November at the Farm
November at the farm. Where do I begin?
November was a month of delirium and clairvoyance, demise and uprising, cursed luck and gratitude all wrapped into thirty neatly packaged days. This month, I lived in an animal house surrounded by a lawn of toxic plants newly bloomed from October rains. Nature fought back hard against our presence in the woods, and in red-hot, maddening agony, I sat back and watched.
But before the reign of the poisonous plants took root, our chicks were growing quickly and demanding our attention. The five chicks Daniel brought home to placate the ache of a midlife crisis had tragically become four in October when Blue nudged one out of its cage.
“This is why you never name chickens,” Daniel upbraided me that evening. But naming poor Henrietta didn’t just allow me to connect with her. It also helped to honor her memory.
Four big chicks survived to see the townhouse coop Daniel constructed outside our back deck. They welcomed the upgrade in space, clucking freely around their fenced-in greenery.
Strangely, Daniel and I felt like empty nesters indoors. We had grown used to the birdsongs as background living room noise. Although we had plenty of animals already, we needed something to fill the new void.
“You know that pretty vintage birdcage in the barn?” I asked Daniel in a moment of weakness.
“I thought you’d never ask,” he sang.
Twenty minutes later, Daniel returned to our doorstep clutching the curved handle of the cage in his hands. After setting the cage in place in the stray pellets that marked where the chicks’ incubator had lived, Daniel left with Snowpea in tow to pick out two parakeets, a feeder, and a coconut hanging couch.
“I don’t even know how to take care of birds,” I told Daniel as he passed me a squawking cardboard box. But if being married to Daniel has taught me anything, it’s to embrace spontaneity. So, I bit my tongue and continued listening to the blue bird’s frightened song.
“I think we’ll call this one Simone,” I announced, looking the blue bird in her beady eyes. I had always wanted a pet named after my favorite French feminist writer anyway. “And her green lovebird can be Jean-Paul.”
Two days later, I bolted from bed with a start. One pronounced squawk from outside alerted me that something was amiss. The back door was wide open, and I raced to peer through it. “My love, come quick! Blue has a chicken!”
Daniel darted from the bathroom in fury, calling “Blue!” at the top of his lungs. His rage came too late. A chicken had fled the coop, and in attempting to put him back where he rightly belonged, Blue had snapped his neck.
“Get inside! Now!” Daniel screamed at Blue. In deaf anger, he whacked her with a blanket. “Bad dog! Bad dog! Bad dog!”
“Stop!” I raised my voice at Daniel, pulling Eira tighter into my own cocoon of blankets. “You’re scaring Snowpea.”
Blue slithered under the bed, where she lay paralyzed with shame, and Daniel returned to the yard, where he held the broken chicken in his hands. He was too late to repair our baby rooster Fenn. Hens Jasmine, Rose, and Lily remained clucking softly, huddled away in a corner of the coop. What made us think we were cut out to raise all these animals anyway?
“Excuse me. Are you a magician?” A man to my right asked me later that day as I sat typing over a latte in Verve.
I glanced back at him and was unable to contain a laugh. Dressed all in black with a certain forced but not too forced aura of mystery, he looked like a magician – and one who worked out pretty regularly.
“No. No, I’m not,” I said still giggling.
“You look like one,” he informed me, smiling. I glanced down at my outfit and realized I, too, was wearing all black. It’s a rare treat to see anyone other than farm animals while working from home, so today, I had also worn Native American beads, blue dreamcatcher earrings, black eyeliner, a hint of red lipstick, and a fedora hat. Maybe I accidentally did dress like a magician?
“I’m not a magician, but I’m a yoga teacher if that counts for anything,” I replied.
“A yoga teacher! How interesting. I’m a hypnotist,” he said, turning his body toward me. Oh no, I thought. I kept my torso turned to my screen, but my head tilted farther in his direction. “You know, I’ve only done yoga twice before. Once here at the Google building, and once when I traveled to Africa. What type of yoga do you teach?”
“Well, I don’t teach as often anymore because of the pandemic. Most of the time now, I work behind the scenes for a yoga course production company and as a researcher. Actually, a lot of my research is based in Africa.”
“In Africa!” he said, his face brightening.
“But I suppose there are two types of yoga that are taught around here today,” I continued. “One is kind of an exercise-based yoga that’s been stripped away of any spiritual meaning. And the other is more about the energy you cultivate from the practice, and it’s a little closer to the source. I like to see yoga as more of an art than a physical practice, so I like to use mudras and poetry and symbolism when I teach,” I replied, wondering to myself why I was explaining my philosophy of teaching to a stranger when I had emails to write. I did need to get out from the farm more often.
“And do you meditate often?”
“Yes, but again, not as much as before since I have a little one now.” *hint hint* I stressed the words looking him straight in the eyes.
“And have you had any profound meditation experiences?” He asked without blinking.
“I think I’m more of a novice meditation practitioner. I have not on my own, but…” I said and looked away thinking wistfully of Yangon, Paris, and Vienna. “I’ve had some very interesting group meditation experiences.”
“That’s intriguing. I apologize, I didn’t ask your name.”
“Lacey,” I replied, my body still facing my laptop.
“Ahmad,” he said, leaning in closer and extending his hand.
“Nice to meet you,” I replied, now turning to face him as I shook his hand.
“I don’t mean to take up your time, but it’s not every day that you run into global traveler yoga teacher magicians. I wonder if much of what you teach is similar to what I do as a hypnotist.”
“And what do you do as a hypnotist?” I asked.
“Well, it’s not my full-time profession either. I also work in research. But when I have the chance, I help people to manage stress or anxiety or –”
“But what do you do as a hypnotist? I mean, what’s it like to be hypnotized?”
“What I do is – ” Cutting his sentence short, he paused and grinned. “It’s easier to understand if I show you. Close your eyes.”
“What?” I asked, stunned. Were we really doing this right here in a coffee shop?
“Close your eyes,” he said again, his voice changing cadence. “I’m going to count backward from ten, and with each number will become progressively more relaxed.”
With my eyes closed, I felt his gaze on my hands. This is why Daniel and I should have exchanged rings.
“Ten, nine, eight – going deeper into relaxation, seven – shoulders softening, six – feeling more and more relaxed, five, four, three – even more relaxed, two – your mind quieting, one.”
To my left, I felt the hot gaze of our neighboring table, two tech bros who had been discussing day trading and anxiety meds. Should I cut him off? But curiosity got the best of me.
“Nothing around you matters now. When I say ‘open your eyes’, you will open your eyes and see everything around you just as it is, but you won’t engage with it. The world will go on, but you can sit back and relax away from it now. Open your eyes,” he said, and I saw the dog lying on the ground next to the table in front of us. “Now close your eyes. Now open.” The dog in front of us yawned. “Now close. Good. Now visualize your heart chakra right in the center of your chest. See your heart chakra reside within you. Let yourself continue to relax. Open your eyes. How are you feeling, Lacey?”
“I feel relaxed,” I said, surprised at my state. “And I felt my heart start racing when you said to visualize it.”
“Good. Close your eyes. Visualize your heart chakra. And from that space, see a bright green light shining. See the green light spreading, now covering your body. Your heart is now open to love.”
Wait. What? I bit my lip to suppress a laugh. Is he trying to hypnotize me into falling in love with him?
“See the green light spread through your body. Now see yourself walking away from here to a library. You enter the library and see shelves upon shelves of books. At the top of the shelf to your left, you see a book with a red cover and gold binding. You take the book from the shelf and sit at a table by a window. I’m sitting right beside you here. When you open the book, you will see the three wishes your heart desires. You open the book to the first page. You see your first wish in the white light before you,” he says, and I see an acceptance letter to a PhD program.
“You open the book to the second page. You see your second wish in the white light before you,” he says, and I see myself writing in a café and window shopping with Snowpea at patisseries in Paris.
“You open the book to the third page. You see your third wish in the white light before you,” he says, and I see myself tending to winegrape vines on the sloping hill at our home in the woods.
“You see…” his voice trails off as the three images meld together with one another, swirling in a nonsensical way without time or space. I hear his voice in the background, but the words lose meaning. I feel myself seated at the coffee shop still, but I also feel my mind lost in a fantasy of vines, latte art, and old book pages.
“Open your eyes, Lacey. Open your eyes, Lacey,” then louder, he says, “Lacey, open your eyes.” My eyelids flutter open with a start. How long has it been?
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“I feel…” I looked at my watch. It read 12:29. “Oh no! How has it already been 30 minutes? I’m so sorry, I have a meeting in one minute.”
I turned my body back toward my laptop and scrambled for a Zoom link. I felt his ego bruised for my lack of feedback, and I wondered if he thought I was making an excuse to push him away.
“That was great. Your voice is very soothing,” I offered. Then, turning back to my screen, “It was so nice to meet you.”
“Likewise. It would be great to continue this conversation – to talk more about meditation and hypnosis. Can I take your number?”
“Sure, um…” I said, then remember the line from a show I just saw about a woman who is stalked. “Actually, email is better. I’m tied to my laptop, so you can connect with me here.” I scribbled down a secondary email address and passed him the paper. If he was jaded as he walked away, I didn't notice it because I was busy smiling for the camera on my Zoom screen.
“It’s not Blue’s fault,” I said to Daniel on the way to pick up Snowpea from daycare later that day.
Still in a deep, gloomy funk about his chicken, he answered with a grunt.
“Aren’t you going to ask me about my day?”
He grunted again.
“You’re not going to believe this, but I got hypnotized in Verve. Some guy named Ahmad who may be a magician told me to open my heart chakra and tried to get my number,” I said, hoping to cheer him up.
“You did what!” he answered. Evidently, my approach had backfired. But at least I had his attention now. “What did he hypnotize you to do? You shouldn’t be messing around with that stuff.”
“Oh yeah, you believe in all that witchy witchy witchcraft, huh?”
“I believe this dude sounds like a bro. Do you even appreciate the things I do for you? Or do you just see me as some story for your blog? You know what, maybe you should have ended up with a bro. Do you see –”
“My love,” I interjected.
He grunted again.
“If he tried to hypnotize me to fall out of love with you, it didn’t work,” I said and kissed him on the cheek as we pulled up to Snowpea's daycare.
One week later, I returned to my spot in Verve. I avoided eye contact with the crowd of Silicon Valley bros, starry-eyed entrepreneurs, and dog parents around me, hoping the magician wouldn't appear again.
November was becoming colder than I ever imagined California to be. “Oh, it’s about 55 here, but it’s not so bad working outdoors if you wear a vest,” I heard the tech bro at the table to my left explain on his call with Boston.
At noon, the sun peeked out from behind the morning’s clouds, and my arms began to itch under my black sweater. I rub my hands against them. Again. And again. And again. Okay, they really itched now. Am I getting a heat rash from the sun? Northern California has such a strange climate. I peeled off my sweater, went deeper into my work, and for the time, the itching subsided.
“Do you feel now how cold it gets in California when the sun goes down?” I asked my parents that night after they arrive at our cabin in the woods for their Thanksgiving break. 50 degrees feels cold in a home without insulation. Snowpea cuddled against me as we sit on the couch, and I snuggled her to stop the shivering.
“Should I make a fire?” Daniel asked.
“I think I can see my breath,” my dad replied.
Our small home heats within minutes with the wood-burning stove aflame. As my body warmed, I started to itch again. I saw hives on my forearms and felt an itch begin on my lower back. Heat rash again?
But when the fire subsided, the itching continued. And spread. And spread. And spread through the night. Each time I drifted off to sleep on our air mattress, I quickly awakened by my hot, scratchy skin. By the time morning sunlight rose through the living room windows, my arms, chest, abdomen, and lower back were caked in bright red bumps. What is wrong with me?
“Boletus!” my father the botanist announced, taking a fallen mushroom into his bare hands.
“Don’t touch that! It could be poisonous,” I said, my eyes widening as my father continued spewing out facts about the fungi to my mother and Snowpea.
We walked further up the hill from our home, and my father reached out for a white berry growing from a branch in the brambles. “Symphoricarpos albus,” he pronounced. “Commonly known as snowberry.”
“Isn’t that poisonous, too?” I asked, my rash becoming hotter.
“There are many plants that are poisonous to ingest but very few that will kill you just by touching them. And the ones that are poisonous to touch are easy to spot,” he reassured me as he fawned the white berry then chucked it into the woodland.
I shook my head, bewildered by his bravery (or naivety?) and resisted the urge to scratch my skin.
“This is one of them,” he said, hovering his hand over hemlock.
“I told you, hemlock is everywhere around here,” I confirmed.
“It looks just like the leaves of a carrot,” my mom noted.
“Easy mistake to make. In fact, most deaths from poison hemlock occur when people add it to their salads after mistaking it for wild carrots or parsley growing in their garden,” my father continued, waving his phone over the plant to snap a photo.
“Okay, but WHY are you getting your hand so close!?!” I asked, panicked.
At noon, Snowpea and I took a catnap on the mattress in her room that doubles as the kittens' bed. I awakened with a start to a new severity of itching.
“Leo! Esto es muy importante. ¡No hagas eso! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba! ¿Entiendes?” I heard Randy shouting to his farmhand Leo in broken Spanish through the open window. From the smoke that entered the cat room, I could tell they were burning another fire in front of our home.
I rolled off the bed and into the kitchen. “Did Randy mention to you they were going to be burning another fire today?” I asked, feeling my arms inflamed. “I just woke up itchier. I think the fires might be causing this rash.”
“Yeah, they’re trying to get rid of that debris out there. I can talk to him, but I think you know what he’s going to say,” Daniel replied reluctantly.
“In my 35 years at the ranch, I have never heard of anyone getting a rash from our fires,” I said doing my best Randy impersonation. “I don’t know if his fires are the culprit, but I’m getting desperate to find a cure, so it can’t hurt.”
Moments later, Daniel returned from the front porch. “You’ll never guess what Randy said.”
“What?” I asked.
“In my 40 years at the ranch, I have never heard of anyone getting a rash from our fires,” he replied, lowering his voice.
“I knew it. Wait, but wasn’t it 35 years last week?” I asked, perplexed.
“His time here has appreciated since then. Next week it will be 50 years,” Daniel shrugged.
“If it’s not from the fire, then what could my rash be?” I asked, growing hotter.
“Maybe you’re allergic to your parents,” Daniel raised his voice.
“Hey, I heard that,” my dad announced from his place at the kitchen table. “What did you do the day before we came? That’s more likely to be the culprit.”
“Well, Daniel weeded a lot of poison oak on Saturday and Sunday to prepare the space for our garden,” I said, retracing our weekend. “I didn’t dare step outside. And you burned some of the weeds in the firepit by the garden too, right?”
“Just the brambles, not the oak leaves. And I washed my hands when I came in,” he said.
“But did you change your clothes right away? You know the oils from poison ivy and oak can live on clothes and pets for up to a year. What about Blue? Wasn’t she outside with you while you were weeding?” I asked.
“Yeah, she might have been playing around the weeds…” he said, guiltily.
Through the porch window, I saw Oliver scurry to the top of a tree, and my heart dropped to my stomach.
“Oh no. The cats,” I mouthed.
“I think the cats may have gotten into something on Sunday. Milo came inside and vomited green. I washed my hands after I cleaned it, but maybe I should have worn gloves. Then, Oliver let me pet him for about 5 minutes straight when I sat in the armchair to write. Usually, he runs away the minute I touch him, but he seemed kind of out of it on Sunday.”
I paused to scratch the growing red blotches under my left collarbone and above my left hip.
“Actually,” I continued, still scratching uncontrollably, “These spots are exactly where I touch myself when I’m trying to think of what to write next. And I was using a lot of brainpower on that paper last Sunday.”
“Stop scratching,” Daniel hissed.
I pursed my lips and breathed out. Cupping my hands together, I said, “If poison oak is anything like poison ivy – which it should be because they’re basically cousins – I’m really allergic, and this rash is going to get a lot worse.”
On Thanksgiving morning, I woke up feeling as though my throat wanted to close. My whole head felt sore and scratchy, and my whole body felt inflamed. The rash was spreading at a ferocious pace, and red raised bumps now covered the majority of skin on my arms, chest, lower back, and abdomen. The worst-hit areas swelled with fluid and were just beginning to ooze and puss.
This reaction was clearly in the same family as what I’ve felt with poison ivy, but it was quickly becoming more severe than my worst exposure (dodging into the woods to hide from a flash thunderstorm during a race and realizing too late my shelter was on a bed of poison ivy). In the past, I had stubbornly refused to be medicated for my allergy until I reached a breaking point (a week of insomnia and bumps spreading into my ass). This time, I knew better. But the antihistamine and steroid cream I had been prescribed seemed to be doing little for my condition.
After another walk through the woods, I lay immobilized on the couch. I writhed and shivered as my body grew hotter.
“She’s just faking it so she doesn’t have to help prepare Thanksgiving dinner,” Daniel told my parents. "It will clear up the day you leave."
My sore throat left me unable to reply. Maybe he was right. After all, it was convenient timing that my parents were here to watch Eira now.
I closed my eyes and sank deeper into the couch. Titanic was on the screen and I watched it sail and sink as I drifted in and out of sleep. I was washed over by the stress held in my body from 3 months of trying to be a capable, responsible parent and adult in these unfamiliar and unforgiving woods. I rode its waves in hot delirium, bobbing my head up to see the peace of my family cooking when I had the strength. Between wake and sleep, I saw the green poison oak leaves spreading over my body, turning my skin a deeper shade of red. A vision of winegrape vines growing on the sloping hill in our garden was clouded by poison oak leaves that covered the lawn and grew toward me, strangling my body in more green and red. Where had I seen this before?
“You have a fever of 101 degrees,” Daniel said, pressing a thermometer to my forehead.
“That stupid magician,” I said moving from vision to consciousness and back again.
“Mhmm,” Daniel nodded and handed me water and Tylenol. “Take this.”
“That’s so weird. Usually, you don’t get a fever with allergic reactions unless it’s really severe,” the doctor told in a telehealth visit on the final day of November. Her face scrunched up failing to hide the disgust she felt toward my elephant arms and bulging red abdomen. My parents had gone home, but the rash was undeniably still there.
“Yeah, the fever came when the rash was spreading the fastest. It broke after I took Tylenol, and I started feeling a little better. Most of my upper body is pussing and starting to look better, but it seems like the rash is still spreading down my legs. There was also so much puss in my abdomen, it kind of jiggled and was really painful to walk or sleep. The fluid seemed to move down into my groin, and now it’s in my left upper thigh.”
I waved the screen over my bright red, crusting abdomen, and the doctor scrunched her face tighter. “So, it sounds like the reaction went deeper than the top layer of your skin. What you’re describing is basically a third-degree burn.”
“Hmm,” I nodded, unsurprised.
“So, this is pretty serious. It sounds to me like you’ve been continuously re-exposed to poison oak in your house over the course of the last week, and you’re very allergic to it. You’re going to have to do a deep clean of everything. Wash your pets, wash your bedding, wash anything you might have worn.”
“Mhmm,” I said, looking down at Blue who yawned lazily at my feet.
“And for you, since the rash is still spreading, I think we have two options. If you get a fever again, we’re going to need to see you at Urgent Care, so we can put you on an IV to flush some of the toxins out of you. But if you’d rather treat this from home, I’d recommend going on steroids since this rash is pretty much everywhere on your body. Have you been on prednisone before?”
Prednisone… I did a quick Google search and groaned inside. “Side effects: Inappropriate happiness, extreme mood swings, personality changes, insomnia, bulging eyes…” Well, this should be interesting.
“I don’t think so,” I replied.
“And you said there’s still poison oak in your yard?” she asked, seeming concerned.
“Yeah, um…” I hesitated. Just before our call, I had been out watering our newly-made garden: a modest corner of newly lavender, camelia, and a native shrub carved into the never-ending cascade of wilderness that surrounded us. To my left, I spied the spot where Daniel had weeded out 6-foot tall hemlock, and my jaw dropped in disbelief. There lay an entire field of newly-sprouted hemlock, as inviting as a bed of clover to lay on while gazing into the stars. We had a lot of work left to do.
“We live in the woods, so there’s poison oak and poison hemlock kind of… everywhere. So…” my voice trailed off.
Then came the doctor’s ultimatum.
“You’re severely allergic to poison oak. So, either all of the poisonous plants need to go, or you do.”
TO BE CONTINUED IN "DECEMBER AT THE FARM".
#farmlife #lifeinthewoods #novemberatthefarm #nature #poisonoak #poisonousplants