All posts by Jan

The Hen that was Born Again

old chicken house on our farm
old chicken house on our farm

I’m not terribly good at maintaining friendships.  In fact, I need to take this post to heart. You see, the pursuits I most enjoy are solitary ones–writing and art. But I know the value of friendship.

Friends are the ones we live, love, teach, laugh, cry, drink tea, make wedding bouquets, make funeral bouquets, and exercise with. I know I couldn’t have made it to today without the help of friends.

(Thank you, my treasured ones. Forgive me for being so careless about our friendship. You know who you are.)

I know when I’ve been a friend, too– when I’ve been there at a critical moment in someone else’s life.  And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

The times I most recognize the value of friendship are the times when I’ve let it slide, for whatever reason. So, by the grace of God, I can’t help but see the parallels in this story about a hen I’ll call  Hephzibah.

(Real farmers don’t name their hens.)

One hot August, our six surviving hens started dying off. At five years old they’d enjoyed a fat and mostly eggless dotage for two years, though we still saw the occasional double-yolkers or shell-less eggs that wobbled, membrane intact, like gelatin in straw.

(Real farmers would have turned unproductive hens into soup at three years old.)

I was sad when I found the first dead hen near the forge. When two corpses marred the pecking yard next day I looked the birds over anxiously to figure out why. Nothing.

I researched. I prayed. I cleaned food and water containers. I changed the straw. Two days passed. Three hens dug in the yard and fluffed themselves with dust. I breathed a sigh of relief.

It was short-lived.

chicken coop rules
chicken coop rules

On Day 6, two more hens lay sideways in the yard. Only Hephzibah remained. I observed Heppie closely for signs of impending demise.

She scratched in the dirt. She ate wild plums from the tree over the water trough. She roosted in the hen house at night. She watched two-foot Norway rats suck chicken feed like vacuums and multiply in the burrows that crisscrossed the yard.

But she didn’t die.

Slowly, however, she began to look about, running from the empty peeled-oak roosts to the empty nest boxes and back again. Like you and me, God made chickens social animals. They need their peeps.

But Heppie didn’t have any.

the neighbors' chicken house
the neighbors’ chicken house

She began to pluck her pinfeathers out, then her soft down. Bare patches studded her body. She stabbed herself raw. She lost weight until her skin hung, one size too big. The light went out of her eyes.

I had to do something.

I know–real farmers…blah, blah, blah.

I bought five new chicks. I locked Heppie out of the hen house. She was skinny, naked, and weak, but natural instinct–fight or flight– might lead her to kill the newcomers.

She knew something was up. Faint peeps escaped the edges of the tiny hen house door. Heppie stood at the top of the ramp for hours, listening. She began to nibble on layer pellets.

After a few weeks, I set a decorative concrete block at the top of the ramp and opened the door. The chicks could poke their heads out and Heppie could poke hers in. But neither could pass the block.

Heppie started eating in earnest.

rooster art by Anya Zarnecki
rooster art by Anya Zarnecki

Soon, her skin fit better. Funny little sticks sprang from it like baby porcupine quills. Heppie and the chicks held quizzical conversations through the concrete block–she in long, low tones and the chicks in loud peeps and tiny squawks.

The day came to release the young hens to the lush world of the hen yard–and Hephzibah. I loaded a scoop with chicken feed. Heppie followed me curiously.

I bent down and removed the block.

The hens blinked at the unfamiliar opening. Heppie blinked back. No one moved.  I sprinkled chicken feed on dirt. “He-e-y chick, chick, CHICK-eees!”With squawks and beatings of wings, six hens plunged down the ramp and into the food. Heppie had her peeps again.

Weeks later, I watched the hens under the plum tree. They clicked and clucked, scratched and bobbed.

But I couldn’t take my eyes off Heppie.

young hen
young hen

Plump, glossy, and gorgeous, she walked like a Queen, head swiveling in the midst of her subjects.  Her long red feathers gleamed like polished copper. Her eyes flashed bright and sassy.

The old biddy looked like a new hen.

Those chicks had brought Hephizibah back from the brink of poultry heaven. She lived four more glorious years.

She even laid a few eggs.


Well–I’m not planning to lay any eggs, but I look forward to connecting with my peeps again. Thanks for being here. I’m off to make a few calls, maybe write a snail mail or two. Blessings!


How to Make a Coil Pot with a Lid

The splendor of clay is its malleability–the ability to mold it into any shape possible. In the Bible, God says that just as a potter can mold clay into any shape he or she wants, so God has designed each of us to perfectly accomplish His purposes.

This project is great to do in a classroom of 4th-6th graders. If youMay 2015 041 don’t already know how to use and fire clay, most schools have someone who does and who can help you.

1. Size and Shape Decide what size and shape you want your coil pot to be. Use a plate, cup, can, cardboard, or other shape to make a heavy paper template–round, heart, square, free-form. For a kids’ class, keep it to 6″ or less in diameter.

May 2015 0312. Base and Lid Roll out stoneware or other clay 1/4″ thick. With toothpick or other pointed tool, cut two identical pieces of clay using the template. Hold the tool straight up and down for the cut. One piece will be the base of your pot and the other will be the lid.

3. Spirals Squeeze a hunk of soft clay to make a lumpy rope. Roll this on newspaper or other absorbent surface to make a smooth, even coil 1/4″ to 3/8″ thick.  Roll coil back on itself to make a spiral 1 1/2″ in diameter. Pinch off extra clay and smooth end.May 2015 036

Make as many spirals as you need for the side of your pot.  Many other shapes can be made as you become more skilled.

4. Scratch and Attach  Every piece of clay must be attached to the others by scratching both parts with your toothpick and dabbing a little water where you want them to stick. If you forget or skimp on this step, your clay pieces may separate in the drying or firing.

I tell my students,  Just scratch and attach only those parts you don’t want to fall off.

May 2015 0335. Top Coil Roll a long coil to top off the spirals. This coil stabilizes the spirals and makes the pot stronger. Scratch and attach. Use toothpick to write your name on the bottom. Set aside.

6. Lid and Handle This is where student creativity can shine.  Dogs,May 2015 034 horses, people, swirls, trees–anything can be a handle as long as it is no thicker than 1/2″ or has holes poked in it to allow air in and make sure no clay part is thicker than 1/2″.  Scratch and attach all parts.

May 2015 0357. Flange This keeps the lid from sliding off easily. On the underside of your lid (being careful of your handle) scratch a line all the way around about 1″ from edge. Roll a coil this length, scratch and attach firmly. Write your name in the interior of the flange.

8. Finish Let your pot dry. Fire to bisque temperature–usually cone 06-04 for stoneware. Dip or brush on glazes appropriate to the maturing temp of the clay (usually cone 4-6 stoneware for electric kilns). Do not glaze bottoms of pot or lid. Fire pot and lid separately (so they don’t melt together).

Drying pots from a 4th grade class
Drying pots from a 4th grade class


The Pioneer Potter

“Go down to the potter’s house and hear the words I have for you.” Jeremiah 18:2

You hunched in the car in your pioneer dress, eyes squeezed shut, just returned from the museum with your class and your daddy, having eaten your authentic pioneer lunch with the beef jerky you’d begged me to buy. It had been a wonderful day.

That is, until I menJune 2015 001 (2)tioned the lidded pots. The ones you’d promised to make.

I know how it is. Laying down your life is easier to imagine in the shared laughter, but harder in the lonely slog.

Last week, I’d brought clay to your classroom and talked about the early settlers firing pottery in pit fires. You looked so happy.

Once, beneath the oak tree outside the ram’s pen, we dug a pit in the ground. We lined it with leaves and grass clippings. My students laid their dried pots in the hole, the ones they’d made of raku clay and glazed while wet.

After more leaves and clippings, we piled sticks, hardwood logs, and damp fuel atop to burn slowly overnight.

I told your class we could have used coffee grounds, eggshells, cowpies, or dead fish in the pit fire to make colors on the pots. But if you add salt on a windy day, it can take the paint off a car.

June 2015 041

I didn’t tell them I hadn’t wanted to do pottery with them–not this year. I’d wanted to slump around thinking about my dad’s death, about his birthday coming up, about how the messy house overwhelmed me, and how I still don’t know how to cry.

But I’d made a promise.

When the school janitor showed me the bags of hard clay, I saw hours of work in a hot garage, slicing, spraying, tearing, squeezing, slamming, and kneading the clay to make it workable.

I did it anyway.

It’s like that, you know. Sometimes laying down our lives requires lots of little deaths. But if we give them back to GodJune 2015 002, He can take His giant Potter hands and mold sacrifice into dazzling resurrection–of hope, of joy, of beauty, of perseverance, of peace.

I showed your class how to make a coil box with a lid. You watched with shining eyes, in between listening to your baby sister recite the ABC’s over and over beside you.

But two classmates had missed it all and you, generous heart, volunteered to make boxes for them to glaze. That was before you’d tried it yourself.

“I don’t want to, but I don’t want not to,” you said now, miserably. “It wasn’t a fun project.” I knew that was true for you and I knew why.

June 2015 006While your classmates squeezed and rolled clay in artistic abandon, you’d answered a higher calling–that of Big Sister. Thus, your clay became dry and cracked. You cobbled bits and lumps together. You gave up hope of a pretty handle.

I ached for you, torn about your promise. “It’s up to you,” I said. “They missed the day, and sometimes people just miss things. But didn’t you say you’d make a bird for one boy’s handle and a hollow log for the other?”

Your dad leaned into the car. “Why do you think you should do it–because of guilt?” You slumped in the back seat.

I clutched the steering wheel and prayed. I said, “How will you feel on glaze day if the boys have pots? June 2015 004How if they don’t?”

You pulled and squeezed your face like clay, deciding hard. Your dad said it reminded him of the Indiana Jones movie when the villain opens the Ark of the Covenant.

Sometimes difficult choices squeeze us out of shape. Sometime we become dry and cracked. We need that Living Water Jesus offers–a drink to ease the pain of the cross, to smooth the rough places, to make us soft again.

Then you said yes. My heart swelled with love and pride. I can’t wait to see the resurrection joy in your face next week when those boys pick up glaze brJune 2015 040ushes to paint their very own lidded coil pots.

We made the boxes together on the kitchen table, you and I, laughing and rolling clay. And, this time, you had fun–so much fun you crafted a beautiful new handle for yourself, too.

It has a log and a bird on it.

*Also see–“How to Make a Coil Pot with a Lid”

The Cry of Lambs

I set the puppy in the grass. Ghostly clouds of white mosquitoes rise from the verge and trail after me. “Breakfast is served!” they whine. Avon Skin-So-Soft is becoming my second-best friend.

In our neck of the woods, some mosquitoes carry the deadly West Nile Virus. I remind myself this is out of my control. I lay that worry at God’s feet and breathe in the briny wind.

Still, it reminds me of walking early to the barn one winter. In the far back pen, a ewe expelled the second of her lambs, licking it eagerly. I leaned on the rail, sighing happily at theOldCompBackup 3055 new arrivals. Their breaths rose in the frosty air. I squatted to look closer.

Despite the cold, the barn smelled warm nearer the ground, saline and blood poured out in love and sweat, silky lanolin gleaming on wool. I smiled at the new babies–wondered what sex they were, imagined the rough feel of their fleeces.

Then I squinted, trying to make sense of the first lamb. My heart thudded in my chest.

I picked up the tiny black ewe, cataloging her parts. Her woolly spine twisted like a corkscrew. Her legs splayed at odd angles, all four jointed like front legs–no back ones. Her lower jaw was missing. The lamb breathed shallowly, struggling to cry.

The lamb’s mother bellowed for her return.

I was once a teenage runaway, bellowing in my heart, peddling angrily into the night, my face wet. My bicycle basket overflowed with hastily-grabbed clothing and a toothbrush. I didn’t know where to go. Only away. I stayed in a barn for two weeks, then other places.June 2015 011

Like that lamb, I struggled to breathe, broken in every part of my corkscrewed mind and spirit. I was dying inside.


But I didn’t know anyone who wanted me back.

The ewe pawed her lamb. It couldn’t stand and nuzzle its way down her belly to the life-giving udder. Its defects, possibly caused by a mosquito-borne virus early in pregnancy, were insurmountable in this world. No veterinarian could stop the inevitable.

Some people thought that about me.

For ten years after I ran away, abuse was my comfort zone, depression my blanket–between visits to church on Sundays. But even the day I perched on a tenth-story windowsill and prepared to fly down to the sidewalk couldn’t thwart God’s love or plan for me.

He is the Great Physician, the Incomparable Healer, and it turns out He makes house calls. He saved me that night and forever after. Over the next decades He untwisted my heart and mind and made me whole in ways I’d never imagined.

I could only leave the lamb to die in it’s mother’s comfort, in the oil of her fleece. But God can do anything. He stood me upright, like a beautiful tree. The healing oil of His love and mercy soothed my pain.

This world can hurt us and knock us down. It can even kill us. But all the deadly mosquitoes and other bloodsuckers will eventually get smacked and fall because God, through Jesus, smacked down death once and for all to make us rise whole and clean.

Isaiah 61:3 says God gives His lambs who cry out to Him “…beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, and the garment of praise for a spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He might be glorified.”

So–take a breath, little lamb. Cry out to Him. Accept His healing oil of mercy. Then rise up tall, you beautiful one.June 2015 002

Pups, Peas, and Time

I stood in the yard this morning, smiling at my mistake. I’d thought I’d be standing around a lot since our 10-week-old puppy, Skipper, is still eagle bait. And not eagles only–we’ve had a hawk and an owl peruse the fuzzy little morsel as he scampers through the grass.Apr-May 2015 269

What I’m learning as I take the pup to the yard 200 times a day and watch for raptor shadows is how to redeem the time. I’m learning how to use the minutes outside and appreciate life’s close-ups as I pull weeds and plant seeds.

In those minutes, so far, I’ve cleared a rectangle of dirt inside the picket fence that (mostly) keeps the rabbits out. I’ve propped tomato cages over tomato starts in front of delphinium spikes and clouds of peonies. I’ve patted dirt into hills for my little granddaughter to poke her beloved cucumber seeds in the ground.

The bean seeds sprout in wet paper towels beneath the kitchen window. The Brussels sprouts, peppers, and nasturtiums snuggle along the edges of the tiny garden. I picked tent caterpillars off the raspberry vines and watered the side gardens I usually forget.

But when I walked past the pea patch today, I stopped short. In barely two days since I  last tended them they’ve doubled in size, fallen over, and wrapped themselves in knots aMay 2015 012round each other.

I squatted down to tease the tiny tendrils apart. If you’ve ever done this, you know how difficult it is. The tendrils are thinner than a thread but strong in their coil. I thought about the power of little prayers, of clinging tightly to God moment by moment.

The pea plants grow joint by joint, short sections and long, always their tendrils reaching out. My life and yours grow season by season, short ones and long, with grace to reach out to God in the little moments, even when we feel thinner than a thread.

I tug gently at the little vines. I know if they remain tangled in the dirt they’ll rot. They need to stretch upwards to the sun to make space for plump pods–plentiful, tasty, and tender.

Sometimes we get tangled up in circumstances until we’re just a rotting clump of ourselves. But God doesn’t want to leave you or me that way. He wants to untangle us and point us toward the Son. He wants us to reach for the beautiful idea He had when He made us.

Taking pea vines apart, eveMay 2015 024n gently, makes them go limp for a while. Sometimes we lose our grip on God but God never loses His grip on us. His love is both timely and timeless. His eye is ever on us. He tends us gently and lifts us up. He makes us strong and complete.

This morning, I propped the pea vines against the lattice. With faithful tending, they’ll rise up to the sun and grow strong, too. In fact, it’s probably time to check them again. Are you ready, Skipper? I have some valuable minutes to redeem!