It takes a village to heal

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It takes a village to heal
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It’s been over four weeks since surgeons at Mayo Clinic cut open my sternum, moved my ribs and lungs and heart valves (and whatever else was in the way) so they could remove the cancerous tumor attached to my airway.

And so they cut my airway, reattached it, then put my lungs back where they belonged and pulled and stapled my ribs back together.

They stitched my chin to my neck to make sure I didn’t move my head too far back, and then, day by day, during my stay in the hospital, a new tube or IV came out. And then the chin stitches were removed, and then three X-rays, one bronchoscopy and five days later, I was released back into the world that keeps on turning even while we hold our breath.

They think they got all the cancer. They think, but we’re still waiting to hear for sure.

I’m back at the ranch now with what I hope is the worst part behind me, slowly feeling a bit better and stronger each day.

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Time will do that for you if you let it. It will get you to where you need to be. I’ve learned this lesson in my life before, but I’m still humbled by how helpless I feel in my own home, surrounded by the mess and the laundry and the projects we’ve made for ourselves.

All of that has to wait now the same way I have to wait to be able to grab my young daughters, lift them up, hug them tight or push them on the swing. Every morning, little Rosie asks me if my “owie” is better, which is code for, “Can you hold me yet?” And when I tell her I can’t, she sits beside me and we hold hands.

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I wish I could tell you I’ve taken time to read the books I haven’t had a chance to read, or written some profound music or poetry, or had some major revelation, but mostly, when you’re healing from something as traumatic as this, it seems like it takes about all the energy you have to mend. And lots of terrible shows on Netflix.

I can tell you I have never been more physically vulnerable. And when you find yourself so helpless, your family, friends and community, they are illuminated. All of a sudden you see them, and the way their hearts open, because you can no longer afford to say, “Oh no, that’s OK, we got this.”

Because in times like these, without your village, you don’t have it. To survive it you have to be gone, displaced, completely distracted, and it takes all you have in you to get through days of pain and healing, let alone continue under any kind of normal. At least for now.

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First family photo, halfway home after surgery…

And so you can’t do it alone. You need someone you trust to take care of the kids. You need your sister to feed the pets and plants. You need all the prayers and the well wishes and meals sent to your door. And while you don’t need that Juneberry pie, or gift cards and cash for gas and hotel stays and hospital bills, it sure helps ease one part of the burden of worry.

And you need your husband or your partner to get you dressed and open your pills and wash your hair and shave your legs and try his best at a ponytail and give up all his pillows in the hotel bed to make sure that you are comfortable. You need him to sit next to you in the hospital for five days wearing a mask and not complain once.

And so here I sit, feet up, a little worse for the wear, but on the other side of the scariest thing I’ve done since parachuting out of a plane over the ocean.

I am a lucky woman, so even if they call tomorrow and tell me I need to undergo radiation to become cancer-free, I know I can do it. Because this world we live in, while so genuinely heartbreaking, gives us miracles every day.

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And to me, those miracles look a lot like my children laughing, or the purr of a kitten, the smell of the ranch after a storm or the crunch of a garden pea. To me, those miracles wear scrubs and masks, take my kids for a tea party, come to live with us while I recover, send cards and raise money and call to check in, pick up my medicine and teach me what it means to truly take care of one another.

And now that I know how it feels to be on this side of things, I understand better the ways to take care, too.

But for now, if you need me, I’ll be here, holding my daughters’ hands, eating casserole, walking slowly to the mailbox and healing up…

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Dear Daughters…

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Dear Daughters
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Dear Daughters,

I want to tell you about all the summers the two of you stripped down naked in the backyard and ran with arms wide open into the sun and through the freezing, glistening splash of the garden hose, your small, soft bodies reflecting the sky and the innocence of a moment that will inevitably get stripped away with the years.

I want to remind you of the time that no voice of reason could stop you from taking a running leap toward that puddle of mud that always pools up in front of our driveway after a spring thaw or a summer rain. Not that I ever really wanted to stop you. Because what’s a little mud in the beginning of the story of a life that could take you anywhere, send you right back where you landed or find you fighting every day to be brave, to do the right thing, to reconcile mistakes or to let go?

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You don’t know what any of this means yet. You are too fresh to this world. That’s why I’m writing to you. Because I want you to know there was a time that you felt safe enough, loved enough, free enough, happy enough and beautiful enough to strip down and squeal at the sky. And while you ran naked and free in our backyard, the world was standing up to yell “enough enough enough!”

That’s what happens when you have a voice, dear daughters. You can sing, you can coo and whisper. You can tell stories out loud to yourself in the dark of your room about unicorns with sparkling tails to help you fight the worry of the monsters in your closet. And you can comfort your friends with that voice. You can whine and complain. You can ask a thousand questions. A million. And you can answer them.

You can shush shush shush a baby, or a skittish pony, or your sister who won’t leave you alone. And you can yell. Yes, you can yell.

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But first. First. First, you need to listen.

Because yes, you have a voice. But you also have ears, dear daughters. And let me be clear here. You don’t get to use one without the other.

Dear daughters, you were born with blue eyes and blond hair and the dirt of this earth under your fingernails, the wind in your lungs, the grass bent under your feet and the stories of your blessings and your struggles, they will be forever in your mouth.

And make no mistake, your story is precious. But it is not more precious than your neighbor’s.

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And as much as you want to tell yours, so that you can be seen, so that you can be loved or understood or helpful or praised or protected or trusted, please remember, please always know, your neighbor wants the same.

Dear daughters, right now you are little and wiggly and hungry and wild and innocent, and no reasonable voice can stop you from jumping in those puddles. But I am your mother and it is my job to love you and teach you and today, even though you’re too young to understand it, I need to tell you, I have to tell you, that the best, most useful gift you can give to your neighbor, to the world, is an open heart.

Even when it’s heavy. Or broken. Or tired. Or angry. Or confused. Or hurt beyond repair…

And so, dear daughters, today I’m going to plant the garden. Some people will tell me it’s too late in the season, but I won’t believe them. Because I’ve always had hope, even in times I had to dig to the dark, damp, chilled places on this earth, I find it.

Because even if it’s too late for the pumpkins or the watermelon, I know I can grow a peapod. And won’t it taste sweet on a hot July day when you run out naked into the backyard, arms stretched out to the sun!

Dear daughters, I love you. Now go love others.

From the bottom of my heart,

Your Mom

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The carpet sea of lava

The carpet sea of lava
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I wonder if they’ll remember this, when their dad was a jungle gym and they were so small and wild, hanging off his arms like monkey bars, standing on the tops of his bent legs and leaping off into a carpet sea of lava without fear.

In the movies, they would slow this part down, the part where I sat on the floor of our bedroom in my pajamas, watching my young family roughhouse and play.

In the movie, they would play a suggestive song and hone in on my children’s big, wide-open laughs, pieces of their blond hair loose from pigtails and floating in the sunbeam from the crack in the curtains, his strong hands tossing them safely while they squeal. And my smile, too. You would see it, grateful but apprehensive about the turn our story’s taken.

And anxious to get back to complaining about the constant state of stickiness on our countertops the way people do when things are going along just fine enough that you get to be genuinely annoyed by crumbs and laundry and the light fixture that flickers and muddy little boots tracking in on floors that never stay clean, instead of so damn grateful for it all.

But this isn’t a movie — we can’t slow any of it down. And my soundtrack is the voices in my head going down rabbit holes and back again, panicking and then reassuring myself the way I’ve done when faced with tough news about the delicate health of my family members. I know how to find faith there, to center myself. But I’m not sure how to be the one who needs prayers.

For six months, I’ve been having a hard time getting my breath. Was it a cold I couldn’t shake. Asthma? Stress? Was it the reason for the headaches I couldn’t tame with Advil or a nap?

Last week, I found out why. A tumor blocking 90% of my tracheal and bronchial tract. A slow-moving cancer that has likely been growing in my body and spreading to my airway for years, just waiting to make its presence known when it became life-threatening enough to send us rushing to Rochester, Minn., to meet with the experts at one of the best hospitals in the country.

And so that’s what we did. We wrung our hands and clenched our teeth and took deep breaths and called our family and met with the experts and got a plan. And then my husband and I, we sat for three days in a hotel room waiting for the next step, unable to go anywhere to distract ourselves in a world that is all but entirely shut down.

So he laid down and I laid on his chest and we pretended we were on vacation and it was raining. We ordered in food and watched terrible television and woke up early on Monday morning and headed to Mayo Clinic where I hugged him goodbye, the doctors removed the tumor from my airway and I woke up to deep breaths again. Feeling good. Feeling just fine. Headed home.

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That part is over. The next step is going to be rougher, a surgery that we’ll learn more about in a few days, one that will have me in the hospital and away from my sticky counters and muddy floors for a while.

In my life as a writer, lessons seem to find me where I stand. Yesterday, my little sister wondered out loud why we need to keep being reminded, in these dramatic ways, to be grateful.

Is there something more I need to learn here? I don’t know yet. Do these things happen for a reason? Maybe.

But maybe they just happen and it’s up to us to do with them what we will. And there have been some divine interventions that have taken me out of the path of disaster on this journey so far, so I’m just going to work on the brave part.

I know I can be brave.

And I know I can be angry as well as grateful. Terrified and hopeful. Panicked and at peace. In my life, I’ve been all of those things at once already. I’ve had some good practice. But until now, I didn’t know the fear of not being able to be there for my children.

There’s no other option than the option of being OK, so I’m going to be OK.

Yes, in the movies, they would slow this all down, so maybe I can, a little bit, to be like my children — impervious to the worries of the world, dangling from jungle gym arms, too wild and held by too much love to fear the carpet sea of lava.

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Finding yourself in parenthood…

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Finding yourself in parenthood
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Before I became a mother, before I realized that you’re not always in control of the timing of your life and throughout my six pregnancy losses, I was worried about the way in which becoming a mother was going to impact me creatively — in my career and in my process.

Because, looking back on it now, I didn’t see any women like me out there who were mothers on the road singing and performing and speaking with their kids in tow. And if they were, then maybe I wasn’t hearing them talking about it, or complaining about, or, what I really wanted, writing a step-by-step instruction manual on how it was done.

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And so I only thought I could be one or the other — a creative person or a parent. But since I was a young teenager, I’ve been performing and writing music and stories as part of my living in most of its phases. After 20 or so years in some sort of a professional music career, 10 years of marriage and pregnancy losses and crying and trying, by the time I became a mother, I had fully developed a version of myself that had dug in, planted roots and wasn’t going to change without a fight.

Cue a battle with postpartum depression that I didn’t see coming and didn’t dare admit after all that time and all that struggle. Because no one tells you that even if you’re finally granted everything you thought you’ve ever wanted, you still have to learn how to exist with it.

This new tiny human was an endeavor that had changed my body, changed my mind, changed my sleep patterns and sucked me of all the freedom from which I drew my creativity, that had for so many years been tied to my self-worth and my bottom line. Turns out, nothing squashes that whole freedom-to-let-your-thoughts-wander vibe quite like a new human life in your house.

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And from what I can tell so far, it’s pretty clear that my children will never stop interrupting me. When I became a mother, I found it profoundly difficult to find inspiration beyond my new child, partly because there was nothing I found more fascinating or magical and partly because the long walks alone taking photographs of the sunset became a long-lost memory of a different version of myself.

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Now I’m almost four years into this parenting gig with, God willing, a lifetime ahead of us all, and I’m finding I’ve managed to wrestle and push and grind and hustle (and medicate) my way back to a version of myself that feels whole and connected and fulfilled and creative again. And it doesn’t look like it used to.

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So let me tell you what it looks like now (because I wish someone would have done the same for me). It looks like me trying to do a promotional photo shoot for a new album with just me, the photographer and my two young daughters dancing, singing, fighting and crying for a snack while I yell “Just a minute baby!” and smile with my guitar while the light is still golden.

It looks like them getting a hold of my phone and Facetiming my little sister and then China and me letting them go ahead and do it if it gives me three more minutes of time to try to get the shot.

It looks like “Mommy, I have to go pee,” and then helping her pop-a-squat in the pasture and getting back to it.

It looks like the one epic meltdown and the guitar dropped in the dirt that ended it all and sent us home for pizza and wine (for me, not the kids). It was nuts. It was sort of embarrassing. It was on the edge of chaos, but it got done. And we all survived (except my guitar).

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And then I found myself wondering out loud to my little sister on the phone (who was checking in after the Facetime call to see if we all survived) why do I do this? It takes me a little time after the kids go to bed to quiet the negative voices in my head and listen for the reminder.

I want to be known as my daughters’ mother. I want them to know that I am there for them fully and completely and that I love them entirely, but not exclusively, not solely. More than a strict bedtime schedule, I want to show my daughters what it looks like to have passion, to love beyond.

Because, ultimately, that was the greatest gift my parents gave me — they live and are living their lives as love in action — for the land, for the arts, for the community and, of course, for their family.

And truth be told, sometimes love and passion looks and feels and sounds a lot like work. And maybe it’s a mistake, just like the one I made tonight by keeping the photo shoot on my schedule without any help with the kids.

But I’m just out here trying to be true to myself so that my daughters can see what that looks like and lean on it when they’re out there in this big, wide world struggling to do the same.

 

 

Rose soap and the woodwork of our memories…

Lasting memories of my great grandma

When I was in kindergarten, I lived in Grand Forks with my family in a small white stucco house by the Red River.

I don’t remember too much about this time in my life, except the blond neighbor girl named Jenny, my blue bicycle, drinking Dad’s cold coffee in his basement office, my little sister’s run-in with a hornet’s nest, my sparkly jelly shoes and my Great-Grandma Rognlie. Actually, her name was Eleanor, but we called her by her last name because she was the kind of woman who took formalities seriously.

She lived in a red house a few blocks away from our little white one by the river dike, and every day I would walk there to spend time with her in those free and unplanned hours kids used to have between after school and suppertime.

And that time for me as a little girl meant saltine crackers arranged on a plate and spread with peanut butter, reading books with her giant light-up magnifying glass at her antique fold-down desk, watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on PBS while laying on the carpet in front of her couch with the birds on it and her screened-in porch and her garden and this sophisticated woman with immaculate hair that was curled and styled every Tuesday at the salon.

When I pull from my memory, I realize that walking into my great-grandmother’s house was like walking into a different time that smelled like rose soap, tasted like frosted gingerbread cookies from the bakery and looked like a woman who worked to make money so she could put a roof over the heads and food in the mouths of two boys by herself in a time when women didn’t do those things without a man in the house, or at least they didn’t dare declare it.

But I didn’t know that about her then. I didn’t know how strong she was or the sacrifices she made or how hard it must have been or how proud it made her to see both those boys go on to graduate from universities, marry good women, contribute to their communities, succeed in their careers and raise children of their own.

I just knew she let me have Juicy Fruit gum and play her old piano and try on her fancy hats and shoes and she would order my sisters and me things from the Lillian Vernon catalog. And I knew that she always had a tablecloth on her table and a centerpiece and a game of Skip-Bo or Uno or Wheelbarrow or Solitaire and that she took the time to play cards with me after “Mister Rogers” and before my dad came to pick me up.

And on Sundays, I knew that she liked to take us all out to the Village Inn where I’d get three crayons and a paper menu and a pancake with that little dollop of whipped cream and I better behave.

And I knew that she had another husband later in her life, because I saw him in a black-and-white picture framed in her hallway, but I didn’t know him because I wasn’t born yet when he died, or maybe I was, I just wouldn’t remember, but somehow I knew that they didn’t have enough time together. None of us who love really do, do we?

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And I’m thinking of my Grandma Rognlie today because last night I watched my mom, dressed for the occasion, help my little Rosie put on her peacoat to head out the door of a theater event and I swear I could smell her grandmother’s rose soap…

And it occurred to me there is no way for my daughters to understand the complicated, compassionate, strong and beautiful story that lies within my mother. I can only hope that one day they will all grow old enough to ask the questions, woman to woman.

But right now, they know they’ll always find M&M’s in her drawer conveniently placed at their height, and on Thursday she’ll take my oldest to dance and then for a smoothie at her coffee shop and then the two sisters will run and play under the racks at her store until it’s time to head back to the ranch without sidewalks.

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And my daughters, they don’t know it now, but when they grow older these moments will lie quiet in the woodwork of their memories, waiting there for them when they close their eyes, searching for a way to feel safe and special and loved.

And they may never know the full story, and they surely won’t remember much about being small, but they will remember what matters, and it will always matter: that red house, that rose soap, that card game, those M&Ms, that Juicy Fruit gum…

Call it a day

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Here’s a photo of my precious daughters having a moment of sisterly love.

And when I say “moment,” I mean it. Nothing lasts too long around here in the world of little girls. Sweet turns to sour and back again at the drop of a hairbrush.

So I tried to keep that in mind last Wednesday when my little family outing went a bit off the rails, which isn’t much of a surprise at all when you take a one-year-old and a three–year-old on an hour car ride to run errands and eat in a restaurant. But still somehow I’m a little shocked when my toddlers are both testing their lung capacity in the car, that this is my life.

Oh, I know this too shall pass, but there are times that argument is more convincing than others…

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OK, real talk here: Today was a day. I would use the word tough, but I’ve had some days that truly fit that category, so I’m just going to Call. It. A. Day.

It was supposed to be an easy 60-mile trip to Dickinson with my kids. And when I use the word “easy,” I guess I don’t really mean it, because nothing with a 3-year-old and 1-year-old is easy. But my husband was going to come with us, which meant that running errands, getting my driver’s license and our passports renewed and hitting up a couple doctors’ appointments looked a little more doable with another set of hands.

So doable that I had the delusion that we could eat a nice lunch, hit up a park and maybe even get ice cream afterward. From where I stood on Optimist Hill, it looked like the perfect opportunity to turn our annoying adult responsibilities into a family outing. (Cue all you veteran parents pointing and laughing hysterically…)

But it seemed like it had potential. The kids only sang (screamed?) at the top of their lungs for the last 20 minutes of the trip and I only had to threaten to “pull this car over” three times along the way, but the first one was because the 3-year-old thought she might have to poop. Or puke. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, so she decided that she had to do neither.

Turns out she was saving it for when I left her with her dad and her little sister while I went into the DMV to pull my ticket, fill out the form and wait for 20 minutes (not bad, not bad) only to realize that to get the new “Smart ID,” I was going to have to come back with 16 forms of identification, five pieces of mail, the title to my house and my mother’s signature written in blood. Probably should have Googled that one… Yeah, nothing bulldozes Optimist Hill quite like a trip to the DMV that results in the promise of another trip to the DMV.

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Meanwhile, in the public bathrooms, my husband found himself in a situation in which he had to manage two small girls in emergency pooping situations, all while, ahem, holding it himself. When I caught up with him, the youngest was running through the door without a diaper while the older one was playing this weird toddler game where she runs as fast as she can and then throws her tiny body on the filthy floor while her bare-bottomed sister followed suit.

In our life, this was all pretty standard stuff really, so we proceeded on to the doctor’s office where my poor baby had to get a shot, which went surprisingly well thanks to a nice nurse and a couple suckers. Which, coincidentally, is what we were when we made the day-shifting decision to bring our entire family to a sit-down restaurant during naptime. Cue an in-transit crisis over sucker color choice on the way followed by empty parental threats that defied every parenting book in the history of the world.

We arrived at the restaurant and settled in for three minutes of quiet coloring, followed by sporadic singing (screaming?), negotiations, a drink spill, the food order, some crying, a Styrofoam to-go box tower collapse, two “situation removals” and “talking-tos,” actual eating and an early momma/kid exit to wait out a meltdown in the car while my husband wrapped up the check and slunk out.

We left the restaurant fully annoyed, which was exasperated by my daughter’s new favorite “bad mommy” refrain, which she was in the middle of when my husband dropped me off at my chiropractic appointment.

Turns out my chiropractor also makes a good therapist. We compared toddler war stories and he suggested I try to do more things that help ease my stress and tension.

So we skipped the trip to Menards and Called. It. A. Day. Godspeed to you parents. Godspeed.

If you need me, I’ll be on my deck with a glass of wine.

Nothing’s Forever

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When I first moved back to the ranch almost 10 years ago, wondering what I was going to do here, I spent my first summer reuniting with every inch of the place that raised me.

I walked to the top of every hill, down every draw, crossed the creek beds countless times, looked up at the sky and maybe, more importantly, down close to the ground where the secrets seemed to lie.

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I was searching for inspiration, the same way this place inspired me as a kid, and I found it over and over again. The time I was able to take for myself those first few months back home shaped the career I am able to chase and build upon today, writing and singing and helping to make inspiration for others in my community through the arts.

But once the babies came, those long walks by myself for creative inspiration have taken a backseat to the responsibilities that come with motherhood and work and trying to keep it all ticking, just like the clock that never stops.

I celebrated my 36 birthday a couple days ago with my family–my one-year-old and three-year-old, my nephew and niece and parents and sisters–and I couldn’t help but look around at the cupcake frosting and chaos and I feel like that twenty-something woman who walked those hills was simply a million miles away.

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And so the next night, after we put the girls to bed, and before the sun went down completely, I walked. To the top of the hill to watch the sun go down on another year older on a crisp August day and I felt like my old self again for a minute. And even though you all know I wouldn’t change a minute of this motherhood journey–even the hard part, even the losses–because they all brought me here to these children I adore, some days I miss me, you know?

Please tell me you know.

My kids are getting older and soon there will be a bit more time freed up for things like walks.  Soon they may want to join me (I hope they’ll want to join me).

Nothing’s forever…

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It’s a phrase that haunts me and comforts me every day in a way I never anticipated when I wrote it in a song all those years ago.

So this week, for my newspaper column, I went back to the archives to republish a piece of writing that was shared all over the world. It’s a piece that simply takes us all off the beaten path, to look closer, to take more time to be part of the extraordinary parts of this world, and it seemed to resonate with many people at the time.

Who knew ten years later it would work to inspire me again too.

The extraordinary ones.

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There are secrets out here in these prairies and Badlands that not many have explored.

Not far off the beaten path, these secrets are quiet and hidden and full of magic that only a watchful eye can detect. And the ones who do, the ones who look for it, these are the special ones.

The special ones listen. They stand deathly still at the side of the road and hold their breath to hear through the wind and the traffic and the barking dogs. They lift a hand to shield their eyes and carefully take a step off the gravel — one step into the world. And then the brave ones take another and another…

Because they think they can hear something calling to them, saying, “Hello up there,” under the tangle of grasses and cactuses, along the base of trees, where the roots peek out from under the damp earth.

So the curious ones, the ones who listen, move their eyes from the horizon and follow the call from the ground. Their feet moving them from the top of the hills in open prairie to the mysterious, damp, dark and prickly gullies of the surrounding coulees and creek beds.

They take in the panoramic view of cattails springing up like furry corn dogs bouncing and bending on frail sticks in the breeze, calling the special ones to take a step a little closer where the smell of the marsh fills their nostrils as the once-solid ground gives way to the dark mud under the reeds. And the water seeps into the brave one’s shoes as they wobble and slosh their way, deeper in.

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And with each step, the voices get a bit louder, coaxing them to look down to the moss spreading on the bark of the bur oak. The brave ones bend down to run their fingers along it, to feel to look underneath the caps of the mushrooms, making sure the stories of the fairies and the elves aren’t true, a little disappointed to find, when they look, there is nothing there but a couple gnats…

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And the curious ones notice a soft rippling on the surface of the creek as the water bugs zip and glide and row and skim across the water. The brave ones feel the urge to jump in and splash with them, but don’t want to disturb the bugs. Because, if not the fairies or the elves, maybe they are the ones who have called them here…

And when the voices (whoever they are) are drowned out by the buzzing of the mosquitoes and the air gets cooler and damper as the brush thickens up again along the path, even the brave ones can’t take it — they want to see the sky again, to see how the time has passed and how far they’ve gone.

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So they claw their way up the steep banks of the creek. They want to run, but something slows them and they crouch to see how the tall grass looks against the overcast sky.

Then they stand up and stretch their limbs and reach to grab a taste of the ripe plums growing at the very tips of the thorny branches. The curious ones bend down low to skim the brush for red raspberries or wild strawberries underneath the mangle of green and they tiptoe along the juniper spreading up through the rocks and watch for the poison ivy that has, until the voices called out, kept them from coming here.

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With mouths puckered from sucking on plum pits and foreheads wrinkled from seeing the small things, they are all surprised that the road has found them again, somehow. Turning their heads back over their shoulder, they take a look of it all from far away. The trees put their arms around each other, the wind blows through the reeds, the grass stands up straight, the wild sunflowers smile and everything seems to wave at the brave and curious and special ones making their way home.

And the extraordinary people say a quiet word of thanks to the voices whispering their secrets, because the small world they thought they knew, the one they thought had belonged only to them, has suddenly become bigger.

And after all that magic, it never, ever looks the same to them again.

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Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband and daughters on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. She blogs at https://veederranch.com. Readers can reach her at jessieveeder@gmail.com.

Dear Husband on our 13th Anniversary

Next week we will be celebrating our 13th year of marriage. Thirteen doesn’t seem so lucky, but I’m only really superstitious about those sorts of things when things go wrong.

And what I’ve learned from 13 years of marriage is that the only thing you can count on, really, is things going wrong. And then, right again.

And what’s life but a series of triumphs, roadblocks, joy and heartache? But my favorite times with you, well, they’ve always been the millions and billions of heartbeats in between.

And so here were are, you and me and the kids and the dogs and the cows and the plans that seem to be going in a reasonable direction, until they aren’t. If we were sea people, we would say we’re good at readjusting our sails.

But we’re not sailors. We’re just two kids hell-bent on being landlocked in this rugged and unpredictable place, trying to belong here in our own way, in our own generation, knowing that even without the waves to take count, the wind can wear you down.

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Dear husband, last night I left you with the kids at suppertime so I could drive into a rainstorm and sing about our lives on a stage somewhere a few hours away. When I pulled out of the drive, my guitar and stories loaded up in the back seat, our daughters were standing naked in the mud puddles, dancing and splashing in the aftermath of a glorious late summer rain and you were laughing and waving and loving them. And I was loving you there with them.

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I love you. I always have.

A few days ago, our 3-year-old daughter asked me about my wedding. She wanted to know what I wore and if we danced and if I married her daddy. So I pulled out our wedding album and showed her photos and talked about that day in the cow pasture when you married me underneath the 100-year-old oak tree while our oldest daughter squealed and smiled and instructed her little sister to stop turning the pages so fast.

Wedding TreeThere was a simple quote in that wedding album that I pulled as inspiration for the special day, when I was just turning 23 and thought I knew what I was up for. It read: “Love is enough.”

And it struck me at that moment in the living room surrounded by Barbies and baby doll strollers, half-drunk milk cups and things that cost money spread out on the floor that’s never properly vacuumed in this sweet and maddening little mess we’ve made, that I was wrong there. Love is not enough. I’m sorry, all you romantics out there, but it’s true.

In order for love to be enough to survive this life together, the affection can’t stand on its own. You have to expand it, to stretch and define it more broadly so that it also means kindness, especially when you don’t feel kind, which will morph itself into patience.

And then patience lends itself to selflessness and turns the other person’s joy into yours if you let it. And if you look at love as less of a feeling and more like a doing for the other, that’s how love turns to freedom, which is one of my favorite parts about love.

And my favorite part about loving you. Because you let me be me, even in the times that makes our love a bit lonely. But I don’t have to tell you that, dear husband, because you’re the one who showed me.

And I didn’t marry you because I simply loved you. I could have loved other men, I know. Although I never really tried. I found you and here we are, more tired than we’ve ever been and more human, too. Adding years and payments and lawn care and cattle and children who spill things and who will always need us and make us worry and wonder if we’re screwing it all up will do that to the definition of love. Make it more human.

Because the stakes are higher, the days are longer and the floor is stickier and the ground is muddier, but we’re still standing on it, which comes in handy when this prairie wind blows.

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Outside the fence

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Coming Home: Outside the Fence
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There’s a little stem of a willow tree growing wild in our backyard. I wouldn’t have known it except my dad pointed it out in the thick of the wild grasses, bushes and weeds that we have been meaning to turn into a retaining wall for years.

Willow trees aren’t common out here among the bur oak and the ash, the bull berry thorns and chokecherry brush, except for the big ones that line the edge of the stock dam outside of our fence line, so Dad thought it was special, suggesting maybe we keep it there to grow instead of digging it up to make room for petunias or paving stones or domesticated bushes. I looked out at those big willows then and couldn’t help but think what a big jump that little seed took from home to here, what strength it had to dig in among the clover and weeds, successfully avoiding lawn mowers and chubby, curious hands.

Last month, while I was attempting to assist my 3-year-old daughter at T-ball practice, she told me to go wait outside the fence and watch like the other parents, because apparently now she’s a teenager.

Today at her little preschool Bible day camp, she gave me the same direction — and this time I was even offering a cookie.

She was sitting at a tiny table with a group of her friends and it was as if my presence immediately reminded her of her small place in the world at a moment when she was really feeling quite big. And hilarious.

Her little sister Rosie has already taken the “no parents allowed” stance on important things like hand-holding down the steps, drinking out of lidless cups and, recently, getting in on the dance circle and the horse-drawn wagon rides with the big kids, reminding me that the letting go part happens slowly and then all at once, like the way that we all noticed that tiny little willow tree that had been working on growing right under our noses day after sunny, rainy, snowy, windy day.

ARCHIVE: Read more of Jessie Veeder’s Coming Home columns

Below the boards of our deck, in the corner on top of the beam, a mother robin spent her springtime gathering sticks and mud, grass and rocks to build a nest for five little blue eggs. Her work was so unassumingly diligent that we didn’t even notice the life and home she created there until among the laughter and frosting and pony rides of my niece’s birthday party.

This time, my dad looked up to find four tiny little fuzzy heads attached to beaks open wide, stretching up to find a mother surely coming with a worm or a bug.

I took the girls to get a better look from above through the cracks in the deck, instructing them to close one eye and keep the other one open to help them spot the tiny creatures who were close enough to feel our breath. I noticed the mother then, perched on the cedar fence rail that serves as a symbol, a barrier between the tame and wild world, safe and unsure. She was waiting there, watching, a worm dangling from her beak.

Tonight I am sitting alone in my backyard listening to the day quiet down with the chirping of those birds and the howling of the coyotes. That nest below me has been empty for weeks, because as fast as we think our babies sprout wings, real birds fly in a blink.

And I am the willow, the robin, the mother, on the other side of the fence with a worm, with a prayer, with a hand reaching out to steady them as they stretch toward the sky.

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Mother of Daughters

I am the mother of two young daughters.

I am the mother of girls.

I am a full-grown woman with almost half my life behind me and they are children, so young and fresh, running wild down the gravel road in rain boots in search of mud puddles.

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I look at them, the 1-year-old’s cheek flushed from the chill of the early spring evening, pointing to the sky and trees, digging her hands in the rocks, pulling on the grass, picking up dirt, trying to place it all, trying to name it all, doing what she needs to do to become the person she needs to be in this mysterious world.

IMG_0506I watch my 3-year-old stomp her sparkly new boots in the cold, dirty water of the season. Her gold hair flying out from under her knit hat, the bottom of the dress she insists on wearing swoops and swings below her barn jacket, collecting the elements. And she’s singing and she’s yelling and she’s dancing and she’s stomping and she’s making up stories and I think to myself, “Well, isn’t she just everything all at once?”

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And she’s not afraid. They’re not afraid. They are not worried. They are not wondering if they are smart enough, funny enough, talented enough, pretty enough, good enough.

None of that exists for them. Not now, anyway. Now, they are just unabashedly who they are.

 

I am the mother of two young daughters.

I am the mother of girls.

And when they were born, I knew I would have to teach them things that I haven’t figured out yet myself, even though I am a full-grown woman and maybe I should know how to be brave by now. And sometimes, maybe I do. But sometimes I don’t.

And I should have had plenty of time to conquer how to love myself despite my flaws, the flaws and failures I catch myself counting sometimes.

“My daughters would never do that,” I thought to myself as my 3-year-old ran down the hill declaring she was the fastest runner in the world. “Not now, anyway. They don’t know how to be flawed, they only know how to be human.”

 

And it hit me then, standing in the middle of that gravel road as the sky opened up and dropped a sprinkle of cold rain on a trio of girls in muddy boots: My girls came into this world knowing and it’s my job to do what I can to keep it that way.

But they have a job, too, and it’s to remind me of what it looks like before the world gets in.

Because I am the mother of two young daughters.

I am the mother of girls.

I am a full-grown woman with almost half of my life behind me and I am holding their hands and we are running wild down the gravel road in rain boots in search of mud puddles, together becoming the people we need to be in this world.

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