Trust the process

I didn’t know if I’d find them alive or dead. The temperature is -5 when I walk down the path behind our house cupping a small tub of meal worms. It had been -16 during the night, and the hens had never been in temperatures so cold. My husband had wanted to bring them inside. But I dusted off the radiant heat panel, the one we use for chicks and kittens, and had faith it would be enough.

I pull the wire handle on the side of the coop, and the trap door slides open between the coop and run. I rarely close them inside, so even though the cold blast can’t be fun, they’re curious and eager. A few beaks pop out. The two bravest pick their way down the ramp, trusting I have treats, and the other 10 follow.

In our first year of owning chickens, when the overnight temperatures first went down in the single digits, my husband and I thought it couldn’t possibly be safe. Everything I read said New England breeds handle cold weather well. But it seemed too much, so we brought them in the house for the night. We set the ladies up in a tiled room with a layer of newspaper on the floor, and small bowls of water and feed pellets.

They trashed the place. Newspaper confetti shredded everywhere, plastered to the floor from their spilled drinks—a bona fide ladies’ night out. The next night they went back outside. They were more than fine on their roosting bars, downy feather blankets over dinosaur feet. And they were calm again because we’d stopped messing with their program. Sometimes the solution, or what you think is the solution, ends up worse than the thing you think you’re fixing.

I scatter the mealworms for the chickens and lean down to check their water, which is frozen solid in spite of the submerged heating iron. Delilah jumps onto my back like she always does, trusting me to make things right, or just liking to be up high. I give them a trough of warm oatmeal and they start pecking the mush with gusto, fluffy butts quivering in the air. Faith, and trust.

I make sure the water heater is plugged in correctly, so that when the temperature goes up throughout the day it can start doing its work. It will take a while to make a difference. The best fixes seem to happen slowly, painfully slow, sometimes. Then you look up one day and see thaw that happened while you weren’t looking.

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Wedded to Wallace: The Stegner Marriage

Mary Stuart Page Stegner died last month. Her obituary (http://www NULL.sltrib ran in a few newspapers, but it came to my attention as a blip in my Twitter stream, tucked appropriately between posts lamenting the destruction of nature in the BP oil spill.

The fact that she was still alive gave me pause as much as her age. At 99, she’d outlived by 17 years her husband Wallace Stegner (http://www NULL.wallacestegner, who died after a car accident in 1993 on his way to give a lecture in Santa Fe. Their 60-year marriage was a “personal literary partnership of singular facility,” wrote Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in The Geography of Hope, A Tribute to Wallace Stegner, a partnership in which he did the writing and she enforced the writerly environs. He brought her breakfast in bed; she fed him new interests and fended off distractions. The end of that partnership was like something out of Stegner’s own novel Crossing to Safety. Marriage and longevity. Loss, and carrying on. Continue reading

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When doing good doesn’t feel so great


(originally posted 10/2017)

In the latest litter we fostered there was a clear runt, tiny and watchful, all head and twitchy ears. We should have named her Yoda but the kids dug in on Peanut. She was all quiet confidence in a six-ounce package, walking unfazed between the legs of our Bernese mtn dog. She could run and jump and wrestle with the others, she just got tired more easily. After awhile she’d come back to sit on my lap while I typed, crouching on delicate paws and curling herself into a space the size of a child’s hand.

Our job was to fatten her up like her three siblings. They were four weeks old and would be adoptable in a month as long as they reached two pounds. All four were eating canned food watered down to a gruel, and I’d been supplementing Peanut’s diet with hand-syringes of feline milk.

I thought they were all on track, but it wasn’t enough for her. Early yesterday morning I found her laying still and barely breathing in the kitten bed after her siblings had scattered to play. I rushed her to the vet wrapped in a blanket, but brought her home an hour later in a small box. The vet seemed surprised I wanted to take her home to bury her, a foster that didn’t work out, not really mine, not anyone’s. It underscored the fact that she was on no one’s radar. Burying her felt important. She had existed, and she mattered.

When the kids came back from school I walked them to the tiny grave I’d made under a tree circled with stones. I explained “fading kitten syndrome,” the catch-all term used for the ones not robust enough to digest food, fight germs, beat whatever glitch nature and Darwin had thrown their way.

The folks at the shelter where I foster say there’s one in every group; for each litter of, say, five kittens, an average of 3.5 make it to eight weeks old. But the statistics were lost on my kids. They had helped raise more than 10 litters, and though I’d told them about the risks and the rescue losses I’d had when I was a teen, we as a family had never lost one. Standing under the tree looking at the mound of dirt and stones, that achievement seemed to wilt. The kids were sad, and I’d let myself get too attached.

Why do it I thought after we went back into the house. Really, why do it to ourselves? It’s nice to have a hand in turning strays born in the bushes or pulled from hoarder homes become healthy and well-socialized pets. It’s no boast, it’s just a fact. The kittens that do time at our full house leave knowing how to roll with it. And it’s certainly no hardship playing with these adorables for a few weeks. Laying on the floor in the dark with two purring on your chest is the best therapy money can’t buy. I’ve often felt like we had a secret. Sshh, don’t tell anyone where they came from, or everyone will foster and there won’t be enough for us. 

Then there are the times it isn’t going so well — when they aren’t eating enough or develop an infection. And the inevitable big-picture math, if you stop to think about it. For every one that’s rescued there are so many that aren’t, which can make fostering feel like a zero-sum game. I usually don’t see it that way. But yesterday hit me hard, made me wonder whether I’d tried hard enough, watched closely enough, whether I’m too busy as a mom to be a good foster mom. If it’s worth the ups and downs, and if I’m as resilient as I need to be. The Humane Society estimates that tens of thousands of families foster pets every year. If I decided it was too raw for us, for me, the shelter surely had plenty of other foster families who’d take them in.

That same morning, as Peanut took her last breaths in my lap, the news broke that a shooter in Las Vegas had killed 58 people overnight and wounded 500. Mourning a kitten felt a little obscene against that backdrop of loss. Not to mention the suffering in Puerto Rico, where 84 percent of the people still didn’t have power following Hurricane Maria, and 37 percent didn’t have clean water. Mexico was memorializing 370 people just killed in an earthquake. It is easy to feel ineffectual when a wave of bad news pummels the world one day and then again the next. It’s hard not to let the scope of need erode your faith that small things are worth doing. Even if small things are the only measure of difference in a zero-sum game.

In the afternoon, an email came from the new owner of Clyde and Flynn, two kittens from a litter born at our house in May. We love getting photos and updates on the kittens when we’re able to know where they’ve been placed. Crazy Clyde and his sidekick Flynn were six months old and behaved like drunken teens at a house party, and their new owner loved it.

“One day I heard a strange creaking sound coming from the hallway,” wrote the woman who’d adopted them. “There was a wooden clothes-drying rack and he’d climbed up and was and swinging from his front paws like a kid on a jungle gym. I’ve attached the video or you wouldn’t believe me. They are thriving, Nichole, and they just love people. I’m so fortunate that they had you and yours as their foster family.”


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The Rabbit In The Soccer Net



(originally posted 10/2014)

The other day my six-year-old ran in the house screaming: “A RABBIT IS STUCK IN THE SOCCER NET!”

When I went outside the poor thing was writhing frantic, the webbing wrapped double around its neck. The line was so tight it seemed impossible for it to be breathing. By the time I got there it hardly fought in my hands, less than my cats getting their nails clipped.

I sent my 12-year-old daughter inside for scissors and cupped it still, trying to create any possible slack in the netting. I really didn’t think it would live until she made it back.

She did the cutting, brave girl, shears right against its neck. When it was freed it sat in my hands, sides heaving. Or maybe it just didn’t realize it was free.

“Where did you learn to do that?” my eight-year-old asked.

It wasn’t just me, I told him. We all cut it free.

“No,“ he made a cupping gesture with his hand. “To just….hold it.”

Most people comfortable with handling animals probably say it comes down to Continue reading

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Paddling Blind


(originally posted 7/2014)

Last week my yoga class decided to meet on the water.

“We’ll go visit the swans,” Erin said as she directed three of us into kayaks. She climbed into her own — well, they’re all her own, she lives on the pond and teaches the class at her home — and pushed off from the shore. “Then we’ll have a little blind paddle, see how it might expand our morning.” Blind paddle?

My mornings tend to start in a not very expansive way, something I’m not proud of. My initial reflex when I open my eyes, in that first lucid moment between dreams and reality, is to do a mental scan of the things I know are in store, and brace myself for the things I don’t, yet. I wasn’t always this way. But experience has shown that by the end of the day there’s usually some unforeseen thing, some blindsider that makes me exhale and say, Whoa, didn’t see that coming. Sometimes I wake up wondering what’s going to be The Thing today. I don’t know if this is common among parents of large families. But I know this isn’t the most healthy way to greet the day.

“There she is,” Erin called back from under the brim of a floppy pink straw hat, and reached back a muscular arm to hand me her binoculars. Not more than 50 yards away, Continue reading

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Walking in the Bardo

This was my walking route this morning. The cemetery is right down the road from my home, but until today it never occurred to me to turn in. Not because it’s creepy, because it isn’t (at least not by day). I think it felt a bit…off, treating a burial ground like a walk through the woods.
It was more open and welcoming than I expected. The cemetery is well sited on a beautiful piece of land, following the natural contours of hills with old-growth trees. Headstones of different sizes, shapes, and ages are spaced well apart. Flowers next to gravemarkers show upkeep. A small line of rocks, a horizontal cairn, suggests visitors.
There’s a backhoe clearing a lower area of the cemetery closer to the road. An article in the local paper says the project is making way for an additional 2,500 gravesites, that at a rate of 80 interments a year, it had run out of space.
It got me wondering how many people are buried vs. cremated these days, and whether there’d eventually be a tipping point — a time when land-use politics, environmental issues, and population growth makes tracts of land like this impractical. As it turns out, it’s already happened. Three years ago was the first time the number of cremations exceeded burials in the U.S., and it has risen each year since then, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. In 2035 it’s expected to be 80 percent.
For me, the cognitive shift away from burial, retaining space I no longer need, began when I checked the box to be an organ donor on my driver’s license. It struck me powerfully, the idea that others’ lives could be saved by the things I didn’t need anymore. I guess it’s a natural progression that the older I get, the more I want to shed. A thousand miles/ Just to slip this skin.—Philadelphia, Bruce Springsteen


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The 8yo is at my bedside early, unhappy, struggling with loose baseball pants.

“He said he would help me with my belt if I licked the dog,” he says. He pointed at his 10yo brother in the hall, smirking beside the big hairy 90-pound Bernese Mountain Dog.

“Now he won’t help me because he says I have dog breath.”


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Stepping up

While I was in Washington DC for the March for our Lives, this happened. Our foster cat had her babies. No matter that I’d spent the past week sleeping on an air mattress in her little room. This was her time, and it was going to come whether it was on my watch, or my reluctant anxious husband’s. 


She delivered six healthy jet-black panther babies, a wiggling pile of midnight silkies. My husband and the older kids were the doulas, making sure each one was attended to by the mom, then weighing them and documenting their growth through the weekend.

When I came home, these new experts in feline midwifery introduced me to the kittens and schooled me in what’s best done around the protective mom.

Another reminder that when I step back they can step up, and it makes them that much more invested in the outcome.

That said, it’s a lot easier to be invested in newborn bleating kittens than invested in a load of laundry they’re supposed to deliver from the dryer to the folded piles.

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Booker-winner BARDO, odd and brilliant

I just finished the strange and un-put-downable LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, which won the Man Booker prize while I was reading it. Entirely deserving. It’s historical, biblical, Dantesque, supernatural, and just plain bizarrely unique.

It’s about the death of Lincoln’s son, a true kernel that spirals into a fable. Written like the script of a play, it’s told through a series of ghosts lamenting the lives they can’t let go, which keeps them rooted in a sort of purgatory. Lincoln suffers, and the boy is tethered to the father he loves. But it’s really about what matters most to us in life, how to live knowing it’ll end, and how to let it go. Not for the faint of heart.

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Locker room talk when you’re 7, 9, and 11

Overheard from the hall outside the younger boys’ bedroom after lights-out:

“Did you know that every 20 minutes a new batch of boogers grows in your nose? True story.”

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