Defining a good life

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January’s the longest month up here. It’s the coldest. The days are short and the nights of darkness drag on. If you’re prone to depression, this is when it hits you hard. The holidays are over and the appeal of the fuzzy sweater sort of hunkering down has worn off, making you crave a tropical vacation, or at the very least, a warm up to above zero so you can throw a proper sledding party.

These past few weeks have ticked by slowly for us. With a new baby, it’s not so appealing to bundle everyone up and head out on an errand, a visit or for activity that’s not necessary, although I have made a few trips to help avoid cabin fever. And, since dad’s been in the hospital since Halloween, it’s been strangely quiet around here. My husband has taken to the chores and ranch management alone, with the occasional “help” from his little family when it’s warm enough for us to come along for the ride.

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Feeding cows happens for him when he gets home from his day job after the sun has set. Depending on how our timing works out, he may or may not have supper with us and he may or may not be home in time to say goodnight to Edie.

When my dad’s around some of the chores are split a bit, helping to ease the time burden that comes with a full time job.

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Since dad’s been sick, and on his worst days teetering on the brink of death, we’ve had a chance to realize what it must have been like for my family out here after my grandma and grampa died. It explains why my parents haven’t spent much of their time sitting still. And it explains why most of my memories are of riding along with my dad, on a horse, or in an old feed pickup. Because that’s the only chance we got to spend time together. And we’re so lucky that he didn’t see us kids in the passenger’s seat or on the trail behind him as a burden and even more lucky that he made watching him and helping him work a fun adventure, full of laughs and appreciation for the beautiful place, even when he was armpit deep in fixing a plugged water tank or up to his neck in bull-berry brush fixing fence on a 90 degree day.

I realize now that for every time he took us along he was sort of sacrificing his time, slowing down his pace to have us there beside him. I didn’t realize how much value time held out here until coming home as an adult and trying to make it all work, fit it all in, family, work and ranching. Each minute of daylight is gold and it can be maddening if you let it take you over. But I don’t remember noticing.  I guess that’s a testament to the way I was raised and the good memories I chose to keep close.

Pops and Me on a horse

I can only hope we can do the same for our girls, to take them along and take the time to point out the grouse in the brush, the deer on the hillside, the way the moss grows on the rocks and the frogs croak at night. That’s the only way they’ll love it the way we love it, is if we show them why it all matters so much.

But if we falter, I’m happy to report, we will soon have Papa home to set us straight, to show us the things we haven’t learned yet, to set us on the right path and to teach his grandkids about the backs of horses.

Yes, after nearly three months of hospital stays, and a long, scary stint in the ICU, dad is in recovery, working on building up his strength to come home. And we’re so thankful, knowing how easily it could have turned the other way.

Thank you for all of your thoughts and prayers. We will be so happy to have him here to continue to live this life we call good.

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Coming Home: How to define a good life
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I woke up to the sun slowly appearing over the big hill that faces our tall windows.

“One ribbon at a time” is a quote I read somewhere describing the sunrise, and I recite it in my head as the pinks, purples and golds appear in the sky just long enough to transform and fade into blue.

Some mornings I don’t take the time to notice it the way I used to before the babies arrived, but when I do, it always reminds me of the reasons we moved back home to the ranch seven years ago.

Has it been seven years already? That number sounds so permanent to me, as if the house and the kids and the cattle aren’t enough solidification of the decision we made when we were so young to plant our lives here for good.

“For good.”

When I say it that way it means forever, but I look at it here, written down, and I feel compelled to define it.

When we’re planning out our hope for the future, the “good” is what we tally up to help finalize our decisions. We chose our people based on the laughs, the calm and the well-timed casseroles or phone calls they bring into our lives. It’s the good that brings us closer to the imperfect parts of them — the scars, the mess, the mistakes that make up their not-as-pretty storyline. I think the same can be said for the places we chose.

Last summer I participated in a series of interviews for a project that will showcase the unique lives of women in all 50 states. This included a series of long phone conversations with a few female journalists in big cities on the East Coast, answering questions about what life was like out here on a landscape they’ve never seen before.

While we talked, I imagined them in trendy haircuts sitting in a high rise behind a desk in a web of cubicles, photos of boyfriends or children pinned to the fabric of their makeshift walls. Walls inside walls inside walls.

I wonder if they imagined me on the phone during my toddler’s nap time, my belly swelling with a new baby on the way, sweeping the dirt and little pieces of scoria off the floor as a line of black cows trudged by our fence line on their way to the dam for water.

“I suppose it is a lot to take on,” I remember remarking after one interviewer asked why we chose what she called “a hard life.” I just described how we are responsible for the fences and the water, the buildings, the animals and the land. And we have so much to learn as we attempt to fill the big shoes that left this here for us.

But a hard life?

No one out here has ever declared it to be so, not even as it’s all done on second shift, when the sun is going down, or while it’s coming up, a ribbon at a time.

But a good one?

That I’ve heard. And that’s why we’re here.

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Partying like a parent

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Happy Monday to you. I hope you’re somewhere warm, successfully avoiding the plague that has swept through our house this past week. I mean, there’s better ways to ring in the New Year than pink eye and double ear infection, but we chose to spend Friday making a trip to the doctor to make sure that we didn’t give our little niece the RSV diagnosis she had or vice versa. Oh, and while you’re at it, can you take a look at my husband’s eyes?

And so we laid low this weekend, negotiating antibiotic administration with the toddler, washing every surface and pillowcase, and visiting the baby I tried my best to keep in quarantine. Guess that’s all it took to be on the mend and here we are staring down Monday and the Christmas decorations I have to put away, wondering if the scratch in my throat and the crust in my eye puts me next on the list for a doctor visit.

Ah, parenthood. When you’re not bending over to pick up the tiny, plastic cow you just stepped on you’re Googling potential illnesses.

This is our life now. And so we celebrate accordingly.

Coming Home: Ringing in the New Year like the real adults we are
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Happy New Year from the ranch where it’s freezing cold, nobody is sleeping and everyone is having a hard time finding pants that fit.

If I were a resolution-making woman I’d be working on the one thing on that list I can control, but my current motto seems to be “the faster I eat these cookies the sooner I can get on my diet plan.” And I’ve had three already and it’s only 10 a.m., so I’m well on my way to getting started.

We welcomed 2018 just up the hill with friends we’ve known nearly all our lives. Twelve years ago, our midnight toast would’ve just been the peak of our evening instead of something we moved up to 10 p.m. to ensure we all got in on it.

If The Ghost of New Year’s Future would’ve visited us at 22 to show us that scene there would have been some explaining to do.

Yes, now we call our kids down to the basement to show us how to use the new hoverboard thing they got for Christmas and marvel at the speed and agility of the 11-year-old as she spins and swoops on an invention that got its name from an ’80s movie we were alive to see in theaters.

And then, just to make sure everyone remembered that we’re in our mid-30s, I watched my husband get ready to take his turn, but not before I grabbed his hands, looked him straight in the eyes and in front of his high school buddies, his small children and Jesus, reminded him in my best, seriously-I’m-not-even-joking voice that He. Can. Not. Get. Hurt.

If I would’ve pulled that overprotective crap in our other lives I would have subjected my young husband to some serious ridicule by those same high school buddies.

But we’re living a different life now, so instead I watched two of those friends take him by each elbow in order to give him a chance to get his legs without breaking his back.

Because they understand the havoc spending a month in traction would create. They also have cows to feed, hockey to coach, butts to wipe, bills to pay and sidewalks to shovel, so they didn’t bat an eye at my stern suggestion.

Instead they nodded their heads and then relayed a few stories about buddies of theirs who tried this very thing last Christmas and broke an elbow/hip/ankle/brain…

“It’s best to not be overconfident and try this before the second beer,”  they suggested. Which comforted me enough to leave them and go back upstairs to feed the infant and set the toddler on the potty, which is likely how I would have celebrated the countdown if we didn’t make some minor adjustments to the midnight-striking schedule.

Adulting can be flexible like that.

And if I were a resolution-making woman, I might resolve we all be more adventurous, but I think it’d suit us all better to resolve to spend more time with the people who know and love us enough to hold us up and cheer us on.

Seems we need it more as the years tick by, in life as well as in new-age gadgets…

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Bravery and Compassion in the New Year

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Happy New Year from the ranch where we spent the holidays trying to keep our house and our spirits warm against the chilling sub-zero temperatures. According to the National Weather Service, Hettinger, North Dakota, a small town on our southwestern boarder, reached -45 degrees — and it may have been the coldest recorded temperature on Earth that day.

The coldest recorded temperature on Earth, right in my home state. I’m not sure that’s a record anyone wants, but here we are.

And here we are on the other side of the holidays and one whole month into being parents of two kids.

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And this morning we’re back to the real world after spending the holidays together, keeping up the traditions of pancakes and church on Christmas Eve, and presents and prime rib on Christmas morning at the ranch despite the fact that my parents were spending their holiday in a hospital hundreds of miles away.

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Up until this point in our lives I couldn’t imagine what it might feel like to spend Christmas with my family anywhere but together, safe and sound. Now I know. Now I know what that feels like, a lesson I’ve taken from all of the hard times we’ve endured as a family along the way, suddenly so aware that, sadly, we’re not alone in the story. And  that compassion, I’m coming to realize, can be the gift we take from the hard stuff.

Just a few minutes ago I got off the phone with my little sister who took the trip to see mom and dad in Minneapolis. In a miraculous gift to us, dad was released from ICU before Christmas and after a pivotal procedure, is showing some signs of coming out on the other side of this thing. So we could breathe a sigh of relief and truly smile and laugh as we watched our kids take in the magic of the season.

After lukewarm feelings about present unwrapping at my in-law’s the weekend before, Edie woke up looking and acting like the epitome of a kid on Christmas morning.

My little sister’s husband was working over the holiday, so she spent the night at our house with her baby daughter and we got to sip mimosa, eat caramel rolls and sit on the living room floor helping them unwrap gifts. It was everything we needed and watching Edie snuggle her new sister and help her younger cousin was everything magic can be to adults who sometimes forget that it exists.

My older sister and nephew joined us later and we spent the rest of the day making appetizers, watching the kids play with their new toys and trying not to screw up Christmas dinner, which we did, sort of, but I blame it on my husband’s newfound obsession with his Traeger grill.  But it didn’t matter really and it was sort of fitting that supper was just slightly off, a reflection of how we felt about the quiet day spent being grateful and worried and hunkered down and hopeful in the face of a new year.

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That you can’t predict it is the greatest gift and torment this life hands us. I look at my new daughter’s face this morning and there are no truer words to describe what I’m feeling about life, on January 2nd, stepping over into what we all refer to as a fresh start.

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I’m not so sure about that. Even with this new life in my arms, I don’t feel fresh. To feel fresh I think I’d have to feel less worn. But I’m not sure I want to feel any other way right now. The sleeplessness means I have a new baby, a second child, one I could never even bring myself to imagine…and a toddler with a plugged nose and a newfound refusal to sleep whose existence changed everything. And this worry I carry for the wellbeing of my parents means they’re still here with us for another day, and God willing, another new year.

And so I’ll take it. I’ll take what I know to be true for now and be grateful that this year, as each year before, has made me braver, and stronger instead of scared and hard.

Bravery and compassion. Let that be my gift for the years to come.

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Coming Home: Finding compassion is the gift given to us in hard times
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Published December 24, 2017

Christmas is here. The weatherman on the news this morning is warning us of the impending winter storm, the kind that will blow cold arctic air in from Canada and give us a gift of a white and freezing holiday.

My husband will come home from work tonight after the sun has set and make little tweaks to the tractors and pickups, making sure they’re ready to feed the cattle and plow through the snow banks for the rest of the season. Typically he and Dad would be making plans together to prepare for the snow, but Dad has the bigger task before him of fighting for his life in an ICU in Minneapolis.

And I can’t help but think this holiday, as I wrap presents and struggle to form Santa cookies from the store bought, refrigerated dough so that Edie can slowly and meticulously place an entire bottle of sprinkles on one cookie, what a charmed life we’ve been living here.

The holidays, especially Christmas, can be a hard time for so many people. It was for us for many years before the babies came, because it was a small reminder of the absence of the thing we wanted most. But we were the lucky ones, always grateful for our family and that, because we live so close, we were usually able to be together.

This year my parents will be spending Christmas in a hospital in another state and we will be here at the ranch with their grandchildren celebrating and missing them. It’s a reality that reminds me of the hard things in our lives that we’ve lived through — job losses, baby losses, career fails, health scares and near misses — that have set me back on my heels, forced me to catch my breath and had me declaring out loud, “So that’s what it feels like.”

It’s a simple phrase, but one that is meaningful to me, especially in the toughest of moments. But I declare it. I say it out loud and with intention because it reminds me that through the hardest struggles, if I can find no meaning, no rhyme or reason for the pain, at least the experience will foster in me a newfound compassion for others who have or may find themselves suffering the same fate.

Up until this point in our lives I couldn’t imagine what it might feel like to spend Christmas with my family anywhere but together, safe and sound. Now I’m suddenly so aware that, sadly, we’re not alone in that sort of story.

And I don’t know what to do with that awareness except to show gratitude for the moments we’re given and for a supportive and loving community that has been there for us in numerous ways.

And I can pass on the generosity and compassion in ways that might help families in similar situations, because now we know what to do.

Now we know what it feels like.

Time reminds us.

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Rosalee Gene came into this world quickly on Friday, December 1st at 9:14 am. Before she was born she didn’t have a name. We hadn’t found one that we were set on, should the baby we were growing be a girl. We decided we needed to meet her first.

And when I met her I knew. I looked up at my husband looking down at the squishy, wailing, slimy, dark haired little human resting on my chest and he said he knew too.

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“You say it first,” he said.

“Rosalee,” I said.

“Yes. Rosalee.”

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And so we have our little Rosie Gene. Gene named after my dad who has, for over a month, been in a fight for his life, battling a pancreas that is dying on him.

It’s been excruciating, this wait and see. The long hospital stay. The ICU, the terminology, the air flight to Minneapolis, hearing my mom’s tired voice on the other end of the line. Our hearts stopping at every ding of our phones.

As I type my dad’s in critical condition in the ICU in a hospital in Minneapolis known for their expertise in pancreatitis. He is intubated. He can’t talk. They are making plans to remove the fluid that builds up as a result of the inflamed pancreas, a dangerous condition stemming from a dangerous condition and the whole healing process is a Catch 22.

And we can’t be there with them. Because we have to be here. Taking care of our daughters and the ranch and each other waiting on news.

To be so simultaneously happy and terrified is exhausting and overwhelming, but we’re taking it day by day, minute by minute, praying and hoping and dreaming of an outcome that brings dad home to the ranch to meet Rosie Gene. We have so many people, a whole army of community members doing the same thing and we are grateful. And I am so grateful for this family of ours.

I wrote the piece below as I was waiting in Bismarck for Rosie to arrive. Since then dad has taken a turn for the worse and we have had a week at home with our new baby girl. Today is my husband’s first day back at work and my first day home with both of them. We cut our Christmas tree last night off the place, determined to keep in the tradition and spirit of the holiday because that’s what my parents want and that’s what we need to do for these kids of ours, and really, in times like these, what choice do we have but to chin up and be strong.

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Thank you for your thoughts and prayers and casseroles and cards and texts and phone calls and emails and love. They mean so much to us.

Coming Home: Time is a reminder to love one another
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By the time you read this we will be a family of four.

I’m writing this from a borrowed laptop in the basement of my best friend’s house in Bismarck, waiting on a baby who has shown us that it’s not safe to drive the three hours home, because we might not make it back in time to deliver.

It’s fitting really for this to be the sort of in-limbo news I’m sharing considering the tough and unpredictable month we’ve had as a family.

Since October turned to November, my dad has been fighting for his life as his pancreas does the hard work it needs to do to heal itself. After my dad was rushed back to the big town for another week in the hospital, the Friday after Thanksgiving, my mom called in the family to see him off on a plane ride to seek the help of the experts in Minneapolis.

We left Edie in good hands with my in-laws and found ourselves surrounded by close family and skyscrapers in the big city, not knowing if our dad would come out of this, reminded, once again, what living minute by minute can feel like.

It’s excruciating.

And as we sat with him in the ICU, we slowly sunk into a world so far from the buttes, golden grass and the peaceful calm of the ranch we kept telling my dad to visualize that we barely remembered it existed ourselves, the foreign sound of the monitor beeps and the taste of lukewarm coffee from a Styrofoam cup becoming our new normal.

How many times can you ask a person how he’s feeling before sending you all off the rails?

If we really wanted to know we could ask the people in the room next door who’ve been there longer or are fighting harder, the ones we walked by in the hallway in a weeping embrace, saying they did all they could for her.

And then we can say a prayer of thanks because, for now, we are the lucky ones.

We are the lucky ones who still have some hope here.

My husband and I left my dad with my mom and good doctors to heal slowly in a hospital bed in one of those skyscrapers that lights up the city skyline at night, each twinkle in the rearview mirror reminding me of the millions of stories beginning and ending under the light of the moon, living room lamps, restaurant candles or the fluorescent hum of the hospital lights we’ve come to know too well.

Any day now those lights will be the first thing our new baby sees as he or she takes that first breath in this world. And I will never forget the way it felt to try to hold life in my womb so tight these past few days, terrified to bring a new soul into a world that suddenly felt so unfamiliar to us all.

But time, you see, we don’t own it here, no matter the grip we thought we had on it all.

I think, at the end of the day, the only thing we really have to hold on to is our capacity to love one another, which is even more amazing when you realize you just get more of it when you give it away.

Time is just a reminder that you don’t have forever to do it.

Grateful and waiting

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I’m finally getting to it. A chance to take a little breath and let you know that it’s been a rough month for my family. As all major health issues go, it’s a long saga, but since Halloween, dad has been fighting a hard fight against pancreatitis, one that we thought we had licked after they sent him home in early November, only to send him back to the hospital in the big town a week later to continue the fight.

We left mom to be with him on Thanksgiving in the hospital and my sisters and I celebrated Thanksgiving and Edie’s birthday at my inlaws’ home. At this point we were hopeful that he was on the slow mend, but on Friday morning we got the call that they were finally going to air lift him to the experts in Minneapolis. It was scary. We didn’t know if he was going to make it. Mom called in the troops and we made plans to drive to the cities to be with him until we knew he was stable and in good hands.

Which he is now, it turns out. Thank God. But it’s going to be a long, long road to recovery.  In the meantime, we’ve had such wonderful support from family, neighbors and friends helping to get the hay hauled, the fences fixed, the cattle moved and our babies in safe hands while we made the trip. We’ve had understanding bosses, cousins, aunts and uncles who have rushed to the scene to give hugs and make sure we’re eating or resting or taking a minute to joke or smile. And we’ve had each other and a strong faith in our dad that he’s a bulldog, a fighter, and he can make it through this.

And then, there’s this thing about this baby we’re growing. And so I’m writing to you from the basement of my best friend’s house in the big town I’m set to deliver in. I’m on a borrowed computer and living out of a suitcase I packed for an overnight stay at my inlaw’s that has turned into a week away now. We drove through on our way home from Minneapolis and I stopped for my weekly checkup only to be told to hold tight, this baby’s coming any day. That was Monday, and no big news yet, but we all agreed that being 3 hours from the delivery room wasn’t a great idea. So I’m hanging tight here. My husband is at home now waiting for the call and our daughter is with her gramma, wondering where the heck her parents are and likely showing her true sassy nature by now. I miss her. I left her just as she was turning two and the next time I see her she will no longer be an only child.

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But we are so thankful for family and so ready for this little ray of sunshine to arrive in our lives, although a few days ago I couldn’t imagine it. I wanted to hold him or her in there forever, safe from the chaos of this world. I couldn’t imagine bringing a baby into such uncertainty. Into a life without my dad.

But I think we’re ready now. Dad’s on his long road, my mom is there with him, we have more family coming to their side in the cities and life goes on, even when it’s scary.

I wrote this week’s column reflecting on the uncertainty of our life’s past events, not knowing how much more grateful we would become in the coming week. It’s so interesting to me to recognize how in the hardest times of our lives, when we want to scream “It’s not fair!” we are called on to be the most grateful. Even when it’s terrifying….

Thank you for all your thoughts and prayers. I’ll keep you posted!

Coming Home: The burden of being grateful

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In the hardest times of our lives it seems we are reminded to be grateful.

Grateful that it isn’t worse.

Thankful you still have your health or your loved ones besides you. That the cut wasn’t deeper, the hit harder, the sickness more violent, the call closer.

That in the end, we should be grateful that they’re still here with us.

Or be thankful that they’re in a better place, even if you’re not sure you believe in that place anymore.

And in between those harrowing moments, those close calls, held breaths, long hospital stays, prayers sent up, phone calls made during tragic or near tragic reminders of this very frail life we lead, we do the regular things that humans do.

We cook rice on the stove and burn the chicken on the grill. We talk too long on the phone about what we think of someone. We’re late to appointments because the dog got out again. We fight about money in front of the babies, throw our hands in the air in disgust, walk out and slam doors. On good days, we laugh about the rearview mirror she broke on her way out of the garage, because isn’t it just like her to cut it so close, that woman!

On bad days, we wonder what the hell she was thinking. And what we’re doing wrong.
We take it all for granted, because we can’t live in that space of our own vulnerability, the space where we sit, understanding full well that we don’t have control in this life.
It’s too raw and exhausting to be so aware of our own mortality, even if being aware means being equal parts grateful and terrified.

My 2-year old daughter looks up at the night sky, searching for the moon among the stars and exclaims, “The moon, Mommy, it’s beautiful! The stars, Mommy. Look at the stars!”
And when the night turns to day, bringing with it the sun, she takes equal notice of its magnificence. “The sun, the sun!” she declares before looking at me and asking after the moon. “Where the moon, Mommy? Where the moon go?”

That child doesn’t yet know darkness the way grownups come to know darkness, and each day the world gives her the bright shining light of the sun. But in all its glory and promise, she won’t forget about her moon.

It will be few more years before the child has the vast expanse of the universe explained to her, a few years before she starts to learn that that moon doesn’t shine for her exclusively.

A few more years before it all starts to become as confusing as it is wondrous.
But right now she’s little, even though she doesn’t know it. And it doesn’t matter. The size of this universe might just as well be as far as her arms can reach for all it matters to her.

Because to her, what she can see of the sky is enough.

And to me, right now, those outstretched arms are enough to keep me equal parts grateful and terrified.

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Writing it down: Honoring our younger selves

Coming Home: Honoring our younger selves

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Screen Shot 2017-11-20 at 10.26.08 AMA few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit schools across the state through a program called “Poetry Out Loud,” a national organization that our state arts organization facilitates.

I spoke to the students in a few different formats, gave them writing prompts, talked music and road time and tried my best to give them a chance to share their stories too. Because really, these kids, they’re more interesting than I ever will be.

Things like this make me more nervous than some of my biggest performances. Because I remember a time when I vowed to myself that I wouldn’t forget what it was like to be young. And nothing reminds me of the ways in which I’ve failed that promise than standing in a gym full of young people.

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I can’t remember the context in which the promise was made, but I do remember a time in my life when I was jumping into the big lake, the cool summer temperature creating goose bumps out of my skin, the freezing water closing in over my head no match for my desire to swim and dive and splash. I came up for air to catch a glimpse of the grownups sitting in lawn chairs and long sleeves on the shoreline and wondered when it happens. Do we just wake up one day more likely to choose the comfort of the shore over jumping off the rocks?

I couldn’t imagine it and didn’t want to believe it. At a young age, I was unusually aware of fleeting moments, and I think writing was my way of capturing time and holding on to it for dear life.

That might be why I’ve never thrown out a thing I’ve written on paper since I started, a little tidbit I shared with the students hoping to remind them that what they have to say is valuable.

I keep those books on a shelf next to my bed and hardly ever open them up. But every once in a while I’ll be looking for something, shifting things in my home and I’ll pull one out and thumb through the scribbles, the unfinished lines, the clichés and imagery and self portraits and I’ll be shot back in time — to the rushing heart beats and confusion of falling in love with a boy, to the pressure of a future undecided, to the failings of a friendship or the frustrations of a family — and I’m so happy for the gift of these unpublished, private words.

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Because they remind me of what it looked, felt and sounded like to come into this flawed and hopeful version of myself — what it was like to be young and raw and true.

Kids, you know more about who you are than they’ll ever give you credit for.

And as you grow up, don’t discount the power of the kid who chose to swim no matter the weather. She knows some good and true things about what you want out of this one short and precious life.

Truth, worries and what to write…

I just laid Edie down for a nap after her second projectile vomit of the day. We walked in the door, home from a trip to town to check out a weird rash she acquired and, well, I guess she has the pukes now too….

And I guess this is how I start my blog entries these days, the ones that used to begin with a vivid description of the weather, the beauty of the changing leaves, the chill in the air and the crip smell of the season’s first snow have now transformed into potty training sagas, pregnancy heartburn and puke.

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Yesterday I opened my inbox to find one of the meanest emails I’ve ever received. It was about my writing, prompted, apparently, after she read this week’s column and decided someone like me was annoying enough to warrant a sit down at the computer and tell me, most pointedly, how I was a joke.

And boring.

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And my own family probably doesn’t even read what I write because I’m a whiny woman who stays pregnant just so I don’t have to get a real job.

Those were the highlights anyway. I particularly liked the part where she accused me of staying pregnant so I don’t have to keep a real job, considering the years I battled with that very thing, as if staying pregnant was an easy task for me to accomplish.

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I had just come off of three days of travel that sent me into schools talking to kids about my career path as a writer and musician before I headed back to the hospital to check on my dad, where I left him three days before, in agony and waiting for his pancreas to heal.

My column was late that week because my dad had to take an ambulance three hours from our small town to the big town to be treated for pancreatitis and now, finally, gall bladder surgery. He drove himself to the hospital at 3 am on Tuesday morning because my mom was gone to Minneapolis. At five in the morning I gathered my things, made childcare arrangements for my daughter with my husband, kissed them goodbye and my little sister and I took the three hour drive to be with him while my mom made her way home.

In all the rush, I forgot my computer, so I was late on the deadline for the parenting magazine I edit too. Because I thought I would be able to work on it in the hospital while I waited with dad, even though that would have been impossible. And then, because I didn’t know if dad was going to be OK, I agonized on whether I should make those three school visits that week. Because I didn’t want to let the schools down, and I didn’t want to leave my mom alone and I was worried and I didn’t know what to do or where I should be or if I was doing the right thing by everyone, including this little babe I’m growing in my belly.

I cried. Dad was in severe pain. Agony. I was worried it was going to spiral out of control as we all too recently witnessed with a close family friend.

After a long day of unsuccessful pain management and doctor questions and calls about my publications and travel plans, I trudged across the street to the hotel and put the finishing touches on my publication and tried to write a column.

It was at least 11 pm when I submitted it.

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And I’m not giving you the play-by-play so that you feel sorry for me. I don’t write from that place. But what I want to say here is that this is life. And shit happens. Unpredictable shit happens and it happens to all of us and then there we are trying to figure out what we expect of ourselves in those weird, unpredictable moments.  And what the world expects of us.

And for me, in my profession, if I want to get paid, the show must go on.

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But here’s the thing. We’re all alright here. At the end of this dad will come home. He’ll heal up, I’ll get the work done and the bills paid and tuck us all in at night, thankful for another day and another chance to be alive together in this tricky and sometimes mean old world.

I’m lucky. I have great readers. As a musician and a writer I’ve never really experienced commentary this cruel. But on that particular morning I was feeling vulnerable. I was tired and hormonal, yes, but her words stung because they sounded like the voices sound in my head sometimes.

Do I deserve a writing job when all I can think about right now is how to get my toddler to eat, how I’m going to manage two kids and how am I going to get the bills paid?

Who gives a shit about that? Everyone’s dealing with shit like that. There are, as that very email pointed out, people who are dealing with real problems in this world.

I’m aware of that. Yes. Too aware sometimes. So aware and emotionally affected that I can’t bring myself watch the news most days.

And yes, some days call for me to be more profound.

But not all days. Like most people, some days you just find you got nothin’.

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So I sat down that night filled with worry and decided that it would work better if I wrote about the everyday weirdness, thinking at least it might amuse and, maybe, at the very least, make people feel better about themselves and the fact that they don’t have an unidentified rodent in their ceiling. Or maybe they have and they could email me with advice.

This isn’t hard hitting news we’re dealing with folks. But it is real life.

And sometimes real life falls a bit flat.

 

 

And because I’ve been sharing my story publicly for years now, I’m really asking for it. For dialogue and engagement. Which I got with this column.

Mostly, it was, “What?”

As in: “What? I don’t get it.”

Or “What are you doing writing in a newspaper?”

But mostly, “What was in your wall?”

In the frantic phase my mind was in that evening, I was trying to capture the calm, cool and collected nature of my husband by depicting a scene that played out before me that very morning. While we laid there in the dark of the early morning making hospital travel and daycare plans, weighing whether or not my dad’s health was in big trouble, we were reminded of the less intense, more annoying, and more trivial worries that occur of life…

Like the strange rodent that somehow got itself stuck inside our wall…

At least that’s what husband thinks is the truth.

The lie? Well, of course, it’s nothing to be worried about Jessie.

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Husband’s response makes me question life decisions
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I’ve known my husband since I was 11 years old. He’s been my best friend starting sometime around when I was 15 when he was old enough to drive out to the ranch to talk horses with my dad, and teach my little sister to play chess. We went to college together, we got married and we’ve moved six times. We’re about to bring a second child into this world together.

He’s been the person in my life that unclogs the shower drain, keeps my wardrobe in check (whether I appreciate it or not) and the sole reason I’m not watching television on my dorm room-sized TV, movies on VHS and talking on a Zach Morris-era cell phone.

And I make sure to keep his snap-shirt collection stocked.

We’re a good team, he and I, opposites in the ways that are useful — like I’m good at breaking things and he’s good at fixing them.

I didn’t really know it about myself at the time, but I think I stuck with him all those years because, as a musician with unconventional career aspirations and a weird travel schedule, I appreciated a man who was fine with not knowing what state I was in some days. A marriage to someone a little more uptight would have never worked out.

He would have had to endure too many poorly-planned trips to Kansas to stay at a Super 8 and listen to me play music to a crowd of 10 people. And a man who requires a thorough plan to make sure he packed the right loafers would have never made it past South Dakota with me.

Yes, he’s always been the king of handling it, talking it through or at least giving me a logical explanation so I can make my own decision on whether or not to panic.

But this morning I woke to the disturbing sound of something scratching at the outside of our house. Like claws running up and down the siding on the exterior of our bedroom, which I thought was weird, because our bedroom is on the top floor. And what could climb up there?

And then I just thought it was the cat, except it couldn’t be because cats don’t generally climb straight up the side of a house.

Or find themselves inside of a wall. Because, holy s*&% I think there’s something crawling inside our walls!

Which is what I screeched to my sleeping husband in the dark, the sweet sound of morning at the ranch rousing him from his dreams…

“What the hell is that?” I asked, sprawling my round, pregnant body on top of his as if smothering him was going to save me from whatever decided to take up residence in our insulation.

To which my laid-back, no-big-deal, Mr. Fix It, drain-unclogging husband calmly replied,

“Do you want me to tell you the truth or do you want me to lie?”

And just like that the man I’ve known and loved since we were children made me question every choice I’ve made in my life up to this very unsettling point.

I should have married a man with a loafer collection …

 

The Everything…

I had a rough week of pregnancy last week. And by rough, I’m not saying anything other than I was just ridiculously uncomfortable, sleepless, full of heartburn and reflux and backaches and all around moderately suffering to grow this baby who’s been continuously punching my bladder for months now. And it’s a good thing, to feel him or her move around in there so vigorously, reminding me that all is well and I am grateful for that. But I’m also, you know, pretty damn uncomfortable. So I’ve been whining about it to my husband, which I don’t take for granted. It’s a gift to us to be able to whine about the little inconveniences of creating a miracle and a dream come true.

I have about one month to go in this second pregnancy. This week I have one more trip to take across the state to talk with students in a few schools about poetry and writing, and I’m looking forward to it. And then it’s home to hunker down, wrap up some work and follow my husband around and annoy him about moving furniture, and boxes and desks and getting things ready for our new tiny roommate.

I can’t wait to meet him. Have I shared that my guess is it’s a boy?

Which probably means it’s a girl.

Either way, the child is going to be forced to wear his or her fair share of dresses, I’m certain.

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This week’s column is a reflection on what that means: looking ahead and behind and soaking in the right now.

Memories and planning and everything in between 
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I woke up this morning to the baby in my belly kicking, rolling and stretching his or her arms, snapping me instantly out of a dream and into the reality of another day spent being a pregnant mother.

Inside this dark house, long before sunrise, my other loves were slowly waking up too. I lifted my daughter out of her bed and got her dressed for the day while she worked on slow blinks, little hands pressed to her face to wipe away the night.

She doesn’t know what’s coming in the next month or so and I’m torn between the excitement of a new arrival, the nerves of handling the chaos that’s about to ensue, and nostalgic about the time we’re spending together, just us two girls, the way it is most days.

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Yes, the look of my “most days” is about to change, and I realize I spent so much time worrying about becoming a mother for the first time, I never gave much thought to what it would be like to become a mother to a second child.

My little sister brought her baby out last weekend. I kept her inside with us while her mom was out and about on the ranch. I looked around the living room scattered with toys, the autumn sun shining through the windows on my tiny niece laying on the floor and watched as Edie brought her cousin blankets, toys and kisses, stopping every so often for a quick twirl in her dress.

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I remembered a time when this house could be so quiet that I could hear my thoughts bounce back to me from the walls of these rooms.

Scooping the baby into my arms, I realized how many of those thoughts were memories of all the mittens my little sister and I dropped in the coulees, how many times our boots filled with creek water, how many burs and grass stains we accumulated as we stepped out of our parents’ footprints to march our way to growing up.

It’s funny how quiet those memories can become when you use them to start making plans.

 

And so much of my time these days I spend worrying about the logistics of those plans — the cattle, the crib, the unfinished garage, the landscaping, the money, the potty training, the birth, the casserole, the disorder of every closet in this house — some days it’s hard not to think that if we could just get it all done we’ll have finally made it like we promised each other all those years ago.

But this morning I sat my daughter on my lap to comb her hair and the baby in my belly kicked at her back. I laughed as my husband, all dressed for work, stood beside the chair beaming while his daughter beamed right back, knowing the next step was being scooped up in his arms to head into the day.

And here I sit, in a quiet house, listening for those thoughts, the ones that remind me that this … this, is the plan.

And the memories.

And the everything.

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In her dress, life’s just more beautiful

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This week’s column is a little more about “The Dress.” Which my darling daughter is, of course, currently wearing as she sits on the potty and watches videos as I sit on the bathroom floor in front of her typing this on my laptop and waiting to hear a tinkle.

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On Saturday she actually plopped a poop in that potty, but that’s likely only because we rushed her there while she was clearly working on somethin’.

This is what my life has become.

But I have to admit that my daughter’s obsession with all things dresses, and pretty, and hair and painted fingernails has provided such an unexpected reality for me, a mom who, until I discovered her love for a good twirl in a floor length gown, has never played a legit princess movie in the house and really doesn’t get dressed up too fancy unless I’m heading to a performance.

But she’s been watching. She see’s what’s special, decides what she makes her feel good and smart and beautiful and independent and she goes all in.

And she’s not even two yet.

I didn’t realize this identity development, these preferences, started so young.

Last week I had her up in my room with me while I was getting ready for a meeting. She went into my closet and tugged on the bottom of one of my dresses and said “mommy dress, mommy dress,” and so I pulled it out and put it on. Her smile lit up that dim room. She was thrilled, she bounced up and down and told me I was “bootiful. Bootiful mommy in a bootiful dress” And then she instructed me to twirl. And so I did.

And there we were, the two of us, mom and tiny daughter alone in the house, in my bedroom, in the middle of nowhere, laughing and singing and dancing and twirling, telling one another how fabulous, beautiful and lovely we are in dresses way too fancy for an ordinary day. But to Edie there’s no such thing as an ordinary day and I hope I never forget the complete innocence and freedom in that moment with her. Because it was everything.

My only wish is that she could always remember it too….

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My daughter’s love for dresses
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We have an issue in our house these days. At least that’s what I’m calling it, dare I utter the real word and ignite the flame.

I’ve been dealing with the “issue” moderately successfully for the past few weeks, but last night it raised its voice loud and clear while I was chained to a phone with a cord, trying my best to have a professional conversation as the last human on earth who still owns a landline and my daughter let out a series of loud, desperate and relentless cries that only got louder and more inexorable as my poor husband worked to remove her from the room.

Did she fall and hit her head? I didn’t hear a thump, but maybe she’s bleeding. Did she need stitches? An ambulance? Or maybe she saw a ghost — you know like one of those supernatural phenomenons that only innocent children can spot?

That’s a thing, right?

“Do you have to go?” The now-concerned voice on the other end of the phone asked me as I tried, apparently unsuccessfully, to pretend that nothing catastrophic was occurring in my household.

Which turned out to be true, despite my worst-case-scenario predictions. I hung up the phone and opened the door to my daughter’s room where she sat on her daddy’s lap, in her jammies, tears streaming down her face.

“What on earth?” I asked him in the best version of the mom voice I now posses.

He looked me straight in the eyes with an expression as defeated as any strong, healthy man can possess and simply replied, “The dress.”

Yes. The dress.

He dared suggest she wear anything else and there were not enough bribery lollipops in the world…

I blame my sister-in-law for handing it down — this floor-length, checkered, floral and quilted little number with just the right amount of twirl to bring a toddler the high she needs to become addicted.

But I think it’s also a hereditary thing. Because I wouldn’t wear anything but a pink leotard, purple tights and legwarmers for my entire second year of life, God gave me a daughter and then introduced her to “the dress.” Needless to say my mother is loving every minute of my peril.

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She wakes up and it’s the first word my daughter says, and she will say it — “dress, dress, dress, dress” — until I retrieve it from my unsuccessful hiding spot in the hamper.

The other day she wore it out to the pasture where the guys were building corrals, and I suddenly became sympathetic to the prairie girls who came before her as I watched her unsuccessfully try to run and frolic, making it only a couple steps before getting tangled up and pummeled to the ground.

“Well, maybe she’ll want to take it off now,” I thought as I hoisted her up for the 50th time in five minutes. But I knew better. Judging from her smiles and squeals of delight, I realized it was quite clear the challenge of the dress only made living more fun.

And, according to my darling girl, infinitely more beautiful. Proving that the only ones who have an “issue” is her parents.

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Where our stories begin…

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Well, we’re officially deep into fall, which means roundup season around here where we work on getting the cattle doctored and the calves weaned and ready for the sales barn. Because we calved late, we won’t be heading to the sales barn until a few more weeks, but we worked cattle on Sunday and got a good look at things.

Because I’m a giant pregnant lady with a toddler in tow, I’m not a lot of help. But Edie and I went out to the corrals after roundup anyway to to see what kind of damage the two of us could do. After explaining every detail of the situation to her (why her dad was in the chute, why the cows were “stuck” in there too, where the horses were and on and on) I stupidly decided to teach her all about the sorting stick. Needless to say there were a lot of close call shots to the head, groin, belly, body in general, both accidental and intentional. She was delighted.

And, because I packed enough fruit snacks and granola bars, and the girl just loves dirt and grass and wind and all things outside, she hung in there pretty well while I did the things giant pregnant women with protective dads and husbands can do to help–like run part of the chute and count cattle.

Edie kept track of it all, threw some dirt around, helped me maneuver the chute, bossed me around, cried a little for her dad who had too much cow poop on his hands to pick her up, ate some fruit snacks, climbed some fences, got cow poop on her own hands and eventually laid down on the ground to watch a YouTube video on my phone for a few minutes while we wrapped it up.

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Ah, technology. Who would have thought it would come in so handy out in these pastures raising the next generation.

This is one of my favorite times of year. Working cattle is this unexplainable sort of satisfying, getting in the rhythm, neighbors helping out, the smell of the crisp fall air, the sound of cows bellering as they make their way toward the neighbor’s field via a newly discovered hole in the fence…

It’s always something around here I tell ya…

Anyway, I grew up hanging on those corrals the way Edie’s was hanging on the corrals, trying to get in on the action by finding myself a job. Being useful made me feel important, like I was truly a valued part of the operation. I want that for my daughter too, and I’m not sure you can start them on it all too early.

This morning while I was in the bathroom and Edie was brushing her teeth (this is her thing…every time I go to the bathroom, she follows me in there to brush her teeth. It’s annoying and funny and, well, these days she’s been brushing her teeth a lot…anyway) she informed me that Papa was out working, riding his horse. And so was Dada and she had fun with the cows.

I still can’t believe she’s stringing all these thoughts together, but this is where it starts, right here when they’re little minds are forming.

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And so that’s why I found it so pressing to get this kid a pony this fall, to get her used to horses by having one around that doesn’t loom so large. And apparently, because I have such good friends and followers around me, all I had to do was say the word and a friend offered us the opportunity to be the next home for their children’s pony, Mascot.

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I was so excited to bring him home to the ranch a few weeks back, and ever since she got warmed up to him (took all of ten minutes) she’s been acting like the two of them have known each other their whole lives. She brushes him, feeds him “cereal” (grain) and rides him without holding on because the kid doesn’t posses in her much fear (except when it comes to the hair dryer).

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And so this is how her story with horses and cattle begins and I can only hope that one day she looks back on it, no matter where she winds up or who she becomes, and is thankful that it instilled something special in her…

And this is what this week’s column is all about, how our stories start.

Stories that begin  on the backs of horses
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Pops and Me on a horse

Ever since I decided I wanted to be a mom years ago, I have been dreaming of my babies sitting on the backs of horses.

I don’t know why really, except so many of my memories as a kid growing up out here are connected to horses.

And while I keep the long rides bareback through the pastures in the summer in the same pocket I keep my best thoughts, not every memory I’ve made on the back of a horse is a good one.

See, I was raised by a sort of horse whisperer. My dad was breaking horses while he was still in elementary school and his connection and talent for working with the animals prove that there are things some people are simply born to do. He’s never met a horse he doesn’t get along with. And because of that, while he was raising us kids, he spent a lot of his time working with what I like to call “second chance horses.”

Or, to be more blunt, horses that other people couldn’t get along with.

And when he was near the point of trusting a horse as much as you can trust any animal, my summer job was to put some miles on them. Which I did, but let’s be honest, those horses also put some miles on me.

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Because I wasn’t born with Dad’s fearlessness, confidence and horse training instincts.

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So it was on the back of a horse I learned the virtue of remaining calm and patient as well as the hard lessons about suppressing fear to solve a problem. And the countless times I was thrown to the ground for one reason or another taught me nothing if it didn’t teach the power of getting back up again.

Yes, some of my biggest blowouts and arguments with my dad occurred out there in those pastures, tears streaked with the dirt on my face after my foot stomped or my eyes rolled in his direction. I wanted so much to understand these animals the way he understood them, probably as much as he wanted to teach me.

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But from those moments sprung some of the best times in my life, not just with my dad, but with my little sister, my husband and maybe, most importantly, alone. I suppose it makes sense that I want to pass so much of what shaped me along to my children. The same way my dad wanted it for us.

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A few weeks ago I called him up. “I have a line on a pony for Edie,” I said, thinking there was a good possibility he might think I was crazy for it. “Do you need me to go pick it up?” he responded, the spark in his voice cutting me off before I had a chance to take a second breath.

And so that was that. Off we went the next morning, my dad and my daughter and me, to load up a scruffy, adorable little pony named Mascot.

And judging by her obsession with brushing his mane and feeding him treats, I can only hope that this is the beginning of my daughter’s story, one that starts on the back of horses…

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