Sunday, March 12, 2017

Newspaper Column--Hens and Befuddled Moms

A hen’s simple life provides an oasis in a complicated world

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
MARCH 12, 2017

I love my flock of hens for many reasons, but especially this: They dispatch spiders with one decisive peck, a refreshing demonstration when one’s head is full of ideas and tasks and choices spidering chaotically in all directions.

One hen, named Dorothy, roosts in the back corner of the carport, on a coil of rope on a shelf behind a bicycle. After dark, I put on my old coat, step around the bike, grab her left wing, pull her out and carry her to the henhouse. She is warm and fluffy, and she almost purrs in a deep rumbling cluck that I can feel in my hands.

Then I open the door of the dark henhouse and set her inside, where the other hens scold her in quiet annoyance from the roost. They sound like us, when Paul and I just have fallen asleep and the college kid who was up late, studying upstairs, decides to make a quesadilla for a snack. Every bump and slam carries into the bedroom because it is an old house, the fir beams all interconnected somehow, and creaking floors and clanked skillets reverberate everywhere.

Hoping to remedy this, we are redoing our tiny bedroom, borrowing a few square feet from the office and adding insulation on the wall next to the kitchen.

Five of our six children are in college, and the sixth tutors at a university overseas. We didn’t plan or particularly encourage this, but, as our oldest son said, “If you sack seed for nine summers you’re motivated to go to college so you never have to sack seed again.”

“The Smucker warehouse must be doing awfully well,” my neighbor lady commented.

“Trust me,” I said. “The kids pay for college themselves.” Mostly debt-free, I should have added. In the interest of saving money, three of them live at home and commute.

This means that not only are midnight snacks prepared for all to hear, but the conversations in our kitchen, over morning coffee or while washing dishes after dinner, careen from heat transfer and Roman history to Socratic methods and math instructors at Linn-Benton. “Can you calculate how long this mug will keep my tea hot if the water is boiling but it’s 44 degrees outside?” the communication major asks the smoldering combustion researcher.

Lately, the conversation often circles around to two subjects that the kids enjoy but that make me feel slow and lagging in intellect and sophistication.

First is the idea of fixed vs. growth mindset, best explained by my daughter Jenny.

“Someone with a fixed mindset believes that their qualities, such as intelligence or talents, are fixed traits, whereas a person with a growth mindset sees them as areas where they can grow.”

A growth mindset is good, I am told, which motivated me to take a basket-making class and read up on construction and colors when it would have been much easier to sit down with a cup of tea and a well-worn copy of L.M. Montgomery’s “A Tangled Web.”

I’m still confused about the second subject the kids discuss: the Myers-Briggs personality types, an evaluation method with a possibility of 16 different results, indicated by a four-letter acronym apiece.

They say I’m an INFP, which seems to mean I’m a disorganized person who is easily overwhelmed, thinks too much and needs time alone to survive. And I live among noisy, practical and logical people who, in the words of a young friend, sort of drag me along in their wake, as opposed to me steering the boat.

In their pursuit of lofty thoughts and complicated lives, the kids love and indulge me in my quest for simplicity and rest, and they think I am sweet and lovable, which nice, but it’s also how I treat my chickens.

But, like my hens who figured out how to clear the gate even after we clipped their wings, I am determined to choose a growth mindset and keep learning. The remodeling project requires narrow choices among far too many options. I’ve lived through at least six eras in home decorating. I want to be up-to-date but not a fad-follower, and I don’t want to choose the equivalent of geese with blue bows around their necks.

“You need to watch ‘Fixer Upper!’ ” my friends told me. I looked it up online. It’s a show about, naturally, fixing up older houses, and the prevailing great idea is accent walls covered in shiplap, a type of rough board with interlocking edges.

Hmmm. I inspected the doorway where Paul had cut into the wall under the stairs, and there I saw the ends of rough boards with interlocking edges.

Our bedroom was covered in 106-year-old shiplap, back behind the drywall and five layers of wallpaper!

I shared this astonishing discovery with Paul. He said, “Before we go tearing the Sheetrock off every wall in the house, we’re going to expose one wall in the bedroom. And you’re going to help, so you know how much work is involved.”

How did he know exactly what I was thinking?

So I helped pry off the accumulations of the years, and I learned about pulling out nails and how much dust a piece of broken drywall produces and how Paul’s great-grandma pasted on a thin sheet of cotton fabric to anchor the first layer of wallpaper.

Despite my need for solitude and quiet, I cook dinner every night and hope the kids all come home to eat it together. I ask about classes and classmates, I tell them to invite their friends over, and I do my best to understand the discussions on philosophy and trigonometry and music, because that is what a mom does.

Then I go visit my chickens. Among too much to ponder and process, they live in a separate little universe where life is simple and straightforward.

For one thing, their conversations are easy to understand. They discuss eggs, feed, the endless rain and the annoying Dorothy. Did I bring any vegetable scraps for them, they ask. Yes yes yes! And they race for the cabbage leaves and carrot peelings. Thank you, thank you! I laid an egg just for you, a brown one, they tell me proudly.

My hens are not terribly intelligent, I’m afraid, but it’s nice to feel like the smartest person in the room. Instead of thinking logically, they flap their wings and run off, screeching, if I rattle the feed bag too loudly. Probably they are ESFPs, totally in the moment and guided by the emotions of the group. I find this comforting.

Mostly, they are of a fixed, rather than a growth mindset. Despite learning to escape their field, they can’t figure out that to get to the feed trays, they must either fly back over the fence or enter the front door of the hen house. So they stand by the fence, clucking hungrily, but run off when I try to gently shoo them inside.

This is a problem, but it makes me feel sensible by comparison, and in the overall whirl of my life, this issue is small and manageable. In fact, the worst complication happened the other morning when I threw on a skirt and coat over my pajamas and ran out to feed them. One skinny Leghorn was outside, and I tried to corral her with a leaf rake, which did not go well. I looked up, briefly, and saw that a white pickup truck was parked on the road, and the man inside was taking photos. This troubled me on at least two levels, maybe three or four. Then he waved and drove off, the hen was eventually lured back inside, and I chose not to worry about the potential photos.

Hens don’t worry about weight or fashion or propriety. They find great joy in eating, and sometimes they follow me out to the mailbox with their plump hindquarters rocking happily back and forth. They don’t worry about Myers-Briggs tests, fixed or growth mindsets, or whether an all-white room will look out of date a year from now.

I know God had his reasons for making them chickens and for making me a sometimes-befuddled mom of a large brood of humans. At the end of the day, though, I am grateful that this is my calling, that life is all interconnected like the ribs of an old farmhouse, and that even in the dark I am held and carried home like a warm and contentedly clucking hen.


  1. I love this. Thank you for your words!

  2. What an enjoyable, entertaining read! You did a great job of portraying the reclusive but lovable personality of your pet hen, Dorothy. But how in the world did you choose her name? To me "Dorothy" will always be the storied little Kansas farm girl who was swept away with her pet dog Toto in a cyclone to dwell in the magical Land of Oz. So is your Dorothy who lives and loves the simple life named after the Kansas girl who walked the Yellow Brick Road with the brainless Scarecrow other simple companions? Oh, and by the way, your college children's conversations may make you "feel slow and lagging in intellect and sophistication." But that is simply not the case. Far from it. Those of us
    who follow your blog can attest to that, which is one of the reasons why we keep coming back for more.

  3. Thanks, Shanzanne.
    And you too, Ruby. As for my hen, she just looks like a Dorothy--not the girl in Oz but a plump farm wife.

  4. I loved this post! Probably my favorite of all you've written. I can relate to it on so many levels. I too have a daughter that talks of fixed vs. growth mindset, AND the Meyers-Briggs personality tests. And chickens are fun but crazy creatures. Very entertaining to watch, with a lot of character. My children's conversations are never boring, and always provide plenty of entertainment, even if I don't always understand what they are talking about. Lately they have been indulging in joke battles, each coming home with their latest contribution to tell the others, which is kind of refreshing because they are simple to understand, and have nothing to do with technology, politics, or engineering. Thanks for sharing snippets of your life with us, Dorcas. :)

  5. My older son told me I am an ISTJ...he is a psychologist. It matches perfectly with my chosen career of librarian. (I decided this at age 11 after spending 2 weeks with an uncle and aunt...she's a librarian)