I suck at promotion! Best of Ohio anthology has been released, well, for a while now.

I'm a little late to my own party here, but I wanted to let everyone know (who doesn't already) that my short story "Chrysalis" is featured in Columbus Creative Cooperative's Best of Ohio Short Stories Vol. 1.

I am honored to be featured alongside so many talented writers. Best of Ohio has a little something for everyone--it's a unique anthology that covers a wide spectrum of genres and topics, all penned by Ohio authors.

One of my co-authors, Lin Rice, did a great interview series with some of the book's contributors. He asked how I would describe "Chrysalis" to a new reader, which turned out to be a really good brain exercise. How do you describe short fiction without making your description longer than the piece itself? Neil Gaiman said short stories are tiny windows into other worlds--do you talk about the window or the world? Both are equally interesting. I rambled a bit, as by nature I must, but if my head had been screwed on straight a single sentence would've sufficed. "Chrysalis" is a story about transformation. And Cheetos. Mostly Cheetos.

You can read the full interview on Lin's blog.


My Decisions All End in Question Marks

I killed a chicken once. Just once.

We had just moved to the farm, I was toying with the idea of becoming a vegan, and I knew that if I was to continue eating animals I had to be able to kill them myself. I didn't know if I could do it. I fully expected that, knife in hand, I would have some kind of epiphany—that I would know beyond doubt that eating animals was moral or immoral.

I should know myself better by now.

Children see things in black and white, but have a remarkable ability to invert those colors on demand. Killing things is bad, unless your parents say it's okay. Then killing things is dinner. It's too much power, really—calibrating your child's moral compass on the fly. As if you had any idea what you were doing. But we do it every day.

Then we grow up. We figure out where parents were right and where they went wrong, and we recalibrate our compass however we want, fishing for clues in the murky gray puddle of reality.

We make decisions: Christian! Atheist! Democrat! Libertarian! Pro-Choice! Traditional Marriage! Vegan! Omnivore! Decaf! Homeschool! We feel so confident in these decisions that we end them all with exclamation marks. We blog about their virtues and the moral or rational deficiency of their opposites.

My decisions all end in question marks.

So, as I tied the chicken's legs to the laundry line, its toes branching out over the bailing twine, its feet translucent and gold as wet hay, I did not throw down my knife and slap a PETA bumper sticker onto my car. I stood under the impossible blue sky and I stroked her feathers and I stared into the silvery black fish eggs of her eyes, looking for fear or recognition or intelligence. But you know what? I didn't see anything. I saw an animal that was born to die, and I pulled her neck forward and I made the cut.

You want it to be over then, but actually you keep sawing and its not a single slice but a gruesome few, and then in some unremarkable moment afterward you have a lifeless chicken head in one hand and a carcass ready for plucking on the line. After a few more steps, you have dinner.

And I still don't have the answer.


The Greatness of a Nation

That last post was a little vague. Summary: factory farms suck! Perhaps it seems off-topic. (If you think this blog has a topic, please write to me quickly and tell me what it is.) You know how sometimes you have a moment of clarity, and you realize how pure and simple life really is, and how easy it is to make good choices, and your path lies straight and narrow before you and dappled with afternoon sunlight? I was in that moment. I suppose it's worth something to capture it, but probably worth more to admit to you that (like everyone else) that moment of clarity is fleeting, and when it goes it is replaced by fatigue and helplessness.

Factory farms still suck. I hope you know this. I will not take space here to rehash their horrors—you can do this easily on your own if you are so inclined. What I do want to talk about is: Why does it matter? There's the rub. Most of us think it doesn't really matter, otherwise factory farms would be dying out. So let's talk about it.

Eating is incredibly complicated. Every time we place an item in our grocery cart, we enter into a web of relationships of which we know basically nothing. That's enough to cause compassion fatigue in the most resolute activist, and we can throw up our hands right here in the frozen food aisle and say we're damned both ways. I have a hunch this is what most of us do. I know it's what I do. Poor me! Forced to participate in the systemic evils of modern agriculture! Nom nom nom nom....

Sarcasm. Forgive me. I direct it against myself, because I have those exact thoughts all the time. Do you, too? Are we all so calloused?

Here's why it matters: Because how we eat determines how the world is used (Mr. Berry again). That's it. Do we think that, when we eat, we can separate that act from all its consequences? Eating is the most fundamental act of our physical existence. The way we eat has tremendous impact on the  world. Think of this: if everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese one day per week, it would be equivalent to taking 7.6 million cars off the road, or not driving 91 billion miles.

And consider Ghandi's observation: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” What does it say about America that we anthropomorphize our pets and treat our farm animals like machines that can feel no pain?

Consider Immanuel Kant's observation: “He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” How do we pass our conscience through this filter? How do we judge our hearts when, knowing that the animals we eat are treated so inhumanely, we choose to look the other way?

I do not have the answer. I still too often choose to look the other way. I do it because it's difficult to do otherwise, because it's inconvenient, because I'm too tired to care. Do you think the current system is justified or justifiable? Do you look at factory farms and industrial agriculture and the whole state of affairs and think I'm okay with this? How?


Remembering to Not Forget

Eight years ago I moved to the country because I believed that was the best way I could save my little corner of the world. I believed the way we ate determined the way the world was used, and when I saw the way we ate I became very, very scared. I believed Wendell Berry when he said that eating is farming by proxy, and I saw our access to land as a privilege and a responsibility. And I shouldn't forget that I moved to the country because I knew nothing about farming.  If I had, I would've reasoned my way out of it.

Eight years and three children later, we are still here, but I forgot something.  I forgot that my individual choice matters. 

I thought that because I lived on a farm that raised animals humanely, I was doing my part for animals everywhere.  That the eggs we sold from what are arguably the happiest chickens on the planet somehow justified the factory-farmed eggs I ate on my breakfast sandwich at Panera.  That the fact that I could look my chicken in the eye before I killed it as quickly and painlessly as possible somehow justified the chicken nuggets my children were consuming from what are arguably the unhappiest chickens on the planet. 

What kind of logic is that?  What kind of forgetting is that?

We all know how horrific factory farming is.  If you don't know, you aren't paying attention.  There is no argument under the sun to justify factory farms, and their presence is an affront to land, water, air, humans, and animals alike.  Your knowledge of this fact does nothing to stop the decimation of the environment, the senseless torture of millions of animals, or the total extinction of small farms like ours.  

Your knowledge does nothing.  Your action does everything.

When you stop buying it, they will stop farming it.

I've got three little kids who like chicken nuggets and American cheese.  This ain't gonna be easy.  But I'm going to try, because I'm tired of forgetting.


Lucky Me

My four-year-old, Elsa, runs through the garden, observing everything and nothing like all children do, filtering out the most glaring details and settling on the most obscure.  She plays, she pretends, she laughs, she chases the dog.  And then she bends down.  She focuses on the ground, the quivering green carpet.  She bends down, her hair tumbling around her face, and picks one clover from this homogenous green blob.  She runs to the house, excited but not surprised.

"Mommy, can you put this in some water?"

It's a five-leaf clover.  Five.

Then she's gone.  Already there is something else.  To me: a miracle.  To her: a thing-to-be-noticed, like a crocus in bloom, or a hawk resting on a hay bale.  Beautiful and obvious.  What else am I not seeing?

When we were younger, Eric brought me four-leaf clovers all the time; figuring out what to do with them all became a kind of sentimental burden.  For a while I pressed them into the pages of books, and they would fall crumbling onto the floor when I turned over the pages months or years later.  Once he presented me with a sheet of wax paper into which he had pressed fully twenty. 

Today I see him walking up the sidewalk after work, and he'll slow down, bend over, grab a clover, and keep walking.  He'll hand it to me as he walks in the door.

"You might want to put that in some water."

The world spins.  Icons stream fragrant myrrh.  A seed goes about the miraculous business of turning sunlight and water into the giant, mysterious thing we call a tree. I turn a page in the night, and down come the magic clovers, dry and brittle to the ground, a reminder that all good things come and pass and come again, and again.  We just have to see them.


The Greatest Weakness

One night I sat on the edge of Henry's bed and stroked his hair while he cried. "Mommy, I don't want to go to college."

He's six.

"I'm scared.”

Something you should know: I am not great at coming up with the kind of reductive explanations young children generally require. I should have said something like, "Henry, college will be great! You'll see. Don't worry about that now." Yes, that would've been adequate--I see that now.  In the moment, I feel the need to explain all the mysteries of the universe, which of course I don't even understand myself. I make things way too complicated.

"Just...just be six, Henry. Just be here, in your bed, in your room, in this house, on the farm, in the dark.  Nothing else is real."

"What?" he barked.

Henry doesn't like me to make abstract statements like this.  They annoy him, the way your sixth grade math teacher would be annoyed to find poems scrawled on your bar graph ditto.  Henry may see the world in bar graphs, I'm not sure. 

The greatest weakness of both the past and the future lies precisely in their lack of reality....Where did I read that? I wanted to tell him in a way that would make sense, but I couldn't make sense of it myself there in the dark. I wanted to tell him about the lilies of the field, and the sparrow's fall, something wise and calming and motherly. But I foundered. His hair ran soft along my palm. We sat like that for a minute, listening to each other breathing.

"The future isn't real. You don't know what college will be like. Your six-year-old brain can only imagine what it's like, and you are scared of what you imagine. But that's not real. Don't waste your time in a place that isn't real." My little voice said: Why don't you heed your own advice?  

Shut up, you, I thought.

I spend my time in the future, too, because I imagine it will be better than the present. I wait for things to "level off." For the kids to get older, for Eric to be less stressed at work, for us to have more time, fewer bills, more money. But it isn't real. Those times will never come, because they consist not primarily of concrete realities, but of a change in my perception, and you can't passively wait for a change of perception. The kids getting older will not change my perception of how busy I am or how much they require of me. Having fewer bills or more money will not change my relationship to money and savings, which as you probably know tends to remain the same no matter your income level.

I lay this veil of my imagined future over the present. I expect that the kids will become more independent, and so I begin to resent that they are not yet so. I expect that Eric will be less stressed one day, and so I begin to resent that he is not yet so. And my relationships to them become obscure, and vexed by both my memories and my expectations.

If I can lay that aside, and see the present as it is with no amendments, no caveats, then something miraculous happensThen I can love with a pure love. Then I can appreciate the myriad blessings in my life, because they flow into the present without the baggage of unfulfillable promises.

To say what things are you have to see what things are, and seeing is hard. I'm lucky if I can do it five minutes a day. To see the miracle that is all around you, without the dark glass of my doubts and fears and needs and wants. It's really hard.  Try it.


Your Little Voice

I am a parent and a homemaker and a cook and an aspiring farmer.  Of the vast majority of descriptors common to those roles, one of the first that comes to mind is "topics on which the world does not need another blog."  So I'm not going to tell you how to parent, or make your home, or cook, or aspire to farm.

You know that little voice in your head--the one that tells you to do the things you know would change your life if you weren't too scared or too lazy or too busy to begin?  Example: I'm reading one morning and I come to this (it's Thomas Merton):

There are some things we are obliged to keep hidden from men. But there are other things that we must make known, even though others may already know them. We owe a definite homage to the reality around us, and we are obliged, at certain times, to say what things are and to give them their right names and to lay open our thought about them to the men we live with."

My little voice pipes up, and I can hear it because my children are still asleep. It says, Do that: pay homage to the reality around you--say what things are.  

I countered, "Merton does that.  Novelists do that.  I do laundry--lots of laundry."

Then I continued reading. “The fact that men are constantly talking shows that they need the truth, and that they depend on their mutual witness in order to get the truth formed and confirmed in their own minds.” 

My little voice said, Mutual witness—that's you.

And.........that's it.  Maybe my kids woke up then.  Maybe I got up for more coffee.  In short, I forgot the whole thing for a long time.

I'm ashamed to admit that this is how my life goes--this predictable wave of epiphany and darkness, intention and inertia. It's maddening.  I pay attention for a moment and life comes into focus. But I don't stay there. I never stay there.  I rarely make it longer than about five minutes.

The Avett Brothers have boiled this all down into one of the most honest song lyrics I've ever heard:

“How do I know when it's time to stop
Running from the things I do, being things I'm not
Oh, I have tried, but I just changed my mind--
Every night befalls every morning light.” 

And Merton says something similar: 

“Although we still may speak the truth, we are more and more losing our desire to live according to the truth. Our wills are not true....and they have dragged our minds along with them, and our restless tongues bear constant witness to the disorganization inside our souls.”

My soul is disorganized (Don't I know it).  I want my will to be true, but my will does not comply.  I think that little voice is really just the truth.  Maybe it's the big-T Truth--maybe it speaks to and about our real self.  What if we paid more attention?  What if we deferred to our little voices for a while, just to see what happens?  

My little voice told me to say what things are, so I'm going to try to do that here.  Try to pay homage to the reality around me.  And then...await further instructions, I guess.  What does your little voice say?