July 3, 2009

Still Life with Chickens

Still Life with Chickens: Starting Over in a House by the Sea by Catherine Goldhammer
Nonfiction - Memoir
2006 Hudson Street Press
Finished on 6/18/09
Rating: 2.5/5 (Fair)

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. But as luck would have it, in a town where houses rub elbows, I came to live at the edge of a pond beside a small forest. I came to a place where a thousand dragonflies the size of small birds fly over my yard in the summer. In a town where everyone knows everything, I came to live in a place no one knows exists.

Product Description

For the millions who loved A Year by the Sea comes a memoir of a woman who awakens at midlife to find wisdom in a most unlikely place

In this lovely, unconventional, often funny memoir, we meet Catherine Goldhammer, newly separated and several tax brackets poorer, forced by circumstance to move from the affluent New England suburb of her daughter's childhood into a new, more rustic life by the sea. Against all logic, partly to please her daughter and partly for reasons not clear to her at the time, she begins this year of transition by purchasing six baby chickens-whose job, she comes to suspect, is to pull her and her daughter forward, out of one life and into another.

As she gradually transforms her new house, nine hundred feet from the sea-with its tawdry exterior but radiant soul-tile by tile, flower bed by flower bed, as she watches her precocious twelve-year-old daughter blossom into a stylish and sophisticated teenager, and as she tends to the needs of six enigmatic chickens, Catherine's life starts to slowly shift from chaos to grace. Beautifully written and ultimately inspiring, Still Life with Chickens is an unforgettable lesson in hope, in starting over, and in the transcendent wisdom that can often be found in the most unlikely of places.

My dear friend Nan wrote about this book two years ago and I was immediately intrigued. I found a lovely hardcover edition on a bargain table and quickly snatched it up, only to have it gather dust on one of my bookshelves. I'm not sure what prompted me to finally pull it from the shelf, perhaps the pretty cover art with the billowing sheets on the clothes line. Or perhaps a recent discussion over dinner with a good friend about eating locally, the benefits of organic food, and raising chickens. Plus, I'm a sucker for any book about living by the ocean.

This is the story of my foray into the salvation of one sorry house and garden and one slightly tattered soul. It is the story of a small house on a big piece of land, by a salt pond, nine hundred feet from the great Atlantic Ocean. It is the story of a time that began as failure and turned into grace for a mother and a daughter and a small, determined dog. And, in what started as a bribe and then became a love story, it is the tale of my reluctant ownership of six two-day-old chickens who came to live with us here, on Dragonfly Farm.

I have absolutely no desire to raise chickens. I'm quite content with one dog (and not so content with the dozen plus rabbits living in my back yard!). I have a good friend who has chickens and is very generous, giving me all the fresh eggs I could possible need. So I read this book more for Goldhammer's account of moving near the ocean and beginning a new life with her daughter rather than for the nuts-and-bolts of raising chickens. And therein lies my disappointment with this book. Other than a chapter or two, the majority of the book is about the chickens, not the house. What kept my interest (and made me laugh out loud) were the little tidbits about restoring the house. I do not like house "issues." I do not like watching workers make repairs or rennovate my house. I'm a worrier and I can only imagine what lies behind the walls and under the floors of this old house.

They proceeded to pull wires out of the walls. They moved the refrigerator and did something behind it. They conferred with the window guy. Either it couldn't be done, in which case they would take back the window, which was ghastly expensive, and put in one that would fit the space between the wires, or it could be done, and I would be living with chaos either way, a wall stripped down to the wood, the house filled with cold air and fog moving in off the ocean.


Chris and Scott were outside pulling siding off the house. I could hear Christ whistling. I found this reassuring. They didn't seem to be worried at all. Now Rick was whistling also. I returned to my bedroom. I heard drilling. I heard cursing. I heard sawing. I could no longer tell who was talking. "Beautiful," said someone, but he sounded sarcastic. The exposed wood on the inside of the house had looked good, solid, and free of rot or mold. I still didn't want to see the outside. Our life in this house was about to change. It would be like moving in again, to the house I had imagined when I bought the house it was.

Rick was pounding something through the ceiling.

"I don't know why these guys used to use this junk," he said. I hoped he didn't also say that it was rotting. I thought I might stay in my room forever, with my hands over my ears, mute and invisible. I was going to wait until they had cut the hole for the window and had seen everything there was to see. I was going to wait until the worst was over. Until there were no more problems. The plumber would come. The plasterer would come. The counter would come. The floor would go in. We would have a sink. We would have a stove. We would be able to cook, although only one of us really liked to. Then I would come out, bank account depleted.

Fear is a poor companion. It gives no rest. It had been with me for some time, and I was weary of it, but I didn't know how to rid myself of its company. "MEDITATE," I wrote at the top of my list every day, and every day I didn't. I had a hard time sitting still in the most restful of times. Now, in these times, full of stress and worry, sitting still was nigh impossible. I made some effort every day to take a couple of deep breaths and get a sense of my head actually being attached to my body. At all other times it was a free-for-all in which the tornado of my anxious thoughts won handily over my body, with its aching leg and need for rest, and spun wildly into the unknown. I would learn, eventually, that everything did work out. It would have been nice to have known in the process, while the pipe with the sock in it was still sticking through the ceiling.

At about three, when I had to leave to pick up my daughter, I walked out of my bedroom and into the kitchen to see the window guys standing there eating steaming subs, looking at the pond through a ten-by-four-foot hole. My dog sat on the floor next to them watching them eat.

About the chickens:

Some days it is hard to say just what is so attractive about chickens. They are not the cleanest of creatures. They are poor housekeepers. They are sometimes mean. They constitute a farm chore. More than other animals, in my experience, with chickens there's always something. Something wrong with the coop, the roost is too low, the ventilation inadequate. You run out of bedding. You run out of food. You run out of grit, or scratch, or sunflower seeds. They need more protein, they need more calcium, they need more grass. They get dirty, or they get worms, or mites, or fungus. Their toes fall off. Their beaks fall off. Their feet fall off. Their combs fall off. One famous chicken, Mike the Headless Chicken, lived for eighteen months without a head. He has his own Web site. Otherwise everything that can go wrong seems to. The crop impacts, the vent prolapses, the eggs go spongy. And everything, everything, wants to eat them.

Yep. No question about it. I don't need chickens. I don't want chickens. But, I wouldn't mind a house by the ocean. Even if it needs work.

To read more about raising chickens, visit Nan's posts here and here and here.

To read about Mike the Headless Chicken, go here.


  1. The whole idea sounds wonderful but I am sorry to see that the story fell flat for you!!

  2. I'm going to have to check this book out for myself - I could spend an afternoon with it, I think!

  3. Even though I am quite sure I will never leave my little yellow house on Johnson Street, I love to read books about people moving and starting their lives over. I haven't read a wonderful book of this genre in a long time. Need to look around....

  4. Staci - It's probably much more interesting to those who are curious about raising chickens.

    Gwendolyn B. - It's a quick read. With no interruptions, you could easily finish it over a weekend. Thanks for stopping by my blog!

    Debnance - Unless we move to the Pacific Northwest, my husband & I will probably never leave our little house on Plymouth Avenue. However, I, too, love to read about people moving and starting over. I think you might like this one.

  5. I read this book some time ago; good memoit IMO.

  6. Diane - Have you read Winging It? I'm looking forward to giving that one a read one of these days.


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