Death in the Dooryard

Grief is a fussy, needy house guest. 

We can’t please her no matter what. The coffee isn’t Fair Trade, the bed a little too firm and the shower pressure “just okay.” We’ve overlooked the details this house guest of grief picks up on. Her particular tastes, wants–the needed things!–and her locked stare on the enormous hole that a loss has made works to make us edgy, out of sorts and above all, terribly vulnerable. It’s only in time that we come to thank her for her gifts. 

She also comes with the gift that we may have been unaware was overdue: the stripping away of the mundane, as if our entire bodies were dipped in a bucket of turpentine and the weeks, months, years of chipping paint disintegrates in a second, burns our skin, forces our eyes to squeeze out their necessary brine. She takes the unnecessary completely away and then scours, scraps, santizes. She then beckons us to be the nurse on duty: How will we care for our cleaned-out wounds, will we figure out how to wrap the bandages and apply the healing salve? 

Depending on the nature of the loss, and what it might trigger inside of us, will determine what must be rehabilitated inside of us. Instead of muscling through, we cave inwardly, silent, still, immobile. In that cave, we pick up a needle, a thread and start to sew a cloak, a cape of survival. If we are very lucky, it is a garment that BECOMES us, not one we don at times of devastation. We become the medicine beyond our grief that loss left. In this, that fussy, needy house guest is brilliant, wise beyond her years. 

And so I was reminded of these things about ten days ago. Excuse all of the mixed metaphors of the above paragraphs but a dismantling of reality will do that to a writer. On March 9th, Michael and I went down to Boston (Cambridge, actually-) to see one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Emily Scott Robinson. The plan was to leave on Thursday on the 3:30 bus, hop on the T at South Station and find the inn where we were staying before dinner–all of which we did, although I just about had a panic attack on the T. NOT a fan of being tucked into small places made of metal with a bunch of strangers–but that’s just me! After checking into the Friendly Inn at Harvard Square (packed with spirits, BTW-), we hustled over to the Russell House for dinner, which was lovely, if not a bit loud. I had oysters and a salad (and a dirty martini) and Michael had a salad, veg risotto and some wine. I’d been looking forward to the trip for a long time, that Friday, March 10th, was the start of my Spring break from UNE. After canceling Thursday’s classes, my vaca had started early! Yah! Michael, having grown up in Newton and having attended MIT, was right at home and feeling the familiar vibes. 

We got to the Sinclair about forty minutes before the show started. Hardly anyone was there, and so we got right up front, inches away from the mic. I was so pumped, so excited! However, to my great disappointment, Emily only played four songs all night. She was touring with other singers this time–Alissa Amodor and Violet Bell–and although the mixed talent was appreciated, I was going to see her. The crowd was a little weird, too. Is it the sober curious movement? Surely all those Harvard kids are used to letting their hair down. ‘Subdued’ was an understatement, and my hoots and hollers and singing along got me some eye-rolls and sideways glances. 

 The show ended at 10:50 PM, and, with my hopes dampened, we made our way back to the haunted Friendly Inn. I know it’s silly, but I was honestly, truly upset. I had wanted to be taken into the soul of Emily Scott Robinson through her music, her songs–they’d broken me open when I saw her on November 6th, 2021, in a little mountain town named Sparta, North Carolina. Emily is a NC native, like me. She grew up in Greensboro–where I was born–and moved out to Colorado chasing dreams (yup, me too). I’ve always felt a visceral connection to her and on that fateful night in Sparta, I got to meet her, chat, throw my arms around her and tell her that she was the perfect mix of June Carter and Joni Mitchell. So, yeah. ‘Disappointed’ is an understatement. We got into the room (roasting!) and I lit some sage to ban the ghosts, blabbing on about the ‘false advertising’ we’d been subjected to. (*Emily was the headliner so I do feel justified in complaining about the measly four songs). Finally, I washed my face, climbed into bed and shut up. 

The next day, Michael said to me, “I’m sorry last night wasn’t exactly what you’d expected. What can we do to change the channel?” 

“Just take me home. I want to get out of here and go home,” I said as I stuffed my backpack. “Like, now. No breakfast, no showers. Let’s just go!” 

And so we did. We made the 10 AM bus back to Portland and got back to Avalon by noon. Gone for less than 24 hours. Our house-sitter texted that she’d left around 11:15 AM, and that Molly had been walked. I was looking forward to taking a long walk with Molly–too much sitting on buses and Ts! I went upstairs to change into my exercise clothes and that’s when I heard it: a wail I will never forget as long as I live. For a second, I thought maybe Michael had started to chop wood for the maple boil and he’d slipped and really injured himself. I did not know my husband could make a sound like the one I heard that day and, depending on your perspective, it may have been easier to take had he chopped off a finger. 

In our absence, our hens who had been left in their cozy coop, had either been terrorized by an animal or had turned on themselves–they were all dead. Three of them had their necks torn out and two were just dead. We had not asked our house-sitter to do anything with them; they had food, water, a heat lamp that was on a timer. Plus, we knew we’d be back before anyone could say Avalon Acres. 

If they got spooked, and freaked out, then they very well could have killed each other. When chickens turn on each other, it can be for a variety of reasons: Pecking order got out of hand, overcrowding, bullying (different than pecking ), a sickness/a sick chicken, boredom, not enough protein in their diet, stress. Chickens also need to get out of their coops at least once a day, despite not liking the cold or wet. They need things to peck at, to scratch; in our chicken yard right now, those things consist mainly of patches of snow in various stages of melting and refreezing. We also learned that once a chicken sees the sight of blood, they kind of go berserk and lose it– a chicken frenzy. 

Instead of going further with details, rationalizing the mysterious circumstances or wallowing on the page in the canyon of guilt Michael and I both feel (it DID happen while we were gone-), I want to highlight those gifts the needy houseguest of grief left us with. On a personal level, I had to work through old feelings of perceived unworthiness: Who AM I  to think we could pull off this farm thing? Look what happened because of us silly novices! I don’t deserve the privilege of the rural life (and on and on). Added to this litany of self-abuse, I was triggered from a past life, or lives: in several past lives, things had gone badly in my absence. Whether it was returning home from plundering, fighting or exploring, I have had plenty of experiences in past lives of coming home to find nothing left and the dead all around. With the backlog of guilt from not being able to protect what was mine from these past experiences, my invisible tee-shirt for this life announces, “Not on my watch!” I got you, don’t worry with me on the scene. I’ll be there, By God. 

The tragedy brought to the forefront a need to re-evaluate the many different roles we’ve fallen into. In other words, we’d siloed ourselves in certain duties and responsibilities, all the while neglecting the ‘team-work’ aspect of running Avalon. This unfortunate event gave us a chance to review those roles and re-commit to doing more as a team–shared vision, shared responsibility. For many of you reading this newsletter, you know that Michael possesses the Divine Masculine so beautifully: ACTION, rational thought, building, weighing options and risks, seeing the long view with a very big dose of vision thrown in. Me? I could sit under my favorite tree and count pine needles, be contented to drum under the full moon and light the ceremonial fires round and round the calendar wheel. Had we not communicated effectively about what the chickens needed? Had we failed them, and ourselves, with some unspoken detail or undersight? How did falling into our siloed duties play into this tragedy, if at all? I gathered eggs, helped to clean the coop from time to time and tossed them scratch but maybe I was leaving too much for him to manage. 

Maybe, maybe, maybe. Speculation is a game we humans can play all night long; as long as there’s human imagination and the force of guilt locked and loaded, that game can go on ad nauseam. But at some point, you have to stop. You have to have mercy on yourself. You have to forgive. 

That is one of the hardest things to do, it seems. Many of us feel that if we forgive ourselves,  it means we’ve moved on– a hint of exoneration seeping down our faces along with the tears. I can never, ever forget what happened to our beloved chickens, AND I will move on with a renewed respect for owning and caring for domesticated animals. I will move on with a refined sense of direct communication with my husband, and a deeper acceptance of our different communication styles. I will move on with even more willingness to turn my vulnerability into the medicine I need to grow. Death blows one open and urges us to move on with more knowledge, more skill and more understanding. 

Because if you don’t learn from bad things that happen to you, what is the point of going through it? From the soul’s perspective, all it wants to do is grow. The last time I checked, spiritual growth and soul evolution generally require some pain, sometimes some suffering, oftentimes, some loss. We get to whittle ourselves down to the most concentrated version of compassion that our humility can withstand. And that stingy, fussy, needy houseguest of grief knows that all too well. 

We had an awful thing happen here at Avalon and we are learning from it. I can be proud of my ability to let the courage of brutal self-examination set my course moving forward. Our hearts are still breaking for “the girls” and as with any trauma on this scale, things won’t ever quite be the same. Things will be different with how we work with this land, how we honor and respect the risks that come with a rural lifestyle. I must believe that is a good thing, and I truly believe that Fortune Favors the Bold. We were emboldened to leave our life in Portland, our tidy condo with zero responsibility, and our friends to begin a new adventure and to carry out a dream. I would not trade that for anything. The gifts, this time, for daring greatly have come in unsightly, uncomfortable packaging. But they are gifts all the same. 

Thank you for reading this story of loss. If something has gone away for you, if something has been lost, if something has left or died because you couldn’t protect it, please do not blame, shame or speculate. Be Human, and know that you are not alone in your pain. 

Welcome that house guest in. Her neediness will pursue you until you surrender. Trust me: She is wise in her peculiar ways. 

Shine On,

Mary Katherine