Rest in Peace, Flora Poste

In February of last year, Richie got me two hens. He’d spent a decent part of the winter building an impenetrable chicken fortress that would keep them safe from our local evil genius pine martens. We called the henhouse Sereggnity–or rather, I did, because I am the lover of terrible puns in this house.

The hens we brought home I named Flora and Elfine. They were both red hybrid chickens from the same flock, but Flora was slightly smaller and darker, Elfine a bit taller and brighter. Flora’s eggs were smaller and darker than Elfine’s, too. Both of them were tremendous layers and, except for a slight tendency to bully the cat, very friendly and docile. Within a few weeks it was hard to imagine life without them.eggs Last week Flora got sick. I found her one afternoon huddled down by the goat shed, feathers puffy, her comb nearly white instead of bright red (the surest sign a chicken isn’t healthy). I brought her inside and put her in a box with some dry hay, food and water, then went online to do some research.

I’ll spare you the chicken health class or the sad details, but it turned out that an egg had broken inside of her. We did what we could (only follow the link if you actually want to learn about emergency chicken care), but she died the next morning. 10612982_980362882820_6206956495737789635_n-1   I’ve lived with animals all my life. I’ve had beloved pets die and it’s been utterly heartbreaking. I’ve also lived on a farm before, and I know that death is a normal part of this kind of life. My husband grew up farming, and he knows that even better than I do.

But we were both very saddened by losing Flora. We are omnivores, and we may well keep chickens that are destined for the pot someday. We ate a goat that we raised, and it was even harder for both of us than we’d predicted when the day came for his death. But that absolutely does not mean we don’t love our animals and do everything we can so that they suffer as little as possible. 10441132_977829549640_2962188576955743786_n When you are responsible for a stock animal, when it’s part of your working life, you feel a particular duty toward it that is different, but not totally outside the realm of the responsibility you feel toward a pet. Flora had a job–producing eggs–and in exchange, our job was keeping her safe, healthy, and happy. So part of my sadness comes from wondering if there was more I could have done for her, if I could have noticed her sickness sooner, things like that.

I’m still learning to be a good farmer. I love my goats, and I love my hens, too. Their lives may seem small, but they are so important. Lives like theirs keep the rest of ours going.

So this might seem like a lot of thought to put into the death of a hen, especially from someone who eats chicken for dinner at least once a week. But my sadness for and gratitude to Flora is important. I know it is. It has to be.

1551613_10100159775949570_1322217410860763494_nOne unintended death at our very small homestead, and life goes on.

A hen on her own will get anxious and scared, so we picked up a new black-and-white feathered companion for Elfine this week. Richie named her Lisbeth, which has proved very apt. This new girl is crazy like a fox, with a wild eye and every intention of busting out of the coop at any moment.

In fact, this morning she made a sprint down the road to the next farm, and it is only by the grace of my having a ridiculously fit husband that she wasn’t gone forever. I haven’t laughed as hard in a while as I did watching Richie and Lisbeth sprint down the road at breakneck speed, then face each other down as if they were in a Western shootout. Hens can run damn fast, you know.

She’s no Flora, who sometimes hopped up on the picnic bench for a cuddle, but she shouldn’t be. She’s pretty and funny and she’s already pulled Elfine out of her funk. We’re glad to have her.

Rest in peace, Flora Poste, the first hen I kept. We’ll watch Cold Comfort Farm in your memory this week.

  Flora is a fairly cuddly chicken. #chickens #hens #henstagram #farmlife #homesteading   A video posted by Betsy Cornwell (@betsycornwell) on

Five Good Things {No. 4}

tumblr_nnmruoqq4H1qzc79io2_500·Edna St. Vincent Millay, one of my literary heroes, is now a paper doll. She will be living in my office as soon as I refill my printer. And I really do mean hero; I quoted an entire Millay sonnet in my high school yearbook, because I have always been that particular kind of pretentious. (I stand by the decision.)

tumblr_nnm124MzDe1rvy3ulo1_500·Mechanica got an elusive Kirkus star!  I cried and tweeted about it–both, probably, too much. I’ve been working on the book since 2009, so six years of doubt and heartache and worry have gone into it, and . . . I know reviews are subjective and all of that, but hearing about this one was a big affirming moment. The review might spoil the ending a small bit, so watch out for that!

·In more good book news, Barnes & Noble’s teen blog chose Tides to represent New Hampshire in their YA tour of the East Coast. (I super want to read Witch Child now.)

Roasted-Blueberry-Balsamic-Goats-Cheese-Ice-Cream-4-622x900·The summer issue of Parabola just came out, and you’ll find my essay “Fallen Angel” inside. It’s about my Inishmore handfasting, Jane Eyre, Nutcracker angels, and being a bride. It’s my favorite piece that I’ve published in Parabola so far, so I hope you’ll read it!

·Roasted blueberry balsamic goat cheese ice cream. Oh, hello. I must make you. I’ve got the cheese (and the goats). If only I had an ice cream maker.

Recipe: Mango Almond Muffins


There are a few things I couldn’t live in rural Ireland without. High speed internet is definitely first on the list, but then there’s: a good library system (the tiny local branch has a surprisingly good YA shelf, and the librarian is always offering to order things for me . . . I think I’m just about the only adult who regularly checks out books there), decent coffee, and several friends who’ve lived both here and in America. That ‘outlander’ feeling never quite goes away . . . and no, I’m not talking about this Outlander feeling. Tragically.

And then there’s food. I hit maximum potato saturation some time ago, and I would have gone absolutely mad by now if I didn’t have access to my trusty spice rack and a few specialty shops around Galway.

Before I had a car, I could usually only go food shopping in a tiny local rural market, and their flavorings on offer were salt, pepper, “mixed herbs,” and “mixed spice.” I realize that there is a whole epic history of reasons why Irish food tends to be so unadorned, and I have gone on my share of rants about how the potato famine was actually genocide, but . . . I was still sad about the lack of spices. As soon as I got my car, you can bet I stocked up.

To be fair, there are plenty of natural and specialty food shops within even a ten-mile radius of our rural cottage, and even more in Galway City itself. Ireland is basically a big green cornucopia of amazing fresh produce and some of the best meat and dairy in the world, too, so I really have nothing to complain about.

But whenever I bring home blue cheese or cardamom pods or some non-native fruit, Horseman still laughs at me fondly, because why do I need all this weird stuff? He’s always appreciative of my cooking, but food is essentially just fuel to him. I kind of envy that, in a way–a combination of no food issues and the highly physical work of training horses means that my husband is ridiculously fit in a way that I, writer and emotional eater extraordinaire, will never be.

But on the other hand, good food is a sensual joy for me, one that I don’t think he experiences in the same way. I wouldn’t want to give that up, not even for a six-pack of my very own.

I think.

Anyway, all of this is to say that I baked muffins the other day. Even though they’re fairly basic and hardly exotic by most people’s standards, they’re really, really good. So good that I want you to make them, too, and I’m posting the recipe here.



(adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s Perfect Blueberry Muffins)

5 tablespoons butter, softened (I used Dairygold, the best butter in the world)
1/3 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup unflavored Greek yogurt
1/4 cup whey (or buttermilk, but I always have whey left over from cheesemaking)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup almond meal, plus more for dusting
1 1/2 teaspoon (7 grams or 1/4 ounce) baking powder
1/4 teaspoon (1 gram) baking soda
1/4 teaspoon (2 grams) salt
1 fresh mango, diced

Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a muffin tin with paper liners. Beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add egg and beat well, then yogurt and whey. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt and add half of this mixture to batter. Mix until combined. Pour remaining dry ingredients into batter and mix just until the flour disappears. Gently fold in mango. Fill muffin tins about 3/4 full and dust each with a little more almond meal. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until tops are golden and a tester inserted into the center of muffins comes out mostly clean (there may be mango juice). Let cool on a wire rack, except don’t do that. Eat them warm.


Sugaring Primroses

I want to be a village witch.


Like, a (mostly) benevolent, indeterminately aged woman who lives in a quirky cottage where there are always weird bundles of things drying in the kitchen, who spends a lot of time prowling the hedgerows for wild herbs. Who dresses a bit like a mori girl or Baba Yaga. Who may or may not have a private back room used for magic (or writing, or magical writings).

Happily, that’s pretty much me right now, except for the aspirational fashion. Today I’m a village witch dressed in muddy rain boots, worn-out jeans and my “Kiss Me, I’m A Lyons” t-shirt.

Oh well.

10574224_983832240200_3621566522745670471_nWhen I was eleven, I read a book about natural skincare products and spent the next year attempting to make my own bubble baths, lotions, and powders. For one of my first projects, I took the petals off of the roses from a wilting dance recital bouquet and submerged them in sweet almond oil in an empty spaghetti sauce jar, screwed on the top, and hid them in the back of the bathroom closet. The book assured me that in a few weeks I’d have rose oil, and I figured the parts about sterilizing the jar and using only organic flowers were, you know, optional. Rose oil sounded like magic potion, and that was enough for my baby-witch heart.

Of course, being eleven, I promptly forgot about the jar. Many months later,  my mother found it while rummaging through the shelves for ipecac to rescue one of the dogs. What she found was rank and festering, limp brown petals nesting in layers of gray mold and globby oil. It popped like soda when she opened the jar and unleashed a truly foul stench into the air. She probably could have fed the dog my rose oil instead of ipecac and yielded similar results.

Mom forbade me from doing any further ‘experiments’ outside of her supervision. But supervised potion-making was not nearly so satisfying, and I eventually gave up experimenting altogether.

tumblr_nkdk9txmhH1rvy3ulo1_500Now, though, I live in a stove-heated cottage along Ireland’s wild Atlantic way, and the urge towards hedgerow witchery has come back to me. That does include actually paying attention to Old Irish holidays and rituals and other quietly Pagan and Druidic things, which I hope to write about as I learn more about them.

tumblr_nmamwuImn41rvy3ulo1_500Mostly, though, my witchy practices involve gathering edibles: sorrel, strawberry leaves, and elderflowers this time of year, field mushrooms (which I am so neurotically careful about) and strawberries in the summer, and hazelnuts, elderberries, rose hips, and sloes in the abundant fall. Goat’s milk soap, cheese, and caramel sauce are my most common potions, because each of my goats can produce nearly two liters even when they’re only milked once a day, and I don’t want a drop of it to go to waste.

My latest village witch endeavor, though, would really have delighted my child self: sugared primroses. Doesn’t that sound like something on which a good witch or a fairy queen would feast?

Well. Let me tell you something.


First I gathered the individual flowers from within a half-mile radius of my house, which was appropriately charming and fairylike, even if my hands started to freeze when the late afternoon turned suddenly and uncomfortably cold as it slipped toward evening.

1551613_10100159775949570_1322217410860763494_nAs soon as I got home, I beat egg whites (from my own hens, Flora and Elfine, for that thorough cottage aesthetic experience) and poured caster sugar into a bowl. I shook my primroses carefully to dislodge any creepy crawlies; washing would wilt the delicate petals. I picked up a small, flat paintbrush and a teaspoon.

Then I spent four hours painting each flower, front and back, with egg, dipping it carefully in caster sugar, and using the teaspoon to pour tiny streams of sugar onto any surface the brush-and-dip had missed. I placed each flower painstakingly onto the wire rack that I had purchased especially for this occasion.

Finally, the flowers had to dry in an oven, set to the lowest possible temperature and cracked open, for an indeterminate amount of time; just “until thoroughly dried.” In this foggy, cool, densely humid place, that meant the primroses in the middle of the rack caramelized while the ones on the edges were still damp with egg white.

But fine. Whatever. They were sugared flowers, and wasn’t that just magically delightful? And hadn’t the recipe claimed they were breathtakingly delicious, that in fact you couldn’t make them with small children around because they’d gobble them all up in a flash?

tumblr_nn5k1z7NL61rvy3ulo1_500Well. If your definition of “breathtakingly delicious” is raw-tasting sugar and egg white glued to tissue paper, then, OK. But that is literally what they tasted like: thin paper dipped in egg and sugar and allowed to dry.

Which is, basically, what they are. I know, I know.

I actually liked the burnt, caramelized ones better, because at least they tasted of something. (In fact, as I write this I am munching on a few of them, and they’re . . . fine. The way thin, grainy caramel paper is fine. But clearly I’m still eating them, so, you know, make your own choices.)

Still, I have to say that they were terribly underwhelming, and far too fiddly and involved. This game was not worth its candle.

My recommendation, should you wish to feast on wildflowers (and who doesn’t?), is to gather your primroses and sweet violets, but keep them fresh and toss them in a salad. A plate of mild, fresh, colorful flowers, drizzled with the simplest lemon-and-oil vinaigrette: now that’s the feast for this village witch.


And the best thing about primroses and violets is this: the more you pick, the more they bloom. That seems like magic to me.

(Photos from my Instagram feed.)

Five Good Things {No. 3}


·Seal madeleines. Selkie cookies! Staaaahp. I can’t handle it.

·The Marriage Referendum is coming up here in Ireland, and this letter in the Times (among other things) gives me hope that it might actually turn out right.


·I did my first Mechanica-centric author interview for the last day of this year’s #FairyTaleFortnight. You can read it, and enter to win an advance reader copy, here. Interview highlights: Dragons vs. krakens, obscure fairy tales, Smith College, and the Disney villain I like the least (even though he’s technically supposed to be a good guy).

·Speaking of Mechanica, the first early blog reviews are starting to trickle in! They’ve ranged from “the most innovative adaptation of a fairy tale released in a book for a long time” to “the most awful Cinderella retelling ever written” (both on Goodreads),  but the majority have been pretty great. One librarian gave five stars and said it’s “perfect for fans of Gail Carson Levine,” which obviously made me happy-cry. Read more early review excerpts on my Mechanica page.

tumblr_nmo5p2TC4R1qaufopo2_r1_400·RTE (Raidió Teilifís Éireann) has decided to look down upon us in mercy and show the new Outlander episodes on Tuesday nights, mere days after they premiere on cable in America. My husband knows to bring me ice cream and shut the fuck up when this show comes on, because I can’t have the brawny yet sensitive Celt I live with interrupt my viewing of the brawny yet sensitive Celt on my television. Did you SEE that opening scene from this week? No wonder the AV Club called it “the best sex on TV.” (Source of that gif is here and definitely not safe for work.)


[Please note: this post may be triggering in its discussion of child abuse, incest, and mental health. I have tried my best not to write in a graphic or titillating manner.]


When I was nineteen, a therapist told me she thought I had post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Like a soldier?” I asked, halfway laughing.

She pointed out that I was extremely anxious in our meetings, that I couldn’t sit still, but bit my nails to the quick and glanced around the room and at the closed door. I couldn’t sit with my back to an open window, and I talked as if I had to get the words out quickly, quietly, before someone else heard. That I often looked as if my heart was beating too fast. (It often was.) Hypervigilance, she said.

Hannah HolmesAnd then there were the nightmares, which were the ‘symptom’ that had made me seek out therapy in the first place. Intrusive dreams about my father hurting me, often with my mother’s assistance. Dreams that felt like memories, and memories that were starting to surface even while I was awake.

She asked me where I felt safe. I laughed again; nowhere, of course.

I’d started coming to her, over the summer vacation between my sophomore and junior years of college, because another counselor back at school had told me I needed to. I had to go back to my parents’ house to work over the summer, and we both knew I’d need a trained outside listener to get through it. I can’t remember what we decided to tell my generally therapy-averse parents that convinced them to let me go; I certainly didn’t tell them the real reason.

We talked more about PTSD during that session, and I recognized a lot of the symptoms she mentioned. Frightening, immersive flashbacks or panic attacks brought on by seemingly minor triggers; nightmares; memory trouble. Anxiety, exhaustion, absentmindedness, conflict aversion. Heavy, constant, seemingly sourceless guilt. Eating disorders. Shame. Self-loathing.

I told my boyfriend about it that evening, lying on our backs in the seaside park where we often met that summer. He said he thought it sounded right. He had talked me through more than a few panic attacks over the four years we’d been dating, held me when I’d woken up screaming or sobbing. He’d known about my father’s verbal abuse back when we were still in high school, back when I had no real memories yet of the other kinds. He was the first person I told about the memories that I didn’t want to, and often couldn’t, remember. We broke up a few years later and haven’t looked back, but I still feel grateful that I had someone supportive with me during that time.

It tootumblr_ne0x5pOGBd1qh2s1go1_500k a long time to tell anyone else. It was less than a month before my twenty-fifth birthday when I finally told the police. I’d known I wanted to make the report for years, and had only been waiting for the strength. That year, my youngest cousin turned the same age I was when, as far as my foggy memories can tell me, the abuse started. That year, I finally talked to someone who had once seen it happen, but who had been persuaded into silence, too. That year, I had to tell, so I did.

The memories are still foggy, though, and some of them are still absent. Is it possible to know that you don’t know, to be certain that your brain is still protecting you from some things?

Someone with PTSD would say: hell yes. Emphasis on the hell.

I’ve built my life in such a way that my anxiety, memory trouble, and conflict aversion aren’t major issues: I work from home, with lots of time to myself, a flexible schedule I share with my horse trainer husband, and unconditionally loving animal friends (shout out to my goats). I live in a quiet place in a different country, an ocean away from my parents.

Their stance on this whole thing, as far as I hear, is that I’m mentally unwell. Mental health issues run in the family, don’t you know, they confide. But I think it’s also important to mention that they haven’t contacted me, haven’t tried to help or confront their crazy daughter, even once since I made the report. (They’d lawyered up by the time the police talked to them, though.) By now, two years after the fact, I think that speaks for itself.

The thing is: they’re the ones keeping secrets now, not me. I don’t keep anything that has happened to me a secret any more, and that in itself has been incredibly healing.

tumblr_nmgk76vpoY1rv33k2o6_500Still, according to that therapist, I am technically mentally unwell. I have a Disorder. Certainly there are situations in which my brain reacts in ways I’d prefer it didn’t. I’d like fewer nightmares about my father bending over my bed, fewer full-blown panic attacks when there’s a rape scene on TV, fewer days when I barely have the will to move or breathe, much less write or teach or talk to my friends.

But I don’t really see it like that. I’m now a part of an online group of women who have PTSD, and they are not only some of the toughest and most resilient people I’ve ever known, but also the most empathetic, the least judgmental. They make me feel tough and kind, too, and those are great ways to feel, and great things to be.

My husband once said to me: “What happened to you was disordered, not your reaction to it. Plenty of reasonable people, having the same experience, would have the same reaction.”

He’s right. The disorder is my father’s, not mine. I still own the PTSD label, because it helps me to understand myself, to be kind to myself when I have reactions that are frustrating or counterproductive. Calling my reactions PTSD helped me come to terms with my past, and it’s helped me find a place in an extraordinary group of women, as I mentioned.

But I agree with my husband: it’s not a disorder. Maybe it’s PTS. I am a normal person with a weird past, and most days, that’s about it.

Aren’t we all?


(Art credits: Hannah Holmes)

Not the Best: Ambition vs. Peace of Mind

Tallmadge DoyleI rewrote the title of this post a good few times, and I still don’t love it. For a while it was “Goat’s Milk Caramel and Imperfection,” but I decided that was too twee . . . even though I’m a children’s book writer who spends much of my time making goat’s milk caramel in a cute little cottage in the west of Ireland, and there’s a fairly high Inherent Twee Index in that scenario.

I’ve been planning to write the post itself for days–weeks, now?–too. And yet.

It’s so easy not to get around to something, not to start, when if you leave it in the future it can still be perfect. Anything you haven’t done yet can still exist in a state of Platonic idealism.

Once you start, though, you see limits. You watch yourself fail, or at least not incandescently succeed. At the same time, you’re annoyed with yourself for even thinking you could ever do something perfect in the first place. I mean, who do you think you are?

And yet. And yet.

I wrote the first draft of Tides for NaNoWriMo 2008. I called my discombobulated monster manuscript The Undershoal Journals and I’m pretty sure it was terrible, but I could never even bring myself to look at it again after I finished writing it. I was embarrassed that I’d written something that I was convinced was so bad. I was supposed to be a brilliant writer; hadn’t I been put in the gifted classes ever since I could remember? How dare I dash all those parents’ and teachers’ hopes by writing something less than perfect?

Tallmadge DoyleSeven years later, I’m close to finishing Compass. It’s been harder for me to write this book than either Tides or Mechanica, partly because of all kinds of upheaval in my personal life in the last two years . . . but just as much, I think, because it’s the first book I’m actually writing under contract. If it’s terrible (as I’m often convinced it is) I can’t just banish it to a forgotten corner of my hard drive the way I did with The Undershoal Journals or any number of short stories from my MFA program, never to be seen again.

No. I’ve already been paid for Compass, and that money has long since gone into such luxuries as rent and electricity. There’s no going back on this one, baby. I have to turn in my manuscript very, very soon (I’m already behind on my deadline), no matter how bad it is. That’s terrifying.

It’s terrifying because that book is proof that I’m not the Actual Best Writer The World Has Ever Seen. That Compass isn’t the Great American Novel.

For fuck’s sake, of course it’s not. How arrogant could I be? But part of me is. Part of me is so arrogant that I can’t even bear to write blog posts very often, because they’re not perfect, either. I don’t want to write anything that isn’t total, pure genius.

Tallmadge DoyleIt’s embarrassing even to write that! But the thing is, I’ve learned from teaching that most writers feel the same way. And when I see that balking in my students, that perfectionism masquerading as procrastination (commonly called writer’s block), I can view it a little more kindly. I can say: the issue is how much you care. You love great writing (and reading great writing) so much that you can’t stand making anything less. Your great love pins you to an impossible standard, one that’s been reinforced by every class you’ve taken, every word of early praise or censure you’ve received. I don’t think that’s arrogance; I don’t even think it’s necessarily bad.

But it can still debilitate. It can still keep you from writing at all.There’s the bad.

So where does the twee caramel come into this?

I write nearly every day, and I milk the goats and make caramel (or soap, or cheese) at least as often. I’m ambitious for my goats and their milk; I’d like them to be a significant part of how I make my living someday soon. And yet I don’t have any aspirations–not even secret, arrogant ones–of being The Greatest Caramel Maker The World Has Ever Known. In my heart of hearts, my highest goat-related ambitions involve a small herd and a few jars of my caramel sauce in local gourmet shops, and maybe selling my soap on Etsy. Small potatoes indeed compared to the “Shakespeare can eat my dust” dreams that I know, I know, most writers secretly share.

So the question I want to ask is: why do we want that in the first place? Why are we all so desperate to be the best that we’re terrified of anything lesser? After all, not a single one of us will ever reach that dream. No matter how good we are, we’re setting ourselves up to fail. We’re never going to be as good as we want to be, because that level of perfection (any level of perfection) doesn’t exist.

I know it doesn’t exist for me. But the only time I enjoy writing is when I let go of the hope for perfection, when I let myself be bad. I would hate making caramel or soap if I needed it to be perfect every time. I botch batches every week, adding flavors or scents or other ingredients that don’t work, fudging my measurements. Experimenting. Imperfection, failure, is ultimately the only thing that’s fun about creativity; and ironically, it’s often what a reader will latch onto in a piece of writing, as well.

I love–loveJessica Williams’ response to claims that she suffers from an inferiority complex because she declined to take over the Daily Show. I love this analysis from newwavefeminism on Tumblr just as much:

There’s a specific arrogance and entitlement with white patriarchy that says you must prove that you’re the best at everything.

Like so many young feminists, I’m sick of individualistic, lean-in feminism that says empowerment is about being the best (and, by extension, better than everyone else). I’m sick of a feminism that’s all about me, my journey, my empowerment. My feminism, or at least the feminism that I strive toward, is about building a better world, about fixing our structural, institutional illnesses at every level. Feminism shouldn’t be about climbing the ladder, but about dismantling the damn thing in the first place.

That philosophy trickles into my writing and my teaching like this: I am trying to unlearn the need to be perfect. I am trying to help my students unlearn that need, too. It’s hard, especially with my gifted students. We’re taught to value ourselves based on how good we are–meaning how intellectually or creatively elite we are–because that’s how we see other people valuing us. Parents, teachers, even friends; even ourselves.

What a blessing it would be if we could let it go.

(Art credits: Tallmadge Doyle)