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the Empathy List #94: Changing Our Minds
The Grant Family Finally Gets a Pet (or Four)
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Hello friend, Liz here.
I was sitting on my couch one evening in early November, about to turn on SNL with my husband Jeremy, when a text came in from my pal Lindsay, head of the PTA at my kiddos’ elementary school: “I hear you’re interested in the chickens,” she said.
Earlier that same day, I’d heard that the teacher who’d initiated and carried out the 5-year project of chickens + hen house for our public elementary school had left her post, and so the school was giving up the chickens.
When I’d heard this chicken gossip, I mentioned in passing that maybe, perhaps, possibly I’d be interested in adopting the flock? I guess? If nobody else was?
What I hadn’t mentioned, though, was that the major hurdle to the chicken adoption was my dear husband, Jeremy. Jeremy had persistently resisted my pleas to get chickens over the past handful of years.
And I knew that acquiring these specific chickens was a big ask of him.
Aside from the work involved in bringing home a new pet (work I wasn’t sure I was ready for myself!1), Jeremy had just spent the last few months suffering through a bulged disc in his back. These chickens would not just be a new project, but would also require him to coordinate and participate in moving a lot of heavy materials, and then to build an entire run for the chickens without outside help (which we couldn’t afford).
So I thought over the possibilities of Lindsay’s offer to myself for a good few minutes before turning to Jeremy. “So,” I said, and he turned to look at me. “The school is giving away the chickens and the coop. For free. And I may have mentioned that we might be interested in taking them…” I offered a sheepish smile. “So, what do you think?”
“Well,” he said, clearing his throat. “It is hard to say no to free.”
“Right,” I said. “Soooo do you… want them?”
“Do you?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.
I’ve been on a hobby homesteading venture for several years now, an experiment that started in 2017 when I started losing vision in my right eye due to a mysterious lesion’s appearance in my macula (read about that rare disease I caught here, if you’d like a refresher). Back then, I needed an all-consuming distraction, one that left me without any space to mull on the fact that I most certainly had cancer and would leave my children motherless.
(I did not have cancer; I did have generalized anxiety disorder, for which I now happily take medication.)
That year of my hands in the dirt kickstarted an obsession for me.
Now, each January, I order seeds; each March, I clear more and more ground in my backyard for planting; each April and May, I spread seeds and bury greens in the soil; and each September and October, I collect and process vegetables and fruits into jams and juices and frozen gallon bags for winter consumption.
Over time, I’ve aimed to shop closer and closer to home to fill my refrigerator and pantry.
I’ve never really aimed for a full and complete diet of local food for our family of four, not really, because I’m not sure that’s a goal that’s possible for the majority of us, especially when in my climate (Zone 5b in northern Colorado). And it’s definitely not doable when you’re feeding children or living off of two paltry artist incomes… 😬
Yet, especially in this past growing season of 2022, I’ve grown more serious about seasonal eating, even limiting what my family and I consume in the off-season. (That’s a whole other story I’ll tell you another time.) Related to that close-to-home, seasonal eating, a personal goal of mine to build a coop and care for chickens has felt more attractive.
I’d always brought this idea of home-grown eggs to my husband as a someday when the kids are older, I mean, obviously we won’t get chickens now, but someday, probably sooner than later? ;-)
But even bringing up the idea as a “someday,” Jeremy has responded to this suggestion with the same bewilderment and scorn as if I’d just suggested we up and move our family of four to Mars next Tuesday at Elon Musk’s invitation. You’ve got to be kidding, Liz. That’s hilarious. Us? Like we have the time. You know we have children, right?2
Of course, most families would consider adopting a dog, cat or gerbil before they’d consider a chicken. But Jeremy and I, in almost all cases, are not animal people, so his scorn is not off-base for our stance toward pets.
(Yes, even your animal. Sorry. No offense meant.)
To us, animals are mess, expense and demand—hair everywhere, scratched and pock-marked furniture, slobber stains and bad breath, accidents on the brand new laminate flooring Jeremy just installed a year ago on hands and knees, and endless puppy dog eyes demanding thrice-daily walks…
Just, no thanks. Not for us. I know, we’re monsters.
Actually my not being an animal person was a point of tension between myself and my late animal-loving grandmother whom I called Meema. She and I became best friends at one period near the end of her life and she often told me that the only thing she disliked about me was the fact that I did not like her dog. “How?” she would ask, bewildered. “Why are you like that?”
I tried to explain—I mean, Meema, I already have two toddlers who are extraordinarily energetic so, no, I’m not game to add more creatures who cannot adequately clean up their own messes to our family unit, hard pass, nor do I think it’s a character flaw that I don’t want your dog to lick my face...
But Meema never bought that excuse. She was a woman who had spent all of her extra dollars and attentions in the adoption of small fluffy beings, some of whom were not even likable (sometime I’ll tell you about “Muffin,” the monstrosity). She had selflessly shared her own small spaces with creatures, nurturing them like they were her own genuine offspring. Because of that, my priorities made no sense to Meema whatsoever. Why not add more love to the equation? What could be wrong with that?
(She also knew that I’d always been persnickety and unwilling to share my space with animals, even before I’d found a partner who felt the same way… and long before we had children.)
I guess I needed a pragmatic reason to bring animals into my life. But the truth was, chickens felt more than pratical for me. I had fallen for the idea of these backyard egg producers, and I was certain that Meema would approve.
For me, owning chickens felt like a more dramatic leap into farming. Owning chickens would mark me more indelibly than tilling our suburban front yard into vegetable rows ever could.
Growing the perfect tomato did not measure the same as organizing your life around a miniature flock who got you up in the morning, who ate your leftovers, whose excretions fed your vegetables and whose peckings stirred your soil, who ate harmful insects off your plants, and whose eggs filled you up with frittatas.
It helped, too, that chickens require so very little from their owners, due to the fact that they reside outside and prefer an independent lifestyle.
To me, chickens were farm animals. Owning chickens, I felt, would turn me into a real farmer.
The other thing chickens could offer—besides eggs, cheap compost, pest control and their utter indifference toward their owners? They are actually dinosaurs in disguise. Their every goofy wobble makes them hilarious.
Jeremy, of course, knew all my reasons for adopting chickens. He’d heard it all before.
And to my great surprise, I had noticed Jeremy softening to the idea of birds of our own. Sometime this past August, he had mentioned in passing that whenever we get chickens…, as if our family acquiring chickens was an inevitability. This, after five years of his outright rejection of my proposal.
When I teased him about the sudden change in tone he explained, grinning, “I guess you’ve worn me down.”
Anyway, back to the night in question, when the possibility of owning a flock became real.
Jeremy’s question hung in the air for a good ten minutes as I considered it: did I want chickens?
I googled frantically, realizing how little tools I had to make such a decision. How do you move chickens? I asked google. What do chickens eat? How much does their feed and bedding cost? How long do chickens live? For how long do they lay eggs each season? in their lifetimes? And how did you dispose of a dead bird, anyway? Though I’d considered raising chickens abstractly, I knew almost nothing about caring for them IRL, and I needed more information to make the decision.
Finally, looking up my scrolling, I gave him a sneaky smile.
He grinned back. “Oh, hi, there. You back?” he asked.
“I think I want them,” I said.
“You think?” he asked.
“I do,” I said. “Yes. I want these chickens.” He nodded noncommittally. “So, are you up for it?” I continued. He shrugged, thinking, and so I pressed on. “You can say no. Anytime. We can back out, even if we get them here and realize we can’t do it. I’m olay with that.” After all, the chickens would cost him more.
Finally he said, “If you want them, I’m willing to try.”
Two days later on a Saturday, a crew of friends and volunteers from the school arrived to help us disassemble the enormous enclosure that made up the chickens’ outdoor run and to lift the existing coop into the back of a truck before shimmying it into its spot in the corner of our yard.
Before the deconstruction even began, though, I donned gloves and chased the four lady birds into a borrowed dog crate, which I placed into the back of our car. The kids and I transported the ladies slowly and carefully, hazards blinking, and trying to go light on the brakes as any sharp tap sent the chickens squawking and sliding on the plastic tray.
Meanwhile, my children were immediately enamored. They chittered, swiveled toward the trunk just so they could poke through the black bars of the cage and feel the smooth slick of our new pets’ feathers.
The night before we’d undergone an elaborate voting process as a family to pick their new names, as we’d discovered no one from the school remembered what to call them, if they’d ever had names at all. Did you know that most of the fun of having chickens is naming them weird, funny names? We settled on Henny Potter, Eggatron, Hen Solo and Mrs. Featherbottom (yes, from “Arrested Development,” which was an adult pick and the kids have no context for whatsoever… which makes it funnier).
All that to say, the kids and I immediately loved our chickens. These hens were our babies from day 1, when we three corralled them into a temporary enclosure (before Jeremy built the larger permanent one) and dropped handfuls of scratch3 on their heads for them to peck and cluck about together.
Even Jeremy, who I feared would hate the birds due to the painful toll required to erect their home, started noticing and giggling about their funny quirks—like how they all moved to the same side of the enclosure as I was, always hoping I would walk toward them with a handful of scratch in my palm.
The hens have reordered my mornings, helping me cure my night-owl ways just so I can make sure their water tray has thawed and they’ve can bask in the cool mornings. (I almost feel like a real farmer!)
But what has meant more is Jeremy. I have realized that Jeremy’s enjoyment of the birds stems from another source entirely. Jeremy loves me, and so Jeremy loves our granny birds. The thing I could never do for my grandmother—love her dang dog—Jeremy did for me, and he did it with bells on.
By the way, did you know there are ENTIRE FIELDS of science devoted to playing with and discovering the genetic similarities of chickens and dinosaurs?
As an epilogue, I do have sad news to report: one of our chickens has died. We had prepared for this, coaching the kids on the advanced age of the birds, the inevitability of our short time with them, even planning that Jeremy would be the one to cull birds as needed.
I opened the coop one cold morning to find her. The hens nest high in their coop during the night, which we latch shut to keep predators out, and usually the whole flock sleeps on a 2 by 4 a foot off the ground. This bird, though, had clearly fallen off in the middle of the night, and by the time I got to her, she was frozen, no sign of anything external wrong but definitely gone from this world. So, I put on a pair of gloves, wrapped her up in a trash bag, and, always more practical than sentimental, we Grants bid her farewell from her spot in the plastic trash bin.
“At least it wasn’t Henny Potter,” said my daughter, Henny Potter being whichever one let my daughter pat its head that day. We grown-ups agreed. And that’s when Jeremy and I really became farmers—the day our first hen died and we deluded ourselves into thinking it was one of the animals we liked the least. ;-) Such is life and death on the suburban backyard farm.
Thanks for reading.
Warmly, Liz Charlotte Grant
PSA: I’ll be taking the rest of December off, starting at the end of this week and stretching into mid-January. I hope you, too, can find ways to rejuvenate yourself during this holiday season. I recommend strengthening your boundaries, particularly on social media and other spaces where the demand for your attention is less urgent.
If you want to talk more about holiday boundaries, that’ll be our topic for this Friday’s “Curious Reads,” and I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Thanks, as always, for your generous support, both in sharing this humble newsletter and in financial gifts. I love love LOVE to explore this world and our faith alongside you thoughtful souls, and I’m thanking God I get to do this work that requires so many words and so many thoughts. What a dream job!
In case you do want to show me financially how much you appreciate my work, it would mean a lot. I recently quit a job at my kids’ elementary school (a job in food justice, which felt like such a fit! Until I stopped getting paid due to District errors…) and unfortunately, that’s put my family and I into debt.
So, if you can support me financially, either with a subscription to this newsletter or just a coffee on venmo, it would really help. Thanks for considering it!
Because I’d just quit a job at the school growing vegetables expressly to free up more time for writing… among other reasons.
By the way, he’s not trying to be mean when he responds so directly to my queries. He’s wired differently than I am, even though I do occasionally have to remind him that I have feelings and hare-brained ideas sometimes and both are okay. He does love that about me… and also he operates differently. Which is also okay. That’s growth for us—being okay with how the other is different from us.
Scratch is a hen treat made of dehydrated corn, sunflower seeds and other extra favorites of chickens hens.