Bringing home chicks, navigating the gendered division of farm work, and embracing my identity as a (kitchen) witch.
“Maybe I’ll be a wine mom for Halloween,” I told Daniel in early October.
“You mean you’re going to dress up as yourself?” He asked, eyeing the glass of chardonnay next to my dinner plate.
“Or maybe I’ll be a witch,” I said, bringing the glass to my lips.
“So, you mean you’ll be yourself?” He squinted his eyes.
“I’m a cat lady now, I’m almost 30, and I’ve moved to the woods. I’m just trying to embrace this whole identity. But I'll be a more magical version of myself.”
“You’ll scare snowpea.”
“Or maybe I’ll inspire her. I’ll dress as the good kind of witch. Like a kitchen witch who can bake cookies and paint her lips and drive a dagger through your soul.”
“It will be some kind of feminist statement about witches really meaning wise, powerful women.”
“But it’s overdone. Everyone dresses as a witch for Halloween.”
“You’re right. I just don’t know how I can beat dressing as Frida.”
October was the month of my feminist awakening and Daniel’s midlife crisis. But don’t be alarmed. Existential crises are a pretty routine occurrence in our home.
We only both turned 29, not 49, so maybe the label “midlife” is misfitting, but regardless of what you call it, we’ve both experienced our fair share. We both operate with somewhat of an artist’s mindset when it comes to our creative work, so it makes sense that we are perpetually in a cycle of fiery passion and burnout. And typically, Daniel’s existential awakenings involve impulse purchases that he believes will bring him meaning, like sewing machines and home aquariums. This time though, his midlife crisis brought him home with five chicks.
“You can’t be serious,” I said when I saw the chirping cardboard box on our kitchen table.
“Miss Eira, meet your new siblings,” he replied, passing a fist-sized fluffy yellow bird into snowpea’s toddler palms. She stared at the chick with equal parts wonder and surprise, and I found myself caught between anger and awe.
“You know you’re responsible for these things,” I told Daniel, resisting and then giving into my desire to hold the chick. After just lamenting about the never-ending responsibilities of being a parent and an adult that morning, I thought it ironic to take more birds under his wing. But artists after all are self-destructive, and these chicks for the moment brought a smile to Daniel’s face.
Just as when our kittens were new, I believed Blue’s motherly instincts were awakened by the chicks. She sat outside their cage for hours on end, watching them intently as if they were her young. “Blue, protect the chicks. Make sure the cats stay away,” I kindly requested, scratching her ears before we left for our farm chores that Saturday morning. She leaned in closer to my hand in agreement.
At the farm that morning, squash was sprouting all over the garden, and I chased snowpea around the tomato vines. Somedays, it felt as though all my time on the farm was spent preventing Eira from tripping over chicken steps or destroying rose bushes. I watched Daniel move seamlessly and empty-handed as he herded the cattle, harnessed the horses, and tossed 300-pound bales of hay down from the barns’ loft. Or sometimes, Randy would take him on his golf cart to adventure around the farm while I was left with Eira to “watch the horses”. Daniel’s watch said he burned an average of 900 calories each morning at the farm, while I burned about 100, and somehow these numbers didn’t surprise me. “Why am I here again?” I asked him.
“Because you have to be,” he replied matter-of-factly.
“Please, just let me groom Stingray today,” I asked, attempting to pass an impatient snowpea into his arms.
“Maybe tomorrow. We’re running behind,” he said, whirring by with the red harness.
“Why is the chicken lamp off?” I asked snowpea when we returned home to make pancakes.
“Gaga!” she replied, running toward the chick’s cage.
Blue sheepishly poked her snout around the corner, and I looked at her with disbelief. There were only four chicks in the cage and no evidence of the fifth besides a coin-sized drop of dried blood in the center of the kitchen floor. What I thought had been motherly instincts were clearly predator instincts in Blue.
That evening, I ran with snowpea up and down the winding hills outside the ranch. We passed the herds cattle who gnawed at acres upon acres of dead grass, and I said a silent prayer for rain. A white truck drove toward us, and I feared it was PG&E coming to repair yet another outage. But their signature logo was missing from the truck's side.
I pulled my jogging stroller to the dead grass to let the truck pass, and the driver slowed down as he approached us. He rolled his window down and asked in my direction, “Amber?”
I looked around. Seeing no one else but cows, I replied, “Uh, no.”
“Oh. Who are you?” he asked, disappointed.
“I’m Lacey. We live on Randy’s property.”
“Oh. The Stanford doctors?”
“Something like that.”
“I’m John. We live across the street," he said, motioning to the adjacent cattle.
“Oh! Nice to meet you,” I replied, realizing he was pointing in the direction of Neil Young’s ranch. Was this his son? Or nephew? I then realized I was wearing a shirt that read “MATH MONEY MARIJUANA”, and instantly, I was mortified.
“Welcome to the neighborhood,” he said, and snowpea waved as his wheel whirred away.
“I think I’m going to be Neil Young for Halloween,” I told Daniel when I returned home. “And snowpea, Blue, and the cats can be my groupies.”
“I don’t know, you should probably find out who Neil Young actually is before you dress up as him. Maybe he’s some anti-feminist or racist or a drug lord. Just do your research first.”
“Everyone has flaws,” I replied, as I began to Google images. “You can twist anyone’s words to make them look a certain way, so of course there’s going to be dirt. You just need to know how to defend your values when they do,” Then, looking away from my computer, “Which is why I’m worried for you.”
“Yes, you. You say you want to work at a top-tier university, but you have some unconventional opinions that could be misinterpreted as being misogynist or racist or just not woke enough. Like defending TITS and accusing all feminists of hating Elon…”
“What’s wrong with TITS?”
“Nothing’s wrong with tits. What’s wrong is that we’re not comfortable as a society in speaking about women’s bodies. But you have to admit, him joking about it is kind of pathetic. What I mean is universities are breeding grounds for activists. Are you really ready to be eaten alive by them?”
“They can’t eat me alive.”
“Remember how you choked during the diversity and inclusion question when you interviewed at Stanford instead of saying what you were thinking?”
“They wouldn’t have liked what I have to say…”
“If you speak from the heart, they might.”
“About how I think most diversity and inclusion initiatives are led by privileged people who have never had to struggle and who have never had anything to lose by making noise? About how growing up undocumented was traumatizing? And how it made me never want to even talk about these things – especially at an interview with people I’ve just met and don’t know if I can trust.”
“Exactly,” I said.
“It’s so tempting just to quit academia and go into industry. The pay is better. The benefits are better. I wouldn’t have to compete for grants or work on the weekends. I didn’t ask to be successful in academia. The opportunities have just always come easily to me, and it makes me think this is what I’m supposed to do. I only stay in academia because I want to make it better for people like me. And I think I have a good chance at getting a position at somewhere like Harvard eventually.”
“Cambridge is too cold,” I said sternly.
“But it’s a great place to raise a family. Don’t you miss all the old buildings on campus? And all the little restaurants? Our bagels and donuts shop?”
I stared at him, silent.
“What?” He asked, perplexed.
“It’s just not fair.”
“What?” He asked again.
“How easy it is for you. How hard I’ve had to try for academia and how I’ve still failed. How many times I’ve been rejected –”
“You left your PhD program in Austria,” he interrupted me.
“I got kicked out of my PhD program in Austria,” I corrected him.
“You would have left eventually.”
“The point is, it’s been hard for me – and for a lot of other people who have tried and failed. Do you know how lucky you are? I just don't think you realize how many times I’ve had to sacrifice my career for yours I would have found my way into another PhD program by now if I weren’t just applying to places near you.”
“You know I’ve never stopped you.”
“I know. I do it for you. How could I live myself if I made you pass up a post-doc at Stanford for me to do a PhD at some state school? I can’t support all our chicks on a PhD stipend.”
“Like I said, I would just go into industry.”
“I don’t want to give you another excuse to jump ship and sell your soul to industry. I sacrifice my career because I know you’re good. But if you became a professor at Harvard, I would always be jealous. I would see everyone around me – so smart and driven and passionate about their career and know they would see me as nothing more than a Harvard wife. And this is why I’ve been kind of a closeted feminist all this time. Because how can I say I support women’s rights if all I ever am is a support person for others? I feel like I would fail the purity test.”
“Maybe you should write some of this into your next application statement.”
My prayer for rain was answered with an atmospheric river. The week before Halloween, a weekend of torrential storms hit, leaving Daniel alone to do the farm duties. “Was Randy angry we weren’t there?” I asked Daniel after he returned soaked from the incessant pouring downpour.
“Maybe. He said Lorri used to bring the kids out rain or shine,” he replied, wringing out his jacket. Despite the days-long outages that were regular occurrences during fire season, the power and Wi-Fi remained on and functioning for the majority of the storm. We felt lucky, to say the least. But we didn’t see the real miracle until we stepped outside the next morning.
As we drove up the hill toward the city, dodging down branches and plant debris, the miracle took shape: the pastures, green and full of life as if spring had just arrived in October. In that moment, I was glad to live in California.
If Daniel’s existential crises come in the form of impulse buys, mine are marked by fashion statements and middle-of-the-night writing sprees.
“What are you doing?” Daniel said looking groggily at the light of my laptop at 3 in the morning on Halloween eve.
“Shhh, go back to sleep,” I replied, wanting to pat his head but unable to remove my hands from the keyboard. I had been awake since 1 a.m. writing in a state of pure flow. What was birthed was an application essay. And as I was in a somewhat altered state of alertness, I was fully aware it could be terrible. But I was also aware that writing in this frenzied, spontaneous manner alchemized to the purest form of my truth, so I embraced the sleepiness the morning would bring.
The next morning at the farm, I felt somehow lighter. As usual, I chased snowpea around the garden, quietly asking her to limit the number of tomatoes she plucked and ate in fistfuls from the vine.
“Do you want to groom Stingray today?” Daniel asked, handing me the harness. We hadn’t yet breached the subject of my late-night writing session.
I took the harness in my hands and said smiling, “Hey, I was thinking, I do kind of miss the fall leaves in Cambridge. And I do think you’d be a good Harvard professor someday.”
My sleepless night began to catch up with me later that day. I felt on the verge of snapping as the fire crackled away in our wood-burning stove. Our small home couldn’t take the heat of the fire Daniel had built, and my skin began to itch from the weight of my farm clothes, so I stripped them off and traded them for a tutu.
I still didn’t know what my Halloween costume was going to be, but I didn’t have time now to think. I threw on a black and white crop top and matching knee-high socks. Then, a brown wig and bunny ears from snowpea’s room. With eyeliner, I drew whiskers onto my cheeks and coated my mouth with red lipstick.
“Why are you dressed like you’re going to a college party?” Daniel asked as I walked into the living room.
“If I had looked or felt or dressed like this instead of being a nervous skeleton, my college years would have been so different,” I replied and began chopping vegetables for dinner.
“Meaning what? I thought you were going to make some feminist statement, not dress like a drunk sorority girl?”
“This is a feminist statement. Are you slut-shaming me?”
"No, I'm just tired because you woke me up writing some stupid blog post at 3 in the morning," he said.
"It wasn't a blog post," I corrected him.
“Oh, you’re a rabbit,” my mother’s face lit up on Zoom from my laptop. “I thought you said you were dressing up as farmers.”
“The American Gothic costume is for tomorrow. We’re dressing like the painting, but we’re both dressing like the man because I couldn’t find the woman farmer’s dress at the thrift shop,” I replied.
“How are the chicks? Has Blue eaten any more of them?” my mom asked.
“No, but they’re getting so big. And they’re starting to smell. I’m still waiting for Daniel to build that chicken coop,” I said loudly at the screen without looking at Daniel who sat sweating at his desk. I could feel him shooting me an icy glance. Then, in one quick gesture, he disconnected his laptop, picked up snowpea, and began walking toward the bedroom.
“You can finish making tacos on your own,” he said under his breath before shutting the door behind him.
“Are you going to wear that for family Zoom with your grandparents tomorrow?” my mom asked through the screen.
“No, we’ll probably be wearing our farm costumes,” I replied.
“Now, you said you and Daniel are both dressing as the male farmer?” my mom asked, likely quite perplexed.
“Or is Daniel going to dress as the woman farmer?” my dad chimed in.
“He can if he wants to. I just said I’m going to be wearing pants. Are we back in the 1950s? Are women not allowed to wear pants anymore?” I asked, still feeling the heat from the fire on my bare skin.
The next day, we took our Halloween picture in the field behind the barn. Daniel and I matched our black-rimmed glasses, white shirts, black blazers, muck boots, and denim overalls. I held a pitchfork and Daniel held hands with Eira who was dressed in a cushy green snowpea suit. We all wore matching expressions of solemn, deep-seated frustration - mine, a manifesto against the gendered farm chores I'd never fit into, Daniel's, a longing for the American dream, and Eira's, an expression of her deep desire for another afternoon snack. We held a picture frame around our bodies to show the painted image we were trying to portray, and we laughed about it all afterward.
“Say trick or treat!” I coaxed Eira as we all stood in costume in Randy and Lorri’s entryway.
“Wow, I like your costumes!” Lorri exclaimed, holding a bowl full of chocolate candies. “You know, you’re our first trick-or-treaters. When the kids were young, I once took them to Neil Young’s house to trick or treat, but they didn’t have any candy. Halloween is a little different out here!”
“Neil Young’s house, of course! Maybe we’ll go there next.”
I stripped away my overalls, trading them for Nike shorts, and began pushing my jogging stroller up the hill. I didn’t have the nerve to knock on Neil Young’s door, so instead, I would run on the roads nearby.
Sunset was nearing as we raced and down the hills outside our property. Snowpea mooed at the cows on the now-green pastures that stretched into cotton candy skies. The crisp fall air on my limbs felt freeing, and I settled into a comfortable rhythm.
We ran out from the cul-de-sac leading to the Young Ranch, and a white truck approached from over the hill. John? I wondered.
The car stopped, and the driver rolled down his window. A man with a white mustache craned his neck out of the car and called, “Hello there, I’m Tom.”
John and Tom, but still no Neil. I cursed my luck.
“Hi, I’m Lacey,” I replied.
“Do you live on Randy’s property?” He asked.
“Yes, we just moved here in August,” I said.
“Wonderful. Welcome to the neighborhood. Say, it’s getting chilly out here for the little one. You should think about heading indoors,” he said, glancing down at snowpea’s feet which had become exposed from her flinging off her socks.
Why, so we don’t run into a witch? I wanted to ask him, and I wondered how frightened he would look if I told him I am one, too. Instead, I nodded obediently.
There was still daylight remaining and I hadn’t finished my run, but I wondered if Tom knew something about this land that I did not. He had been here longer, after all. What if it was not witches but mountain lions he wanted us to avoid?
As we reached our gate, I resisted the urge to continue up the running path and reluctantly turned the corner to our home. Tonight was Halloween, so I’d let myself be afraid. But starting tomorrow, I’d again never let a man tell me how to mother my child or who to be.