Happiness is a wild plum patch

Happiness is a wild plum patch
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Western North Dakota grows wild plums. In the patches of brush where the poison ivy sneaks and the cows go to get away from the flies. They start as blossoms on the thorny branches and, under the hot sun, turn from green in early July to red to a dark purple bite-sized berry just waiting to be picked in the beginning of autumn.

Wild plums mean summer is almost over. They mean roundup is on its way. They mean sucking on pits and spitting them at your little sister. They mean scratches from branches on a detour for a snack on the way to get the bull out of the trees. They mean Dad’s stories of Grampa sitting at the table in the winter dipping into a jar of canned wild plums, drenching them in cream and stacking the pits neatly on the table.

They mean memories of Grandma’s jelly on peanut butter toast.

They mean reassurance that sweet things can grow in brutal conditions, a reminder we all need from time to time. Wild plums mean a passing surprise on our way through a pasture and coming back later with the farm pickup to fill up a bucket, me squished in the middle seat between my husband and my dad, the Twins playing on the radio as we bump along on prairie trails that haven’t been under a tire in months looking for that magical patch of fruit, wondering out loud if we could of dreamed it.

A wild plum patch means listening to the two men banter as they pick and reach and gather like little boys, making plans for the best way to fill our bucket.

“Shake the tree, we can get the ones on top.”

“Keep ’em out of the cow poop!”

“Are you eating them, Jess? Hey, no eating!

“I’ve never seen a patch like this. Jessie, you can make so much jelly!”

Yes. I could. With the 6 gallons of plums we picked standing in the bed of the pickup, ducked down in the clearing where the cows lay, scaling along the edges of the trees. I could make jars of jelly, pies, pastries and syrups to last until next plum picking. I could. Maybe I will.

But even if I didn’t, even if we did nothing more than feed those wild plums to the birds, it wouldn’t matter. The magic of wild and pure things is in their discovery and the sweet reminder that happiness can be as simple as a wild plum patch.

Free and safe and lonesome…

There’s a hill outside my house we call Pots and Pans.

When we were kids, my cousins and I would take the trek from my grandparent’s barnyard, past the bulls munching on hay, over the corral fences, along the dusty cow trail, up big granite rocks, stopping to declare we were kings and queens of the world, taking a juice box from our fanny packs to sit for a break along the way, kicking up little cactuses to add to the drama and adventure of finally making it up to the peak where old pots, pans and sifters waited for us among the sandstone rocks so that we could pretend the way kids do, while the grass scratched our bare legs and the wind whipped through our wild hair and the North Dakota summer sun flushed our cheeks.

And we could see everything from way up there. We could see the red barn our grandpa moved in with his brother and dad 50 years before. We could see the grain bins and the black cows and the sorrel and bay horses and the line of old fence posts trying to hold them in. The reflection of the hot sun on the stock dam and the tops of the oak trees bending in the relentless wind. And the mailbox and the pink road cutting through it all. We could see it all up there and I remember it making me feel free and lonesome and safe all at the same time.

And we were just kids, so we could have played anything up there. We could have been superheroes or dinosaurs, gold miners or Jesse James and his gang. We could have been magical fairies or mermaids or wild horses even. Kids that age, in the sweet spot between 3 and 10, with space and freedom like that, we could have been anything.

But we gathered those pots and pans up and we pretended to be grown-up versions of ourselves making supper for our children out of dirt and sweet clover, washing dishes, singing to them and putting them to bed in the house we made from the boundaries of the rocks and the tree line.

We could have been anything, and so we pretended to be grown-ups. What a thing to pretend. If we only knew how much of it really becomes cooking supper and tidying up the messes we make, tucking one another in at night and wondering what it’s going to be like…

Because we thought that we would someday be old enough and know enough to be as free as we wanted to be. No more rules. No more bedtime. No more supper table to sit at until we finished the spinach on our plates. We didn’t know then that maybe, on that hilltop, picking cactuses out of our little cousin’s bare legs, that we may have been as free as we’ll ever be.

Last week, we gathered up on that hilltop again, all of us cousins, over 30 years later, carrying our children on our backs, or holding their little hands, explaining the magic to our husbands and boyfriends, stepping on cactuses and gathering up the old pots and pans that had scattered down the bank over the years, just like us I suppose, gathered up from Texas and Minnesota and South Dakota and from just down the road outside the houses we put here, under that big hill, all grown-up now, like we wanted to be.

If you’ve ever wondered, like me, what keeps us bound to one another, I wonder if it isn’t as simple as the memories. It sounds silly, but for us cousins, it only had to be as epic as finding kittens in the old barn, or pretending that pink road was made of yellow bricks and one of us was Dorothy.

We held onto one another because we were given time and space to create a bond on a landscape with no agenda but to be to us what we dreamed it to be. And so the years between then and now, in the growing-up part that took us far from those hilltops, we held those memories, those old pots and pans and cactuses and black cows and clay buttes as a part of us.

Standing on that hilltop with them again, all these years later in the thick of the messy and wonderful and complicated lives we built, the grass scratched our bare legs and the wind whipped through our wild hair and the North Dakota summer sun flushed our cheeks again. We could see everything… free and safe and lonesome, all at the same time.

My favorite people in the whole wide world

My favorite people in the whole wide world
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Today Edie, who is 5, told me that Rosie, her little sister, who is 3, is her favorite person in the whole world.

It was in a moment when the day was clear, the rain had just fallen and the wind was calm and so we lingered a bit longer in the barnyard after feeding our bottle calves. We saddled up the pony and the big horse and Edie practiced reining around the one barrel left over in the arena from when I used to practice the same thing 100 years ago.

And Rosie, she sat on Tootsie while the mini horse scouted out every last lone blade of grass in the dirt. One step, one bite, one step, one bite, and on and on until the duo headed back to the grain bucket.

Anyway, there was no place on earth we would have rather been at that moment, and I think that’s why it struck me. That Edie declared it. Her favorite person in the whole wide world was just born three years ago, and so how lucky to have that many more years ahead of them to ride ponies and fight over the tractor seat and jump off corals and cheer one another on and steal shirts and shoes and keep secrets…

And I know they love one another. I know because for every 10 minutes of peaceful playing, there is another five or so where one is devastated by the other. If it’s not a push or a hit, it’s usually over who gets to be the mom when they’re playing dolls. And generally it resolves with them deciding they can both be moms. They’re aunties, taking care of their kids together, because that’s what they see I suppose, and that makes me smile.

“Pretend that we’re sisters,” they say, as if they can’t fathom a world where they’re not, and so they fast-forward it to make it more interesting. Teenage sisters. Mommy sisters. Superhero princess sisters. And then there’s the game where Rosie turns into a troll who ate, well, Rosie, and then it becomes the game where you fight a troll to save your sister…

And on and on they go, as sisters.

Most evenings, at suppertime (which always runs too late in case you were getting any sort of impression that we have it remotely figured out around here), we ask the girls, “What was your favorite part of the day?”

And before they can answer, they have to argue a bit about who gets to ask first, and who gets to answer first, but eventually we get around to the fact that, most days, they can’t decide.

Was it when they found the barn kittens? Or was it riding horses? Or picking sweet peas or swinging in the backyard or getting a Popsicle and then an ice cream cone at Gramma’s? Or maybe it was climbing gumbo hills with their cousins or big flakes of snow that fell in the yard, oh wait? Was that today? Or was that yesterday? Little kids, their memories are like a dream I think.

Because there is no time when you’re more fully in the moment than when you are a child. Mornings into afternoons into evenings, it all lasts, as Rosie would say, “for ages!” And then not long enough.

A few days before the favorite sister declaration, I was walking with my daughters along a trail in the trees behind our house, watching them adventure, stop for every stick and bug, navigate every poop pile, and I found myself anxious to tell them to move along. We have to get up this hill so we can look for flowers so we can get back to the house so I can get supper on. This is the narrative that runs through a mom’s head, the next thing that affects the next thing.

But I looked at them then, with the light streaming through the trees, lighting up the tiny buds on the branches and their gold hair loose from their ponytails, and I stopped, took a breath and willed myself to be more like them. Because we had nowhere to be but there. And these are my favorite people in the whole wide world.

At the curling club

We survived a weekend of curling in Williston. And while I didn’t go there to prove anything, I did wind up proving that my body can’t handle two days of sports with a couple whiskies on top. My last drink was on Friday night and I’m still in recovery. But we had fun. Our team only came in second to last, so in my book, I tally it as a win. A year after COVID shut things like this down indefinitely, our community’s case count is low enough to make us feel comfortable enough to get together again. But COVID still denied us the company of our favorite Canadians. Which is likely the reason we even stood a chance of winning a game at all.

If it weren’t for my low alcohol tolerance, I would say you could basically call me a professional now.

Here’s this week’s column. If you need me I’ll be hydrating….

Not to brag, but I’m pretty good at curling, if you count the sarcasm
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There are things I do well. Pancakes. I’ve pretty much mastered the art of golden brown, not too thick, not too thin, just fluffy enough even if I use a box mix most of the time, breakfast food.

I’m also good at telling long stories that take a while to get to the punch line, mixing up cocktails, and making sure there are appetizers at gatherings, major or impromptu. There has to be a few more for this list, but you know, I don’t want to brag.

Anyway, yeah, I’m good at some things, but being a valuable member of my curling team is not one of them. Unless you consider “valuable” to be sarcasm, complaining about why sports take so long and playing so bad that it makes you feel better about your skills. Under those criteria, I’m a true contributor.

But that doesn’t stop me from leaving the kids with grams and gramps every Wednesday evening so my husband and I can actually do something together without them. I would prefer that “something” to be margaritas and street tacos at the cool new restaurant in town, but he chose being on a curling team together. And because that can also include margaritas (in a can) and full control of the playlist on our drive to town, I agreed. When you’re the parents of young children, time in the car alone together without listening to the Frozen II soundtrack is a gift, one that, if you’re not careful, may have you considering adding another child to the mix. That notion, however, lasts about as long as it takes you to step back into the house to find the children eating Girl Scout cookies and watching Jimmy Kimmel with grandma Beth.

Anyway, sleep deprived children are a small sacrifice to make in order to be a part of one of history’s oldest team sports, popular in Canada and the northern states because sweat pants and wool caps (or toques if you’re proper curling material) seem to be part of the official uniform. And (GASP! Get this..), politeness is encouraged. Winning teams are known for buying losing teams a round of drinks after the games, even and especially at the highest level of competition. How very Canadian of them.

Once, my husband won a bonspiel. (Bonspiel is curling for tournament).  And he got a trophy featuring a little curling man on the top with a bomb 70’s style shag haircut. And for some reason that trophy wound up in our master bathroom and I have no explanation for that and also no real drive to move it. Perhaps it’s a little motivation for my husband’s early morning teeth brushing session. Like, “Welcome to the day! The sky’s the limit! You won a small town curling bonspiel three years ago and that means you can really do anything! Even pull off that haircut if you wanted to. Or let the mustache stand alone without the help of the beard. Go ahead. Be bold.”

This weekend we’re going to participate in a bonspiel in a neighboring town. I’m going to be on a team and so I took that as a good enough reason to go shopping for some new cute cold weather gear, because if I can’t convince them with my skill, maybe I can distract them with a neat sweatshirt I got on sale at Target. It’s going to be so romantic. We might even do karaoke after, but only if we secure enough losses to be properly hydrated by the opposite teams. And if you use that as a qualifier for a valuable teammate, well then, Red Rover Red Rover send Jessie right over.

Peace, Love and Slippery Shoes,

Your friend in team sports

On donuts and grandparents

On donuts and grandparents
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My dad has a funny story he tells about when he was a little boy living over the hill from his grandpa Eddie. Eddie, a widower since his mid thirties, made the best homemade donuts, fried and cakey like the ones we get at the local Lutheran church fundraiser ever year. I always buy an extra dozen or so thinking I’ll freeze them for special occasions, but they never make it to the freezer…

Anyway, my dad was about six or so and was sent over the hill to get a fresh made batch his grandpa promised to his family. So off he marched on a well-worn path between the places. He probably lingered at his grandpa’s for a bit, where he was treated to one or two with milk for his good deed, and then he was off to meander back home, back over that hill, swinging the bag around his head, slapping it against his legs and maybe a rock or two for good measure because it’s fun, and then back and forth across his body until he arrived home with his treats: a dozen perfectly fresh donuts completely annihilated to nothing but crumbs.

I love this story because it gives me a little glimpse into my dad’s relationship with his grandpa on this place during a time in a kids’ life when grandparents are particularly magical, freely sharing knowledge, laughter, pushup pops and in possession of a candy drawer within a child’s reach.

I also like the one where Dad and Uncle Wade ran over to grandpa Eddie’s without declaring their intentions. They were likely missing for a little too long, and so when Grandpa Eddie saw their mother marching over the hill, well, he did what any grandpa would do. He calmly said, “You boys better get home now” and sent them by short cut, so the boys would successfully beat their mother home without crossing her path along the way.

Having grandparents nearby is a special gift that I’m so grateful we’re able to give our children. I had it in some form or another growing up myself and I hold the memories of after school snacks, homemade bubbles, popsicles on the porch and card games of Skippo and Uno in the whimsical and comforting parts of my memory box. There was no one else who thought we were as special or funny or talented or charming. No one else as willing to have us sit around their kitchen tables and tell our long winded stories, or clap as enthusiastically for our saxophone concerts, spontaneous interpretive dances and living room plays.

On the porch with grandma Edie

And no one else would actually stop the car when my little sister yelled that her imaginary friend, Becky, had her hand stuck in the door.

Oh, good grandparents are pretty special. Any day now I’m expecting one of my girls to pack her suitcase and head down the road, running away from her mean mom to someone who truly cares (and who will let her have a cookie for breakfast, lunch and supper.) 

I think my little sister was around three, Rosie’s age, when our grandma Edie found her dragging the giant red Samsonite down the scoria road, running away from the ‘witch’ that was her mother.

Grandparents, simultaneously saving our children while saving us.

Babysitter falls through on Wednesdays? Call Nana. She’ll bring over a project and fold the laundry. Want to join the curling club? Grandma and Papa will take the kids for that evening once a week. Need reassurance that you’re not screwing them up? Papa will tell you they’re perfectly normal and then get after you for thinking otherwise.

Need someone to remind you that a little dirt won’t kill them? Just look to your own mother. She has proof. I mean, you’re still here after all.

No, I can’t imagine getting through parenthood without these wonderful humans, but more than that, it’s magical watching my daughters live out their grandparent sweet spot. I just wouldn’t trust them with the donuts quite yet.

The injury tally

Family injury tally

“How many bones have you broken?”

“That I went to the hospital for?” my husband asked, sitting on the edge of the bed pulling off his socks for the day. “Hmm, let’s see…,” he replied, counting quietly to himself, going through the Rolodex of close calls and yelps, jump-backs and limp-aways.

“Three, four, five, six, seven… eight… at least eight… nine…”

“Nine is the number?” I try to confirm.

“Nine for sure. But that’s not counting when I think I broke a toe, or all of my fingers. I broke three ribs and a shoulder blade, both thumbs, at least once… pretty sure I broke this thumb twice,” he examines his body, feeling around for the aftereffects of 38 years of a life spent about as rough and tumble as you can get without serious consequences.

“What about your nose? I think I’ve broken my nose,” I declare rubbing the bump incurred from a heavy sled catching a famous North Dakota wind gust when I was 10 or 11.

“Yeah. Pretty sure I broke my nose too, but I never went to the hospital or anything official. Unofficially? I think I’ve broken something on me 15 or 16 times…”

That’s my husband, currently nearly recovered from his latest injury incurred when a cow kicked him right below the chest, sending him and his head flying into a metal panel fence, ringing his bell just long enough for him to scramble to the top of it, wake up and wonder how long he’d been dreaming.

It wasn’t pretty, and we don’t bounce back the same way we used to, the two of us accident-prone and together long enough to measure time based on our injuries.

Like when we took turns sitting out for gym class during our eighth grade year, dangling our legs off the stage — him with his arm in a sling from taking a three-wheeler through a giant anthill, then me in boot from misjudging my landing off a small cliff to the lake on my birthday.

Then there was the broken finger from a run-in with a bull in a chute that had me flipping off the world while getting out of typing class and piano lessons. Add that to the broken foot in sixth grade and the broken arm in seventh grade and, you know, the recent cancer thing, and I take the title for more time spent in a cast. And more surgeries.

Not that it’s a contest or anything…

Anyway, we got to counting because we had our first experience taking one of our offspring to the emergency room last week. And while we’ve both been hurt pretty bad in our lives, none of that compared hearing our firstborn scream the scream and cry the cry. And nothing cuts a Zoom meeting short quite as quickly as rushing upstairs to find your husband with one hand digging in the first aid kit and the other holding a tiny chin together.

“We need to go to the hospital,” he said calmly while I ran through a quick cost estimate on what it would take to bubble wrap every corner in the house, leaving enough left for both daughters’ entire wardrobes.

And so off we went, dropping 3-year-old Rosie off at my sister’s along the way, much to her dismay. She wanted some blood and a trip to the ER, too (competitive in every way — another story for another day).

Yes, I guess it was about time we hit that parenting milestone. And little Edie came out of her chindive into the sharp corner of the stairs with a few chipped teeth and glued together like one of her art projects left on the kitchen table. Life’s good. Thank goodness.

And if scars don’t make us stronger, at least they give us a story or two. Judging by their genetic makeup and the fearless way our daughters fly through this world, they won’t be short on broken bone tallies and battle tales.

As for their father and me? Well, we’ll just be over here praying that they bounce better than us.

Yeah, that’s lipstick…not blood. Keeping it glamorous as usual.

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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No one’s sleeping

82073794_2812382352145325_1648391659177639936_oNo one’s sleeping
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My oldest daughter hasn’t been sleeping well lately.

Nighttime has become a routine of reading four books, then one more, please one more, and then singing three songs and then one more and then fulfilling a request to tell her the entire plot of “Frozen” while she comes up with another excuse for me not to leave her alone in her room.

“Please don’t go. Now tell me about ‘Frozen II.’ Please. Stay and snuggle me…”

She doesn’t want to be alone. And so none of us have been sleeping well lately, struggling between wanting to teach our 4-year-old independence and self-soothing and just giving into laying down with her, holding on tight before she grows too big to need us this way anymore.

Who cares if I wind up with a foot in my face and my body dangling halfway off the bed with no covers in reach? Who cares if we’re sleeping with her until she goes to college?

“Why now?” I wonder aloud to my husband as we telepathically will the other parent to deal with her 2 a.m. visit to our bedroom.

Is she growing? Is she scared of something? Are we spoiling her beyond repair? Are there really monsters in her closet? How do we not screw this child up?

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Last night, after the bedtime stories and snuggles and songs and snuggles, I tried a compromise to spending the night with her and set up camp outside her bedroom door. I could hear her tossing and turning as I scrolled through the news on my phone that, minute by minute, seemed to pile up to what was starting to feel suspiciously like the end of the world.

Every once in a while, my daughter would get out of her bed to check to see if I was still there, and with each check-in I reassured her, but tried not to give in. “I’m still here. Go lay in bed. I’m still here. Please, try to go to sleep.”

This went on for a good hour or so, which left me alone on the hard hallway floor facing the news of a country that’s divided and a disease that’s spreading and a world that’s uncertain and populations of people trying not to panic.

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And even though I knew I should tear myself away from it, take a deep breath and find my perspective again, I just felt my own anxiety rising in the back of my throat. In the dark and quiet of a privileged life in a house on the ranch that used to feel so far from everything, I was feeling scared.

And the fear wasn’t necessarily for myself, but for a world full of people who could be impacted beyond repair, not necessarily just by the things out of our control, but more disturbingly, by the decisions we make. How do we not screw this up?

Suddenly, it was me who needed reassurance. Suddenly, it was me who didn’t want to be alone in the dark with my own thoughts. Suddenly, I could relate to my daughter who had been tossing and turning and worrying and checking to make sure I was still there for her for the past hour.

She just wanted to feel safe. I just wanted to feel safe, laying smack in the middle of a metaphor my tiny daughter had created for me.

Because collectively, right now, that’s what we all want. To feel like we’re taken care of and that we have the means to take care of ourselves.

We want to have a plan. We want to be in control. And if we can’t be in control, we at least want to feel like we have the right people, our community, sitting on the other side of the door telling us not to worry.

We’re here.

We’ve got you.

Rest easy tonight.

I know it’s not just this house losing sleep these days. So I got up off the floor and went in to lay with my daughter, who curled in next to my body and immediately fell asleep. And it might not be the right thing, but it felt right to me then, because sometimes the only thing we can do is be present and hold on.

Now, let me tell you about “Frozen II.”

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The Animals of Winter

Animals of winter
Like the animals of winter

Last week, I went out into the winter. I squeezed into my long underwear, pulled on layers, tied my scarf around my neck, made sure my wool cap covered my ears and zipped my coat to my chin.

The snow was fresh and the wind was blowing it in sparkly swirls around the barnyard. The hay bales were adequately frosted in neatly stacked white drifts, remnants of the small blizzard that blew through the ranch in the evening and was lingering into the late morning hours.

I stuck out my tongue to taste the snowflakes and snuggled down into the collar of my coat like a turtle as I walked toward the horses munching on hay below the barn. I wished I had their fur coats, thick and wooly and brave against the wind. I wished I had their manes, wild and tangled and smelling of dust and autumn leaves, summer heat and ice.

They keep it all in there, all of the seasons.

Horses in Snow

They nudged and kicked at one another, digging their noses deeper in the stack of hay, remembering green grass and fields, tasting warmer weather in their snack. I lingered there with them, noticing how the ice stuck on their eyelashes and clung to the long hair on their backs.

I scratched their ears and pulled some burs out of their manes and imagined what grove of trees they picked to wait out the storm last night, standing close and breathing on one another’s back. A herd.

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I followed them out of the protection of the barnyard and into the pasture where the frozen wind found my cheeks and the dogs cut footprints in the fluffy snow in front of my steps. They played and barked and jumped and sniffed and rolled in the white stuff, like children on a snow day.

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I found the top of the hill and let myself feel the cold. I had forgotten how my cheeks can go numb, how my fingertips ache, now my eyelashes stick together at the close of a blink and how the wind finds its way through the layers of clothing and freezes my skin.

I forgot that sometimes it doesn’t matter that you took care to wear wool socks and three pairs of pants — we are never as prepared as the animals. Sometimes, the weather just wins.

Winter barn

I wished I had fur on my ears, tufts on my feet, whiskers to catch the snow. I wished I had hard hooves to anchor me, my own herd to lean against, to protect me from the wind. I wished I was part of a pack, chasing and jumping and rolling through the drifts.

I might have stayed out longer if I had these things. I would have explored how the creek had froze, stuck my nose in the snow, walked along the banks of the coulee, leaned against the buttes and followed the indecisive sun.

But my scarf wasn’t thick enough, there was snow in my boots and my skin is fragile and thin. No, my body’s not wooly and my nose is not fuzzy. And my fingers? Well, if we can’t have hooves, then we at least have fingers, to knit sweaters and sew together blankets, our hands to build fires and houses to protect us, our arms to wrap around one another, our feet to propel us toward shelter or sun and our brains to invent things like warm, spicy soup and hot coffee and buttery buns.

No, we might not have fur coats, but we have opposable thumbs. I pointed my frozen feet toward the house and flung open the door, stripped off my layers and stood over the heater vent, happy for my warm house and man-made blankets.

And happier still for a promise of spring that isn’t too far away on this winter day…

Winter Horses

A New Song

A New Song

“If being closer to the ground, makes for softer falls, you have to be tough to stand tall.”

I was 17 years old, getting ready to move away from the ranch and out into the world when I wrote that line, feeling the pull of growing up looming over me like the nurse who calls your name and is now waiting in the doorway for you to follow her back for the diagnosis.

I knew that impending adulthood should more thrill than loom, and so there I was, behind my guitar, trying to convince myself…

“I don’t believe in fairy tales or staying young forever…”

My voice sounded higher, lighter, but surprisingly not timid and unsure like I know I felt in that studio in frigid Fargo where I recorded that song over Christmas break during college, when it seemed every other student was back home with the familiar. Almost 20 years ago.

I chose to stay away to create a piece of work that would mark the very frozen, determined and often lonesome four years I spent away at college, with long stretches of time spent traveling the Plains, singing for my supper. Wondering what to be when I grew up.

A Place to Belong-2005

My 2005 Release

It was avoidance in the form of work. It was the same thing I did the summer after my freshman year, knowing that if I went back to the ranch, I might never leave. So I stayed to be a grown-up.

And then I blinked and I’m grown up. And the grown-up version of me listened to those words tonight, staring into the path my headlights cut on Interstate 94 headed east to where the snow is piled high up past my knees.

snowy road
I just purchased $50 worth of face cream on an impulse to try to keep the evidence from 36 years of laughing, worrying, rolling my eyes and sleeping face-down with the pillow smashed over my head from truly showing and I was trying to keep my mind off of a rolling argument my husband and I have been having for a couple months now.

When I called him to check in, the puppy had just pooped on the carpet, and one of our young daughters had stepped in it. This was no time to try to work through it again.

I let him go and decided to seek refuge in a voice that used to be so familiar to me. I rarely listen to my music after it’s produced and out in the world, unless I have to relearn something. Which always baffles people — that I would have to relearn a piece of music I wrote myself, as if once it’s down, it’s etched in my memory.

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

But it’s all so much more complicated than that, isn’t it?

Because we move on. We change, and along the way we pick our favorite stories to carry with us. My songs have been like that for me.

Jessie Veeder Music

I suppose sometimes relationships are like that, too. That’s why marriage can be so beautifully maddening. Because it’s a song you’re continually writing with someone who, sometimes, may be singing in a completely different key.

When I wrote those words at 17, I loved the boy who would become the man who, as I type, has likely fallen asleep in one of our kids’ beds, fully dressed, neckerchief and all, taking care of the things we love while I’m hundreds of miles away telling stories.

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Was this the fairy tale I wouldn’t let myself believe in? How could I have ever known what it would truly take to make the happily ever after that I muse and ponder and write about these days?

At least I knew then that I couldn’t know, and that’s the beauty of it all for me.

The new song? It has uncertainties, but they are changed now.

And it has more patience and apologies, good humor and messes and arguments in the kitchen.

Oh, and two daughters with the world before them, perfectly oblivious and twirling across the unswept floor.

And it sounds less like a child and more like a woman in a three-day ponytail standing next to a man in a wool cap who together believe fiercely in that fairy tale, not the one that sparkles and shines, but the one that holds on tight…

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Watch for the release of my new album, “Playin’ Favorites” that celebrates the songs that influenced me in the spring. 

And check out my music website,jessieveedermusic.com for a list of places I’ll be playing near you!