I have just finished reading Catherine Goldhammer’s wondrous memoir, Still Life with Chickens. I took a chance on it because it had the word “chickens” in the title, and to my absolute delight I found a kindred soul within its pages. I liked Ms. Goldhammer from the very opening of the book:
I did not have a year in Provence or a villa under the Tuscan sun. I did not have a farm in Africa. Instead, my diminished resources dictated a move to a run-down cottage in a honky-tonk town where live bait is sold from vending machines. (p. 1)
Right away the reader knows that this is not going to be one of those soaring, romantic stories from which movies are made. This is not escapist literature. Instead, it is a tale about a woman whose heart leads her more deeply into her own life — not just any life, not the good life or the life she always dreamed of — HER life. And interestingly enough, reading her story placed me all the more firmly in my own life, like a hen settling down to roost. I could imagine myself faced with the same choices, and I could imagine myself choosing as she did for much the same reasons.
It isn’t easy being an alektorophile (someone who loves chickens). Most urban people think of chickens simply as an entree and most rural people think of them as a chore. In truth, few people think of chickens at all. It is rare to find anyone who appreciates and admires chickens as creatures, and rarer still to find someone who gives expression to those feelings. So it was with utter delight that I read what Ms. Goldhammer has to say about chickens.
She introduces the chickens by explaining that they were superficially intended as a bribe to secure her tween-aged daughter’s cooperation with the unavoidable move. A page or two later, however, Ms. Goldhammer reveals deeper motives:
I had wanted chickens for a long time, along with a goat or two, but my husband — who had put up with, but not been happy about, cats, dogs, gerbils, snakes, and fish — had drawn the line at livestock, and I figured I better not push it. (p. 19)
(I feel such affinity with this statement that Catherine and I are henceforth on first-name terms.) She is divorced from her husband, and chickens have come to represent the thousand little sacrifices that people make to be with each other. These “chickens of the mind,” as she calls them, are as much an enticement for her as they are for her daughter; they draw her forward into each next step of her journey, each new day of the life that is becoming more surely hers.
Chickens of the mind pale in comparison with chickens in the bathtub, in the library, in the back yard. Flesh-and-blood chickens are much more of an investment in time, energy, and worry, not to mention dollars, than their up-front cost (a couple of bucks per chick) suggests. Late in winter, Catherine is at the end of her rope, and the added complication of chickens feels like the last straw. Then a workman tells her about his ninety-three-year-old aunt who keeps chickens because, she says, “They’re what gets me out of bed in the morning.” (p. 140) Catherine has to concede “that if Leonardo’s ninety-three-year-old aunt could do it, I could do it.” (p. 140)
In addition to all the practical things Catherine accomplishes in pursuing her life with chickens, she gains the wisdom and humility to see them as teachers. To her they become “Zen priests, with minds like cloudless skies.” (p. 154) A neighbor asks Catherine not to put up a privacy fence because the chickens are soothing to watch, like fish in an aquarium. Pondering the chickens’ attraction, she writes:
…although the chickens were busy, they were not in a hurry. They were calming. They were funny, although they had no sense of humor. They puttered, but in a serious sort of way. Chickens take themselves very seriously, actually. They have a sort of mindless gravitas. (p. 168)
She begins seeing the Buddha in them, realizes that nearly every piece of wisdom in the Tao Te Ching could be said about a chicken. “I had followed the chickens this far,” she says, “and would follow them farther. They were still talking to me, singing to me, telling me a story.” (p. 173) Because she has the audacity to listen, they tell her a story of her life.
Catherine concludes her tale much as she begins:
I did not have a year in Provence or a villa under the Tuscan sun. I did not have a farm in Africa. It turned out that my life was not someone else’s book. It was not a picture and it was not still. It was moving, variegated, unpredictable. It was a life, with chickens. (p. 176)
For the reader who has the audacity to listen, Catherine’s story will in turn tell a story of the possibilities of the reader’s own life.