The chicken before the egg


One of my chickens is dying.  On Monday morning when I went to give my small flock of seven some food and water she had that look that I’ve come to recognize as the dying chicken look.  She was huddled on the ground instead of perched up high on the branches I’ve arranged inside the henhouse and she didn’t show any interest in what I was bringing.  I thought she’d be dead by the end of the day, but she’s been hanging in there all week.

This isn’t anything new.  I’ve been keeping chickens for quite a few years now and we’ve watched many of them grow old and die.  Some people are very systematic about culling their chickens in order to keep their egg yield high, but I don’t have it in me to kill something just because its productivity isn’t optimal.  I did banish one from the coop once when she wouldn’t stop eating eggs and I found a pile of feathers a few days later.

I first started raising chickens when my children were little and I didn’t work away from home.  It was always exciting to get the baby chicks in the spring.  We’d go to the feed store and each kid would choose one that they could call their own.  Adella usually chose a Buff Orpington.  Dillon was partial to the black and white spotted Barred Rocks.  We raised them in cardboard boxes in the house for a few weeks before we introduced them to the older hens in the coop.   My kids were proud of their chickens and loved showing them off to their neighbor friends.

Times have changed though.  Now that my kids are teenagers they show no interest whatsoever in anything farm or garden related and I spend big chunks of my time away from home.  I’m pretty sure it no longer makes sense to keep chickens.  I should probably make my life easier by buying eggs at the store like most reasonable people, but I guess my chickens aren’t just about the eggs.

I love to watch them in the spring after the soil thaws; manic in their search for worms after a long winter.  I love that to them, nothing is more luxurious than a dust bath.  They remind me that a good life isn’t always about high productivity.  It’s more about enjoying the life we’ve been given.

An elusive Psych degree

I recently discovered that the bachelor’s degree I thought I had earned back in 1999 is incomplete.  You see, eleven years ago I was under the influence of raising small children; I was just trying to stay afloat in a world filled with diapers, play-dates and sibling squabbles.  It’s not surprising that  somewhere during that time frame I missed some important paperwork.

After I finished all of the coursework I needed to complete my BA in Psychology I took my exit exam and never looked back.  I went about my life.  Besides being a mother, I worked as an advocate for victims of domestic violence and as a skills trainer for the community mental health center before I landed my current position at the Homer Public Library.  On each of the resumes I submitted for those jobs I proudly added that I had my bachelor’s degree.  But it turns out I was wrong.   A certain detail kept it from being official.

I had failed  to submit the proper paperwork to the Psychology department when I changed my major from pre-nursing; a little thing, but big enough to throw my bachelor’s degree into a state of limbo for many years.  Since I thought I was done it never occurred to me that there was a problem and since I didn’t go through the graduation  ceremony I never really thought about the fact that I had never been given a diploma.

I could have blissfully gone through my life never knowing of this problem but about a year ago I decided that I would apply to the University of Alaska MFA program.  The advisor at the college, who also happens to be my husband, went through my transcripts and discovered the discrepancy.   Enough years have gone by that the Psychology department has different requirements than it used to and in order to actually get my degree I found out I was going to have to enroll again as a student, this time in the correct program, take a couple of classes and reapply for graduation.

At first I was in denial, “Surely they will make an exception for me,” I thought.  Much time was spent whining and exchanging emails with registrars and department heads but soon enough I realized that although my case was unique, it didn’t warrant any special treatment.  If I wanted to officially graduate then I had to go through the motions.  That’s when I got angry.  I didn’t want to go back to school and take classes that are irrelevant to where I want to be in my life.  For a while I thought about just giving up on the whole MFA idea.

My obstinate attitude started to subside though when I attended the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference last summer and went to a discussion about the pros and cons of getting an MFA.  It turns out that there aren’t many cons.  If I want to improve as a writer, if I want people to take my writing seriously, then the MFA will only help me.   The low-residency program makes it possible for me to work towards the degree and stay at my job.  And the real clincher is that my husband (remember him, the academic advisor) works for the UAA system which offers tuition waivers for family members of employees, thus making the whole thing affordable.  Really, it’s a no-brainer.

So once again I’m working on my bachelor’s degree.  This time though, I’m making sure to follow all the rules.   Tomorrow I’m off to my Psychological Statistics class and next week I’ll start Systems and History of Psychology.   No, I’m not thrilled about the fact that for the next few months I have to spend so many hours working on courses that are essentially meaningless to me, but I’ve come to a place of acceptance about the whole matter. Really, I have.   And who knows, maybe the statistics class will give me lots of new, interesting things to write about.  I’ll be sure to let you know if it does.

Venturing out

It’s officially the time of year when I start daydreaming about living in New Mexico or somewhere, anywhere, where a person can leave the house without wearing ice-cleats and a headlamp.  Between the moose bedded down twenty feet from where we walk, a two inch layer of solid ice and the darkness, the most difficult part of each day can be getting up or down our driveway.   My response is that I never want to leave the house.  I would be perfectly happy to stay here.

I realize that staying home all the time is unrealistic.  Money must be earned.  Children must be driven around. Groceries must be purchased.   But I do find myself minimizing my outings during the darkest part of winter, and oftentimes I regret the commitments I’ve made that require me to leave the house.  That’s how I was feeling yesterday.  I just wanted to stay home with my computer and my books.

I’m sure I would have enjoyed another evening at home, but last night I was  reminded of why it is that I love this town, and why I stay here even when the winters start to make me a little batty.

The son of a friend of mine plays basketball on the Homer High School team and because of district funding issues the kids have to pay their own travel expenses for their games.  My friend decided to hold a contra dance after the game against Seward yesterday, with all of the proceeds going toward the team.  She and her husband asked me to play fiddle with their band for the dance.

The coach required that all the boys attend the event, and invite their friends and families, and of course girls, so they would have someone to dance with.   He told them they didn’t have to dance, but if they chose not to he would make them run 500 suicides at practice next week.   The parents of the team brought chili and cornbread and a table full of desserts, possibly to make the idea of a contra dance more appealing to the boys.  I fully expected the high school commons to be full of eye-rolling, arms-crossed teens, waiting impatiently until they could safely get out of there and onto whatever else they’d rather be doing.  But I was wrong.

At 8:00 we played our first tune, to get the kids attention mostly.  Then the first dance was called.  About twenty tentative couples made their way to the dance floor.  Before the caller finished teaching the dance the number of couples doubled.  It continued that way all evening.  Each dance seemed to have more participants than the one before.   And people kept showing up all the time; parents, friends, basketball supporters, the regular contra dance crowd.  The coach mandated the boys’ participation but he never said they had to stay until the end.  They were still going strong when we had to wrap things up at eleven.

There was much to enjoy about the evening; the food, the conversation, the mixed-age group socializing together.  I’m glad I didn’t miss it.  I’m sure I would have enjoyed staying home, getting lost in another good book, but instead I got to watch a room full of laughing people dance to the music of my own making.  I don’t think I’ll ever find a book that makes me feel as good as that.

2010 by the book

One of the problems or, some would say, blessings of working at the library is that I come across so many interesting books; way more than I’d ever have time to read and still be a functioning member of society.  In an attempt to keep myself focused, which means not start twelve books simultaneously, I have been compiling a list of books I hope to read in 2010.

I’ve started out the year with Eckhart Tolle’s  “A New Earth: Awakening Your Life’s Purpose” and Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”   Along the way I’m sure I’ll add to the list because there has to be room for spontaneity.  Sometimes a book just calls out to you and you have to read it, whether it’s on your list or not.

Here’s what I’ve got so far, and I’m open to suggestions.

*Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen  (I will never have to tell another person I’ve never read Jane Austen.)

*Snow – Orhan Pamuk

*Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck

*The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

*Ordinary Wolves – Seth Kantner

*The Virgin Suicides – Jeffrey Eugenides   (His book Middlesex was excellent.)

*Cutting For Stone – Abraham Verghese  (People at the library keep recommending this one.)

*The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver  (I have to read everything she writes.)

*The Autobiography of a Yogi – Paramahansa Yogananda

*The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz

*Stitches: A Memoir – David Small  (The graphic novel Blankets got me hooked, and I hear this one is great.)

*Too Much Happiness – Alice Munro (The goddess of short stories.)

*Juliet Naked – Nick Hornby (Any book written by the man who wrote High Fidelity deserves to be read.)

*The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion

*A Passage To India – E.M. Forster

*Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri

*Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse

*Strength in What Remains – Tracy Kidder

Fear and Fascination

When I was a little girl I sat through a lot of church services.  I’m talking two church services every Sunday until I was about fourteen years old.  Most of them have blurred together into one memory that includes the strong scent of ladies perfume, singing hymns and daydreaming the hours away while the pastor delivered his message.  Always at the end of the service the congregation was invited to go to the front of the church for an “altar call;” which meant we had the opportunity to make ourselves right with Jesus by recommitting our lives to Him and confessing our sins.

One service though stands out from all the others.   A missionary family from Calcutta visited when I was about nine years old to share their experiences and to gather support for their work with the poorest people in the city.   They told stories of leprosy, spiritual darkness and poverty the likes of which I could scarcely imagine with my limited Colorado small-town-girl perspective.  After that particular service my own personal altar call involved lots of pleading, praying and crying, not for the little children shown in the slideshows, but for God to please never make me go to India.

Perhaps my childhood fear of having to go to India actually planted the seeds of what has become for me a fascination with all things Indian.  Still though, going there didn’t really cross my mind until recently.  It seemed too far out of reach.

Two weeks ago at the library we received a greeting card from a young man who taught a digital photography class to kids in Homer.  The card featured a photo of his most recent students in a small school in northeastern India, not far from Nepal.  Something happened when I saw the card.  I went back to it several times over the day and looked again at the school children on the cover.   For some reason the card made it all seem possible.

My growing desire to go to India wasn’t something I shared with many people and I didn’t expect my family to jump on board with my crazy idea.  But much to my amazement they’re into it.  We don’t know any of the details yet, only that it will take about two years to save enough money to make it all happen.  A savings account has been opened. The beginning of a plan is in place.  I haven’t felt this excited in a long time.

2009 by the book

Over the past few days I’ve been trying to remember the books that I’ve read from cover to cover in 2009.   Lately it seems like I have a short attention span with reading and my list of unfinished books is much longer than my list of finished books.  By listing the books I’ve completed I’ve managed to make myself feel a little better. The year has come and gone and I still haven’t organized my closet or painted my living room but, by God, I did finish a few books.  Imagine how smug I’d feel if I could tally all the blog posts, opinion pieces and news articles I’ve read on the internet.

2009 books

*The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind – William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

—— I read this book, with its intense description of hunger, during the holidays, when I was surrounded by food.

*The Help – Kathryn Stockett

*The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Anne Shaffer and Annie Barrows

*Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout

——–I understand why this won the Pulitzer Prize.

*Amy and Isabelle – Elizabeth Strout

*Raising Ourselves – Velma Wallis

*The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie

———Of all the books on this list I think this one made the biggest impact.

*First Indian on the Moon – Sherman Alexie

*Fancy Dancing – Sherman Alexie

——- I actually sent Sherman Alexie fan mail after reading this one.  I’d never done that.

*Eva Underground – Dandi Daley Mackall

*The Gathering – Anne Enright

*The Well and the Mine – Gin Phillips

*Saddle Up Your Own White Horse – Saundra Pelletier

*Rock, Water, Wild:  An Alaskan Life – Nancy Lord

——– I appreciated most of the essays in this book, but the last one about her aged father is beautiful and had me crying over my breakfast one morning.  (I took a memoir writing class from the author last winter.)

*The Complete Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

——– A graphic novel about a girl growing up during the Iranian Revolution.  Iranians are real people.

*The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards – Robert Boswell

*Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone – Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg

——-I was inspired to read this one after taking a Carter Family Singing class at Alaska Traditional Music Camp last summer.

*The Worst Hard Time – Timothy Egan

And the next two are ones I reread in 2009.

*The Shipping News – Annie Proulx

——–My favorite novel.

*Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer

———I had to reread this one after watching the movie; to compare and contrast.

There may be more, but that’s what I can remember.  Happy New Year!

Extremes



Today, the day after the official winter solstice, we have five hours and fifty-eight minutes between sunrise and sunset. We’re on the gaining side of the pendulum now and by March it will be light until 9:00 pm.

Solstice doesn’t go unnoticed in Alaska.  Some people have big parties in celebration of the shift toward summer.  Others acknowledge the day in a more introspective fashion.  Either way, it feels very Pagan, living in a state where no matter how far removed you might be from nature you can’t ignore the extremes in the seasons.

I’ve had a hard time with winter the last few years.  For me, and others I’ve spoken to about the subject, there seems to be a cumulative effect going on.  Coping with winter didn’t seem to be so much of a problem for the first decade of my living here, but now I have to actively work on my sanity throughout the winter months.

This winter I’m taking 3000 IU of Vitamin D every day.  I haven’t read any scientific studies about its effectiveness in fending off the winter blues, but I figure it can’t hurt.

A few years ago I bought a light box.  The idea is that if you start using it daily in the fall when each day loses a few minutes of light, then you will feel the benefits of it in late winter when the days are getting longer.  And that brings up another interesting and strange dilemma.  Most people who have a hard time with winter feel it the most around the spring equinox, when the days are long again, and the hope of summer is just around the corner.

For me I’ve found that my ability to make it through the winter without feeling despair hinges on the previous summer.  In 2008 Alaska had a very cool summer.  In Homer the temperature only got to 70 degrees twice.  Most days the thermometer hovered around 55 degrees.  In July we went camping in McCarthy and had to cancel our hiking plans due to snow.  Winter rolled around and I never felt like I had had a summer.  It was tough.

I can endure pretty long winters, but if I don’t feel like I have a summer I get cranky, and desperate.  Last year we planned a trip to New Mexico in June, the hottest time of the year there, because I was determined to get some sun.   I didn’t want to rely on Alaska for a summer.  After 2008 I didn’t have much faith.

As it turned out we had an unseasonably warm and sunny summer last year.  So between that stroke of luck, or El Nino, and the New Mexico trip, I should be in good shape for this winter.  But certain things about myself, in relation to the long, Alaskan winters are still predictable.  By late February, even on a good year,  I’ll start dreaming about that feeling of the sun’s rays on my skin and I’ll wake up under my down comforter and feel like crying.  By that point in the winter I know I’ll have to rely on some inner strength to get me through those last few weeks of winter.  I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again.

It helps if I remind myself of the opposite extreme that Alaska brings out in me.  Every summer I experience moments of euphoria, usually while I’m out on our skiff on Kachemak Bay, or when I’m looking down on the meadow in front of our house and a black bear lumbers by.  At those moments, when Alaska’s bounty is all around me and the days linger into the early hours of the morning, I can’t imagine living anywhere else.