Afternoons Are for Preening
Updated: Jun 2, 2021
In the late afternoon on a clear day, our backyard serves up a brief window of easeful time. The breezes ruffle the decorative trees, the dog lies down but stays alert to every outer noise, and the chickens flock around me on the bottom step of the upper patio as I try to pet them all. Buffy and Laverne jostle for space beneath my knees, Raven tucks herself under my left arm, and Phoebe administers a gentle peck to say she'd like her back scritches now, please; they're the older hens, they have a routine. The young ones are still figuring out the pecking order (which is a very real thing and works exactly the way it sounds), so they hover on the periphery, wondering if they can sneak in for free.
It's during these moments that I feel most at peace. My brother calls it chicken therapy. The Peloton achieves the same ends through different means: Jess King's Sweat Steady ride was a close second today, at the opposite pole.
And in the middle of the night, I wake up and do my acute worrying. Last night I fretted over Reed's new reluctance to have friends here because "there's nothing to do at our house." True, the basketball hoop shares the street with Sean's old Ford Ranger and neighbor Rita's new BMW, and if the ball escapes, it bounces all the way down the long hill to the main road. There's no trampoline or pool or even a real outdoor space, since the terraced backyard belongs to the birds. Inside, there's no private getaway--his room is small--and while there is a (used) ping-pong table, it's in the old-toy purgatory and Bermuda triangle of tools also known as our garage.
Laverne, roosting gracefully.
Our house isn't traditional. Sean and I are fond of curb scores ("There's some garbage that we might be interested in," he observed once from the car), and even the furniture that we purchased is beat to shit because we have a houseful of animals (and three of them are human). We keep house casually, as Bashō says. I wish I were the sort of person who enjoys cleaning and cooking and keeping house--all those skills my mother tried to weave into me that unraveled right away--but my functionality is low. My only practical skills are typing and the ability to Swiss-watch ten pounds of shit into a five-pound bag. My dad said once, with a smile in his voice, "You like things orderly, but you don't mind a little filth."
So, how do you convey to a preteen boy whose aim is to fit in that it's okay, even preferable, to be a little bit different? When you know firsthand the lie in that, having grown up with a mother who forbade the hair salon since she believed in her skill with the scissors. Over the iron and the dryer, she preferred to tug and smooth out the wrinkles and dry the clothes on a line; she grew up with a wringer washer. And an outhouse. When I was in college and working and apparently ungrateful, she sent me every canceled check for nine years' worth of weekly piano lessons; in the next mailing were the receipts for my braces. And I realized yesterday, as I vacuumed the frat house we call home, that I never saw my mother do a deep clean because she didn't permit any dirt. Guess what that was like to live with.
Don't get me wrong--I don't feel sorry for Reed, who's sheltered enough that he doesn't understand how much he has and doesn't believe us when we tell him. And I love our ramshackle little house with the litter box in the upstairs bathroom and the oven that hasn't been cleaned in years and the former back porch that lights up gold before the sun slips into the harbor. Obviously, I am smitten with the chickens, and the dog and the cats and the fish and the dove--would he trade the cat who purrs him to sleep for a basketball court? I'd like to think not . . . at least not longer than a day or two.
Here's the thing about the chickens: with the day on the wane, they slow down too. They stand around and fiddle with their feathers, cleaning, plucking, arranging, and when they're done with that, they lie down or roost on a board for a bit. They understand rhythms that we don't, they're attuned to the arc of the day, they can't see in the dark so they sleep. Why worry over what you can't understand or control.
Not to be outdone, a velvet rose.