A Trip to the Big City

i had to make a trip into the big city, a 2 and a half hour drive, in order to go to the dentist. Thanks to all the strange happenings of 2020 it had been nearly a year since i had been and it was time. It was a strange visit. There were all sorts of new measures in place to protect the dental hygienists from the germs in the patients mouths, including a giant rubber thing making a sucking noise that was supposed to be sandwiched between my teeth and cheek along with the water, the air thing, and whatever utensil she was using at the time. It was a very busy event, i’ll say that. Also, the hygenists were instructed to wear face shields and not get too close to the patients they were working on. It was a much rougher experience, the hygenists pulled as far away from the target as possible, picking at anything remotely near the gum line. But, i knew they were doing the best they could under the circumstances and i was grateful that they cleaned my teeth and i really did get a good clean when it was all said and done. It was the first time i had been to them without any dental insurance. They took 40 dollars off my bill and i was touched by the act of mercy as i paid out of pocket. I had recently seen a grocery manager reach into his pocket to cover the remaining 3 dollars on a food stamps order that a lady and her son couldn’t afford as an early christmas gift. I thought about how one small act of kindness spurned another and had a ripple affect throughout the community. Perhaps kindness was not dead.

My dental hygienist had mentioned that one of my favorite restaurants that i frequented back when i was in my teens and twenties had closed its doors for good. She said all the restaurants were doing so one by one. Even the one mom had always taken us to as kids was gone. I realized that the next time i returned to the big city, the restaurants i was waiting to go back to once the pandemic was over, would not likely still be in existence. With this thought in mind, i decided to visit my two favorite restaurants while i still could.

I drove to my favorite ethiopian restaurant first. It was located along the access road of a major highway in a tiny green shack. The parking lot was empty. There was one car present…which i would soon learn was the owner’s. I had never seen it where there wasn’t a game of circle the runway and beat the next car to the space as someone was pulling out…a time consuming attempt to get one of the ten existing parking spaces next to the shack. Now i had my choice of 9 of them and it was eerie. I walked up and opened the door. Inside, the usually half-stocked drink cooler was perfect and uniform, fully-stocked and missing nothing. The room was quiet. Coats and personal items were strewn about two tables and there sat three generations of the family i had always known as jovial and smiling, solemn faced and quiet. when i walked in they looked as if they’d seen a ghost. I think i startled them. The clean dishes, normally dwindling to 5 or 6 plates as the dish washer rushed to keep up, were stacked nearly to the ceiling in the back of the room. One of them rose from the table, stuffing the jackets down onto a chair and out of sight. The patriarch said, “Yes, how can we help you?”. I asked if i could have a to-go plate. He said yes and with that everyone rose to their feet and tied on aprons, returning to the kitchen. The man watched me as i read the menu, selecting my favorites and asking for the gluten free injera. He looked sad. Inside, my heart was breaking. I loved this restaurant. I loved this family, who had always been so kind and so happy, and seemed to enjoy working together in their little hole in the wall restaurant of turmeric and ginger goodness. It was the best kind of food. The kind of food that made you feel full, the kind of food you would be willing to walk ten miles to get, neon yellow long-stewed on low heat comfort food that was actually nutritious, with just the right amount of spice, to be eaten with fingers, pinched between fermented flat bread. It was the best. My mother being a chef, i knew i could probably get her to recreate some of it if they went under but nothing would recreate the environment and culture in that little green shack with astroturf and tables in the area screened in with plastic. Nothing would recreate the joy and love and family of three generations working together. Pictures of the grandchildren hung on the wall. They sold tea and lentils and jewelry from ethiopia in the corner near the register, and the little linoleum tiles on the floor seemed to make the space. I wanted to say something, but nothing i could say would make this any better. It seemed i was the first customer they had seen in a while. I wondered if the fact that ethiopian cuisine was typically eaten with one’s hands was helping to keep customers away during a pandemic. I wondered if people knew they had forks ready upon request. I quickly emptied all of my dimes, nickles, and pennies into their tip jar. It wasn’t much, but, it was all i had to give. Thankfully, they were all in the kitchen by then and i avoided a moment if awkward apology that i didn’t have a full dollar to contribute. Most businesses had gone to plastic only and i hadn’t had dollars in my wallet for a while. I thanked them for the meal as they handed me my treasure in a black to-go bag with a set of plastic silverware. I returned to the car with a heavy heart. I knew they wouldn’t be here next time i came…not if this was a typical day of business. My heart broke for them and for all the people coming up who would never know the amazingness of their food. I hoped i was wrong.

I put the to-go bag in the car and set out to my next destination. It was more of a community than a restaurant. There was a school, a dance studio, a store, a playground, a restaurant, and a sort of jungle area full of old trees, vines, hammocks, strings of lights, and wind chimes. I remembered, when i was a child growing up in the city, the lot next door to it was an RV park. All the traveling gypsy/hippie type folk would come to eat there. Dogs would lie sleeping, leashed at their owners’ feet under the table. Babies clothed only in diapers would sit in wooden high chairs eating with their families, bracelets or necklaces of beads adorning them. The children were sun tanned with tangled curly hair and bright eyes. People shared tables with strangers and everyone sat in any open chair available. People served themselves hibiscus tea, soup, and this wonderful dressing-soaked salad that a person could live on alone happily. Then a waiter would come and place a meal in front of you. Everyone got the same meal. There was always a grain, a bean, pickled vegetables of some sort, cooked vegetables with some kind of nut sauce, sometimes avocado, and every table had a shaker of seaweed flakes, toasted sesame seeds, and soy sauce. When i was a kid, they made and sold bread as well. They had shelves of warm plastic baggies full of condensation from freshly baked beautiful goodness. Their glass dessert case was a vegan kid’s dream. They had puddings and parfaits, cookies and pies. They usually had soy candles for sale too. Returning as an adult in 2020, it was a bit different. The RV park was long ago moved and a high-rise of expensive condos now provided eternal shade where there was once blinding sun streaming through the windows. Great efforts were made to keep the children and dogs quiet so that the condo occupants would not complain whereas the hippies that inhabited the RV park when i was a kid never cared about the free and careless shrieks and squeals of kids playing tag on the playground. It had a more subdued and calm feeling about it, but it was very much still an oasis of nature in the middle of a city of glass and concrete. It had stood the test of time and bent rather than broken, changing as needed through the decades but remaining ever true to its roots. Because of 2020 the tea, salad, and soup was moved into the kitchen and served by waiters instead of self-serve in order to reduce risk of germ transmission. The tables were no longer shared by strangers and the place was not packed to the brim with people. It was one party per table and each table was at least 6 feet from the next. The sesame seeds, nori, and soy sauce were gone from the tables. But, other than that, the place looked the same as i remembered it from childhood. The meal was beautiful. The salad was soaked in the nut-cheese dressing and it was creamy, tangy, and salty; the perfect amount of wilted. I could have eaten that salad all night. The soup was a hearty ginger, coconut cream, sweet potato soup with chunks of yellow japanese sweet potato in it that tasted just like granular cubes of creamy sugar. There were pickled beets, which i loved! Short-grain brown rice with a toasted nut topping, refried black beans and nut cheese on a rolled tortilla (i had to leave the tortilla cuz im allergic to wheat and corn but you better believe i scraped off every smidgeon of beans and “cheeze” sauce and ate it before leaving the tortilla)…there was cooked greens with a kind of creamy mustard sauce on top. The greatest thing about these plates is all the sauces taste good on everything. I mixed each bite. I got a little bit of rice, scooped it through the beans, and dipped it in the guacamole and cheeze sauce on the way to my mouth. Everything is good on everything. I even dipped the greens in mustard sauce in the black beans and that was equally good! I don’t know if those vegetables were steamed or sauteed but they had a topping of toasted nuts and seeds that was so crunchy and wonderful and they really took the cake, texture and flavor-wise. I was in culinary heaven.

On top of this experience…their signature hibiscus tea that hadn’t changed a bit since my childhood. It was ice cold, smooth, a deep maroon color, and slightly minty. There was nothing in the world like it. I sat there and drank a refreshing glass of it, which i had saved for last. The room was lit by battery powered candles and the tables were the same wooden ones from my childhood. The same cement floor. The same little store near the cash register. The same glass case of pies and parfaits. I sat and looked around. I told the waitress, who looked about 18, that she had something special here. She said, “oh” and laughed. She couldn’t know what i was talking about. She hadn’t been alive long enough to know what i was talking about, but i spotted a bearded man sitting at a table by the window nodding in agreement with my comment. He knew.

As i stepped outside i was overwhelmed with emotion as i saw a man sitting cross legged, playing a lotus drum and blowing into a long wooden tube as a woman danced before him, twirling round and round, her hands bent sharply at the wrists. I was immediately transported back to the days of the sunlight on the playground, the rv’s and shiny metal caravans with their christmas lights and lawn chairs and potted plants next door…the babies running wild with long hair and bracelets, clad only in diapers and barefoot, children playing tag or returning from swimming in the creek…everyone barefoot and sun-tanned and happy. There was always music and dogs and wind chimes. There was always someone playing guitar, someone singing, someone dancing, just for the sake of artistic expression. I sat on the bench and cried. I tried not to, but lost in the memory of something beautiful, wild, free, and sunny…i couldn’t help it. I sat on the bench and hoped my mask hid my face while i listened to the man play his lotus drum and watched the woman dance. Soon a mini-aussie was watching too. The dancing woman ran to the aussie and hugged it, calling its name. They had clearly met before. The dog was happy to see her. It wagged its majestic tail furiously and licked her hands as she tried to pet it. She scooped the dog into her arms and returned to the lotus drum to dance. She rocked and bounced the dog during her dancing. The little dog was thrilled and seemed to be bobbing its head to her bounces. Soon it began trying to lick her face as she twirled the dog around. It tried to use its legs as a launching device as it hung in her arms, trying to get close enough to lick her chin. She began laughing. Then the man playing the lotus drum howled like a wolf. So did the dancing woman. The dog began barking and wagging its tail furiously against the dancer’s hip. I began to laugh. I was grinning so wide behind the mask, but i didn’t think anyone could see. As i walked past the man playing the lotus drum to get to my car he said “Thank you for your smile”. I nodded my head and smiled again. I wished i could have told him thank you for the music, told the dancer thank you for her performance, but i was so wrapped in my emotions it was all i could do to get to the car before i busted into tears once more. In 2020 community was dead…everywhere but there, in that little oasis. it was still well and alive…albeit spaced 6 feet apart and with more waiters and less self-serve…community lived on in that jungle from my childhood, with or without the barefoot babies from the RVs. I hoped that restaurant would be the one exception that survived.

I had a long drive home and though i had intended to eat the ethiopian cuisine the following day, by the time i was done unloading the car in the dark and finishing the chores by moonlight i was hungry again. I opened the to-go container and began salivating as i smelled the sour aroma of those delicious flat breads.

I had picked all my favorites…the restaurant lets you choose one main dish and three sides to eat with your flat breads. I chose the cabbage, carrot, and green bean dish for my main, as i always did. It was buttery and greasy and flavorful and totally vegan. The turmeric would also help my arthritis. There were cubed potatoes in a gingery tomato sauce, spicy mashed eggplant in a tomato base, and stewed yellow lentils. It was the best! My favorite part was and had always been eating the flat bread the food had been placed on…for the flat bread on the bottom was always soft and soaked in the flavors of whatever had been placed on it. It was delicious. I washed my hands well and ate it with my hands. A fork just didn’t seem right. I pinched the food between pieces of flat bread and savored every bite. So, was eating out the frugal option during my trip to the city? No. Did i need two dinners? Probably not. But, now, if this ends up being my last chance to savor my favorite flavors, at least i have these photos and this memory of them to hold onto. I had to taste them one last time in case (knock on wood that they don’t) they join the ever mounting list of restaurants that have closed up shop in 2020.

2020 isn’t done with the surprises.

I didn’t realize that what i was dealing with was in all likelihood rheumatoid arthritis until my new job pointed out that i wasn’t making my time requirements and i began downing 2 monster drinks a day in order to meet my quota (which i then began doing). It felt like i had electricity in my veins and i was fast fast fast for 8.5 hours. My phone clocked me as jogging 10 miles per shift and i sprinted the orders through the parking lot rather than moseying. however, the faster i got, the more my right knee began to buckle. My ankles felt like they were eating themselves from the inside and it got to a point where i couldn’t make it from the bed to the bathroom without my knee dislocating every step or every two steps. My life became a regiment of braces, wraps, tape, and ointments. I had to get up 4 hours before it was time to leave for work every day and had to bind my joints with ace wrap just to stand in the shower. My fingers began to ache at the joints and things began to swell. My legs looked like they belonged to a really heavy person at the end of the day and my finger joints became swollen and knobby. Sleeping became harder and harder. I would clench my teeth at night and wake up with lock jaw. I would be aware of the pain through any hours of sleep i managed to obtain and sleep itself ceased to be restful. Friends and family started mentioning arthritis to me. They would say “you ought to cut out the caffeine” or “that sounds like rheumatoid arthritis”. But, it wasn’t something that had occurred to me. I was 32. Then i remembered when the joint pain had first started. During the second week of my first bought with Covid in March. I had excruciating joint pain and muscle aches. It had gotten better over time but it never went away. Then i began downing 2 monster drinks a day and i guess i made it ten times worse. I googled “covid – rheumatoid arthritis” and realized scientists were studying patients in china who presented with rheumatoid arthritis in one or several joints following their recovery from covid with no prior history or family history of arthritis. As far as they could tell, the longterm side effect appeared permanent as the arthritis did not subside once the patients tested negative for covid-19 for several months. I sighed. I had survived but it was hard to fully understand at what cost, because, we haven’t really studied this beast yet. We don’t really understand it. I can’t open a textbook and read about it at length. Well, i tried all sorts of creams and ointments. Eventually, i went to the local health food store and asked for a cbd product for arthritis. They sold me one and i popped one of the beige horse pills. As i sat in the car reading the label, i realized i had to take it back. I knew they wouldn’t give me a refund because i opened the bottle, but i realized it had to go back. It said “full complex cbd”. When i googled those words it said that meant the thc was not extracted. It could cause you to fail a drug test if taken over time and allowed to build up in the body. Disappointed, i dutifully returned it to the store. I went about running my errands for the day. About thirty minutes later, i was getting into the car in a walmart parking lot and i realized my fingers didn’t hurt. My knee didn’t hurt. My ankles didn’t hurt. I had no pain. It was utterly and completely gone. I mean, gone. I felt like i was 30 again. I felt at rest. It was so good to feel good. I sat behind the steering wheel and cried. I cried because i was happy to be out of pain and i cried because i knew i could never experience this again…not if i wanted to hold a job. It lasted 6 hours. I got the chores done in 15 minutes. I carried bags of chicken feed and dog food and jugs of water. I walked around the kitchen. I cooked. I made trips to the bathroom without my ankle and knee braces. I couldn’t believe how blissful pain-free time could be. 6 hours after i had taken the pill the effects wore off and i was riddled with pain and joint instability once more. I buried my face in my pillow and cried; this time tears of sadness and anguish. It was like a light had been turned on, illuminated everything, and then gone out, and it was dark once more. I wanted that pain relief again. I wanted it not to be over. I began researching online. I found a company who was top rated and used a third party lab to ensure their products contained 0% thc. I bought a vial of thc free cbd oil. It would take 5 to 7 business days to ship. Unfortunately, i bought it on a friday night. In the meantime i completely quit caffeine and began downing turmeric tea and putting turmeric in everything i cooked. I popped advil like candy and waited eagerly for the cbd to ship. At work, because i was no longer on insane amounts of caffeine, my superiors were hounding me to be faster. So, i had to hustle that much harder to make up for the fact that i was not on energy drinks. This meant wrapping and bracing all my joints tightly and ignoring pain. But, something else was happening. I was losing sensation in my fingers. I could feel pain in my finger joints but i could no longer feel if i was holding the plastic bag handles in my hand, nor could i feel how tightly or loosely i was holding an object. All this amounted to me dropping items i was trying to grasp, which my coworkers covered by saying “i got you” and running to the appropriate aisle to grab the replacement item before i had to take the order out to the customer. I was already older than most of them there. I was slower without my energy drinks. I was now having to use my eyeballs to see if my fingers were grasping the items i reached for. All i could do was wait for this cbd to come in the mail. More than anything, it was my knuckles that bothered me. When i looked at them i saw an old person’s hands. I wished “express ship” was an option but it wasn’t. I would have to wait. Patience was never a strength i possessed. I hoped that the damage being done to my joints was reversible, i prayed for the thc free cbd oil to arrive, and i hustled to make up for it all at work. I hustled hard, pushing myself to make those time quotas, running on determination alone and willing myself to ignore buckling joints and screaming pain. Lord help me…send cbd.

The Early Morning Shift

I woke up with a start. The alarm was not on. I must have turned it off. Exhausted in a way i had never known by my very physical new job, my actions couldn’t be trusted. I couldn’t for sure say that i hadn’t hit the snooze button all 13 times and slept many extra hours. My shift was supposed to start at 5 am which meant i would have set an alarm to wake me at 11:45 pm to get up and do the chores around the homestead, get the animals fed and tend to the chicken coop, cook breakfast and pack a lunch, and wrangle myself into a cold shower in an ace bandage. Then i would have some time left to wrap and brace my foot, get dressed, pin my hair in place, and apply makeup. Finally i would spend some time praying before checking to see that the stove was off, setting the a/c unit, crating the dogs, and loading the car. When i sat up abruptly i looked at my phone. It read in big digital numbers “6:00”. 6:00? My shift started at 5! I was already an hour late! I could see the sky lightening outside of the windows. Oh how had this happened?! I would have to call my supervisor right away and apologize and swear i was on my way! How would i manage to get ready in no time with a bum foot!? It was the whole reason i woke up 4 hours before it was time to set out…to have enough time to get everything done without having to worry about rushing. I grabbed my phone, hopped over to the bathroom to get things ready for the shower, and suddenly realized the dogs weren’t in the house. Where had i left the dogs? What on earth was going on? Oh gosh, i had missed my 3 o clock supplements and enzymes. I had better go ahead and take those! I frantically clamored about the kitchen, grabbing all the supplements off the shelf and whipping plates and cups around, trying to get an oatmeal started on the stove. How had this happened?! It was about this time that i noticed the sky outside was getting darker rather than lighter. It was not 6:00 am. It was 6:00 pm. The dogs were outside, where i had left them when i had returned from my 5 am to 1:30 pm shift and decided to go to bed until my 8 pm meds and the duty of adding the door to the chicken coop for the night. I guessed it would get dark around 6 so i guess i had set my alarm for 5:55 pm so i could get the braces and wraps and a shoe on in time to go out and put the door on at 6. I had turned the alarm off at 5:55 pm and then woken out of guilt 5 minutes later with a terrible sense of dread that i had somehow missed my shift at work, when in fact, it was still the previous day. I breathed a sigh of relief and stopped trying to boil an oatmeal on the stove. I put the pot in the fridge to be used the following morning. I sat down and put my chin in my hands. Good thing i didn’t yet call the supervisor at work. She would have been very confused as to what on earth i was talking about.

Darkness fell as i collected the eggs, fed the chickens, and put the door on the coop. I had to water the aloe vera plants, rosemary, and fruit trees by lantern light while the dogs ate their supper inside but i was not very bothered by the darkness. I was relieved that it was dark and not light. It meant it was not 6 am and i had not missed my 5 am shift the following morning. Folks, sometimes going to bed at 2 pm can have unintended consequences. That being said, the 5 am to 1:30 pm shift is absolutely my favorite, hands down. There are less people in the store so its easier to move about and a faster process all around. Also, its peaceful and i get to say hello to the night crew in the break room. 🙂

A Cold Winter Ahead

It was 36 degrees outside. The windshield of the suv was frosted over with ice. i slept with the space heater pointed towards my legs from across the room and it seemed to keep the chill off just enough for comfort. However, now that i was awake, the space heater had to be moved into the bathroom. I placed the heater on the floor facing the shower and slid the bathroom door shut. The water heater provided 8 minutes of hot water at best when the weather was warm. During 40 degree temperatures there were only 2 minutes of warm water and if the weather was in the thirties there was no warm water. The shower would start out cold and when the water in the actual heater was exhausted it would begin pulling from the ground through the well pump, turning the water from cold to icy. Normally, if the weather was 40 or below it prompted me to get up an hour early and boil water on the stove for a bath in my metal tub. However, with a torn ligament in my ankle i knew that this year i would not be able to pretzel myself into the small tub (a bigger tub would be too heavy to lift and carry across the floor to empty following the bath). I had 2 options. I could sponge bathe with a towel or take cold showers through the winter. Being that my job involved a great deal of sweat and jogging over 7 miles by the end of each shift, i didn’t feel that sponge bathing would be sufficient to remove all the grime and the extra strength sport deodorant that seemed to become one with my skin about four hours after application. 2020 had not been a fun year. I realized it was about to get worse. I had a long cold winter ahead of me. The good news was that i had a space heater and a vest and jacket filled with down feathers. Every morning i would get up four hours before it was time to leave for work. I would tend to the chickens and the dogs and get all my morning chores done by lantern light. Then i would place the heater in the bathroom while i cooked and ate breakfast. For half an hour i would sit in the rocking chair watching videos on youtube and playing sudoku on my phone, trying to will myself towards the bathroom to begin the cold shower. Eventually duty and responsibility would trump my desire to be warm and i would gather my clothes and toiletries and prepare to take a shower. Once inside the bathroom i would again stand and procrastinate, psyching myself up for the experience. It would be over soon. Quick shower. Quick shower. I would stand in front of the space heater one last time, soaking in its warmth. When my skin felt it might burn if i lingered any longer i would turn the knob, foot wrapped in ace bandage, and step into the shower. The water was always a stark wake up call. If i had been drowsy i wasn’t any longer. I shampooed every other day so some days the shower just involved soaping, rinsing, and leaving the dratted freezing stall. Other days i had to actually shampoo and condition my hair, turning the water on briefly to rinse each detergent away. When i was finished with the water i could step out of the stall and back into the warmth of the space heater where all would be well again, but during cold weather, nothing good happened in that freezing cold shower stall. Getting myself washed and dressed in the morning became quite the accomplishment. Come sunrise, when i was clean, the chores were done, the animals handled, lunch packed, wearing shoes and putting gas in the car to drive to town in my uniform and name tag, i felt i had already run a marathon and won. I looked forward to winter as a needed break from the wasps, mosquitos, scorpions, and grasshoppers. However, this winter would be just as fraught with difficulty as the spring and summer had been. I told myself there was nothing to be done but keep moving forward and wait for better times. My foot would heal. Covid would likely eventually mutate into something with a different host target, set of symptoms, or level of severity, though it would probably take years, and one day i’d have a hefty salary again and i’d buy the best hot water heater i could find and pay home depot to deliver it and take the old one away. I’d have to clean the house for that occasion so the delivery crew didn’t witness the usual tooth paste grime in the sink, dog hair on the floor, and dust over everything. I frowned at the thought, but it didn’t immediately matter…that would be a task for another year. For now, i’d just have to keep getting up early and using the space heater as a bribe to hop in. I felt like i’d read somewhere that kids in iceland were sent out in the dead of winter in their bathing suits for 15 minutes of recess per day in order to strengthen their immune systems by exposing them to extreme cold in short bursts. I wondered if this winter would strengthen my immune system. It would be a nice side effect, i had to admit.

A Long-Overdue Cleaning

When i injured my foot i realized that my ankle was probably not going to tolerate fifteen to twenty minutes of squatting in cramped conditions underneath roosting bars while i wore gloves and a mask to scoop shavings into a trash bag with my hands. The tray was meant to slide in and out from under the coop for easy cleaning if one had placed the coop on top of a level concrete foundation in a suburban backyard as the instructions had indicated. My ground was not level and the tray ended up wedged firmly in its permanent position, acting as a makeshift predator deterrent by providing a material that animals couldn’t dig or chew through to come up into the bottom of the coop. This meant i could not simply slide the tray out and dump the contents into a trash can. The cramped space also made it so that wielding a shovel in the pen was more of a frustration than it was worth. The best thing to do was don gloves and squat in the chicken coop over an extra large trash bag. Everything was going fine until i injured myself in a split second moment of stupidity that i regret deeply. Realizing that i could no longer physically manage to clean the coop, it became one of those things that i let go longer than i cared to. Every week the trash collection crew came with their pickup dragging a cage full of hefty bags and every week as the dogs sent them off with a ferocious sounding warning i lamented that there were no chicken coop shavings in the trash bags for yet another collection.

On the windiest day of the year, in a fit of energy and determination, i heard myself announce in an optimistic tone, “Today’s the day. I’m going to clean the chicken coop!” The rest of myself sat stunned in the chair, trying to figure out when i’d gone and lost my mind. On a windy day, cleaning the coop would have been a nightmare had i been able-bodied and in tip-top condition. What on earth was i thinking? This was sure to end in frustration and defeat. You could not hope to beat mother nature. That was not a thing. But, i had said it, and so it had to be.

I began by gathering trash bags and donning gloves and a mask. I figured i’d execute the task in stages, only worrying about one part at a time. It took me a good twenty minutes but i managed to fill two whole trash bags with shavings, poop, and old feed while squatting on the floor of the coop in an ankle brace and an off-loading boot. Getting the bags out of the pen while keeping the chickens in was somewhat of a delicate dance. Once the coop was empty i needed to fill it with new shavings. I spread some feed on the ground away from where i was working to keep the chickens busy and then filled the nesting boxes with hay, the floor with wood shavings, and cleaned the water dispenser (they like to poop in that; why, i don’t know). Usually i filled the feed container in the evening, convincing them there was an incentive to go in the hen house before dark, and i needed them to eat all of what i’d put on the ground so that critters weren’t tempted to break in to get it, so i didn’t fill their feed container just yet. As i hauled all my supplies to the shed and placed the trash bags in the can i noticed Daisy and Petunia coming to check their freshly cleaned hen house out.

They approached cautiously and had a look around. I wondered if they would notice the difference. I sure did. I had wanted to clean the hen house for so long. It seemed like an eternity and with the arrival of cold weather i realized the need to get the old chicken poop out of there was real. They would be spending more time in the coop with the window closed to hide from the elements. I needed to make sure the fumes from their own waste didn’t harm them. Of course, the chickens quickly set about eating the hay and mounding all the shavings in piles so they could peck at the shiny metal floor, but for one moment in time the hen house was clean and in order.

The wind blew shavings in my face, onto my clothes, and in my hair throughout the whole process. Old shavings and new shavings. It kept blowing the door shut while i was trying to shovel and eventually it began blowing the window open, causing it to bang against the side of the chicken coop repeatedly. Instinct was to pull the hair out of my eyes but i was wearing gloves covered in chicken **** so that was not an option. Eventually, ankle throbbing, i made the final trek to the shed with a trash can full of chicken poop and soiled shavings. The task was done. The chickens now had a clean environment and the homestead (save for the overgrown grass) was finally back on track.

An Indoor Day

I came home from work exhausted, hopped on a zoom call, and managed to throw something quick together to eat. As soon as my belly was full i was out. I didn’t even make it to the bathroom to brush my teeth. turning the lights off, checking the weather report, getting well water for the morning…none of that happened. I slept in my jeans. I figured i’d just lay down for a 40 minute nap and set my phone alarm accordingly. I woke up at 3 in the morning, the time i usually take my supplements and natural meds. Obviously, at some point, i had turned off the forty minute alarm and closed my eyes again. I zombied myself around the kitchen and stumbled back to bed.

The next time i awoke it wasn’t due to any alarm. It was the wind trying to tear down the house. I sat up with a start as i listened to the walls popping and creaking. Outside, the wind chimes were swept sideways and the trees were thrashing wildly about the yard. Another gust of wind hit the side of the house and i heard the dryer tube rattle in its opening in the wall. I crossed the room and peered through the curtains for a better view. Perhaps neglecting to tune into the weather radio and get the report before bed was a bad call on my part. There were no clouds in the sky so it couldn’t be a hurricane or a microburst. It was either a cold front or a warm front. It had been drizzly mid to high 30s type weather lately. In Texas, i didn’t think it could get much colder than that, so i had my money on a warm front. I thought i had better pull shoes on and open the door to the chicken coop before the hens broke the thing down, as i had slept through their 7:15 wake up call when i usually removed the door. To my amazement, their little window was still shut, protecting them from further exposure to the cold. I had figured the violent wind would have ripped it from its hinges. I guessed the direction of the wind was working in our favor to keep the window shut. I stumbled around in my pajamas, the wind pushing me and plastering the fabric to my skin, whipping my hair across my face. I made it to the chicken pen and wrenched the door open to find that they were indeed trying to bulldoze the door down. I lifted the door and slid it out of its track to reveal an explosion of feathers as 5 very angry chickens all tried to emerge from the doorway at once. They glared at me with their beady yellow eyes. I had missed their morning appointment and they were not impressed. There would have to be table scraps thrown in later to make up for it. I began to think about what i had in the refrigerator that i was willing to part with. I stumbled back to the house, watching the wind spread the chickens feathers this way and that. The chickens looked bewildered and ran back and forth in their pen. I quickly fed the dogs, made them up a bowl of filtered well water, and set it in the gated dog run, leaving the door open. I released them from the house and directed them into the dog run. I shut the gate. Both of them seemed bewildered as well. It was as if we were in the middle of a hurricane and they were wondering if i was going to leave them out there while i returned to the nice protective shelter of the house. I glanced at them, “Go potty first. I’ll come get you shortly.” Sili seemed to understand and went off into the underbrush to pick a spot to pee. Cashew stood with her head cocked as if to say, “How dare you?” I looked back at her, “it’s just a bit of wind. I thought you were the big bad ranch dog that didn’t need to take orders anymore because you’d become a pro deer chaser and that somehow meant you’d graduated out from under all authority figures because clearly you were running this **** and running it well.” My Aussie was indeed in need of an intense refresher course in training but my efforts to put her through one were doing more harm than good so i quit for now. Cashew had discovered that with an injured ligament in my ankle and a couple broken toes, i could jog but i couldn’t run. Being able to sprint is kind of a must if you’re going to catch an Aussie running at full speed. Knowing that it now took me a great amount of time and effort to even get close to her speed, she feared me not. If she did something i didn’t like she’d just refuse to come in. Very quickly this morphed from the occasional bad behavior to ignoring very clear and concise commands. It was as if she’d gone completely deaf. I knew she hadn’t. She could hear just fine when she was listening for sounds of wild animals. She just no longer respected my authority on the property. The more i tried to discipline her the more she realized she could outrun me. I ceased my efforts quickly in an attempt to minimize the damage done. I would need to wait until my foot had healed and then retrain her that i could indeed catch her, my word was law around these parts, and she would get a swift pop on the butt and be held in a submissive position on the ground whenever defying a direct order from me. Now i know there are some who believe a dog should never be spanked but it is in my opinion a much kinder alternative to the remote controlled shock collar i had to use briefly in the beginning to get her to stop digging under the fence. Though i know i could put that on her easily right now and push the button each time she says “i don’t have to listen to you. I’m going off to track wild animals. See you at dinner. Bye.” I’d rather wait until i can snag my hand in her collar and pull her back to me when she goes to take off because Cashew is a very headstrong dog. She doesn’t even blink unless its turned up to level 7 and only level 8 actually turns her around. I’ve tried the thing on myself and i know exactly what level 8 feels like. Level 8 produces an audible yelp and though it is effective, i don’t like using it because i realize it’s not using the respect of an authority figure to change behavior…its using the desire to avoid pain. I would much rather gain her respect and obedience through behavior than through fear of pain, so, retraining was pushed back a few months and i realized that i simply had to clear the yard of critters before letting her out and lead her in the direction i wanted her to go by the collar for the time being.

It had indeed been drizzly and in the thirties and forties for several days. The dogs, especially Cashew with her long leg fur, had become very muddy. When she appeared at the gate i did a once over and realized she had turned from a mostly black to a brown dog. I briefly considered the idea of wiping her down with towels and then let it go. We lived in a remodeled shed with faux wood floors. We also lived near a quarry and had an a/c filter that was plastic with little square holes…it caught bugs, not dust. The effort that would be spent cleaning her for entry into our already dusty abode was not practical. I let the dogs in. They quickly covered the floor in muddy paw prints which i knew would dry and become dust later. The floor did end up covered in dirt and i figured i’d sweep it out onto the porch once all the nasty weather was over. During the rainy weather the floor had been covered in messy paw prints and the scent of wet sweaty dog hung in the air, especially when i turned the space heater on to combat the 36 degree weather outside. Then they were wet sweaty muddy warm dogs.

Once the dogs had been let out to potty i made breakfast and listened to the weather report on the radio. It was indeed a warm front. It would be warm for the day and then drop back down into the thirties by nightfall. The front would arrive and leave before midnight. it didn’t seem fair. If it was going to blow through, it might as well stay a while, i thought. I finished breakfast and retrieved the dogs. They were ready to come inside. They were standing at the gate, the cedar trees around them thrashing wildly about, Cashew’s long fur whipping around her legs and stomach. As soon as i unlatched the gate they both ran for the house. I let them in and returned to my rocking chair to eat the breakfast i had prepared. Both dogs immediately parked themselves in front of the heater, laying back to back in front of it. Outside the wind chimes banged together furiously, the walls creaked and groaned with each big gust of wind, the dryer tube rattled in the wall, and i could hear the leaves of the trees rustling together as the branches were whipped this way and that. I sat in my rocking chair eating breakfast and the dogs laid motionless and peaceful, spread out in front of the heater. I decided it would be an indoor day. I made one trip back outside to throw the chickens some remnants of a spaghetti squash clinging to the outer shell and a banana peel with quite a bit of pulp and string still stuck to it. Other than that, the dogs and i spent the day inside hiding from the wind in front of the heater. I watched the wind rustle the curtains with each big gust and noted that at some point in the future i would have to seal those better for electric bill purposes.

The Sumac Harvest

The sumac berries ripened in mid August of 2019. This year they waited until September 7th to turn shiny and bright red. Unfortunately i didn’t notice them until minutes before sundown so they would have to be harvested on September 8th, when i had light to see the berry clusters i would be cutting. Knowing how quickly the berries went from ripe to spent, i knew it would have to be done in the morning, but i had a job interview scheduled and i didn’t get to the berries until around noon. They were just red by then, not bright red, but still salvageable and i managed to take them all. It involved standing on a chair beneath the tree and bending the branches downward so that i could reach up and cut the berry clusters off with scissors. I dropped the clusters into my metal bath tub which i had positioned not far away. The weather was the worst it could be for sumac harvesting. It was important to dry the berries thoroughly before processing them so that it would result in a powder rather than a gummy substance. If left wet, the substance would mold, both in berry and powder form. The moisture had to be done away with. So, of course, it was raining. That is why the first photographs look fuzzy. I had to seel my iphone in a ziploc sandwich bag to take pictures because it was raining so steadily as i harvested.

They ripened so late this year i was worried that i had missed the window for harvest. If i had noticed them earlier on september 7 i would have been able to harvest bright red berries with maximum sour taste but the just red berries were still pretty sour. As i handled the berries i noticed the sticky sour substance coating my fingers. When i was done cutting the last cluster i licked them and they were unbelievably sour. This was a good batch. It would be a good harvest.

On a homestead, the bathtub has many uses.

The full harvest, ready to go into the shed to dry out.

Well, then i injured my foot and got a job that required me to jog over 7 miles a day and left me exhausted upon returning home. Processing sumac was a several-hour painstaking activity that required a lot of sitting on the floor while picking each individual berry from the branch gently, handling it as little as possible, in order to keep the little sour granules in the berry and not on one’s fingers. I put the activity off for over a month. By then the berries had been given ample time to dry in the shed. Somebody had recommended comfrey cream for my ankle. I had been applying it twice daily and i finally felt up to the task of sitting on the floor for four or five hours. So i opened the shed up and carried the bathtub full of dried berries to the house. I set a stool on the floor near the tub and sat down to pick the berries from the twigs that held them. I picked for four hours straight. Like i did during many tedious chores on the homestead, i listened to an audio book while i worked, ensuring that i was getting the maximum amount of things done during my day off…processing a resource and taking in knowledge at the same time. The audiobook was a memoir of sorts about a man living with and rehabilitating a herd of wild elephants that had become distrustful of humans through past trauma. My stamina was not what it once was and on several occasions i wanted to stop and finish processing the sumac on another day but i forced myself to keep going until every last berry was separated from the twigs. I was motivated by one thing. I had wanted to give a little jar of the sumac to my dear friend one town over last year but i didn’t dry the berries long enough and they were too gummy to process for very long in the coffee grinder. They didn’t get ground fine enough and the moisture content could have caused the batch to mold, so i was forced to keep the batch in the refrigerator/freezer all year. I knew she’d never tasted sumac before and i knew better than to give her sub-par sumac in order to decide if she liked the flavor her first time around. So, i promised her i’d do better with the next year’s harvest and she could have a jar of that batch. I was so close to getting it done right. This year i would give my friend the sumac.

Each twig and leaf must be picked out from amongst the loose berries before going into the coffee grinder. Ground wood pulp, while it wont kill you, will dilute the flavor. The more twigs you leave in, the less sour the powder will taste. I used my fingers to gently move the berries around and picked out the twigs with a plastic spoon in my other hand. When only berries and their recently shed brown dirt-like sour granules remained, i began moving them along the grooves in the bottom of the tub. I used my fingers to push the granules along the circular track until they formed a pile. I scooped up granules with the plastic spoon with each handful of berries i put into the coffee grinder. I would then grind the batch until it was a fine powder. The finest powder stuck to the lid of the coffee bean grinder. I scooped that powder into a jar for my friend. I saved the larger pieces for my own supply. I didn’t mind chewing around them. I knew to be careful but i wanted her to have the good stuff. When her jar was full i put the lid on and breathed a sigh of relief. I had done it. I had made up a jar of finely ground sumac powder with maximum sour flavor and minimum moisture content. I would fulfill my promise and my dear friend would finally have a chance to try fresh sumac. I stopped and licked my fingers to test the batch and see if it was any good. It was good. My face puckered with the sour flavor. Sumac is kind of like if lemon was made into a spice.

I was quite pleased with her little jar of perfect sumac. Now it was time to process the rest of it. I was eager to know how much powder the tree would yield compared to last year when i was out of town when half of the berries ripened and didn’t get to pick the whole harvest.

I soon had my answer. By sundown i had filled two thirds of a jar with the burnt-red colored powder. This was my sumac supply for the year. It would last me until the following august or september when i would harvest the berries again and repeat the painstakingly ginger process of handling the berries without extracting all the sour bits prematurely. It was a really important thing for me to do; process the sumac. Now i had it in the jar and it was done. It went into the refrigerator to be used as a spice throughout the next year. I had spent 7 weeks with covid symptoms 3 separate times this year and now had an injured ligament and some broken toes. It was important for my mental health and self esteem to finish something that i had started. Upon completing the processing of the sumac berries i felt a weight lift off of my shoulders. There were so many things on the homestead that depended on timing. Let something go unaddressed or unfinished too long and you will suffer the consequences. I missed the opportunity to plant the orange, pecan, and avocado trees in the ground. It’s too late to put them in now because their roots wouldn’t have time to establish themselves before it begins to frost overnight. The fate is sealed. They will have to winter inside, bringing with them whatever ground hornets, scorpions, and centipedes have made their home in the pots (still battling the ground hornets in a desperate attempt to separate them from the potted orange tree in time to take it in during the first frost). But, this one thing; i finished. The sumac, i managed to harvest, process, and jar. This is one thing in 2020 that got done.

Deworming the Flock

The Dogs are barking at a herd of axis deer and a cold front was blowing in as the chickens were making a meal of the squash.

i had read somewhere that organic squash or pumpkin seeds could be used to deworm chickens and that farmers regularly chucked whole split squash or pumpkins into the pen for their flock to eat in order to keep the worms at bay. I had a couple chickens that demonstrated trouble keeping on weight and i figured worms were probably the culprit. Their poops were also less formed than their feathered sisters who were making more solid healthy poops. I was eager to get Daisy well. Buttercup was a notoriously ill tempered and distrustful chicken that would not eat from my hand. I would focus on Daisy first and if it appeared to be a valid remedy i would find a way to get the medicine into Buttercup. For weeks i saved a handful of my seeds, cut them out of their shell, and invited Daisy into the house for a private feeding where she enjoyed the temperature regulated climate, fresh water, and ate seeds out of my hand. She did poop on the floor which i then cleaned thoroughly to keep her from transferring worms to the dogs (not sure if heart worm meds also cover other kinds of worms but not taking the chance). After a few weeks Daisy began to feel heavier and not quite so bony. She also wasn’t as starving every time i gave them scraps from the kitchen. I decided there must be some truth to the old theory. I wanted to give Buttercup the seeds as well, but she wasn’t as easy to separate from the flock for a visit to the house and a private feeding. She was the only chicken that was not fond of me. Her best bud had been the rooster that i had killed. Both tiny as chicks, they had spent a lot of time together, pushed away from the feed by the bigger chicks who also wouldn’t allow them to huddle for warmth. The rooster chick and Buttercup kept each other warm, and then i killed him. Buttercup has never liked me since. In my defense, the rooster tried to kill me non-stop for about 3 months before i killed him. Only when i was sure this behavior was permanent and also endangering the hens when i couldnt get them water in 110 degree weather because he was barring the door to the pen, did i decide to off him. The other hens who were used to him ripping out their feathers while he attempted to mount them and beating them into the dirt if they would not accept him when he wished to mount them had a complete personality change when the rooster was dispatched. They became much calmer and more friendly. They seemed less traumatized. Buttercup was not amongst this group. To this day she stares at me with beady little eyes and waits lurking around the edge of the hen house until my back is turned when she will run up and pinch at my clothing and legs with her sharp little beak, only to disappear when i turn. I let her be because she is the other hens’ sister. They are attached to her and have accepted her so she must stay, but she does not come in for a cuddle when the rest of them are sitting in my lap and about my knees. She is my angsty teenage loner, but probably the one that needs the dewormer the most. I decided trying to separate her from the flock would be a right comical disaster and the best thing to do was just deworm the whole lot of them. I put an extra organic squash in my delivery box last week and cut it into four sections which i dropped in their pen. Then i moved off. As suspected, all the chickens emerged (including Buttercup) and began pecking at the squash. They worked at it for a day and a half and ended up eating everything but a thin layer of peel. Daisy, who had developed a taste for the seeds during her private feedings in the house knew just what to do. The rest of them figured out pretty quick that squash was good to eat. I really enjoyed giving them something whole to work on. It was fun watching them occupied by the task. Food always tastes better when you have to work to get at it.

Quarantine Kitchen

The eggplant was from a dear friend’s garden. It was a surprise trade when i brought her chicken eggs. I do love eggplant!!! The oat bread was made with orange blossom honey and peanut butter and began a sweet bread craving that i chased until i was out of flour. The onion medallions were an ingenious accident. I had been baking carrots and had extra room on the cookie sheet so i cut up some onion rounds and filled the space with them. I drizzled them with olive oil and salt and popped them into the oven. The onions cooked quicker than the carrots so when i pulled them out they were crisp and appeared burnt. I thought i’d wasted them until i took a bite. The inside had turned to a creamy, sticky caramelized onion goo while the top was a crunchy, slightly salty layer of charred onion, like a chip. It was so good i vowed never to do onions any other way! The persimmons were given to me by the friend who gave me the eggplant. She picked them off her tree and had a whole bucketful. I set them up there to ripen and checked them every day. If i was patient, when one of the little treasures ripened, i could eat it with a spoon and it would be like eating heavenly orange sugar. If i was impatient and couldn’t wait, it was a mouthful of chalk. My mother bought me some organic bananas, which i froze. Oranges were the only fruit i had in the house so i began combining an orange with a frozen banana and making smoothies. The flavor combination actually wasn’t that bad…a little tangy, a little sweet.

Drowning in Eggs

Crystal’s eggs weren’t the only ones i had to worry about. I was allergic to chicken eggs, though i had always dreamed of having chickens, much enjoyed them as pets, and found them totally useful as bug exterminators and in light of the fact that i had no garbage disposal to handle kitchen scraps. I was used to making regular runs to town to deliver free eggs to former coworkers. However, the eggs would not keep well in the car if i were to deliver them after work and with the physicality of my job i really needed to ice and elevate my foot on days off. I tried to convince people to come to me but the lure of free eggs was not strong enough to get people to drive from town to my land. I ended up giving the a/c repair man over three dozen eggs. He didn’t bring enough cartons so i put the rest in a cardboard box with some tissue paper. There’s only so many eggs my dogs can eat! One friend that lived in a neighboring small town was willing to drive out to me and i gave her 38 eggs. I now have another two dozen ready for her, not counting the ones the dogs have eaten gladly. Somebody asked me how i had so many eggs. I asked, “what do you mean?” They said everyone else who supplied them in the area said their hens had stopped or slowed down on laying eggs at this time of year. I pondered the notion. I had five chickens but i regularly got 3 to 4 eggs a day, and on occasion in the summer, 5. They said that my chickens must be happier than the other chickens to still be laying. I thought about it. I had made them a very small enclosure and i always thought that in itself would render them less than happy, but i had done it because i erected the structure myself while financially strained from buying my own ppe at marked-up prices and suffering from covid symptoms. That small pen was all i could afford and manage to erect. However, loving the chickens as i did, i made sure that if i was transferring my hand-raised babies from inside my tiny house out into the wild unknown, i was going to predator proof the pen. The roof kept hawks out of it. The trench with buried wire fencing attached to the bottom of the pen kept predators from digging under. The metal fence panels were insanely heavy and sturdy. To put it in perspective, i broke the key off in the padlock once and had to call my friend with bolt cutters to help me get in to feed the chickens because try as i might, i couldn’t figure a way. I even tried to unscrew the nuts and bolts to the door but it was put together in such a way that i would have had to have the door ajar at an angle to pull it out all the way and obviously, it was padlocked in a non-ajar position. There were foxes, raccoons, coyotes, hawks, and mountain lions that regularly passed through the area. I wanted to make it like a shark cage where divers could see the sharks but the sharks couldn’t get in. (I could point out several design flaws in actual modern-day shark cages but that is an issue for another day). I knew the chickens would witness foxes in the yard. I wanted to make sure witness was all they did. I made sure the door to the hen house was on the side farthest away from the fencing so that if a predator stuck his paw through, the chickens had a wide open escape route. I didn’t want coons reaching in and breaking the chickens necks from the outside. They were troublesome little creatures with a knack for just that kind of behavior. So i made a very small but sturdy structure and put the chickens in it. Everyone remarked how little space the chickens had to move around but they seemed contented. They took dust baths, scratched for food, ate the chicken feed, laid eggs, laid traps for bugs by mixing feed and water and eating whatever was attracted to the smell, caught flies and chased each other in circles around the hen house. They ate whatever organic veggie or fruit peelings and scraps i brought them daily. They seemed happy enough. They also enjoyed a daily pet from me. I would hold Daisy, petting her and hugging her tightly and she would settle her neck down and make a sort of cooing noise, squinting her eyes nearly shut. As i began to research what happy chickens looked like i ran across an article that claimed chickens egg yolk color changed based on the vitamin A content of their diet. The more orange the yolk was, the more vitamin A the chicken was getting.

I was still drowning in eggs so i regularly cooked 4 on days off to feed to the dogs just so they weren’t wasted. I cracked four eggs into the pan and studied them for color. The egg yolks were pretty near orange. I smiled. The girls must be getting their vitamins from all those organic veggie table scraps now that a pandemic and budgeting was dictating i cook everything from scratch.

I developed a theory. I figured Rosie’s eggs ought to be a little oranger than the rest, as she was the biggest, fattest, most dominant chicken and she nearly always dominated the feeder and the kitchen scraps i threw to them. I opened one of Rosie’s eggs directly next to one of Petunia’s. Sure enough, Rosie’s egg yolk was slightly more orange. Each time i made eggs after that i made a point to compare Rosie’s egg to the others and it was always slightly more orange. I laughed. Rosie was hogging all the food.

I was not having a good time in the slightest dealing with 2020 and all it brought with it. However, the dogs were thrilled. I was unemployed for a time and traded that in for part-time work, so i was home more often and they were getting sunny side up eggs for breakfast for no reason that they could think of. According to them, they were having a wonderful year.