The heartbeats in between

The heartbeats in between 
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My husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary in my surgeon’s office on the fourth floor of Mayo Clinic, almost 700 miles from the oak tree on the ranch in western North Dakota where we were married 14 years ago when I was on the edge of turning 23. We vowed for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, as if we really knew what that meant at all.

But we never know what’s coming, do we? We’ve sure learned that lesson in these 14 years, watching our plans try their hardest to fly out the window while we hang on for dear life. Turns out, even when you think you might never come up for air, there’s always the surface, the other side of the hard things. We just have to wait for it.

And so we treated our latest visit to Rochester as if we already knew the news. Eight weeks out of a sternotomy to remove a cancerous tumor attached to my airway, I was feeling a bit more like myself, a bit more like laughing, a bit lighter from the weight of pain easing. After dropping the kids with the in-laws we took to the road like we were going on vacation. Because why not? We were together. We were OK. We were driving along Interstate and highway surrounded by sunflower fields reaching toward the sky and corn taller than two of us stacked up.

We spent the five days between doctors and tests eating as much as we could and finding shelter from the rain and sun under Minnesota trees and patio umbrellas. Once, as we were indulging in a 2 p.m. cocktail and late lunch, the woman a table over stood up to tell us that we really know how to live. We didn’t know if it was the calamari, the drinks or the loud laughter, but we decided it was the best compliment we could have received.

To know how to live.

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I’ll tell you now that the doctor, on our 14th wedding anniversary, told us I am going to be OK. He said he couldn’t have done a better job repairing my airway. And that the cancer? Well, he got it all.

Life will now look like a big scar down the middle of my chest and a CT scan every six months for the foreseeable future to make sure the cancer stays gone, moving it to the back of my mind, instead of the center of our worries.

And for that we are the lucky ones.

Fourteen years ago I carried sunflowers in my bouquet as I walked down the “aisle” in that cow pasture, toward the man who would become my husband that day. Little did I know that it takes so much more than a wedding to make a marriage. Little did I know that the only thing you can really count on is that things go wrong.

And then, right again.

As we headed west out of Rochester and toward the rolling buttes of home, I imagined those fields of sunflowers waving us on into a new year, a new season, spectators with encouraging smiles, reminding me of the love and support we’ve received from our family, friends and community during these past several months.\

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Reminding me that life is just a series of triumphs, roadblocks, joy and heartache. But my favorite times have always been the millions and billions of heartbeats in between.

A man needs a haircut

A man needs a haircut

My Grandma Edie used to give the neighborhood men haircuts. In the middle of her tiny kitchen at the end of a scoria road in the most rural of North Dakota places, she became a sort of pop-up barbershop to her brothers, cousins, neighbors and, in the old days, her husband and sons.

The phone on the wall would ring and she would pull a kitchen chair out to the middle of the linoleum floor and set her clippers and scissors out on her old kitchen table, the one she just cleared of supper.

Or maybe, if it was a summer evening, she would pull that chair out on the deck or the stoop and wait for the pickup to kick up dust on the road to unload a scruffy-looking man who was just on the other end of the telephone line.

Gramma giving Grampa Pete a haircut in her kitchen

I wasn’t there for all those haircuts, of course, but I was there when I was 7 or 8 or 9 and she was still alive and laughing, and I remember.

I remember the way she draped and fastened an old peach bath towel around the wide shoulders and snapshirt of our neighbor, Dean. His hair was thick and sprinkled with salt and pepper, and maybe, this was the only time I saw him with his hat off. And so I noticed that his forehead was white and smooth, just like his teeth, pushing up his tan and weathered cheeks in a story with a punchline and his big, deep laugh.

Summer days spent on the back of a horse or in the hayfield turn a man like that into a sort of windswept patchwork quilt. I noticed that then, at 7 or 8 or 9, and then I noticed that man, without his hat, half a head of hair on the kitchen floor, defenseless under my grandmother’s clipper and peach towel, the way I’d never seen a man out here before.

But a man needs a haircut, even when there’s calves to check or fences to fix. And maybe they didn’t want to make the long trip to town, maybe they didn’t have time, or the money, or they had a wedding the next day and time got away from them, and so they called my grandma down the road. She did a fine job. They had coffee or sun tea and a good visit.

I gave my first haircut at the ranch the summer we first moved back. I took the dog clipper to my husband’s mane in that very same kitchen where my grandma set up shop. I clipped a towel around his shoulders and watched his hair fall to the same linoleum floor, freeing his neck up of the curls that formed in the sweat of the August heat.

I did a terrible job, but my husband stood up, put his hat back on and thanked me as he headed out the door to fix a broken tractor.null

This spring, my dad came in from checking the cows and was desperate to tame the scruff of his wild white hair. It had been years, but I dug out those dog clippers again and shaved it all off in the kitchen, just as my little sister walked in to gasp loud enough to cause concern. “It’s just hair,” he said, and he was glad it was gone, grateful for his hat to fit right again as he headed back out to fix a fence.

The next day, I sat my husband down on the deck, poured myself a drink and spent the next hour trimming, shaving, clipping and obsessing over the shape of his hair with his beard trimmer and my daughters’ safety scissors.

The white of his forehead and salt and pepper in his hair reminded me of Dean, and I decided that if I was going to provide this service, I might as well learn how to be good at it. Because not only did it make the men in my life feel a bit lighter, it made me feel glad for another way to take care of them.

So I ordered myself some professional scissors and my sister’s sending her husband over here next week. If you need me, I guess it’s official: I give the neighborhood men haircuts.

The adventures of tiny ranch girls…

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The adventures of tiny ranch girls
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My little sister has been living in a new house on the ranch over the hill with her family for a year now. In the fall, her family welcomed a new little girl, Emma, who is now 8 months old. Her oldest daughter, Ada, is 3.

 

This means at any given moment, you could drive into the Veeder ranch and likely see a swarm of wild blond hair, glitter, flowing dresses, skinned knees, pretty chaos running down the scoria road squealing, with my sister and me trailing behind, occasionally hollering things like “Be careful!” or “Don’t push!” or “OK, OK, let the frog go now…”

Yeah. Right now, there are four girls between us — aged 4, 3, 2 and 8 months — roaming the barnyard. Which means in addition to six cats, four dogs and 10 horses, we also now have two little ponies.

Two ponies, named (you could probably guess it) Sparkles and Tootsie.

Of course.

Along with the kittens, the backyard sprinkler and endless Popsicles, these ponies have been the center of our life at the ranch this summer. Every morning my little sister puts her roly-poly baby in her pack, grabs her 3-year-old and goes down to the barn to brush, pet, pamper and, of course, feed the ponies who could care less if there’s a little girl hanging on their necks, pulling on their tails or brushing their bellies, as long as they get treats.

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And after supper, if the weather is right and they’re all behaving well enough to brave it, I call my sister and we meet them at the barn to saddle up the ponies and teach the girls to ride.

I could weave you a magical tale right now about the bonds between little girls and horses. I have plenty of firsthand experience falling in love with horses out here myself. And yes, there have been dozens of sweet moments captured between these little girls and these mini equines — but mostly it’s a firestorm of lesson upon lesson packed into a pink, noisy, explosion at the barn.

And it sounds a lot like: “OK, don’t scream around the horses remember? No, no running behind them… calm, remember? You’ve gotta stay calm… OK, OK, that’s enough grain. Woah, enough I said!”

“Edie, don’t drop the reigns. You have to hold onto them when you get off.”

“Oh, you’re trotting! Good job, good… woah, woah, woah, you’ve gotta hang on!”

“Where’s Rosie? Rosie!? Oh Lord, is your head stuck in the gate? Wait there, what the heck girl? How in the world… Daddy! Rosie’s head’s stuck in the gate!”

“OK, it’s Ada’s turn! OK, it’s Rosie’s turn. OK, it’s Edie’s turn. Yeah, you have to take turns. Yeah, you can lead her… no she doesn’t want to run… girls, no screaming around the ponies.”

“OK, no crying either. It’s OK…”

“Rosie! Rosie, don’t climb so high on the fence. Where’s Ada? Ada, enough splashing in the water tank… Edie, Edie, slow down now. Pull back and say ‘woah!'”

And on and on like this until someone gets an owie or the adults and the ponies in the pen wear out. But the adventure doesn’t end there — anything can happen in that quarter of a mile back to our houses.

Last night? Well, it was a detour to inspect a grass snake…

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followed by heroically freeing our dog, Remi, from my little sister’s sticky fly trap…

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Yesterday, it was a ladybug and a handful of sunflowers…

And today? Well, in this magical place, with these girls running wild, anything is possible.

And my sister and I, well, we’ll be right behind them, yelling “Be careful!” and saving the frogs and salamanders from their tiny dress pockets and purses.

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On the road to recovery

I had an interview this morning with a local news station about my health this week. It’s still weird to be talking as a cancer patient, especially when I thought I would be using this time to perform and promote on behalf of the new album. But as we all know, plans change, you’re not promised tomorrow and I’m nothing if I’m not resilient. I’m happy to share my story if it inspires someone to fight for their health and for the life that they want.

You can watch the piece at the link below:

Watford City recording artist on the road to recovery after cancer diagnosis

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Pre-order a signed copy of the new album, Playing Favorites at jessieveedermusic.com 

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Peace, love and good vibes only,

Jessie ❤️

On the other side of this…

On the other side of this…
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Water park visits, youth rodeos, T-ball games, street festivals and fairs, performing music almost every week in a different community, a state fair visit, backyard gatherings with friends and camping trips and work on the ranch, work on the house, work on planning community events…

That’s what summer looked like last year, and the year before, and the year before… a calendar full, the weekends penciled-in, not enough time to get to the lazing around part, the slow parts, the parts we stay home, bring Dad lunch in the hayfield and fight boredom with a homemade slip-‘n-slide — the summers I remember as a kid growing up on a ranch in the middle of nowhere.

Those summers looked more like mowing, barn painting, bareback horse rides to pick Juneberries, running through the lawn sprinklers with my best friend, bike rides, the county fair and an occasional trip to the outdoor pool.

Yesterday I made the girls homemade bubbles, the same way my grandma used to make them for us, and just like my daughters, we would go dancing across the lawn in the heat of the day with a string of sparkling orbs trailing behind us.

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Watching them brought me back to that little brown house next to the barnyard and eating Schwan’s push-up pops on the front steps.

I haven’t spent so many summer days (or any days) consecutively at home at the ranch since then, it seems. But with COVID canceling every singing and speaking job for months and a cancer diagnosis derailing and bypassing every other plan we made for ranch, business and housework, here I am shuffling around the house and yard, tossing feed to the animals and placing my lawn chair next to the sprinkler as the kids run, squeal and jump through this unexpected summer, seemingly (and thank goodness) no worse for the wear.

If you would have told me last year this is where we’d be, no one would have believed it. But I see now in so many ways that I was yearning for it. Not the cancer part. Not the terrifying, life-threatening, business-ending pandemic part. No. Not that.

But a chance to take it down a notch, to step back and remember why we live here. Why we built this family on this piece of land and what it really means to exist here.

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And I’m going to preface this by saying we are the lucky ones here. We are still working. We have land in which to social distance while we raise animals to help feed the nation. We have family close and we take care of one another. We are not on the front lines. We are keeping healthy, so far, and it’s because of that perhaps that I have the luxury of looking for lessons here.

But each day that passes in my recovery as a cancer patient (and a rancher, and a musician, an event planner and a mom and a daughter and a wife) in the time of COVID — each day that keeps us watching the news, arguing and discussing, staying close to home and riding the ponies and taking long walks to the grain bins — I’m looking and listening for how it’s speaking to me, how it’s changing me and my family, how it might affect our communities, our country and our world.

Because the greatest tragedy of it all, to me, would be that all this suffering, uncertainty, loss and worry at this moment in history and in my personal trials, would be in vain.

And that could send me into a panic, because there’s so much that needs to change…

But then I watch my girls run across the yard, bare feet, wild hair and bubbles flying against a blue sky, and I think — even if all we learn from this is how to sit still long enough to make homemade bubbles and eat push-up pops on the front porch, and turn the backyard sprinkler on in the heat and take good and better care — maybe, on the other side of this, we could be on our way to being OK…

 

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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Sharing the story

There was no new column this week because I was a little under the weather and little overwhelmed with the weight of the world’s issues these days. I just couldn’t find the right words or the energy to reflect in the way I felt I needed to.

And then of course, we were preparing for our branding and welcoming our favorite people onto the ranch to do the work we love, and so I let that consume me the way I needed it to.


Some news outlets have been reaching out, wanting to share the story of the health issue I’m facing, and I want to share it in the hope that it might encourage others. Being grateful is the only way I’ve found to move through life’s rough situations. But everyone has bad days, and I want to make sure it’s clear that I have them too, I feel frustrated and worried and scared, but I also feel optimistic and full of the same energy I’ve always had to do the work that I love and the things that I love to do with my family.

This is not the way I intended to promote this upcoming album, and I hope you stay tuned for more stories about the people involved in this project and the songs we chose.

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This cancer thing is just a blip, a blip that helps put some very important things in perspective. But I want you to know that I feel the love you’re sending my way and I appreciate this community that has cheered me on throughout my time as a musician and writer, and especially now in my role as a mom.

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Quilts sent by a friend, with one for me so we have something that ties us together when I’m off to my next surgery. 

I am learning from you on how to lift and support others, because now I know what it feels like to be on this side of things. Lessons every day. Living with intention and open hearts. That’s what I hope to pass on to my girls while I grow to be an old, old lady and they grow up to be a healthy amount of embarrassed of me. Much love to you and yours. I’ll keep you posted, as always 🙂

In the meantime, watch the KFYR News story for an update below.

Jessie Veeder: Battling cancer and counting her blessings  
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Where we float

Lake Sakakawea Sunset

There’s something about having access to a lake like Lake Sakakawea that makes a 16-year-old feel simultaneously invincible and terrified. Jessie Veeder / The Forum

Where we float
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Recently, I loaded the girls up in the car for an impromptu trip to the shore of Lake Sakakawea, where my husband was finishing up a carpentry job on a cabin.

Our ranch is only about a half-hour drive to the shores of that big rustic lake surrounded by buttes and ranch country with more shoreline than California. As teenagers, my boyfriend and I would take every chance we could get to load up his dad’s old pickup with the canoe, or, if we were lucky and could get it running, his fishing boat, and head down to her muddy shores.

There’s something about having access to a lake like this that makes a 16-year-old feel simultaneously invincible and terrified. Like kings of the universe, but insignificant enough to understand that there are things in this world that could swallow us whole.

I stood on the edge of that water with our young daughters as we watched that boy I loved then, now a full-grown man, skip rocks halfway across the bay. The sun revealed a glint of white around his temples where his dark hair used to bleach in the sun, the same way our daughters’ hair is turning white under the first rays of summer.

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I felt the cool clay on my bare feet, the same bare feet that I used to prop up on the dash of his gray Thunderbird going way too fast with the windows rolled down, on our way to find a spot where we could fling open the doors of that old car, strip some layers off of our hot skin and run into the water, frantic and young and splashing until that lake did, in fact, swallow us up, just like it promised. But just for a moment, before we had to come up for air.

And the thing about love is that you can fall into it with anyone, anywhere. And maybe I fell in love with him in the halls of that high school when everything else was awkward and uncertain, except the boy who showed up each day to walk me to science class. But the campfires he built and the fish he caught and the cool water and the laughing and the way that he kissed me in that Thunderbird kept me there with him to see what the next summer might bring.

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That was 20 summers ago. Twenty summers that brought us right back here to the muddy banks where it began, watching our babies strip down to undies, splashing, tossing rocks and searching the banks of this massive shore for treasure upon treasure upon treasure, me with our girls and my darling dear husband, enamored, exhausted and smack-dab in the maddening middle part.

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And sometimes it feels like we were never those kids, like it was a million years ago, but in a million more our daughters will be doing the same. And then unlike us, they will likely fall in love again, and again and again until the timing is right or, more likely, completely wrong, and so then they will dive.

And I will watch them and be reminded about the falling part, the frantic, feet flying toward the freezing water, gasping for air, falling part and be glad for the memories…

And then, when I need to, I will tell them about the holding each other up part. Because that part, well, that’s where we float.

Chad and Jessie

 

New Album Sneak Peek

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Since October I’ve been working on an album that pays tribute to the folk music I grew up playing with my dad, neighbors and friends. It’s an eclectic mix of cowboy music, hymns, folk music, beautiful songwriters and it sound so much like us.

I wanted to record it locally so that we could bring in the musicians I’ve been playing with for years and so that we could capture what you might hear around a campfire, in the living room, on a flatbed trailer at a county fair or in the corner at the American Legion Club.

My plans were to be on the road with this album in May, but COVID and my tumor sidelined that plan, and so we’ve taken a little more time with it. (Also, can you believe I recorded an entire album with a giant tumor in my airway? Jeesh) Watch for its release mid-Summer and take a moment to check out this sneak peek, behind the scenes of making “Playing Favorites.”

Thank you for the love and thank you Makoche Studios for doing such a beautiful job telling the story.