The unbreakable bonds: Who says animals don't adopt?

Three ducks and a pubescent hen waddle and peck their way around my yard. As I approach, one of the ducks--the black one--stands up straight and hisses at me. The other two ducks close ranks around the hen, which they consider to be a child, though she is quickly out-sizing them.

It all started last spring, when I surreptitiously deposited a few chicken eggs into the nest of the very broody black duck. I didn't have a drake, but I did have a rooster.

I also wanted baby chickens, but my hens are Australorps, which are perfect and wonderful in all ways, except motherhood. Somehow when their robust size, toughness and prolific production of large, pale eggs was bred into them, the mothering instinct was bred out. Most Astralorp chicks are raised in incubators.


I tried to buy chicks. I searched all over the country. My husband drove many miles, grumbling loudly about his wife's obsession with pale eggs that can be colored in the spring. No one was selling this year. I finally agreed to get a different kind of hens, which despite proper security measures managed to get out of the chicken run. And then they were too stupid to come back before a fox ate them, leaving neat little piles of feathers in the woods behind our house.

Hence my egg plot. And it worked amazingly well. The black duck not only sat on them and hatched them, but also became a viciously protective mother, keeping cats, hawks and humans away from "her" babies. Her gray sisters were indifferent initially but as time went on, they became her vehement hench-ducks.

They did eventually lose two of the chicks, however, through no fault of their own. The chicks simply got bigger and gained more independence than survival instinct. My large yard, which the ducks live in is not exactly chick-proof. It has a fence only around part of it. About an eighth of the perimeter is nothing but a short drop off of a rock wall to the road.

Some ducks have managed to fall or fly off of this wall into the road and if not rounded up in time, they have been run over by cars or eaten by neighborhood dogs. But these three ducks have proved smarter than most and thus have lived happily in our yard for a year and a half without falling off the wall.

Two of the chicks were not so lucky. First one and then another disappeared, once they got old enough to wander a few feet away from their adoptive mother.

So, my husband and I finally decided that we had to save the last chick before he set off for a three-week trip with the kids and left me home alone with the ducks and chickens. The place for the hen is in the chicken coop with her own kind. Clearly.

Not according to adoption law, it isn't.

We spent an afternoon securing the chicken run in every conceivable way and then herding poultry by scrambling through brush and facing down the angry, pecking adoptive mother. Finally, we managed to get the chick inside the chicken run with the ducks outside and close the small door between the chicken run and our yard. I herded the remaining two adult hens and the chick inside the coop, With a sigh of relief, we closed the hens into the coop for the night.

Whew! At last. We went home in the dusk and fell into bed, exhausted. The ducks were up all night though, crying, calling mournfully into the darkness.

I lay awake in bed wracked with guilt. I am an adoptive mother after all. The cries of the duck mother were heart-rending. My own children were away at grandma's at the moment and glad as I was to have a much-needed break, the old fears always lurk around the edges.

Once while I was in the middle of my battle with unexplained infertility, I adopted a stray cat, who promptly had six kittens on my porch and then disappeared as soon as the kittens were half grown. I found homes for five of them and kept the weak runt of the litter, a beautiful little female kitten. When she was old enough, I got her fixed. I had used up every friend and acquaintance I knew who wanted a cat and that IS the responsible cat-owner thing to do.

My cat was devastated. She mooned after the young of other animals and even tried to adopt a neighbor's kitten. I was consumed by guilt and fear that a kind of karma would ensure that I would never have children. Miscarriage followed miscarriage and in the end, I never did have biological kids. A little part of me still wonders.

But my cat had never successfully adopted a kitten and I read a few pseudo-science pieces during our own adoption process, claiming that adoption is unwise because it is "unnatural" and while humans pretend to ourselves that we "love our adopted children just as much as we would a biological child," we are just deluding ourselves and setting ourselves up for a lifetime of heartache and family conflict. These articles point to the high degree of marriage breakdown and attachment disorders in adoptive families as evidence.

And as my family struggled and foundered with first one kid with attachment disorder and then another with significant neurological disabilities, a small part of me sometimes wondered about those articles in the dark hours of the night. Was all this, our adoptions, our whole family, just doomed from the start? Was I fated to be forever alone without any children that were truly mine? Or had I somehow jinxed it by getting that cat fixed all those years ago?

If you've never faced hard family choices or built a family out of rubble and ashes, you may think I"m silly. But these are the things we don't talk about out loud very much.

My husband and I hung on through storms that do, according to statistics, tear the vast majority of families apart--infertility, attachment disorder and having a neurologically and behaviorally disabled child -- to name a few such rocks and shoals.

And now this. The crying mother duck in the night. By the next morning she was hoarse and exhausted but still crying out for her disappeared, last-surviving child.

I went up the hill and let the chickens out of the coop and into their enclosed chicken run. We had put a roof on it and secured every corner and nook. I was sure the chick was far too large by this point to fit through any of the little holes in the wire.

I went back down the hill to have breakfast. And after breakfast I went out into the garden, only to find the happy family, the mother duck, the overprotective aunties and their wayward adopted child, all pecking around the raspberry bushes.

Somehow--that chick had gotten out. That afternoon my husband and I grimly worked on the chicken run again, We closed pieces of mesh wire into the gate, so that even around the hinges there would be no way out. I also got a large pair of heavy sheers ready in my pocket.

We then herded the ducks and chick again. This time was much harder. They knew what we were doing and they protected the chick valiantly. It took a lot of scratches and pecks but we finally got all of them into the chicken run. Then, I grabbed the chick, while my husband herded the wildly squawking ducks out again. I then handed the sheers to my husband and let him clip the chick's wings to be on the safe side.

Again, we left the chick inside with the hens and again the ducks spent another miserable, grief-stricken night. The next morning, I let the chick and the hens out into the chicken run and watched for awhile as the chick tried to force her way into the space around the gate. Sure enough, that was how she'd done it last time. Well, with that mesh stuffed in there, she wasn't going anywhere.

I went down the hill again.

And when I came out to check two hours later, there was not a duck nor a chick to be seen. The adult hens were still there, but not the rest. I checked everywhere in the chicken run and coop. The chick was gone. And so were the ducks from the yard.

I was panicked, realizing that when their family was threatened, the ducks had done what any of us would do in the last extremity. They had gone on the run.

I started a desperate search of every inch of the yard and garden, including the street below the rock wall. Finally, in the last place I could think to look, I found them, all hiding together under the kids' trampoline.

I was just about ready to give up, but my husband was leaving for the three-week trip in the morning and the fact was--I will remind you--that our primary reason for trying to put this chick in with the hens was the untimely deaths of her two siblings. This adoptive home had not turned out to be safe.

So, one last time, we checked the entire chicken run, made a new and better roof and made sure that there was no way in the world an animal larger than a golf ball could escape from it. Then we herded the ducks and the chick with grim finality until we separated the chick and locked her inside the chicken run.

Then, I got my tablet with some work to do on it and sat on a rock near the chicken run to watch. I was taking no chances this time. She spent an hour on top of the chicken coop, trying to fly through the new roof and she wandered around to every corner of the chicken run, trying to get out. After another hour, I was convinced that she was stuck and I finally went home.

The next morning... You guessed it. The chick was back with the ducks and my husband was gone and herding unwilling poultry alone is a losing battle.

So, the unnatural laws of adoptive family solidarity have won for now. The chick has now grown into a young pubescent hen, ready to lay her first eggs. She follows the ducks through rainstorms, while other self-respecting chickens hide in their coops. She doesn't go swimming in the duck pond, but she watches from nearby.

She cannot physically survive this way much longer. Cold, wet autumn winds would give her pneumonia if she lived like a duck in the wet and rain. Someday, she'll have to get in touch with her trans-species adopted roots, just as my children will no doubt need to go their own way someday, but for now she is still convinced she's a duck.

A local foodie and one more duffel bag

As the first snow of the season turns drearily to slush outside in the navy-blue dusk, I sip tea and crunch thin slices of a giant white radish dipped in vinegar.

It’s an odd sort-of treat to the western way of thinking. But here in cold, agriculturally spartan Bohemia, it is a welcome bit of crispness and freshness in the winter.

The texture reminds me fleetingly of hikima, but it is not nearly so sweet and a touch less earthy. Before being sliced the giant radish is large enough to serve as an impromptu weapon if pressed. Sliced thin, it has a bite in the aftertaste and is better served with a few drops of vinegar.

Creative commons image via Pixabay

Creative commons image via Pixabay

It’s one of those things you get used to after a time in a different climate, especially in a place where imports are either not readily available, prohibitively expensive, of exceedingly poor quality or ecologically unsustainable. In the case of Hikima, it simply doesn’t exist here.

Just about everything fresh—beyond the ever-present root vegetables, wrinkly apples and cabbage—falls into most of those categories this time of year. I’m plotting a salad for tomorrow with frost-sweetened beets (the very last of the garden harvest), roasted pumpkin slices from the cellar, nuts, seeds, white cheese and whatever thinly sliced cabbage can be had.

There are plenty of people who buy the over-priced, pale and tasteless excuses for vegetables that are imported here, but I prefer to live as locally as possible, eating in season and storing what I can for the winter.

Only part of it is due to the price and low quality of the winter imports, though those are certainly considerations. Another part is my own conviction that eating in season is both personally healthier and more ecologically sustainable. And those things matter a great deal.

But I’m not a saint when it comes to importing. I have been recently obsessed with my list of things to buy abroad for a very specific reason.

‘Tis the season to get a bag from America.

The past few months have been full of lists and discussions of what you really cannot get in Prague or reasonably online in Central Europe. Partly this is the normal, pre-holiday scramble of most people with children and extended family around.

But in my case it is complicated by a large physical gap right in the middle of the family—large meaning the size of he Atlantic Ocean and most of the continents of Europe and North America put together. And one small duffel bag making its way from one side to the other in the care of a family friend.

Living on the edge of Eastern Europe, I have kept a running list of things to buy when I travel for the past twenty years. Once the list was topped by ordinary toiletries, household items and food, such as gallon jugs of salsa, hair ties, tubs of school glue, jumbo packs of washable markers, good quality clothing for the next couple of years, dried tapioca, molasses and assorted spices.

As the Czech Republic became more integrated with the consumerist networks of the world that list has shrunk until today it reads as follows.

  • Dr. Bronner’s soap

  • Vicks Vaporub

  • Edible vegetable glycerin

  • Real brown sugar

  • English language games

  • English books

  • A few special children’s toys unavailable locally

Shipping is prohibitively expensive—eighty dollars for a small box that would hold only a fraction of that list. So, mostly we wait until someone makes the trip and pay the $100 fee to send them with an extra bag. That’s what is happening in the run up to this holiday season. We sent a young man to America to learn some English by hanging out with our cousins, and sent him with fresh rye bread and a few other things that can’t be easily obtained there. Now he’s on his way home and bringing a holiday sack with him, like a scrawny, young version of Santa.

For most of human history, where you lived was a decisive factor in what you ate, what you wore and every other detail of everyday life. Today, our global society likes to pretend that isn’t true anymore. It largely isn’t for those with money and even the rest of us consume a lot that comes from distant places.

But due more to social, political and economic trends than to distance and geography, there are things that are difficult or even impossible to obtain in one area that are common in others.

Receiving such a large package is like a holiday all it’s own. The preparation spans weeks, if not months—careful lists, family discussions of priorities, predictions of needs for the next year or so, ordering items, Skype conversations with the person receiving the orders and assembling the pack. more discussions of weight and size limits, revision of priorities, coordination of flights, schedules, transport to and from airports, and then at last the keen anticipation as the final days count down.

When the duffel finally arrives with a jetlagged traveler, there is all the sweetness of hope and anxiety. Things are often broken in transit, and if they happen to contain liquid that could mean stains and a mess to clean up, instead of a celebration. There are also battery operated toys for the children, which we have read and reread the US air traffic regulations on but still harbor anxiety about.

Finally, the moment of unpacking is at hand. Everything is tightly compressed in the pack and a faint whiff of the pine forests and wood smoke of my mother’s home in Oregon lingers poignantly on the taught canvas. It’s hard to unzip but I work the zipper down.

The first sniff smells clean. Nothing too terrible could have spilled if it smells good.

After twenty years, this has become a tradition that would be hard to break. And yet, I know that it is no more sustainable than eating out of season. There will likely come a day when flying is either too expensive or limited to make any such packages feasible. Then those of us living far from childhood homes and families will be cut off from small comfort foods, little luxuries and preferred clothing.

For now I savor it, a bit of guilty pleasure, one more duffel from across the world, filled with treasure and home and celebration. Tucked amid the good fabric, toys, games and Dr. B’s, there is homemade candy from my mom and pickled peppers from my brother’s garden. These, of course, are the things no money can buy and no import shop will ever satisfy.

Ten real reasons for hope

You get a rare evening off but fall asleep before you can do anything fun. Then you wake up in the morning at the beginning of a predictably rugged week with the beginnings of a headache. 

Will it never end? Will nothing ever get easier? They used to tell me it would, when I was a kid. They lied. Now they even admit it was just to keep me going.

Creative Commons image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Photostream 

Creative Commons image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Photostream 

A morning like this--that's the time to think of the real reasons for hope. Because on mornings without the strain, the crying kids the headache or the harsh world news it's too easy to think of unicorns and rainbows with fluffy white clouds on both ends.

Those things don't last and we need something a lot more substantial than Wheaties to carry us through. That's why I'll take advantage of a heavy morning to write out the reasons for hope that still have some power at times like this.

It's an exercise I encourage you to try. Consider it to be one of the uses of adversity. Hard days have the potential to help you differentiate between fantasy and what truly gives you sustenance. 

Here then are some of my "real reasons to hope" from one too many mornings:

  1. When technology goes berserk, it helps surprisingly often if you speak gently, reassure the device and give it one solid whack on a corner. It doesn't always work of course, but the times it does save a lot of headache.
  2. Even when I'm ready to strangle my kids, my hormones still work their magic. Even without the ties of genetics--I am ready to try again to be endlessly patient, once I have been out of their presence for at least six hours.
  3. After chemical spills and other ecological disasters, many natural ecosystems recover faster than scientists predict and the first plants to return are usually medicinal herbs. For example, while ocean corals are dying due to global warming, scientists have found that if temperatures are brought back under control, coral has a remarkable capacity to bounce back from near death experiences, if it is not entirely killed. 
  4. I argue with my closest family members and we'll never agree on some things, but we always keep coming back, working through hurt feelings and continuing the relationship. It isn't a lack of conflict that makes a strong family. It is the coming back afterwards.
  5. Even though animals were once thought to be all about draconian survival of the fittest, scientists have found that compassion and empathy are integral to many species. It isn't that difficult to capture on film instances of an animal aiding another animal in distress, even an animal of a different species.
  6. No matter how many times I've been hurt or disappointed, I still feel everything intensely. I am still not numb.
  7. Despite all the hype about borders and ideologies, rural people from different countries can still understand one another without words. When I worked on a subsistence farm in Zimbabwe for a week, I didn't always know how they did things, but having grown up that way myself I did understand the values--the thrift, the work, the hard playing, the bonds that make family more than just about genes.
  8. If you cut an apple in half horizontally, it has a five-pointed star (or a magical pentacle) inside.
  9. I am never bored. I always have something necessary, useful, interesting, beautiful or helpful to do. I may have to do quite a few boring tasks but not for boring reasons.
  10. The earth turns. Everything in the universe makes a circle. Everything dies. But new life is always born, somewhere somehow. Life will out.

Blind humor: Living with a sighted person

I break from work in the afternoon and go downstairs to brew tea for me and my mother. The electric kettle sputters and pops with a comfortable, homey sound.

I reach up to the second shelf and snag a couple of pottery mugs. My thumb and ring finger go around the handles and my forefinger and middle finger each go inside a mug. It's a quick grab and a secure grip. 

Image of Arie Farnam with long light-colored hair unbound and eyes closed as she looks into a fire at night

Image of Arie Farnam with long light-colored hair unbound and eyes closed as she looks into a fire at night

The mugs clink as I set them on the counter but then I feel the grime and stickiness on the inside and I pick them back up again.

"We need to check the spinning arm in the dish washer again," I tell my mom, as she comes in from her painting work.

"Whatever," she says with emphasis. "They look clean to me."

We've had this conversation a thousand times and I try not to bristle. I try to remind myself that it isn't exactly that she doesn't believe me. It's just a different way of looking at the world.

"There are fairly large chunks of greasy gunk inside the cups," I tell her, while I scrub and then add soap and scrub some more to get the super-heated dishwasher sludge off of the inside of the mugs.

"I believe you," she says. "It's just that if it looks clean visually, I don't care." 

I bite back a retort about how bacteria don't care what she can see and put the newly washed mugs out to pour the tea. 

This wasn't a crucial or dramatic incident nor was it the straw that broke my back. But it was telling and clear. I suddenly realized that there is an art to getting along when we see the world differently. And so, I started mulling over a list of tips for blind and partially sighted people who live with a sighted family member or roommate. 

Some of the common issues can be humorous, but I do mostly mean what I say.

Image of a red tea kettle blowing clouds of steam - Creative Commons image by Benjamin Lehman 

Image of a red tea kettle blowing clouds of steam - Creative Commons image by Benjamin Lehman 

Tips for living with a sighted person:

  1. As noted above, dish washing and other things requiring attention to invisible hygiene are not their strong suit. When I pick up a mug or a spoon, my hands automatically inspect it, I suppose just the way a sighted person's eyes do. But my hands detect a lot of crud that a sighted person's eyes don't. Sighted people are, however, excellent at dusting shelves, vacuuming and mopping floors. Divide up household tasks based on each person's strengths to minimize the need to correct and the incidence of food poisoning. 
  2. Try not to lose patience with their vague sense of location and statements such as "It's over there." Remind them gently to use specific words, and set a good example by giving them cues they can follow when directing them to find objects. This generally means referencing a significant physical object that they can see when you are giving them directions. Don't say for instance, "Your keys are at four o'clock three feet ahead of you," because they will often find this too technical and confusing. Instead say, "Your keys are behind the coffee pot." I know it may feel counter intuitive, but this can ease communication.
  3. It is a generalization but also often true that many sighted people have poor organizational and memory skills. Due to their reliance on visual cues they haven't exercised the muscles of memory and categorization. This is a common sticking point in household conflicts because sighted people have difficulty using organization systems for clothing, cooking utensils, spices, paperwork or household clutter correctly. Again patience is needed. Explain the need for the organization systems that keep your home running and which keep them from having to do all the housework and cooking without your help. Then remind gently and avoid a critical or irritated tone as much as possible.
  4. While floor clutter is related to the point above, it deserves its own point because of the potential safety hazards. Your home is one place where you can move around freely and quickly. Floor clutter destroys your sense of home and makes the daily routine difficult and even dangerous. Sighted people, particularly children, create floor clutter without even noticing. Believe me when I say that it is not specifically intended to hurt you. It is just more of their difficulty with organization and location concepts. Place a large box in an out of the way corner and then unceremoniously dump any and all items found loose on the floor into that box. When someone is looking for lost items, mention the box and patiently repeat guidance on organization and safety. 
  5. Be clear about personal space. Though it may be fashionable today to have a relaxed atmosphere around belongings and space, your time has better uses than searching for the scissors your family member or roommate put "right back" on your desk... two feet from where you keep them. Don't let this one slide. But as usual, exercise patience. It is genuinely difficult for sighted people to grop how exact they must be in returning things they have borrowed from you or moved while in your personal space. Generally it is good to enforce a rule that your things are not to be touched or moved at all. Have your own pair of scissors and all other handy household items. Then enforce a hard and fast rule that yours can only be borrowed in cases of emergency and then must be returned to your hands, rather than to the place the sighted individual believes is correct. 
  6. Childcare deserves a couple of special notes. First off, it's clear that children can create a lot of clutter and chaos. This is their natural state. Get child locks on everything and put everything up high for as long as possible. Then as children get older, use the same principles applied to sighted adults with an extra dose of patience. Sighted children are actually more likely than sighted adults to fully adapt to your home and abide by the house rules, because if they are growing up with you, they are more likely to learn the same skills you do and accept them as normal.
  7. On sharing childcare with a sighted adult: With small children safety is your top priority, but you've heard the phrase, "out of sight out of mind." Sighted people really mean it and especially when it comes to children. Some particularly annoying sighted people will question your ability to "watch" children and keep them safe from visible hazards. (Sarcasm and irony are much more helpful, not to mention legal, than aiming your fist at the place where their noise is coming from. But I digress.) Society and the media has trained them to believe that they, not you, are better equipped to keep children safe. Don't buy into this or your children may suffer from preventable accidents. Just because a sighted person is present, don't assume they are paying full attention. If you hear a match strike, batteries clatter or a chewing sound from a toddler who isn't supposed to be eating, always investigate. The child might well be hiding under the table or just around a corner and a sighted adult may not notice because they don't pay much attention to sounds. I can't tell you how many times I have relieved a child of choking hazards when sighted adults hadn't noticed, not to mention the three times I've pulled a drowning child out of water before sighted people reacted. The general rule is to keep alert at all times with small children.

I have written this with the hope of bringing awareness to the issues. I don't wish to give offense to anyone

There are many articles in the online and print media detailing what it is like to live with a family member with a disability. Some are meant to educate the general population and others offer necessary practical tips for families. I'm not against these articles. I do believe there are particular issues for people living with a person with a disability and good advice that can be exchanged with others with a similar living situation.

However, I couldn't resist telling how it is from the other side of the equation.

I wish you all luck and harmony in your homes.

Homestead: Why put in the effort?

The deep freeze of winter has loosened and the snow is running down the hill as a glistening, gray sheet of ice. I have to strap little spikes onto my shoes to get up the hill to feed the animals.

No one can yet say that winter is over or that spring has come, but there is a quickening in the light, a tad more gold in the rare sunshine and less icy white.

My ducks know it. They cheerfully peck around their tiny yard and wait at the gate, hoping today will be the day I open it and let them roam. 

We've built a second coop and have reserved three hens and a rooster from a farmer an hour to the south. This year is looking like it could be the year our urban homesteading really takes off. We have two greenhouses, a few good fruit trees and a large, mature herb garden. In just the past week, I've handled three family health crises with just our own resources. 

Creative Commons image by Becks of

Creative Commons image by Becks of

People ask me why I tie myself down so close to the land. It does make planning our summer trip to raft a river in southern Poland a lot harder. 

And I do wonder about it sometimes. Have I made the right decisions? It certainly isn't that much cheaper to grow your own food and medicine. If work hours were counted, it is ridiculously expensive. And I wonder just how much it lowers our environmental impact--even with our rainwater irrigation system and pest-patrol ducks. 

When my husband whines or the neighbors sneer or my friends question my overworked lifestyle, I remind them of the list-able benefits--pesticide-free food, a healthy diet and environment for kids, kids growing up knowing the value of food, learning basic survival skills and developing connections to plants and animals, physical exercise and something to drag us out of the house no matter the weather, insurance against hard times, and a small internal sense of accomplishment and satisfaction...

Somehow it still doesn't seem to add up. The benefits feel like fringe things, luxuries in a life that is stretched to the breaking point. We try to keep up with jobs, school, social standards, my disability and one child's disability.

It often feels like every day is a battle. I wake up long before dawn, roll my legs out of bed and try to coordinate my movements so my feet slide right into my slippers as they hit the floor. I'm in the kids' room to get them up for their extra-early ride to school before I'm more than half awake. 

At night I fall into bed and lately indulge in one unwise relaxation-a single show on Netflix that keeps me up past 11:00 and results in less sleep than I really need. When spring comes, I know even that will have to go.

So, why then? I could just work more hours and buy the occasional expensive organic produce. 

I ask myself this quietly and my husband asks it out loud sometimes. 

But then somehow we each start planning the garden or the coop for the new chickens. There is something inexorable about it. Once you have close ties to the land, it requires things from you. Maybe it's a kind of homing instinct, like my ducks have. The more unstable the outside world becomes, the stronger the inner need to have a way to make our own food gets.

Then there is the future conversation with my children I imagine. In twenty years, when they have grown to understand history, environmental problems, politics and the world in general, the effects of climate change will be much more apparent. And their generation will ask us what we did when the warnings were clear. They'll ask what we did when 97 percent of scientists were sure and crying for people to change their dependence on oil, coal and factory farms. 

I want to be able to answer those questions without shame.

No matter my doubts, I can't quiet those predictable voices. And growing food is one way I know to do something. It's a way to learn skills and teach them to my kids to be prepared for whatever kind of world they will live in. 

If I had a better way--a job with political or corporate influence or a lot of money which I could use to push for systemic change--then I might well put all these hours of work into that. But for now this is the thing I can do.

And I'm glad for it. When the cost-benefit analysis is all done and there is a pause in the work, I am happy looking at our tiny kingdom, a refuge and a hope that there will be a future.

"Virtue signalling" versus "This is my life"

I go pick up my six-year-old son from kindergarten and he says a big kid from another class chased him and hit him repeatedly on the playground. Then he says another kid is calling him a racial slur.

I delicately ask the teacher if there have been any issues, and she explodes at me. "I don't want to hear it! I know for a fact that if there is any conflict, then your son started it. I don't care what anyone saw or what he says. He did something first. I know that. It's the way he is. It's in his background." 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I should have known not to bring anything up with this teacher. The other teacher swears my son is no more rambunctious than any of the other boys. She says they're all difficult. But mine is the only one not considered "white" by the standards of the country where we live.

He hides behind the shelves in the kindergarten boot room, eyes wide and mouth trembling. That night we have the discussion I've been dreading. Sex? Are you kidding? Imagine being afraid of discussing the birds and the bees!

Parents of black boys in America know this discussion though and I wonder if they dread it as much as I have. It goes like this: "I know it isn't fair, but for your own protection, you must never ever hit back. They will judge you more harshly because of the color of your skin and eyes." 

Again. this is kindergarten.

After the kids are in bed, I get online. It's work but it also involves blogging and discussing issues with people around the world. One of those issues is the ban on people from seven majority Muslim countries entering the US. And someone throws the accusation of "virtue signalling" at me because I express support for refugees who are affected by the ban. 

Initially I didn't even know what the epithet meant, I've been out of the country so long. But I looked it up and the gist of it is that I'm white so there is no way I could really be against racism and Islamophobia. I just say I am in order to "signal" how "virtuous" I am in an attempt to avoid anti-white backlash. So goes the logic of smug white commentators.

The absurdity of the past two weeks is staggering. I pride myself on being able to engage "the other side" with compassion but, dear goddess, how do you communicate across this canyon? 

If I tried to explain my day to the "virtue signalling" slinger, I might as well be speaking Urdu. 

I don't claim to know what it is like to be Black or Muslim in America. But I do have this little window into the issue of race because of the fluke of weird Czech attitudes toward ethnicity. I get enough of a window to know that I'm not experiencing the full extent of it by far.

And here's what my week is like:  

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

A gay lawyer friend and I helped a disabled immigrant with housing and paperwork the other night. After all, he was one of only a handful of people who stayed on a tough job with us one time. Then I go downhill skiing and I steer primarily by the sound of skis scraping on either side of me. I miss the days when I had a guide for blind skiers.

Then I come home and my good friend born in Syria who I've known for fifteen years and who ten years ago married an American and moved there is worried about whether or not she'll ever see the rest of her family again. (Oh, and her family is Christian, as are more than 20 percent of Syrians). I wish I could hug her long distance. I wish I could do anything but feel helpless.

I plan to go for a weekend to the home of the transgender friend with kids who I didn't used to know is trans. I have a short and pleasant Facebook conversation with a colleague I once went through a war zone with, who is also a Muslim and a former refugee. I'm glad to know he and his family are safe and well. Then I go out in subzero temperatures to feed animals and water overwintering plants in the urban homesteading that keeps our carbon footprint low.

When I say I am against racism, homophobia, ableism and other forms of bigotry and when I say I care about humanitarian and environmental issues, I'm only standing up for myself, my friends and my family just as you would if the storm troopers were at your door. 

Now I hear that there are protests in airports against the immigration ban for people from those seven countries which have lots of Muslims but oddly not nearly as many terrorists as the countries not banned. There are crowds of people standing on guard while Muslims pray in US airports.

I'm glad there is this outpouring of support for people who have had it rough for many years and who have generally suffered through it in silence and alone, trying to be nicer and less physical than everyone else, even while they were attacked, so that they wouldn't be labeled as "aggressive Muslims."  

I can't help but remember a trip back to the US five years ago. I was standing in an interminable security line with my kids--then no more than toddlers. I finally reached the point at which we were to enter the machines and checks and I noticed a family standing near by outside the line.

"We'll miss the flight," the woman said quietly but I heard. I am legally blind but I also made out the scarf around her head, wrapped in that way that I know usually means a Muslim. Her husband and two small children stood pressed near her, but he said nothing. All of their faces were a deep golden brown, likely with Middle Eastern or South Asian background.

I thought I understood. They had been held up and knew they didn't have time to stand in the line. Many other people would have begged to be allowed to cut in line, and with small children most would have been allowed. But they were too terrified to draw attention to themselves. 

I made a quick decision and stopped inching forward. Then I beckoned to them to join the line. The man's head jerked up and I thought he must be amazed, even though I couldn't see his expression well. The woman pushed him forward a little and the slid into the line in front of my kids. I heard a rumble behind me, coughs and someone pushed me roughly from behind. There were some coughs but nothing overt, yet.

My heart hammered in my throat. I am not a coward about most things but I have had plenty of reason to be afraid of public judgment and crowd disapproval. I whipped around, ready to defend myself and thrust my white cane, which I carry in confusing environments like airports, even though I can walk without it out to the side and demanded of the people behind me in line, "Have you got something to say?" 

The crowd stilled and I turned back around, the back of my neck and head burning as if their gaze could light me on fire. Still I felt a thrill inside. I had managed it. The Muslim family moved off quickly with only mumbled thanks. I gained no public approval or virtuous status that day. I did gain a bit more courage to act on my conscience, even when I may be publicly judged however.

This isn't "virtue signalling." This is my life. These are my people. You slander and malign them or you threaten to take away our basic rights, you ban people of another minority faith even if it isn't the exact same one as mine or you mock someone who shares a profession AND disability status with me, and you are much more likely to see my not-so-virtuous side. 

The 2017 List: 13 things to bring into the new year

With some truly depressing 2017 lists out there, I want to add a couple that might actually come in handy... or at least crack a smile.

Here is the Rebel With a Pen list of what to take with you when leaping into 2017:

  1. Chocolate
  2. A solar panel
  3. A manual for communicating with racists
  4. A Canadian passport or at least least a maple leaf bumper sticker
  5. Your entire library of books
  6. Wool socks
  7. A couple of 1960s protest albums
  8. Food stockpiles
  9. A bomb shelter
  10. Your family and near neighbors
  11. A first aid kit with extra bandages
  12. Your ability to laugh in the face of disaster
  13. Your generosity of spirit when it comes to people you might feel like judging

And with some of the bizarre wish lists out there, I figured that my brand of fantasy wouldn't seem far fetched at all. Here's my wish list for 2017:

  1. I wish Donald Trump would get on TV, laugh really loud and say, "Just kidding!" And then go back to his moocher lifestyle and leave us in peace.
  2. I wish everyone in the media would suddenly realize they should actually listen to scientists. Then science and climate discussions would be at the top of the news cycle all year long.
  3. I wish oil executives would realize the Indians own that land in North Dakota and that squeezing every last drop of oil out of the sand in Texas is not going to prolong their gluttonous lifestyle for very long anyway so they might as well start thinking about long-term survival.
  4. I wish my kids would wake up January 1 and realize that bickering defeats fun.
  5. I wish the next president would declare a new New Deal consisting of building solar panels to go on every roof and a light-rail system serving the entire country.
  6. I wish all the teenage ISIS fighters would get a deep hankering to go live with their mothers and watch TV until they're forty. 
  7. I wish all bombs, missiles and munitions as well as all guns not in a safe under lock and key would mysteriously disappear on January 1.
  8. I wish someone brilliant would invent a way for writers and artists to make a living at their craft.
  9. I wish Microsoft would go bankrupt and have to sell off all of its parts to independent programmers who want to make an honest living.
  10. I wish our society would begin taxing the use of natural resources instead of the labor of the working poor and the funds would be put toward educational opportunity, urban greenspaces, rural public transit and subsidies for high quality cottage industries. 
  11. I wish a benign virus would evolve and spread among humans which deactivates the part of the brain that categorizes according to skin color, speech pattern and the appearance of a person's eyes.

With those sweet and optimistic thoughts in mind, I wish you a very happy (and peaceful) new year!

What kids need during the holidays

I woke up one winter morning in middle childhood to the sound of gunshots on the other side of a thin wooden wall. The light coming through the window was eerie, pale and wavering like a cold candle. 

I jumped out of bed and searched for my parents, who slept in the bed next to mine. Their covers were rumpled and they were gone. I raced to the loft where my brothers slept. My little brother was sitting up in his blankets while my older brother struggled quickly into his shirt.

"What's that noise?" I cried. 

"Pa's shooting his gun," my older brother said.

The front door to our cabin slammed and I could hear Mama coming in below. We scrambled to the railing and demanded to know what was going on. Mama explained with a tone somewhere between resignation and reassurance that all the deep heavy snow we had thought was melting the night before had frozen solid as a rock over night and Pa was shooting clumps of ice out of the giant fir tree next to our house... so that it wouldn't fall and crush our house. 

This memory, one of the clearest I have from childhood, is oddly tinged with brilliant sparkle. There is almost no fear in my memory, as if I thought all this was terribly exciting. Beyond the first shock of waking up alone with the frightening noise outside, I seem to have been in a state of giddy delight. Pa was like Pa in Little House on the Prairie. There was no natural or human threat to big for him in my view. We were clearly safe in his hands.

While we were getting dressed in the loft there was a tremendous crash that shook the whole cabin and the sound of wood grating against metal. Something had clearly fallen onto our tin roof. It was prevented from crushing us only by a few beams, some insulation and a couple of layers of plywood. 

Excited to see a fallen tree and glad that the house had apparently survived, my brothers and I pulled on our snow gear and scrambled up the steps cut into the ice outside the front door to get outside. Pa was still out by the large fir tree to the north of the house and it had clearly not fallen. We told him about the crash on the roof and suggested that it must have been the tree on the south side of the house.

He told us to go check, so we ran around the front of the house... or attempted to. I got to the front yard where the ground sloped gently downhill and my feet flew out from under me. My head struck the sheer sheet of ice under me with a loud "crack!"

My brothers went down a bit more gracefully and scrambled back across the ice to help check on me as I groggily shook the stars out of my eyes. 

We'd had several feet of heavy snow the day before. But in the evening the temperature had climbed and the whole mass had started to melt, water running across the surface and down onto the county road below. But in the night a cold snap had come, so hard and fast that the melting slush had turned to ice, a thick, rock-hard layer covering everything for miles around us. It did not have the crusty appearance of old snow with a frozen top layer. It was slick, shiny and impenetrable. 

It's likely that anyone forty or over from the Pacific Northwest will know what I'm talking about. It is still generally referred to as the Great Ice Storm. Electrical lines were down for days, phones and water pumps didn't work, every branch and twig was coated in a thick layer of clear ice, a snow plow was broken trying to clear our county road and we were completely cut off from the outside world for three days. 

My brothers and I didn't know the extent of the "disaster" yet but we already loved it. We were on an important mission from Pa to check the south side of the house, so despite the ringing in my head and the large knot swelling behind my ear, my big brother helped me up and we staggered the rest of the way around the cabin, joking about how my head was so hard that it cracked the ice. 

As it turned out, it was a disappointingly small branch that had crashed onto our roof and made such an enormous noise. But by midday Pa had finished shooting ice out of the trees and he had time to pull us on our giant toboggan. We slid our way over to our nearest neighbors, to make sure everyone was all right. Then we slid home again. 

It is ironic that while our parents' generation remembers it as a natural disaster, my brothers and I remember those days of candlelight and ice as some of the best moments of our childhood.

Creative Commons image by David Lytle 

Creative Commons image by David Lytle 

We spent our days sliding on the snow or helping our parents with the tasks of daily survival, such as cutting blocks of ice out of the frozen slush to heat on the wood stove. (That was our only source of water with our well 60 feet deep and the pump out of operation.( And we spent the long winter evenings, playing games and telling stories by candlelight. 

Anyone who remembers a night without electricity as a child can probably relate to some degree. Without the TV, computers, oven, food processor or phone working and with the roads closed, the one thing we children had was... our parents' attention.

We often feel that the past must have been simpler and by extension better, because in those times they did not have electricity and all of those things on a regular basis. So, we envision it like an endless snow day. But in reality, the children of the past did not have their parents' attention because their parents' daily routine did not require electricity. 

The truth is that we cannot really give our children an endless snow day. We cannot always give them our full attention. We have to work and cook and keep our lives together and that takes up the majority of our time and energy. Most of the time, what is left for real attention to children is the crumbs. 

But this is still what I think of during the holidays and when facing the week of winter break. Our children can remember the holidays as a magical time of sparkle, even if the reality is that we are stressed out and the extended family is fighting and money is tight and crises loom. The key to it is amazingly simple. Times of comfort and attention. 

We can create it for our children, by declaring our own great ice storm. It doesn't actually take a disaster to make a time that children will remember forever. 

Here is a recipe. It need not be every moment of the holiday season, but as much as possible, as often as possible, allow and if necessary schedule family times with these elements:

  1. Nothing urgent that adults must get done.
  2. Nothing urgent that the kids must get done.
  3. No set schedule or a very simple schedule
  4. Few or no visitors outside immediate family, who are very familiar to children
  5. A pleasant and familiar environment
  6. The attention of adults being at least partly on things of interest to the child
  7. A low level of excitement for something in the future or an understanding of this as a special time
  8. A balance of sugar versus protein in food.
  9. Low use of electronics by children and adults alike
  10. Opportunities for activities like playing games, reading, building things, coloring, crafting, cooking, playing in nature, moving around
  11. Any conflicts that arise expressed and handled with mutual compassion

Number ten--the apparent activity involved--is actually the least important thing on the list. It doesn't really matter what you're doing as much as the environment is good, necessities are taken care of and there is no urgent agenda. It is almost like magic. This really will create the most memorable moments for children without anything special or flashy added.

Certainly we also want to do special, fun and meaningful things with our children but doing them one at a time and allowing for spaces without a schedule in between will matter most.