On melancholy and sitting with chickens

By abby mohaupt

Mary Oliver wrote that
melancholy leaves me breathless…”

In the wilderness that is the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and white supremacy — melancholy seeps into my bones and steals the breath out of me — breath that I haven’t lost to illness or hasn’t been stolen from me.

I am a white body in this world, a body privileged to so far escape being exposed to the novel coronavirus. My vocation is to care for the earth, which is intimately tied up in the care of all bodies in this world.

It is a holy call, wholly connected to the flourishing of all living things.

When the immensity of this task seems too big, I go to sit with the chickens. There are nearly one hundred of them on the farm where I live and work. They are a flock of diverse feathers and colors and voices.

They– the chickens with their dinosaur feet — hop into my lap three at a time and press their talons into my legs or peck at my necklace or bite my fingers.

In that same poem, Mary Oliver reminds us that death and God are intertwined.

I don’t know what God is.
I don’t know what death is.
But I believe they have between them
some fervent and necessary arrangement.

This connection feels tender and hard in this moment in time when too many people are needlessly dying from a disease that really should have no power over us. We should and could wear masks. We should and could make it possible for everyone to stay home. We should and could stop everything so that no more people get sick. Instead, we are often selfish and individualistic people who think we should be able to do whatever we want.

We live in a nation in which the deadly pandemic of racism rears its head. We should and could dismantle this system that privileges white people like me and kills our beloveds who are people of color. We should and could build communities that work for justice instead of hate. We should and could stop everything so that no more people are shot and killed by police officers who are racist. Instead, we who are white are often complacent, pandering fools who think we should be able to be, as Ibram X. Kandi says, simply not racist, instead of anti-racist.

Here, too, in the pasture when I go to sit with the chickens to escape the hard sadness of the world, I encounter death alongside the divine.

Not commonly, but not uncommonly, one of the chickens dies: from dehydration or heat or pecking order. Those are the days I scoop up her body and carry her –body against my chest–to lay her in a gully on the farm.

The words of a spiritual escape my lips as I carry her — a promise that this world is not the end, a promise first sung into the world by humans who labored in chattel slavery and longed for a more just world, a world that saw them as beloved.

These chickens are my co-workers and co-creatures on this earth God calls us to love. I am not the only human on this farm and they are not the only creatures. Yet, in this tender and hard moment, my heart beats against her lifeless body, broken.

I am breathless.

I catch my breath —  breath that I haven’t lost to illness or hasn’t been stolen from me– and wonder at how often breath is stolen from other parts of creation.

And in that moment, I am certain that humanity needs to get out of the business of creating sorrow. God and death have the arrangement in hand.

What words do you express in these moments?
Do our hearts break?
How do you catch your breath in order to get back to the work of creating justice?


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abby mohaupt lives on a farm in Texas. A native of Northern Illinois, she’s an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). abby served urban, suburban, and rural congregations and communities before starting a PhD at Drew University. She is likely to be found with coffee in her hand and a chicken on her lap. She serves on the board of enfleshed.

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