, when I wasn’t homeschooling two daughters, shuttling everyone else back and forth from activities, or hosting two little friends who were over to play, I was hustling to get five apple trees and two blueberry bushes — which had arrived the day before and needed to be planted within 48 hours — into the ground.

When I collapsed into bed that night, I was looking at about six hours of sleep before I had to wake up and do it all over again.

At about 12:30 AM, the screaming started.

One of our daughters was scared. So scared that she woke up two of her sisters, who had to be soothed down. So scared that she couldn’t sleep.

At 1:30 AM, after three trips up and down the stairs, doing all that I could to comfort and reassure (prayers, back rubs, silent meditation, etc.), I dragged my pillow and an extra quilt upstairs and made a “bed” by pulling two beanbags together.

My neck and shoulders had become cement, and I settled in for a long, sleepless night on the floor. My daughter continued to cry on and off, and I cried, too.

They are killing me, I thought. This is SO UNFAIR. 

It wasn’t until the next day that I realized the parallels between my night on the floor and this Easter holiday that we’re celebrating.

(I’m going to write a little bit about Jesus now. If you don’t celebrate Easter, or don’t believe in Jesus’s spiritual legacy, please don’t stop reading; This is a story to which I think anybody can relate.)

***

In the hours between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the Bible tells us, Jesus also spent a sleepless night. Jesus also cried. He was stretched out on the hard ground of the garden of Gesthemane. He’d just celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples, and he knew he’d been betrayed by Judas – one of that chosen family of disciples – to Jerusalem’s religious leaders. He knew that those leaders were coming at any moment to arrest him and lead him off to death.

The differences between Jesus and me are clear. Jesus never said, “This is SO UNFAIR!” He was distressed. He asked if God could take away what was coming. But, unlike me, Jesus didn’t whine.

Also, unlike me, Jesus actually was about to die.

***

After this realization hit me, I recalled the conversation I’d had with my daughters the night before.

We were reading about the Last Supper in the Gospel of John. We read about how, before Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples, he took off his robe, put on an apron, and washed their feet. Their filthy, smelly, walking-on-dirt-and-dung-strewn-1st century roads feet. He told them to be servants like him; to wash each other’s feet and love each other.

Next, Jesus predicted that one of the disciples would betray him. When asked who would do such a thing, Jesus dipped a piece of bread in wine and handed it to Judas Iscariot. Judas promptly left to collect on the 30 pieces of silver he’d get in exchange for Jesus’s life.

“Wait,” one of my daughters interrupted, “So, was Judas there for the foot washing part, too?”

In all my years of reading about the Last Supper, I’m embarrassed to say, this thought had never occurred to me.

“I guess he was,” I answered. “The Bible says Jesus was gathered with all his disciples. Judas was a disciple, so he must’ve been there the whole time.”

And it felt like a punch right to my gut: Jesus washed the filthy, smelly feet of the man he KNEW was going to cause his death.

***

As I staggered around, exhausted, that morning after my sleepless night, I thought about how Jesus, knowing he was actually going to die, washed the feet of his murderer and spent a sleepless night of agony without whining.

I am far from being Jesus, but maybe I could try to cultivate those same attitudes with respect to my family.

Maybe, just maybe, we could all try to cultivate those same attitudes with respect to each other.

***

It’s not just our families that cause us sleepless nights: Especially now, at this particular moment in history, it’s almost impossible to keep from worrying over the state of our nation and our world. Terrorism and genocide headline international news. Political parties — and their supporters — refuse to listen, talk, or work together. Emotions are high in my own little town over a controversial speaker who was recently invited to speak at Middlebury College.

These things can slowly nibble away at our emotional, physical, and spiritual health.

Everywhere you look, we are divided: nation against nation, race against race, gender against gender, party against party, humans against world. The list goes on, until all the “against’s” crack open and release a flood of vitriolic social media posts, strident position statements, nonsensical legislation, and anxiety-provoking newscasts.

I have been divided against myself as well. Shortly after the U. S. Presidential election, I read something online — I can’t remember who wrote it — the gist of which was: “Now, more than ever, we need writers to give voice to what’s going on.”

I’m a writer, I thought, so I guess I should write about what’s going on. Otherwise I might be complicit; I might become part of the problem.

I wrote a couple of posts about the state of our nation. People who agreed with me were complimentary, and those who didn’t agree either don’t read or stayed gracefully silent.

But I never felt quite right about these posts. So, for the past few months, I’ve stuck to my usual subject matter: Vermont, my children, birds and trees and weather, quaint happenings in our small town. All the while, I’ve felt terribly guilty that I wasn’t addressing Bigger Things.

As I thought about sleepless nights, Jesus, foot washing, and family, I realized the source of my angst: By adding my political opinions to the mix, I feared becoming part of the problem. By choosing sides publicly, I would be complicit in deepening the already deep divides between us. Because at the bottom, the problem isn’t Trump, or ISIS, or Charles Murray: The problem is that we are all picking our sides, digging in our heels, writing our posts and statements against each other.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t care about injustice, or that we shouldn’t speak or act against assaults to human rights. This is to say that we need to choose our issues and how we address them with care.

And it may be that the most important things we do to fight injustice are not done publicly, or on social media. Things like washing feet.

Jesus showed love to Judas, who was about to kill him, by washing his feet. I don’t want to cheapen this act with an overused word  like “love” or “grace;” but perhaps if we applied a little more of  “whatever it takes to wash the feet of your killer” to our lives, our politics, our world, we might see radical change.

“But, Faith,” you say, “Jesus did that, and he was killed anyway.”

Yes, he was. And — regardless of whether you subscribe to the resurrection or the religion that arose after his death — I think most would agree that the world was radically changed.

***

So, for now, I will continue to write about things that are true and beautiful: Vermont, my children, birds and trees and weather, quaint happenings in our small town. And I will continue trying to do “whatever it takes to wash the feet of your killer” when I feel like my family — both the family in my house and my family in the world — is killing me. Given the choice, I’d rather live out what I’m for, rather than write about what I’m against.

Happy Easter.

Stumbling Towards Spring

 

Notice the beautiful compost bin at the end of the rainbow!

 

I don’t want to brag, but this winter my husband and I built a compost bin and installed a fence around our (chicken-less) chicken coop. We count these among the proudest accomplishments of our nearly 15-year marriage, neck-and-neck with those four daughters and those economics publications.

A little background: Last August, we moved to a house surrounded by twelve-and-a-half acres of open land. This move was the result of A Vision. There was absolutely nothing wrong with our previous house, which was surrounded by an acre of woods and rocks — nothing wrong with it at all, unless you had A Vision of small-scale gardening and animal husbandry.

So we moved to a house where we could turn our Vision into a reality. Where we could plant gardens and fruit trees; where we could establish a small poultry flock and add some pigs or a couple of goats in time. The idea was to buy a little land, really care for it, and use it to grow the things that our family was most likely to consume.

(There is nothing new about this Vision: Since Scott and Helen Nearing first left New York City for Southern Vermont in the 1930s – and perhaps even before then – its various iterations have been called things like “the good life,” “the back-to-the-land movement,” and “homesteading.” Also: “reckless idealism,” “backbreaking labor,” and “folly.”)

Here is one challenge we face: Our new little slice of heaven has never, so far as we know, been used as anything other than a hayfield – and even the hayfield had fallen into scrubby neglect by the time we bought it. There were no gardens, no outbuildings other than an open shed, and no effort had been made to care for the soil. We are starting from scratch.

Here is another challenge we face: Inexperience. Other than caring for polite perennial gardens and one short-lived flock of laying hens, we have no prior experience with growing or farming. We feel like suburban kids playing pioneers, which is exactly what we are.

But here’s what we have going for us: We know how stupid we are.

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

New Minibury Column: Our Favorite Things

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Several months ago, a fellow mother and the founder of local family website Minibury asked if I’d be able to provide some content for the site. This opportunity rolled together many of my favorite things: supporting other moms, supporting good community-building ideas, and writing. Today, my first post in the “Our Favorite Things” series is up on the Minibury website. Click here to check it out!

The concept behind “Our Favorite Things” is simple: Each month, I’ll share with your families one of our family’s favorite things. The goal is to highlight things that are simple, inexpensive (or free!), local, and that promote creativity.

Today’s topic: Popsicle sticks!

[For those who, like me, have tired brains and heavy hearts from following recent political developments in our country (and I suspect that’s everyone), a post about popsicle sticks may seem either a welcome diversion, or akin to fiddling while the Titanic sinks. Here is what I tell myself: No matter what may be happening at the moment, we still need to parent our children. In fact, parenting our children is one of the absolute best things we can do at times like this. So, here’s to popsicle sticks!]

The Cow on the Wall

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The cow was hanging on the wall, opposite the checkout counter at the Sweet Charity resale shop in Vergennes, and I fell in love with it immediately.

That I was in Sweet Charity, without children, on a Saturday afternoon, was due to a series of anomalous events. My husband was in Chicago for work, so a generous friend had taken pity on me and invited all four of my children over to her house to play for a couple of hours.

Faced with two precious hours of free time after two days of single parenting, I did what any woman would do: I went shopping for home furnishings with my mother, of course.

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

Three (Very Humble) Suggestions for Behaving Ourselves

My mistake was logging on to Facebook.

It was a bit of a rough weekend, wasn’t it? This weekend that began with Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States on Friday, continued through the Women’s Marches around the world on Saturday, and whimpered to a close on Sunday. And from what I observed, it was rough regardless of whom you voted for in the November election.

I am not a Trump supporter, for reasons that transcend ideological differences (outlined here), so on Friday I was filled with a deep sadness. But by Saturday afternoon, when I logged on to Facebook and saw so many loving, empowered dispatches from friends and family who were participating peacefully in Women’s Marches across multiples states, I felt hopeful, maybe even a little joyful.

Then, the comments started up on social media. The comments came from liberal and conservative alike; those opposed to Trump, and those in favor. For a good 24 hours, Facebook was filled with discord and critique. The hundreds of thousands who took part in Women’s Marches might have been peaceful, but the couple hundred protestors who damaged property and scuffled with police in Washington, D.C. the day before were “animals.” Or maybe the Women’s Marches were too peaceful, because they were mostly attended by white women who are seldom targeted by police. While the Trump administration quibbled with the media over attendance estimates for the inauguration, my fellow citizens nitpicked the numbers on social media. Also: Some of the signs at the Women’s Marches were vulgar (mostly because they quoted our new President, but still, keep it classy ladies!) Even children weren’t immune: I saw statements ridiculing the youngest Trump child, statements raking the ridiculers over the coals (“monsters”), and all “liberals” branded incompetent parents based on one child who apparently set a fire on the sidewalk outside of a Trump hotel. All this between people who label themselves “friends.”

And a confession: Even I wasn’t immune. Although it’s long been my policy to refrain from making any political comments on Facebook, I broke with myself and responded to a relative who’d been spewing a steady stream of social media vitriol. While I don’t regret my comments, which I attempted to keep respectful, logical, and brief, I still felt icky after the fact: I had fed the beast.

Sunday night, I lay shaking in bed. My body had been in fight-or-flight mode, cortisol pumping through my system for the entire day. My heart and head both ached and my breathing was shallow; I felt like dark clouds were gathering over our little house. Trump’s election had shaken my faith in our country and our government; the past 24 hours of Facebook comments had shaken my faith in humanity.

So here are three small suggestions that I am making to myself for how to behave well in a politically charged climate. I write them here to keep myself honest; if they help anybody else out there, so much the better.

In the coming days, I plan to breathe deeply and:

1. Avoid passing judgement on other humans.

On inauguration morning, I woke up early to read my Bible, and my passage for the day began with Romans 2:1 (here in The Message translation): “Those people are on a dark spiral downward. But if you think that leaves you on the high ground where you can point your finger at others, think again. Every time you criticize someone, you condemn yourself. It takes one to know one. Judgmental criticism of others is a well-known way of escaping detection in your own crimes and misdemeanors. But God isn’t so easily diverted. He sees right through all such smoke screens and holds you to what you’ve done.”

Uh, okay God.

Let me be absolutely clear: The verse does not mean that we should all become doormats or moral relativists. It is not saying that there’s no such thing as right or wrong. It’s not even saying that we shouldn’t speak out against injustice, corruption, oppression, or other immoral or hateful acts.

It’s just saying that we have no right to condemn other people. We are not in the judgment seat for humanity. It is not for us to assign people to heaven or hell. Because, frankly, turn the spotlight around and we are all a mess (And boy, was that apparent on Facebook this weekend, myself most absolutely included.)

This may be related to my personal religious beliefs, but I think it’s also just good human practice: The more we get wrapped up in critiquing the deeds of others, we ourselves become hardened little nuggets of bitterness and anger.

The lovely flip side of this is that there is no person who is not redeemable. No matter what foul things a person has said or done in their lifetime, as long as they are still breathing there is the opportunity for them to change for the better. In other words: We are all deserving of grace.

This was beautifully illustrated by my child’s preschool teacher on Monday morning. During circle time, she showed the 3- and 4-year-olds the preschool’s handmade “Book of Peacemakers,” which included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Bernie Sanders (this is Vermont!), and all of the preschoolers themselves.

“Donald Trump’s not in that book!” commented one little boy.

“No, he’s not,” said the teacher calmly, without missing a beat. “He’s not, because he just became President and we don’t know how he’ll be a peacemaker yet. But when you see him doing some peacemaking, you let me know and we’ll add him to the book.”

As difficult as it may be for me to swallow the fact that he will be the leader of my children’s country for the next four years, Donald Trump is my fellow human. No matter how deeply I abhor his words or actions, he is redeemable and worthy of grace. It is not up to me to condemn him.

Also: No human being should ever be referred to as an “animal” or “monster.”

Finally: Leave the children alone.

2. Take a long, honest look at what our country actually is and has been.

Many of the emotional comments on social media this weekend could have benefited from a remedial civics lesson.

For instance, I am no fan of vulgarity. Not in my home, not outside my home, and not as a means of making a point. But our country has a very special governing document called the Constitution, and according to this Constitution, we all have the right to free speech. We have the right to put whatever words we want on a sign and march with it as a means of protest. Our right to expound upon our personal religious and political views is a massive freedom that is not available to many throughout the world; whether or not we happen to approve of someone else’s choice of words seems a rather minor concern. (I do, however, draw the line at someone running for public office who brags about having acted on his offensive words.)

I am also no fan of violent protests or property damage; I’ll pick Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s peaceful protests every time. But the curious thing about our country is that it was actually birthed out of violent protests and property damage. The early colonists rioted and burned paper products that were being taxed under the British Stamp Act in bonfires in the middle of the street. They dumped tons of tea into Boston Harbor, which probably would’ve gotten some scathing comments if the Brits had Facebook back then. They targeted Tory sympathizers and rode them on rails through town. And then they fought a war, featuring actual weapons and death. (I bet they used some choice language, too.)

We gloss over these facts, although they’re in every American history book; we teach them to our children like they’re quaint historical points of pride. We Americans just wouldn’t stand for the tyranny! And then we call people who use similar forms fo protest today “animals.”

I am not advocating violence; I am simply reminding us that there have been times in our country’s past when we felt that violence and property destruction were legitimate ways to be heard. If people are protesting similarly today, perhaps we need to listen more closely.

Finally, a wise friend reminded me yesterday afternoon that the very things that make the character of Donald Trump so repugnant to many — his greed, his unfettered speech, his objectification of women, his self-aggrandizement — are, in fact, the very things that American culture has come to represent. As a country in general, we consume like gluttons, we worship sex and beauty, we post unfettered comments on social media, we think only about our own comfort. Perhaps, my friend suggested, we have elected exactly the President we deserve. Perhaps Donald Trump is our mirror, our Picture of Dorian Gray.

3. Take a rest from social media.

When I go fiery, my husband goes calm. So, after my weekend in the social media maelstrom, he kindly reminded me that Facebook is a company, interested in making money. In order to do this, the Facebook folks want people to stay on Facebook as much as possible. In order to do this, they’ve developed a clever little system of likes an dislikes.

Here’s how it works: We post a little nugget of our identity on Facebook. People like it! So we feel great, and we keep coming back for more. Or people don’t like it. So we feel angry and inflamed, and we keep coming back for more. We’re like those rats in neuroscience experiments who keep pushing buttons for food until they die — except that instead of buttons, we post comments.

Facebook is great for posting photos, personal updates, and for sharing information. Got a good recipe or a thought-provoking article? I’d love to see it!

But Facebook is a terrible place to air political opinions. Our “friendships” on Facebook are pale substitutes for actual, in-person relationships. The Facebook “community” is an anemic substitute for real community. Engaging in heated political debate in this forum changes nobody’s mind, and it only encourages more emotion and division. True understanding and change happen best when we sit with people in the flesh and look them in the eyes; when we listen to each other, not when we post comments at each other.

I put a 30-minute-per-day limit on my Facebook access after this weekend, and I may go further. It felt like social media was draining my time and energy, which are needed for far better things these days.

The Revolution will not happen on Facebook.