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.

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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.

Manifesto of a plastic bag washer

There are things that come naturally to me: turning off the water while I soap up my hands; saving a leftover potato to make dough, hording empty pickle jars, separating recycling from compost; making old clothes into washrags or drying ziplock bags. These seem to have always been habit.

I didn't grow up during the Depression, as some of my friends like to joke. I did grow up poor, but it was an odd kind of poverty. Some call it "voluntary poverty."

Technically, my parents could have pursued more prestigious careers earlier. We had a few good toys--legos and sleds--and the great wealth of a natural playground just beyond the door of our scrap-wood shack in Northeastern Oregon. But we also had old, faded clothes, socks that always fell down into the toes of our boots, nothing that matched, healthy homemade lunches or free school lunches and a TV twenty years out of date (when we had one at all). 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Living that way voluntarily is something quickly ridiculed today. I've heard it on-line, read it in popular new books, seen it in movies and recently gotten it from two fairly close friends. Voluntarily living modestly is considered naive, hypocritical and just plain stupid. 

The pressure is on in our society to get the most high-paying job possible, to pursue a major career and to use material bounty to keep you sane in the rat race.

I can hear the "buts" already and there is some literary and social lip service paid to frugality and "the simple things in life." However, those things fly out the window when it comes to a discussion of saving for your health care or your children's educations in the United Sates. If you don't have a near or above average income, that level of saving isn't realistic. And the excuse that you didn't save hundreds of thousands of dollars because you were living modestly and working at consuming less--which precludes high-powered careers with expensive clothing, classy social obligations and extensive travel and commutes--will get you exactly nowhere. 

I have the utmost respect for people who have worked their way out of poverty and don't want to ever go back. Immigrants, refugees and other disadvantaged people often work hard and focus on a career at the expense of everything else in order to gain a secure material life. To many people who came from poverty, the idea that those with the education and privilege to live a middle-class or wealthy lifestyle today might elect to live with less must appear ludicrous and, yes, hypocritical. 

And yet we know that it is not reasonable or sustainable for most of us (let alone all of us) to live the high-consumption lifestyle of today's western wealthy and middle classes. Environmental crises grow year upon year, setting new standards for a dismal new normal like clockwork.

The polar bears were threatened. Now they are simply dying. In a few short years, they will be gone. Hurricanes, droughts, desertification and wildfires set new records each year and claim more lives and more livelihoods. On the one hand, we know it cannot work for all of us to consume at the levels some of us have become accustomed to.

But acquaintances recently ribbed me for washing and reusing ziplock bags. Some because glass jars are a better way to keep food in recycled containers, others because they think one should just buy new bags. Both groups are wealthier than me, have greater storage space and don't store many leftovers in the first place. They can chuckle all they want. 

A friend of mine described how his partner insists on throwing out pasta that spilled onto the counter, not because it is dirty or contaminated but because it is a "poverty mindset" to spend time carefully picking something like pasta up. And I'm not even getting into all the people who refuse to eat leftovers or habitually buy new clothes simply because they have worn an outfit the requisite three times. 

Often the reason given is not even a desire for comfort, but an insistence that living lavishly is a matter of self respect, proof that one is not living in poverty. 

I have not appreciably drug myself out of poverty. I grew up in a family with very little monetary income. I pursued the work I loved and made ends meet but little more. Today my family lives modestly and does it well. We wear second-hand clothes more often than not. My children get new clothes when the old ones get too small. I get new clothes when the professional clothes get downgraded to gardening clothes and the gardening clothes fall apart.

And I still wash plastic bags, just like my mother did. I have no intention of stopping so long as plastic bags continue to invade my kitchen. I'd love to have shelves full of healthy and expensive glass storage containers and I agree that plastic bags are a modern evil, even when reused, but living well with less entails compromises.

I think there is special jargon for this in ecological circles and I do care about the environment, other living beings and the earth a great deal. But I am not doing these things to make a statement, to prove a point or even to make my own little impact on the environment better.

I do these things because not to do them feels wrong. To waste resources feels unwise and unethical. For a few years, when I lived in an Eastern European city without recycling or any place to put compost, I was forced not to separate garbage and it made me feel unwashed. 

Even if it doesn't matter whether we let the faucet run here and now because the local community has plenty of clean water, I can't abide it. The habit is wrong. The modeling for children is wrong. There is always reason to conserve, to reduce consumption and to live well with less. 

Those who belittle this may not understand. But it is my self respect that matters to me.

What will tip us over into emergency mode?

I'm told it's not nice to discuss climate change in the midst of disasters caused by climate change. I have waited for a month and a half now, but one natural disaster after another has struck. When then should we discuss the climate change that we are creating?

It's as if by speaking of some mythical devil, I might be jinxing those struggling to survive. It's as if by trying to avert worse disasters or to save countless lives in the future, I am somehow detracting from ongoing efforts to help the evacuees of today.

In the midst of Hurricane Harvey, a few weeks ago, I posted a question to a forum made up of primarily wealthy American and British intellectuals and Mensa members to which I was invited by a no-doubt regretful writer-acquaintance. I asked simply, "What type of disaster would it take for you individually to throw off business as usual and devote yourself to fighting climate change?"

Creative Commons by Binny V A of Flickr.com

Creative Commons by Binny V A of Flickr.com

It wasn't the first time I had posted about climate change in the group and I knew most of the members were concerned yet apathetic about the issue. This time not one person responded to my embarrassing and socially inappropriate question.

Good intellectuals in polite society don't call out the economically comfortable over emergencies that require a frugal lifestyle to solve. It isn't done. 

Yes, I should know better. And I do. I didn't pursue the issue and I have held off, thinking I'd speak up more when at least the worst of the late-summer "disaster season" had passed. But after two record-breaking hurricanes, massive flooding and my home state of Oregon disappearing into smoke and flames, I've just about had it with polite society. And now Puerto Rico has been swallowed.

Every year the disaster roster grows. Every year the flood is the worst ever or in 200 years or in 1,000 years, meaning worse than the one the year before as well. Every  year fire season in the west gets longer and more deadly, with parched grasslands literally exploding like gasoline. 

Extreme weather, the most clearly identified consequence of human-induced climate change, just keeps getting more extreme. And each time scientists gather data so that they can later in their professional, polite manner explain with facts and figures--in long, non-soundbite quotes--how these events are connected.

And after each disaster people reset their inner alarm bells to a new, more extreme "normal." 

Very few people ever throw down their iPhone or car keys, stomp their foot and yell, "All right! That does it! I'm ready  to work on surviving and curbing climate change."

But this is what we will do someday. Life could have been easier if we'd done it ten or twenty years ago. But we will do it eventually, like my children finally doing their homework after much dithering. We only get to choose when we face our ecological debt, not if.

It's worth considering how much bigger or closer to home the disasters will need to be before we make a commitment of time and energy appropriate to the level of this crisis. 

If you are ready, here are some things I know of that each of us can do:

  • Speak to your friends about climate change every day. Don't be quiet, just because everyone else is quiet and the corporate-sponsored media downplays the findings of science and the truth of your own senses. This is a crisis as true as any war or medical emergency. It has to be front and center all the time. Pentagon analysts say climate change is a bigger threat than terrorism. The media, politicians and corporations don't want to focus on it because it isn't profitable, but we have to.
  • Write letters to the editor, call and write to political representatives and to corporations involved in fossil fuels, factory farming, automobile manufacture and other key industries and ask them to help curb climate change. Tell them your business will go to the companies that do the most.
  • Support high profile climate action efforts like Greenpeace and Standing Rock. Donate if you can, volunteer, send food and supplies.
  • Organize local groups concerned with climate change. Demand local discussion about climate change in local media, city halls and schools. Don't lose sight of the fact that we are fighting for the survival of our children, as surely as a parent researching a deadly disease that has attacked a child. This is a fight we have to win. 
  • Continue to recycle, insulate your home, upgrade your light bulbs and acquire solar panels. You have probably already done some of this. Technology keeps improving and this sector can also provide you with a good job, if you're looking. Encourage your friends, family and neighbors to take these actions and support local recycling and green energy initiatives.
  • Reduce as much of your consumption as possible. Hang laundry, rather than using a drier. Cook your own food, rather than buying heavily packaged, prepared foods.
  • Think carefully about necessary trips by car or plane. Invest in an electric bike if that would significantly cut down on the miles you have to drive a car. Do the math and you may be surprised at how easily you could bike as part of your routine. Take trains, buses or carpools whenever possible. Spend time researching the options and developing options with your neighbors. Our lives really do depend on it.
  • Buy many things second hand. Repair appliances, rather than buying new. Buy items that last longer. Avoid plastic products that will fall apart quickly. Avoid items with lots of packaging. It seems like minutia but don't loose sight of the fact that this is a fight for survival, primarily the survival of our children and grandchildren.
  • Grow at least some of your own food. Learn to can and dry food. Learn to work with wood and build things. Acquire--second-hand if possible--heavy-duty, long-lasting, non-electric hand tools. Keep chickens or other animals you may need. Step by step become as locally self-sufficient as possible. Enter into barter arrangements with others doing the same thing. Bypass the corporate world as much as possible. It is not only generally better for the environment, it is also good preparation for surviving the part of climate change we can no longer stop. 

This sounds like a lot to do. And it is. That is why I talk about it as a major commitment and a cessation of business as usual. If everyone was working on curbing climate change it wouldn't have to be a major full-time job for us, but for now it does need to be, until it is the focus of our governments and businesses as it should be. The only question before each of us now is whether or not this is my own personal tipping point. 

My list is clearly not comprehensive. Please add your own strategies for curbing and surviving climate change in the comments. Thank you.

The good things about hard labor

The sun's going down through the budding trees on the ridge. It's nearly time for a well-deserved break. Come join me for a cup of tea--mint, wild oregano, maybe a pinch of echinacea smelling of last year's honey bees.

The last rays dazzle gold through the greenhouse walls. I pat the final arugula starts under the rich soil. Then I lug a full watering can from the rain barrel to sprinkle the seedlings, greens and herbs. The last frost may not have come yet and it is still just a tad early for the drip lines.

Public domain image

Public domain image

My steps are slow. My arms and legs feel like heavy weights. But the animals are fed and the rest of the starts watered. The only thing left is to read a story to the kids.. This evening we read a story about a rain forest frog and several poems on cats as the light fades in the sky.

My hands are dry from the soil. Lavender, pine and sage salve with olive oil is good for that. I sit rubbing it on in the dim kitchen. The only light comes from my husband's video screen, a Beltane candle in the shape of a leaf and the dying light of the sky.

I have to handle my mug carefully now--with hands slick from a thick layer of salve. A sip of tea, then another. Relaxation flows down my back.

Spring days are long, filled with digging in the earth, hauling water, separating fighting kids and cooking meals. My neighbors largely don't live this way. They are exhausted too, but more likely from screens, meetings, offices and shopping. Not a day passes when I don't hear someone question my different way or call it some form of "extreme."

Extreme? To cook one's own meals? To grow a garden for food and medicine? To insist on food made from raw materials? To expect that children's play should mostly be active? Even to insist that children have tasks to help with at home? 

In some places people love the idea of "the simple life," but rarely do more than make token passes at it. It isn't simple. Not that I've seen. But neither is it extreme. 

It is a conscious way of living, a choice to make--not once but in every moment of every day. You have to know why you're doing it each moment. Otherwise, how can you keep making that choice?

Here are some few of the advantages of the conscious life:

  • Self-respect
  • Moments of beauty
  • Less chemicals
  • The ability to take the problems of the world less personally
  • More healthy days
  • Satisfaction of the primal instinct for food security
  • Muscles that ache in a good way
  • Happy taste buds
  • Confidence and competence 
  • A sense of the ground beneath your feet as living being
  • Peace within

There is nothing quite so good as that moment of peace at the end of a day that was as much physical as intellectual, where a job with modern technology is balanced by the sheer physicality of growing one's own food and medicine and where physical labor is balanced with space for creativity. It is too easy to take the world's brokenness personally, unless  you have your own grounding.

Put down your burdens and breathe in the spring

The first day when the vibrant green of new grass shows through, the first moment when the sun really warms your back again--it may be unseasonably early but spring is still good.

In some ways, this spring feels better than any I can remember. It's partly because I have two functional greenhouses--an investment of two years of physical labor and financial scrimping. Now they are already full of leafy young greens, radishes, carrot tops just poking through and young cucumber vines braving the still chilly mornings. I also have chickens laying smooth eggs that fit perfectly into the palm of your hand and impart a sense of comfort and security. 

Creative Commons image by Song River - CowGirlZen 

Creative Commons image by Song River - CowGirlZen 

That makes this spring particularly lively and the changing weather gives me reason for a bit of joy. But more than that I am thankful for the contrast from the rest of life. My work necessitates sitting at a computer for hours on. A few more hours are spent in on-line, telephone and graphic design activism to help civil rights and democracy-oriented organizations back home in the US in this difficult time. . 

I'm heartened to see the surge of interest and activism in the United States over the past few months after what felt like decades of apathy and disinterest on issues such as climate change, the undermining of our democracy, structural racism and rule by corporations. But the activist work still often feels insurmountable and i am like a kid getting out of school when I get up for a break and go to work outdoors. 

Old wisdom has it that you often love the time of year in which you were born and I suppose that might explain part of it. But there is no period when the air is cleaner or better than it is in early spring. The coal smoke of fall and winter has blown away on brisk winds and washed away with the gentle, misty rains. Summer dust and heat has not yet come. Now and for the next month and a half, it is delight to take big lung-fulls of the air, even in town. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I know there are people who suffer from pollen allergies even this early in the year. That seems like a particular injustice. And I do mean injustice. Rates of allergies and rates of chemical pollution and use of pesticides are closely correlated. I count my blessings having grown up far from industry and large-scale agriculture. Thus I find myself allergic to almost nothing, except hypocrisy and money (including m own oddly enough).

My hands are a bit cracked and dry from all the digging in garden soil, but I have herbal salves for that. I hung wind chimes on the back deck, so the song of the wind and the soft clucking of the ducks follows me as I water and coax the young plants.  

Meanwhile, on-line there seems to be a campaign to divide Democrats from supporters of third parties or independent options. Many on both sides will defend their perspective at all cost, but the hand of corporations such as social media and internet companies in gleefully promoting the acrimony is also clearly evident.

Even I have been cut out of two of the largest on-line activist organizations, though I refrained from negative comments, never used crude language and only rarely posted articles at all. The official reason given in one group was the scandalous discovery (found by browsing my page and history, rather than through my comments) that I had volunteered to help a local Green Party chapter. I never knew that was against the group rules as it was supposed to be a progressive activism group, and the other large progressive group banned me though I had not made any recent comments, most likely due to shared administrators with the no-Greens-allowed group.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

It is actually not that hard to shrug off my momentary resentment at this exclusion from the largest on-line activism groups. It is less easy to banish the fear that wells up inside me. We have this a slim chance to resist tyranny and we seem to be letting it slip away for the most banal of reasons--infighting between those who should be allies. And worse yet, while some of this infighting appears to be organic, some is spurred on by precisely those interests that stand to lose if democracy wins the latest arm wrestle with fascism. 

My heart is heavy after an evening spent on my publishing work and a discussion with the Google content removal department, which despite the filing of official complaints refuses to remove links to pirated copies of my books. Google's official policy continues to state that they will remove such links and no reason was given in their official refusal letter, except that they believe since i published the work, I agreed to its "public" use, despite copyright laws. 

It appears that the corporate behemoths will always flatten you in the end, even when you think you've found a crack in their glass ceilings. My professional work is fragile and completely at the mercy of companies like Google. And if all life was contained in their computerized world, it would truly feel hopeless.

The morning sunshine blazes through my windows, greeted by a wild chorus of birdsong from the tangle of brush in the empty lot next door.. I don't know what the future holds. But for now I skip outside, giddy the way I was hopping off the school bus long ago, and sink my bare hands into the earth. It is a time to put down your burdens, breathe out your sorrows and take time to be one with spring.

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 Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Becks of Flickr.com

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!