by Amy Glynn
Our first Christmas together, I was 39 weeks pregnant. He let me drag a seven-foot fir tree up the stairs to the flat and sat on the couch with a beer while I decorated it.
“Nesting.” The very word sounds cuddly, nurturing. Visions of jewel-eyed songbirds co-creating a safe place for their progeny, all full of brash joy and hope for the future. Yes, joy and hope: you really can’t watch a housefinch meticulously weaving strands of thyme through a cup-shaped matrix of grass and string and laundry lint while its mate hops around as if suggesting adjustments, and not believe they are experiencing hope. Try it. Tell yourself you’re anthropomorphizing and that finches do not have emotions. Nesting birds exude it. The finches in the eaves. The quail hiding their improbable 14-chick brood under the juniper bushes. Even the chickens in the backyard, cloistered in their rooster-free nunnery, can’t help it: They will spread their high-gloss breast feathers over a clutch of eggs, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they will never hatch. Try to retrieve the eggs and they will bite the hell out of you, because they are on a seriously rigorous parenting mission called Nesting. Even the pointless brooding instinct of a Cochin hen looks like the height of purposeful work and utter confidence in the future.
I envy them, I do. But we are not finches. Or even chickens. I strung the lights muttering that I hoped he would keep the beer to a minimum since I’d need to be driven to the hospital immediately if stringing baubles on a 7’ Noble fir caused a placental abruption. He replied, “Christmas makes me queasy.”
“Try pregnancy,” I’d shot back. But seriously? The extra 60 lbs and the small human being relentlessly pummeling my bladder with its elbows wasn’t really what was causing the acid reflux at that point. My mate was refusing to engage in nesting with me, and I had not seen that coming. Now I understood this was going to go far, far beyond a disparity in enthusiasm for fir aromatics and fairy lights.
I might have finally snapped the day he “accidentally” left this piece of paper on the bedroom floor. It was a photocopied inventory from a book called Stop Walking on Eggshells: What to Do When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder, and was focused on all the ways your BPD spouse might be ruining your life. He’d ticked every single box. There were a cluster of questions about whether he felt he had to work abnormally hard (or “walk on eggshells”) to avoid “confrontations” and a sub-cluster about whether his spouse had “inappropriate, overly intense emotions such as anger.” I found it interesting that the inventory didn’t ask “Do you avoid confrontation because you’re avoidant, or definitely just because this specific person is irrational?” Or, “Even if the person’s anger feels inappropriately intense to you, do you understand why they are feeling it and is it possible they have a point?” In other words, this book had, it seemed from my perspective, a pretty huge chicken and egg problem.
I called my therapist. “But I don’t have Borderline Personality Disorder,” I said.
“No, you definitely don’t,” she said. “But you have some traits that are common in people who do.”
“So does he,” I said.
“So does everyone.”
“Exactly. So maybe you’re having an inappropriately intense reaction to this?” I could tell by her voice she was smiling but it wasn’t really funny. Truth? It still isn’t.
“He left it there on purpose,” I said.
“Likely,” she said, her voice placid.
Look, it was far from the worst thing that happened, but when is it ever the worst thing that triggers the meltdown, the revolt, the final, irrevocable no more? There’s a reason why they call it the last straw. We break by accretion. So much pressure, and then finally a crack, and then it’s over.
I’d bought my first home before we got together. It had a lot of serious problems and I’d been paying the mortgage for 18 months before I moved in, by which time we were engaged and expecting our first child. I was okay with all that, though the place was tiny, barely a one-bedroom and already time-bombed now that I was having a baby. Fine. It was a fabulous problem to have. It was a silly adventure we’d go on together.
I found his attitude toward the place… odd. He liked the neighborhood North Beach, and who wouldn’t: from our house we could see Alcatraz, hear the cable car running, and when the wind was right we could even hear the sea lions barking down at the wharf. People on my two-block alley street spoke at least nine different languages and we were stumbling distance to historic bars, cafes and bookstores. But there was almost instant friction about the house. It wasn’t just the Christmas tree. Furnishing “my” place was unbelievably stressful because he didn’t like anything, but he definitely disliked lots of stuff. Six months after we moved in, framed prints and photographs still stood leaning against walls. I’d say “What’s your enthusiasm level for getting these hung today?”
“OK–would you be put out if I just did it myself then?”
It was like that with almost everything. He couldn’t think of anything more hateful than shopping for a rug, but he’d sneer at the one I selected. I wondered aloud for months why our tax refund was taking so long–it was massive and we seriously needed it now that we owned half a house built in 1907. When I finally called the IRS I discovered it was being withheld because he hadn’t filed his returns for the previous three years. He seemed perplexed when I asked why he hadn’t mentioned it.
He sometimes referred to caring for his own infant daughter as me “needing his help.” In spite of which, I was happy when, for the second time, an egg cell made a play for viability. It changed its mind at about nine weeks, which causes a bigger hormonal freakout than you’d think. He’d sat in the living room watching TV while I lay on the bathroom floor. Never said anything, not one thing, when he came to bed. After a couple of days, decided to “help me” recuperate by suggesting I stay at my parents’ place until I was in a better mood.
And yet we went on. Had a second child. Got out of the city and into a mid-fifties rancher in the burbs. Any talk of fixing it up was met with a remark on the annoyingly low ceilings. We went on. Until we couldn’t.
For the record, you can theoretically walk on eggshells. The shape of an egg is designed to distribute enormous pressure, and a human adult can actually balance their entire weight on a couple dozen chicken eggs. It’s true you have to do it carefully. It requires understanding, sensitivity, and balance, none of which seem like bad traits to cultivate. What eggs cannot withstand is uneven pressure, which is why it’s easy to crack one over the side of a bowl, or shatter it by knocking it to the floor by accident.
When we separated, we tried a split-custody arrangement people call “nesting,” where the children stay in the house, and the adults trade off as at-bat parent. We couldn’t afford two extra living spaces; we struggled with the one mortgage we had. So we agreed to share the second space too. Everyone said it was better for the kids. Better for the kids was what I wanted, even at the price of extra suck for the adults. I thought I could handle it. I even felt good about it, optimistic. Maybe it would fix something.
Nope: I now had two locations where I was left with unwashed dishes or obnoxious forensic evidence that other women were sleeping on my sheets. Which was unpleasant. The lack of privacy was worse; he had no compunctions about reading my email or making data copies of my phone while I was in the shower. I didn’t exactly have stuff to hide, but it raised my hackles to imagine him pawing through my stuff.
The worst part, though? My garden. He had rigged it so that I had the kids during the school week and got to manage homework and laundry and the insane calendar of after-school activities. He had them on weekends, and got to go to birthday parties or the beach or live music or whatever other ornamental functions caught his fancy. The garden? He wouldn’t bother with that at gunpoint, never had, though he was happy enough to eat what it produced. We started the Nesting Experiment in March and I missed the planting date for summer annuals–no tomatoes, no beans, no basil. Fruit trees went un-thinned; the Santa Rosa plum got so overweight with fruit that one day it split a primary limb straight to the trunk. The apricot gave up and dropped all its dime-sized fruits before that happened. The cherries developed bracket fungus. Fireblight attacked the pears.
I planted herbs and strawberries in pots outside the back door of the concrete-encased Berkeley loft where I spent the time I’d normally spend in the garden, but promptly realized he would never water them during the week, and with the western exposure the deck had, they’d cook in the sun before summer even got going. I soaked them, hopefully. They died.
Truth? The time issue was real, but what laid waste to my landscape was actually hopelessness. It felt pointless, burdensome, irrelevant. I had tended plants and animals to create food for my family. To create an idyllic space where we would enjoy each other’s company. What was the meaning of any of that now that my family was broken?
And what was I supposed to do with all the eggs?
My great-uncle Nick came from a well-off St. Petersburg family and was an Imperial Naval officer who served in the Czar’s palace guard. The Cheka took out his family. The sole survivor, he fled Russia with nothing but the clothes on his back. Or almost nothing. He had an egg. It was about eight inches high, white porcelain bisque with gold inlay, and bore, in Art Nouveau lines, the monogram of the Czar’s sister, Olga, and the date, 1914.
In many cultures, eggs symbolize renewal, rebirth, and eternal life – they’re symbol as common and as complex as the cross is to Catholics. No one living knows exactly when or why Olga Romanova had given this one to Nick, but painters, lacquer-masters, woodworkers, porcelain producers and jewelers have all taken the egg as their medium and their muse in Russia over the centuries. Hermetic yet permeable, commonplace yet completely extraordinary, elegantly simple and infinitely complicated. That egg survived the Cheka, the Revolution, a dead-of-night border crossing to Finland, and subsequent moves to Denmark, New York, and eventually southern Oregon. It witnessed almost a century of human drama. It outlived Nick, moved west with my great-aunt Katherine after he died. Then it was knocked to the floor and broken by a housekeeper in a Grants Pass retirement home.
Some things are just like that. They can survive a cataclysm only to shatter at an accidental tap. We all know it, but it doesn’t make it any less agonizing when it happens.
We had a backyard, and enough chill hours to grow fruit trees. I’d grown up this way, eating walnuts off the trees and tomatoes straight off the vine. Lemons came from the yard, not the store. As an adult and a mother, my urge to get off the grid was becoming stronger. I wanted to raise as much of our food as possible. I wanted to raise my kids to be aware, grateful, adventurous and mindful eaters, in love with the pleasures of the table and sensitive to the cycles of death and renewal involved in putting calories into their mouths. That meant being in touch with what we were eating at a very literal level. And that meant I had to concede that if I had the space and the ability to keep chickens, not doing so was a failure to abide by my own principles. But we’d expensively transformed the trainwreck left by our home’s previous owners into the perfect partyscape. And by we I mean his salary paid off the home equity loan, not that that’s nothing. Designing it was strictly a non-participation-followed-by-sneering-critique affair.
It finally looked good. Was I seriously going to mess that up with a bunch of noisy, smelly barnyard birds? I knew from long, sorry experience that I’d be doing the overwhelming majority of the work. Yet the idea exerted a certain escalating gravitational pull. Before long I was researching chicken-stewardship and fascinated by the diversity of breeds and the fetishists each one seemed to engender–but what hooked me was the reverence with which breeders and enthusiasts spoke of the eggs. Not just how good they tasted but how beautiful they were. Proud backyard farmers posted images of prefab Easter eggs in shades of sky blue, turquoise, olive green, chocolate brown, terra cotta, plum, lavender and pale pink. Even in photos there was something magical about them. Decision-making had become oddly confusing since I got married. I wanted to do it, but I couldn’t quite make myself do it. I didn’t really understand why.
Eventually something snapped. That something was my back. It was Halloween. The girls were in manic pre-trick-or-treating hyperdrive. Something had to be done. I found a cached prescription muscle relaxant in the medicine cabinet, got them into the car, and took them to the “petting zoo,” meaning the local feed store, a cavernous living fossil that still served what was left of the farm culture that used to dominate the county. The sign out front, as always, advertised ducklings, bunnies, and day-old chicks. There was Flexeril and pantleg-tugging involved. My defenses were low. The next thing I knew, we were driving home with a heat lamp, pine shavings, food, and a box of psychotically cute hatchlings. We rigged up the heat lamp in the living room, over a large metal tub I used for chilling drinks at pool parties. We were mesmerized by their sweet, inane little voices, but I knew they’d grow up and turn into chickens. This was it. I was now responsible for farm animals. Either the Flexeril was wearing off or I was experiencing a weird pang of buyer’s remorse.
“What do you think Daddy’s going to say when he gets home?” I asked.
“That you’re cuckoo-bananapants,” the five-year-old replied confidently. “What should we name them?”
Zabaglione, I thought. Angel Food. Quiche Lorraine. Sunny side up. I warned her that once the animals had names, there was no chance of them ever becoming poule-au-pot. She shrugged and pointed at the pale-gold fluffball that would become a Buff Orpington hen. “Jennifer,” she said.
We had a chat about how chickens weren’t pets and might also be a lot of smelly and annoying work. She told me confidently that if they turned out to be a bad move we could simply “chop off their heads and have them for dinner.” When I asked her how she’d feel about eating an animal that had been walking around the backyard minding its own business, she gave me a withering look and said, “Please, Mom. Where do you think our food comes from?” So, okay, she was ready. But I was a little worried about what my spouse would say. Yes, I’d been ruminating about it for a long time. Actually acquiring them was another matter. Likely to result in comments about my “impulsivity,” or passive-aggressive remarks about smells and messes and expensive hobbies and having more work to do around the house.
But all he said was, “So, these are the chickens?” I could tell he too was already thinking about quiches and macarons and soufflés. I relaxed. Not because of the Flexeril.
Something people don’t mention about keeping hens: the steady supply of eggs produces an insane craving for more eggs. You begin to feel your flock is not complete because it lacks some weird, rare or fabulous bird with an unusually beautiful tail, a cool head-crest, or an exotic egg color. You’re accidentally seduced by hatchlings when you go to the feed store for supplies. The modest three-bird flock you intended to have swells. We created a fenced enclosure for them in a derelict corner of the backyard where awkward retaining walls had left an unusable trough of space. Now I had a real, permanent chicken run, precisely as I swore I never would. I fed them garden prunings and kitchen scraps. They ate the bugs off the lettuce and ate the lettuce for good measure. I planted flowers and the chickens kicked them into oblivion in their Ahab-like quest for caterpillars. The metaphor wasn’t lost on me. But whatever. They improved the soil, devoured kitchen scraps, produced a lot of nitrogen-rich fertilizer, and gave us eggs. And those metaphors weren’t lost on me either.
The eggs were ridiculously tasty. I made challah that homesick expatriated Brooklynites swooned over. Popovers ruled Sunday breakfast, we made brilliant pasta from Thomas Keller’s decadent twelve-yolk recipe without a thought, and neighbors lined up for extras. We were awash in eggs from March to November, and they never stopped being a miracle. That part never changed. They are unfathomably magical.
Hindu mythology suggests that at the beginning of the world, nonbeing became existence, which manifested as a giant egg. When it cracked open, the earth and sky spilled from the shell. The Egyptian god Ra was said to have hatched from an ibis egg. The ancient Greeks held that an “Orphic Egg” hatched the primordial diety who in turn created all the other gods. Taoist Chinese monks also suggested the universe began as an egg.
“Nesting” in that loft in Berkeley was not working for me. Having imagined I’d partly enjoy the respite from kid-wrangling and the return of an adult social life, I discovered that in reality, I didn’t want to see anyone, do anything, go outside. Two or three weekends a month would magically coincide with skull-splitting migraines that just happened to last from Friday night until Monday morning. I was disoriented; part of me kept wondering where my family had gone. In a well-intended effort to snap me out of it my mother suggested “At some point you’re going to have to remember you chose this.”
“No one,” I said in an icy fury, “chooses this. No one.”
But I had chosen him. See, with eggs, for example, you don’t have to crack them to know there’s something bad for you in there. An egg that isn’t safe to eat will float in a bowl of water, so you don’t even have to crack them and expose yourself the sulfur stench of decay. There is no float test for humans and I didn’t understand I was being presented with a mask–or, if you like, a shell. Or maybe I did. Maybe I actually did, and decided to go with it anyway, like one zillion men women and men before me, believing, with brash optimism and confidence in the future, that two flawed, blinkered humans would want to evolve just a little bit toward each other over time because that was how partnership was supposed to work and everyone would be a better person for it.
My back gave out again, this time in the middle of the metal spiral staircase that led to the sleeping loft. I was stuck, paralyzed, for almost half an hour, and that was a metaphor that not only hurt but terrified me. Once I regained the ability to walk, I did. To the car. I drove back to the house and informed him I wasn’t OK with “nesting” anymore.
“Well, what am I supposed to do?”
I didn’t blame him at all for the angry tone. Had he done the same thing I would have been furious. “I know,” I said. “I’m sorry. But I’m not able to do this anymore. You can do whatever you want. Stay at the apartment permanently, stay here, do some third thing, I don’t care. I’m just not doing this anymore. It’s killing me.”
We had the conversation with the kids about how the “temporary separation” might not in fact be temporary. They looked at each other, and then at me and him.
“No duh,” the younger one said. “Can we get kittens?”
I never knew my great-uncle Nick, but Katherine lived until I was in my mid-twenties and used to write me letters, in a looped, slanting longhand, when I was in college. She liked to talk about music – like me, she’d been a singer in her youth. She also enjoyed talking about Nick. It never seemed to bother her at all; she could even dispassionately describe the day she found him on the bathroom floor, where he’d keeled over from an embolism. She loved talking about his past – the exotic Nick she never even knew, the young man who’d worked the sails on the Standart and been friendly with the Romanovs and whose family had been murdered by Cheka militants in 1919 and who had disappeared into Finland on what I like to imagine was a black, icy night, carrying a creamy-white, gold-embellished egg that he’d been given by Olga Romanova. I’m sure she missed Nick, but she also relished the drama of his past, and had enough distance from it to enjoy talking about what he had done, what he had survived.
What she never talked about was her first husband–she’d been a widow when she and Nick met. But I’d heard a little. That he had been, like the Czar’s son, a hemophiliac. And that upon going to a hospital for a gall bladder attack, Katherine had been etherized and given a hysterectomy so that her husband’s illness could not be passed on. No warning, no discussion, no consent.
Katherine had grown up in a family of Danish Lutheran farmers who worked long days in hard conditions. Mentioning personal loss or sorrow was looked upon as a sinfully self-indulgent burden to others, and maybe that’s why Katherine never talked about her first husband, or the hysterectomy. Or maybe it was too hard to talk about, or maybe it was something else. I only know that she was forcibly sterilized because her husband had a condition that promised to make his life rather short. It kept that promise and Katherine never had children. If it bothered her, she never said. Nick was older than she was; when they met, both were past child-rearing age. They lived well, by all accounts enjoyed each other, traveled, accumulated some small treasures some people might characterize as a nest egg – a Faberge bracelet charm, an antique Alexandrite ring, enough money for Katherine to be able to fend for herself when Nick inevitably predeceased her. And that egg, which for whatever reason had been gifted him by the sister of the Czar not long before the Revolution shattered everything he knew.
Eggshells are made of layers of calcium carbonate crystals in a protein matrix. The process of shell formation takes about twenty hours. Every year at a certain point in late March, the daylight hours hit a tipping point and a single egg appears in the nest box, olive green or stippled terra cotta or turquoise or the color of porcelain bisque. It is calcium and albumen, it is luck and hope, it is rebirth and resurrection, it is acetylcholine precursor and zinc and iron, it is a message that something new is always coming even if we don’t see it or understand what it is. And you can take it in your palm, feeling the smooth weight of it, the strangely conjoined fragility and stability. It might even still be warm.
Human females are born with all the egg cells we will ever have. We spend them slowly, gradually, releasing more of them as we near the end of our reproductive lives. Hens are also hatched with all their oocytes, but they tend to handle it the other way, laying the most eggs in their first sexually mature season and declining to what we jokingly called “henopause” within about three years. In commercial egg operations, birds are destroyed the minute they start to slow down. About the only positive thing you can say about the life of a commercial laying hen is that it is short, and that’s certainly one of the reasons I’m happy to see that in my community more and more people are reverting to hen-keeping. It’s an exceedingly dirty and inhumane industry, and that is absolutely a good enough reason to decouple from it. And yes, eggs are more nutrient-dense, fresher, freer of pathogens and better-tasting when they come from your own backyard–and those things are also more than enough reason. When you raise your own eggs, you end up with more bioavailable zinc and iron and choline, but you also absorb other things – patterns and mythologies, archetypes and symbols, traditions both social and mystical. I’m sorry, but an egg from the supermarket simply cannot endow you with the same sense that you are closely and vitally involved in a potent and profound mystery.
In a desperate bid to reinvigorate our interest in the world outside the living room, I bought chicks. I’d promised the girls kittens, but it wasn’t kitten season yet, and once we had housecats, brooding chicks would become virtually impossible. Anyway it gave me and the girls something to focus on. This, this tending and stewarding and caring for something that wasn’t your own mire of wishful thinking and pain and confusion – this was the point.
At about 9 weeks, in a creepy echo of my second pregnancy, they all died one afternoon. I have no idea why. I’d been watching them hop around the patio testing their absurd wings not 40 minutes earlier – but when I found the first one under a rosebush its small body was cold already, the glossy, gesso-white feathers lank, eyes empty. It had been mild out, and anyway they would have huddled together if they were cold. A red-shouldered hawk had been sitting on the fence a lot but a raptor would have picked the thing up and carried it off completely. Had they eaten something toxic? In seven years of keeping hens I’d never had one poison itself. Who knew? All I really knew at that moment was that no matter how hard I worked, everything I labored over would fail. I knew with a kind of religious conviction that everything he had ever said to me was true. I was incompetent. Disordered. Broken. I’d failed to keep my marriage together, failed at giving my kids a “normal” family, failed to be whatever it was my spouse thought I should be–now the damned chickens I’d micromanaged from hatchlings, keeping them fed and watered and warm, touching them so they’d be used to that, letting them explore the garden so they’d be able to smell the outdoors and eat grass – dead for no discernable reason. Adult hens are low-maintenance but babies are babies and these ones had been hawkeyed hour to hour until they were within days of being big enough to fend for themselves. I didn’t realize how much effort, how much energy I had put into that until it ended like this. And I don’t just mean the chicks.
My mother found a restorer for Nick’s egg, and it was painstakingly and expensively reassembled from the broken pieces my grandfather had retrieved from the trash. They did good work – you have to look closely to notice the webbing of cracks – but of course it was never the same. Its resale value was destroyed, but that wasn’t the point; no one would ever sell it. It was just that we all understood that you cannot unbreak an egg. You simply can’t. Once that shell is opened, what’s inside it dies. Katherine didn’t even want it back – that, she said, would be unbearable.
I picked the girls up from school and explained about the dead chicks. Everyone cried. We had a long conversation about whether we should stop trying. They were determined to replace the chicks. Frankly I wasn’t sure I had the energy for it, not sure I could take more failure, death, making an investment in keeping something alive and productive and thriving only to have it end in what’s the fucking point. But my daughters were young. They still thought yes was a better answer than no. They were lucky.
About the Author:
Amy Glynn is an award-winning poet and essayist whose first poetry volume, A Modern Herbal, was published by Measure Press in 2013.