Rolling Rocks and Hungry Donkeys: A Morning Ritual

“Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way!” – Dr. Seuss

It was a golden morning—the kind where the sun sparkles in a million, broken pieces off the dew droplets covering absolutely everything. The cool air moved although it was hard to tell which direction and on the back of our property, the neighborhood roaming pack of guinea hens chattered in what sounded like a symphony of tiny kazoos. I held a mug of slightly steaming coffee in both hands, feeling its warmth against my palms and breathing in its fresh, donut shop smell.

In the pasture, the donkeys stepped slowly across the grass, grazing on the wet blades and softly flicking their tails when Bunny noticed me and raised her head. With her ears standing straight, she began to breathe heavily, widening her nostrils, which brought the attention of my presence to the other three donkeys, Tyrion, Simon and Beans. Starting with Bunny, they all began to bray as four sets of slightly damp hooves trotted my way.

Soon, I’d be replenishing the hay to their feeders and taking some time to pet and inspect each of them. I have this unrelenting fear that during the night, somehow, one of the donkeys will hurt themselves, so I ensure every morning that my fear is only that: a fear.  It’s a fear among many other unlikely fears such as the fear of my house burning down from my having left the stove top on, King Ranch being abducted by disgruntled workers who send a ransom note written with newspaper cutouts demanding $500,000,000 for his return OR ELSE, and Little Foot running away when he’s a teenager to join some international gang of assassins where of course he’ll change his whole identity and I’ll never see him again except for in my dreams.  I worry about diphtheria, brown recluses, real life witches that blend in with society, ghosts and spirits of the disturbed and angry kind and worlds of tiny people that might actually be living in the grass that I violently destroy with the mower. I just do.

Before going into the pasture, I used the back of my left hand to dust away dirt, chicken feathers, and leaves from the back patio table and then placed my coffee in the clearing as I sat down in a damp patio chair. I’d realized recently that not only was I an anxious person, but that I was anxious about the fact that I was anxious and I spend a lot of time worrying about how much I worried about things. Since realizing this, I’ve dedicated my early mornings to depriving the beast of food…or in other words, depriving my worry of more worry.

My deprivation tool is this:

My mind is a mountain full of rocks. When I have a thought, a boulder pops out of the top of the mountain and begins to roll down the very well-defined groove that almost every single boulder in my life has rolled down—what I refer to as the “Trench of Terror” (my anxiety). It’s slick, lined with skeletal remains, giant spiders, fire, and slimy, green ghouls and no one has yet to discover where it ends. Nothing has ever come back from the foggy mist in which the trench disappears although sometimes, there are faint cries and moans signaling that death isn’t at the bottom of it—just horror. Never ending, perpetual horror.

Now, however, in my attempted deprivation of enabling this behaviour, my consciousness (who oddly enough, I imagine as a small stick figure without a face and with small circles for hands and feet) stands just outside the thought hole and when a boulder of thought pops out, my stick figure consciousness pushes it the other direction….away from the dark and howling Trench of Terror and down the very unstable yet growing groove that I call “Reasonable River.” It’s bright on that side of the mountain with trees, birds, chalkboards with equations, and shelves of how-to books. Reasonable River is still a rocky route, but I can see the bottom of it: a blue lagoon with actual mermaids who take care of the smaller sea creatures and sing celtic folk music. There’s always a rainbow and the sun over there has a sweet, smiling face. I think there’s wine down there too but not so much that one would black-out. Just enough to take the edge off.

So…a thought pops up and heads towards Trench of Terror at an alarming speed. The green ghouls begin to laugh in anticipation and the fires rage but then consciousness catches it, pushes it back up the mountain and over to Reasonable River where it rolls down in a sensical and thoughtful way. Reason guides it all the way down into the warm waters of the lagoon where it stays happy and healthy and dealt with.

I watch the donkeys as I push myself through this exercise for two reasons: 1) watching donkeys grazing is peaceful and 2) I personally believe that most donkeys struggle with anxiety and I hope that in some universal, cosmic way, if I visualize vividly enough (my stick figure consciousnesses fighting with my thought rocks), that the donkeys may actually catch some of that scene in their satellites and feel just a little more at peace within their own minds. I have always had this feeling that animals communicate in mental wavelengths—like watching TV and the more real the thoughts are to us, the clearer the image they receive. Maybe? I don’t know. But I like to think that’s how it is. I make eye contact with every animal I can and I imagine beautiful things like embraces and laughs and sprinkled cake hoping that somehow, they’ll see those images, too.

Of course, I think being on an actual mountain pushing actual boulders around would be the far easier exercise because the number of flying boulders on that slippery mountain surface are a lot for that little stick person to handle. Rolling rocks still tumble down the Trench of Terror, but stick person does a good job of catching some of them and sending them the other way towards reason. Over time, Reasonable River will be defined too and perhaps it won’t be such a challenge.

I reached the bottom of my coffee mug which signals the end of my exercise. The dew had begun to evaporate making the yard far, less sparkly and far more humid. Over the fence, all four donkeys watched me expectantly, so with my rubber boots on, I walked towards the shed that holds their hay. Once more, the donkeys brayed although they were brays of excitement. Breakfast time.

I supposed I was hungry, too.

Morning ritual

Farewells, Feelings, News Crews and Two Remaining Donkeys

A tan, rattling horse trailer bumped down the road away from my house kicking gravel and dust as its rusty doors creaked and clanged in a travelling, metallic melody which is quite common in these rural areas. Inside those doors, which likely still dripped with the sweat from my hands, two sets of furry ears stood straight up and wobbled side to side: Ethel and Charlie (two more of my foster donkeys) were going home. They were going to their forever home.

The choppy waters of my insides were churning like a pot of stew—boiling bubbles popped and spat in a scene which was familiar—it having only been 10 days since Ali the donkey had been adopted by a couple from central Texas. The feeling was complex: it stretched as far as grief and heartache could before likely causing serious damage—like a stressed rubber band which, had I not let go into gratitude, would have snapped and slapped my innards which were already raw from having said goodbye once and now two and three times.

After the trailer attached to the truck turned off of our road and its rustic, tambourine encore faded away, I tipped up my hat and ran my forearm across the lines of sweat collecting in my brows. Grief was swelling in my throat: that tingly feeling that warms the insides of your cheeks (like the moment before you bite into something that you know will be sour) was causing me to salivate. Perhaps that’s where tears actually start…in the throat.

I gulped it all down: that damp, pin-prick feeling that had started to fizz into the backs of my eyes because I could not yet touch the grief. Not yet. Behind me, leaning on the open gate, was a journalist and photographer from the local news who had come to my house on that same morning to do a story on our donkey adoption facility and we had an interview to finish.

With the exception of many job interviews and once by a woman who runs a podcast which features motivational folks, I’ve not been interviewed and certainly not by any news crews. In hindsight, I honestly cannot tell you if I did well or not but I get the feeling I was difficult to follow in my answers. I stumbled and stuttered nervously because the news is exposure and exposure is the most crippling of conditions for those who have struggled helplessly  throughout their whole lives with anxiety. I almost declined the opportunity because the violent whirlpool of ‘what-ifs’ from the initial media query that popped into my inbox weeks ago was enough to suffocate me.

But then I thought of the donkeys. They could use the publicity. They could use a special interest story because if even one person who reads this soon-to-run story takes up an interest in the well-being of donkeys, then it would be a success.

Donkeys have an odd mixture of a reputation: stubborn, stupid, worthless, to start. It’s why they’re left behind and discarded at an alarming and heartbreaking rate. It’s why they’re roped for sport and tied to trees and whipped and overworked. People don’t take the time to understand the force to be reckoned with that is the donkey: a highly intelligent, loyal, deeply emotional and complex creature that is unmatched anywhere else in the animal kingdom…at least to me. When cared for, they’re affectionate and protective and loving almost to a fault.

So I agreed to do the story…heels in the sand and all, I agreed.

The journalist and the photographer assigned to this story handled the whole experience with the most tender of care and for that, I hope they know how grateful I am. They were kind and patient and truly interested in the welfare of donkeys. I suspect my donkeys felt that, too, as they put on a beautiful show of their own: braying and nudging and even trying to play. They will make for a great story, no doubt.

Once everyone left my house and the dust settled from the last leaving car, I grabbed a beer from the fridge and pulled a lawn chair into the pasture where my two remaining fosters paced curiously. They were clearly confused and concerned with heavy exhales and fast steps so as I sipped, I started to hum a nameless tune and after some time, both donkeys eventually positioned themselves in front of me. I scratched their noses, continued to hum and finally allowed the huge, webby, conglomerate of emotions that had been tumbling inside me like a heavy load of clothes in the dryer to pierce the surface of my control…and I cried. I hummed and I cried and hummed and cried in what felt like bursting levies until there was nothing left but a wobbly tone vibrating under my tongue.

It occurs to me now that this donkey fostering and adoption process is a metaphor for life: that we’re blessed with different opportunities every day and it’s up to us to seize them whether they’re temporary or not. It’s up to us to do good things and difficult things and to love so hard if it means making this world for someone…even a donkey…a better place. And then one day, this whole life will be over. Everything is temporary…so alarmingly temporary. But temporary doesn’t mean ‘not worth it.’ No, quite the opposite. Temporary means a more compact and intense time to pour your whole self into something good.

I don’t know for how much longer I’ll have these two remaining foster donkeys and as I sat there in that lawn chair, I studied their eyes knowing that one day, probably soon, I’ll be saying goodbye to them, too. Before going in, I replenished their hay and gave them each one more pat on the rump. They ignored the hay and followed me to the gate and watched me walk inside…ears on high alert.

Ethel and Charlie have gone to the best home with one of the loveliest women I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. I know that for them, good things are finally ahead and for my remaining two, I hope to say the same one day.

And when this news story runs in a few weeks, I hope that others will begin to see donkeys in a better way. Maybe more people will pause and reflect on how they’ve treated animals they’ve encountered. Maybe those which would normally ignore the problem or even contribute to it will stop and realize that really, they want to help. I do believe that most people really do just want this world to be a better place and donkeys have made my life better. So. Who knows.

I don’t know, but I’m hopeful.

Peace, Love and Donkeys

So…Why Donkeys?

For the first time in almost two months, small, struggling raindrops splat onto the dirty windshield of my truck as I traveled down the long, dark, two-lane spur that leads back to my town. Momentarily, I forgot which lever controlled the windshield wipers (probably due to lack of use) so after fumbling with the blinker and then the washer fluid, I finally got the wipers going—their blades spreading dirty dampness in rainbow shapes across the windshield.

Welcome as the rain was to our roasted lawns, this particular night was poorly timed because on this night, the peak showing of the Perseid meteor shower was happening with the possibility of seeing an impressive seven to eight falling stars per minute. King Ranch and I had been anxiously awaiting the opportunity to post up in our backyard, lean back in lawn chairs with potent beverages, and see who could spot the most streaks in the sky. But alas, the insulation of thick, gray clouds fully blocked the potential for even a fluke sighting. Maybe we would just settle in on the couch, turn on an episode of Louis C.K.’s show, Louie, and still indulge ourselves with a drink or three.

I was driving home later than I’d originally planned from an evening staff meeting at the studio where I teach yoga. As a group, we (the staff) took individual DiSC assessments to determine our personality traits, strengths and weaknesses in an attempt to more effectively carry out our studio’s mission and to better understand one another in an effort to maintain harmony among all the employees. The results of my assessment were not too far off from my predictions which was a bit disappointing because I’d hoped to be surprised. It was revealed that I am, in fact, a C/S—one who is calm and avoids conflict and generally prefers to avoid too many social engagements. When faced with stress, “…Cs/Sc’s will over-analyze or withdraw, and may even stop talking altogether. Their generally calm and rational approach to their work—coupled with their non-assertive style—makes them appear detached, or potentially passive aggressive.” (Crystal Project 2016).

Chuckling uncomfortably to myself, I realized that of all the people in attendance at the meeting, I was surely the only one still travelling home because I lived the farthest distance away and by far from the studio: I’ve geographically separated myself from others.

I suppose I like it this way—being far. I like the ability to detach when I need to recharge. I like being around people for a short while and then retreating to the safety of my acreage and donkeys. However, loneliness does creep up on me from time to time…usually once Little Foot is napping, King Ranch is at work, and the donkeys are feeling particularly anti-social. It’s as if I haven’t struck the right balance between detachment and engagement with others. I’m easily overwhelmed by interaction, but start to crave it pretty quickly when it’s gone.

As I entered my town, there wasn’t enough rain falling to wash away the dirty trails that my windshield wipers left across the glass which made it difficult to see the road, so I ran my washer fluid a few times to clear the view. Those drops which had been falling were now reduced to a mist that scattered around in the beams of my headlights like small, aimlessly darting gnats.

I thought of these confirmed traits of mine: overly analytical, withdrawing, non-assertive etc, as I arrived outside of my property and was feeling rather vulnerable about it. I knew these things about me but now, everyone else did. Is that a bad thing though? By the time I pulled up, the rain was no more than a thick, floating humidity that fogged the car windows as well as the lenses in my glasses. As a yoga instructor, I speak so often about the importance of connection with one’s self as well as the connection to others, yet, as a human wandering around out there in the world, I usually feel quite disconnected from everything, myself included. Maybe it’s the overly analytical part of my mind, but I feel like I am in constant search for connection—even if it’s just a connection to understanding. Is it normal to feel like I just don’t get it? It meaning anything?

I pulled the glasses off my face to clear the lenses of fog as I stepped out of the truck to open the gate. As I did so, Bunny and Tee lifted their heads from grazing in the front paddock, watching me intently with their ears pointed up and their jaws still slowly chewing. They really do watch everything. With the gate open, I climbed back into the truck, released the brake, and squeaked up the gravel driveway as dots of dew danced around in the beam of the headlights.

After turning off the engine, I stepped out of the truck and noticed that Bunny had hung her head over the fence that lines our driveway, so despite the dampness, I walked to her and placed my hand between her eyes. She lifted her soft nose up and down and laid her ears back. C/Ss are (according to a DiSC Insights blog I found online here) stable and friendly. They don’t handle change very well, or at least not quickly. They’re sympathetic, avoid conflict, and they fear loss of security. They should be handled with care and will likely recoil if met with aggression, strong tones or body language, or pushy personalities. That assessment, I thought, really pinpointed me.

I ran my hand up and down Bunny’s snout as I considered all of this in thought patterns that resembled a complicated roller coaster—the images of my traits running up and down and ’round and ’round, faster than I could hardly keep up with when it hit me that oh my goodness, donkeys are C/S personalities too.

The roller coaster ride in my mind stopped abruptly and I stared into Bunny’s big, brown eyes. In my shift, she widened her eyes and her ears shot straight back up. Her tail flicked and Tee came trotting  over from across the dark, damp paddock.

Donkeys are kind, sympathetic, overly analytical, slow to adjust to change, reliant, dependable, and typically avoid conflicts. They need to be handled with extreme care, especially those who have been through a lot. They are loyal to a fault but will shut down if threatened. Oh my goodness. They’re just like me. Overthinking, anxious, kind, thoughtful, self-conscious, non-assertive, people pleaser ME.

I was suddenly very anxious in this discovery—as if somehow, I’d just discovered the glowing and priceless key that unlocks the secrets to the entire universe. I scrambled around the garage to the gate which leads into the pasture and there, Bunny and Tee met me with warm exhales and wide, welcoming eyes.

I dropped to a knee and placed a hand on each of their jaws, pulling their noses in close to my face. I’m sure they wondered what on Earth was happening but they didn’t resist or recoil. They didn’t resist because in typical C/S fashion, “they enjoy people, but prefer individuals and groups that they trust and feel comfortable around.” (DiSC Insight Blog 2016). They were being kind and patient. I laughed out loud as I realized this and from the back parts of the property, two of my foster donkeys brayed loudly, causing Bunny and Tee to reciprocate by calling back. I leapt to my feet and by now, the rain was no more than a heavy dampness—like a warm washcloth wrapped around absolutely everything. I ran as fast as I could in my saturated converse tennis shoes to the gate that separates the foster donkeys from my own and there they all were waiting, ears pointed up towards the gray sky.

They all watched me wide-eyed and I know why: they felt my excitement and my vulnerability from feeling so seen because donkeys feel what those around them are feeling. They’re natural care-givers and highly intuitive. After patting Bunny and Tee on the nose (assuring them that they still are and will always be my favorite), I unlocked the gate to the paddock with the fosters and latched it behind me as all five of them circled around me. I could have sworn that they smiled—at least it felt like it. I know I was. Like a big dummy, I smiled.

I’d never felt so seen. I’d never felt so understood. I’d figured out the answer to that confusing and complex question that I’ve been asked by so many and in so many different ways and have never properly known how to answer…that question: “Why donkeys?”

Why donkeys? Why? I know now.

Because they get me…and I get them.

Why donkeys? We see the world and react to it in the very same way. Their thoughtfulness, sensitivity, need for space yet need for engagement, overly-analytical minds: I get it now.

Why donkeys? Because we are the very same.

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Strong Heart

I should note to my followers that this post is neither ranch nor donkey related. This is a piece I’ve written as a way to look for answers for myself. After all, writing is a tool to discover things. Although I do personally journal things that never make it to the public, this one, I wanted to share. 


 

Thick skin is an idiom used to describe a tool for survival. It’s something you’re told to have when someone insults your cooking or reveals that you didn’t make the cut for the dance team because well, you just weren’t good enough.

As a hyper-sensitive person who seems to be affected by almost everything, thick skin is both a foreign concept and a source of deep frustration for me. Thick skin has become this passing grade that most of my peers seem to have reached while I’m still shuffling through all my chicken-scratch notes trying to make sense of what the hell it even means and how can one create it if they’re not just born with it? It’s this idea that has turned into a solution for my sensitivity problems—if I can just cultivate thick skin, then life, as I have known it to unfold, will be so much easier. After all, my sensitivity, I’ve been told, makes people pretty uncomfortable sometimes. It’s a weakness I should work out.

It was 6:30 in the morning and in Texas during the summer, that means that it already approached 90 degrees outside. On my cell phone was a notification that I’d received an email from another publishing company to whom I’d recently submitted a short story. The subject of the email was too ambiguous to know its contents, but after many recent rejections, I decided to wait a while to open it. I didn’t want to risk starting off another day with a “no.”

These days, in addition to brushing my teeth and washing my face in the morning as the coffee is brewing, I also liberally apply SPF 50 all over my body knowing that any amount of time outside will result in a burn otherwise. I used to try to tan, but I’m a girl whose pink skin freckles. Tanning is a painful process that always ends in blisters that pop and peel. I also come from a long line of scarred, fair skinned relatives who warn me of the dangers of the sun. They ask if I can see their scars and do I know that they could have prevented it had they just worn sunscreen?

Of course, when you’re young, skin cancer is something that happens to people much older than you, so you don’t seriously consider the consequences. Two months ago, however, I noticed that one of the larger freckles on my right arm had grown and changed into a strange shape—more like a splat than a spot. And also, today, I turned 30.

I stood in front of the mirror in my bathroom topless and slid the sunscreen all over me. Despite my attempts at protecting my skin recently, I’ve still managed to form a farmer’s tan: a slightly more red than pink U-shape on my chest and fair caps on my shoulders. The farmer’s tan was inevitable living on a ranch because I spend most of my days working outside in the Texas sun.

In the middle of my chest, in this light, I can actually see my breast bone and the inside edges of my ribs. Skin is so thin there. Beneath the freckles are faint, blueish green lines pumping away in and out of my heart.

I think of my heart beating—blood rushing in and pulsing out. It’s been nearly 5-years since I had heart surgery. I’d developed an arrhythmia when I was 24 years old that the doctors said was probably a preexisting condition, although it was nothing I knew to run through my family. It had gotten out of hand for reasons that doctors could not figure out to the point where I’d pass out walking up stairs or if I got too hot. The morning I went in for the surgery was when I found out that I’d need to be awake for the procedure so that my heart would behave as “normally” as it had been—not affected at all by anesthesia.

It wasn’t open-heart surgery, luckily. Instead they’d go in through my femoral artery with a snake like tool and burn off the nerve endings in my heart that they found responsible for the arrhythmia.

I’ve been asked before if the surgery was painful and my response is always, shit yes, it was painful. It was beyond imaginable. I guessed that back in time, this was what it felt like to have a sword slide through your chest during a dual several times, only, I didn’t get the opportunity to protect myself. I just laid naked under stadium lights with 13 doctors and nurses around me as nerve endings in my heart were literally burned away. For days, my heart was swollen. I discovered that balling up pieces of bread into dense balls of dough and slowly swallowing them whole was a cheap and easy massage for the swollen walls of my heart.

I placed a hand over my chest, the sunscreen cool in my palm, and rubbed in circles. Since that surgery, I’ve kept an open dialogue with my heart. I have pep talks with her. I remind her what she’s been through when she’s down. After that procedure, heartbreak meant something completely different to us. I ask her sometimes if she’s doing alright. For the most part she is, but she worries.

For example, she worries about our kid and how we’re supposed to mother him in a way that sets him up for success. Her and I were bullied as children and we just took it. We didn’t like confrontation and I suppose we still don’t—us still avoiding it at almost any cost. Standing up to bullies or even telling grown ups about being bullied was a sure fire way to end up in a big confrontation. So we kept quiet and waited for the day to end when we could go home and play with our beagle and dig holes in the yard in search of dinosaur fossils.

She worries about men with guns because there are many days where that’s the only news story. She didn’t want to go to the movies to see the newly released Finding Dory with her husband and kid on father’s day because she just kept thinking about Pulse in Orlando—it having happened only a few days prior. She thought about Aurora. Sandy Hook. San Bernadino. She couldn’t shake the thought of it happening in the large theater in which they’d purchased tickets. She hurt for the young man who texted his mom right before he died. She used to hang out at clubs like Pulse with her friends. That was a safe spot to dance and drink and play and become lost in the sounds and light so that you could feel the pulse in your veins and beneath your feet as the music swallowed you.

She worries that things like mass shootings and bullying and distant wars are so common these days that we’re all becoming calloused to them and somehow, we’re supposed to raise a kid in all this. Thick skin, I suppose. Perhaps that’s the answer. But thick skin doesn’t take away the mother’s grief whose son texted her right before he was killed. Thick skin doesn’t feed and house and embrace the hundreds of thousands of people displaced from distant wars—wars that we could never, ever comprehend. But what, besides thick skin, can we do? What are Syrian parents doing for their children who don’t even know what home means? Bullying is the least of their worries. But then again, I’m sure it happens, still. And hurts, just as badly. All those hearts beating and beating.

I glided across the pale caps of my shoulders and down my biceps, which I flexed to remind myself that there was strength there. I avoided that little spot in the crook of my elbows where I can very clearly see my veins because for some reason, when I touch that spot, I feel a tickle deep down in my ears.

I don’t know how to make her, my heart, stop worrying. I don’t know how to grow thick skin. I’ve tried meditating. Medication. Therapy. Even prayer. But still, she worries, so I try my best to trust her strength and remind her of it when she’s lost sight of it. She has, after  all, survived torture under bright lights in that surgery. Good girl.

In the bedroom, my phone buzzed with some new notification and that reminded me of the email I hadn’t opened. Every single aspiring writer on the planet who wants to make anything of it is told that they have to have “thick skin” and that rejection is all a part of it. They’re told that even J.K. Rowling was rejected with Harry Potter over and over again and now, look at her success! They’re told that you just keep going. Buck up. Move on to the next. They’ve all been through it and so will you. We all need to have thick skin. It’s good for you.

In my reflection, I remind myself of this. Buck up, girl. You keep going. Thick skin. Think of that anonymous message you got on your blog telling you that your words touched this random person you’ve never met and that she loved the way the world looked through your eyes. Remember how you cried in that grocery store parking lot after reading this anonymous person’s message and you called your mom to tell her about it? That’s got to mean something.

That was the same parking lot that I called my husband from a week earlier because as I walked out of the grocery store with my toddler in the seat of the cart—paper bags tumbling over with bread and vegetables and milk—my eyes were drawn to the large muscular calf of a man in front of me. He wore red and orange plaid shorts and a gray shirt that fit his muscular build too tightly. On his left calf, wrapping around the entirety of it, was a red and black swastika. It growled from his leg, flexing with every step he took. My kid was facing me, luckily, not that he’d know what it was anyway. But there it was, oozing out of his leg like oil pouring from a leaking rig in the gulf. I realized then that I’d never seen a swastika outside of books or films.

I stopped, there on the ramp out in front of the grocery store, and watched the four-legged creature attached to the man in shorts march angrily out into the lot. The hair on my neck tingled at the roots. I looked around nervously to see if anyone else in the parking lot had noticed it too, but if they had, I couldn’t tell. It, along with its host, cut through a few aisles of cars and sank down into a white Mercedes Benz. A new, stark white Mercedes Benz with chrome rims and a tall ornament on the hood.  They drove away quicker than parking lots typically allow, the engine booming in my bones.

Into my squeaky, rusted truck I climbed—my kid in his rear-facing car seat. I called my husband and upon hearing his “hello?” I crumbled and cried heavy, heaving cries. It was painful to see—that sort of pain that makes you quiver under your rib cage. It makes the air heavy and that space where the base of your skull meets your neck tense. Then the nausea sets in. Then tears, when they feel safe to escape.

A real-life swastika on a real-life person. And he was displaying it. He wanted that tattoo to be seen. He wanted no confusion as to what his views on certain things were, so much so that he’d have it permanently illustrated on his body. And would then walk through a grocery store with it. And growl in his car with it.

In the bathroom, I tried to reach sunscreen as far down on the backs of my shoulders as my arms could reach. My rib cage lifted when I did this and I could see straight through it. Looking closely enough, I could see my pulse right above my collar bones—a tiny little bump, bump, bump.

The man with the swastika, from behind, seemed like a younger man. I’d guessed he couldn’t have been much older than me—today I am 30—and truly, I thought that that kind of hatred was dying out and that my generation was bringing love back into a torn apart world. I’d wanted to believe that so badly. My heart did, too. We were children after segregation. We were children who learned about the holocaust and about slavery and about how we’re all equal and how wrong humanity had gotten it before. We learned in school how power and money can corrupt world leaders and so it was our responsibility to do better. It was our obligation, as a human race, to love as hard as we could. Otherwise, we’d fail. That man in the parking lot made me feel like we were failing.

Done with my application, I pulled a shirt over my head, walked into my bedroom and glanced over at my phone—the green light in the corner calling me to come check the notifications. I thought about just getting it over with, but decided I wanted my coffee first.

Thick skin, remember? Just keep going.

But I don’t have thick skin. I can see right through it.

I sat on the velvet, purple couch in my living room that an old friend who no longer talks to me gave to me several years ago. The pillows match it and over the back of it, hangs a quilt that was made by a friend’s mom: another friend, to whom I no longer have a relationship. I sipped my coffee and watched hens peck for bugs in the yard. They scratched and nibbled and I wondered about those two, old friends: the purple couch and the mom quilt. Neither of those relationships ended well or mutually. Then again, when friendships are declared over by either party instead of naturally decaying with time like a browning banana, it’s usually not for peaceful reasons.

At the bottom of my cup of coffee, a few coffee grounds looked back up at me. I wondered how they’d gotten through the filter and felt bad that they seemed to be hanging on for dear life. They were so vulnerable there in the bottom of the cup. Damp. Cold. Confused. With the tip of my finger I wiped them from the bottom of the coffee mug and onto my shirt before heading back to the bedroom to check my phone.

I looked at my home screen momentarily—my phone’s background being a picture of my wide-eyed donkey named Bunny—as the email envelope in the corner called for my attention. Bunny, I’d decided, was smiling in this particular photo. On the other side of that picture was probably me dangling a carrot that she could already taste, although I can’t quite remember. So close.

I clicked the notification.

“Thank you for your submission, however, this piece is not for us…”

I stopped reading. I closed the email and looked at Bunny. I imagined she said, “It’s okay. Buck up. Be better. Be stronger. Keep going.” Tears stung my eyes, but quickly, they stopped, as the reel of “you already knew this would be the answer” ran through my mind. I did. I did know it was the answer. Buck up. Thick skin. 

From his nursery, Little Foot started to whimper, so I tossed my phone onto the bed and went to pull my kid from his crib. He smiled at me sleepily when I walked in, reaching his arms for mine. I picked him up and he rested his curly head on my shoulder. I still love his smell. It’s no longer new-born. But it’s Little Foot. Just caring for him sometimes makes me cry, although I couldn’t tell you why. He’s just so…so….gosh I don’t think there’s a word. He’s my son. A piece of me. The very best and most beautiful piece of me.

My heart reached for his, as she always does. Sometimes, I think they actually communicate through our chests. I carried him back into my room and stood over my phone. It no longer blinked green in the corner, but instead was black and blank. On my shoulder, Little Foot started to fall back asleep, so I laid on my bed, holding him against my chest. His breath moved quicker than mine, yet deeper. His breath moved all the way down to the bottom of his belly and I wondered at what point we, as adults, stop regularly belly-breathing? It’s just so shallow these days.

I forced my own breath down into my belly, allowing the heart to thump three full times before I’d start to exhale. She liked it after she got used to it. So did I.

I reached for my phone and opened the email again.

Thank you for your submission, however, the piece is not for us. Don’t feel bad, though; this is a reflection of our aesthetic, not your quality.”

I laid back then, tossing my phone to the side. It slid off the mattress and landed on the carpet with a soft thud. I laid there and I cried, although I wasn’t sad. It was just another no and one that I expected, anyway. But still, I cried, wishing I knew how to form thick skin to make the disappointment go away,or at least, not sting so much.

My heart played in the depth of my deep breath as Little Foot rose and fell on top of them. I do not have thick skin and I’m beginning to wonder if I ever will. I still don’t like confrontation and I am intimidated easily by things like hateful tattoos and guns.

I suppose I do have a strong heart, though. I know that because I can see right through my skin and into her. I can see all her scars from all those burns and she really does wear them proudly. They’re the strongest part of her. And I suspect, they’re the strongest part of me.

She worries, but she hasn’t stopped yet. And she hasn’t stopped enjoying things like deep breaths and donkeys and writing and hard work. And the things she loves, like Little Foot and King Ranch, she loves fiercely and infinitely. She keeps going. My god, sweet heart, am I grateful.

30 years, little heart. It’s you who’s brought me this far. It’s you who’s held onto the relationships that matter. It’s you who doesn’t lose hope even when we’re hurt, when we’re rejected, or when we’re intimidated. It’s you who reminds me that there are good people in the world and that fear is only what you allow. It’s you who is the strong one and who will continue to lead the way. I’ll follow wherever you go just as I always have.  

Little, strong heart, perhaps if I’ve got you then I can stop worrying so much over thick skin. Maybe we can rest softly in our sensitivity and be grateful for the depth in which we feel things there. At the very least, if we’re still around 30 years from now, we can revisit the topic and see what you’ve learned.

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You’re Done, Dead Weight

On our property are several pecan trees. During the fall, literally 1000’s of pecans fall with the leaves — some crack open and some don’t. Pecans that do crack open are quickly discovered by hungry donkeys who look forward to the tasty, autumn treat.  

During the summer time, however, the pecan trees turn into massive, mushroom clouds of bright, thick green with heavy and far-reaching branches. They’re lovely for shade from the hostile, Texas sun, but do quickly overgrow into forces that are difficult in which to reckon.

The overgrowth also makes it particularly hard to mow the grass. More often than I’d like to admit, I have found myself riding the mower through a low hanging arm of one of the pecan trees that leaves a long scratch across my arm or face.

I needed to do some trimming.

When I have tasks like this, instead of trying to keep up with a very curious and exploratory Little Foot, I strap him into his toddler hiking pack and hoist him onto my back. We both wear sunscreen and hats and I’ve found that he actually quite likes the sometimes hours-long piggyback ride. My excuse to get out of having to do a proper workout enjoys it, too.

I stood underneath the welcoming shade of the pecan tree that sits farthest back on our property as Bunny and Tee wandered up to see what we were doing. When Bunny noticed I had a tool of some sort, she trotted away, likely assuming that I was planning not to trim the tree, but her hooves instead. Tee stayed a few steps away, mostly curious about the companion riding upon my back.

I began trimming. The branches were more tangled than I imagined they’d be. I assumed this would be a pretty straight forward chore, but instead, found that the smaller and older the branches became, the more they weaved in and out of one another. They reached down with curiosity as if they were trying to touch the ground. None of them actually did, so I wonder if they talked about it amongst themselves. Maybe it was a competition. Who could reach the ground first?

Bunny decided that my shears were, in fact, not a threat and followed closely behind me to nibble on the leaves of the branches that tumbled down to the ground. Over my shoulder, Little Foot’s glossy, blue eyes watched my chore intently. Sometimes, he’d snort.

Branch after branch, I chopped. Some were easy and some required more might. Sweat accumulated where the straps of my Little Foot pack wrapped around my hips and chest and had even started to run down my forehead, stinging my eyes. Still, I chopped.

I began to notice that many of the branches that hung down lowest were actually barren: dry, prickly sticks not producing anything but weight. I felt bad for them. They were sad. I felt guilty for chopping them away having worked so hard to get here.

From the lowest hanging stick’s point of view, I could imagine that I was quite terrifying. A sweating, two headed monster wielding a long, bright orange and black pair of shears whom, without warning, chopped off the arms of these innocent branches. Behind me, my noble steed dined on the remains of those fallen.

But it was my duty to chop. I had to. I swore an oath to protect my land and that included trimming the trees so that I could properly mow. Otherwise, our land would become a breeding ground for snakes and even more mosquitoes than there already were.

So I continued to chop as Bunny (and now Tee) continued to chomp.

Some branches went down easily and without a fight while others struggled until the end. The more I chopped, however, the more I realized the way the blooming bits of the branches would spring far up towards the sky and even bounce a few times having lost the weight of the bare sticks.

Perhaps these sticks, instead of holding on, were actually looking to be let go.

The pecan trees — nutrient producing and life sustaining beings don’t have the capability to remove their dead bits. They need assistance. My, how the branches perked when I removed those parts which were bare.

I chopped more, but this time, triumphantly! I was healing a hurting tree!

This took just over two hours. Little Foot actually fell asleep on my back. I decided to take the extra time of his nap and clean out the donkey’s water troughs. They were grateful. All that noble-steeding left them quite parched.

Of course this made me wonder what it is that I’m holding onto that I just can’t bring myself to release. I know there are things. I know that there are memories that creep around in the dusty parts of my mind that feel exposed and raw whenever something shines their light on them. There are people who, when they pop into my vision, my heart hurts. Literally, it hurts. There are angry bits, too, that when poked or prodded explode in a fury of 4-letter words and end with tears.

I know they’re there. I know it. But I don’t know how to chop them off.

Sure, I still bloom. I still do my job. I mostly look nice. But my insides, in many ways, are quite heavy.

King Ranch pulls barren branches off from time to time. He sees them. As does my mom. As do most people who get close enough and who care to notice. Then again, I suppose we’ve all got dead stuff lingering around. Even when it’s all chopped and cleared away, next season, there will be more.

What I’m finding now is that it’s a much harder task to go through and release the pecan trees of their dead weight when I’ve let it get out of hand. If I’d have kept up with it, this chore would have been done in a fraction of the time and with a fraction of the effort.

Still, it needed to get done. No matter the time or the effort, it needed to get done. It will again next year, too. And it’ll be worth it to see how proudly the pecan trees stand after they’ve been released.

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Little Foot’s Little Books

We are nearing the end of the usual soaked, Texas spring. Soon, the clay will crackle in devastating dehydration and the treetops and rosebushes will be broiled. I give it another month until we’re begging for relief from the heat.

I sat on the floor in the living room sipping my coffee, watching Little Foot flip through his ‘Peppa Pig’ book while it poured in sheets of rain outside. From his point of view, the pages were actually upside down, but still, he flipped through each cardboard page, one-by-one, and studied the pictures. He flips the pages with his left hand and holds his right hand out for balance, even though he sat steadily on the floor.

I’m so grateful that he loves books. All day, when we’re inside, he brings book after book from the bookshelf in his room to me so I’ll read it to him. We read them 3, 4, sometimes 5 times in a row before he retreats to grab another.

I’ll use funny voices if there are characters, some of which make him laugh and some of which make him turn the page faster. I’m not particularly good at voices.

I’ve heard so often that “I don’t have time to read” or “what’s the point of reading fiction?”

The point is simple: you learn things. You learn about worlds that often, you cannot visit. You learn that there are other “me”s out there. That everyone is a “me.” Neil Gaiman talks about this in his most recent book (which I am obsessing over slightly) called ‘A View From the Cheap Seats.’ He talks long and emotionally about how reading fiction helps readers become empathetic. It teaches you how to see the world — real or otherwise — from someone else’s point of view. Young children learn very early on that they’re not the only “me” out there. We are all “me”s.

Little Foot stood up from his book, ran as quickly as he could back into his room, and came back out carrying my copy of Don Quixote. This made me laugh and I told him that I think this might be a tough read right now. He is, after all, only 17 months old. Come to think of it, I wonder from where he grabbed my copy of Don Quixote in the first place.

I thumbed through the thick paperback as Little Foot backed himself up into my lap, through the hundreds of pages with the tiniest, single-spaced print, and picked out a few lines to read aloud for him.

In my best, silly Spanish voice I read:

“Did I not tell you so?” said Don Quixote. “Wait but a moment, Sancho; I will do it as quickly as you can say the credo.” Then, stripping off hastily his breeches, he remained in nothing but skin and shirt. Then, without more ado he cut a couple of capers and did two somersaults with his head down and his legs in the air…

…at this point, I was laughing which made Little Foot grin and scrunch up his nose…

…displaying such arts of his anatomy as drove Sancho to turn Rozinante’s bridle to avoid seeing such a display. So, he rode away fully satisfied to swear that his master was mad…”

I couldn’t read anymore because Little Foot had started laughing hysterically, I think, because I had giggled so much. I’d also gotten louder, my Spanish accent more ridiculous. So I tickled Little Foot who squirmed onto the ground, gasping for air between belly baby laughs.

I gave him a break and stopped tickling so that I could finish my coffee before it got cold. Little Foot scampered into his room and returned, this time carrying his ‘Big Book of Animals’. The book, almost as big as him, is colorful page after page of zoo animals, farm animals, birds, house pets, and a few more categories. We go through this book, Little Foot flipping the pages while his blue eyes jump from shape to shape and me listing off the animals and making their sounds (side note: what does an Egret sound like? Besides the picture, I don’t know if I really know what an Egret is.) I skipped Egret.

This went on for sometime — I drank coffee and tried to get things done around the house and Little Foot chased me with various books, sometimes bashing me in the legs with them, sometimes plopping himself on the floor and flipping through them on his own.

I’d been thinking about books a lot lately, partially because I’m working on one of my own and partially because of the aforementioned Neil Gaiman book I’ve been working my way through. I’d been thinking that books were very important to me growing up and I was very encouraged to read as much as I could.

Where I get sad and a bit regretful is how, as a kid, I was so shy and so insecure that when I did have a book out at school or otherwise and was made fun of (because kids do this – they make fun of other kids for the silliest things) I would, instead of find a safe place to read or tell the bullies to buzz off, I just stopped reading entirely. For years, I didn’t read, even if I wanted to. I just stopped.

I watched Little Foot on the floor now flipping through a lovely kid’s book called ‘The Pout Pout Fish’ by Deborah Diesen and I want, so badly, for him to always love to read. I want him to go absolutely everywhere, reality wise and fictionally speaking. And I don’t want him to worry at all what other people say or do.

I want for him to do what he’s meant to do. Whether that’s read or build things or fly planes or drop different chemicals into test tubes to try and solve critical problems. Or if he wants to splash odd colored paints onto canvases to convey his feelings or if he wants to dive deep into the ocean to learn just a bit more about life down there — I don’t want for him to feel like he has to make those choices based on someone else’s permission or approval.

How, as a mom, do you instill confidence in your child when you, yourself, struggle so much?

I don’t have the answer to this. I don’t have a lesson that I’ve learned on my ranch yet to answer this question either. I’m hoping that I figure it out. I suspect I don’t have that much time to do so.

What I do know is that right now, more than his stuffed animals, his blocks, his trucks, and his dinosaurs, Little Foot is enamored with books. He can’t get enough of them.

And I can’t get enough of that.

Outside, the rain subsided. I thought about going outside but by the time I pulled on some pants, the Texas heat was pulling the rainwater off the ground outside in blurry waves. I would need to wait until the ground was fully cooked outside because it’d be impossible to breathe that steaming air right now.

Instead, I pulled Little Foot into my lap with our copy of ‘Love You Forever’ by Robert Munsch which, for him was a great choice because of the colorful pictures and over and over song of “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.”

But for me, it was brutal. I bawled — big, sloppy, swollen crying — because how is this all moving so quickly? This season is ending and then on into the next. One day, Little Foot will be the one to tell me what an Egret says.

 

 

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Life and Death, Again. I Guess That’s the Way of Things.

It wouldn’t rain. My goodness, had it been trying to, but it just would not rain. The thing about late, Texas spring is that when the sky tries to rain, but can’t, we’re all left wandering through soupy, walking-through-a-warm-wash-cloth air that gets trapped around the middle of the rib-cage when you inhale. For those of us who wear glasses regularly, you can expect that they will fog up much like a car windshield does if rain has gotten into it.

Still, the property, the garden, the chickens, and the donkeys all needed tending to, so I slipped my feet into my work boots, grabbed the cowboy hat that King Ranch and I share, and headed into the yard. Over my shoulder, I had a red, 100 foot extension cord needed to power the tiller for the garden. In my back, right pocket, I had my yellow gardening gloves and in the back, left pocket, my phone. I keep it handy because, as many of us 80’s kids entering our 30’s do these days, I take pictures of my activities and post them on various social media sites to link up with other enthusiasts.

This is an introvert’s dream — social media. It’s connection without obligation. People have a lot of negative things to say about these social platforms and although I agree that we should all be careful in the kind of information we’re sharing as well as be careful with our time, I guess I don’t think we need to feel bad about using it as a way to connect. As long as you’re still getting outside and living life away from screens, I say, utilize the interwebs as you please. Just be smart and don’t become dependent.

Little Foot was in a hiking pack specific for babies and toddlers that I wore like a backpack and it made sweat pool along my spine — it ran down and collected at the waist of my jeans. He likes it though — riding in the hiking pack while I work around the yard. He even naps sometimes.

I’d opened up the well house to retrieve the tiller and a rake in order to start tidying the garden, when from out of the corner of my eye, I saw a few streaks of black move across the cloudy, heavy sky. Leaning the tiller back against the inside wall of the well house, I turned to see somewhere between 8 and 10 large birds circling the back parts of the property. I thought they could have been vultures, but I wasn’t sure. They circled like vultures do.

I stood there for a moment, watching the swirl of birds criss-cross back and forth over something that was clearly on my property, every once and awhile, diving down and then swooping back up. The donkeys were okay; they stood just on the other side of the fence from Little Foot and me curious, I’m sure, to know if we had carrots — which I did, in the front, left pocket of my jeans. I had planned on giving them to the donkeys when I was done with the garden and headed out to the rest of the property to mow.  

Once, about 6 months ago, I was out on the property and I found two vertebrae. I think they must have belonged to a cow or other large animal because they were about as big around as my fist. My only thought is that vultures dropped them there. We have a lot of them around here. Here’s a picture I snapped a while back of what I assume is their relaxing time:

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I closed the door to the well house and adjusted Little Foot’s pack on my back as I headed out into the pasture. The donkeys greeted me enthusiastically and nosed at my hips, probably, because they smelled the carrots in my pocket. I pulled out a few for them and continued walking to where the large birds were circling.

A few of the birds floated higher as two dove down quickly without soaring back up. This made me nervous. Then, one after another, they dove down. Every few seconds, one of the massive birds would dart into the sky, but then gracefully glide back down. I really don’t know how many there were.

My glasses kept fogging up, so I placed them up on the brim of my cowboy hat but of course, this made everything look like an impressionist painting. I had the thought that I really should finally call the optometrist and get a new prescription for contacts.

As I approached the back paddock, from behind me, Bunny let out a loud bray and shortly after, Tee squealed in his loose-timing-belt sounding bray. They were indicating to me that I should be careful. In my blurred vision, I could see the collection of birds swarmed around something, although I had no idea what. I’d seen some rabbits on the property recently and wondered if it could have been one of them.

I wasn’t sure if I should be worried — would vultures (if indeed they were vultures) attack Little Foot and I? As far as I knew, birds were pretty scared of humans. Still, the fact that Bunny and Tee brayed nervously was enough to make me halt and keep distance.

I pulled the glasses off the brim of my hat, cleared the fog from the lenses with the bottom of my shirt, and pressed them onto my face. There were seven of them, and most definitely vultures. They had bald heads and black feathers and were frantic in their consuming of, whatever it was. I found myself becoming angry that this carnage was happening on my land, but was nervous to get closer because still, I wasn’t sure if vultures could be violent to us.

In the front, right pocket of my jeans, I’d had a small spade in case I had any digging to do in the garden. The handle was shoved down into my pocket and the actual scooping part of it was sticking up. I pulled the spade from my pocket and threw it as hard and far as I could at the pack of feasting birds while screaming, “blllaaarrrrghhh!!!” I’ve got a pretty good arm — I did, after all, play 3 years of little league softball from ages 9 to somewhere between 11 and 12.

All but two of the massive birds scattered away without a sound but wing flapping, so I felt safer to take a few more steps forward. Plus, Bunny and Tyrion were three or four steps behind me, so I felt safe within their protective proximity.

It was then that I noticed what the birds had: the smaller of the two birds, although, not smaller by much, reached down with it’s nude beak and grabbed hold of something that it then stretched up and I immediately knew that it was the rubber-band texture of lean muscle. The pinkish, red bit snapped and dangled from the bird’s beak before the thing gobbled it up with only a few gulps. The other bird, pecked a few times and lifted the creature up to flip it.

It was a squirrel. A light brown squirrel.

One by one, the other birds landed cautiously, although they kept an eye on the donkeys, Little Foot, and me between pecks at the squirrel.

Little Foot said, “huh, huuuu” which, to him, means donkey. When King Ranch or I ask Little foot, “what does a donkey say?” — “hu huuu” is his response.

Both donkeys were only a step behind me with their ears straight up. They watched the birds like I did, curiously and cautiously.

I turned back towards the garden and decided I’d come back later for my spade. I didn’t want Little Foot to figure out that he was seeing creature consumption. I also worried that this was one of the squirrels that lived in the pecan tree in our backyard — one of the squirrels that constantly drives our dog, Tucker, crazy in the mornings.

Back in the garden, I tilled and pulled the larger weeds by hand. I also thought about the squirrel and wondered how it must have died. Or maybe the vultures killed it. I don’t know. What I did know was that I was angry. I was angry that a gang of big birds chose to spend their afternoon tearing apart the little guy. Surely, there was some larger carcass elsewhere that they could have fought over — but instead, they fought over a squirrel. A helpless squirrel.

As I pulled a few onions out of the ground, careful not to disturb the ones not quite ready around them, I realized I was crying. But I guess birds need to eat, too, right? Still, I couldn’t help feeling sorrow for that squirrel. What a way to go.

I noticed, then, that my poblano pepper plant had finally popped out some peppers after weeks of only flowering. They were still very small, but a deep, forest green and shiny. Life. It was sprouting life.

This made me so proud. Until I lived here at the ranch, I’d never had a garden. Of course, I’d never had a toddler or donkeys or chickens either. And all in one season, I’ve had tomatoes and peppers and onions and lettuce grow as well as a new chick hatch and become part of the flock.

Life and death. All here. Life and death.

The beginning and the end. And we’re lucky enough to be in the middle somewhere.

It’s a powerful thing: being in the middle. This is where we get to do something. Where we get to be someone. Where we get to stand up for what’s right. That doesn’t mean we have to understand everything, but we can be kind. We can appreciate that which is unfolding in front of us.

There is so much more than us. It’s right there — all of it. A whole world. Life and death and everything in between. How badass that we get the privilege of being in between right now.

Cherish it.

Choppy Waves

To your tiny face, I stoop down,

My thumb pushing that line

Of tears. They’re cool on

Your warm, tired face, and

Glaze the depth of your blue

Eyes with heavy glint that hurts.

 

Come here, unto my chest, my

Baby, and feel my beating heart. Every

Thump thumps just for you, every

Hair, and every cell.

 

Your mind a treasure trove

Still untapped and

Waiting to be found. Oh my

Baby, how I’d take it if I could,

This hurt that wobbles your

Mouth, your soul, for smooth,

Quiet shores are all you should have.

 

I did the same, myself, you know,

Curled up into mommy’s lap. She

Would stroke my hair and hum to me

And that’s when

Land appeared.

 

It’s hard to see, sometimes, I

Know, that peace is up ahead. You’ll

Get there, you know, I promise you that:

Where the sun is gold and sand is

Warm. The breeze will blow

Through your hair.

 

For now, just rest, upon my chest

My breath, the flowing waves. My

Baby I’m here for you, close your

Eyes now and sleep. When you

Wake, I’ll have your hand, the

Trail ahead awaits.

 

If ever those eyes hang with

Hurt or with despair. My baby,

Just come over here, my hands

Will run right through

Your hair.
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Life. Death. And Somewhere in the Middle

As part of my morning routine, after coffee and a stretch and in addition to feeding the dog and giving the donkeys a pet, I check the chicken coop for any newly laid eggs in which to collect.

For the past month or so, however, I have been unable to collect eggs because one of my Rhode Island Red chickens named Andre has been brooding – sitting atop an ever growing pile of eggs in an attempt to hatch some.

I suppose I should have known that this was a strong possibility – that one of our chickens would go broody. White Rooster has staked our home as his territory (it’s been months now since we’ve seen Rainbow Rooster) and well, it’s that time of year. Birds and the bees, and such.

I’ve tried, on several attempts, to collect at least a few eggs from beneath Andre, but her pecking and snipping at my hand just isn’t worth it, so I decided to just wait and see what happens.

It was a Thursday morning that was expected to be an unseasonably hot one – highs were to reach 80 degrees and it’s only April. Oh Texas weather. There was still morning dew covering every surface outside, however, it quickly disappeared, little by little, as the sun’s rays extended. It almost felt warm and chilly at the same time. With my rubber boots slipped on, I took a peek into the coop to see if indeed, Andre was still brooding and if, by chance, there would be new eggs within reach to collect.

To my surprise, I saw 4 eggs sitting by themselves about 3 feet away from Andre and assumed that meant that one or two of the other chickens had laid them there. Ducking into the coop, I extended my left hand to grab the eggs when my gaze was grabbed by something slightly buried beneath the hay between these random 4 eggs and Andre. I couldn’t tell what it was, so careful to not get pecked, I used my right hand to pull some hay back when I realized what I saw.

I think I shrieked. Or gasped. Or maybe it was just a heavy exhale, but whatever my lungs did caused me to stumble backward. There, in the middle of this box, was a dead chick.

I sat there for a moment on the floor of the coop – the damp mud was cool and soaking into my pants beneath me – and tried to gather some sense. Why? What? How?

After a few breaths, I stood up and peeked into the box once more. The dead chick lay there without any feathers. It’s feet were curled up close to its belly and it’s beak was tucked way down towards its chest. This must be the shape that chicks are in right before they hatch. I briefly recalled that Little Foot was in this same shape in every one of his last few ultrasounds.

I backed out of the coop and called King Ranch who didn’t answer, so I called my mom and told her what I’d found, crying.

After our conversation, I realized that I would need to remove that chick as soon as possible to deter any predators who may have already caught its scent. Foxes, bobcats, and coyotes are not at all foreign to this area.

For a moment, I stepped back inside to make sure that Little Foot was still sleeping in his crib – which he was – stretched out with one arm reaching above his head and the other laid across his upper belly. His mouth was slightly open and his breath rose and fell smoothly. This made me grin.

Back outside, I retrieved the shovel from the well house and dug a hole in the backyard beneath one of the rosebushes that is completely covered in light pink blooms. The bush towers above me and I thought that this would be a good resting space for the chick.

With my gloves slipped on, I scooped the baby chick into my hands. It’s neck flopped, so I tried to ball it up again like it was. It’s weight in my hands was practically nothing – as if I’d been carrying half of a small onion.

What was most odd was that Andre only watched me scoop up this baby. Not once did she squawk, peck, or even fidget. She just watched me, her orange eyes wide and her head cocked to one side. I slid the baby into my left hand and placed my right hand on top of it, moving the chick out of Andre’s sight, as I stared at her for a moment.

“What happened?” I asked her.

She stared back at me.

“I’m sorry for this,” I said.

Andre shifted her weight and ruffled the feathers around the base of her wings before settling back down onto the pile of eggs that must be at least 30 by now.

With the chick covered in my hands, I turned to leave the coop when from behind me, I heard the faintest peep peep peep.

On my heel, I swiveled around and noticed that Andre, within that one second that I had my back turned, had turned around herself in the corner of this box where all I could see was the fluff of her bottom.

Peep. Peep. Peep.

My heart hopped in my chest as I took a step back towards the box. As I did so, Andre let out a trilled scream and all of her bottom feathers spread apart. Again, I stumbled back, noticing that my hands which held the deceased chick, were shaking.

I went out into the yard, laid the chick into the hole and watched it for a moment. “I’m sorry,” I said and covered the tiny body with dirt.

Quietly, I crept back into the coop to try and see, well, whatever it was I might have seen, but Andre spread herself out so wide that I could barely see into the box at all. A low, glottal growl rumbled from her without pause, so I backed out and sat on the bench next to the side door.

I called my mom again, this time, frantic.

“I think there are chicks in there! I can’t see them! But I can hear them! What do I do?” I said.

I always call my mom when I don’t know what to do, assuming she has answers. She mostly laughed in reply to me and said a lot of, “I don’t know,”’s. My hands quivered with excitement, but also, I think, grief for the baby who hadn’t made it.

After spending about an hour researching ‘next steps for newly hatched eggs’ on the internet, and spending time with my own kid who had woken up by now, I packed us up and drove to the nearest feed store in the next town over. There, I picked up some ‘chick starter’ feed, a small feeder and small water dispenser that would fit in the box in which Andre and her newly hatched chick(s) were staying. The maternity ward, if you will.

I told the cashier my whole story about the dead chick and the peeping and asked her what I should do next to which she replied, “Ma’am, I don’t know. I only work here.”

In a flash, I was back home with Little Foot and a bag of supplies.

I put Little Foot in his wagon with a few toys to keep him idle and in sight while I tended to the coop. I’m not ready to just let him wander around the yard without being a few steps behind him yet. I don’t know when I will be, either.

Filling the new feeder, I stepped back into the coop and shut the door behind me to ensure that none of the other chickens would come in and interfere – in my research, I’d learned that other hens can get jealous and cause issues for the new hatchlings.

After setting it into the box – still unable to see past Andre’s puffed out feathers – I realized I’d left the water dispenser outside of the coop and as I went to retrieve it, the other Rhode Island Red, Big Mama, came tearing past me and into the coop and up the ramp to the box.

Screaming, I chased after her when I realized what I was seeing. Here is a video I shot that day right after Big Mama’s entrance:

I was dumbfounded. I could not believe the way that Big Mama and Andre tag-teamed in taking care of what appeared to be two new chicks.

Closing the door behind me, I left the coop, and left the mamas to tend to their babies.

For a few days, I checked on them several times and each time, was able to get a better look at the two, newly hatched chicks. Every day, they emerged from beneath Andre (and sometimes Big Mama) a little bit further than the previous. Each day, they got more fluffy and their marks became more defined.

On the 4th day, it became crucial that I retrieve the unhatched eggs from beneath Andre. In my research, I’d learned that unhatched eggs, if left under the mama, could become rancid and actually explode, putting the hatchlings and even mamas at risk. This would be no easy task because Andre and Big Mama were meaner than ever protecting these babies.

I managed to push both chickens off the eggs using a feed scoop and a piece of cardboard long enough to pull all the eggs out of the box. Andre and Big Mama, of course, flailed wildly (you’ve heard the phrase “running around like a chicken with your head cut off” – that’s got nothing on new mama chickens) and the newly hatched chicks peeped frantically beneath them.

I felt awful doing this – taking the eggs. Andre and Big Mama must have been devastated to have someone stealing what they thought were their unborn babies. But at the same time, I couldn’t put them all at risk because these eggs had been here for well over a month now and something in there smelled like rotting death.

Indeed it was rotting death. Two more dead chicks – two that looked as if they’d been trying to hatch but didn’t quite make it.

After removing them all, I left the mamas and the chicks to calm down for a while as I disposed of the eggs and partially hatched embryos. It was gut wrenching. I remembered the baby I’d buried just a few days ago and assumed that it’s little, weightless body had decomposed by now or been eaten by something in the ground. This tugged at my heart.

A few more days went by and both mamas and both chicks emerged from the box to start exploring the rest of the coop.

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Andre and/or Big Mama stay a step or two behind the chicks at all times – their orange eyes constantly scanning their surroundings. If any of the other chickens or White Rooster for that matter approach the coop, one of them chases them away, squawking and flapping.

There are few words I have to describe the intensity of these events: the pure life and death of all of it. How, in one day, some died and some lived. Some are now in the ground while the others explore. It’s very difficult to know what to say about that except that it is powerful.

Moreover, to see the way that Big Mama and Andre cooperate in protecting the chicks is astonishing. They’re incredible mothers. I should know, I got pecked more times than I could count. I’ve also never run out of the coop so many times while being chased by a puffed up chicken.

I get it though – protecting your child. I still follow Little Foot around the yard, positioning myself between him and what I perceive as danger. I would certainly attack anyone who I thought might be there to hurt him. I’d give it everything I got without hesitation.

There’s a sadness in feeling the fragility of life. The weightlessness of the first dead chick in my closed hands on that first day is a feeling that I don’t think I can, or want to, forget. I’ve wondered since then if perhaps Andre knew it had died, and she pushed it out there for me to see. She didn’t want to expose her other hatching chickens to that. I wonder if that chicken hatched first and then died, or died in the process like the other two that I found a few days later. Of course, I also wonder what I could have done differently to save the chicks.

Then again, I think that all of this is beyond my control. This is the vastness of life. This is the beginning and the end and everything in between.

We have all been born. We will all die. If you’re reading this right now, then you’re somewhere in the middle with the rest of us. And that’s life.

I am honored to have had at least a small part in the first few days of life for these new chicks. I remember how much I needed help in the first several weeks – even months – that Little Foot was alive.

This is a whole new journey for the mother hens, as it is for us here at the ranch. How grateful I am to be in the middle of life and death right now – to be living and participating in the world around me. To be able to extend a hand. To be able to feel the grief of a creature who has died. To have the opportunity to connect, on an emotional level, with an orange-eyed chicken.

The in between is an opportunity to be someone. Indeed, we’re all in this together. Humans and chickens and donkeys alike.

Life – the vastness of it and the beauty of it – is so frighteningly yet beautifully temporary.

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A Season for Carving

With one hand lightly resting atop Bunny’s middle back and the other navigating a blue-handled, circular brush in thin lanes along her shedding side, I’ve just realized that I should have probably put some sunscreen on the back of my neck. I can’t see it, but it feels dark pink.

Although it’s been about 6 weeks since I lobbed my hair off in search of revitalized, positive energy in the same way I was instructed to trim back my rosebushes during the winter (out with the old, make way for the new – see last summer’s blog post, ‘The Sun will Come Out Tomorrow), I still haven’t gotten used to the maintenance and subsequent responsibilities of this asymmetrical pixie cut.  Falling asleep with wet hair, for example, causes crumpled locks to stick every which direction (imagine tangled seaweed that tumbles onto the shore sprinkled with shells, bits of jellyfish, and water bottle labels) that are immune to both the hair straightener and various products. Their only cure is another shower which, most of time, I haven’t the time to take.

Sunscreen on the back of the neck is something that the spring sun has brought to my attention. I burn very easily – I have freckled, Irish skin with light pink undertones. I hang with the SPF50+ crowd – I hear we get sweet discounts at Luby’s. Don’t say that any SPF above 40 doesn’t make a difference – it absolutely does.

The donkeys are shedding in tumbleweed clumps. Our pasture is littered with roaming wads of light brown hair that travel in herds the same direction as the wind. I don’t remember the great donkey-hair migration from last year, but perhaps that’s because we’d just missed it by moving in late April versus early.

Tee bumps into the back of my knees and lets out a long, frustrated and flappy-lipped snort. I pat Bunny twice on the thigh and turn to Tee who’s anxious for his grooming.

Little Foot is sitting in a pile of loose dirt about 10 feet to my right, repeatedly stabbing a small stick into the ground with his left hand. His right is in the air, fingers spread, as if he needs it for balance and stability. He’s seated inside of a pair of jeans that are two inches too short and wearing a gray t-shirt with navy, blue letters that (very appropriately) say ‘Sleep is for the weak.’. Every once and awhile, he says, “bass” with a toothy grin.

As I’m stroking Tee’s back with the brush, I’m feeling somber. Something about spring makes me sad. It’s difficult to put my finger on it, though.

Perhaps it’s all the changes that have swallowed our recent lives. My mom always told me that I don’t do change well – attributing most of my adolescent and early-adulthood stress to anxiety and fear in my shifting circumstances.

I squash this idea, however, because for the first time in a long time, our horizon doesn’t seem to have the risk of change. King Ranch is thriving in his new (local) job, we’ve planted a garden that will likely take years to perfect, and we don’t really have a desire (or the need) to move anytime soon.

So, why the so-sads?

I run the brush over Tee’s jowls and along his neck. His brown eyes are fixated on Little Foot who is now tearing a large, green leaf apart as if it were wrapping paper on a small birthday present. His mouth is wide open, stuck at the intersection of glee and shock.

This makes me smile, but quickly, it falls.

Sadness is a strange concept. I feel like happiness and even anger can be pretty easily defined – (I’ve googled the definition of all three of these emotions):

Happiness – the feeling of pleasure and contentment.

Anger – the feeling of pain, hostility, or displeasure.

Sadness – The condition or quality of being sad. (wtf?)

Okay, so let’s see what ‘sad’ says:

Sad – feeling or showing sorrow, unhappy.

Sorrow? I feel like that’s dramatic, for me at least. I’m not sorrowful nor unhappy. I’m, well, I’m blue. In the dumps. Melancholy, perhaps, but hopefully not accompanied by the Smashing Pumpkin’s, infinite sadness.

Little Foot stands up, using his hands to push his bottom into the air first, and speedily scampers towards the next paddock with the pecan tree and the blue and green-striped hammock. I pat Tee on the rump and jog after Little Foot who’s faster than I would have expected from a young toddler.

My rubber boots make suction sounds against my bare feet inside of them as I jog through the silver-cattle gate and into the thicker grass of the front paddock. Little Foot is chasing after one of our Rhode Island Red chickens although I can’t tell if it’s Big Mama or Andre. He’s giggling uncontrollably at the squawking chicken which slows down his pace to more of a slightly traveling hop.

I catch up and scoop him into a bear hug, realizing I’m laughing myself. I tickle his ribs to keep the laughter going – he throws his head back, taking a huge gasp, before bouncing down another laughing chain that is even louder than the previous one. His nose is wrinkled allowing only the slightest sliver of blue to peek from his squinting eyes.

After a moment, I set him down onto his feet that are inside black and red cowboy boots. He quickly sprints off in the direction of the chicken, laughing.

I lean against a blue barrel and watch Little Foot and the red chicken run in zig-zags past the trampoline, back towards the pecan tree which is just barely sprouting leaves, back towards the donkey’s water trough. He’s so happy – with pleasure and contentment.

Little Foot has, I’m sure, picked up on the stress that King Ranch and I have been trying to gracefully navigate through over the past couple years, but he doesn’t know specifics. He just knows that now, he’s on somewhat of a regular schedule. We wake up, eat breakfast, get dressed, take care of the animals, nap, go outside and play, go inside and play (while mom works) and then dad comes home. We eat. We play. We all go to sleep. Stability is, I imagine, soothing for him.

Beside me, Bunny noses my arm leaving a thin trail of cool snot along my tricep. I rest my arm around the back of her head like a harness and she leans her weight into my side.

To Little Foot, consistency is contentment, but perhaps to me, consistency is a strange concept. King Ranch and I have been in flux as long as we’ve been together (almost 4 years) and separately, we both had loose ideas of stability for the years before that. Perhaps it’s consistency that frightens me because it’s so foreign.

Little Foot trips on his boots and faceplants into one of the donkey’s self-made dust patches, so I swiftly make my way to him. Picking him up, he’s still smiling as he’s breathing heavily and wriggles furiously to be free of my grip. I place him back down and as if he were a toy car that had been wound up to it’s capacity, the second his feet hit the ground, he speeds off in a crooked path towards nothing in particular.

I guess my mom is still right – I don’t do change well – the change being the potential of settlement. Perhaps this is what sailors who have spent years on the sea feel like when they come home and promise their children that they’re done with their travels.

When you spend a great amount of time shifting, I think you lose sight of who you are as a person. I think that’s why I chopped off my hair and why I’m somewhat considering having bright blue streaks put in it – because I’m searching for that person that exists below circumstance.

I’m remembering when I was having one of these very identity crises as a freshman in college, my roommate sat me down on the floor of our dimly-lit dorm room and said to me, “You are Jess. You like screamo and Celtic music, running, and peanut butter sandwiches. You pretend like you don’t watch Dawson’s Creek, but you do and you actually like it. You like analyzing feelings. You like to make people feel good. So why on Earth do you give a shit what your ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend thinks of you? You’re you. There’s no other you.”

I wonder if she remembers this conversation. I wonder how she’s doing and know that wherever she is, she’s doing great because she won’t allow anything less for herself – and I admire that.

But I also wonder if she has any clue how much that conversation meant to me – that 12 years later, I’d be channeling my inner her and reminding myself that I am me, despite circumstances.

Events happen and they all serve as saws, knives, and sanders that shape the wood carving that is our life. And if there’s a misstep and a finger is accidentally sliced off with the slip of a grinder, well, you go with it. You give your statue a mitten instead.

I guess I’ll call this time, transition to something. I’m not going to force myself to smile or be any way other than screamo, Celtic, closet Dawson’s Creek, me. If that involves a season of “I don’t even know, man,” then, that’s fine, right?

My kid’s laugh certainly bring me joy. As does King Ranch’s growing confidence and sense of purpose in his new career. As do my sweet, shedding donkeys. Soon enough, I hope to find that in me which brings organic joy. In the mean time, I’ll keep picking away at this pile of wood with all my carving tools until I discover that which soothes this season of semi-sadness.