About Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

I am working on living and writing my story. I grew up singing and writing music and spent my young adult life touring colleges and coffeehouses across the country. I have had a life long love affair with Western North Dakota and the 3,000 acre cattle ranch on the edge of the badlands where I grew up Now, after a couple albums, a couple of moves, a couple of dogs, a couple of jobs, one large home renovation and a long, heartbreaking road to motherhood, I am back at the ranch to sing, write and raise cattle and my young daughters alongside my family as we take this ranch into the next 100 years. Oh, and just in case you want to know a bit more about the woman behind the words...I'm a statewide columnist, the editor of Prairie Parent, a new Western North Dakota parenting magazine, a recording artist and touring musician, a new momma and nature enthusiast. I have big hair. I trip a lot. I say stupid things. I snort when I laugh. I'm a home renovator and a damn good cabinet refinisher. I married the right man. I hate car shopping. I would adopt all of the dogs in the world if I had a big enough yard. I am addicted to coffee and candy and peanut butter. I am working on writing my story. I am home.

Wardrobe dilemmas come with the gig

Greetings from Elko! I”m on my fourth day here at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Nevada, where I’ve helped kick off the event with fellow North Dakota Cowboy Poet Jonathan Odermann by visiting area elementary schools. It has been a treat sharing a little North Dakota culture with the kids, reading them Prairie Princess and singing some tunes.

Monday night I shared the stage with two wonderful cowgirl poets from my neck of the woods, Yvonne Hollenbeck, a ranch woman, master quilter, poet and author from South Dakota and Patricia Frolander, an award winning poet and Wyoming’s fifth Poet Laureate.

To share the stage with these women was an honor. I was crying in the first three minutes of the show (imagine that) and had to pull myself together to share play my songs. They shared heartfelt and humorous poems about motherhood and aging, marriage and ranch work, every word so relatable that I felt like they were plucking them from the lump in my throat.

With Patricia Frolander

This morning I’m getting ready to share Prairie Princess at the local library. Dad is picking up guitar player Mike and they are driving down for our concerts starting tomorrow night. It will be fun to have them here. Really, the most fun thing about this event is visiting with people from all over the country, sharing stories and playing on these beautiful stages to audiences here who really tune their ears into the words we’re writing. It’s a writer’s dream.

So no podcast this week as I take in this event that is only just getting started, but I can’t wait to visit all about it next week and thought I’d catch you all up so far.

This week’s column is all about the role my wardrobe has played in my performing career. You’ll be proud of me, I packed everything I needed for six days of performances in one suitcase and it came in one pound under 50, so I hit my goal and didn’t have do the dreaded unpack and rearrange move at the airport. It’s the little things I tell ya.

Thanks for following along!

Tough wardrobe decisions come with the gig

The amount of times I’ve changed clothes, put on my makeup, done my hair and generally tried to make myself presentable in my car or a car that is driving me down the road is in the thousands.

I know this isn’t normal for most people. Most people don’t live 30 miles from town and most people don’t travel thousands of miles a year to perform in some of the most rural parts of the country. And I don’t know if this is an interesting thing about me or not, but it is something that I think about almost every week: what should I wear for the three or more hour drive and what should I wear behind the microphone where people are going to be looking at me as I ramble and sing and try my best to entertain. For some people this could be one of the most fun parts of the gig, but for me picking the proper outfit sometimes feels like another annoying decision I need to make in a day full to the brim with decisions.

When I was a kid just getting started performing, I used to have complete melt-downs on the bathroom and dressing room floors (or, probably mostly in the car) about my outfit choices for the stage (or flatbed trailer or corner of the venue). Looking back on it now, I understand it was nerves that I blamed on jeans that didn’t fit right or hair that fluffed too much or the wrong color shirt. In those moments, I felt like I could handle the singing and playing my songs in public, but not if I wasn’t wearing the right thing. And my poor mother got the brunt of it, coaxing me so sweetly, always, to get it together, while my dad set up the sound and set list, clueless of the angst happening behind the scenes.

And now that I have daughters of my own, both with clear-cut and strong outfit opinions, I would like to take this moment to publicly apologize to my mother. I am, indeed, getting pay back.

Last week I took the three-hour drive to the big town to perform for a banker’s convention. So naturally, I chose a pink, suede fringe jacket and boot cut jeans. The drive was long and the pants were high waisted, so, in the privacy of the cab of my car, I undid my floral belt buckle and the top button of my jeans. (Because carbs and January and a girl’s gotta breathe). I made a mental note to make sure to fasten up before I got out of the car, which I only remembered when I was fully out of the car, in the venue and in the bathroom to check my outfit. Luckily, I don’t think I encountered a soul along the way (at least not close up) but that was a wardrobe close call. I got myself together and eventually stepped up to the microphone to do the job I was hired for and looked out at a sea of gray and navy blue suits and slacks, fully realizing that, in my pink suede jacket and turquoise accents, my brain and their brains were not the same. 

I looked like words that rhyme and the dirtiest car in the parking lot. They looked like numbers that add up and clutter-free desktops.

Oh, it’s easy to make assumptions about a person based on their outfit or their day job. I know better, I mean, my dad used to work in a bank and also he broke horses and played in a bar band at night—with the exception of cowboy boots (always cowboy boots) there was a diverse set of outfits on a guy who is more than just one thing. And aren’t we all?

But put a cowboy like that in shorts and sandals and you’re not fooling anyone.

My husband, in his beach wear

Anyway, I’m thinking about clothes and appearances as I pack for seven days of performances in Elko, NV for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Between getting the kids’ schedules lined out in my absence, creating set lists, learning a few new songs and coordinating travel, my biggest conundrum is how I’m going to fit two cowboy hats, three pairs of boots, makeup, jewelry and outfits for seven days into one suitcase situation that I can handle alone in an airport with my guitar.

I’ll be miles and miles away from the familiarity of the North Dakota plains, introducing myself for the first time to so many people. And I think I can handle the music, if I have the right outfits. Just send some prayers up for no more wardrobe close calls.

Peace, love and buckle up,

Jessie

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The music continues…

This week my mind is on the music as I work on a new album and pack for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. I sits down with my husband to talk about what it means to still be recording and creating music at 39 and I answer a listener’s question about the songwriting process. Chad’s been busy building the addition, so he gives a little sheetrock-covered update too. 
PLUS, I shares a rough cut of the song I wrote about my Great Grandpa Eddie at the end of the podcast, so stay to have an exclusive listen. 

When I was a young teenager, like 13 or 14, every spare minute I had at home was spent trying to teach myself to play guitar on the pink carpet of my room. Leaned up against the frame of my waterbed (hey, it was the 90s) I pressed stop and play and stop and play on my CD player trying to figure out the chords to Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” or Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” I found these songs in my parent’s album collections and there was something about them that spoke to me more than anything I was hearing on the two FM radio stations that came in at the ranch.

Maybe it was the fact that the first songs I ever heard were coming from my dad playing and singing around the house. I knew the lyrics to Emmylou Harris and John Prine songs before I even heard their original versions. And when I began to discover my own musical tastes, when I could buy my own albums and play them on repeat, I was surprised to find there was something lonesome about it. Because I couldn’t imagine a world beyond my nook of rural America where real people like this existed, playing guitars in coffee shops and clubs and forming and breaking up bands and writing and recording music.  Somehow, it made me feel even more isolated, more landlocked, more obscure in my community and so very far away from a world where people create music for a living. I suppose I felt that my only access to it was to learn to play it myself and to attempt to write my own.

MEDORA — AUG 5: Tour of Teddy Roosevelt National Park. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Center for Creative Photography/University of Arizona).

I was only fourteen or fifteen when I wrote some of the music for the first album I released my senior year of high school. If I knew then what I know now, I wonder if would I have put myself out there that way. That’s the thing about adolescence—the naiveté keeps you brave.

I’m thinking about this today because for the past month or so I’ve been knee deep in working on music for another album. There was a time I would have told the 39-year-old version of me that I’m too old for this now, that to be creative, to have something to say, you must be relevant, and 39 didn’t seem relevant to me when I was in my early 20s driving up and down the middle of the country trying to write songs about places and things I knew nothing about. There was also a time when I thought that in order to be successful you had to remove yourself from all the familiar things and build yourself back up again somewhere more important. Go to Nashville. Go to California. Go to New York City. Then you’ll be something. Then you’ll have something worth saying.

I grew out of that phase somewhere between South Dakota and Oklahoma in my Chevy Lumina with a caved-in trunk I couldn’t open because of a fender-bender I still hadn’t dealt with. The man I loved and the place I loved was hundreds of miles away, I just cracked the front of my tooth off on a granola bar and I was supposed to be playing in a Nebraska college town in two hours. Was it this I loved? Or was there something else to it?

Last weekend I spent countless hours on the carpet in my grown up room working and re-working songs that could only be written by the woman I am now, hollering down to my daughters to “shush for a minute” and “play walkie-talkie in the basement please!”

I pulled out my harmonicas and immediately I saw two sets of bare feet under my bedroom door. Soon my daughters were playing harmonica too, dancing, singing and requesting for assistance writing their own songs.

I couldn’t help but think about the smoky smell of my dad’s guitar case on the 1980s shag carpet and me sitting cross-legged on the floor, listening. And then another thing hit me: this is how it can start, yes, but this can also just be how it is. There doesn’t have to be more to any of it except that it brings you some sort of peace or some sort of release or some sort of joy. If my daughters ask, that’s what I’ll tell them. Not everything we do with passion has to come to a famous, star-studded, glamorous end. Sometimes the best part is in the learning, or the listening or the creating or the dancing along.

As it turns out, the teenage version of me was right. To write it continues to set me free. And so that’s what I’m doing here, leaned up against my bed frame on the carpet in my room.

Cream noodles and how we connect here

If you like food and cooking and some talk about making music, this week’s Podcast episode is for you. Listen here or on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

 Have you ever had cream noodles?

Well, it is what it says it is, only add potatoes and onions fried up in boiling butter. Then hand-make some thick noodles and add heavy whipping cream and there you have it. Cream. Noodles.

These are the things we eat in January, Lord save us. Carb filled white things with cream and butter, give or take a potato or some chicken, add a side of sausage and save the consequences for later. And if we’re not eating it, we’re planning for the next excuse of a celebration and a reason to cook it up.

I hope we all have dishes like these, little indulgences and reminders of our childhood in our mothers’ or grandmothers’ kitchens. Cream noodles is that for my husband. His mom was raised by her grandmother in the middle of the state who still spoke German in the house and taught her granddaughter the subtle art of adding the milk to the egg so that it measures out properly with the flour.  Turns out there’s a fine line between a noodle and a dumpling and I may have never known any of this if I hadn’t started dating her son.

I wouldn’t have known about homemade cream peas either, and how well they go with mashed potatoes and pork chops, and thereby I would have been missing out on another winter meal staple that puts my husband front and center in the kitchen with me following behind as his cheerleader and potato peeler. It would have been a small tragedy.

The important role that food plays in the foundation of our lives is no big revelation here. It’s been studied and milled over, the poetry and music about it has been written. But the fact that one of my mom’s favorite dishes is now my husband’s cream noodles, so much so that he made them for on her birthday, is a sweet little unexpected connection that the two of them share.  And my husband, he takes the task seriously. If he gets in a bind or has a question it’s a great excuse to call his own mother. And it’s even more fun for him to call her after a successful meal. I don’t know how many times they’ve gone over the stories attached to these heritage dishes, or the subtle ways they’ve gone wrong or right over the years. I doesn’t matter. It’s a countless point of connection and it’s special.

Last month, before Christmas, my husband took the girls to his parent’s place for a baking day and on the agenda was kuchen, a German heritage custard filled dessert. They made up pans and pans of it to give away and store in the freezer for company or for a special occasion. Last weekend, I took one out of the freezer when our pastor came for a visit and let me tell you, having that dessert on the ready gave me an unjustified sense of ranch wife confidence that I needed in that moment. Now, it’s confidence I didn’t earn, but it helped balance the amount of shame-filled panic power cleaning and I did in preparation for his visit.

Maybe someday this Scandinavian-bred girl will learn the art of making kuchen the way I learned the art of making knoephla, but these days I’m just appreciating the fact that my daughters are interested in being involved in what is going on in the kitchen.

The other night my seven-year-old took a bite of her hot dish and declared, again for the fiftieth time in two days, that she wanted orange chicken for supper tomorrow. Because six months ago we had lunch at a Chinese food restaurant in the mall food court in the big town and she’s been searching for that high ever since.

Now if we lived in that big town this request would be a simple one to fill, but our nearest Chinese food restaurant is 60 miles away and that’s a little far for delivery. So, because she hasn’t let up, my quest to recreate her orange chicken experience starts today. I’m telling you now, I’m not equipped, but I guess that’s what the Internet’s for. I’m aiming for minimal disappointment. I’ll let you know how it goes.

If all else fails, we have a good excuse to make cream noodles.

The “Happy To” mentality might be the key to marital success

This week on the podcast Chad and I talk all things marriage and I share an unreleased, rough cut of a song I wrote about us, so stay tuned until the end. Listen here, on Spotify or Apple Podcasts!


My husband took the kids to school recently to save me some time to finish up work and get ready for a singing job out of town. He took my car (because the less transfer of car seats in our lives, the better) and on his way home he gassed it up, and, gasp, got the oil changed.

When he arrived home and shared the news you would have thought he bought me diamonds. Really. Because it’s not like I couldn’t have done these tasks myself, but it was a sweet and unexpected thing that made my life a bit easier and I loved him for it.

And also, I fall into the cliché category of wives whose car seems to always need gas every single time my husband drives it, like magical timing.  And so here I pause for all the husbands’ collective groans.

And I would be ashamed, but I’m too distracted and that’s my argument and his argument about the entire situation combined.

Anyway, I was going to make a point here now about how we all have these little life tasks that are essential and easy enough, but are uniquely annoying to us individually. For me, for example, it’s getting my oil changed or putting my clothes away. Mowing the lawn is on my husband’s list. But I think the greater point here is how easy it can be to make our lives better for one another.

My grandpa will be turning 90 this month. He’s been married to my grandma for over 70 years. In their years together my grandmother has never pumped her own gas. Now, at one point this may have been a sign of the times, but it certainly was never because my grandmother wasn’t capable of doing it herself. I asked him once about it and he said it was just something he wanted to do for her. Made her life easier and he was happy to do it.

Grandma Ginny and Grandpa Bill

To be happy to do it. Could that just be the most sage marriage advice there is? Could it also be the most difficult one to achieve? I mean, dedicating your life to someone so easily lends itself to resentments and tit-for-tats and disappointments. The day-to-day of work and raising kids and trying to keep the dust out of the corners of it all can wear on partners who once stood before one another and promised for better or worse. And our mindset after the honeymoon phase can easily shift to the black hole of “But what are you doing to help me here!?” On my bad days, when I’m overwhelmed and feel a bit lonely in the rhythm of work and motherhood, I fall in there. And quite easily, I can wallow.

Recently my husband and I got away for a night to the big town, just the two of us. And it wasn’t for a job or to pick up ranch or building supplies, it was to catch a moment to talk and eat supper uninterrupted. (And, let’s be honest here, to make a Costco run, because at this phase in the game, that’s romance.) Both of us are bad at prioritizing time alone. Both of us are better people to one another when we do it.

Which is something my grandma would tell me. Her memory is failing her now at the end of her life, but if she could I think she would tell me her life’s greatest joy has been her relationship with her husband. Even now, in the cruel grip of dementia, she hasn’t forgotten that she loves him.

And I don’t know how to tie that in a neat little bow of guidance on this sort of marital success, except to say I think it started as love and continued through the years as genuine admiration. Each made the other proud. Each made the other feel special and worth the extra effort.

And maybe we could start there with a simple flip of the running commentary in our heads. What if the “What are you doing?” question turned to “What am I doing?” and then, when we could, we went out to mow the lawn. Or took the extra time to iron his shirts the way he likes. Or started his pickup in the cold or pumped her gas without a comment to go with it simply and most importantly because we’re happy to.

Dear New Year

Listen to the podcast where Chad and Jessie sit down to talk about highlights of the year at the ranch and why margaritas and cookies should be included in more New Year’s resolutions. Listen here or on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Yesterday I watched my young daughters and their cousins fly down a slippery hill on a little orange sled, negotiating time after time who rides with whom next. Who sits in the back to hold on and who gets the front to take in the view and the likelihood of snow on their cheeks. We were experiencing a regular heat wave here. Thirty-seven above zero was a 50-some degree temperature shift toward a warmer winter day, and even though we could only find one sled buried under the giant drifts, we took it and we went to play.

Because the weather had been so cold, so well below zero for weeks, the snow piled so high that we haven’t been able to play in it. And around here, besides filling the creeks in the spring, that’s the best thing about snow.

We got a blizzard for Christmas, and a broken tractor, and a couple chances to get stuck in our yards and dig each other out. But the New Year forecast doesn’t look as brutal and so that’s the weather report in the quiet of the morning, from a mom sitting under the glow of our Christmas tree lights in that timeless, wonky, magic space between Christmas and the New Year, the dishwasher humming before sleepy kids wake up, reminding me that it’s all a little bit of a mess around here, there’s always something to be done. And we’re lucky for it. And also we’re tired. And overwhelmed sometimes. And grateful. And worried and wondering if we’re doing any of it right while simultaneously holding our ground on what we fiercely believe.

At the turn of the New Year I always feel compelled to reflect, as it seems we all do, on time and how it’s changed us, our family, and the promises I intend to make from here on out. But the further I get into this life the more I realize there are things that are so fundamentally out of our control, that maybe the ultimate gift we can promise to give to ourselves and those around us is a bit of grace.

Dear New Year,

I promise to do the best that I can most days, and other days, when I am not at my best, I promise to sleep on it and try again and be OK with that.

New Year, I won’t ever stop declaring it. If it’s wonderful, I’m saying it out loud so that I hear it, and you hear it and they hear it. We need more talk about the good things. But if it’s bad, if it’s bad in the ways that truly matter, I’m declaring it, too. I’m going to be better about that one, because I’ve learned this year that’s just as important. Because in the saying it out loud we give ourselves a chance to grieve, or to hope, or to find solutions, or to be there for one another.

New Year, I am going to continue eat the cookies. And order the steak. And pour the margarita when the occasion calls for it. Life’s too short. But I’m also going to continue to walk to the top of the hills to take in the view, and I’m taking the kids with me.

Because as I watch them dig tunnels through snow banks, declare themselves queens of the snow drift mountains, as they negotiate flying down the hills holding on to one another, I promise, New Year, if there’s fun to be found, if there’s beauty, I’m gonna be out there looking for it. That’s the most important one to me, it always has been, but more so now that these kids are watching.

Dear New Year, I look forward to the memories.

Longer days ahead

Christmas has come and gone at the ranch. Weather made it challenging for so many to travel as they’d planned for the holiday and we weren’t really the exception here, considering that one tractor was in the shop and the other one broke down during the Christmas day 50 MPH wind whipping and drifting and working hard to block us all in our respective driveways. We celebrated a mile down the road at Mom and Dad’s as we usually do. At one point in the afternoon I asked Chad to make a quick run back to our house for something I forgot and he spent the next hour trying to dig himself out of a snowbank. He nearly missed prime rib dinner. Whoops.

We had a couple balmy 37 degree weather days since then to help us forget and now we sit in that magical time between Christmas and New Years where we play with all the toys, hang with the cousins, stay up past or bedtimes every night and eat sugar cookies for breakfast. The floor is sticky, there’s toys everywhere and I’ve spent countless hours as a hair stylist, manicurist and audience member for dance shows. I’ve loved every minute.

Last night Dad and I headed up to Lake Metigoshe at the Canadian border to perform for a Nights of Christmas event in a beautiful resort, braving some icy weather and arriving back at the ranch around 2 am, so I’m dragging a bit.

Some late nights still pepper this music gig of mine.

As I type this I’m supposed to be getting ready to head to the big town for a little date with my husband that includes taking some gifts back and getting a Costco membership, because we’re romantic like that. Send prayers for me as I attempt to supervise my husband in the warehouse that is a big box store full of big box deals. The amount of cheeseball buckets we return with could be harrowing.

We took this week off from the podcast because I’ve failed to keep any sort of schedule and we’ll be back to whatever our regular programming is after the New Year. Hopefully with equipment that works and more above-zero temps.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Thank you for following along, this community of followers continues to fill my cup. Much love.

Longer days are ahead
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The winter solstice welcomed us with a fresh blanket of snow this morning. It came as a surprise to me after a three-day blizzard that kept us at the ranch, simultaneously working to stay tucked in and dug out. I’ve taken a break from the weather report.

I followed the tracks of the single truck that was awake and driving our county roads before me, with my daughters dressed in their best red and green, bows and ribbons tucked in cozy under blankets in the backseat on our way to school, 30 miles in the dark.

I turned my favorite Christmas music on the car stereo and the girls and I sang along, “Noel, Noel,” as I navigated the very beginning of the shortest day of the year. The temperature stared at me from the counsel, -18 and I couldn’t help but think for a moment, even with the heat blasting along with the music, safe for now in this four- wheel-drive car pushing snow, that this was crazy. That hibernation is a real thing in these northern climates. What are we doing out here?

The solstice marks the official beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, although our winter here in Western North Dakota knocked on our door mid-November and has held us in her grip ever since. But on this day, December 21, the sun appears to stand still at the southernmost point of the equator and we enter into our longest night. For many cultures, this signifies the rebirth of the sun as the days gradually get longer once again. With the New Year upon us, some people mark the solstice by setting intentions. In Native cultures the coldest, darkest nights of the year are the time for storytelling and for many, a time for grieving.

On days when the wind blows and drift snow upon my door at 40 miles per hour, and the trees and ground are heavy and cracking with the frost, I think of the animals and the humans who came before us out here and how they survived the brutality of it all. It had to be with a long preparation followed by a slow down. A reflection. It hasn’t historically been with the invention of heated seats in four wheel-drive-tractors and blades and snow-blowers, the things man has invented to push us through this season so that we don’t skip a beat of progress.

But as I wake my sleepy daughters in the dark and chill of the morning, as they snuggle into my arms, their eyes begging to stay closed for just a few more minutes, I wonder sometimes, up here, these days, if we’re doing it a bit wrong. Can we truly have progress without rest? Without reflection?

Is it instinct we’re feeling here, to feed our bodies full up, to lay down when the sun leaves, to feed the livestock an extra pitch or two of hay, to take to drinking tea or another splash of coffee, to gather up?

Last week at the ranch, when the temperature dropped well below zero, I turned on my faucet to wash my face and came up dry. Suddenly the thing we simultaneously rely on and take for granted the most was not available to me, or any of my neighbors. After a trip to the barns to check tanks and a few phone calls it was concluded that a line had broken in our rural water system and, in brutal temps and deep snow, it was likely going to be days before it could be resolved.

When I was a kid growing up on the ranch, the water to our house, as well as the water for the livestock, was fed by a natural spring in the trees. When we turned on the faucet and came up dry, there was no one we could call to fix it. It was on my dad to solve the problem with whatever willing soul stood by him with the flashlight, which was me sometimes, holding and handing tools and looking down into the well where something was broken. I had no idea what could be done or what was wrong, but I trusted he’d fix it up like usual, my dad not letting on about the panic and uncertainty likely welling up in him at a time like this.

So many of us have never lived in a time and place where the work, the manual labor of our every day existence was done for the sake of staying alive. When things like this break out here, when the temperatures drop and the snow piles up and our modern conveniences forsake us, it’s hard not to think about whether or not we could go without.

To make a phone call about the water situation was a luxury not lost on me. To drive this warm car loaded with bundled up babies, the sun slowly rising behind us with the promise of longer days, it’s a privilege.

Merry Christmas. Happy Solstice. I wish for you rest. I wish for you reflection. I wish for you time to tell stories, time to grieve, time to celebrate. Time to be.

Snowed in

Happy winter! It’s official now, on December 22nd. I’m writing this in the middle of another no-school, all the roads are closed, the wind is whipping 40 MPH snow day.

And I wrote the column during the last snow day. December has had it’s way with us. So Chad and I had plenty of time between tractor thawing and snow blowing to sit down and visit a bit about windchill and frozen equipment, digging out and and staying home, Christmas traditions and finding gratitude where you can. Even Edie pops in for a snow day report. Then stick around to hear both she and little sister Rosie sing their favorite Christmas song this year. 

Merry Christmas. Thank you for following along this year and sharing your stories with us. Sending you love, gratitude for the year behind us and hope for the year ahead.

Listen to the podcast here or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

The magic season

Oh wow it’s magical around here. Two young kids waking up each morning smack dab in the middle of the Christmas season to see what shenanigans the little felt elf got into this time will make it that way. So will 4 to 8 inches of heavy snow and a promise of at least 40 mph gusts to make it nice and blinding, just like the North Pole.

Yes, we’re smack dab in the middle of the Christmas countdown. As I write this almost every road in the state is closed and so we’re in a good ‘ol fashioned snow day, except with laptops and virtual learning. And depending on your experience with Google classroom, the whole magic of the snow day experience can go either way.

And so can waking up at 3 am realizing that you forgot to move that enchanting felt elf. In which case you can either embrace that you are the magic or you can use your favorite cuss words as you squinty slipper shuffle down the steps to move the elf from the bathroom perch to the fridge between the ketchup and the soy sauce, wrapped up in an old dish towel for dramatic effect.

I’d say the magic is in remembering to move it at all. Bonus for a clever idea.

It’s worth it in the morning though. My kids are in that special spot of childhood where they still believe, and finding their elf in a toilet paper hammock is about as thrilling as it gets. Although the concept of Jesus and Santa both watching you gets a bit confusing for the five-year-old, especially when the felt elf becomes a part of the felt nativity scene. (Hey, I’m running out of ideas here.)

But it’s not just the Christmas season and the elf-drawing-faces-on-our-bananas- with-a-Sharpie that’s bringing this magic, it’s the kids themselves. They just have it beaming out of their curious eyes, skipping with them to meet their friends at school and almost knocking the Christmas tree over with each of the thousands of cartwheels they’re throwing in the living room.

The lineup of performances and celebration helps too. Last week my girls ran a regular rock star schedule and I happily (and with a supply of Motrin and coffee) played the role of their tour bus driver, stylist, caterer, and personal assistant. We had a first grade Christmas program on Tuesday, a pre-school Christmas Caroling experience on Friday morning and a dress rehearsal for a cheer performance on Friday afternoon. They gave it their all in their cheer recital Saturday afternoon and then we hosted Rosie’s five-year-old swimming birthday party on Saturday night. Then we wrapped it all up with my personal favorite, the Church nativity play on Sunday morning. The girls dressed as angels and they both had lines that we’ve been practicing all month. And we got to dress in our best and watch as Edie the Angel inched all the wise men and poor little Joseph out of the way so she could do the actions to the song front and center like she was born to do.

Man, wasn’t it just yesterday that she was baby Jesus who had a blowout mid-manger scene?

Maybe we all secretly wished for this snow day to slow it down for a minute so that we might sit on our cozy chair, our kids still in their jammies and watch a Christmas movie while procrastinating trying to figure out how to log-in to their Chrome books.

I’m rambling a little I know. I sat down this morning with the idea that I would write down a few lessons I’ve learned from this season of the year and of this middle-aged-mid-parenting life. But all I want to do is write down these little things I don’t want to fade from my memory: my daughters’ red tights and sparkly holiday shoes. Their morning bed head and crumpled Christmas PJs. The mess of graham cracker gingerbread houses and h alf-drunk holiday cups of hot chocolate taking over my kitchen table and singing Edie’s favorite Christmas song at the top of our lungs on the car ride to school. And even that silly elf that wakes me up and reminds me that these are the days. These are the exhausting, adorable, hilarious, snuggle-clad, sugar cookie filled days, frosted in sketchy weather with holiday sprinkles on top.

In case you forgot to remember. In case you’ve never forgotten.

Anyway, I got a little off task here, but here’s one lesson I really wanted to pass along: Tie the tree to the wall. Fishing string works great. Do it even if no one’s doing cartwheels in your living room. Trust me.

And whatever phase you’re in this Christmas, may you do your best to find peace where you are, even if it’s 3 am and you’re barely awake dressing a felt elf in Barbie clothes…

This is five

It’s a snow day at the ranch and all the roads in ND are closed. So while all the kids were in the house, I sat down to chat with my little sister, Alex, about parenting five year olds and trying to replicate the magic Christmases we had as kids. There are interruptions, per usual, I talk about Rosie and her packrat tendencies and Alex shares a story about how she and an egg went to town.

Listen to the podcast here, on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Spotify.

Happy snow day moms and dads! Don’t forget to move that elf.

This is Five

Rosie, my youngest daughter, turned five at the beginning of the month. If you’re wondering what five is like, if it’s been a while since you had a five-year-old living under your roof, or have been five yourself, then I’m here today to paint a picture.

And that picture begins with all of the things that could be hiding under a five-year-old’s pillow. Because I, myself, just had a recent revelation a few nights back when our household was conducting one of our middle-of-the-night bed shuffling rituals, the one where Rosie wakes up and climbs the stairs with her blankie at 2 am and then climbs up on our bed and then climbs up on my head to finish her good night’s sleep. And despite contradicting viewpoints on a mother’s need for personal space, I do admit that I like mine, especially at 2 am. So I made my way down to her big empty bed only to discover that it wasn’t as empty as I assumed. I slid my arm under the pillow to snuggle in and was greeted with a half-eaten bag of goldfish crackers, a Santa squishy ball, five rolls of Smarties candies, a tiny notebook, an ice-pop wrapper, a bouncy ball, a tiny doll shoe and a partridge in a pear tree.

And so it was 2:04 am on a random Tuesday night in December when I discovered my youngest daughter is a pack rat. A sneaky one.

And that not all five-year-olds are created equally.

I mean, I could leave a bag full of chocolate in the middle of the kitchen table, within reach and sniffing distance of my oldest daughter, and she wouldn’t dare make a move without first being granted permission. And chocolate is her absolute favorite thing in the entire world. But so are rules. She’s the firstborn and her universe can only run on order.

And so I’ve been moving through parenting both daughters naively and blissfully thinking that sort of discipline and obedience must be a package deal.  But it turns out the second one is sneaky, thriving on flying under the radar, letting the older one take the spotlight until her comedy routine is honed and she can steal the show. As a middle child myself, I should have known.

Anyway, today I offered to help her make her bed and the darling assured me that she had it under control, which just turned out to be a ploy to get me off her trail while she tried to figure out what to do with the sticky stash of pillowcase Sweet Tarts she’d been hoarding. I didn’t even know we had Sweet Tarts and so this is what I’m saying.

I took the child with me grocery shopping yesterday and we had the cart overflowing with what I was hoping would be at least a week or two of meals and snacks. And while I busied myself bagging up the vegetables and cereal at the end of the conveyer belt, Rosie took my distraction as an opportunity to try a new strategy. 

Among the string cheese and tortilla shells, Rosie got one of those Kinder Joy Egg things that is conveniently placed at small-child-eye-level, the kind with the candy and a tiny plastic toy, past me and through the grocery clerk. By the time I found it, I’d already paid for it.

“Rosie!” I exclaimed. “Did you put this candy in with our groceries without asking?”

“Yeah,” she replied, not phased in the least. “I didn’t ask because I knew you’d say no.”

“I would have said no,” I told her.

And then she told me, “But now you paid for it, so I might as well eat it.”

I was so baffled by her antics that I plowed my cart full of groceries right into the Christmas tree by the door on our way out, which apparently has now become a part of her core memory, because she’s reminded me and anyone within ear shot of it at least a dozen times already.

So that’s five.

Oh, and also, tonight at supper she told me she has a crush. He’s a cowboy and he’s cool and he ropes and she’s a cowgirl so what’s the deal?

The deal is, send prayers.

Happy Birthday sweet Rosie. We love every little thing about you.   

Mr. Tanner and the Joy of Singing Along

Dad in his high School band, Cherry Creek,

I’m excited to share this week’s column and podcast that hones in on the music and the stories and what makes them so significant and important in our lives. And so of course I sit down with my dad on the podcast and we hash out some of our favorite folk songs and the stories behind decades of making music together. You get to hear my dad in his element, reciting lyrics and talking about his favorite musicians and all his time spent performing in his 50+ career as a musician.

Enjoy and thank you for believing as much as I do in the power of the story of the every day characters, the fabric of our communities.

The joy of singing along

Listen to the podcast here, on Apple Podcast or Spotify

There’s a Harry Chapin song I grew up listening to on my dad’s tape player. Harry Chapin was a Grammy award winning musician in the 70s and one of the greatest folk songwriters of his time. He created characters in his three to five minute songs that took you along to fall in love or break a heart or, in the case of “Mr. Tanner, the owner of a dry cleaning store in a small town in Ohio who sang while he worked long hours in his shop, to follow the encouragement of his friends and neighbors and use all his savings to “try music out full time.”

In the performance and recording of the song, in the backdrop of the chorus among the instruments a deep and pure baritone voice emerges as Mr. Tanner himself, singing the chorus to “Oh Holy Night.”

It’s beautiful, the whole thing, and the song takes you to his performance at a concert hall in New York. And if you’re listening for the first time, you hope for the outcome of fame and accolades for Mr. Tanner and his beautiful voice because “they said that he should use his gift instead of cleaning coats.” 

But Harry Chapin doesn’t deliver that fairy tale. That’s what makes him one of the best. Mr. Tanner’s debut performance was met with cold reviews, “Full time consideration of another endeavor might be in order…” And so Mr. Tanner went back to Dayton, Ohio, and the song ends with him singing to himself late at night while sorting his clothes, against the haunting lines of the chorus …

But music was his life, it was not his livelihood
And it made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good
And he sang from his heart and he sang from his soul
He did not know how well he sang, it just made him whole

This song came back to me recently after a particularly challenging week where I was working to bring a renowned concert pianist to our small community and the logistics just weren’t falling into place the way I had hoped. I was anxious about his arrival and worried about getting the arrangements just right for him. The man has played for every president since Ronald Reagan and I wanted his time here in our little community to be up to a particular standard and I felt I was falling short. I was feeling flustered and tired and considering what it would take to retire early when the last song was played and the crowd emerged wowed and thankful for the opportunity. I watched as the pianist to the presidents signed autographs and chatted with the community and breathed the kind of sigh of relief you breathe when something challenging comes together in the end.

After the last guest headed for home and the pianist made his way to his hotel room, I stuck around the venue to gather our things and wrap up, always the last to leave. Then from the empty hallways of the big school I heard the trumpets, violins and high-pitched guitars of a mariachi band echo from small speakers and bounce off the concrete walls. Unexpectedly, a big, beautiful baritone voice joined in with the recorded singer, filling the dark school with life again and reminding me, in the best way, that at 10 p.m., the next shift had begun.

I stopped on my tired feet to listen from behind the wall for a moment, not wanting to disturb or embarrass that voice, not wanting him to stop. This man wasn’t singing for the crowd that had just dispersed. Or on a big stage, or for the president or on YouTube to be available for the masses. He was singing for himself, because “It made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good.

And what I heard was filled with so much joy and exultation it turned my mood and immediately reminded me that at the core of it all, what really matters here. These gifts we’re given and how we use them, it’s up to us and us only.

I turned the corner and the man realized, like me, he wasn’t alone. He smiled and turned the music down. I told him he made my night and please, please ignore me now, and keep singing. And then I made my way home in the dark, with the music turned up, singing along.

The magic of childhood

On the podcast Chad and I reminisce about some of the most magical times of our childhoods after Edie’s birthday reminded us of how exciting the little things can be when we’re young. Then I confesses some of my most embarrassing moments in the recent weeks while Chad cringes in the corner and questions his life decisions. Then stay tuned for a sweet little interview with the birthday girl!

When’s the last time you’ve been so completely excited about something that you couldn’t sleep? Like, not nerves, but the kind of happy anticipation that makes it impossible to switch your mind off. Body wiggling, so completely pumped that you wanted to close your eyes and skip days to get the thing that you could not wait for?

It’s been a while for me. I didn’t think so. If you were to ask me this question a couple months ago I’m sure I would have been able to come up with an answer to an event or activity or vacation or something that had me energized in recent years, but then last week happened and now I’m convinced that adult excited can’t hold a candle to almost-7-year-old on the night before her first sleep-over birthday party ever excited.

That kind of kid energy, it’s palpable, and for the last couple weeks we have been in a countdown to the big birthday party. With each passing day, my daughter, she leveled up, until the last two nights before the party we were left with the kind of emotion that the little darling could hardly manage. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry and she certainly wasn’t going to fall asleep without checking and double checking her mother’s work, popping up out of what I thought was a dead sleep multiple times to ask me things like “Did you get the cupcakes?” “Did you call the other mommies and tell them to tell the teachers we’re picking my friends up after school?” “Do you think we should go to the pool first or just come home to play?” And then, “I’m so excited I might cry.” And then she did a little and so did I, wondering if either one of us was going to get any sleep and suddenly nervous that I was going to somehow screw something up (I mean, she has such little faith!)

So now I’ve concluded that probably the last time I’ve ever been that excited was when I was eight or nine and I was decorating our kitchen with homemade construction paper cutouts of fish and seaweed and blue and yellow streamers and planning the water balloon fight my friends and I were going to have when they came over to celebrate. And then I got a brand new bike to boot and I was over the moon.

Or the Christmas Eve night when I was right in the sweet spot of childhood and also my neighbor asked me to babysit a tiny baby goat for the holiday weekend named Filipe. And I had that goat in a box by my bed and a lit up cedar branch of a Christmas tree in my room that kept falling over with the weight of all the ornaments and lights because the little coffee can stuffed with wet newspaper didn’t stand a chance and I was anticipating the beanbag chair I’d asked for and Santa delivered…that was something. That was a memory.

And it was simple as that. A tiny baby goat in diapers and a beanbag chair on Christmas morning.

And then there was our wedding, of course. I was absolutely excited about that one, but big days like that as an adult get complicated a bit with grown-up expectations and responsibility. So much of it is in our hands then. But kids? Kids keep it simple. It’s all about the play. It’s all in their heart.

And so I hosted my first ever 7-year-old birthday party sleepover as a mom. And, to Edie’s relief, I remembered the school pickup protocol and I remembered the cupcakes. We got her the toy on her wish-list and we had tacos and did all of the things—dress-up, nail painting, charades, dance party, played house, Barbies, crafts, movie, popcorn and staying up too late. (I even let them use glitter because I’m wild and crazy and one of the girls called me fun and so it is worth sweeping it off the floor for the rest of my life.)

When we finally had to bring her friends back to their parents, I apologized to the mommies for the sugar rush and late bedtime and the glitter ornament I packed up in their bags. One of the moms even thanked me for the purple and green hair chalk in her daughter’s blonde hair. She said it was perfect for their family pictures that afternoon, but I’m not sure she meant it. I told her she’s just lucky I didn’t send a kitten home as a party favor. That was a real option…

Anyway, I asked Edie if her birthday party was everything she hoped it would be and she said she wished it lasted longer and so I took that as a yes. And I’m taking her as my inspiration going into this holiday season to strip off a few layers of adulthood-induced stress and channel that good old-fashioned childhood energy.

Anyone have a baby goat that needs babysitting?