My Life With Gracie…Sunday Surprises!

This morning, I was putting on my chicken shoes as I do each morning. (If you have chickens, you know about chicken shoes, shoes specifically for mucking about with the chickens.) While tying one of my shoes, I looked up and saw this beautiful welcome to a new day. The Rose Of Sharon behind the chicken coop had begun to bloom, and the petals were just catching the morning sunlight coming over the roof.

This one is a Double White Althea, just in case you wanted to find one for yourself. I bought two of these several years before I had any chickens, and I used them to anchor the far end of my garden raised beds. Now they anchor our big chicken coop and run and provide afternoon shade for their afternoon free-range area. We will be enjoying these blossoms throughout the summer months, and the beautiful bronze-toned seed pods in the autumn months.

We are all hoping that your day will be filled with a few equally beautiful surprises!

Each post shares a glimpse into my journey as a writer and illustrator. Every “Like,” “Follow,” and “Comment” is truly appreciated!

 

My Life With Gracie…Every Egg Tells A Story

Every Egg Tells A Story

There it was in the middle of the breakfast salad, a single just-laid egg.

Now this is unusual. Chickens may do many things in “just any old place,” but laying an egg is not one of them. That is done in the dark privacy of the nesting box. They are safe there. Their egg is safe there too.

So you see, this was definitely an unusual event. But I didn’t have time to ask “Who?” or “Why?” before heading off to work. There was only time to ask, “Is everybody okay?” No one said anything, and so I assumed all were well.

It had been a busy Wednesday morning. While I put down their breakfast salad and welcomed everyone to their new day, I mentioned next Wednesday we would have the whole day together because I wouldn’t be going to work. Then I gave them the weather report so they would know what to expect, though I had a feeling they already knew it was going to be an unusually warm day.

But that was all there was time for. No leisurely second cup of coffee. No discussions of what would be blooming next in the garden like the Japanese iris.

There was just enough time to get ready for work and to tell everyone what I always tell them. “Take good care of each other. Remember I love you more than anything here.”

I did wonder about the egg though. Since Gracie’s foot mishap, I have tried to be extra vigilant. What if something was wrong? What if they were too scared to say anything?

At least those questions kept me from wondering about other questions, bill-paying questions. The reason I would be home the next Wednesday and many more Wednesday’s afterwards was simple. With the economy the way it is now, I am moving to part-time. That means an extra day at home each week, but also twenty percent less pay.

But chickens don’t understand people economics. Nor would I want them to. They only understand chicken economics. We are the richest family on our entire street because we have more worms than anyone. Now we have more time to be a family together. Life is good!

Somehow all will work out fine.

That night as I went out at dusk to tuck everyone in for the evening, I heard the lightest two chicken feet land on the coop floor after hopping down from the nighttime perch.

It was Emily, of course. I know her sounds as well as I know her eggs by their shape and color. In the dimness, she made her way down the chicken ladder and hurried to me.

I scooped her up into my arms.

“That was me,” she said. “I laid the egg in the middle of the breakfast salad.”

“I know, Sweetie. Don’t worry. Sometimes things happen. But you are okay, aren’t you?”

“I am fine. I am just a little embarrassed. It was a very unseemly thing to do. I had to tell you or I would not be able to sleep at all tonight.”

More than any of the others, Emily is a proper lady with impeccable manners. Egg laying must, absolutely must, be done in the privacy of the nesting box and in the most ladylike manner possible and with hardly a peep.

“It’s just that I was so excited for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“You get an extra day to enjoy us even more!”

I held her close and kissed the top of her head.

“You are so sweet, Emily. Yes, I do get even more time to enjoy you.”

She wasn’t excited about having more treat time or more backyard free range time. She wasn’t even excited about being able to walk through the garden more often. Emily was excited about being able to see the pleasure on my face from being with my chickens. She didn’t even realize that she herself was a huge part of why I look forward to spending time with them.

This is the heart of innocence.

“I just do not understand why you enjoy us so much. We are just little chickens, and I am the littlest of us all. Why do you even bother with us? You already have everything we see here. You are so big. When you stand close, I cannot even see all of you.”

I was unsure what to say.

“Why do you enjoy us so much?” she asked.

Again I was unsure what to say, but I knew this was an important question deserving an answer.

“You know, Emily, that is a question people have asked as well, just in a different way about themselves. Not about chickens, but about themselves.”

“What do you mean?”

I carried her over to where we could look up into the evening sky. The first stars were beginning to shine.

“Many thousands of years ago, someone wondered something like what you are wondering right now and even wrote it down.”

“What did they write?”

“They wrote, ‘What is man that you are mindful of him?’”

She thought about these words carefully.

“Did that person ever get an answer to the question?”

“If they did, they didn’t write down that part. But sometimes a question is best left unanswered. Sometimes a question is just meant to make us wonder with eyes as big and as wide-open as yours, Emily. Sometimes we have to find the answers to those kinds of questions for ourselves. No one can tell us the answers, and if they do, we are unlikely to really hear them. Some answers are best found in our own hearts.”

She seemed satisfied with this.

“Sometimes it’s best not to know all the answers,” I added because that seemed like an awfully long speech.

“Nobody likes a know-it-all, right?”

“Or a tell-it-all.” We smiled together. “But I am happy you told me about your egg and even happier you understand how much joy you give me just by being you.”

I placed her back in her favorite roosting spot, back in a corner next to Gracie. Her life and her heart were now secure for the night.

Perhaps this is a part of how the universe is intended to work. I cannot imagine a world where Light and Life and Love would not be looking forward to enjoying each person. Equally. Delightfully.

And if Light and Light and Love can do that so intensely with each one of us, can’t we do that too, even just a little, with each other? Even when we are different?

Yes, every egg tells a story.

Each post shares a glimpse into my journey as a writer and illustrator. Every “Like,” “Follow,” and “Comment” is truly appreciated!

My Life With Gracie…Sunday Surprises!

That’s right! Yesterday was another great day to work out in the yard and garden, and we have yet another “Sunday Surprises!” 

This plant is called rose campion. It has soft fuzzy leaves like a similar plant called lamb’s ear. These are the most intensely colored flowers of any in my whole yard. The leaves are no more than four or five inches tall, but when it’s time to produce flowers, this plant soars high!

A gardening friend gave me a few of these many years ago, and they grew into a much larger bed than what you see here. (I think they need more sun than what this particular spot provides.)

This is my last clump of these self-sowing perennials. But I have saved the seeds and will be helping them to reclaim their section of the garden.

While I was surprised and very glad to discover this dotted splash of color yesterday, I miss having a huge blast of this over-the-top color that I get with a large bed or border of this amazing flower.

I might not have spotted them if I hadn’t noticed Pearl sitting and staring off into a distant part of the yard. She was studying this favorite flower. Its brilliant color is just as intense as the white of her feathers in the noonday sunlight.

Be brilliant! Be intense! You can do it! (And save your seeds!)

Each post shares a glimpse into my journey as a writer and illustrator. Every “Like,” “Follow,” and “Comment” is truly appreciated!

My Life With Gracie…The Goodness Of Giving


With all that has been going on with current events this week, it was difficult to look at the news this morning, and so I turned it off. It was not that I didn’t care. It’s more a feeling that it has all become too much. Perhaps there is such a thing as “compassion fatigue”? When I went out to feed my chickens this morning, I was reminded of a passage I had written for “How To Explain Christmas To Chickens.”

Gracie looked up at me and asked, “Why do you look sad?”

“Because the world needs more goodness in it than I think we will ever be able to give it,” I said. “Now without Blanche, we are just five chickens and one old man.”

“Maybe you should write a story or draw a picture so people will know it’s not good to hurt chickens or steal eggs.”

“Gracie, most people already know those things. We can’t lay enough eggs and write enough books for the amount of goodness the world needs.”

As I sat watching everyone enjoying their breakfast salad, I also remembered what Bessie had told me.

Bessie had been listening in and had gotten that serious look of hers. It’s the look she always gets when she has something very important to say. She hopped up onto my shoes. This is also what she does when she has something very important to say…

“If you are a writer, you make your best writings. If you are a drawer, you make your best drawings. Then you hope what you do will go to someone who will do the most good with it.

“Chickens lay eggs. Some get used for omelettes. Some get used for cupcakes. You can only do what you can do. The rest will be up to whoever receives your gifts. But you can’t stop giving what you are meant to give.”

I tilted my head and looked at them while I thought this over.

“He looks just like a chicken!” Bessie whispered to Gracie.

Then I realized I was doing exactly what they do when they are thinking over things I’ve explained to them. How amusing!

They stood looking up at me with all of the innocence of two just-hatched chicks and all of the wisdom of two well-aged hens.

At times, events can seem overwhelming, but just as Bessie has said, that shouldn’t stop us from giving gifts of kindness, no matter how small.

The world of chickens, the world of people, and perhaps even the entire universe are all built on the goodness of giving. Let’s all keep giving the gifts we are meant to give, the gifts of kindness.

Each post shares a glimpse into my journey as a writer and illustrator. Every “Like,” “Follow,” and “Comment” is truly appreciated!

My Life With Gracie…Sunday Surprises!

Sunday Surprises

This would normally be a “Saturday Surprises!” post, but yesterday was another great day to work out in the yard and garden, so nothing got posted. Instead, we have yet another “Sunday Surprises!” 

Yes, this is a picture of worms and dirt and soggy old hay. Not particularly the kind of photo that would get thousands of “likes” here or anywhere else. But to a chicken, it’s one beautiful mouthwatering photo!

The inspiration for this particular post came when I overheard Emily telling the others, “Our Daddy is the best worm hunter ever!” Who doesn’t want to be admired like that?

Over the years of taking care of my chickens, I have learned the best places and conditions for finding worms. Underneath bricks, pavers, and old logs are all prime spots. Wet days after a period of rain like we had this past week are always good. But even I had not anticipated the number of worms I would find under the straw bales I had put around their coop and run areas to act as a windbreak.

That was late fall. Now it was late spring, practically summer. The hay bales had gotten repeatedly wet over the months and had begun to break down. The worms from the yard had found a nice home.

There’s more than one kind of worm in my yard. Some worms are sluggish and fat. The chickens enjoy those for their gourmet appeal. Other worms are a bit leaner, longer, and livelier. The chickens enjoy those for the thrill of the hunt! They start thrashing around as soon as they are uncovered, and seeing them sends all of my girls into a frenzy.

After their breakfast feast, we sat and I told everyone about my Uncle Eddie who owned a worm farm. They were fascinated, completely entranced. I told them about how there were rows and rows of raised beds almost like tables. They were filled with soil and different kinds of worms. I told them about how he could just walk right in and fill up a bucket of worms in no time.

They were all ready to head for Uncle Eddie’s Worm Farm until I told them about the alligator he kept in his backyard. It had made its way up from Florida to the North Carolina coast after a hurricane, and Uncle Eddie had found it and given it a home. Having an alligator for people to look at helped his worm business. Who wouldn’t want to look at a live alligator while getting some worms for fishing?

My chickens were glad to hear that the alligator had his own little pond and drainage tile that made a cavelike shelter. They were not glad to hear that Uncle Eddie fed his alligator chicken legs.

No one wanted to visit Uncle Eddie’s Worm Farm after they heard that, no matter how many worms there were or how easy they were to find.

I suppose this just proves the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence. But I think it also shows that sometimes what we are looking for just may have already been provided for us, right in our own back yard, right where we live. We just may need to do a little exploring.

Each post shares a glimpse into my journey as a writer and illustrator. Every “Like,” “Follow,” and “Comment” is truly appreciated!

My Life With Gracie…Sunday Surprises!

This would normally be a “Saturday Surprises!” post, but yesterday was a great day to work out in the yard and garden, so nothing got posted. Instead, we have “Sunday Surprises!” From looking at this photograph, you may think I needed to do some serious weeding!

My house was built in 1920 and will be celebrating its one hundred year anniversary in December. Over the years, many different vegetables and flowers have been grown in my yard. Every now and then, my own turning over of the soil brings old seeds closer to the surface, close enough to sprout and grow. This spring, these delightful little flowers sprang up and bloomed.

Yes, something new for my chickens to look at and enjoy, but not taste. At least not this year. Perhaps next year after this spot has been protected and allowed to reseed itself.

Whenever I’m working in the yard, my mind wanders. As I studied these yesterday, I was reminded of Mrs. Brown, our elementary school lunch lady. Her husband’s name was “Chicken Brown.” At the time I wondered why anyone would name their child “Chicken,” and finally I just assumed giving people nicknames like this was one of the odd things grownups did which would never really make sense to me. He was a mechanic and wore overalls with his name on them. My grandfather was a mechanic too, and that made him okay by me even though he had a strange name.

Most people never give much thought to lunch ladies, not even ones married to someone named “Chicken Brown,” but I think perhaps lunch ladies have one of the most important jobs in any school. It’s not just in the preparation of the food (which back then was all prepared “from scratch” like the very best homemade meals). It’s something else entirely different. Lunch ladies have a rare opportunity to see children as they are outside of the classroom when they don’t need to impress any adults with how smart and good they are.

Several years ago after surveying the damage from a hurricane that had come close, but not too close, I spoke with Mrs. Brown briefly. I found that she was a very prayerful woman, and she prayed for the children that went through her lunch line. I think she saw things in our faces that no one else saw. She knew who was troubled. She knew who felt lost. Her prayers were like those old seeds in my garden soil. They didn’t sprout and blossom right away. But she planted them anyway with her kind words and smiles, trusting that one day all would be well.

Somewhere in your life, there has likely been someone like Mrs. Brown. They may not have been an elementary school lunch lady, but they wanted good things for you and for your life to turn out well.

Today may be your day to turn over some soil and see what happens. Or plant some seeds of your own into the life of someone who needs them. You may not see what happens, but love, kindness, prayers, little flowers, and an extra helping of real mashed potatoes are never wasted.

Each post shares a glimpse into my journey as a writer and illustrator. Every “Like,” “Follow,” and “Comment” is truly appreciated!

Remembering Blanche And All That Really Needs To Be Said

Dedication Page

Today, April 21st, is our day to remember Blanche who told us “Farewell” in her own way on this day last year when it was Easter Sunday. This post is mostly at Pearl’s request, and it features the illustration from the dedication page of our next book which is about Blanche and Pearl and The Bottle Cap Lady. The book is dedicated to Blanche, who will always be Pearl’s best friend ever.

The illustration style is one that Pearl likes best. It uses drawings made on pieces of torn scraps of paper she collected over time. This is not the easiest for me to do, but it is Pearl’s story, and so she gets the final approval whenever possible. I do like the idea of rescuing things thrown away like this scrap of paper and then turning them into something beautiful. That is what happens in this story to more than just the things blown out of the trash truck each Tuesday and then collected by Pearl.

She has also been considering a change in the title to The Bottle Cap Lady with the subtitle Or How To Explain Christmas To Chickens. But there is still plenty of time to decide.

Here is an excerpt Pearl asked me to share with you today as we remember Blanche together.

The only words I ever recall Blanche telling me directly were “Thank you.”

She said this to me on one of her last nights with us when I took her in for a warm bath and was drying her off. There was no one else around to hear her, only me. She nodded after she said those words, and I held her closer still. She had not been able to get up to the coop by herself that Good Friday night.

She would talk to me when the others were talking to me, all in a group. But we never really had a heart to heart conversation.

I’m unsure why that was. Perhaps she felt it was helping to protect Pearl in some way. Not that she was afraid I would hurt her or Pearl, just that it was safer if the others always thought they were my favorites rather than the two of them.

I suppose sometimes “Thank you” is really all that needs to be said. But we really need to listen carefully when someone tells us “Thank you.” Sometimes what they really may be saying is “Farewell.”

from “How To Explain Christmas To Chickens”

We appreciate you for remembering Blanche with us and look forward to sharing this full story with you soon.

Pearl and John and also Gracie, Bessie, Emily, and Amelia

Each post shares a glimpse into my journey as a writer and illustrator. Every “Like,” “Follow,” and “Comment” is truly appreciated! 

My Life With Gracie…Only For A Season

Only For A Season

Emily hopped unexpectedly into my lap. I was setting some pavers and bricks for a new garden path. Everyone else was pecking and scratching in their backyard playground, but Emily had slipped through a small gap in the fencing.

“I remember the first time you slipped through that little gap. None of the others know it is there.”

“Yes, sometimes there really are advantages to being the smallest,” Emily said.

“But you didn’t go off hunting for worms like the others would have done.”

“What was I doing instead?” she asked, even though she already knew what I would say.

“You were walking down one of the garden paths just looking at all of the beautiful flowers around you.”

“And why wasn’t I looking for bugs first?”

“Because, just like you told me, the bugs will always be there, but the flowers are with us only for a season.”

Emily smiled her happiest smile. Her love for the garden was something connecting us.

This was the beginning of what has come to resemble an old family story, one Emily and I tell to each other. It is the kind of story that gets told and retold, the kind that anyone outside the family might not completely understand, but we did. It is a story Emily loved to hear again and again, and one I never want to forget.

“I will always remember how you walked in the garden that day.”

“Can you draw me like that? Like how I was walking?” she asked as she had done so many times before.

“I have tried time and time again, but I can’t quite get it right. Still, it’s a picture in my heart, and perhaps that is the best kind of picture to have, one that can’t fade or become old and wrinkled.”

“And how was I walking?” she asked.

“In a way slowly to take it all in, and yet in a way quickly so as not to miss anything.”

“How can someone walk quickly and slowly both at the same time?” she asked. This was a new question she had decided to add to our story, and it delighted me.

“I am not sure. But you did. Beauty does that, especially when enjoyed by a heart like yours.”

“Beauty must be able to suspend time,” she mused. “But why do you suddenly look so sad?”

“Because when I was drawing a picture of your coop and some of the iris flowers, I realized how much the chicken wire fencing obscures their beauty from your view. You don’t get to walk through the garden as often as you’d like. I’m sure.”

“But when I do, I enjoy every minute of it. Do you know what I might like best about the iris blossoms? They have those yellow parts that look like big fuzzy caterpillars. You call them ‘beards’ but they look like ‘bugs’ to a chicken. I imagine if we were to eat one, it would tickle all the way down to my tummy.”

I imagined this tickling sensation with her, and we giggled.

“But I don’t hate the fencing or the chicken wire. They keep me safe.”

“They also keep you from seeing everything clearly.”

“Have you ever noticed how when you come home we are usually sitting close to the fence? Do you know why we do that?”

“I just always figured it was because you were eager for me to get home.”

“For some afternoon fruit? Well, maybe, but that is not the real reason. When we sit away from the fence, all we see is the fence. But when we sit close to the fence, we do not see the fence, just what is on the other side of the fence. We feel safe, but we also see the beauty.”

I felt there must be a lesson in what she had just told me, but I couldn’t ponder it just then. My mind was still trying to comprehend what she had said about beauty being able to suspend time. This is certainly not an idea that would occur to most chickens and certainly not to me on my own.

“Maybe you’d like to draw and paint some iris blossoms while we wait for them to bloom later this spring.”

“I would like that. With a picture, I can enjoy them all year round. They really are very easy to make. Just a chicken foot, three hearts one way, three hearts the other way, and three fuzzy caterpillars. It can’t get much easier.”

“Maybe you can teach me? It sounds like a very chicken way of looking at things.”

“It is,” she said. “But can we walk through the garden first though? Just you and me?”

“That would be beautiful,” I said, still feeling there was a lesson here with more chicken wisdom to help bring life into sharper focus. “You know, Emily, there is a very famous poem beginning with the words ‘she walks in beauty.’ It was written many years ago by someone named Lord Byron. He lived in England, and they have very beautiful gardens there. You walk in beauty, Emily.”

She either wasn’t sure what to say or hadn’t really heard me. So I just watched her walk on ahead.

She had all she needed, including a strong trust in the goodness of the world and everything in it. She just kept putting one foot in front of the other and believing.

Yes, surely there was a lesson or two for me to learn, and perhaps I would ask Gracie about all of this later. But for the moment, I thought it best to follow Emily through the meandering garden pathways and simply enjoy the beauty I saw in her heart.

Like the flowers she loves so much, her heart would be with me only for a season.

You can download a free photo of Emily’s drawing titled “Flowers And Worms” here and perhaps use it as a screensaver or desktop background. It may help to remind you to look for beauty, even in difficult times.

And if we are really lucky, I may be able to convince Emily to give us a lesson on how to draw and paint iris blossoms like she does. “Just a chicken foot, three hearts one way, three hearts the other way, and three fuzzy caterpillars.” Hopefully it will be as easy as she has promised!

Each post shares a glimpse into my journey as a writer and illustrator. Every “Like,” “Follow,” and “Comment” is truly appreciated!

Blanche And Pearl…“They Only Ever Had Each Other”

Blanche And Pearl...”They Only Ever Had Each Other”

Today seemed to be a good day to share one of the illustrations which I’ve been working on while my chickens helped some with a few pictures for “My Life With Gracie.” This illustration work really is work!

This is one of four large illustrations for How To Explain Christmas To Chickens. It is for the first section titled “Blanche And Pearl.” Each section will begin with a large illustration and then each chapter will have a smaller panoramic banner illustration. (Imagine just the bottom third of this drawing.)

It is a drawing challenge for me to work with only black lines and gray tones because I definitely miss being able to use color which adds so much life and emotion to a drawing. But with the cost of color printing, it is the only affordable alternative for a book of this length. Having grown up with only a black and white television, I am comfortable seeing the world without color, and I think perhaps the drawing style may somewhat recall a previous time period.

Some things are the same as the drawings which I’ve done from the beginning such as the low horizon line which gives a “chicken’s eye” or “child’s eye” view of the world. Also the illustrations which include people, such as The Bottle Cap Lady, will only show no more than the lower body, not the face. (Not because I can’t draw faces, but because the chickens are the main characters. It’s also important to the story’s message for The Bottle Cap Lady to be anyone anywhere, and facial details or a regular given name would interfere with that.)

You may notice a bit more realism in this drawing. Much of this is because the novel explores Pearl’s real genuine emotions about not being accepted by the other chickens and then later losing Blanche and needing to face life alone. Those themes don’t seem suited to a lighthearted cartoon style of drawing. There are also many straight lines and angular shapes, and only the chickens and the German iris use curved lines and rounded shapes. I think this contrast helps bring attention to the smaller elements in the drawing like the chickens. (Often Pearl feels small and insignificant, though she never gives up hope.)

My goal is for this illustration to capture the relationship between Blanche and Pearl and the feelings expressed by this key sentence from the story’s first part: “They only ever had each other.”

You may be thinking this doesn’t look like a typical Christmas illustration or sound like a typical Christmas story. You are quite right. But then Pearl is not a typical chicken and The Bottle Cap Lady is not a typical neighbor either!

Each post shares a glimpse into my journey as a writer and illustrator. Every “Like,” “Follow,” and “Comment” is truly appreciated!

How does this drawing look to you? Can you tell which chicken is Pearl? And is this Pearl as you might imagine her in a world of black and white? I live with these chickens and with these illustrations, so it’s often a challenge to see things with different, and perhaps more critical, eyes. Your perspective, even if not-so-favorable, is truly appreciated.