Know Thy Chickens, Know Thyself

Sometimes, not very often, life develops a wondrous smooth surface and glides along in a silky flow. At other times there are exhausting swamps or seemingly infinite mountains to cross.  But most of the time life is some measure of grainy.  And just like sandpaper, there are different levels of friction.

Here’s how this works.  Fine grain is when most things bumble along quite well but maybe there’s an annoying boss, or some apparently endless road works that you have to traverse every day.   Medium grain is when a pile of things are getting much less than smooth but still manageable and with places to find respite.  Then there are the times when the grain can turn coarse, relentlessly scraping over your mind, stealing your sleep and your equilibrium.  There are myriad stages in between these three.   You could probably place where you are right now on this scale.

Currently I’m slowly retreating from the coarse again and yes, the chickens are helping, but not in the way I had imagined they would.

How funny the world and this life is.  I have just listed the things that had recently happened to me in a way, I suppose, to justify why I had been feeling so stressed.  Whilst not decrying myself for feeling stressed at such a line-up, I also saw the list from the point of view of others.  How whiny and boring it looked.  How indescribably insignificant when measured against, say, a Sudanese or Syrian refugee woman fleeing violence with her remaining children.  I have so much to be grateful for.

But where do the chickens come into all of this?  Well, hang on and I’ll tell you.

When I returned from my trip (reported in my last post) and Rita, Sylvia and Doc (especially Doc) ignored me, I stopped feeling affectionate towards them.  I retreated from them just as they retreated from me.  I even, dare I say it, wondered if perhaps we could eat them after all.  The business of looking after them became another chore to add to the list.  I wondered about how this had so quickly come to be.  There was something in this behaviour of mine that wasn’t right.

My chickens have highlighted something that now I look at it is blindingly obvious.  I have developed some form of attachment issues.

When I look back over the years since those horrible events there is a pattern of retreat, of running away, of withdrawing at the smallest sign of hurt.  Thankfully, I’ve never before considered eating those from whom I flee, but the withdrawal of affection is a repeated theme with my family, friends and partner.  That’s not to say that feeling hurt was unjustified, it’s just that I could have handled many things much better.  My life could have run much smoother.   In other words, I have often created my own sandpaper.

Having seen that this is so, I have set about trying to rectify my behaviour.  I cannot undo my past but I can change the present.  I am consciously reinstating affectionate behaviour towards my partner following our last round of arguing some weeks ago.  And guess what?  When you behave affectionately you start to feel it again.  So here’s a corny line (please forgive me) whose sentiment you’ve seen repeated in so many sayings and quotes but which I have only belatedly really understood. Opening your heart opens up the love.  And love is the world’s number one best cushion against the frictions of life.

But the chickens, I here you ask.  Are they still alive?  Are they in a pie?

I’m happy to report that relations with Rita, Sylvia and Doc have been rebuilt.  Ascending the steep hill to take care of their needs every day drew me out of the house and into the glorious green of our valley when I might formerly have stayed in bed.  It was during these walks up and down our garden that I began to unpick my behaviour, to see my actions more objectively.

And slowly the chickens began talking to me again.  Now when I sit in my favourite spot I have again found peace there.


Fickle Feathered Friends

I’ve been away on a trip, both physical and psychological. The former to visit family and the latter it’s bewildering after effects.  And then when I returned my hens behaved as if they did not know me.  I was once again a stranger to them.  They were not the only ones.  I didn’t know who I was either.

What is it about being around families that makes us slip into the old patterns?  It doesn’t seem to matter how old we are, once we’re back it’s as if the intervening 20, 30, 40 years simply haven’t happened.  We take up our former roles like old timer’s claiming their chairs in working men’s clubs.  There can be no deviation.

I come from one of those families that express any affection they may or may not feel through ridicule and sarcasm.  I also had the misfortune to be born into this environment sporting huge, sticky-out ears.  I’m sure you can already see where this is going.  Each time I entered a room it was like ringing a bell and lighting up a huge neon sign with the legend ‘mock me’ flashing in time with my blushes.  It didn’t help that I became a stressed child and would clench my fists and shake uncontrollably when under persistent barrage.  This, of course, was hilarious to my older siblings who would try even harder to get big laughs at my expense (I’m fairly sure I would have joined in too if this had been anyone else but me. It was a dog-eat-dog world after all). They probably have very fond memories of all of this.  My ears were pinned back when I was eight but patterns were set.

As we grew up, this mockery turned into a kind of blanket dismissal.   This is probably understandable too, why would you take seriously anything that such a ridiculous person said? I combated this by leaving home at 17 and building my life at a comfortable distance of at least 100 miles, usually more, and often putting oceans between us.  In this way I became someone I was ok with.

But I still can’t help feeling disappointed and hurt by my family’s absolute refusal to see any kind of mental ill health as anything but malingering and whining.  I cannot tell them any of the things I have written in this blog because they invariably dismiss anyone who doesn’t display the same fake happy-go-lucky persona they work so hard to portray.  This has continued even with the most benign of my remaining family.  It means that I stay silent about my history and feelings in their presence.  Now that I’m finding my voice elsewhere, this proved to be incredibly disorientating.

Then I came home and Doc, Rita and Sylvia wouldn’t come near me or speak to me.  I wasn’t permitted to stroke any of them.  They all ignored me.  This too was disorientating.  Like Dr Who, I’ve been trying to regenerate but the world around me seems unwittingly set on impeding this transformation.   It wasn’t until they got used to me having the food again that their attitude began to change.  They are only chickens after all.

So what have I learnt from all this?  I’ve learnt that a sense of identity, even one built through the hard slog of childhood bullying, once lost through trauma is hard to rebuild.  No matter how diligently you try to stick together the pieces they can never go back how they were and any new shape is vulnerable to knocks from the people who surround you.  But the new shape can also be bolstered by others.  The trick is to try and spend more time with people who hold you up.  My partner, my children, a few select friends and, lately, the kind and fascinating WordPress writers who visit this confessional, are all in this group.

Chickens, I guess, are an optional, if joyous, amusing and sometimes confusing, extra.

Wormholes in Chicken Space

In addition to the mop-up operation following grass-gate and the need to repudiate fake news (see previous post), this week has been full of office politics at work (a game I have never mastered) and hard labour in the house and garden (our own fault for buying into the dream of acquiring a run-down cottage).  Fatigue has crept into my bones and I must face the reality I’ve been so stubbornly denying …….I am no longer a spring chicken.  This begs the question, what happens to energy as we get older?  I eat in the same quantities so the same amount of energy is going in.  I’m not getting any fatter, so where does it go?

On the plus side we now have a lovely place to sit and eat in the garden.  I took advantage of this to have my breakfast the other morning before work.  What a joy to sit beneath a beautiful blue sky eating eggs with bright yellow yokes and watching the hens going about their business.

The trouble is as I sat there I started noticing the next ten jobs lining up to be done.  The garden wall is leaning ominously, there are weeds in the flowerbeds, there are piles of wood that need chopping, an old oil tank needs removing…………….. you get the picture.  And then I start feeling fidgety again.

The same thing happens if I sit on the bench at the top of the garden that has a glorious view over the opposite hillside.  I can’t help noticing the half-finished vegetable patch I’m sitting in with yet another crop of weeds marauding through it.

How do I overcome this?  I used to be able to switch off no bother.  So why do I now pressure myself to get everything done?  Where has this ‘must finish’ feeling come from?  Is it part of my general anxiety?  How do I banish it once and for all?  It’s stupendously annoying.

It seems I must re-learn patience.  Strangely there does seem to be a spot in the garden where I am able to practice this ancient art.  It’s like a wormhole in space, a still point in the vortex of daily life.  It’s a spot about midway up the garden and next to the chicken run.  I’ve found that if I get a camping chair out and just sit there I can do just that, just sit there.  The weird thing is that the chickens are not in the run.  They’re roaming freely around the garden.  Invariably they come and bumble about around me, carrying out their chickeny activities at my feet or even under my chair.  I’m sure they would do this wherever I chose to sit but it seems that only this spot will do for me.  Just like Kermit’s nephew, halfway up the stairs is the stair where I sit.

It’s a start.

A Terrible Error of Judgement

I have made a terrible error of judgement.  In a bid to cure my debilitating social anxiety I’ve followed the advice offered on numerous psychological websites and pushed myself out there.  What better I thought than to put myself in a position where I couldn’t shy off, I would have to attend.  And why not become part of the life of my new village too?  So I joined the Community Council.  I can hear you take a sharp intake of breath and see your heads sadly shaking from side to side.  What was I thinking?

Of course, the inevitable has happened.  There’s a reason why so many murder mysteries are set against the background of village politics.  Miss Marple was definitely onto something.  Midsomer is awash with corpses.  Even the world-wide superstar JK Rowling and the not so famous but very entertaining Simon Pegg have waded into this arena recently with ‘A Casual Vacancy’ and ‘Hot Fuzz’ respectively.  But still I did not heed their warnings.

My next door neighbour has authored and pushed a rather defamatory and divisive petition in order to get her own way over one particular issue.  She has been peddling misinformation from the gossip-laden platform of her cafe.  Yes folks, I live next door to a fake news channel.  Now what does a socially anxious person do when stuck between her ridiculously self-inflicted duties as a community councillor and her desire to not fall out with the neighbours?  Especially when said neighbour has promised to (eventually) remove the hideously ugly 4 metre high watch tower/shed they built right next to your fence.  Of course I start brooding.  Brooding. Brooding.  I walk through the beautiful surrounding countryside with green fields, wooded valleys, babbling brooks and I’m still brooding.  I try to read a novel, I’m brooding.  I start cleaning the house, I’m brooding.  I try to watch a movie, I’m brooding.  What can be done?

Then I go to hang out with the hens.

They follow me up the garden chattering and fussing, keeping pace, overtaking, falling behind.  I get a chair out of the shed and we all settle down.  I sit with a cup of tea and just watch.  They always gather round me for a while.  First they wait to see if I’ve brought any treats.  Then they start nibbling the grass and scratching in the dirt round and about me.  Then one or two will settle down for a while and sun bathe or preen right by my feet.  When Doc, my confessed favourite, lies down preening beside me, she emits this incredibly soothing sound.  It’s somewhere between a cat’s purr and the low, percussive sound that a pigeon sometimes makes.

There’s something about watching them all going about their business that really tethers me to the Earth.  I stop brooding. I focus on the hens, on the plants they’re shuffling amongst, on the soil they’re scratching, on the tiny creatures they’re seeking, on the birds chirruping in the hedges, on the clouds passing over and the brilliant, then dull, then brilliant light that illuminates the whole scene.  Peace descends.

Hallowed be my chickens.


Lawnmower Days

Let me tell you a tale about hens and histrionics.  For most of the time when I’m at home the hens are roaming free in the yard, but there is one exception.  When the buzzing orange machine that is our lawnmower comes out, I shut the hens in their run for their own safety.  This has the same outcome every time.

Our garden is quite steep and I always start mowing from the bottom which is furthest from their run.  Rita, Sylvia and Doc start making low grumbling noises at this point but the noise and commotion grow as I get nearer to their coop.  By the time I’m halfway up the yard they are sounding alarm calls that I’m sure make the neighbours think they’re being slaughtered.  They bekerrrk bekerrk so loud I’m sure I must be traumatising them.  When I get to mowing around their run they’re stamping around in their coop and screaming that the sky is falling.

And then I finish.  Immediately I turn off the dreaded machine they stop calling and I let them out of their run.   They casually step out looking for all the world like nothing has happened then blithely start nibbling the grass the same as always.

Once again I see the parallels between our worlds.  As a person prone to anxiety I sometimes have days when the alarms are going off in my head so loud that I’m unable to function in the normal way.  Over the years I have called these days various things to try and normalise them.  I’ve called them ‘duvet days’, ‘jarmie days’, ‘black dog days’, and a few other things that never quite stuck.  But now I think I’m going to call them ‘lawnmower days’.  Hopefully this will help me keep perspective.

As anyone who suffers from bouts of anxiety or depression knows, when you do mercifully emerge out of the other end it can sometimes be difficult to understand how you could have been quite so immersed in the first place.  I spent many years battling suicidal thoughts and now my main concern is that I don’t have long enough left!

These days when I crash my recovery rate is much quicker and I’ve got used to the idea that these thoughts will pass (thank you mindfulness for this if nothing else).  I now understand that I’m a passenger on this crazy, beautiful world.  I cannot control it or my mind, but I can roll with it, making whatever small contributions I can, until a brighter day emerges.  By calling these uber-anxious times lawnmower days, I can now keep in mind my histrionic hens.

On further reflection, maybe I should have paid more attention when I read Chicken Little to the kids.

Two Degrees of Separation

Back in May I tried to describe the emerging characteristics of my newly arrived hens.  I spoke of Rita as the great explorer and described her determination to grub up as many treats from the garden as she could find, while Sylvia and Dr Sattler – or as I used to call them, the flappers – spent more time bumping into each other as they panicked at every sound and movement.  At the time Rita was the first to produce an egg and I derided the chaos twins for being too nervy and unproductive, just like me, I said.  I must now take back this scandalous libel.  

As in life, so it is with chickens.

Rita, who eschews the gold standard but conventional chicken feed I supply in favour of the garden buffet, has become a rather erratic egg producer, sometimes massive triple-yokers, sometimes nothing.  On one memorable occasion she deposited a perfectly formed but shell-less egg on the paving slab just inside the gate.  For the last week she has produced nothing at all.

Sylia and Doc, on the other hand, regularly return to the run to partake of their conventional repast, despite the glories of the garden lying before them.  And they daily produce beautiful and delicious eggs.

How is this like life?  Well, I too was in an incautious hurry to get out into the world, dumping out of school and rushing headlong into marriage and children.  Later, as a single parent, I returned to education to gain a First Class Bachelor of Arts or, as I now like to think of it, an enormous triple-yoker.  After the glory of graduation day this produced few material effects.  What exactly is a career anyway?

About three jobs later began my headless chicken years, flapping this way and that across continents, scratching around in variously-coloured dirt.  There were a few highlights, the occasional perfect egg, but probably far too many shell-less blobs and long expanses of total egg drought.

I recently graduated again, this time with a 2:1 Bachelor of Science.  Oh and let’s not forget my post-grad qualification.  Have I put all this expensive education to good use?  You bet I have.  I now have a glittering career as……………..a part-time administrator.

I guess what I’m saying here is that I am like Rita after all. I can’t be doing with the boring chicken feed.  I have little tolerance for being confined and told what to do (I do this to myself enough as it is!).  I want to scrabble about and find my own delicious morsels.  The price is a failure to find comfort in the routine of work, an inability to rise up any organisational ladder, and an inconsistent supply of eggs.  Oh but when they come they are glorious!

My Feathered Lens is Cracked

Recent events have exposed a crack in my feathered, filtering lens.  Hours spent in the garden watching the interaction of my hens with the world around them, have helped me to view the wider world with a more rational perspective.  Even the recent terror attacks in Manchester and London, though horrifically tragic, do sort of fit into the randomness of nature.  We can never prevent every delusional extremist from causing harm to others.  Even if we scored a massive own goal and removed all the freedoms that they rail against, in a bid to attain absolute security, we would wind up enacting similar atrocities against ourselves.  See any totalitarian state for evidence of this.  Acts of terror perpetrated against the public, though planned by the madmen who commit them, are random in the victims they horrifically affect.  We are still far more likely to die in a road traffic accident than a terrorist attack.

The Grenfell Tower tragedy in London is not random.  The Grenfell Tower tragedy was wholly preventable.  The Grenfell Tower tragedy was caused by the toxic soup of incompetence, austerity, and de-regulation of the building industry in the pursuit of profit in a free market economy.

Yes I’ve made jokes about my greedy hens, but their greed is based in hunger, in survival, as is all of nature.  Dominance is pursued for the continuance of genes.  Nature stops when it is satiated and its survival is assured.  Only humans feel the need to continue amassing obscene wealth at the expense of others.  What exactly is the purpose of the trillions of dollars held in offshore, tax-avoiding accounts?

The residents of Grenfell Tower suffered and died in the cruellest of all circumstances.  Helplessly trapped and waiting to burn alive.  Desperately throwing children out of windows.  Following advice and waiting in their flats for the emergency services who, through no fault of their own, never arrived.  None of it needed to happen.  This tragedy happened because poor people do not have a voice.  Because if you want to be heard in this country you have to have money.  The property management company in this, the richest of all boroughs in the UK, did not listen to the concerns of their tenants.  Their eyes were on spending the minimum amount possible.  It makes me immeasurably sad and angry.  There can be no rationalising of this disaster.

This is not to say that the great chicken therapy experiment has failed, far from it.  Perhaps there is no crack in the feathered lens.  Perhaps the lens is working perfectly.  The crack is in the flawed, greedy nature of our current economic policy that drives such ignorant and careless treatment of real people, real families.

On the evening on that awful day I spent a couple of hours in my garden with the chickens.  As I weeded down the hedge line they fussed and fluttered about me, weaving in out under my outstretched arms as I pulled at nettles and sticky goosegrass.  I felt so incredibly lucky to be alive in this beautiful glen with my beautiful girls, knowing that all the people I love are somewhere safe.