Don’t judge until you wind up single and alone.
At this moment, I have a chicken in my closet. It’s not like there’s a cow in the kitchen or a goat in the bathroom. Just saying, for context. Alice B. Toklas is perched on the ledge of an old chair.
Alice was for years our best chicken until we got three new chicks at the beginning of the pandemic. Then little Charlie Parker became our best chicken.
Alice’s best-chicken qualities: She is fearless and does whatever she wants. She’s also a loner and for most of her life found herself at the bottom of the pecking order. (How do chickens decide this?) Her best friend is the mirror that sits in the garden. So I’ve always felt for her even more, our underdog hen. She’s not necessarily a looker. Someone I dated called her homely and I was beyond offended on Alice’s behalf, even if with her scraggly, grumpy face and misshapen wattle it was true. Every day is Easter with Alice. She lays eggs throughout the garden instead of in the nesting box. Once, Alice walked into the house, past me working in the kitchen, went upstairs, and then a couple of hours later walked back outside. When she came home from school, my daughter found a green egg on her bed.
Charlie’s best-chicken qualities: When I lean over to scoop out pine shavings to throw over the poo in the chicken coop, Charlie jumps on my back and I reward her with a handful of dried mealworms. If I sit down on the bench in the garden, she’ll jump on my lap and put her head on my elbow, and let me scratch her neck while she closes her eyes and trills.
“Alice jumped up off the chair ledge and flew up onto my bed, where she settled onto the pillow next to me, in the very spot where my husband used to lay his head. I reached over and scratched her neck.”
Alice’s top-notch standing in my pecking order has fallen in the past few months because she’s become a bully, a painful truth since I love her so much. To finally secure a place higher within her brood’s pecking order, she terrorizes the three new chickens: Charlie, Versace, and Pepper. Maybe it’s good she’s become the second-best instead of my most beloved because several days ago we thought she was going to die.
I’d never heard such a racket with the chicken as I did yesterday. Such squawking and clucking and frenzied chatter. I stepped onto my deck, happy to interrupt my work. Neighbors on both sides came outside, too, to see what was up with the chickens? Trying to work from home, I couldn’t tell if they were concerned or annoyed. Who knows, but at least I’m not the loud lawyer on her deck who’s always yelling on her cell phone to “Get me that file!”
I went down into the garden and that’s when I saw Matilda. She normally looks like a bored French courtesan with her extravagant feathered feet. Now aflutter, she was attacking Alice. The screaming chickens encircled them. It was a chicken rumble. Alice was meekly pecking back by half-heartily batting a wing in defense. I pulled Matilda away and picked up Alice. She was almost limp in my arms. When I took her inside, that’s when I heard her raspy, labored breathing and saw her chest moving heavily up and down. It became clear: Matilda was attacking her because a sick animal poses a threat to their flock.
I made an emergency appointment with a vet who told me I had to put in a $381 deposit before seeing her. Five minutes earlier I’d told my daughter we couldn’t afford to take our chickens to the vet. Three hours later, we left the vet with two vials of antibiotics to give her twice a day for two weeks. Within two hours of giving her the first dose — my life will be a happier one if I never have to shove medicine down a chicken’s gullet — Alice was almost breathing normally. “We’ll keep her inside for a day or two,” I told my daughter to reassure her since she’s always afraid a chicken will meet her doom outside. With good reason given the wild beasts that skulk in my backyard, even in San Francisco. When I’d come to check on her in my bedroom, she seemed more and more like good old Alice. There were, of course, droppings here and there on the floor and furniture. But not as bad as you might imagine, although it’s a challenge for me by now to know what someone without chickens imagines, poo-wise.
Then I left for an eye appointment and returned home with dilated eyes. My daughter laughed hysterically and said I looked like I’d dropped acid. I wish. But I felt out of sorts. Not being able to focus made me feel tired and sad. It was only 5:00 in the afternoon, but I got into bed. Alice jumped up off the chair ledge and flew up onto my bed, where she settled onto the pillow next to me, in the very spot where my husband used to lay his head. I reached over and scratched her neck.
“I have a chicken in my bed,” I said to a woman I work for when she called to go over an insurance policy. Why did I tell her such a strange thing? I don’t know. Maybe I say things like, “I have a chicken on my bed” because I want to stop talking about insurance, which makes me feel restless and irritated.
During the pandemic, with so much time alone, I’ve come to realize more clearly how dissatisfied I have long been, (always been?), with so much of life. Is everybody this way, dissatisfied? Probably so. Resistance is the cause of all suffering, and because we resist what is, what we have, we suffer our way through life, my Buddhist teachers say. But our personal tuning forks pick up on our unique irritations. Mine is boredom. No, not quite, boredom isn’t quite it.
Is my dissatisfaction with so much of the day-to-day life, the flatness of it that feels to me an unreal layer covering a more vivid reality. It’s a feeling I’ve always felt that I wish I understood better. An impatience that comes on when I’m at a barbecue with mostly people I don’t know and the paper plate is sagging with potluck food, which is the worst kind of food, and you are talking to very nice people, but about what? What are they talking about?
It’s the feeling of being in your father’s hospital room after he had heart surgery and almost died and your parents are sitting there reading the New York Times as if nothing happened and nobody is talking about how he nearly almost died yesterday, but we are all acting as if nothing happened. My mother doesn’t say, Oh my god, darling, tell me, what was it like to almost die and now be in this sun-filled room with us? My father doesn’t say, You are all precious to me and my life is precious. They keep reading the paper until I can’t stand it and run out of the room, me a young adult who suddenly learned what real loss can feel like. I stop running when I reach the sidewalk and cry such angry tears, so much enraged grief that’s broken down my own floodgates. I’ve never been strong enough to hold back much of anything. Such weak infrastructure.
It’s the feeling of sitting at lunch the other day with two friends, and for over an hour I ask and ask questions, “Is your mother-in-law better? Don’t you feel nervous about flying in an airplane? Which vaccination did you get?” And then you notice, after an hour, nobody has asked you anything about you, and who knows, maybe they think you are too boring to have anything to say? I feel half awake and half-alive sitting there with them, me as Casper the friendly ghost friend asking dull questions. I think about my friendship with them and realize that while there have been pleasant moments, how well do we know each other? Do I try to understand them, really? During this period of social isolation, I notice far more how much effort it takes to take an interest in someone that you may not be interested in, and who may not be interested in you.
Truth? There are only a few friends with who I really feel at ease, and laugh easily, and, I think, isn’t that what this is all about? The real ones in our lives? This is, I think, about honesty. Speaking of which, let’s be honest. A friend who you think is boring isn’t a real friend. If you think they’re boring, that’s you (that is, me) being dishonest. The people I never run out of things to talk about and I never need to think, “Now what do I ask?” or “Why aren’t they asking me anything about me?” are the keepers.
Like my friend Paula told me about her new dog Murray, who looks like an old man with a heart of gold, how he stands on the kitchen counter and peers into the cabinet like he’s considering what to cook for dinner.
And me telling Paula that when my daughter and I were driving Alice home from the vet and I was feeling like an M&M with its candy coating melted off and quietly road rage-y, I was saying to my daughter, “Look! Tesla Google Bro on Board!” “Scowling Woman Who Honked Because I didn’t Move Quickly Enough at the Green Light on Board!” My daughter and I get all judgy when we see cars with “Baby On Board” bumper stickers. Like, what, you were going to crash into the car in front of you. But because it has a baby, you’ll hold off until you spot a granny behind the wheel? Then, at last, you can plow into her without a second thought.
Driving a sick chicken to the vet can put you in a mood.
So much so that I was thinking, why all of this effort and trouble when so much of it leads to grief? Dogs and pigeons and chickens get sick. Parents die. You fall in love with the right person but make sure you wind up heartbroken, then fall for the wrong person and also get your heartbroken. Adult children who move away. Why get all of this started in the first place?
Tonight, I don’t know what I’m saying. I’m tired. I’m sure there is such a better way to do this, all of it, life. Writing here in bed, at least I know someone I love is close to me. Alice is sleeping in that funny way chickens do, standing on a one-inch ledge. She keeps me company as I churn about work deadlines and my impending eye surgery and dense breast scan that “suggest irregularities” and that my daughter has suddenly grown up, too, suddenly in her room most of the time, on the phone with her friends. I hear her laughing and laughing, which is new. Finally.
For lack of clarity, cliches are all I can seem to cling onto at this moment. As in, it all goes so fast. I made a mess of so much of this life, but even so. My true ones, those whose tuning forks are vibrationally aligned to mine, keep me at it this day, then the next. The list of the true ones has gotten smaller since last March. So I work even harder to keep them close.
That’s why I have a chicken in my bed.