The Promise of a Greener Summer

This week’s column on the rain and the rain and the rain. It rained almost five inches over the course of a couple days out here last week, filling the dams, pushing the river over its banks, sending creek beds rushing and greening up the grass. There are places that were flooded in the state and it got a little scary, but out here we opened up our arms, lifted our faces up to the sky and said a prayer of gratitude.

The Promise of a Greener Summer
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Click to listen to commentary and this column on the Meanwhile Podcast

It’s been raining at the ranch for the last few days.

Raining, and thundering, and pouring and making puddles and filling the creek beds. It’s been a while, a couple years maybe, since we’ve seen a long, soaking rain take up the entire day, followed by another and then another, so I didn’t believe the thunder when it was threatening my walk in the hills the other night. I thought it was bluffing the way it did all last spring when the sky refused to open up and the wind howled and the prairie was burning. So I carried on like the superstitious kid I am, the kid raised by a rancher whose never owned a rain gauge for fear that if he ever put one out, it would never rain again.

My dad, he judges the amount of rain by what’s sitting in the dog dish or the buckets outside the barn or the puddle that always forms in his driveway. And then he calls me, just a mile down the road, to take a look at my gauge. Because up until a few months ago, I didn’t know the reason my dad never had gauge himself was so specifically calculated. I just thought he never got around to it or something…so maybe it’s been our fault, this drought?

Anyway, it seems the sky has had enough of its silent treatment and just as I got to the gate a half a mile from home, it opened up and started to really pour and so I pulled up my hood and hoofed it toward home, turning my stroll into a jog into a full-on run when the thunder clapped again and the rain turned to little pieces of hail.

My kids were standing in the doorframe watching the drowned rat that was their mother struggle and puff her way back to the front door, laughing and thinking, well, maybe I was right to ignore it, to have low expectations so I wasn’t disappointed.

That evening a double rainbow appeared right outside our house looking to have sprung up right at our kids’ playground set. I called the girls out of the bath and they left little footprint puddles on their way to patio doors where we all stood with our noses touching the screen, breathing in the scent of the rain and counting the colors.

Now girls, this is what spring is supposed to do. Bring it on. Let the heavens pour down and wash that winter away. Wash it clean and squeaky. We’ve been dusty then frozen then thirsty and our hair needs washing…the worms need air…the lilacs need watering…The horses need waking up.

Rain sky. Cry it out. Turn the brown to neon green and make the flowers hunch over under the weight of your drops.

I don’t mind. Really. I will stand in it, I will run in it all day if it means it will fill the dams and grow the grass.

I’ll splash in your puddles, let it soak in my skin, slide down the clay buttes, jump over the rushing streams. Because I forgot what this feels like, being soaked to the core and warm in spite of it.

I forgot what it looks like when the lighting breaks apart the sky. I forgot how the thunder shakes the foundation of this house, how it startles me from sleep and fills my heart with a rush of loneliness, a reminder that the night carries on while I’m sleeping.

I forgot how clean it smells, how green the grass can be, how many colors are in that rainbow.

So go on. Rain. Rain all you want.

Rain forever on this hard ground and turn this pink scoria road bright red, his brown ground green. Let your drops encourage the fragile stuff, the quiet beauty that has been sleeping for so long to wake up and show her face now. It’s time.

I’ll be there waiting to gasp over it, to gush and smile and stick my face up to catch the drops on my tongue, and return home flushed and soaked and tracking mud into my house where the soup is on.

Rain. Rain. Rain. You fill up the buckets and gauges and puddles and tap at my windows… and promise me a greener summer.

Spring cleaning gives time to reflect

My sister’s husband is working on building a chicken coop today and so my niece, Ada, spent our ride to town telling me how many chickens she’s going to get.

Sounds like hundreds. And I’m thrilled for them. Because it means that I don’t have to get chickens ever in my life. It’s kinda like the boat thing, you know, the only thing better than having a boat is having a best friend with a boat. That’s what I think about chickens. Eggs for days and no poop to scoop. I’ll save us all the cartons.

Building something like a chicken coop is a typical spring task at the ranch. The sun warms the ground and we’re ready to head outside to thaw out all of those ideas we conjured up while eating carbs and pulling our beanies down over our ears. But it also means cleaning. Oh, the cleaning. I’m always amazed by the amount of mud, random screws, mismatched gloves, beanies, boots, neckerchiefs, and, because my husband’s a carpenter, random electrical wires, plumbing parts, tools and hardware store receipts that accumulate in our entryway over the winter. I spent all morning Sunday trying to arrange it all so I could mop. And by the time I got to the mopping part, the kids had come in and out of that door 37 times, dragging more mud and dolls and winter clothes and random twigs with them.

My daughters were busy driving their kids to Hawaii in the little hand-me-down electric car that always gets stuck in the scoria halfway up the driveway. And the disagreement about who’s turn it is to push and whose turn it is to drive derails the game for a spell, although it does make it a bit more realistic. Adulting comes with all sorts of obstacles and predicaments. Like making the choice between spring cleaning and pouring a Sunday margarita….

Most of the time, I chose both. I’ve always been good at multitasking.

Anyway, the mess here is endless, between the ranch and the garage and the house and the yard, I’m fully committed to the idea that I’ll never catch up. And I know I’m not alone in it overwhelming me sometimes. If I dedicated every minute of my waking life to trying to control it, I still don’t believe I’d fully dig us out. Because, we just go on living, don’t we? Do the dishes and your husband comes in to make a sandwich. Clear the kitchen table of Play Dough to turn around to the kids making Barbie Doll phones out of tin foil and puffy paint. Get to the bottom of the laundry hamper and you’re still wearing clothes, aren’t you? Fix the fence and watch a bull jump right through it. Living’s messy. It requires lots of chores…

Last weekend my husband was also committed to clearing some clutter, so we were, as we usually are on the weekends, busy bopping around the place to see what tasks we can get checked off the list. This leaves the kids within earshot, but to their own devices, with a few tattle tale moments, skinned knees or request to help push the blue car out of the ditch sprinkled in. I stood in the driveway procrastinating sorting 1,000 gloves and watched as my daughters pretended to be mothers riding their bikes and changing diapers and, as I said, making plans to head to Hawaii.

And then I had a flashback of when they were smaller, just a few short years ago, at age 1 and 3, then 2 and 4, when my children required so much more out of me in the entertainment department—to peek-a-boo, to pour the paint, to rattle the rattle or build the blocks.

Now look at them, they’re in the sweet spot of sisterhood and childhood and play, immersed together in a world of their own creation. Rosie stopped her bike/car and her eyes caught mine, “Mooommmmaaa, you can go now! You don’t need to watch…”

And so this is the phase we’re in. Maybe I’ll get a duck or something and add it to my sister’s coop. It seems, with my kids in Hawaii, I might need something new to fuss over this summer, because I’m already sick of cleaning…

We are the water

We are the water
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It’s the time between winter and the full-on sprouting of spring. The time where the snow still peeks through the trees, the wind still puts a flush in your cheeks, birds are still planning their flights back home and the crocuses haven’t quite popped through the dirt.

It’s my favorite time of year.

When I was a little girl, I lived for the big meltdown. My parent’s home is located in a coulee surrounded by cliffs of bur oak and brush where a creek winds and bubbles and cuts through the banks. And that creek absolutely mystified me. It changed all the time, depending on rainfall, sunshine and the presence of beaver or cattle.

In the summer it was lively enough, home to bugs that rowed and darted on the surface of the water and rocks worn smooth by the constant movement of the stream flowing up to the big beaver dam I loved to hike to. In a typical North Dakota fall, it became a ribbon carrying on and pushing through oak leaves and acorns that had fallen in its path. In winter, it slowed down and slept while I shoveled its surface to make room for twists and turns on my ice skates.

But in the meltdown it was magical. It rushed. It raged. It widened in the flat spaces and cut deep ravines where it was forced to squeeze on through. It showed no mercy. It had to get somewhere. It had to open up. It had to move and jump and soak up the sun and wave to the animals waking up.

I would step out on the back deck, and at the first sound of water moving in the silence I would pull on my boots and get out there to meet it, to walk with it, to search for the biggest waterfalls, gawk at how it would scream out of its banks and marvel at how it had changed.

Around every bend was something a little more amazing — a fallen log to cross, a narrow cut to jump over, a place to test the waterproof capacity of my green boots. The creek runs through multiple pastures on the place and as long as the daylight would allow I would move right along with it, and then return home soaked and flushed.

And I would do the same thing the next day. Because even as a kid I knew this magical time was fleeting and that there are places along that creek that very few people have ever been. I took great joy in the fact that I was one of them.

And it was performing only for me.

I still remember a dream I had about the creek when I was about 10 or 11. I dreamed it was huge, like a river you would find in the mountains — a river I had yet to discover at that time. The landscape was the same — the oaks and the raspberries existed there — but the water was warmer and crystal-clear and it pooled up at the bottom of gentle waterfalls that rolled over miles of smooth rocks and fluffy grass.

And I was out in it with friends I had never met before as an adult woman with long legs and arms and we were swimming in its water and letting the current push us over the waterfalls and along the bottom of the creek bed until we landed in the deep water. And we were laughing and screaming with anticipation, but weren’t afraid — we were never cold or worrying about getting home for dinner or what our bodies looked like in our bathing suits.

We were free. I was free. And the water was rushing.

And we may never know if there’s a heaven, but we know that there are snowbanks that fly in with the burning chill of winter’s wind. Those banks reach up over my head and stay for months on end only to disappear with the quiet strength of a sun that turns it to water rushing around the trees, settling in hoofprints and dams to be lapped up by coyotes and splashed in by geese, sinking in the earth and changing it forever.

And that’s something that makes me believe in something.

Like perhaps we are like that drop that fell from the sky, afraid of the mystery that was waiting for us as we hurtled through the atmosphere only to find when we finally hit the earth that we are not one drop alone in this world.

No.

We are the water.

On the coldest day of the year, I forgot my coat…

It was 20 below zero this last Tuesday.

I forgot my coat.

As we were trying to get out the door for school, breakfast eaten, hair and teeth brushed, gathering the kids’ coats, hats, mittens, snow pants, folders, extra shoes, snacks, leotards, piano books, babies, blankies and a partridge in a pear tree, Rosie decided she needed her fingernails painted.

She would not budge on this, no matter how much I tried to explain to her that time was ticking. Because, of course, 4-year-olds don’t care about time. Four-year-olds live in the moment, and at that moment, Rosie desperately needed to have pink fingernails to match her friend Lily.

And in my moment I weighed whether or not it was quicker to argue with her or to just paint her dang fingernails as swiftly as possible so we could get on to the last-minute teeth-brushing portion of our morning.

I chose to powerpaint the fingernails based on the baby doll dressing argument of last week where we were, again, up against the clock, and so I set out explaining the whole time thing. My husband swooped in then and suggested maybe Rosie could dress her babies in the car on the way to school. Good idea. We were out the door. Hallelujah. And all was fine until about 4 miles down the road when my dear daughter realized that I didn’t pack the correct attire for baby No. 3.

“These are all jammies!” she exclaimed. Her dolls needed dresses.

And so then Rosie got to deal with disappointment after all, despite our best efforts. She’s a young child with high expectations, so she does her fair share of dramatic stomps to her room. But that morning’s letdown had us all trapped in the car, so I got the dramatic 4-year-old-sized lecture instead. Which is always fun at 7:45 a.m. And life went on.

Anyway, I’m confessing all of this so that you might understand how I could have forgotten MY OWN JACKET on a trip to town on the coldest morning of the year.

Because I remembered it was “twin day” at kindergarten and what to dress Edie in to match her BFF. And I remembered to pack her pink shoes and put her hair in a “medium ponytail.” I even remembered what “medium ponytail” meant. And I remembered the leotards for gymnastics, and a snack for after school, and the piano books and the kids’ hats, mittens, snow pants, folders, extra shoes, baby dolls, blankies, the partridge in a pear tree and the kids’ coats, of course.

And my coffee. I remembered my coffee. And my banana for breakfast while I drove, which reminded me that I lost the banana I packed for breakfast yesterday and now I wonder exactly where and when it will show up to haunt me in this car.

So you see, I remembered lots of things. So maybe there wasn’t room for more?

The same thing happened to me a few weeks ago. I remembered all of the girls’ things, plus my coat, but I forgot my computer workbag and I didn’t realize it until I arrived at my office. And all of this wouldn’t be such a big deal if we lived down the block or around the corner or just a few miles out of town. But we live about 30 miles from town. Which means retrieval of anything we forgot takes a good, solid hour out of the day.

So yeah, this morning, at minus 20 degrees, I forgot my coat. I called my husband and you won’t be surprised to hear that he wasn’t surprised. He said he double-checked to make sure the kids had their coats and hats, but didn’t think he needed to check for me. Now he knows better. He’ll bring it in for me on his way to work.

Because it was 20 below.

And I forgot my coat.

Drive Careful, Watch for Deer and other things we say here…

Drive carefully. Watch for deer. How was the drive? Is it icy? Blowing snow?

Leave early. Drive slowly. Check the weather. Call me when you get there. Call me when you leave. I’ll wait up for you. I’ll leave the light on.

In rural North Dakota, especially in the icy and volatile tundra that is the 17 months of winter, I grew up hearing these statements as a sort of language of love. Because to get to most anywhere we need to go, we have to consider the roads.

A 30-mile drive to school, work, groceries and the nearest gas station. A 90-mile drive to a big-box store or an airport. A 140-mile drive to a specialty doctor or to have a baby near a NICU, to get your wisdom teeth removed, a treatment for your cancer or, sometimes, before Amazon delivered the world to your door, just to find the right size of envelope or diapers.

How are the roads?

My little sister just texted me that question as I arrived in town and she’s making plans to bring her girls to gymnastics later this afternoon. It rained all day yesterday, right on top of the ice and snow, and then, just to be dramatic, the wind blew all night at 40 mph.

The fact that the roads between the ranch and town were just fine was some sort of weather phenomenon, ruining any excuse I might have been able to scrounge up for why I barely got Edie to kindergarten in time. And why I forgot my workbag with my computer in it and basically everything I needed for a long day in town. It wasn’t the roads. It’s just me. It’s just me in the middle of winter — frazzled, pale and distracted, trying to get two tired little children up out of their beds when it’s still dark outside.

Because what I think we’re really meant to be doing this time of year is eating a bottomless serving of straight-up carbs and hibernating. My word, it’s hard to fight nature these days. (I yawn for the 50th time in 10 minutes).

For the last three weeks, I’ve been back and forth from the ranch and across the state on these January roads, bringing my children’s book to libraries, schools and stores along the way. I’ve driven in blinding snow and clear skies, in the dark of the early morning and the quiet of late nights, on patchy ice, highways wet with cold rain, by snowdrifts and through snowdrifts, into the sun and away from it, past big trucks stuck in ditches and moms like me pulled over in SUVs, and snowplows, and semis hauling cattle and giant wind turbine blades and crosses along highways and interstates, lit up with solar lights or decorated with flags and flowers or a high school jersey reminding us that, when we’re moving this fast — blur-shaped people on wheels at 80 mph, trying to keep a schedule, to get there on time, to get home for supper or homework or bedtime — it only takes a split second for the whole plan to change.

And that’s why we ask. That’s why we wait up. That’s why we tell you to watch for the deer or the moose or the ice or the snow or the wind or the rain. That’s why we tell you to drive safe. Please. Drive safe. Because it’s the only way to feel we have a semblance of control of these miles we need to trek on stretches of highways, interstates and back roads that are equal parts freedom and fear.

The moving, it’s always been hazardous for humans. It’s not new to these times we’re living in, the walking or riding across uncharted landscapes or well-worn trails. Handcarved boats with handsewn sails taking us out to a sea that angers easily or a river that goes from calm to raging just around the bend. If only all these years of evolution could protect us now from those unexpected waves. Sometimes we start to believe it can. So just in case, we say:

Drive safely.

Travel safe.

Plowing Through

Typical for a January
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OK, North Dakotans, how are we doing out there? Are you making sure you’re anchored down? Holding on tight and staying fed with the proper amount of knoephla and carbohydrates to keep from blowing away or freezing to death?

Anyone else find yourself up to your floorboards in a snowbank in your sister’s driveway on your way to school drop-off and work last week?

Anyone? Anyone?

Well, let me tell you, there’s nothing like starting a day running late at 7:30 a.m. because I had to literally pry my daughters’ eyeballs open and negotiate Every. Single. Move… from alarm, to getting dressed, to each bite of breakfast, to teeth brushing, to finally getting their boots on and their little defiant bodies buckled into the car.

It’s a good hour-and-a-half process, the morning routine. And Lord send us help if we misplace a mitten or choose the wrong T-shirt/legging combination. By the time I get in my car to go pick up my niece for preschool, I’ve burned 3,000 calories and sweat through my bra.

I’m telling you this so you don’t judge my decision to just “plow through” the giant drift of snow that showed up in her driveway the night before. Because “plowing through” is my default on those hard mornings. Yeah, I channeled Cruella de Vil, forward-leaning, elbows out, wild hair, bloodshot eyes. Then I hit the gas and sank like the Titanic. No amount of rocking or cussing or frustrated steering wheel pounding was going to get me outta there.

I called my husband and made my meek request for backup.

And then came the back-seat commentary.

“Mommy, remember the other day when you went in the ditch by the house and Papa had to come and pull you out? Is that like this?”

Apparently the event was traumatizing enough to become a core memory. Edie was only 2. Now that I think of it, that was probably the last time we had this much snow. My track record isn’t great.

“Mommy, you failed at driving today,” said Rosie as my husband arrived with the feed pickup to hook up the chains and remind me to take it out of park, hit the gas and not the brakes as he attempted to pull our SUV full of distressed females backward up the hill because the drift in front was long and deep and was going to need a tractor, clearly.

Assessing that very situation, my husband, bless him, just called my actions “an interesting choice” before leaving me at the wheel as we jerked and spun and jerked and spun and spun and sighed and whimpered and stayed stuck…

Then came my favorite part: my brother-in-law knocking on the window. I had an official audience now. He wondered how hard I gassed it.

Not hard enough. He gave me a perfect 10.

He went to get his pickup. And now there were two pickups and what I thought were just two of the three men on the place out in the cold morning trying to right my wrong. Except my dad got the memo somehow, likely through the famous sister-to-mother channel. News of a crisis moves fast this way.

And so then there were three. Three witnesses to my poor decision-making, which must be the magic number because in a couple more tugs, we were free.

“Our nightmare is over!” yelled Edie from the back, and I honestly don’t know where she gets her theatrics…

Except that it wasn’t over. I still had to call the school to explain myself and how I am mother of the year because my children had to remind me not to use bad words during the whole ordeal. They’re likely scarred for life…

I know I am.

So anyway, that’s how I’m doing out here. Pretty typical for a January, thanks for asking…

Order Jessie’s new children’s book “Prairie Princess” Here

“Prairie Princess” Children’s Book Release

Ten years ago, I wrote a little poem that asked a young girl to show us around her home on the ranch.

I had just moved back to my family’s ranch in western North Dakota and was living in my grandma’s tiny brown house in the barnyard with my husband. The task I gave myself was to do all the things I used to do as a kid on this place: pick handfuls of wildflowers, ride our horses, take long walks up and down the creek, help work cows, eat Popsicles on the deck, linger outside doing nothing as much as possible and, of course, slide down a gumbo hill in the rain (which turned out to only be a good idea because it made a good story and I didn’t die…).

During that time, I was in a state of transition having just quit a full-time fundraising job and left town with my dogs and my husband for home on the ranch. I wasn’t positive I made the right decision, but then I hadn’t really been positive about much for those first seven or so years of my 20s.

What am I doing back here? What should I be doing back here? Should I take another desk job? Should I hit the road again or switch my career path entirely?

Should we try again for a baby? Should we give up? How is a grown-up supposed to behave?

I had no answers. All I knew is that it felt good to be in that little house trying to make something out of all those chokecherries I just picked. And it felt good to be on the back of a horse trailing cattle to a new pasture with my dad and husband.

It felt good to take the time to throw sticks in the creek and watch them float with the direction of the little stream. And then I sometimes wished that I were that stick, letting the current take me where it will. Or maybe the house cat, the one that used to be the kitten we rescued from the barn, growing up with no concerns except about being a cat. If only being human was that simple.

But we make it complicated, and so I found that channeling the 8-year-old version of myself helped balance me a bit. I spent so much of that summer writing it all down.

That’s how “Prairie Princess” was born. Because I wanted that little girl to show me around this place, to tell me the way she sees it — catching snowflakes on her tongue, helping with chores, dancing along the ridgeline and singing at the top of her lungs. Just like I used to.

I tucked that poem away then, but kept it in the back of my mind as I found my direction and became a mother to two little girls who looked exactly like the Prairie Princess I envisioned in that poem.

And so, 10 years later, I decided it was time to make that poem come to life in the form of a children’s book, so the voice of that little girl could help other kids see the special connection and responsibility we have to the land.

I took photos of my own little girls on the ranch and used them as inspiration for the artist who so beautifully painted it. Daphne Johnson Clark is a friend of mine with rural roots here in Western North Dakota and she made the book come to life.

And now it’s here, after all these years.

To celebrate, I am visiting libraries, museums and other venues across the state to read the book, talk about sense of place and conduct a creative workshop that encourages kids to express themselves through art and poetry. And I hope I will see you out there.

Even if you don’t have a child to bring with you, I believe this story will help you remember what it was like when the world felt wide open and magical and all for you.

I hope you know it still is…

Click here to order a signed copy of Prairie Princess and other music and merchandise

Click here for the KFYR-TV News Interview about Prairie Princess (with a few words from the kids)

Click here for the KX-TV News Interview about the book

A cupcake and a concert

Every day my four-year-old daughter asks me if we can “do a band.”

And by “do a band” she means that we will make some cupcakes or cookies, get out her guitar and little microphone stand and I will eat that cupcake and watch her perform music that she spontaneously composes with all the emotion and drama she has collected in her short little life, the fireplace the backdrop of her stage.

That’s Rosie. I’m not sure why on earth she thinks we need to make cupcakes for her to show her stuff, but I think it may be because it makes it special, like more than a rehearsal. Cupcakes make it a performance.

And Rosie’s no dummy. Recently she’s been asking me to tune her guitar properly so that it doesn’t sound so terrible. And then after I’m done with that could I please, for the love of kittens, teach her to play. Because she recently realized that she really doesn’t know how to play.

And she has a point.

But here’s the thing. She’s four. As in, she just turned four. And her hands are small, she’s still learning to write her name, she has the attention span of a blue heeler puppy. It’s probably going to take a hot minute for her to become a guitar prodigy. But she’s relentless. So for Christmas I bought her this little guitar with three strings that’s made for small fingers and designed to teach young kids the basics of the chords so that when they graduate to a six string, it all makes sense.

At Christmas she unwrapped it and I was excited. It comes with an app and flashcards and video tutorials, all the things I didn’t have when I picked up the guitar to learn at 11 or 12. (I had my dad, his guitar, an old 1970’s chord book and a tape player that I could play and pause and rewind and play and pause and rewind to figure the songs out on my own, but I digress). Anyway, I got that little guitar tuned up, her little strap adjusted, I coached the lefty to put it on right side up and helped her figure out her first, one finger needed, chord. And as I looked at my youngest daughter with anticipation, scenes of her life as a rock star flashed in my mind. I smiled and encouraged her. Her face dropped. She let her hands off the instrument.

“It doesn’t sound like a real guitar,” she exclaimed. “I need it to sound like yours.”

Oh Rosie, just another example of how I imagine that you’ve lived another life before this. And in that life you were indeed in a band. And you played killer lead guitar. And, I’m assuming there were, of course, cupcakes.

And this isn’t the first time I’ve had to consider my daughter’s prior life in my role as her mother. Like she was out of the womb demanding that she do it all herself and so I’ve spent hours waiting for her to perform grownup tasks as a mere toddler, like style her own hair, pour her own milk, choose her own outfits and make her own phone calls.

And then there’s her affinity for coffee, a habit that couldn’t be left behind.

Which makes sense now, considering all those long nights she must have spent as a bandleader back in the day.

Yeah, it seems my daughter’s just annoyed now that she has to learn to do these things all over again considering she’s already perfected them. So I get it about that little guitar, I do. It’s not what she’s used to. It’s not what she remembered.

But she’s coming around. It looks pretty cool after all. And fits her perfectly. Recently she jumped right in on a little jam session with her grandpa Gene and me. When the song was done, he gave her a high five after and declared, “Rosie, you’re getting so good! You can be in my band now!”

To which the four-year-old going on 40 replied, “No Papa, you can be in MY band.”

Happy New Year everyone. Cheers to learning something new this year…or maybe, if you’re like Rosie, relearning.

We’re all our own Christmas DJs

We’re all our own Christmas DJs
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This morning I played the DJ for two little girls sitting in car seats in the back of my SUV covered in a nice layer of dust and then ice and then snow and another sprinkle of dirt.

As the sun rose slowly over the horizon, turning the sky from navy to blue to gold to pink, my girls sang along to the Christmas version of our life’s playlist. Their little snowboots keeping time with the beat and their heads bobbing as they watched the electrical poles, black cows and pumping units zoom past on the other side of frosty windows.

“Play ‘Jingle Bells’ next!”

“O Christmas Tree!”

“Now ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer!’” I obliged each request, the world of music, every song we can think of, now at our fingertips these days. All you have to do is call it out. And I sang along too, running and rerunning my holiday and end-of-year to-do list through my head to the tune of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

It was only four more days until Christmas! We knew because the elf in the taco shell in the messy pantry told us. A few weeks ago, that elf was more cleverly placed — in a Barbie boat floating in the kitchen sink, on the Christmas tree, dangling from the wreath, then the chandelier, then holding baby Jesus in the nativity scene. By now, it seems she’s running out of ideas…

We’re right smack in the middle of the season of tradition, and some of those traditions sent me to the grocery store 37 times a week and I still forgot the key ingredient to the fudge recipe. So I called over to Mom’s because she’s the official Queen of Christmas. She is stocked and ready and has had the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and the Kathy Mattea Christmas albums on repeat while she decks her halls for our family gathering on Christmas morning. So of course she had three cans of evaporated milk. And no, she didn’t need me to replace them. She just has extra.

That’s how you do the holidays in the middle of nowhere. You buy extra. One day I’ll learn.

But contrary to popular belief, Christmas comes even if you don’t get your fudge made, cut, packaged and distributed to every person who has ever crossed your path. And if that elf never moves from that shelf, or even shows up at all, it’s fine. Really.

After a challenging year where day to day I didn’t know if I would feel bad or worse, I decided, this Christmas, I’m trying really hard to be here for whatever it is. If making the fudge brings me joy, I make the fudge. If I drop the whole pan on the kitchen floor and don’t have the energy to start another batch, well, that’s that. It’s good enough. If I don’t have the energy for it, I’m going to sit it out. If I do, well, then bring it on. Bring it all on. Let’s not forget that we’re our own Christmas DJs here…

Because these are indeed the days. I have a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old in the house and that’s pretty much all the magic I need. And I want to be here, fully present for all its layers — sprinkles on top of dust on top of scattered toys and excited squeals and all of the ways my girls mispronounce the lyrics in every verse of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” at the top of their sweet little lungs as time ticks on with the rhythm of those electrical poles whizzing by on the other side of their frosty windows…

Correction: In my Dec. 4 column, I shared a recipe for my mom’s fudge. The evaporated milk ingredient should have been a 12-ounce can, not an 8-ounce can. I sincerely apologize for all the kitchen cussing this error may have caused. I owe you all a batch. I’ll get to it. Until then, merry merry Christmas from the ranch!

The glamour and the timing on a family ranch

“Heya! Can you go close the gate below the barn?” I yelled at my little sister on the other side of the cattle pens. I had a pencil in one mittened hand, a list of numbers in the other, and a sorting stick stuck under my arm. My going-to town-boots had kicked up a fair amount of mud and poop and slushy snow and deposited it right inside of my socks and up the back of my going-to-town-pants as I chased both man and bouvine around the corrals. I had been caught in the wrong outfit as I pulled back into the ranch that morning, bringing two little girls home from preschool.

This wasn’t the timing I was expecting, but there I was…

My little sister was sitting, one butt cheek in the side-by-side and one leg out the door, hanging on to her thirty-pound toddler while her dog bounced and begged to come in and those two little preschoolers sat beside her, one singing an original song about cows at the top of her lungs and the other holding her ears. Take a guess which one was mine…

My poor sister was caught in a “Here, hold my kid, the guys need help,” situation and just like that she was responsible for her children, a niece and a gate.

This wasn’t the timing she was expecting, but there she was…

“Which gate?” she hollered back.

“The brown gate below the barn!” both Dad and my husband chimed in, as if adding the color of the gate was going to be helpful to a woman who had all limbs occupied, forty-seven tabs open in her brain and couldn’t get the music to stop.

But she needed to hurry, we had a couple loads of cows to haul for the sale the next day and the rest of them were quickly headed to that spot where the fence had been down for repair the last few weeks. Should have thought of that earlier probably, but, as you are learning, that’s not necessarily the way we do things around here.

Oh, life on the family ranch—the only thing glamorous about it that day was the cute new sunglasses I was wearing and my good fall coat that wasn’t expecting to work so hard. But that’s the way it goes on a small operation, raising kids and careers and cattle, you must be prepared, at anytime, to step in poop and be fine with it.

Or to open or close a gate, which depending on the status of your fences can determine how the entire rest of your day goes.

And there are plenty of misconceptions about what it means to be a cattle rancher, the one I didn’t pay any attention to growing up was the amount of deadlines and dates you have to pay attention to in order to calve at the right time, sell at the right time and have enough feed and water along the way. And so that explains why it seems we’re always in a bit of a rush. Because on the ranch, if you think it’s going to take a couple hours, it almost always takes a couple more.

And if you think you fixed it, 98% of the time you return to find you only thought you did.

Anyway, little sister got the gate shut and we got the cows loaded and sent the guys on to the highway to get to Dickinson before dark. Because dark is the ultimate deadline and it comes early around here these days.  Once they left, my little sister and I took the kids into my house for snacks and whatever crafting project they could scrounge up while I ate a three o’clock lunch of handfuls of Wheat Thins and debated the best ways to get mud and cow poop off wool and leather.

It seemed we pulled it all together then as I cooked up some spaghetti and got the kids fed and bathed and ready for bed on schedule, feeling pretty good about nailing all categories of our life today.

Until my husband walked in the door and told me they arrived to the sale barn to find out there was no sale the next day…

And that’s not the timing they expected but there they were….