Dahlia the Duck


The first bird we raised on our homestead. I brought her home in a barn-shaped cardboard box from the feed store on my 35th birthday. We had a sweet foster babe with us that day, and I bought a small duck stuffed animal for her and each of my boys. There was a soundbox sewn in that quacked when squeezed, and foster babe squealed delightedly when I pushed the button and nibbled her toes with the duck bill.

I held the box of ducklings on my lap on the way home and I felt like I was cradling the spark of something I longed for my whole life. I set up a brooder in my laundry room beneath the window and the boys took turns feeding handfuls of sweet peas to the ducklings, giggling as the duck bills dabbled in the divots of their cupped hands. Foster babe lunged and reached for the ducks again and again, but they always dodged her wild grasps.

The ducklings grew FAST, as ducklings do, and soon they were splashing and diving in the blue plastic kiddie pool in our backyard. I sat and watched them for hours on sunny afternoons, scooting my chair back, and back again, as their ducky antics grew wetter and wilder. Who knew a few birds would offer such thrilling live entertainment?

Four years have passed, and foster babe is across the country now, with her mama. The quacking duck stuffed animals haven’t been seen in years — they are probably wedged beneath a car seat somewhere, or between the bed and the wall where small toys and paper airplanes go to die.

But Dahlia is still here. Her flock has grown to a dozen. Our little homestead has expanded onto the adjacent property and the menagerie now includes seven breeds of chickens, New Zealand and Silver Fox rabbits, honeybees, and a small flock of Katahdin sheep. The farm that was a spark of a dream only five years ago is alive with noise and color and the deep joy that comes with chasing after a calling, no matter how out-of-reach or unconventional it seems next to where you are at the time.

In the meantime, God, with his wise and clever weaving, has connected us with another child to love on — a small boy who delights in nothing more than carrying offerings of cracked corn and kitchen scraps to the ducks. “Let’s go see Dahlia!” he exclaims when he arrives at our house, kicking off his sandals and slipping on the rubber Paw Patrol boots we keep near the front door, just for him. The ducks come running as we enter the gate, Dahlia bringing up the rear. She quacks and waddles and sways her fluffy butt side to side, determined to get to those treats. We wait for her to get to the finish line before doling out the scraps, and every time, I smile and tell her she’s my spirit animal.

What can a duck really know? Can she know I pointed to her in the metal stock tank at the feed store, declaring that I wanted that one, my heart giddy over the best birthday gift I’d ever received? Can she know what came alive in me as she rode home in my lap from the feed store? Can she know how loved she is by every kiddo who’s run or played at Moss & Meadow farm? That she’s everybody’s absolute favorite?

She may be a duck, but her ten pounds of frolicking fluff have been, and always will be, one of the best things that have ever happened to me.

To all of us.

On Maple Syrup and Grief

I’m 39 today.

Last year, my friends took me out for birthday dinner and we tried not talking about what we couldn’t help talking about. The virus was here, now. Schools were shutting down. Employees were being sent home to work. The world as we knew it was about to change forever. We slurped our Tom Yum Pho with bewildered eyes and questions none of us would ever be able to answer.

A year later, I’m standing over my kitchen stove boiling sap into maple syrup and still thinking about the innumerable, unanswerable questions. How long will this last? How many will we lose? Could life ever be normal again?

I have been extremely/overly cautious this last year, but even with all my THINKING and DECISIONS and PREVENTION and PRECAUTIONS, here I am, quarantined because of a recent exposure. A quick stop off at a friend’s house and a hug I didn’t say no to will turn into weeks of waiting and wondering.

When I think back to that dinner last year with my friends, I feel like I’m looking in on another life. We were girls around a table of Thai food, shoulder to shoulder, living among one another, breathing each other’s air. We were so sickeningly rich in the closeness and togetherness I ache for in these lean months. There was open-mouthed laughter and tasting each other’s dinners and lingering around. There were smiles and unmuffled words and hugs without hesitation, and dammit, I cannot stop crying about who we were before. We were grown women, but we were babies. We stopped by each other’s houses. We rode in cars together. We let our kids play with one another. Tell me, what didn’t we have?

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All We Need, Now: Beyond the Ballot

“Sing my song, too,” he requests, scrunching his shoulders and grinning, tiny teeth shining white in the lamplight. “Sing it like Mumma does.” 

I lean over his temporary bed — a toddler mattress centered awkwardly on the floor of my boys’ bedroom and piled high with mismatched pillows, borrowed stuffed animals, and a shirt that smells like her. Like home.

You are my sunshine, my little sunshine. . .

Peace sweeps over him like a linen blanket. He relaxes his shoulders and inserts thumb into smiling mouth.

I notice how easy it is now, four weeks in. The calming down. The tucking in. Familiar, sleepy routine of nighttime lullaby rounds.

The first week he was with us, he explained night after night that he was just going to wait up for her. Propped on his pudgy elbow, he’d fight drowsiness for thirty, forty, fifty minutes, head bobbing up and down, quiet snores betraying his ambition. 

Beside him on the floor, I lingered, offering a comforting presence and praying the nurture in my heart would be enough to calm his restlessness and allow him to sleep in a room that must have seemed so far from home. A couple of those first nights, he sobbed and thrashed, refusing even to lie down until I lovingly bear-hugged him into submission, whispering through his wails, “I know you miss your mama. You have the best mama. You have the best mama.” Eventually, his resolve wore out and he melted into my chest, accepting a love that was second-best because it was the only love available in that moment.

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On Peapods and Payoffs

Snow peas are coming in nicely — I just popped the first small pod into my mouth as I strolled through the vegetable garden after my Monday evening piano lesson. 

If I’m honest, I’ll admit that spring is the time of year where I’m most likely to have mixed feelings about homesteading. In spring, I come out of my winter funk and I am ready to twirl on a mountaintop a la Julie Andrews, but at the same time, I am faced with the truth that spring delivers hard, hard work. Animal housing must be cleaned, gardens weeded and prepped, seedlings hardened off and transplanted, bees set up, not to mention the extra tasks involved with raising baby animals on the homestead. Everything seems to need fixing or cleaning or extra TLC as the snow melts, and in the meantime, we’re trying to wrap up our school year. There isn’t really much time to play in the springtime.

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Mr. Bray

One of my favorite parts of writing is the way it immortalizes the trivial things that might otherwise be forgotten. “It’s all about the mundane,” my college writing instructor, Matt Frank, repeated. “The mundane is sacred. It’s holy.”

My little brother Mark wrote down a bunch of stories about Mr. Bray, an iconic and well-loved coach, teacher, and driver’s ed instructor in small-town Upper Michigan who passed away last year.

I love reading about what Mr. Bray meant to my brother and his friends — how he motivated them to dig deep and busted their chops to make them better.

I would like to add a few of my observations about Mr. Bray — they are quite different from my brother’s.

First off, as intense and as NUTS as Mr. Bray was, he was also the opposite. If you were within a hundred feet of the trophy hall between the middle school gym and the weight room, you KNEW you’d either hear Mr. Bray hollering with the most booming voice you will ever remember, or you’d see him strolling, and I mean strolling, across the glossy linoleum like it was a summer day at Lake Superior and he had nothing to do and nowhere to be. He’d be wearing those damn Zubaz pants (to his JOB as a professional educator) with white tennies and a half-zip pullover windbreaker, swinging his whistle around in circles with a cockeyed half-grin on his face. He’d give you a little grunt or witty comment paired with your nickname and keep strolling.

You loved seeing this Mr. Bray.

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Love through a Window

Last Thursday, my great-grandma turned 96. Months before, we’d planned a birthday bash for her with her three children attending from three states, along with several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 

Then the coronavirus crept into our region, creating a trickle of closures and cancellations. We altered our plans with the changing recommendations from the CDC.

Plan A: Hold the party in the dining room at her assisted living facility with all of us present.

Plan B: Pick up Nana and transport her to my parents’ house for the party. 

Then we learned the entire assisted living facility would be locked down, with no visitors in and no residents out. Time to think creatively. 

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On Gray Hair and Freedom

My first gray hair turned up when I was a sophomore in college — twenty years old and full of sass and gumption. No way I was going to let anyone see THAT nonsense. I headed to the salon and promptly covered up my defect with fifty bucks worth of highlights and lowlights, glad I escaped a dangerously close marring of my youthful image.

After a few years of salon visits, the grays were multiplying and my “career” as a student teacher didn’t exactly provide the means to fund my self-preservation project, so off to Walgreen’s I went to find a box of hair color to restore my dark curls at a fraction of the cost of salon color.

In the beginning, I wrapped myself in a color cape every eight weeks or so, humming along to Counting Crows and Pearl Jam in my Marquette apartment, watching the timer tick for thirty minutes before rinsing myself back to the security of 5C Brilliant Brunette.

Ahh. That’s better.

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Egg Basket

After a month of a nearly-empty egg basket, the fall moult is complete and the girls are laying again. That speckled egg is the first we’ve seen from our new Welsummer hens. Isn’t it gorgeous?

Keeping livestock adds rhythm to our days. The feeding and watering, the egg collection, the midday check to make sure everyone’s a-okay. Our lives take on the shape of seasonal activities, filling out during busy times like high summer or the season of Advent, and giving way to a bit more elbow room during the dark winter. But animal chores are steady, keeping time for us throughout the months, the years. Counting the chickens with my youngest son as they emerge from the coop each morning. Scratching kitty chins at lunch break. Dropping a fistful of hay in front of each rabbit at dusk. Continue reading

Home to this Space

“I miss your writing,” an acquaintance told me in the juice aisle at the grocery store. “Are you going to get back to blogging?”

A few years ago, I was creating and publishing content to this space three or four times a month. If you were a regular here, you saw that taper off and become sparse these past two years.

What happened?

It’s not that I lost my drive to create — not at all. But the bulk of my creative energy was consumed by other endeavors. It started when I was a preschooler, really. As a young girl, I ached to live on a farm. I was sure I was born into the wrong era or the wrong family or at least lived on the wrong street in a quaint neighborhood of small-town Michigan.

I dreamed of climbing mountains of straw and soaring from a hay loft on a rope swing rather than shooting hoops on gravelly pavement. I dreamed of open space beyond my home rather than houses neighboring on every side. I dreamed of pets that clucked and quacked and mooed rather than squeaking caged creatures taking turns running on the wheel to nowhere.

When I read the Little House on the Prairie series, I was certain Laura Ingalls was the luckiest girl who ever lived. Those open fields. Those prairie hens. Those evenings around the fire with hot cider and a lively fiddle.

I wanted a life so big, yet so small. Room to stretch my legs. A creek in which to cool my tired feet. Snap peas so fresh I’d have to shoo off a dragonfly before biting into the crisp pod. Of course I’d be barefoot in the garden for this idyllic moment.

But alas, I lived in a ranch home on a corner lot in town, and the only thing we grew was a lawn.

In the summer of 2015, everything changed. I was thirty-three years old, married with three kids and two college degrees collecting dust on my shelf when a cherished friend died suddenly and unexpectedly. My friend’s death shouted in my face that you get one chance to do life on this earth. My friend had dream-chased himself to New York City to work in the English department of a Manhattan university. It was time for me to chase my dreams in the opposite direction — so into the country I went.

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Five Forever: My Youngest Son’s Thoughts on Having (or Delaying) a Birthday

He cried yesterday when I excitedly told him it was his last night as a five-year-old. “I like being five — I wish I could just stay this age forever. Will you take one last picture of me while I’m still five?”

He has always liked being little — being near. He spent hundreds of hours strapped to me in the baby carrier, peaceful and secure among the whirlwind of toddler and preschool aged brothers.

Years later, his brothers may wander to the yard or down to the neighbors’ house, but this boy often parks it at the kitchen counter, chatting to me about his Lego creations or asking if he can crack the eggs for me.

He is content to hang out with our animals or snuggle with me in the reading nook for hours, not thinking of what he might miss out on. I love this about him. I will never hold my kids back from growing and exploring, but I am grateful for the rare gift of a boy who sees everything he already has as enough, a boy whose undemanding presence reminds me of how sweet it is to just be — together.

Happy Birthday, Miles. And yes, I will keep a picture of you in my heart where you can be five forever.