When some people go through a midlife crisis, they buy themselves a Porsche. Me? I bought a donkey. That probably says something about my personality, but I’d be afraid to find out exactly what. In some ways, buying a donkey was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. In other ways, not so much. I suppose a girl should expect a touch of disillusionment if she’s foolish enough to choose an ass as her life mascot.
Perhaps I should point out that I didn’t buy a donkey because I lived in a remote Mexican village where four-legged animals are the normal mode of transportation. I didn’t go the donkey route because I couldn’t afford a Porsche, either. Actually, I had just deposited a million dollars into my bank account. I didn’t win the lottery or rob a bank, and I did not pass GO 5000 times in a Monopoly game. My knee-jerk reaction to the stress and inconvenience of a busy life was to give up, cash in, and start over. Starting over isn’t all that uncommon if you believe all the articles and books published on the subject of life reinvention. Our boomer generation is famous for creating a world of disposable products. No wonder we consider our very lifestyles disposable when they aren’t working just so.
Now you’re probably thinking, so you cashed in your life, got a million dollars, and went out and bought a donkey? Get real.
Getting real was exactly what my husband and I had in mind. For years, we worked at building a local dance school business, knowing our choice to make a living in the arts meant we’d always live a humble sort of existence, the kind of life where bouncing a check wasn’t all that unfamiliar a mortification. We were the sort of people who hemmed and hawed over whether or not we could afford a car with a sunroof, and we always ended up skipping that small luxury. We drove around with a shadow over our heads, and I mean that both literally and figuratively.
Then, one day, exhausted by how much upkeep our modest lifestyle took, we sat down and figured out just what we would have to work with if we cashed in our life and started over. Thanks to America’s real estate bubble and years of paying a mortgage on the two buildings that housed our little dance school business, our real estate net worth alone came to somewhere in the neighborhood of two million dollars.
Like most people who clip coupons, we had a lot of experience playing the “If I had a million dollars” game.
I’d see an expensive designer gown hanging in a boutique with a thousand dollar price tag and I’d comment, “If I had a million dollars, I’d sure buy that dress.”
My kids would whine, “All my friends have a [fill in the blank].” And I’d quip, “Well, if I had a million dollars, you’d have one, too.”
Standing in line once at AAA for discount tickets to Disney, my husband Mark once stared at a brochure for a trip to Paris and said, “If I had a million dollars, I’d take you there.” And an hour later, sitting at a red light, we both looked at a Porsche pulled up alongside our sensible Dodge Caravan. “If we had a million dollars, I’d buy one of those in blue.” I said.
“Red would be better,” Mark corrected.
Buying a donkey just never made an appearance in our “if I had a million” fantasies.
After a year of trial and error and the loss of at least a hundred young birds, I finally had eight full-grown chickens mature enough to start laying. I was determined to keep them alive.
I installed a bigger pen for my birds, burying the fencing into the ground so nothing could burrow underneath and since I now understood these eight birds may not ever make it to maturity, I ordered additional chicks online from a poultry company, the most cost-effective way to buy chicks, according to Ronnie.
If you’ve never done this yourself, I should warn you that Internet poultry shopping is dangerous, especially when your ten-year-old daughter is sitting next to you expressing little gasps of delight every time you add a different baby chick to your spring hatchery order.
Neva had been pining for the chickens with wispy fur-like feathers (Silkies) ever since her all-time favorite chick had become a cat snack, so I ordered half a dozen, along with the twelve Leghorn super egg layers I wanted for myself. We were both enchanted by Frizzles, so I thought I might as well get a few of that breed, too. Might as well get some fancy Cochins for diversity, and I don’t have any green egg layers so I should probably throw in a few Ameraucanas. What are those cool things? Sultans? Gotta get a few of those crazy looking birds…well, you can see how things escalate. Before you know it, you’ve ordered 68 baby chicks.
A few weeks later, the post office called to tell me a box from a poultry house had been delivered. Clearing his throat, the postmaster said I may have a problem because the box was oddly quiet.
I rushed to the post office, drove home quickly to open the package, only to find 68 dead chicks lying in the synthetic grass like lifeless Easter peeps. The few birds that had survived were huddled under the dead bodies as if they’d pulled their friends over them for a blanket. Devastated, I called the company and was told the chicks must have gotten a chill.
“These things happen,” they said, promising to replace the order.
I didn’t necessarily want another order. I wanted to sue for mental anguish. Do you know how horrible opening a package is when you anticipate cute chicks and instead find tiny carcasses? The guilt was crushing.
“We’re going to send you a few extra chicks next time, just in case,” the woman said.
Quickly, I put the remaining live chicks in a box with a warming light. It was a chilly day, so I covered the plastic tub with a towel thinking they would appreciate a toasty environment. If nothing else, I might head off potential chick pneumonia. What I didn’t know was that a cover would make the temperature inside the box spike. An hour later the remaining chicks were now dead, too. Not from the cold. Nope. I had cooked them.
Naturally, I went to bed and cried myself to sleep.
When Mark came home he said, “What gives?”
“Because of me, 68 innocent chickens are dead.”
He tried not to laugh. “I know how badly you want to raise chickens so we can eat organically like the family in that book you are reading, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. Maybe everything you are learning lately will help you write your own bestseller.” A mischievous smile curled about his lips. “We’ll call yours Animal, Vegetable, Funeral.”
Overnight Kathy became the poster child in Blue Ridge for overcoming drugs and illiteracy. She began giving talks at the prison. She started volunteering at a woman’s shelter. She was recognized at her AA meeting as the most inspirational participant.
“Will you come to my counseling group for drug offenders and meet my counselors?” Kathy asked as casually as if she were inviting me to lunch. “I’ve told everyone about you.”
She seemed to be leading me deeper and deeper into the process of healing our community, and I felt honored to have a karmic purpose at long last.
“Of course,” I said.
Days later I was sitting with a dozen ex-meth addicts, half of whom also couldn’t read. I listened to story after story of struggles with addiction and life upheaval tumbling out of the mouths of my neighbors. The brother of my daughter’s best friend was among the group, as well as the father of my son’s best friend. Three women in the group talked about how they wanted to straighten out their lives so they could get their kids back from foster care. These confessors were not yet seventeen, my son’s age.
The romance of living in the country—the charm and grace and simplicity I associated to living among the trees— was now fading in the harsh dawn of reality. Life in Blue Ridge was wonderful for a retired visitor living in an upscale cabin for weekend visits. People from a background like ours shopped in the area’s antique stores and rustic art galleries, took classes at the art center, boated on the lake, and meandered through craft festivals thinking life in the mountains is sweet. But underneath the quaint charm of the neighborhood coffee shop, beyond the lilting accents of shopkeepers and the cute smiles of friendly cowboys, lurked a wealth of sad stories and threatening circumstances that I had no choice but to acknowledge now. My new understanding of the sad, dark side of the fulltime residents who were not transplants made me fear just how skewed my children’s perceptions were of what was a normal, opportunistic existence for people of our socioeconomic class. I did want my children exposed to a less consumption-driven world, for I recognized the value in their not growing up to believe a sugarcoated world and a life of entitlement was the norm, but I hated that they were totally removed from mainstream America where opportunity was profoundly infinite and a greater emphasis on higher education and liberal thinking prevailed.
To grow up balanced, secure, and whole, my kids needed the world we left behind just as badly as they once needed exposure to a country existence. I no longer craved a trip to Paris for my own curiosity about the bigger world. I now craved a trip, anywhere, for the whole family, a trip to remind us all that there was a vibrant life out there bigger than Blue Ridge, filled with life’s marvels.
Things bloom in the city the same way they bloom in the country. Flowers. People. Ideas.
For me, now, doubts were in bloom.