An End

The sun’s retreated beyond the piney treetops as I’m driving in my rickety-red truck due south. The heavy, low-hanging clouds are reflecting the sunset so brightly that the neon pinks and oranges seem unreal—a dramatic sky spray-painting. I’ve been on the road for over four hours hauling a trailer behind me which is carrying a riding mower and I have to say I’m proud of my old truck for making it this far with a heavy load in-tow. I never thought I’d be someone who was proud of a vehicle yet, here I am.

On the passenger seat next to me in a dog crate is my hen, Wednesday Addams, and her three, newly hatched chicks. Without a working sound system in my truck, I’ve spent the last several hours listening to the peeping and chattering of Wednesday’s new, little family. They’re not sure what to make of this trip and I suppose, neither am I. It’s all just happened so quickly.

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A little over two and a half years ago, my new, little family moved to a small town in north Texas where we met a donkey named Bunny. She was included in the purchase of our home and really, I think she’s why we ultimately decided to purchase that home. Within that little more than two and a half years, we’ve adopted two more donkeys, Tink and Tee, and fostered twenty three other donkeys until we placed them in forever, loving homes.

It’s been a little over two and a half years since we found that home and several hours ago, I left it for the last time.

In front of me, King Ranch is driving a large moving van and behind me, my dad is in his own pickup truck and together, we three drivers have caravanned across a chunk of Texas in an effort to start anew. King Ranch started a new job several hours away and so the rest of us—Little Foot, Tucker, Bunny, Tee, Tink, Wednesday, her three new chicks and myself—have all followed along.

The clouds have faded into purple and gray as evening swallows the sunset and I’m hoping my three donkeys are doing okay. I delivered them a few days ago to our new house where they have a cozy barn and just as much land as they need. It’s traumatizing for them, I imagine, being loaded into a noisy box, driven at 65 to 75MPH between other whooshing vehicles and strange smells, only to jump out of the box with shaky legs and probably sore hooves in a place they’ve never seen. But if there’s one thing I know about donkeys it’s that they’re resilient—and luckily, they’ve got each other. I can hardly wait to get to our new home to see them again.

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Wednesday Addams’s three babies have burrowed beneath her feathery belly in the now-darkness of our drive and the peeping has drifted into sleep. Her marble, black eyes are mostly shut and I realize that I don’t think I’ve ever actually watched a hen fall asleep. I wonder if they dream? It feels so silent now in the cab of this truck, the only noises left being the Rickety-red’s squeaky engine and passing cars.

I start to wonder if I’ll find a new place to teach yoga once we’ve settled in our new home. I haven’t led a yoga class in over a month being tied up in this move. I feel the tension climbing down my neck and behind my shoulder blades. Stress likes to sit back there, curled into a tight ball and it becomes more and more gravitational the longer I go without slowing down and stretching out properly. It begins to pull at the muscles along my spine and even down into my ham strings.

I think about the yoga class I led at my ranch several months ago—Yoga with the Donkeys is what I called it. I had so many friends attend that night and we raised several hundred dollars that went directly to saving donkeys. I wonder when I’ll see those friends again…north Texas will be a long way away. 

The moving van’s blinker begins to flash and as a caravan, we all change lanes in the blackness of this new night. We still have a ways to go.

An image of Little Foot’s bedroom (which I guess is now his old bedroom) appears in my mind. Hours ago, I stood in that doorway, nothing but indents in the carpet from the moved furniture and the dream-like memories left inside the room. I remember the first time I walked in there and saw him standing upright in his crib—he looked so big. He grinned with only a couple teeth, proud of his accomplishment. I don’t remember what I said to him, but he bounced up and down, giggling wildly. I remember once, when I’d come down the hallway, I heard him chattering in there and when I peeked in, I discovered that he was flipping through “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” and reciting every line as if he knew how to read it all by himself. I thought my heart might stop when I saw that. He emphasized the words just as I had when I’d read it to him. He loves his books. 

I blink my eyes a few times, the taillights of the moving van blurring through my tears and I glance at Wednesday whose eyes are still not fully shut. She must be exhausted. I am.

I wonder if the people who move into our old home will like the painting I’d left on the fence in the garden or if they’ll get rid of it. I always thought of my garden as my own, secret garden only instead of a robin, there were two cardinals.

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It’s all happened so fast—two and a half years have opened and shut so quickly and now, I’m driving away from what seems like a single, snapped Polaroid photo—the memories of it all stuck in that blurry, creaminess that appears before the picture fully develops. It’s done. Our time at the ranch where this whole Donkumentary began has come to an end, the shadow of the back cover of this large book closing all around me as I zoom down this dark, wooded highway.

I don’t yet know if there will be a sequel or a continuation of this here bloggery. This feels like a clean end and an opportunity to begin building new things upon a more solid foundation than when I began before. I also just don’t know what the days, weeks, or months ahead look like. I have no clue.

It will be some time before I’ll have internet up and running at my new place, so I suppose I have some time to think on it. I’ll unpack. I’ll love on my family, two legged and four. I’ll secure fences and hang paintings and learn which light switches belong to which lights. I’ll discover the nearest pizza place and find out if we can keep rescuing donkeys. I’ll take a break from the news and from the interwebs and begin to build again.

Until then, thank you. Thank you for following my story. I’ve loved having you along the way. 

Much love and namasBRAY,
Jess

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An Exhale

It’s just after lunch and I’ve turned my rickety-red pickup truck into my small town of Nowhere, Texas. The days have begun where in the sun, the Texas heat continues to beat down in her typical fashion—the kind of beaming that makes you feel like you’re a lizard under a heat-lamp trying to digest after a long meal. But as the sun lingers on with her usual strength, there are now moments of hope hiding in the shade—tiny hints of fall air are beginning to collect in the shadows, even at a high-noon sun. I love this time of year: warm in the light, cool in the dark.

Little Foot is singing the ABCs from his car seat for the five-thousandth time and I’m still not tired of hearing his little voice articulate the letters. In the slow drawl of his “I”s and “y”s, I can hear that he’s adopting a bit of my southern twang. I drive on, the creaking of ole’ rickety-red increasing as the roads become gravel.

I follow the long, curved road that cuts through town under heavily blooming pecan trees when suddenly, I slam on the brake and pop the truck’s shifter into neutral. Gravel crunches beneath us and dust quickly rises like a gray blanket in front of me. As it settles, I see a woman about twenty feet or so in front of me kneeling in the gravel, her hands reaching behind her head like she’s pulling her own hair and she’s sobbing. Beneath her is a golden-brown dog laying on its side, a small pool of blood drying in the dirt and rocks around its belly.

A man comes running out after her and he kneels next to the woman who turns and buries herself in his chest. Even with my windows rolled up, the A/C running, and at least twenty feet of road between us, I can hear the woman wailing in heartache. The man holds her and I see him lift a hand up to swipe a tear from his own eye, too.

“What happened?” Little Foot asks with a small voice from the back seat, his ABCs having stopped.

“I don’t know, bud,” I say, fully knowing what’s happened.

He’s quiet and so am I. The man turns to see my truck sitting there and I see his immediate inclination to get this scene out of our way. I don’t want him to feel rushed, so I back up and pull the truck to the side of the road. Do I say something?

“What you doing, mommy?” Little Foot says as I swerve the truck in reverse and into the grass.

“I’m backing up the truck, bud,” I say.

The man is saying something to the woman now and she nods, slowly stands up, and walks back toward a house to the right. Her arms are wrapped around herself and she’s still crying. The man adjusts himself over the dog that looks to be some kind of golden labrador. I decide then to open my truck door and step out.

From now twenty-five feet or so away, I call to the man, “Do you need help?”

He turns his wrinkled face to me and says, “Oh…no thank you ma’am. I’ve got it.” He smiles a sad smile and then looks back down at the dog. From the right, the woman is standing on the covered porch of a small, brown house. She’s got her hands balled up in front of lips like she’s saying a prayer.

The man slips his hands beneath the dog’s neck and behind his back legs. I hear the woman whimper from her porch as the man stands, the dog limp in his arms. A small tinkle of a collar clangs as he turns and walks toward the house.

I climb back into rickety-red and Little Foot says, “Hi mommy!”

I say, “Hi honey.”

I press the clutch, shift the truck and drive forward, swerving around the small, dark spot of bloodied rocks, and then onward toward my house.

In the driveway outside of my house, I pull Little Foot from his car seat and grab the stack of five new library books we’ve just checked out from the library in the next town over. As I shut the truck’s door, Bunny begins to bray from the pasture, then Tink, then Tee.

Inside, Little Foot takes two of his new books into his bedroom and begins to sing his ABCs again. I stand at the back window where I can see that Bunny, Tee, and Tink are all up wandering around and I’m so relieved because last week, I thought we were going to lose Bunny.

The day after I came back up north from Houston where I was helping my folks out in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, I noticed Bunny acting strangely—not eating, laying down a lot, walking very slowly when she was up—and I know enough about donkeys to know that if they’re acting like anything is wrong, there’s likely something very wrong. They’re quite stoic and show pain only when it’s gotten really bad.

I’d called the emergency vet and they arrived, examined her, and determined she was likely experiencing colic which can be deadly in equines. They had to pump her stomach right then and there and then we had to keep her off of food for a while. It took her several days to recover and for those several days which are crucial after a stomach pump, I thought my sweet donkey was going to die.

I stand at the window now, watching her nip at the other donkeys, graze, and walk without issue and I’m so grateful for her health that it hurts. From this distance, I can see the little swirl of fur that’s between her eyes—the spot that I’ll rest my head on when she’s got her nose in my chest and I realize how much Bunny and my other donkeys mean to me. Thoughts begin to poke in my mind…the “what if she’d died? What if she colicks again? What if…” and I stop, and I breathe.

And then Houston appears in my mind. The flooded streets of my childhood rushing like rivers as babies cry on small boats that have pulled them from their homes. Blank faces of residents who can’t comprehend what’s happening to them. Military trucks in my town transporting families with wide eyes and wet hair. Scared and shaking dogs, cold hands, brows beaded with sweat and rain.

I stop, I exhale heavily and suddenly, I’m bawling.

I sit down on the ground and I cry. I cry into my hands, tears and snot pooling in my palms. I cry for my hometown, for the people who are still struggling. I cry for the people pushing air mattresses carrying children and pets down river-roads while the rain continues to pour. For the people who are still in shelters unsure of what comes next—the people who can’t answer their children when they ask, “what’s happening?” I cry for the fat tube that was run up Bunny’s nose to pump her stomach and for the way Tee and Tink stared at her through the fence, breathing heavily and terrified.  I cry for the woman who couldn’t find her husband and for the man that I saw coming off of a military truck only two days after I ran into him at the creek not yet swelled taking pictures with his cell phone just like me. He lost everything. I didn’t. I cry for the realization that Bunny will die one day. So will Tee and Tink. I cry for the dog in the road and how much its owners must ache right now—seeing the insides of their companion on the road because someone wasn’t driving cautiously enough or at least wasn’t kind of enough to stick around. I can hear the woman’s heartbroken cries and can see the hurt on the man’s face. 

I cry and I cry and I cry until nothing but heaving remains and when I lower my hands, my own dog, Tucker, is sitting in front of me with his ears laying back. His brown eyes look right into mine and he lowers his head. I pull Tucker into my lap and stroke his back over and over again.

A minute or two later, Little Foot comes running in and says, “Mommy, let’s sing ABCs.”

I wipe my face as Tucker steps out of my lap and as I stand, turning to my curly haired boy, I say, “Okay, bud.”

He grabs my hand and leads me toward his room and as we walk, Tucker following behind us, we sing the ABCs together. I squeeze his soft, little hand in mine.  

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Bunny: my donkey, my friend.

Sunset, Little World

I lean against the chicken-wire fence, hoof trimmers hanging
From my belt. In one hand, I hold your empty sippy-cup while the other
Shades my eyes from the setting sun. Until a moment ago, I thought
You were only steps behind me but when I reached the gate, I realized your
Short strides no longer crunched in the leaves at my heels. I turn
To find you yards away with a hand on Tee. You are grinning and Tee

Stands stoically. You, at his side, show no concern in the slightest that
I am not by yours. Behind you, Bunny lowers her large head and you
Turn, moving your hand to her nose the same way I always have.

The setting sun illuminates the chaos of curls around your
Sweet head and highlights flicking bugs swishing in the
Tick-tock of the donkey’s tails—the only part of them moving.

Little Foot, my darling, I’m beaming with pride. Surrounded by
Gentle beasts, you have no fear, no hesitation. As the sun sets,
I stand here leaning, watching, pondering from where you
Channel your bravery when I realize that it’s your

Wonder of the world around you. This place is an explore, a wonderland, a
Spell-casting and curious cauldron that you’ve begun to create.

You’ve befriended the beasts, they are loyal to you. Imagine where you’ll go,
Especially now, with those two by your side. They have stories to tell, you know.
Just look into their infinitely, brown eyes and they’ll tell you secrets that
No one else will ever know.

I call your name, just then, and you turn to me with a hand still on Bunny’s nose.
I say, never mind, sweetie and I continue to lean while you stand tall, the world swirling
All around you.

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And Then There Were Four: Saying Goodbye to Ali the Foster Donkey

Sweat ran down my spine in slow, chilly lines as I stood in the driveway with one hand shading my eyes from the sun and the other waving goodbye to a man and woman from central Texas who pulled away carefully in their large, white pickup truck. Attached to the back of their truck was a black horse trailer and peering at me nervously and seemingly confused through the slits in the side was Ali—the first foster donkey who’s left my ranch to live out his life in his new, forever home.

Earlier that day, I spent some time in the pasture securing halters on all five of the donkeys that I had available for adoption. I brushed them and wondered who, if any of them, I’d be saying goodbye to today and equally felt excited at the prospect and dreaded it. I studied each of them closely trying to remember every detail of their faces. I watched the way Ethel, the 10 month old jennet, stomped her back foot when she got frustrated that the other boys took her place around the hay. I watched how Charlie, a two year old all-brown gelding, slowly blinked in what seemed like relaxation when I brushed him. Beans, the two-year old wild-caught burro, had just started becoming comfortable with me, allowing me to pet his nose and actually brush his back—unless I made any sudden movement, in which case he’d dart away. Simon, the eight-year old black and white gelding, has been quick to steal my attention since the five fosters originally arrived. One of his eyes is half black and half white—not the actual pupil, but the lids around it; half black and half white like a little yin-yang. I wonder sometimes if that’s what makes him so balanced. Then there was Ali: a 6-year old gelding and a mix of gray and white. His background prior to being rescued is unknown but whatever has happened to him, it’s caused him to be overly affectionate. He rests his head on yours and leans all his weight into you and when you rub his jaws, his large, black eyes close behind long, black lashes as he sways gently.

When the man and his wife showed up to meet our donkeys, I led them out into the pasture to spend some time with them. I kept my distance to allow the couple to interact and soon, it became clear that they had begun to latch onto Ali and in turn, Ali latched onto them: he pressed his nose into the man’s chest and nosed at his inner arms. The man grinned widely and wrapped himself around Ali, whispering things like “hey there” and “you’re a sweet one, huh?” into Ali’s ear. I tried to pretend it was sweat but really, tears had started to sting my eyes. The man and Ali were bonding…like really bonding. It was touching to see the sensitive side of this man that I’d only just met. Of course, it was just as touching to see Ali reciprocating.

It didn’t take any convincing. Soon, the central Texas couple were backing their trailer up to the gate as I attached a rope to Ali’s harness and began to lead him towards the edge of the property.

Ali walked proudly beside me—his ears up and steps confident. Having rained the previous day, we left a trail of side-by-side hoof marks and boot prints in the mud and as we approached the gate, Ali suddenly stopped and resisted. He saw the trailer, looked at me, looked at the man and his wife, then back at me and froze. Placing my hand between his ears I told him that it was going to be okay before I tried tugging on the rope and on his harness. “It’s okay, bud. You can do this, it’s okay,” I said, but if you know anything about donkeys it’s that when they’ve decided they aren’t going to move, there’s nothing that can really be done to move them. The man and his wife tried to help, but this only made Ali lean his weight more heavily into me.

“Ali, bud, it’s okay,” I said.

Still, he resisted. I tugged with literally all of my strength (and as I’m sitting here typing this now, I can feel the soreness in my arms and back from the struggle) but I may as well have been tugging at a skyscraper. He would not budge.

I decided we should take a break and I sat down on the edge of the trailer, wiping the sweat from my brow. My forearms had a layer of dust that stuck to the beaded sweat over my freckles and as I lifted my hand to pat Ali on the head, it shook uncontrollably. I think I was nervous. Ali leaned his head down and placed his nose in my lap, so I rubbed the base of his ears and told him that everything would be okay. I told him that I knew this was confusing and scary but that everything would be just fine. He buried his head deeper.

After a few moments, I got back up and with the help of the couple, we managed to get Ali into the trailer.

Ali is a decently sized donkey but as they pulled away, he looked very small in that trailer. His eyes were wide and his demeanor, nervous. I wiped my eyes as they left my view and told myself that he was going to be okay. The couple was lovely and had great plans in store for him. He was leaving us and he was going home.

I knew fostering donkeys would be difficult. I’ve knowingly and voluntarily signed myself and our property up to be a bridge from an often broken and painful past to a hopefully bright and loving future for donkeys in need. My space is only temporary before they find their happily ever after. I’m only here to help them get there.

Still, it’s difficult. It is an impossibility for me to become attached to the well-being, futures, and overall existence of these donkeys. I’ve brushed them and held their heads in close to my chest when our horrible neighbors were cracking fireworks in the middle of the night. I’ve sang to them and fed them and worried for their safety knowing that at any time, it will be their time to move on.

In a way, I’m reminded of the struggles that I have with being a new mom. I constantly worry about Little Foot being out in the world and about him growing up and moving on and not needing me to slice his grilled cheese sandwich or secure the velcro on his sandals. I’m heartbroken in anticipation of the day when he tells me to go away, but I also want (more than anything) for him to grow up and be a functioning member of society who is successful at what he chooses to do. I don’t know how to walk that line of protectiveness and letting go.

In his book, The View from the Cheap Seats, my very favorite author, Neil Gaiman, has a chapter (that was actually his acceptance speech for the 2009 Newbery Medal) where he talks about how if you as a parent do your job well, then when your children grow up, they won’t need you any more. They will go on and live their lives in their own futures and it’s true. Little Foot, if I do what I’m supposed to do, will grow up and not need me any longer. That is, sadly, the goal…although I can’t find peace in it. Not yet, at least. 

The same goes for these donkeys. During my time, they require my whole heart because really, there’s no other way to have a donkey. You can’t half-heartedly move into donkey ownership…or half-ass, if you will. They’re complex, deep, thoughtful creatures that know when their owners are genuine and well-intentioned and will react accordingly. They also know when their owners don’t care and sadly, that’s where many of them get stuck and/or abandoned. They are creatures that are emotionally affected by absolutely everything.

But wholeheartedly or not, I am only their bridge. Their vessel. Their portal to greener pastures and today, I had to say goodbye. Prepared or not, it was really hard.

I suppose that means I did my job right. I trust the couple who’s taken him and I know that he’ll be happy. I know this is right. As Neil Gaiman said, it is the “…fundamental, most comical tragedy of parenthood that if you do your job properly, if you as a parent raise your children well, they won’t need you anymore.”

I did my job and now, he is home.

Happy trails, sweet Ali.

Ali

 

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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Two Worlds Diverged in a Summer Afternoon

It was high, hot noon as I drove along the gravel road that leads to our house. As I pulled up, I stepped out of the pickup truck to open the rusted gate. The pink crepe myrtles along the front fence were in full, summer bloom—their tiny flowers winking as if to welcome us home. The railings of the gate were hot against my hands as I pulled it open while flicking, grass bugs darted around underneath its squeaky, rolling wheel. I climbed back into the truck and pulled into the driveway—gravel crunching and popping beneath the tires.

Little Foot was asleep in his car seat as I pressed the brake down with my left foot and moved the truck’s stick into neutral. Bunny and Tyrion were grazing slowly in the front paddock but had stopped to watch me pull into the driveway. I leaned back in my seat and turned up the air conditioner.

In the yard, I watched one of our red hens, Andre, scratch underneath one of the magnolia trees with her newly hatched chick, Julep. This hatching came as a surprise to us. Andre had started brooding in our mint plant a few weeks back and honestly, I thought she’d just gone a little batty. It was too hot to be brooding, I thought, and certainly an odd spot. Then, just two days ago, she hatched another chick: right there in the shade of the mint.

Bowie, the chick who Andre hatched a couple months ago [that story here] follows them closely and it’s really something to watch—mom, baby, and new baby. Little siblings. Little family.

Andre and her chicks disappeared beneath the shade of the tree as I laid my head back and closed my eyes—the a/c vent aimed right at my face. When I closed my eyes, I saw a scene in my head that just a couple of hours ago, I wish I hadn’t witnessed. I tried to shake it but I couldn’t, so I opened my eyes—the light painfully bright.

I won’t give you the gritty details because I don’t want you to see it in your mind’s eye either. But for a long story made short, a few hours ago, I saw a man getting jumped by two other men at an intersection in the next town over on my way to teach a yoga class. There were screams and there was blood. And in that moment, I was helpless to assist because number one, I had Little Foot in the car and number two, I was scared of the men who were being violent.

I did pull across the street into a bank parking lot and called the police. I stayed with them on the phone until police showed up, all the while, describing to the phone operator what I was seeing in as much detail as I could.

As I drove away, I cried. I cried a lot. I called King Ranch and my mom and cried to them, unsure of what to say or think.

I’ve never seen anyone get jumped. I’ve never seen it outside of movies or TV shows. With as much violence as there is on TV and in movies, I guess I thought if I ever did see it in real life, I would be desensitized.

But in real life, it is terrifying. It is bone-rattling. And it is shocking.

I noticed then that from inside our house, our dog, Tucker, was watching me curiously from the front window. His tongue hung down low and his ears were perked enthusiastically, so I turned the keys in the ignition and opened the driver’s side door. Little Foot must have felt the silencing of the engine because he fussed until he saw my face; then he grinned widely. I pulled his stretching body from his car seat and from the front paddock, both Bunny and Tee brayed.

With Little Foot propped up on my hip, I closed the front gate and reached over the fence to pat both Bunny and Tee’s noses before walking up the driveway to the front door. As I walked, I kissed Little Foot’s cheek over and over again. Andre and her babies hopped out from beneath the tree chasing a flicking bug and I could hear Tucker barking with excitement.

Inside, the running a/c and Tucker’s wagging tail welcomed us. I set Little Foot on the ground in the entry way and he took off running towards his box of blocks. I sat down at the kitchen table and stared out the window unable to hold my tears once again.

There were no words I could conjure and still, I have nothing profound to say—just that there is a whole, beautiful, vibrant, life-giving world existing alongside a very violent, angry, unfair, and hurtful one. I wish we could all live together in the nice one. I really do. I hope that one day, we all can.

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Black Chicken Bloomed

One year ago today, I posted this story on my blog. This was the story of the Unicorn and the first death of a chicken here and how King Ranch refused to let one of his own die in vain. It poured and it broke our hearts.

This morning, I decided to wander over to the spot beneath the rosebushes to pay my respects. I found this:

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Black Chicken is alive. She lives in her blooms.

Across the yard, White Rooster crowed on the fence. I don’t think he’s forgotten. Neither have we.