Unplugging like it’s 1998

This week on the podcast I sit down with my husband to talk about why it’s become so important to me to finish reading an actual book, and then he tells me why he thinks one of the characters in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the worst villain of all time. We talk libraries and old cell phones, bow hunting and the new wild animal that has made its appearance at the ranch. Listen here or on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

I’m doing a mental health check. As the sun sinks in the sky earlier each evening and the frost settles into the mornings to glisten with the sunrise and show us our breath as we hurry through chores or out to start cars or to grab the morning paper (do any of you still get the morning paper?), it’s time to realize that I can’t lean on the sun as much anymore.

Winter is creeping in and I’ve decided to be proactive about how I’m going to handle it. And how I’m going to handle it is to pretend like it’s 20 years ago.

And I’m not trying to come across with major “good ol’ days” energy exactly, but I feel like 20 years ago there was a lot more space in my head for me.

Think about it for a minute. When was the last time you stood in line for something, maybe the grocery store aisle or the post office and just stood there? No digging your phone out of your pocket to scroll the latest updates on social media or the news feed custom made for your specific brand of dread and drama? `When did we stop making small talk? When did we make the switch from the urge to notice what’s happening around us to absolutely needing to watch a stranger make a chicken dish, or a fool of herself, or put on a full face of makeup or be absolutely outraged about something on Instagram?

In the middle of a Thursday evening errand, I would be much less stressed if I just read the covers of tabloids and Women’s Health magazines in the rack to pass those three to four minutes instead of checking work email or engaging in an endless scroll of cute outfits I can’t afford and triggering headlines of world news I absolutely cannot change, all while waiting to pay for the avocados I need for that Instagram chicken dish.

There was a time when we didn’t fill each empty, slow-moving minute with information and entertainment, wasn’t there? I mean, at least I remember it as a child of the 80s and 90s. We might be the last generation to have lived through a time when you couldn’t just Google it, and had to rely on resources like the evening news to get the scoop, your friends for fashion advice, your grandma’s recipe box for a dish and your parents to reassure you that it’s all going to be OK. By today’s standards of drowning in information and trying to sort fact from fiction, we were living in the dark ages. And if anything, that explains the questionable hair choices.

Anyway, I’m not trying to make a big case for what is better or worse here. Time ticks on and we all tick with it. It’s just that right now I’m feeling overwhelmed and, along with my young daughters’ constant refrains of “mom, mom, mom,” I think one of the culprits is the continuous dinging and flashing of my phone.

Here’s where my husband would say, “just ignore it,” and then I would roll my eyes because I have made it my job to not ignore it. I’m a communicator. I run a business and a non-profit. All the work that I do is tied to making sure I’m getting the message out and connecting people with the stories I tell. And the paradoxical thing is that I’m doing it in all the ways that are currently making me crazy. I have to stay connected. This is how we communicate now, and honestly it has created for me a certain type of freedom, opportunity and audience that I could have only dreamed up when I was on the road 20 years ago, driving from town to town to sing songs about North Dakota in a half-filled room of strangers in Kansas.

But I think there’s a fine line a lot of us cross back and forth between constant connection and being present. And right now I’m starving for presence, if not for my mental health, but more importantly to model it for my children. Because I want these daughters of mine to know how to listen to the voices in their heads as they grow in the quiet moments of their youth, the ones that whisper to them, “This is who you could be, darling. This is who you are.” I want to help them to be comfortable in the silence, because that’s when the music is made.

So as fall gives over to the cold blanket of a long winter, I’m not making any big declarations really, except to notice what’s happening here. And then maybe I’ll read more books before bed, take more walks and cook more recipes in my grandmother’s handwriting. And when we’re all together or maybe more importantly, when I’m alone, I’m turning off the WiFi and Bluetooth connections to all the information and stories in the world to free up some space to make our own.

The Layers of Fall

We don’t give this time of the year much recognition because we’re all scrambling to get work done before winter comes, so on the podcast I sit down to recognize it and talk it out with my husband. The conversation turns to fall work and food, naturally, because we’re up north and we’re getting cold and we’re starving for carbs and cream. Hear why I thinks Chad would be a good contestant on reality game shows and learn why my all time favorite meal was after I jumped out of a plane over the beach

There’s a moment between summer and late fall at the ranch that’s so good at being glorious that it actually makes us all believe we could last forever under a sky that’s bright blue and crisp and warm and just the right amount of breezy all at the same time.

Up here we’re easily swayed to forget about the drama that is our seasons. I imagine it’s a coping mechanism we develop that gets us crazy stoic people through -20 degree temperature snaps.

It’s forgetting that gets us through, but it’s remembering too. The combination is an art form.

Because at -20 degrees we remember that one-day it will be sunny and 75.

And when it’s sunny, 100 degrees and 100% humidity and there’s not a lake in sight, we remember the -20 degrees and somehow find a way to be grateful for it all.

Yes we keep taking off layers and putting them on again until we make ourselves the perfect temperature.

Funny then how we’re not really good at giving the in-between moments the credit they’re due around here. We usually grab them up and soak them in just enough to get some work done on a horse, paint the house, wash the car or get the yard cleaned up for winter.

Because we’re taught up here to use those perfect moments to prepare us for the not so perfect ones that are coming.

That’s why fall, though a romantic season for some, gives me a little lump in my throat that tastes a lot like mild panic.

Because while the pumpkins are nice and the apple cider tastes good enough, I can’t help but think that autumn is like the nice friend who slowly walks over to your lunch table with the news that your boyfriend doesn’t want to go out with you anymore.

And my boyfriend is summer. And when he’s gone, I’m stuck with the long and drawn out void that is winter promising Christmas, a hint of a sledding party and a couple shots of schnapps to get me through the break-up.

Hear what I’m saying?

But the change is beautiful. I can’t help but marvel at it no matter its underlying plot to dry up the leaves and strip them from their branches and jump start my craving for carbohydrates and heavy whipping cream in everything.

So I always decide to give it the credit it’s due when it starts to show off in full form, taking a break for the office and house work to marvel at the leaves, collect some acorns and walk the trails the cattle and deer cut through the trees during the heat of summer.

I will never call this moment a season, it’s too fleeting and foreboding for that, but I will reach out and touch those golden leaves and call it a sort of magic.

The kind that only nature can perform, not only on those leaves, but also on the hair on a horse’s back, the fat on the calf, the trickling creek bed, the tall dry grasses, used up flowers and a woman like me.

Yes, I’m turning too. My skin is lightening. My hunger unsuppressed. My eyelids heavy when the sun sinks below the hill much earlier than my bedtime.

My pants a little tighter with the promise of colder weather.

Ok. I’ve been reminded. Summer–a month of electric thunderstorms and endless days, sunshine that heats up my skin and makes me feel young and in love with a world that can be so colorful– is over.

And so I’m thankful for the moment in these trees to be reminded that I have a little time yet, but I best be gathering those acorns.

And pulling on my layers.

September and what keeps it precious

This week on the podcast I sit down with my little sister and talk of the weather turns to embarrassing moment confessions. The flies and the wasps and the rooster and the tomatoes and the mice are taking over the ranch and we talk about it all. Catch it here or on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

The evenings are getting cooler as the sun sets a bit more quickly and I’m canning tomatoes and chopping up peppers from the garden for salsa so we can have a piece of summer when winter hits hard.

I can preserve our garden vegetables, but haven’t yet found a way to capture the smell of the season changing and the color of the green and gold leaves against an overcast morning sky. This season is so unpredictable, sneaking up on us slowly in the middle of a hot summer day and leaving with a strong gust of wind.

But this year it seems to be settling in despite the heat. The trees that were first to display their leaves this spring are the first to display their colors this September and I’m reminded of roundup season and spitting plums at my little sister on her pony, Jerry, as we rode behind our dad to gather cattle.

Working cows in the fall has always been one of my favorite events of the season. My memories find me as a young girl bundled up in my wool cap and my dad’s old leather chaps braving the cool morning and a long ride through coulees, up hills, along fence lines and under a sky that warmed the earth a little more with each passing hour.

I would strip off my cap first, and then went my gloves and coat, piled on a rock or next to a fence post for easy retrieval when the work was done. Dressing in layers is a different level on the ranch.

Moving cattle, even then, never felt like work to me—probably because I was never the one responsible for anything but following directions and watching the gate. It was during that long wait that I would make up the best songs, sing the loudest, find sticks for slingshots or the perfect feather for my hat.

Turns out these days my role working cattle hasn’t changed much. I remain the peripheral watcher, the one who makes sure the cows don’t turn back or find their way into the brush or through the wrong gate.

Recently our little ranch crew met in the morning to move cows to a different pasture. Dad, my uncle and aunt who summer up here from Texas, my little sister, my husband and I saddled horses in the crisp air of the morning and met to stretch out across the Peterson pasture and make the move through a couple gates to Hughes (every pasture has a name, these attached to the old homesteaders.)

It was pretty nice and easy because that’s the way we work cattle here. Just let them take the lead mostly, which occasionally finds you off your horse walking through the thick brush or chasing out across the pasture after a stray, or, sometimes deciding on another approach entirely because that’s the way they want to go.

With the exception of a wreck, nothing can really ruin this for me, sitting horseback on a cool morning slowly making its way into a hot afternoon.

I could walk these trails on the back of a horse forever and not get tired of them. Because each month the pastures change–a new fence wire breaks, the creek floods and flows and dries up, the ground erodes and the cows cut new trails, reminding me that the landscape is a moving, breathing creature.

And I am the most alive when I’m out here, and what makes it even sweeter is that I know the rest of the crew, my family, feels the same way too. I listen as they make conversation about the calf crop and plans for the day. I follow behind like I always have and look around to notice the way the light bounces off of cowboy hats and trees slowly turning golden.

I wait for instruction and find my direction while my husband cuts a path through the trees to search for hidden cows and my dad lopes up to the hilltop to scan the countryside.

I move a small herd toward the gate with my sister and wake a bull from the tall grass at the edge of the pasture. Dad comes up off the hill to join me, the cattle he’s found moving briskly in front of him toward the rest of the herd. We meet up quick to wonder where uncle Wade might be and find him over the hill waiting at the gate with the rest of the cattle. We push them through to taller grass and up to water to help them settle in. We wonder if we got them all.

And that’s how it goes generally, the six of us, this time with the exception of Dad stopping to take a picture of my little sister, creating the opportunity for one squirrelly calf to cut back. He laughed as he went after her, thinking what his own dad might say about stopping for a picture.

But why not take a picture? Morning makes its way into the afternoon and if we let ourselves, we might remember that we don’t get an infinite number of fall days like this in our lifetime. Isn’t that what keeps it all so precious?

We head toward home and talk about lunch and the fencing that needs to get done. And cattle prices. And the deer population. And the weather and the changing leaves and all of the things that need discussing when you’re on the back of a horse, on the edge of a season, on a piece of earth that’s constantly changing…even though, year after year, up here… I always feel the same.

This world needs more barn dances

In this week’s podcast, my husband and I reflect on who taught us to dance, how our Dirty Dancing days are over and pontificate on the old house that used to be on the ranch, who lived there and why they left

I think what this broken old world needs is a few more barn dances.

You may have forgotten that those used to be a thing that people did.

Above the house where I grew up is an old shed. It’s sat there for nearly a hundred years now I think. It outlasted the homestead house where a family used to live and then one day moved away, leaving what seemed to be everything behind—dresses and books and filled-in calendars and ledgers and dishes in the cupboards, canned garden vegetables in the root cellar, the lilac bushes and the apple orchard and mattresses and lace curtains moving like quiet ghosts with the wind cutting through the gaps in the walls. Old houses fall apart in the most slow and lonesome way when there’s no one there to sweep the floors and wipe the windows and serve the bread.

They left the house and all those things and they left that little wooden shed my dad said used to be a granary. He remembers it and he remembers those neighbors.

They used to have dances in there my dad told me when I was poking around as a kid. It seemed impossible to me. That granary was much too small, not even close to 1,000 square feet. If you danced it would be a tight circle. Add a guitar and a fiddle and the quarters would be beyond close. Tight. Unimaginable to us these days, losing ourselves and one another in wide-open floor plans, separate rooms and all the space between. Houses are big enough now so that you never have to lay a hand on each other on your way to the kitchen sink, or sit with legs touching on the living room sofa, or fall asleep to the sound of your sister breathing in the small bed next to you. Not if you didn’t want to anyway. Not if you’re what we call “lucky” to have all that room…

Back then I imagine the landscape, and the work that needed to be done upon it, gave you all the space you needed from the next living soul. Lonesome looked a bit different back then.

Maybe that’s why they turned tiny granaries into dance floors. Because wouldn’t you want to hear the slow drawl of the neighbor’s fiddle spill out of the leaky roof and into the night sky lit with stars? Wouldn’t you want to put your hand on her waist and swing her around laughing? Wouldn’t you want to sing along, to hear their voices overlap and chatter, gossiping and encouraging and entertaining to help you forget for a moment the worry of it all?

You would have wanted to then, when it was a bit quieter. When the world you knew stretched only as far as the horizon, or as far as you could afford a train ticket to take you. You see, they were islands too, in much different ways. And then, in so many of the same. Humans have always been humans, after all.

But the dancing in that tiny building, well, one hundred or so years ago, there was no other choice.

Now we have so many. So many excuses. So many oceans we’ve put between us… But last week a man in the middle of rural North Dakota, more than one hundred years from when the first barn was raised on this northern prairie landscape, called his family, his neighbors and friends, and told them to come on over to the Homeplace. Come on over to the barn. We’ll feed you. There will be music. And there will be dancing.

He’s been doing it for years, so they knew. They had it on their calendars. And his daughters and their families and he and his wife, they made the Fleischkuechle and the kuchen because that was tradition too. And me, well me and the guys were lucky enough to witness it all from the little stage in the corner of the loft of the old barn with the shined up floors where we strummed guitars and sang some songs they knew and some they didn’t and all with a beat for a good two step, or a waltz or a chance to join hands in a circle. Because I heard him say it into the microphone when he welcomed them all to that loft after a picnic supper–he didn’t want his grandchildren to grow up in a world where there were no barn dance. So he made sure, at least for his community, it was not a lost tradition.

And from my perch behind the microphone he reminded me that we may not all have big beautiful barns preserved from the cruel weather of time, but if we’re lucky, we have a spot that might work just fine enough for dancing in a circle.

Because I’m not sure, but I think it’s true, that just like old houses, people, they fall apart too, slow and lonesome if there’s no one there to sweep the floors, to brush past, to breathe the same close air, to sway side to side, and open the curtains and let the light in and serve the bread and do the things that, together, people are meant to do…

It’s mid July and they’re in the hay fields

From haying to old Bible camp memories, weird pets, the proper way to pronounce s’mores and how to deal with an accidental toad murder, Jessie and her husband cover all things mid-western July in this week’s podcast, because if you blink, you might miss it. 

It’s mid July and the guys are in the hay field. Everyone is in the hay field. The heat and the rain and the humidity have created a jungle of grass out here, up past our stirrups, belly high on the cows, over my daughters’ heads in some places. That’s how we describe it when we see one another in town, at the Farm and Fleet, or a t-ball game or anywhere another rancher was convinced to go because it was a little too wet to bale.

It’s mid July and across the state small towns are holding homecoming gatherings, blocking off Main streets so they can pull in a flatbed trailer and use it as a stage for the band they hired from Bismarck or Minneapolis or just down the road because it’s summer in North Dakota and it’s time for dancing in the streets. And the committee that made the plans, they’re hoofing tables and chairs, picnic tables and signs, dressed in matching t-shirts and sweating because they’ve been at it since 6 am, cursing the weather, but glad it isn’t rain, although even rain wouldn’t stop it. We have three fleeting months here, we don’t have the luxury of letting a little bad weather stop us.

It’s mid-July and the lake people are not coming in. Not now, are you crazy? This is their sweet spot and it shows in their bronzed skin and the pictures of the fish they’ve caught. Their kids have another month to find their shoes, but until then, they’re gone with bedtimes and balanced meals.

It’s mid-July and the peas in the garden are ripe for the picking. We send the kids to collect some for supper and they don’t make it to the pot and that’s just fine, because the best way to eat a garden pea is fresh off the vine anyway, the same goes with beans and cherry tomatoes and does anyone need lettuce? It’s coming out of our ears.

It’s mid-July and the wild sunflowers are blooming in the ditches along the highways and county roads. If you’re not in a hurry — in mid-July it should be crime to be in a hurry — you pull over to pick a handful among the sweet clover and wild grasses, the grasshoppers sticking to your legs, the horseflies buzzing, the heat reflecting off of the pavement forming beads of sweat along your hairline. Some little bugs will take the trip back home to the vase with you, a black ant unknowingly hitching a ride to a new world on the petal of a flower.

It’s mid July and the kids are catching baby toads in the yard, five total in a Tupperwear habitat, pinching them carefully between the pads of their little fingers and holding them up to their eyes to get a closer look at their rough skin, tiny eyes and soft, thumping throats. How they just appear like that in the garden is a mystery like the fireflies blinking outside the fence when the sun finally disappears way past that bedtime we set only to miss. It’s mid-July and the magic of growing and momentary things is everywhere, but most especially in these children stretching up towards the sun.

It’s mid-July and the sprinkler’s on. It’s mid-July and we’re at the Farmer’s Market. It’s mid-July and we’re swatting mosquitoes and cutting watermelon and the tops off of freeze-pops. It’s mid-July and we’re camping, poking sticks in the fire and itching bug bites. It’s mid-July and we’re grilling burgers and sending the kids outside to husk sweet corn. It’s mid-July and we’re at another Rodeo, another softball game, the county fair, the state fair, the grandstands at a demo-derby, a concert in the park, the pool in town, yes we dove right in and there’s as much water under us as there is over our heads and we don’t want to hear it, although we say it ourselves, it’s going fast. It always goes so fast…

What to lose in a fire

Listen to the podcast here, or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Chad and I discuss how a place like this humbles you and why, when he dies, he wants to come back as my aunt’s Corgi.

Ten Julys ago my husband and I stood on the scoria road on the homestead place and watched as my dad’s childhood home started going up in flames. We had been living there, in what we called “gramma’s house,” the first two years as we worked on building our own home on the ranch until one sweltering summer night we arrived home from a trip to the lake, turned on the lights and noticed smoke coming from the basement and traveling inside the walls. An electrical fire started by a lightning strike while we were gone.

A few months later, when we were living in my parents’ house and all our Earthly possessions were scattered across their lawn, airing the smoke out while we reorganized from a chaotic scramble to save them, I remember thinking this:

When the walls of our home were smoking from the inside out into the night, we did not grab onto one another. No, we placed our arms around computer screens and television sets, appliances and guitars. We threw our possessions on the earth to be saved and to save us from the need we might feel to replace them.

What it would cost us to purchase another would mean time and money, the things that take up the biggest part of us some days.

And there it all was, out in the great wide open of the sky, stacks of important papers and photographs, hats and shoes, books I’ve never read and albums I haven’t listened to in years. We pulled these things from the flames so that it could lay there, waiting for us to decide what to do now. And suddenly I had this overwhelming feeling that I didn’t want any of it. 

I didn’t want a choice between red boots or black, I didn’t want the papers reminding me what it costs to live. I didn’t want the movies suggesting I should stay in and watch a world that doesn’t exist for us.

I didn’t want the memories waiting in boxes for me to recall what we were when we were sixteen and sun kissed and the world scared us, because things like this, unnerving, uncontrollable things, they will happen. And they will happen to us.

I didn’t want it weighing on me. Not that day. And sometimes, not these days. Not ten years later.

I heard once, somewhere on the car radio, a man who said, “We do not have a soul. We have a body.”

I pause to think of this today when my clothes feel heavy against the wet sticky heat of the summer and the body that houses my soul is feeling tired at the thought of moving through the tasks we’ve laid out for the day, cleaning up after ourselves, moving our stuff from room to room, from yard to house, from floor to laundry, from table to sink.

And I think about where my soul might live next.

Perhaps in the body of the yellow bird that returns to the feeder outside of this office window, concerned with nothing but her next bite, spreading her wings and cooling herself in the puddles left from an early morning rain.

A bird attached to nothing but the sky.

Or maybe a long living oak with the mission to reach my branches out to the sun in the summer, to release them in the autumn chill and sleep until the spring sun asks me gently to bloom again.

I would have roots that would keep me grounded and grass and branches from the aspen or the birch to keep me company, to lean on, to protect me from the wind.

Maybe a wildflower, a thistle or a cricket screeching my song into the night.

I could be all of those things.

But today I don’t want to be attached to anything…

I’ve felt like this as a teenager, before I understood what I was so anxious about and why I suddenly had so many emotions pulling at my skin.

I remember walking out into the rain on a cool late summer evening, just to be out there, away from the four walls of a house, away from the telephone and, things that needed to be thought through. I felt heavy that day and I wanted to be a blade of grass, grounded and soaked in this rain.

I walked further into the protection of the oaks and stepped off of my path, then slowly out of my shoes and finally out of my clothing. I stood there in the lush green of the weeds and wild fruit bushes, under a canopy of leaves dripping the rain down through their branches and onto my bare skin…
I was comfortable like this for only moments before I glanced down at my pale skin and remembered to be self-conscious. But for a moment I was there, holding my breath, and I was the rain and the clouds and the dirt. I was the grass and the still, damp air.

And I’m not wishing for the reminders of a good life to disappear. Today I am just asking to not be held accountable for my possessions or a body that doesn’t do much to hide the relentless emotions of this soul, the one that crinkles up my nose when it cries, bites the scar on my lip in worry and screams air out of my lungs in frustration…Today I am just taking a moment to remember that someday my soul may have wings…

A sentimental branding day roaster

Listen to Jessie and her husband Chad discuss the big plans they have for the ranch and the reason they love having guests at branding day on this week’s podcast, “Meanwhile, back at the Ranch…”

I have a big roaster that sits on my shelf in the storage area of our basement. It’s next to the cake stand and the air mattress pump, the extra mason jars and the quesadilla press thingy I’ve never used. I received this giant electric roaster as a wedding gift 16 years ago. I can’t remember now if it was something on the gift registry or if I asked for it, but I know I wanted it.  A roaster that can hold a full sized turkey. A roaster that can hold enough chili to feed half the county at a fire department fundraiser.  A roaster to serve three hundred sausage links at a pancake supper. The roaster that I imagined using to feed the crew roast beef sandwiches after a long day of riding, sorting and branding calves.

And maybe one day the roaster that I’ll use to serve our famous cheesy potatoes at my daughter’s wedding rehearsal dinner. Who knows. But I had dreams for it. 

What happens to my oldest’s face when you say “smile!”

I pulled that thing off the basement storage shelf last weekend and dusted it off. On the bottom back side of the appliance, sixteen years ago, I had written SCOFIELD in black magic marker. As my husband was helping me unwrap and season six rump roasts for the next day’s branding, he mentioned that we should write our last name on the lid too. “I’ve done enough firemen supper dishes to know how helpful that is,” he laughed.  And I realized then, right in the middle of my messy kitchen on a Saturday afternoon at the beginning of summer at the ranch, that I was also standing right in the middle of a little piece of a dream that had come true.

It sounds so silly. A roaster. But there we were.

And the next day we were pushing cattle across the greenest pasture you could imagine, riding good horses side by side and laughing at my little sister getting chased by a calf who mistook her horse for his momma. On a hill a half-mile away my dad was chasing another bunch of cows toward us with neighbors and friends checking the draws. The plan was to meet on the flat and follow them up through the gates to the pen, and it didn’t go perfectly, but it never does and that’s the fun of it really, as long as no one gets hurt.

And in the pens up on the hill, another group of friends and family were waiting to help. Some of them had driven from their homes in the neat rows of the suburbs three hours away to lend a hand and be a part of the action. This is my favorite part about branding day. It’s getting the work done, riding out on a stretch of green pasture, making sure the calves and mommas are all accounted for and healthy, but it’s also the fact that we get to watch our friends’ kids from town run around the ranch, climb trees and fences, practice roping, help hold the little calves down and get on the back of a horse or snuggle up to his soft nose.

I like that they can have free access to the barn cat’s kittens and to the frogs in the stock dam. I like that they usually discover something slimy or dirty and that is the exact reason they are here. And I like to see the excitement and the pride my daughters hold for their home when they have guests to show around, to play with and to help climb up on the ponies. The way their friends run full speed into a wide open pasture meadow reminds them how special they have it.

And I guess that’s what that big ‘ol roaster is making me think about today as I wash it up and put it away. The work is never ending here, but one task is done for the year and I have moved from being that kid climbing fences and trees and taking kids to my secret spots on the ranch, to the adult here that maybe they will remember for my branding day beans and roast beef sandwiches, and, more hopefully, for always making them feeling welcome here.

What a cowgirl carries

What a Cowgirl Carries
Forum Communications

Listen to this week’s column and Jessie’s conversation with her little sister in this week’s Meanwhile Podcast.

There’s something about the view between a horse’s ears that makes a woman forget that she can’t stay up there forever. It’s the same way she feels watching a man catch a horse. It’s the quiet and gentle approach, the calm way he whispers and coaxes. It reminds her of the good ones.

And it’s how he wears his hat, how his shirt’s tucked in and the way he sits so sure up there next to her riding along.

The way the breeze moves through that horse’s mane before brushing her cheek and the sinking sunlight hitting him just right.

How the grass sparkles under the glow of it.

All of those things that make her happy to be alive out here are wrapped up in the way the air cools her skin in the low draws, and the creak of the leather on her saddle and the scent of the plum blossoms in the brush.

Ask her, she knows. No living thing is only softness, even though spring out here tries hard to convince us. There are thorns and snags among the fragile pieces of it all. There has to be or how would a thing like a raspberry or a rose survive here in the heat and the teeth and the pounding hooves and bending wind? You can be pretty and sharp. You can be strong and soft. You can be remarkable and fleeting.

You can be terrified and brave.

You wrap all of that up and you get a cowgirl. Some of them carry ropes. Some carry square bales and feed buckets and scoop shovels and fencing pliers. Some carry babies, on their hips or in their bellies, Earth-side or in heaven. In a quiet prayer.

And then some of them come carrying casserole dishes and plates of cookies and pies to feed you after the work is through and they wash up their hands and change their shirts because they were working right alongside you after the cooking was done. And some carry the weight of expectations wherever they go, but then some women dropped those in the crick years ago. Some carry burdens of past generations and some carry hope so high that it lights up their eyes and escapes with the loose hair flying out from under her hat.

And all carry with her the lessons learned from the buttes and the big sky. The cattle and the wild roses. The dirt and the river. The women who have cared for her. The men.

And the horses.

The horses. That’s where we started.

Up there, she feels stronger and as capable as anyone. A bit more free. The horse separates her from the rest of them, puts her shoulder to shoulder. He’s the great equalizer carrying her along, not only because she might have bought and paid for him, or maybe he was a gift, but always because she learned how to be up there properly as all of the things we know she is — confident and patient and soft and tough and kind and fierce and brave and humble and beautiful and practical and wild and collected….

And he carries her along because she made all this known, through mistakes and broken things and good days and ones that begged her to quit. And it’s not that she has something to prove, but the good ones, they prove that it can be done. It can all be done, but not without sacrifice. Not without strength. Not without fear. Not without knowing it might work out or it might not but if it’s worth being done, then it’s worth the try. It’s always worth a try.

And so she rides horses because sometimes she forgets who she really is at the bones of it all and that horse, he reminds her. And if you love her, if you’re a good one, she’ll make you happy to be alive out there in the cool low draws and the creak of the leather on her saddle and the scent of the plum blossoms in the brush next to her riding along.

Notes on Summer

Notes on a Rural Summer

Listen to this week’s column and Jessie’s conversation with her daughters and her little sister in this week’s Meanwhile Podcast.

By the time you read this, summer will have officially arrived for most of the kids in North Dakota. That last bell, it means more to me now that we wrapped up our first official school year with our six-year-old. I watched her stand smack dab in the middle of one hundred other kindergartners on risers dressed in matching shirts and singing a school kid version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” My favorite line? “Teacher in a tidy room, smell of paint and Elmer’s glue. For a day that seems to go on and on and on and on…” But wait? Wasn’t I just embarrassing her by existing in the classroom on the first day of school? Now she can read and frankly, does math better than me and so we’re on to our next task of cramming as much fun in a three-month time period as possible.

For my family it also means trying to keep up with fencing and haying and barnyard reconstruction projects while juggling yard work and day jobs, my performing schedule and getting the kids in their swimsuits as much as possible, even if it just means splashing in the tiny plastic wading pool currently collecting dirt and bugs on our lawn.

I’m ready for it and determined to keep my focus on what really matters…

Because summer means that my babies constantly smell like sunscreen and bug spray and come in from outside with a warm, sweaty glow on their faces. It means 9 PM supper and 10 PM bedtime because no matter how hard we try we just can’t settle down until the sun settles down. It means picking wildflowers and swatting bugs, brushing the ponies, sleepovers with the cousins and slow walks down the gravel road pulling baby dolls in the wagon.

A western North Dakota summer means digging in the garden and praying the hail from the summer storm doesn’t take our little tomato crop while we lean into the screen and count the seconds between thunder and lightning.

Summer out here means searching for the right place to dock the boat or plant a beach chair on the shores of Lake Sakakawea and spitting sunflower seeds waiting for a bite to hit your pole, trying to convince the kids to swim where they won’t scare the fish away.

And then summer is laughing even though they aren’t listening, knowing that this time of year, especially in a place where it’s so fleeting, is magic for kids. And you can’t blame them, because you remember the rush of the cold lake water against your hot skin and how you would pretend your were a mermaid or a sea dragon and the afternoons seemed to drag on for days before the sun started sinking, cooling the air and reminding you that you were not a mermaid after all, but a kid in need of a hamburger and juice box.

You remember the way the fresh cut grass stuck to your feet as you did cartwheels through the sprinklers or the how you smelled after coming in from washing and grooming your 4-H steer in preparation for county fair. You remember the anticipation of the carnival, the way the lights of your town looked from the top of the Ferris wheel and how maybe you brought a boy up there with you and maybe he held your hand.

Summer in North Dakota is dandelion wishes and a fish fry, fireflies and camping in tents that never hold out the rain. Summer is wood ticks and scraped knees, bike rides and gramma’s porch popsicles, catching candy at parades, swimming pool slides, drinking from the hose and trying to bottle it all up into memories that won’t fade.

And so I am stocking up on popsicles and doing my best to make some plans for my young daughters that don’t include any plans at all. Because they are in the sweet spot right now, wild sisters who have one another and who are just big enough to take on the kind of summer adventures that only happen when nothing’s happening and the sun is shining and the day stretches out long and lazy in front of them. Because they can only be four and six for one June, one July and one sweltering hot August before the next summer rolls around with another year behind it. And I have my memories, but the girls, they are smack dab in the middle of making them. And for all that they don’t know, for all the things they are still learning, they don’t need anyone to tell them how to spend their summer. They are experts on that one. And I intend to take notes.

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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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.