many kindnesses

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It was a dark couple of days.

I sat down to write last week because I didn’t know what else to do. I was irritable and scared, walking aimlessly in circles around the house because I was unable to settle into anything. I hoped that putting it into words would help me see my way through things, as it so often has before. It didn’t. Instead it led me down into a deep, dark hole, and I went to bed in tears.

Somehow, even with all of the reading I did, even living with Mr. Preparedness Nurse, I didn’t get the message. That it’s not a matter of if, but rather of when – even for us. That even living where we do, even being so isolated, we weren’t staying home to avoid it altogether – just to delay the inevitable. And when that message came through, I lost it. It was a bad, bad day. I did a lot of pacing and weeping and barely breathing. And some yelling. He didn’t understand how I hadn’t understood.

J had begun to treat COVID positive patients at work. He moved up onto our third floor to sleep in the guest bed, and began taking his meals on the other side of the house. We don’t know if he has it, but we also don’t know that he doesn’t. My children were in tears, multiple times a day. Because we couldn’t have him touching everything, I was managing all of the food prep and cleanup, the laundry and the schooling, the housework and my own paid job. And I was suddenly disinfecting every space J had recently occupied – with no end in sight. It was too much. It is too much.

I have no optimistic words, and that’s frustrating for me. I’m unable to spin this, to wrap it up in pretty paper and wax poetic about how we will all appreciate things so much more when this is over. There is no light at the end of the tunnel because it’s clogged. I can’t see the other side. 

I will just hope that it’s there.

It’s been ten days since I’ve kissed my husband, my other half who is living in the same house. We got hammered with a freak snowstorm on Thursday, and just got our power back last night. The hits keep coming and there is still no end in sight. And yet it doesn’t seem to be quite as much as before, and I’m beginning to feel as if perhaps there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s faint, but it’s there.

Our piano teacher is the pastor of the local United Methodist Church. She’s also our first selectperson, and the wife of our fire chief. She’s been making fabric masks in her dining room for what seemed like everyone in town. I brought her the meager offering of a half dozen fresh eggs and the last of the elastic from my own stash when she lovingly made a mask for each of us. A few days later, she had made two more for J so that he could more safely move through the house and say hello to his children.  Such a kindness.

The library had planned to offer a social distancing-type porch pickup of requested materials, and then our Governor issued a full-on stay-at-home order, closing all non-essential locations in the process. Knowing that we rely on library access for learning, our wonderful librarians pulled the handful of items I had requested, plus dozens more, and left them outside for me to bring home before being fully locked down. They hand-selected all kinds of beautiful books they thought my girls would enjoy, and entrusted them to us for who knows how long. More kindness. 

My dear, dear friend sent me a text yesterday, asking if we could use hand-me-downs for the girls, and said she’d happily do a porch drop. The generator was grinding away just outside the window, but I kept watching the driveway, hoping to catch her so I could wave, or say a quick hello from six feet away. She messaged again that everything was on the front step; I had missed her. Bummed, I stepped outside and found the sweetest delivery: not just clothes, but mini daffodils and maple syrup and a wilderness bouquet, packed with handwritten notes from she and the kids. I cried yet again. Overwhelming kindness.

There’s no known timeline through this mess. The tunnel is long, and I still fear we have yet to stumble over many unknown hurdles before we reach the end. I’ll probably cry again, at least once, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

But now the light is shining faintly for me because of the kindness of others. I still can’t see the other side, but it’s bright now enough to keep me going. And because of those many kindnesses, I might now have the capacity to help, and try to bring that faint light to someone else.

yes, I am an introvert

I wrote this at the end of a weekend during which I spent more time feeling misunderstood than not. I was peevish, and yes, a little defensive. I think that comes across, and I’ve really debated whether my crankiness deserved any air time here. Clearly, the decision to share won out – because it’s my truth, and because it’s important to talk about the variations of normal, and frankly, because we all just want to feel understood, yes? 

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At the four-year college I attended, the freshmen arrived on campus a couple of days before the upperclassmen came back in order to get acquainted with their new lives as students. Shuttled from one session to another, through a multitude of ice-breakers and periods of “forced fun,” I found the beginning of my first semester to be an exhausting and overwhelming ordeal. I just wanted some quiet space without someone trying to engage me through the desire to help me acclimate, but due to the nature of dorm life, my only personal place was shared with yet another stranger. I remember being acutely aware of the need to be normal. To not stand out as anti-social or poorly adjusted. To not just retreat to my room, though every inch of me was begging for that silence. Already my fellow freshmen had seemingly split into halves: gregarious and outgoing, preening and laughing and confident; versus quiet and insular, fringe-y and deliberately different.

I plunked myself down on the sidewalk to watch this social experiment play out through a volleyball game on the quad – another “fun” activity they’d planned for us all. The benches on the perimeter had been claimed by the fringe group, and the scene on the makeshift court was about as appealing as high school gym class. I knew that I should participate in some way, but I didn’t really want either side. I’d been operating at a frenetic pace for days, and I had nothing left to give. No, I wasn’t going out there.

So I sat, the hot August pavement pressed under the heels of my hands as I leaned back as nonchalantly as I could. Hoping someone would join me and help me look normal, knowing this wasn’t the behavior I should be exhibiting during this particular period of forced fun. I sat alone and I could feel the eyes of the orientation staff and the RAs as they fretted. “Don’t you want to join them?” The question came from above me, looking down on me, assuming I’d be better off on that field. No, thank you. I’m happy watching. A head shake, tacit disbelief that observation really was my preference in this situation, and she was gone – back to her squad of raging extroverts charged with identifying those new students who weren’t assimilating. I was positive I’d just made their list.

I eventually found my way, of course. More than that, I found my place and my people. I joined a sorority, and the choir, and the newspaper staff, and worked the circulation desk in the library. And when I became one of those RAs tasked with helping the freshmen acclimate, I took the Myers-Briggs test for the first time, and got verification of what I probably already knew to be true. I am an introvert (INFJ, actually). My own version of normal, but still perfectly normal.

Taking ownership of that label has been a repeat struggle. With each new season of life have come new people and new situations that are at odds with everything that an introvert is and needs: peers who saw me as stuck up for not instantly connecting; coworkers who demanded I better manage my energy, and “push through” exhausting scenarios; friends and partners who felt I just wasn’t trying hard enough; and now my beautiful children who, by their nature, just take-take-take without allowing any time for my well to refill. Each shift has required the acquisition of coping techniques, and only recently as I’m pushing 40 do I finally feel that I might understand what I need to thrive, and that I might also be able to advocate for myself in those crazy, depleting situations.

There are still some tough spots to navigate, though.

I cracked a (lame) self-deprecating joke about being an introvert not so long ago, and a neighbor and fellow parent looked at me incredulously, as if I’d suddenly sprouted six additional heads. No, I’m not actually shy. I like people! Public speaking is a non-issue, and I have no trouble introducing myself to someone new. But unless that new person is an extrovert who makes things easy on me, I will visibly struggle to converse further until our mutual interests have been established and things can flow comfortably. I do not just dive into meaningful conversation, and if you can’t help get me past that awkward start, we’re just not going to connect.

And when I’m done people-ing, I crash. Hard. There is a very short window for my exit to happen gracefully, and as a single woman, I could usually make it work out alright. But as a mother needing to wrangle two wonderfully exuberant children, and as the wife of one of those famous raging extroverts, that window often slams shut while I’m still inside a social situation, and then things get messy. Car rides home are filled with tension and resentment aimed at a mama who made everyone leave too soon. Sometimes it’s my own angry words flying, and my own frustration that small people ignored the “10 minute warning” and refused to put their shoes on when asked – or that my outgoing husband was oblivious to my quiet nudges and furtive looks until I shut down completely and could barely find the polite words to thank our hosts for having us. We’re still navigating this one, clearly.

But what I’m really working to internalize these days is that these traits are normal. They are my normal, and I’m sure they are normal for other introverts. Being an introvert is an energy thing, and it doesn’t mean we are defective, or that we need to improve, or that we need to seek professional help (not always, at least. There are exceptions, of course). It is who we are and it is how we function. It is innate. The world holds up many extroverted qualities as the standard to which we should all aspire, and that’s just not the whole truth.

 

 

weekend reading

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My bees enjoying the sunshine last week

It’s been a really long time since I’ve shared some of what I’ve been reading (this was the last one, I think), but I’ve bookmarked all sorts of interesting things in the hope that I could get back to posting them here. It was Rhonda that gave me the idea to do this, initially. I’ve been reading her blog since the days I sat in my city office building, dreaming of a different way – so, ten years maybe? I love her perspective, and the way she approaches her simple life – and her weekend reading suggestions are always interesting to me.

I’m sure not all of my links will be of interest to everyone, but in the event you’re looking to discover new thoughts and ideas, these are some of the things on my mind lately.

6 Homeschooling Misconceptions Erased

I’m a Little Too Fat, a Little Too Giving. I Think I Know Why.

Who Will Take Over the Pine Tree State’s Tree Farms?

Indie booksellers create community to survive the age of Amazon

It’s a Terrible Day in the Neighborhood, and That’s O.K.

How A Cross-Canada Road Trip Brought Us Back to Reality This is a 20 minute YouTube video rather than an article, but it was so enjoyable, and brought me such a lightbulb moment when I watched it, that I thought I’d include it.

country currency

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We lost two huge pine trees in a crazy storm a few years back – the one where our whole community lost power for a week, maybe – I can’t remember. Suffice it to say, they’ve been down for a while, tipped over with their roots poking up into the air. We’d look at them periodically and say something like, we probably ought to take care of those, but as they were in a section of the property we don’t really use yet, their cleanup was relegated to “someday.”

And then at some point, a neighbor asked what we were gonna do with those trees. J told him we didn’t really have any plans, and would you like to have them? It turns out that’s exactly why he was asking.

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It took a while for schedules and weather to line up, but late last month, those trees were finally taken care of. J and I walked out one morning after coffee to chat with our neighbor who had shown up with a chainsaw and a backhoe. We had been dreaming about what that grove of trees could become since moving in, and decided that we’d love to have a few more cleared to make the land really usable. I walked around with a can of red Rustoleum (use it up…) and slapped a blaze on another dozen or so trunks, and then our neighbor went to work. A few days later, the center of the grove had been cleared, and a pile of logs was stacked on the side of the road.

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You see, our neighbor built his own house, bit by bit, and is now planning a garage. He cleared his land, and milled his own trees for the lumber, but doesn’t yet have enough to build. In exchange for hauling out our fallen pines, and felling the others, he will keep the logs. They will go to the mill to be made into lumber, trucked there by another community member in exchange for the pulp left over from milling. The trucker can sell the pulp, our neighbor gets his lumber, and we have more open space to be put to use. Everyone wins, and no cash has exchanged hands, and I love it. It’s just the kind of country currency I was hoping to find here.

it’s even more than that

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Ham and cheddar quiche. Maple roasted butternut squash with bacon. Watermelon and grapes. Veggie strata. Blueberry cake and apple cake and pumpkin bread and muffins. Coffee. Lots of coffee. My friend Donna and I hosted breakfast at the community center yesterday morning, dividing the work of crafting a home-cooked meal for our neighbors, served buffet-style. A group of about 12 of us take turns preparing food to share, brewing the coffee, setting the tables. It’s a weekly fundraising effort, as each attendee tosses a couple dollars in the basket to support the upkeep of the building – fixing the water stains on the vestibule ceiling, repairing the steeple, installing a new front door – and allowing us to host some truly wonderful gatherings for local families, free of charge.

It’s most certainly about more than the money, though.

We don’t have sidewalks or stoplights here in our town. There’s one store, one restaurant, one class per grade in the elementary school, and nowhere left open after about 7pm. There are a whole lot of things you won’t find here.

What you will find is a roster of volunteer drivers to take you to a doctor’s appointment when you need a lift, and another organized group of helpers who will test your smoke detectors or bring you a bucket of sand for your icy walk. At Christmas, you’ll find a party and tree lighting for the whole family, complete with cocoa and crafts, Santa and gifts. The food bank, the library, the fire department – all supported by volunteers.

I think it’s even more than that, however.

It seems to me that none of those efforts are accomplished through a desire to check a box, get your hours in, contribute your share. I don’t see my neighbors chipping in simply to achieve their own feeling of fulfillment. Rather, I have the sense that there is a true commitment to community here. Needs are identified, and people band together to address and meet those needs. It’s not philanthropy through a registered non-profit for the sake of “giving back” to a faceless entity; it’s reaching a hand out to your neighbor, looking them in the eye, and saying, I see you. I’m here, and I’ll help. It’s true community, and we all rise together. Such a beautifully traditional system.

So I’ll cook for my neighbors. Quiche, fruit salad, squash with bacon – whatever it may be. We’ll make another pot of coffee, and welcome you at the door, every Saturday morning, because we are meeting a need: true connection with your neighbor over a home-cooked meal. I don’t think we can put a dollar amount on that one.

halloweening

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I grew up in what was then a smallish working-class town about 35 miles west of Philadelphia. We lived in a row house in an older neighborhood. It was a one-way street with a speed limit of 15 mph, plenty of streetlights, and ample sidewalks if not many trees (I shared a photo of our block in this post). It was a trick-or-treater’s dream.

It was safe, and well-lit, and you saw all of your friends and neighbors in their costumes. There was no getting in and out of cars; you simply finished your dinner and walked out your door and down the street. One block of door-knocking filled your bag to bursting, even by taking only one treat from each homeowner. And when you were through, you walked in your own front door, turned off the porch light, and settled in for sorting, swapping, and the Halloween special presentation of Are You Afraid of the Dark? on Nickelodeon.

I suppose that first glance at my memories is through rose-colored glasses. It was exciting and energizing as a kid, but it was also frenetic and crowded. All those kids climbing stairs in costumes with unfamiliar masks and unwieldy tails or accessories – I wonder how many took a tumble. I think about that now, as a mama. We only ever got to walk with one parent because someone had to stay home and pass out candy: your house might get egged later that night if you were perceived as being stingy. One year our pumpkins all got smashed a day or two before Halloween; we stopped putting them out early after that. And candy was ALWAYS inspected by mom and dad before a single bite could be eaten: anything open or homemade (unless from a trusted source) got chucked, anything from certain houses was discarded.

Rural Halloween is a totally different ballgame, and one that I never trained for.

We don’t live in town, now. We have to drive to get to an area with any concentration of houses, and even then, there are only a handful of homes to visit. And it’s dark! I remember being harped on to wear something reflective as a kid, but that was always a formality – here it’s a necessity as there just aren’t lights. Period. It was so starkly different that I have to admit I missed that mad, frantic rush for candy the first year or two we were here.

But you know what? My kids were happier than pigs in poo to traipse around after their bedtimes in costumes of their own choosing. They had no idea that it could be any different than it was, and so they didn’t miss what they didn’t know. And the reality here is rosy, for real. No one will smash our pumpkins or egg our house. There’s no rush to get up onto porches and no real risk of losing my kid among the masses. I’ve even gotten gently teased for checking my girls’ candy in years past. It really is good, clean fun.

So tonight we will visit our next door neighbors, and then head into our little town. We will stop at the few houses that are there, and then head to the town beach to display our jack-o-lanterns (because no one will see them on our porch way out here). The fire department will probably have a truck out with goodies to share, and a couple of neighbors will pop their car trunks at the boat launch to hand out treats. And then we’ll eat homemade snacks and bob for apples in the community center – after sorting and swapping our candy with friends. No rose-colored glasses required.

 

 

upgrading

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Our first chicken coop was a beast. We were still scraping our life back together at that point: paying things off, fixing our credit, renting a trailer. We needed to do something that would tangibly set us on the path toward our goals and remind us why we were hustling so hard. On a bit of a whim, J sent a text to our landlord, asking if he minded chickens. He didn’t. So we brought six chicks home and settled them in the bathtub.

We’d need a coop before long, so J got to work. Using an old tabletop as the base, he added 4″x4″ posts as legs, a bookshelf sliced in half as nesting boxes, and asphalt shingles given to us by neighbors. Fort Knox is a beast of a chicken coop, weighing a ton and costing us next to nothing to build – $50? $100? I can’t remember now. We moved it to the new house, and now use it as our transition coop – a space for the teenagers when they outgrow the brooder box.

The next coop was just a corner of the existing barn with roosts and nesting boxes added. It seemed the perfect solution: plenty of ventilation, existing electricity, an outside wall for a hatch door to the run. J caulked up any gaps in the boards and laid a new plywood floor, and our flock grew to 25 birds. And then the first spring thaw happened. Everything flooded. There was water and wet bedding everywhere, and we were in a panic about how to keep the birds healthy and safe. It was a total mess. I hope this was a fluke,  I thought. I hope it doesn’t happen again next spring.  All winter I skated down the little hill to the coop, bringing fresh water, serving scratch, filling the feeder. And then everything flooded again.

Chickens have delicate respiratory systems. Dirty bedding gives off ammonia which will make them sick, as will damp conditions. The two combined is a deadly recipe. And a sick bird hides it as long as she can. By the time your chicken acts sick, it’s almost too late to save her. We’ve lost a hen to a respiratory infection, and we’ve saved one (my then nursing student husband injected her with antibiotics – yikes!). A flooded coop is more than just a bit of water; it’s a chicken health nightmare.

Clearly the barn would continue to flood each year, and just as clearly, we weren’t going to give up keeping chickens. A new coop was needed.

It took a lot of time and thought to make this decision. We looked at photos and walked the property to assess the springtime water flow. We chatted out pros and cons of multiple sites, considering access to the house and electricity, snow removal needs, aesthetic appeal. And then we pulled the trigger, so to speak.

We ordered a custom built chicken coop.

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Delivered the first week of July, it’s Amish construction by Horizon Structures – the same Pennsylvania company that has built coops for Lisa Steele of Fresh Eggs Daily and Melissa Caughey of Tilly’s Nest. Pre-run for electricity, it’s got an outlet and a light fixture, and it’s rated for up to 40 chickens.

We’ve made some minor modifications already. We painted the interior white to lighten things up. We added a hook and eye inside the storage area door so that the chickens don’t swarm in while we’re filling their feeder. J installed a lip at the man doors so that the bedding stays inside. We discovered the need for a barrier at the bottom of the caged storage room so that the bedding stays where it’s supposed to be. Small tweaks to make it work for us and for our flock.

It’s beautiful. It meets our needs now, and any future needs we could anticipate, and it will be really nice not to take my life into my hands each time the flock needs fresh water this winter. That icy hill was no joke.

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Some days, I am still stricken with buyer’s remorse. It feels disingenuous to have paid for such a luxury when we are trying so hard to be self-sufficient in all other areas – despite the knowledge that we sketched everything out and were in full agreement about the value of and need for such a purchase. I think that’s just part of life – making the best decisions you can with the information you have, and trying not to second guess yourself every step of the way. I’m sure the chickens are just happy to have a warm, dry house, so I should be too.