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Chandra's Blog



Ticking boxes 

Over Easter weekend, I was searching for a recipe from a Caymanian woman for a heavenly, dense cassava cake I had jotted down in one of my notebooks, when I stumbled across this:


Boxes waiting to be ticked


My To Do list from the morning two years ago, after my sister and I discovered our father, ankles crossed, jeans, soft chambray shirt and Carpe Diem sweatshirt folded at the foot of his bed, with his hand over his heart, quietly gone.

On the list, there is everything from writing an obitaury and creating a memorial slideshow that somehow honored his long and vivid life, to gathering his eight children from the corners of the country for a service. There is the mundane, like cleaning out Dad's kitty litter box and fridge and contacting his attorney. And there is the emotionally loaded--calling his cardiologist and asking for his implanted heartrate recorder to be downloaded, so I could know once and for all, if I had gotten there earlier in the day, could I have saved him? (The answer was no--he experienced a silent heart attack before dawn. Dr. Harding said he probably didn't even wake up, reminding me of the line from one of his favorite Kenny Rogers' songs, The Gambler, "the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep". )

For weeks, through shock, grief, and excruciating jaw pain from gritting my teeth at night, I woke up and made these lists, with empty little squares in the lefthand column, waiting for my attention. My sister was making lists of her own, and at night, when we would check in with each other--how many times that day had we felt sucker punched by the realization of this new reality, life without him, sometimes we recounted our lists to each other, the squares we had filled, adding items for the next day.

"How are you?" we asked each other.

"Ticking boxes."

"Ticking boxes" has become code. It means we are getting up, going through the motions of getting things done, in spite of wanting to curl up and cry.

Today, my To Do list includes attending the memorial service of a friend murdered by her ex-husband, orphaning their three boys. She died a year ago. There was a funeral then too, standing room only, and a reception, in the gym where J and I once played hilarious, margarita-inspired couples' badminton across from Nicole and her husband after a swim team fundraiser. It feels like forever ago. 

When a loss is this huge, when it comes with the baggage of domestic violence, when a whole community is broken, it is necessary to acknowledge it again. To honor and remember Nicole, for as long as it takes.

The end of March feels like death and sadness to me now. I don't want to go to this anniversary service, to relive the feelings of this time last year, and the year before, and at the same time, I can't imagine being anywhere else. 

Ticking boxes.


Mother of Girl 

Two nights ago, Piper woke me up at 2 am, standing beside my bed with her hand gently shaking my shoulder. As the dreaded 12 hour barf-a-thon norovirus just made its rounds through her school, I sat up straight, ready to bolt for a bowl.

"Mom?" she said in a tiny, anxious voice.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong," she took a trembly breath. "I'm just... feeling an inexplicable sadness."

Oh. I lifted the covers of our bed like a protective wing and invited her in.

At eight, nearly nine, she is experiencing the beginnings of the high and low mood swings and sensitive feelings that may be her emotional lot for the next fifty years or so.

almost nine years ago...I am realizing this is one of my most important parenting jobs right now--helping Piper navigate these feelings, identify who she is, and doing my best to soften the harder edges of the world for her.

So I tucked her into my crook, and listened as she listed all the things that weren't wrong, but tearfully recounted that her heart just felt heavy, and she worried because sometimes these feelings happened in school.

I told her I remembered being super-sensitive in third grade, the feeling of taking on other students' embarassment or discomfort like it was my own. I told her sometimes I would go into the bathroom, and turn the sink on, and plug the drain. I'd fill the bowl with warm water, and put my hands in, imagining I was home in a bath, until I felt like I could go back to class.

I promised her it got easier, but being a sensitive person is part of why I cry when a favorite chicken dies, and pretty much every time we read The Lorax, why it is an emotional commitment for me to read a novel--because I live the characters' experiences viscerally. It is also why I rarely watch anything but the Flyers, the occasional funny movie or the most formulaic HGTV shows.


"But how can I stop feeling things so much?" Piper wailed.

I smoothed the hair off her sweaty forehead and told her I would help her learn some ways to cope, but that she doesn't necessarily want to stop.

"Being someone who feels things deeply is part of your creative, sensitive soul. It will help you be a great artist, a musician, a writer, a lover of animals. It will make you a good, caring friend, a worthy partner, and one day, an excellent mother."

"Nobody is good at all of those things," Piper scoffed.

"Um, have you met me?"

She giggled, which was my hope.

But there is a fine line as mother of girl between projecting healthy self-confidence and setting up unrealistic expectations, so I countered in a more serious tone,

"Well, I'm actually not great at everything."

"Yeah..." she allowed. In the darkness, I imagined she was making a mental list of all my shortcomings, and I started one of my own, creating my family's additions. I am often three to five minutes late for everything from meetings to car pick-up. I have a hard time staying on top of the laundry. I sometimes drop balls when juggling our crazy sports schedule, getting the right kid to the wrong field with half of his brother's gear bag and no water bottle. Dinner is frequently uninspired. I sometimes beg off reading aloud at the end of the night out of exhaustion. When I have a training project, I disappear to the horse barn for hours. I get busy with teaching and writing and work, giving the best of me to the outside world, leaving my family the dregs...

"Yeah," Piper said matter-of-factly, adding on a sleepy yawn, "I imagine you're not very good at badminton."

Badminton? And in those moments, I saw myself through her shining eyes.

"You're right, honey, I am not very good at badminton."

* *** *





In Writing 101, I posed a question to my college freshman: what are you passionate about, passionate enough to stand up for? What do you care enough about to leave your warm cozy bed and sleep out in the cold?


For long moments, there were crickets in the classroom. And then came the answers:

1. Black Friday sales.

2. Money.

3. One girl said, "Well, I have never been camping, so I guess I would sleep outside to try camping."


Before you lose faith in the youth, when I tried to come at this same question from another angle, when I thought I had come up with something to ignite a fire under their apathetic butts--a hypothetical reinstatement of a mandatory military draft--their passion and patriotism floored me. I promise you, there is hope for the future.


But this isn't the point of the story. The point is, it made me think about what I would actually leave my bed for. I started posing this question everywhere: to my own kids at the dinner table, lying beside my husband as the snow fell outside our bedroom window, at dinner parties and coffee dates, volunteer groups and morning walks.

Each time I asked it, as the other person spoke, I learned something new about them. The answers have been both touching and telling.

                                                                                                                                                                                    I'll pose the question here, and maybe even challenge you to ask it yourselves. I'm not trying to start something political (the president I want to talk about on this blog is a fat cat for sure, but more of the white belly than the White House variety.) El Presidente













What do you care enough about that you would leave your warm cozy bed, that you would sacrifice your time and energy to stand for or against, in protest or support?









My father had a serious spider phobia, the source of many funny stories and practical jokes. 

My brothers inherited this phobia, and while I reserve the serious heebie jeebies for house centipedes, I am not a huge fan either. In 1998 I actually moved out of a cottage in Grand Cayman when a huntsman spider the size of my whole hand with her peach-pit-of-an-egg-sac moved in. You would have too.


Giant Hunstman Spider

Yesterday, my sister and I were finally going through the last of our father's things, listing and itemizing and donating. This task keeps falling off our To Do list, because once we are through all of this, the alligator suspenders, the tasseled loafers, the five gallon hats and the linens (that still, freshly-washed smell so much like him a year later Piper insisted I make them into her bed last night), the last physical vestiges of our will be gone, and that will be sad.


But we had promised my mom to get them out of her basement by the end of the school year, so we took the last of our kid-free mornings to conquer the task. I told Linden at the beginning that I was determined to stay lighthearted. We would not linger over photos or get depressed or bury our faces in his dress shirts. This was harder than either of us thought.




As I reached for one of his signature leather Orvis vests, I saw the most hideously huge wolf spider that skeeved me out so much I dry-heaved. So of course, I made my 7-months-pregnant sister deal with it while I filmed.

(I actually have made a lifelong practice of surrounding myself with people who do better than I would in a crisis.)

See below:




After he was safely relocated far far away from either of our houses or vehicles, after we wiped the hysterical tears from under our eyes my sister and I realized: somewhere, up in Heaven maybe, Dad is doubled over laughing.


Thanks for helping keep it light today, Dad. We miss you.



Chicken Wire

The Attack

Two days ago, while I was at the horse barn up the street, a fox killed 5 of my chickens, nearly a third of my flock. He started with Orphan Annie, a barred rock we adopted when our silkies hatched out their babies last summer. Next was Freaky Friday, our crazy-haired Easter Egger of two years, followed by my friend Michelle's Max and Freaky, canoodlinggorgeous silkie rooster Romeo, visiting as part of a genetics experiment.

J left the bodies in the yard, hoping to tempt him back, but when Foxy returned he grabbed Sunny, our gorgeous Buff Orpington instead, mauling but not killing her. Also missing at bedtime roll call were Cleopatra, our flagtailed, high flying Easter Egger whose eggs were the most beautiful green, and Eager, one of our ten week old Olive Eggers. RIP, dear creatures.



 Our yard looks like a duvet exploded and the remaining girls are pacing in nervous pairs and trios between the coop and our porch. We are sickened by the loss. Here at the Hoffmenagerie, our chickens are part of the family. (See this post about our Hoffmans Happy Hens and my foray into total birdnerdom.) They are also ridiculously spoiled. Eager and her agemates Bindi and Schpeedy were prone to pasty bum this winter, which meant Piper and Quinn frequently brought them in for a chicken spa, bathing, and then wrapping in tea towels and stroked to sleep by the fire. We knew every one of our casualties personally.


Schpeedy, Bindi and Eager in the CHICU

This loss brought back an old debate to the breakfast table--should we pen our free-range girls? Originally, before I purchased birds, I did hours of research, ultimately deciding I wanted them to be happy, daylight free-range hens, able to wander our property eating bugs, scratching the mulch out of the landscaping, and drinking from the stream. Quality of life over quantity, which they have in spades.

However, chicken is on almost everyone's menu. J researched that humans consume 4 BILLION chickens every year. It's a risk; I get it. 

Seasoned chicken owners warned me that with this philosophy, I would need to be okay with predator loss. As a friend remarked, surveying the chickens dotting our grassy yard -- a wide open flat, surrounded on three sides by woods, brush and stream, "This is the kind of place where in a war, you would not want to meet your enemy."

Before this, I was mostly okay with the losses. Hayden watched everyone's favorite Esme get picked up by a hawk. Magda, Pai and Prima did not come home at night. Lucky was not-so. Fancy Pants admittedly hit us hard, so that J and I were out walking late into the winter night with a flashlight, hopefully calling. But our most recent loss was months ago--Bright, our young troublemaker rooster, picked up mid-crow on Christmas eve morning. Even then I thought, okay, foxes deserve a festive dinner too.


But I was not prepared for a slaughter of this magnitude, in the middle of a sunny spring morning, while Samps snored on the couch. Research revealed some disturbing discoveries: red foxes do attack in the day, especially in late spring when they are feeding babies, and again in August, when those babies are learning to hunt. They do not regard large dogs (like Sampson) as a strong deterrent, knowing they can outrun, cut and deke them. They will kill as many as they can in one attack, possibly returning for the carnage, limiting their exposure. And finally, once you are on their radar, they will return until your flock is gone.

 the girls gathering for breakfast of yogurt and granola

The Chicken Wire

I posted about our recent loss on my private Facebook group, Crazy for Chickens. Beyond sympathy and tales of casualty, what evolved has been fascinating--I'll call it the Chicken Wire. Local owners are using the thread to keep each other updated on Foxy's location.

--"He just left my house and headed your way, look out, Lori!"

--"I almost hit him dropping the kids at school this morning!" (We're all thinking, accelerate!)

--"Any sightings? He's usually stopping by around now."

--"I hear a ruckus at your place? Girls okay?"

Chicken owners are banding together, fortifying coops, exchanging articles and theories, methods of predator control. We are all trying to figure out how to keep our girls safe and happy, so we can return to our lives. This is the same community that has been rattled by far more serious tragedy this spring--cancer, suicidal depression and domestic violence. Perhaps after all this confusing devastation and heartache, it is comforting to rally around something more elemental, the natural circle of life?

Moving On

How will we go forward at the Hoffstead? Maybe we will pen our girls, though the night before our loss, our neighbors lost a staggering 28 out of 30 chickens in one enclosed attack. This also debunks my crazy chicken math that maybe if I just got SO SO MANY chickens, the losses woudln't be as hard to take. I'm visiting a friend's rotational pasture system this weekend for ideas. Our best silkie mama Nugget is sitting on 8 fertile eggs, so hopefully in a few weeks there will be some replenishment and new babies. My sister suggested not keeping them as pets, but instead just getting a large group of generic, high-laying Rhode Island reds. Unfortunately, I'm not wired that way. I'd find distinguishing marks and character traits, and secretly name them, and love them all anyway.

In the meantime, I think of my chicken friend Lori's wisdom, "If you want to have livestock, you have to be willing to have deadstock as well."

Today, I'm sticking a little closer to home with my girls, grateful to have my Crazy for Chickens community, watching over each other's flocks.

* *** *


Nugget mothers Lucy, Mrs. Judy and Rosa