These roads

October 19, 2010. Road to the Fields

October 19, 2010. Road to the Fields

Coming Home: Kicking up dust on the road of life

We live on gravel roads that stretch like ribbons along pasture land dotted with black cattle. As we kick up dust beneath our pickup tires heading out to a chore or to meet up with a neighbor, we take for granted how these roads were built and why they’re here.

Because these days we’re in a rush, driving faster than we should past newly made plans and history– some hidden and some still standing, weathered wood on crumbling foundations.

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I remember a time when these roads were quiet. It was where my cousins and I would skip like characters from “The Wizard of Oz” down the middle of the scoria without a care. The only vehicle to meet us was our great uncle driving with his windows down or my mom looking to borrow some sugar from a neighbor.

If we were lucky it would be the Schwan’s man hauling the promise of orange push-up pops, and we would put the game on time-out and sit on the front porch trying to get to the bottom of the treat before it melted and dripped down our fingers.

We didn’t know that there would ever be anything here at the end of this road besides imagination and our grandmother’s cookies. We didn’t know that anything but our boots and old feed pickups would kick up dust on the road.

I’ve been lucky enough to be able to tell the story of this place as part of my living. And because of that, and because of the long winters and the new babies and the close calls with losing the important people we love, I sometimes lie in bed at night breathing while the vice grip on my heart tightens. Funny how the darkness falls and talks us into wondering how this place and the people in it can seem so eternal and so volatile at the same time.

Maybe because between the past and the future there are so many colors here, cut down the middle by this winding gravel road of home.

It makes me wonder what memories were held in the hearts of those people who have long ago returned to the earth. What would they think if they saw us driving our fancy cars to houses that sometimes feel too big to hold the love, if that even makes sense at all?

How far away I feel from that life some days even though I believe our goals haven’t changed — to do the best we can on a landscape where trees grow, calves are born, ground is tilled and minds are inventing ways to make the living easier.

Inside those old houses they ate, prayed, laughed and worried in the dark just as we do in our houses with too many screens and not enough vegetables while the wind blows and knocks on our windows, reminding us that this place is not ours solely and rightfully and individually.

One day we’ll abandon these houses in decision or death, and there will be new generations searching these roads for our story.

So we should tell it now, honest and true and leave to them what they need.

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“This Road”-Jessie Veeder Live

Neighbor Kelly

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There’s so much more I could say about neighbor Kelly, so many stories that he would tell so much better than me, but I’ve only got 500 newspaper words for this week’s column.  He’s been like my second dad for as long as I can remember and I hope you have a neighbor like this in any weather…no matter where you are.

Coming Home: On the ranch, being a good neighbor means so much

Out here on the ranch there are millions of tasks that require the proper attire. When I was growing up I don’t think I ever saw our neighbor out of his Carhart bibs during the winter months. He would come in for a visit and sit at the kitchen table for an hour or so looking prepared to get up and go at any moment. Which he is — prepared, reliable and fearless. We know, because we’ve tested him.

Neighbor Kelly was the go-to guy to call when Dad wasn’t home for emergencies like a loose horse, broken appliances and keys locked in cars when you’re late for a meeting. Just a mile away, Kelly is quick on response time, too, there in a flash with a coat hanger and a plan. And depending on the season, his Carhartts and wool cap.

Oh, Kelly’s collected hundreds of rescues like this throughout the years because when you live in the middle of nowhere, being a good neighbor means wearing a dozen different hats.

So Kelly is a locksmith, yes, but he also earned his exterminator badge that time he tackled the suspected pack rat problem by camping out on the living room floor with Dad, pellet guns pointed at the cabinet under the sink waiting for the signal.

And when Mom found herself a snapping turtle in the garage, Kelly was there to assist in a plan to wrangle it back to the dam.

Kittens stuck behind the refrigerator? Call Kelly — he’s more agile and can fit back there.

Seating for hundreds needs to be built for your daughter’s wedding in your cow pasture? Kelly’s got a hammer and a case of beer.

Cows need to be moved? Kelly’ll be there early with a horse and maybe his bullwhip just for kicks ’cause he might get a chance to climb that big butte and snap it like the Man from Snowy River.

Because Kelly’s the guy who’s entertaining like that. He’s the sweetest harmony in the band, the best dressed and the only one who can yodel.

He’s the guy you call if you want an epic sledding party because he’s got an unmatched dedication to fun that sends him out there for hours with a shovel clearing a fast course, complete with a jump at the bottom and a campfire at the top and a new snowboard waiting to send him to the emergency room.

Most notably though, he’s the Lefty to the Poncho that is my father. When Dad called us in the middle of the night, unknowingly staring death in the face, we called the ambulance and then we called Kelly.

And when they airlifted Dad to Bismarck for an emergency surgery during an ice storm, Kelly drove the three hours on those roads behind us to sit with us in the waiting room. Recently, when Dad was in the hospital in Minneapolis, Kelly made that trip too, and a trip almost every day now down the road a mile to see his friend as he recovers.

And I can’t imagine this place without Kelly up the road.

I’m just hoping it warms up so he can take those Carhartts off soon.

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Love. An explanation.

Mom and dad on wedding day

What is love? It depends on who you ask.
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My dad once told me that he didn’t believe that there was just one person for everyone. I was sitting shotgun in the pickup as he drove us somewhere. He likely asked me about my boyfriend, and I think I responded with a sort of fed up answer.

I was in that transition from teenager to adult, heading off to college and thinking I might be in love. And I was wondering if I should break it off, because that’s what most people do. And at that age, what most people do sort of means something.

“Think about this,” he said. “What would it be like for you if you couldn’t talk to him tomorrow?”

From there he explained his theory on love and how he believed it was more about timing and choices and kindness than it was about destiny. And it wasn’t romantic really, but hearing that there were more people out there I could love, or who could love me, helped take the pressure off, even if the teenage poet in me didn’t appreciate the practicality of it at the time.

Anyway, it turns out that particular relationship did work for me. My husband and I became one of those couples who found each other as teenagers and hung on tight, not because of big romantic gestures or a dramatic series of events, but because, I think, neither one of us could imagine not being able to talk to each other every day. And although it’d be more passionate to say we were destined to be together, the truth is, in the end, it was a choice.

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Last month, I asked a group of preschoolers to define love. I wanted a few cute quotes in the name of Valentine’s Day for the parenting magazine I edit. I don’t know what I expected, but it got me wondering how I would respond if someone pulled me away from my Lego tower and asked me.

One little boy summed it up perfectly when he told me, confidently, that he shows his mom he loves her by “cooking her turkey.”

I smiled as I wrote down his answer, thinking how refreshing it is to hear such an uncomplicated take on what we grown-ups come to muddy up along the way.

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Then I thought of my mom sitting by my dad’s bedside day after day after day while he was in the ICU and unable to speak, not knowing if she would get to talk to him tomorrow, the choice no longer hers to own.

There will be a time when my girls will need me to talk to them about head and heart, and I hope I’ll be able to remember what it felt like that day in the pickup, to be a teenager on the edge of a wide open life, reminded that love looks less like Prince Charming and more like turkey dinner turned into turkey sandwiches turned into a lifetime of conversation with the someone you can’t bear to lose.

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Motherhood, you’re a mess…

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I’m telling you, this winter deep freeze is starting to get to us. Couple that with the fact that Edie is on a daycare hiatus and we’ve been sorta sick and stuffed up for a week or so I admit, I’m digging deep here.

Today in particular.

Because as a sweet test from God I woke up this morning without a voice. Like, I’m not just a little scratchy. No. I can barely make a squeak come out of my mouth, no matter what I do. And it turns out a mom who can only whisper is fun for a two-year-old. Because if a kid jumps up and down on the living room couch and there’s no mom-voice there to tell her to get down, is it really happening?

Apparently not.

 

This kid is driving me nuts today, it’s like she knows I’m weak. Because the other one gave me no chance to get some rest and avoid this last night. Sleeping in 1.5 hour increments is another form of torture.

Anyway, to get me through the morning and keep Edie from trying, repeatedly, to feed Rosie her baby doll bottle full of water before attempting to lift her out of her seat,

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I decided I would sacrifice cleanliness and make this Moon Sand I’ve been seeing my mom friends do for their toddlers.

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It’s an easy to make, sensory activity for kids. I used the recipe off of happy-mothering.com because I figured with a URL like that, she must be on to something.  I mixed 8 cups of flour and 1 cup of baby oil together in the mixer long enough to get it all combined. I then poured it in a long, flat Tupperware container, thinking I was being really proactive about the mess by putting newspaper down on the table underneath. But it didn’t matter. By the time she was done the stuff was in my hair, under everyone’s fingernails, in Rosie’s ear as she slept in her swing across the room and the dog’s fur in the garage.

So, yeah, it’s more of an outside-on-the-porch kind of activity, but parenting up here in the great white frozen north where it was like twenty below zero here this morning is no joke. We make sacrifices in the name of our sanity. Today my sacrifice was my floor.

But it did keep Toddlerzilla engaged for a good 45 minutes or so. And she loved it. So I think it was an ok trade off for the 45 minutes I had to spend cleaning up the mess she made.

Ugh…Spring, you can come anytime now.

Until then, here’s this week’s column on the other messes I’ve created in my attempt to make it through this season with young kids…

Not all messes in life are created equal
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“Sorry for the mess,” my friend’s husband said as he opened the door to the pickup he was letting me borrow during the week I was waiting for my new baby to be born in the big town.

I looked around to find an orange hunting vest lying on the back seat and (GASP!) a stray penny on the floor. And that was it.

Clearly, we have opposite ideas of what a mess is, I thought as I wheeled around town in that spotless pickup like a fancy pregnant pageant queen, careful not to spill any crumbs from my occasional muffin pit stop on the seats and making sure to bring my water and juice cups inside when I parked it.

I’m pretty sure you could make a dozen new muffins from all the crumbs that are residing on the floor of my vehicle these days. And don’t get me started on the extra cups. And I know I’ve explained my car situation here before, how living 30 miles from any civilization means that a girl accumulates things, just in case — like extra socks, a stash of snacks in every available crevasse, lawn chairs, spare gloves, napkins upon napkins, a 2012 issue of Glamour magazine, a talking Elmo doll and a partridge in a pear tree. But if I thought I had an issue before I gave birth to two small children, well, I had no idea what was coming.

Like two, 75-pound car seats that come with said children.

Do you know what also comes with children? Stuff. So. Much. Stuff. Like all the extra things I thought I needed for those miles when it was only me? Multiply that by three and then add a giant stroller, a Pack ‘n Play, a couple stacks of kid’s books, a stash of fruit snacks, burp rags, baby dolls and at least one dirty diaper changed along the side of the road. Oh, and Edie’s lifejacket just in case.

By the time I get the car loaded and both girls out the door and buckled safely into their seats, I’m sweating like I’ve just come in last place at a Texas marathon.

Last week we finally did get around to going to that indoor swimming pool. I slowly made the trek from the parking lot to the door with a diaper bag backpack on my back, a swim bag overstuffed with suits, clothes and towels dangling off the stroller with a car seat and the baby inside, stopping only to pull my toddler in her puffy coat out of the snow bank where she decided to lay down for a half-way break. If it wasn’t so cold, I might have joined her and if you were flying over Watford City that day, I’m pretty sure you could see us giving up on it all from your window seat.

Three days later, when I went searching for that swimming bag, I found it, of course, in my car, stuffed full of very frozen swimsuits, towels and an ice cube of a life jacket.

And that, my friend, is the sort of mess worth apologizing for…

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This life, it’s a mess.

Happy Monday. I hope your team won last night.

I’m sitting on the bed upstairs with my laptop, working on emails and preparing for a meeting this evening, sort of furiously trying to manage my work before the toddler wakes up. She’s wiped out from the party she hosted last night and there’s a big ‘ol mess of leftovers, dishes, toys and tiaras (yes, we pull those out for the Super Bowl around here) that I’m avoiding. Our daycare situation has changed, and this is our first week without it. I’m panicking a bit, cause momma’s still got work to do, but my mother-in-law is coming to the rescue to ease us into it and I’m grateful.

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Making cookie bars for Super Bowl

My mom was able to come home late Saturday night and spend the evening with us. She’ll be here for the rest of the week while my uncle stays with my dad in Minneapolis. It was strange to watch the Super Bowl last night and know that he was there, in his bed in a rehab facility, wishing he was home. When they zoomed out on the lights of the city during the halftime show I couldn’t help but think of him as one of those millions of lights so far away and I missed him.

When I wrote this column last week we planned on having him home by now, but a minor set back has him there waiting for a bit more healing without a definite timeline. The difference though, is we know he’s coming home now. The difference is, he’s no longer dying. He’s on his way to a recovery, a slow one, but a recovery nonetheless. And we’re grateful.

This mess of a life will be easier to tackle with him back beside us all.

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Searching for calm in this mess we call life
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After three long, agonizing months in and out of ICU in a Minneapolis hospital battling pancreatitis and fighting for his life, my dad is set to come home to the ranch in a few weeks.

Friends are calling wondering what they can do, making plans to clear the driveway, buy groceries and welcome him back, and we are so very grateful.

And while I want to say that we’re all finally able to let that breath out that we’ve been holding in all this time, I’m not so sure that it’s entirely true yet. When a loved one has gone through such a traumatic, life-threatening experience, I’m not sure when you begin to trust that that it’s truly over. He’s coming home, but he’s got a long road to recovery, one that will be done out here, so far from the team of experts that saved his life.

It’s times like these the isolation of rural living sinks in. And it can scare you if you let it. The fact that my dad made it all those miles between the cold buttes and coulees of the ranch to a place with skyscrapers and sidewalks that could save him is truly a miracle that wouldn’t be possible in a different time. And now, somehow, it feels like years since we had him here, home and healthy with us. These months have passed slowly.

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Last weekend my great uncle stopped by the house to visit. He’s one of the three remaining children of 12 born just down the road from the ranch.

“Come on in, it’s a mess, but that’s life,” I said as I hugged him with my free arm, my sleeping baby in the other, my toddler behind us with the door open sitting naked on the potty.

I replayed those words in my head for days since I blurted them. It’s a phrase I’d never uttered before and one that may have resonated with him had I not said it with such haste in an attempt to explain away my housekeeping skills.

Because he just recently lost his wife after a long health battle and he came home for a visit with his brothers.

“It’s a mess, but that’s life…”

He stood in my kitchen, surrounded by the remnants of breakfast and Edie’s art project and our small talk about weather turned to a story about his immigrant father and how he rode his bike 80-some miles across the prairie to borrow a wagon to pick up his bride.

“Can you imagine what my mother was thinking? I don’t know if she knew what she was getting into…”

I couldn’t help but think then, that what she got herself into brought us to that moment in my kitchen that day, comforting one another, worrying about Dad’s homecoming and smiling as that man, who has known much more mess in this life than stray socks and spilled orange juice, called my daughters beautiful.

These are the reasons we stay here, standing brave, holding our breath, in this mess of a life.

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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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Parenting. It’s no joke.

Ok guys, I’ve been trying to get this posted for about 2 hours. Since sitting down to type it while the toddler was coloring and the baby was sleeping in her rocker, I’ve been sidetracked for the following reasons:

1. Edie was putting the stickers I gave her in her mouth. She knows better. She does it anyway.

2. After asking her to stop, like three times, she still thought stickers were a good form of nutrition. So I took them away. She was then done with that project and needed to get down immediately to head to her room to look for a doll. Fine. Great. Go play.

3. Baby needed pacifier

4. Ten seconds pass and Edie’s out of her room. She needs her Elsa and Rapunzel dolls and she needs them stat. They are downstairs in the basement. She can’t go unaccompanied and can’t be convinced to stay where she is. I grab the baby and we go downstairs.

5. The kittens are in the basement. Edie remembered. She needed to go see them. Which reminded me that I needed to change the litter. Up the stairs for a garbage bag. On the way I notice the dishes that hadn’t been cleaned up from an evening with friends. I  proceed with my cleaning tasks while Edie plays.

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6. Baby needs to be burped.  Edie wants to watch a movie. I put on Chicken Little.

8. Baby poops. I convince Edie to come back upstairs with us. We head upstairs.

9. Halfway up Edie realizes that she forgot her play phone. I convince her to stay right there, I’ll get it. I go get it.

10. I change the baby and remember that Edie needs a potty break. I put the toddler on the potty and while I wait I put some things away in the baby’s room and hang a picture that has been sitting on the floor for weeks.

11. I switch a load of laundry.

12. Check on Edie. Still working on the potty thing.

13. Baby needs to be fed. I feed the baby and sorta dose off for a few minutes to the sounds of a cooking show on TV.

14. Wake up and realize that Edie’s still on the potty. She doesn’t want to get off…still working on something and I’m not going to mess with the process…so here we are again.

So friends, don’t let the peaceful family photos above fool you into thinking that we live in a portrait. Nope. I’ll blow that theory up right now: everything that came before and everything that came after these shots were taken was chaos. Actually, let’s be real. There was quite a bit of chaos during as well.

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But today I braved it all and took the kids into town for gymnastics because we needed to get out of the damn house. And nobody had a meltdown for more than a few seconds at a time (not even me) and so I call it a win.

And that’s a small victory on this long road we call parenting. And as of New Year’s Day, I’m officially only one month in to being a mom of two, so I’ll soak up every one.

Hold on…sounds like Edie’s done.

Coming Home: Parenting: The joke’ s on us
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You guys, this parenting thing is no joke.

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I say this as I’m celebrating my first month spent working to keep two kids happy, healthy and out of harm’s way. And by out of harm’s way, I mean so many things. Like encouraging the toddler to be helpful, but not the “pulling-her-infant-baby-sister-out-of-her-swing-to-change-her-diaper” kind of helpful.

Or the “shoving-the-pacifier-back-in-her-tiny-mouth-with-the-strength-and-grace-of-a-hippo” sort of helpful.

But it’s hard, because 2-year-olds have issues with limits and infants would prefer to be left alone to eat, sleep and poop, thankyouverymuch.

At least that’s the prerogative for this infant anyway, thank the Lord in Heaven. Because the Lord in Heaven knew that if he gave me the wide-awake, must-be-moving-at-all-times new baby that was our firstborn, I would be building my mother-in-law a cabin in our backyard and offering to pay her to never leave.

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But that’s not the case. Our little Rosie has been a laid-back dream, a baby who looks like me but takes after her father. It’s our 2-year-old (the one who looks like her father, but takes after me) who’s been keeping us on our toes by deciding that sleep is no longer an activity she needs in her life and making sure we all know it by staying up and scream-crying about it until 2 a.m.

How naïve of me to think we had bedtime down pat just in time for another round of late night feedings.

Good thing I haven’t really slept in two years anyway.

But we sort of expected retaliation, especially when my overly ambitious husband decided to use the short week he had off to be home with us to work on potty training the toddler.

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He said he was tired of having philosophical discussions with her about the meaning of life while changing her diaper, so he took to task. Which has actually been going pretty well since we got through the first few days of wiping pee puddles off the floor — with the exception of that incident last week where I was nursing the baby and Edie declared an emergency: incoming poop (I’m always nursing the baby when Edie declares emergencies), so I rushed her to the bathroom, whipped off her pants and sent that emergency turd out “splat” on the floor so quickly I didn’t notice it until I squished it nice and flat with my foot.

“At least you had socks on” was my husband’s attempt at finding the bright side, while I stood in the hallway and laughed the hysterical and desperate laugh only a mother of a toddler and an infant can pull off.

It’s the same laugh I used during Rosie’s newborn photo shoot where the photographer posed her all curled up and diaper-less in her dad’s going-to-town cowboy hat, only to leave it full of pee.

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“At least you didn’t put it back on your head!” I said, but he didn’t laugh with me on that one. He just stared blankly into the warm puddle.

So maybe parenting is a joke after all, one you need to be the right amount of exhausted to understand…

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
 Forum Communications
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.

Keeping the spirit.

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It’s been a long week at the ranch. I’m not going to lie. We’re still holding our breath, waiting to hear that dad’s condition is improving, but with this sickness, it’s one step forward and one (or two or three) steps back. But we’re trying to stay positive.

And we’re leaning on our family and community.

And we’re trying to keep the traditions and spirit of the season surrounding us, not just for our babies, but to lighten our own hearts.

This week we decorated the Christmas tree with baby Rosie rocking in her swing while her big sister declared everything to be so “bootiful.”

On Sunday we attended our rural church’s Christmas program and were surrounded by the love of our neighbors and the light of these innocent little children who are absolutely cherished.

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Rosalee was Baby Jesus #5 and Edie was a lamb, who wouldn’t perform until the woman in charge gave her a microphone. And so she was declared my daughter (as if it wasn’t already apparent).

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And I was determined then to keep that Christmas theme up for the rest of the day and so we baked Christmas cookies.

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Little Sister and baby Ada brought us the kind that come out of a refrigerated tube and they turned out imperfect and ugly.  Edie spent a good hour shaking sprinkles on her one special cookie, and she was delighted by the whole thing while I frosted the rest and Little Sister worked to keep Ada’s little fingers away from the frosting. But it was something to keep our hands busy while we tried to quiet our minds from the worry.

The worry’s always with us. But this season especially, I’m trying my best to dig deep and stay calm and believe in better days to come.

It’s something I know now that my parents have done for us in our lives when loss and sickness and uncertain times have knocked on their door. I know now what it’s like to want to curl up and cry, but there’s breakfast to make, diapers to change, Jingle Bells to sing and babies to rock.

Because this is life. And it can glow and sting all at once…

Before Rosie arrived I wanted to hold her safe in my womb until our lives were put back in place the way she deserved them to be when she entered this world, as if I had control of such things.

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Now I know better. To be simultaneously happy and terrified is exhausting, but we needed her here with us, to keep us busy, to make us smile and to patch the aching parts of our hearts up with hope.

Last weekend we loaded up the pickup with the girls, my little sister and baby niece to take a drive across the ranch looking for a wild cedar to cut for our Christmas tree. This is a ritual we started with Dad when we were just little girls, and it felt good to be out there, working to keep in the tradition of the holiday. We rolled and bumped slowly along prairie trails and fence lines, stopping to watch a herd of elk cut through a clearing and up along the horizon.

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“Look at that Edie,” we exclaimed. “Look at the elk!”

“Ohh,” she replied, her eyes wide with wonder before turning to me and asking, “But where are the hippos?”

And sitting side my side the cab of the pickup, dressed up warm for a long, cold season, our frazzled nerves were calmed for a moment as we all let the air out of our lungs and laughed.

And I said a quiet prayer of thanks for these children who remind us to keep breathing.

Today I can do nothing but be thankful for our little lights.

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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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