Thursday, October 5, 2017

On loving a Chicken named Chili

I’d like to interrupt this steady stream of depressing news (Vegas, North Korea, 45, Puerto Rico, violence, you know the rest) to introduce to you a little red hen named Chili.  Her left foot is crooked.  She doesn’t lay predictably.  She poops on our front porch and eats the cat food. I wouldn’t recommend to anyone that they have a chicken that thinks she’s a cat (thankfully our cats don’t poop on the porch).  But since this silly little porch chicken came into my life I’ve had something to laugh about and laughter feels a lot better than the alternative right now.

 On Tuesday night my husband sent a group text to a few friends and family: Chilli chicken in da house.  After taking the picture Michael promptly put her into her pen in the front yard. 
That little white swirl on the cushion is lint, not poop, but why, you may ask, is there a chicken on the couch in the first place?  How did we get to this point? 
We’ve been living for the past six years in an intentional community that keeps chickens for eggs and meat.  We have about 75 of them and they live far from the houses on a field with movable fencing. Similar to this one pictured here: Image result for joel salatin mobile chicken coop

Following the farming practice made popular by Joel Salatin the chickens aerate and fertilize the soil where the cows had grazed.  Though they live a happy life of pecking and scratching in the ground by day and roosting in their stylish mobile chicken coop by night, chickens never meant much to me until Chili showed up at our house.

It was the morning after the total solar eclipse (We had 99.67% here but drove to SC to see 100% - but that’s another story).  Some of our friends who had come down from Philadelphia for the big event woke up to a loud clucking on the porch. “So does that chicken always sleep on your porch?” Angela asked as I filled her cup with black coffee.
“What chicken?” I wondered aloud.  Maybe the bird’s little internal homing mechanism got interrupted by the partial darkness the day before, maybe she wanted in on the party with the Guesses, maybe God sent her as a feathered messenger from above bringing me good tidings of great joy but for whatever reason she found in our porch a home and we decided we’d keep her.

Her head was bloody on top. We get the phrase “hen-pecked” from that practice of chickens ganging up on weaker chickens.  Like I said before her foot is crooked so she doesn’t fit in.  There was no way that I was going to put her back in the pen with the sharp-beaked flock.  We pulled over an old bottomless cage that we once used for tending rabbits and made it her new place to sleep in the front yard. The kids started calling her Chili, perhaps for the ruddiness of her feathers, perhaps because it rhymes with silly.

Chili is a people chicken. She runs up to greet us as we come and go from the house.  She stares at us through the door and pecks at the glass begging to be let in.  We don’t let her, and we curse when she poops on the welcome mat.  She doesn’t mind being held. When I sit on the rocking chair on the front porch I scoop her up onto my lap and smooth her silky feathers.  She doesn’t flap and squawk.  She lays an egg now and then in an abandoned terrarium, and when she does our daughters rush to bring it, still warm, into the house. She likes to be talked to.  Every morning we have a little chat- I do most of the talking.

One afternoon, about a week after Chili started roosting with us, a friend saw the chicken on the porch and thought she was doing me a favor by plopping her back in with all the other chickens.  I tried to hide my consternation when she told me, but I think I was visibly disturbed.  I’ve gone all these years without a chicken in my life, but the idea of losing Chili made me ache as I ran toward the fence and scanned my eyes across a sea of anonymous birds. Here was the test- did I really know her at all?  Did she really know me?  I stepped into the pen and looked at each bird. I knew she wasn’t one of the white or speckled ones but there were dozens of reddish brown hens.  

“Chili, hey Chili chicken,” I called out to the feathery ones but I was met with empty birdie-eyed stares and absent-minded clucks. “Hey Chili girl, c’mon now.” Then a little chicken sidled up to my leg and gave a little, “Brr-bruck?”  She pointed her crooked foot toward mine and I scooped her up into my arms.  All those Bible stories about shepherd and sheep rang true as I was assured that we actually do know one another by name- this bird and me.

A few years back I went to year Alice Walker speak at the Morton Theater in Athens, GA.  At the time I was a bit bemused that this writing legend, speaking to a packed auditorium (the most diverse crowd I’ve been in since moving down south), who could have spoken to us about anything in the world chose to share her delight in raising backyard chickens.  It had something to do with love.  She wanted us to realize that peace is a practice as fragile and miraculous as a fresh laid egg and that if a heart can feel the tragedy in cracking an egg with a half formed chick we can feel the tragedy of greater losses.

I wish it were that easy, that peace on earth were as simple as each creature knowing and being known by name. That our hearts would stay fragile and open and willing to keep breaking.  But even Nazis and Klansman can be kind parents, farmers and pet owners.  Loving the ones close to us doesn’t always lead to love of the ones far away, the ones we think of as others, the ones we kill with drone strikes, the ones whose blood we have not seen. But still I cling to the hope that tenderness to any living thing might soften us to one another.

I know a man who arrived in the US as a refugee from Congo. Before war pushed him and his family from their land, he lived with cows.  While he was staying at Jubilee he accurately predicted the birth of a calf based on his lifetime of nearness to the life rhythms of cows.  He lives in a city now, works in a chicken plant where white gangly birds who never see the light of day are hacked and chopped into convenience food. We saw him a few weeks ago and he confided to a friend of mine that when he has trouble sleeping he turns on his smart phone and looks at a photo of a cow.  It helps him to feel at home.

I’m sorry, I wanted to write something to help us all laugh a little bit and now I feel like crying again.  I want you to know that I’m a hypocrite too.  I still eat factory farmed meat.  I’ve witnessed and plucked but still have not directly killed my own food.  In his book The Witness of Combines Kent Meyers has this beautiful chapter called “Chickens” about how quickly our affection toward chickens can be transformed as they become chicken, but how even the process of butchering –when done with care- can feel sacramental.

 I can hear Chili clucking now in the yard. I have a feeling that even if I become a woman who butchers her own supper, Chili – my first chicken love- will grow to a ripe old age

Since this little Chili bird came my daughter, Seraphina, who is usually the last one out of bed, has been waking up early to let her out, give her grain, talk to her.  My son wants to kill her on account of the poop on the porch.  Our porch is actually cleaner than usual because of all the sweeping and spraying and the shoes are stacked up neatly because no one wants poop in their shoes.

On a day when the sky turned dark a silly little bird came to our home for solace.  She brought us extra work and joy. Her head is healed now and my heart, my ever breaking heart, is happier for her arrival.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

I rest me in the thought

I’ve been distraught of late.   I know better.  I know God is more powerful than people.  Yet I've been floundering, not really praying, not really feeling blessedly assured. I've been crying for the ones who can’t go home, for the ones who are suffering and may suffer more as a result of the bad choices of greedy, fearful and misinformed people.

I offered to watch a friend’s baby this morning as much for my own sanity as for her ability to attend English class.  The baby and I went to visit Grandma Coffee.  Coffee is 97 years old.  In worship last Sunday she stood up and told a story that she’s told many times before, a story that never gets old:

She and her husband had just arrived in Korea as missionaries at the end of the Korean War.  There was  a building that she recognized as a church except all the windows were blown out and there were piles of rubble.  Yet she could hear voices coming from that ravished space .  Voices singing in Korean a song she knew well in English. “And though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”  So she knew God was already there and thus begun her two decades in Korea with the theme song of her life becoming “This is My Father’s World.”

She held this little baby during part of Sunday worship, this baby whose mommy made it safely to the US and for the misfortune of being a survivor of a crime and the courage of reporting it can now stay in this country out of the shadows. We hope.  

This baby and I came to Coffee’s this morning because I thought she would like to hold the baby again.   I also  thought, surely, in the presence of these very young and very old souls I would find some solace.

I told Coffee that I am angry, sad and scared.  Then she spoke my deeper thoughts that I’ve been trying to conceal. “And you find yourself thinking, ‘Lord strike him down.’ But you know that isn’t going to work at this point because there must be others that think and feel like him.  And so you pray.”

Every morning she has been reading, or rather asking someone to read to her from John Baillie’s daily devotional.  She had already read it this morning before I came, but asked me if I’d like to read it aloud. “ Can you read while holding a baby? I can’t see the words anymore.” The baby had fallen into a deep and settled rest upon my chest.  Her warm breath steadying and deepening my own tight and anxious breaths.  “Yes, I can read with a baby in my arms. I have years of practice.”

So I read and prayed and those tears sprang a leak down my cheeks.  “Help me, O Lord God, not to let my thoughts today be wholly occupied by the world’s passing show.”

And it helped.  From the outside someone might have mistaken me for the helper- holding the baby, visiting my elderly neighbor.  But I was the neediest, the hungriest, the most consoled. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

lament for an Inaugural poet

Image result for on the pulse of morning

In my short 38 years, I have only attended one inauguration and for one reason, to hear a poem.  I grew up in Washington, DC. In the years my family lived there, between 1980 and 1996 we went downtown for protests more often than for celebrations. In January 1993, mom and I bundled up and caught the Metro downtown for Bill Clinton’s inauguration.  I remember standing in the throng of people and watching his motorcade pass.  His window was rolled up for security but I could see a waving white hand behind the black tinted glass.  I had not come for a glimpse of a hand behind glass, I had come to hear the voice of Maya Angelou reading her new poem, “On the Pulse of Morning.”   The year before, I had read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for my eighth grade English class. I knew it would be a gift to the nation and to me personally to hear Maya Angelou read on the National Mall.  Her poem, her voice vibrating through the loud speakers across a sea of people standing quietly, peacefully, breathing steamy winter breath together instilled a sense of hopefulness, a sense that I belonged.  My hope was not in the new president but in the fact that Maya’s truth-telling words were welcome, her voice was invited.  I was coming of age into a belief that my voice would be welcome too, that we were becoming a nation that was growing toward its lofty ideals. I took her words to heart, my fourteen year-old self heeded her words as a commission:

Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands,
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For a new beginning.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

There have only been four inaugural poets in our nation’s history.  Robert Frost, invited by John F Kennedy was the first.  There was a long silent spell followed by Maya Angelou who was invited by Bill Clinton in 1993.  President Obama is the only US president who invited two inaugural poets, Elizabeth Alexander in 2009 and Richard Blanco in 2013. In only four people there is a rich representation of African American, Latino, White, gay, female and male,  people who chose words as tools for inner and societal transformation.   

For the past five years, I have lived in rural Georgia and been have been challenged to love my neighbors while maintaining a voice that is often quite distinct.  I do not want to just fit in or for my kids to accept many of the cultural norms as "normal," yet I want to actually love and know people without fear. I attended an all day sporting event with my son a few years back. He and I read an O magazine together as we waited for his turn to compete.  One of the feature articles was a list of questions to encourage personal reflection and growth. He then read the questions aloud to his teammates. Most of them humored him with their responses.  Except when he got to this question, “Have you tried poetry?”  One child seemed obviously annoyed that my son was focusing more on Oprah than his sport and replied derisively, “Poetry is for hippies and vegetarians!” His mother, the coach, cast her son a silencing glance but did not raise her voice in defense of poetry, hippies or vegetarians. I think this boy may have hoped to insult us with these labels. We just laughed.  I turned to him and said, “Poetry is for you, too.” 

As many writers have already pointed out, there will be no poetry read at today’s inauguration. Poets, at their best, are truth tellers, and truth did not receive an invitation. But tomorrow when the streets are flooded with dissent, the truth will be made clear.  Poetry and truth telling and courage will continue with our without presidential invitation.

 In 2014, I heard Richard Blanco read in Atlanta. As the son of an immigrant, he spoke about what it meant to be invited to read at a US presidential inauguration. He quoted his Cuban born mother who said to him, “You know m’ijo, it’s not where you are born that matters, it’s where you choose to die. That’s your country.”  

What is my country? Death keeps coming quickly and uninvited in this country. What a privilege it would be, what a beautiful nation we could become if untimely death were not thrust upon people- from unborn babies, to death row inmates and to victims drone strikes, state sanctioned police and vigilante killings and shooting rampages from legal assault rifles. These early deaths are not their choice. (I know some may chafe that I mention babies here. I am in no way advocating that Roe V Wade be overturned. I am advocating a culture of life from cradle to grave, a culture so loving, so free of rape and abuse, so affirming of life that it would make abortion rare and obsolete, never illegal).

Before Richard Blanco read, he was introduced by a beautiful rising star in the poetry world named Jericho Brown.  As I heard him read, I thought, “Yes! Him! His voice! Our nation needs to listen to him. Perhaps Jericho Brown will be the next inaugural poet.” His poems cut to the quick.  In December his poem “Riddle” appeared in the Georgia Review. It starts with the unrecognizable body of Emmet Till, the refusal to hear a mother cry and continues

We do not know the history
Of ourselves in this nation. We
Do not know the history of our
Selves on this planet because
We do not have to know
What we believe we own.

It ends with the line, What? What on Earth are we?

Many appropriate poems have emerged in recent months, but this it the one I am re-reading today. 
I’ve also got Maya’s words burrowed deep in the folds of my memory.  As the old song goes “I won’t let the devil steal my joy.” Though my heart is heavy with lament today, he who shall not be named is not the author of my hope. And so I will heed the final lines of the poem I heard 24 years ago today and face this day and the days ahead with a hope that will not be taken by this regime change.

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes, into
Your brother's face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Father's Day Manicures

Here is poem in two parts that I wrote based on my dad's recent visit to our home.  He is such an amazing grandfather and continues to challenge, love and encourage me.  I love the strength of my father's hands and that he always taught me, "The pen is swifter than the sword." I am so very thankful.

After sawing logs on the couch,
your Daddy wakes and says he’ll bake
 a sweet potato pie.

You look at his thick rhinoceros horn nails,
and say, “Daddy, please wait.”
Then you start to clip those jagged saws
and say, “How could you let them go
for so long?”

You gather the clippings
 in your skirt and your son tells you
 that you are acting
 like his mom. But your dad
is no longer acting
like your son who would have
 balled his sharp nails into a fist
 if you tried.

Daddy says, “I can’t
remember anyone ever
clipping my nails.”


He considers the small
 bottle of purple  metallic polish
 and says, “Yes, I will
 paint your nails,
but I have never painted
a person’s nails before.”

She says that’s okay
and spreads the sum of her years
 on a flattened macaroni box
 to protect the table where you sat
 as a child and now stand at a distance

 to watch your father bent over
 and concentrating with bifocals off.
 The top of his head gleams,
the bald spot that was a golden coin
 has grown into a mirror.

 And this little curly haired girl,
 your daughter, is you
though he never said, “yes”
when you asked.    

you want to bottle this moment
 to take a picture of those thick 
tree trunk fingers holding her red bud twigs.
She sighs her patient I’m a big girl sigh
as he takes his time and colors outside the lines.


Friday, May 8, 2015

mom's lentils

Happy Mother's Day to my mom, who taught me how to make something sweet from humble lentils.

You just left a stressful business meeting and you have an hour and a half to make lunch for fifty people. 

Don’t panic.

Look in the industrial sized community fridge for leftovers and find enough to feed eight maybe ten people. 

Breathe.  You can do this.

Remember there are always lentils, those quick cooking gems of simplicity.

Put four pounds in a big pot, rinse well and cover with plenty of water, drop in four bay leaves and turn on the heat.  Go for the mondo rice cooker and measure fourteen cups of rice.  Rinse well cover with enough water and remember to plug it in and turn it on.  Look at the clock- you’ve got time.  Pull out hummous and baba ghanoush from the fridge and defrost a few bags of pita bread.  Discover that someone else in the community sliced five gallons of sweet potatoes into fries and sing a sweet hallelujah.  This lunch will be more than OK. 

Realize you are not alone.   Earlier that morning your jaw dropped in the meeting when it was casually announced that there would be ten extra people at lunch.  Mercy was shown and a volunteer was made available to help you with a task that is usually done by one person. She sets cups and pitchers of water on the tables. She puts away all of the clean dishes and washes all of the ones you will dirty.  She slices the bag of mini peppers you found in the fridge.  She slices them thinly, as you instructed, so that everyone can get some.  She smiles when you say you are making sweet and sour lentils.  Her mom had visited a few weeks earlier and complemented you when you made the dish, “Your lentils are good. Whenever I make lentils they taste like dirt. Yours do not taste like dirt.”  You can’t expect much more from a complement for a pot of lentils.

You spread the fries in a single layer on three large baking sheets and drizzle a little oil on them and stir then spread them back flat and pop them in the oven.

Your husband sits near the kitchen with another man eating cheese and crackers and talks about a maintenance project. You know that they both work plenty, but they are not working now.  You sweetly tell your hubby how much it bugs you to see him having a snack right there, right now. He smiles and offers you some cheese and crackers. The other man offers to help.  You decline both and get out four large onions.

Another coworker walks into the kitchen and asks to use two stove burners to heat up lunch for the Congolese family that will be arriving soon.  She will serve them lunch in the small house that will be their home for the next two months but doesn’t want to dirty up their freshly cleaned kitchen.  They will get a dish made with meat which we usually don’t serve during the week. The lentils simmer and soften on the back burner and there is room for her pots.  You feel like Brother Lawrence, so close to God in the clamor of the kitchen, and do not begrudge your sisters need for space there. 

You try to suppress your insecurity about making lunch for the ten guests that are on their way.  They work for a local refugee resettlement agency and most of them are themselves refugees or the children of people from Somalia, Vietnam, Bhutan, Sudan.  They left behind the hell of war but carried with them food traditions that taste like heaven.  You peel and dice the onions for your mom’s sweet and sour lentils recipe from the More with Less Cookbook and try not to feel inadequate.  No chili peppers, ginger, lemongrass or mélange of spices. Just boil the lentils with bay leaves and enough water to be sure they don’t burn.  When they are soft, add equal parts apple cider vinegar and apple (or pineapple) juice.  The recipe calls for an equal part of sugar but it is fine with less.  A pinch of ground cloves.  Salt.  Stir in sautéed onions.  Don’t forget salt. Simmer until bubbly and serve over rice.  Usually throw in some minced garlic but there is no pre-chopped garlic in the fridge and the clock is ticking too fast to squash and mince enough garlic to taste a difference.

Resign yourself to the fact that it is only food.  There will be enough for everyone to eat and no one will go hungry.  Fifteen minutes before you are supposed to be done you hear a shout from across the dining room, “They brought food!”  Your heart sinks and rises at this announcement. You didn’t need to make so much.  Why didn’t anyone tell you they were bringing food? Why didn’t you remember that they brought food the last time they visited?

Realize that your pride is wounded; no one will want your bubbly pot of plain old “don’t taste like dirt” lentils. 

Suddenly you are tasked with warming up food for an international potluck.  You slice pork dumplings in half so that people at the end of the line will get a taste. You pour chickpea and tomato stew out of the turmeric stained plastic container into a pot to warm on a burner that is now free.  Fragrant rice pilaf goes into a pan to warm in the oven.  Your dear helper washes all of the Tupperware so that it can be returned.  You find serving utensils for Vietnamese noodles, plug in a crockpot of chick pea spinach and potato soup.  The only white guy among the visitors hands you a plastic bag with tortilla chips, a box of Cheezits, and a half filled container of white icing.  You give a puzzled look first to the icing and then to the bearer of the bag. “They said we should bring food so I just cleaned out my desk.”  You set the icing aside on the counter.

The guests begin introducing themselves and talking to the community about refugee resettlement work while you try to quietly fry the onions in a cast iron skillet.  They crackle and pop and refuse to quiet down.  So you put a lid on them and turn down the heat while you clean up onion peels and wipe down the counters.  You pull the sweet potato fries out of the oven.  Set out a stack of plates.  You notice a burning smell.  The onions! You lift the lid and loud crackly steam escapes from the pan.  The onions have formed a crisp oily carmelized black layer on the bottom and are white and translucent on top.  You put the lid back on and remind yourself that you are not going to panic.

You want to be invisible so you slip out the back door and set the hot pan on the cool damp ground. You bend over the iron skillet and stir until the onions are evenly brown.  Wind blows the oniony smoke and you imagine yourself connected through that smoke to the women all over the world, cooking outside and making do with what they’ve got.  You head back to the kitchen and pour the onions into the bubbling pot of lentils. Another angel appears to help you get the rice out of the rice cooker and to fit all the simmering pots onto the serving table.

The food is blessed and people line up to eat. When it is time to fix your own plate you eagerly grab for all the colors and flavors that have appeared, as if by magic, to this impromptu feast.  Your giant pot of lentils stares at you like a jilted lover but you don’t even give it a glance.

As you bring your empty plate to the sink a Somali woman pulls you aside and asks, “Did you make the lentils?”

“Yes?” You answer hesitantly.

“We loved them!  How did you do it?”

You tell her the simple recipe and her friend has now piped in, “Oh they were so good, that’s how I am going to do lentils now!”  You hug them, your heart swells and you say, “It’s my mom’s recipe.”
Your mom who does not like to cook.  Your mom who always leaves the cooking to your dad.  Your mom who marvels at the things you cook as if they came from another planet and says, “She didn’t learn it from me.”  Your mom who has an insatiable sweet tooth and likes white sheet cake with thick colorful icing.  Your mom who thinks the best way to eat lettuce fresh from the garden is with a little sugar sprinkled on it. Your mom taught you how to make sweet and sour lentils.  Lentils that do not taste like dirt, lentils that taste good even to people who were raised with flavor. It must be the sugar. You receive their complement as a gift and return to them your mom’s recipe.
Sweet and Sour Lentils (slightly modified with abundant thanks to the More With Less Cookbook which kept me well fed through my childhood and beyond)
Rinse a one pound bag of brown lentils and put in a pot with enough water (you want them to soften and not be too soupy but definitely not too dry- err on the side of too much water).  Drop in one bay leaf and bring to a boil then simmer for 20 minutes.
When the lentils are soft add:
½ cup of apple or pineapple juice
½ cup of apple cider vinegar
¼- ½  cup of brown sugar (you can also use white sugar plus a tablespoon of molasses or sourghum or only sourghum)
¼ t of ground cloves
2 cloves of minced garlic
Sautee a large onion  (better yet, slightly burn and carme
lize them in a cast iron pan) stir in and simmer until bubbly
Salt to taste (add the salt when it is done because salt can slow the cooking of legumes)
Serve over rice with sides of sweet potatoes and greens.  Also goes well with an international potluck.