On pain and carrying on

Dealing with chronic pain requires taking things one day at a time
Forum Communications

To those of you who are suffering with chronic pain and showing up to your life, day in and day out as best as you can, today I want to say “I see you.”

For the past year or so, before the scope and sternum surgery that removed the tumor from my airway and declared me cancer free, and for the months since, I have been dealing with chronic headaches and nerve pain that is always there, sometimes putting me flat on my back and other times relenting just enough to allow me to do something other than think about the pain. I’ve been doctoring, researching, trying medications and treatments, changing my diet, justifying it as a repercussion of the trauma my body endured and crying in frustration because I want my life back to the way it was before.

Today I feel like I’m finding a light at the end of the tunnel, help through physical therapy and check-ins at Mayo Clinic, and I’m feeling hopeful. Hopeful enough to realize that maybe it’s time to share it here. Because people on the street, or at the grocery store, and, of course, in my circle of family and close friends, they ask me how I’m feeling. And, in the spirit of being honest, I’ve made a promise to myself after what I’ve been through, to not beg off on that question. In the spirit that my story, even if it’s not pretty right now, might help someone else.

And so, I tell them: I’m still recovering. I’m hopeful I’ll get to the other side of this.

But man, when you’re in the middle of it, in the middle of work that needs to go on, in the middle of motherhood and trying to be a good partner instead of a sick partner, in the middle of wearing out the optimism, putting off big plans not to mention the laundry, and worst of all, shushing my children when I should be dancing with them in the kitchen, it’s hard.

Because it turns out that the level of their voices, their enthusiasm, temper, frustrations or needs don’t quiet down because we aren’t feeling well. In fact, I think, these children might amp up just to see if we’re still the momma or daddy they know us to be. Turns out we still want to/need to be a parent even when it physically hurts to raise our voice or comb their hair. And the house seems small when we so desperately need a rest, especially when they find us at the moment we’ve finally fallen asleep, or snuck away for a shower. They want to climb in the bed or get help with doll clothes or need a drink or to tell us how her sister wronged her. And we listen while our body aches or works so hard to heal it feels like we’re drowning…

And so this is another lesson I’m learning in compassion during the past year or so of getting rid of cancer and trying to heal up a body that is screaming at me. Because I’ve been smiling and carrying on as best as I can despite it, it occurred to me that there are people around me doing the same thing day in and day out, working and raising kids, taking care of aging parents and businesses, serving on boards, continuing to show up while coping with physical pain or mental illness that tries its hardest to break them down. And when you ask them how they are, they will say, “Oh, just fine, thank you.”

And so today, while I’m feeling good and hopeful, feeling like I have a plan and that I can see the other side, I just want to tell you that you are strong and brave and doing good. I pray you get well if you can, and if you can’t, you find relief from the pain and a peace to the chaos.

And while I’m here, thank you a million times to the partners, family and friends who are fully and completely here for us, to pick up when and where we can’t.

Here’s to one day at a time and a better tomorrow.

North Dakota, we’ve been claimed

Somehow we’ve been claimed
Forum Communications


As a woman whose heart has been planted solid here in the buttes and prairies of North Dakota, but whose feet and mind have wandered with music and education and the winding road for years, I have often found myself on the other end of the question: Why here?

Before I made the decision to stay here for good, before I became a mother working and raising those children in the middle of my 30s, trying desperately to find a way to do the right thing for the legacy of this ranch, I struggled to find an answer. I used to think I had to be so profound. I used to think I had to convince them…

Because asking me why North Dakota, why the prairies, why Middle America, is like asking what it means to you to hold your last name, or wear your grandmother’s ring, or to lay down next to the man you love every night. How do you answer it?

Who are these people who hold the scent of the dirt, the push of the wind, the endless winters, the wheat fields, the small town in such regard? Who has lived here for years, or arrived fresh and unconvinced? Who comes home again?

We are rural route roads, beat-up mailboxes and dusty school bus seats. We are rides in the combine, summer sausage sandwiches, a thermos of coffee washed down with warm lemonade and faces streaked with dirt after a hot August day in the field. Two miles to a gravel road on the edge of town and we are freedom, our father’s pickup, 12 years old behind the steering wheel.

We are first loves and last loves and forever loves found on those back roads at night, on front porches, in the back seats of cars and under blankets shared in the stands at football games.

We are the stars that light up the endless sky at night, family farms, four generations of the same recipe on Christmas Eve. The barnyard light.

We are white wood prairie churches, our mother’s voice quietly singing the hymns, Jell-O with suspended vegetables and mayonnaise casseroles waiting for us in the basement when the service is through.

We are wet clay caked to cowboy boots, the black soil of the valley, the only stoplight in town.

High heels and business suits, running shoes and hoping things will stay the same and knowing, working, voting, crying out for change.

We’re number crunchers, songs that must be sung, books that must be written. Snake-bitten.

We scream for sun and pray for rain and push the river from our doors. We’ve been here before.

Chokecherry jam, mosquito bites, country fairs, one station on the radio, too young for our first beer, FFA and 4-H steers. Too young to leave here.

We are race car tracks and endless power lines, hockey rinks and barbed wire fences. Drilling rigs and endless fields of wheat. September heat.

We are bicycle tires on quiet streets, fireworks in May, Popsicles and swimming pools and a stop at the Tastee Freez, please. The new kid in town. The doctor who knows you and your children too. Rodeos and American Legion, football heroes, lead singers, the Ferris wheel in town for the weekend. The underdog.

Powwows, three-legged races, familiar faces, dances in the street.

Throwing rocks in the creek.

We’re “Pete’s kid,” and “Your mother wants you home right away!”

We are pushed to go and pulled to stay; we are leaving this place as soon as we’re grown.

And we are the sky we can’t explain, unpredictable, colorful and full of rage and gentle hope that it’s all going to be OK.

We are someday.

We’re the wind, relentless. The snow, endless. Sharp and hard, steadfast and certain like the winter and the change in weather.

We are the dirt under our nails, tangled hair, the cattails and bluebells and big white-tailed deer. We are new Main Street signs, and small high school hallways, and hope, even though…

We are all of these things that make up a home, but home is not ours to take. Somehow, we’ve been claimed.

Driving the backroads

Life on the backroads
Forum Communications

Ever have to yield to a guy trying to clear a giant tumbleweed in full motion out of a parking lot by way of running it down with his pickup? Ever see him fail the first time and then feel guilty that you didn’t just let it hit your car when it was coming for you, you know, to be helpful?

Ever been in line at a drive-thru and have the man in front of you get out of his vehicle to say that he can guess where you’re from by the amount of dirt on your car?

Ever hauled a live goat home in the plush back seat of your best friend’s dad’s car before you even had a proper license?

Ever been 17 sleeping in the gooseneck of a horse trailer at a rodeo to save money on hotels?

Ever stopped to take a photo of your shortest friend in funny glasses next to the highway sign for Gnome, N.D.?

Or what about grabbing a photo with a roadside smiling stack of hay bales? Or the ones that look like jack-o’-lanterns in the fall and snowmen in the winter?

Ever rush to the aid of the people certainly dead or badly mangled in the car you just witnessed fly off the highway in the Badlands and crash directly into a tree, only to find the passengers completely unharmed and in the middle of an argument that no near-lethal car accident was going to end? Ever stand in the middle of that highway and demand that the driver let you give him a ride instead of walking the 10 miles home?

Ever swear you saw a man run across that same highway in the dark dead of night, only to have your search turn up nothing but the memories of a ghost?

Ever take your little sister to her orthodontist appointment in the big town and drive through parking lots and back alleys to avoid stoplights because you learned to drive on a gravel road and weren’t quite ready for that sort of traffic?

Did your friends ever make you drive the pickup and gooseneck trailer full of rodeo horses through a new town just to laugh at you when you stalled out because they knew you sucked at driving stick?

Ever been 8 or 9 with your best friend, weaving your bikes with playing cards pinned to the spokes through the dotted centerlines of the highway?

Ever have to put oil in the tank of your 1982 Ford LTD every morning before you drove it to school and every afternoon in the parking lot after if you had any hope of starting the thing?

Ever go in the ditch three or four times the first day you got to drive that car to school by yourself, because you missed the lesson about icy roads and rear-wheel drive?

Does anyone even know about rear-wheel drive anymore? Or three-wheelers that twice cracked his ribs, and then his collarbone and then his shoulder blade?

Ever sit in the back seat of his Thunderbird on a hot summer day with the windows rolled up and the heat blaring, driving too fast on your way to the shores of the big lake just so you could be sweaty and desperate enough to strip down and jump in its barely thawed waters when you arrived?

Ever wore the red mud to town on the front of your dress pants? Hauled a couple square bales or deer heads for the taxidermy in your SUV on the way to Thanksgiving? Drove a pickup with no back seat and napped in its shade in a hayfield? Pulled up to a job with a fully intact pheasant stuck to your grill?

Ever cruised the three blocks of Main Street over and over in a car with a name your friends gave it, pushing curfew under the big, black sky just to move because you were young and restless in a small town?

Every once in a while, do you get behind the wheel on the back roads of North Dakota and feel that way again, and so you take the long way home?

You either keep driving or you pull over…

Forum Communications

I started traveling as a touring musician up and down the middle of America when I was barely 19. I took the interstate exits to highways that ran through small towns held up by community colleges and cafes, Main Street bars and churches with steeples, grain elevators and railroads and the promise of spring.

I came with my guitar and my white Chevy car pushing 200,000 miles with a bashed-in trunk from the icy North Dakota streets that render brakes worthless. That trunk, even after it was fixed, would stick sometimes, so I would have to pull down the seat to access my suitcase full of CDs and T-shirts, my set list and microphone and sound system. I played the part of struggling folk singer well, looking up the closest Super 8s and sustaining on fast food and gas station snacks, wondering what it would be like if I upgraded to a band with a van.

I decided I liked the solitude of the gig, but it would be nice to have backup. A stronger set of arms to help me with the trunk would have been nice. Or a navigator I could blame when I took the wrong turn through Green Bay that sent me in circles, throwing me off by an hour or two and landing me right in the middle of a blizzard heading west of Bismarck toward home on Interstate 94, white-knuckled on the wheel in the dark pushing midnight.

This predates the GPS everyone has on their phones now, but I did have a cellphone. And it’s times like these that a 19-year-old girl calls her dad, as if he has the power to stop the wind whipping blinding snow across a road you can’t see that’s supposed to get you home tonight.

“What should I do?” I asked him, crying in frustration, thinking maybe 90 miles from the ranch was close enough for him to come get me.

I remember now how independent the wide open road made me feel. I was comfortable there, driving early mornings and through the dead of the night. I navigated four-lane traffic and toll booths with much less confidence, but the highways and cheap hotel rooms seemed to be my element, just waiting there for me to find a story…

But that blizzard quickly humbled me up. Exhausted from 15 hours in the car, I felt helpless, wishing someone could come take the burden of the weather off my shoulders and onto their own.

“Well, there’s not much I can tell you, Jess,” my dad’s voice echoed on the other end of the line. “You either keep driving or you pull over. It’s your call.”

And that was that. There would be no rescuing that night.

So I inched my way off the interstate to the exit to Mott and pulled over to sleep the storm off in the car, waking up every 20 minutes or so, as you do when you’re a young woman alone with nothing but the radio, the car heater on high, three granola bars and the whipping wind to get you through the night.

I supposed then that this is what it means to be grown-up — paying the price for your idiot mistakes or decisions that didn’t turn out as you planned. With all the miles under those tires that needed to be changed, it hadn’t really occurred to me until that moment that the path I was carving for myself was mine alone to drive through.

I had officially left the nest for Super 8s and coffee shops and a car that would perpetually need repairs, or at least a new set of windshield wipers every once in a while.

“You either drive or pull over. It’s your call.”

But how do you know what to choose? I’ve asked myself that 1,000 times since my dad spoke those words, standing at the back window on the ranch, brow furrowed, worrying, watching the snow blow.

All these years later I haven’t come up with an answer except either one of them is a decision and it’s best for everyone if you make one at some point. It’s hell to go in circles — I learned that back in Green Bay…

The myth of “back to normal?”

Was there ever such a thing as normal?
 The more I think about wanting to return to “normal,” the more absurd I find the whole concept.

The new year is upon us. Finally.

I sit in front of this computer screen compelled to work out something profound as we bid adieu to a year that has brought us together and torn us apart, made us lose and find hope, scared us, confused us, angered us and often found us wishing time away and saying things like, “I can’t wait to get back to normal.”

I’ve said it myself plenty of times, yet only recently have I really sunk my teeth into what this “normal” actually looks like. And the more I reach to know it, the more absurd I find it.

Because we seem to be holding this “normal” to standards with which we’re sure we recall living at ease, comfortable and certain of what our tomorrow was going to look like, as if that’s a gift we once possessed together. Normal. Is there such a thing really?

The beauty and tragedy of time ticking away the seconds, minutes and hours that make up a life, is that any of those seconds, minutes or hours have the ability to change our course, and change us, profoundly. In 2020, we got to experience that as a nation, as a world, in a sense, collectively.

But collectively, we did not all have the same experience, the same struggles, the same outcomes, the same attitude or willfulness or support or despair. And saying that we’re all in this together, in this “new normal,” felt like a bitter and hard pill to swallow when the numbers didn’t add up and your business had to close. Or your father died. Or you haven’t seen your grandmother in person for months and your children are home from school, but you still need to report to work and there is no one knocking on your door to help you fill in the gaps that these unprecedented times have handed you.

With the exception of some small tasks and ways of living, there has not ever been a universal normal, let alone a universal new normal. But I think we can all agree that what we have endured these past nine months as a country and as global citizens is unnerving, upsetting, heartbreaking, eye-opening and, hopefully, humbling.

And so I’ve taken to reading. Novels and memoirs printed on dog-eared pages with the bed lamp on when the house is quiet like I used to do before our normal was parenthood and overwhelming plans in the works and handheld screens that dictated our schedule and mood and how we tick away the time.

Last night, I turned the last page on a memoir written by a woman raised by a Norwegian immigrant mother in the early 1900s. There were pages about what it took to feed her family, the 200 chickens and trading eggs each week, 20 miles away in Williston, N.D.

Nothing to do but Stay

There were pages on a father spending the winter clearing a path to and from the one-room schoolhouse where his teenage daughter taught and his younger children learned, and then, when it got too impossible, leaving them there to spend the week, because they didn’t want to risk students arriving alone to an empty schoolhouse.

And then there were pages about the flu pandemic of 1918 and how one woman’s chicken noodle soup delivered by horse and wagon one cold winter evening may have saved a life, and on and on I found new perspective and new gratitude for those who have endured the “normal” that came before us.

So now here’s the best I can do. In this new year, my hope is that we can all come to accept that we are humans who live on constant shifting sand. And once we accept it, perhaps we can find some time to be grateful for it, with the understanding that even though we do not all live in the same state of normal, we have within us the power to be there for one another.

And if we have nothing else in common, that’s one gift we do, indeed, possess together.

The waking up

The waking up
Forum Communications

It’s early morning here at the ranch and I feel, for some reason, like talking about it.

Because this time of day, the space when the sun has not quite risen, where the coffee is brewing, my husband is searching for his socks and the kids are slowly rolling waking up in the cocoons of their bedrooms, have been some of the most serene and precious moments in my life.

As I wander around the house, cleaning up dishes from the night before, filling my coffee cup and taming my hair, I stop by each window to take a peek at how the horizon decided to make an appearance today. Sometimes it comes dancing in wearing ravishing bright pinks and golds and purples with streaks of fluffy clouds reflecting its light.

Sometimes it’s quiet against a clear sky turning the crisp grass silver and making the frost on the trees glisten.

And sometimes it’s hidden under a blanket of rain clouds or comes up with the snow that has been falling all night.

But it doesn’t matter, I always look, bending down slightly as I rinse a dish in the sink or watch the horses in the pasture below me as I brush my teeth in the bathroom. In those moments, when the sunrise wakes with me, I catch myself in a smile I put on without an effort, without even being fully awake…

These were how my mornings were growing up. As country kids who lived miles from our school we had to wake up early… way before the sun. Dad would knock on our doors and swing them open. “It’s time to wake up, girls.” And as my older sister and I would roll over to catch a few more blinks, my little sister across the hall would bounce up, always prepared, always on time, eager to get to the last bowl of Frosted Flakes.

And somewhere between waiting on the bathroom, pulling on my favorite Levis, fixing my ponytail and shuffling to the kitchen for breakfast while my mom sat on the other side of the counter chatting quietly and sipping her coffee, I got used to the idea of a new day as the sun slowly lit up the trails beneath the dark oak trees that surrounded our house.

It was in those mornings at the ranch, waking one another gently, getting ready for the day together, that we were our best family. We knew for certain that morning after morning, Dad would be there to open the door to our bedrooms and let the light from the hallway flood in; we knew Mom would have our cereal out on the counter; we knew when the small yellow bus would come bouncing down the road; and we knew who would be saving us a seat when we boarded.

What we didn’t know was what was going to happen in the between-hours as the sun made her way to the horizon, up over our heads and back down again. We didn’t know what we might learn, or what or who might come into our lives unannounced. We didn’t know if tears would fall over a failed test or a missed shot. We didn’t know when an opportunity might arise or that a love might be blossoming in the hallways of our schools.https://8b6c77f8d9bcf2649841d31658de8de7.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

But we walked through the day with the memory of that morning, the sound of our father’s voice rising us from our dreams, the taste of sugared cereal on our lips, the smell of our mother’s coffee and we knew that no matter how the day turned on us, the sun would rise and we could start from that familiar and safe place again tomorrow.

In times of uncertainty and angst, cancer and COVID and a general feeling of doubt lingering in the air, I have become increasingly aware of the importance of providing a safe and familiar rhythm in our home — for my children, of course, but for my husband and I as well. To know that home is a safe haven, and that it’s not a promise everyone is given, makes me cherish it even more.

And the home that we built with large windows facing the east where the sun rises every morning is a reminder to me, in the good times and the bad, that the waking up will always be worth it.

The heartbeats in between

The heartbeats in between 
Forum Communications

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

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

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

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

To know how to live.

BF134834-02BE-44CA-92B1-5D6B2FCDFBD3

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

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

And for that we are the lucky ones.

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

And then, right again.

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

3A8043A5-9938-45F0-9FEB-2624DFA031C6

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

A man needs a haircut

A man needs a haircut

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

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

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

Gramma giving Grampa Pete a haircut in her kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the other side of this…

On the other side of this…
Forum Communications

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

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

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

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

109928600_3290239271026295_2690564027348310330_o

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

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

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

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

IMG_7246

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

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

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

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

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

 

A safe place to land

Geese

A safe place to land
Forum Communication

Today it’s the wind that’s getting to everyone.

Even in the protection of the trees, the house is shaking, creaking and groaning under the assault of the weather. If I let my little kids go outside, they might fly right out of here, Mary Poppins-style.

So we’re playing inside today and watching the trees bend and sway while I shuffle these children from activity to argument to food and back again as time ticks on. It’s the outside that’s saving us these days, exactly the way it always has for me, rescuing me from the darkness of my own thoughts and from the work and worry that seems to push on me harder between the walls. And outside is the only thing currently rescuing my couch from being used as a trampoline…

IMG_4468

Outside is where new calves are being born on this ranch as I type, their mommas finding a safe spot in the trees or a dry spot in the sun to bring them into this world, lick them clean and urge them, only minutes earthside, to stand on their own four legs.

And if all goes well, like nature intended, a day growing in the sunshine will find those little calves running and bucking and kicking their legs up into the sky.

First Calf

The same sky that chatters with the faint cry of cranes and geese flying back to us, their summer home, trading places with their fellow bird for their spot in the V that helps carry them to a safe place to land.

 

They’ll come down to poke through a tangle of last year’s foliage to find green grass and clover and, right on time, the soft petals of crocus after crocus, slowly and deliberately emerging from the damp earth.

They’ll come down to sit in the beaver dams and stock dams and sloughs and lakes that are just warming up enough to lose the last of their ice. We would be so cold, but they were made for this, the birds.

5652106675_edac6d835a

So then what are we made for? I can’t help but wonder it more each day as the world is shaken and we adjust our habits and face loss and uncertainty in so many of its forms. And unlike the birds, unlike the beaver or the cattle, the grass and the wild wind whipping through this place, humans can answer this question with list upon list of our individual strengths and passions that help make the world go ‘round.

But if there’s a collective answer for us, I think now more than ever we might realize that it is to take care. And so it has always gone out here on the ranch. The regimen of digging into the stockpile of work, feeding and caring for the animals and the land so that it can, in turn, feed and care for a larger world, feels a bit more comforting now.

Cows through gate

It reminds me that even the howling wind has a purpose, to slow us down so it can help move the rain clouds and spread the seeds. And although we might not all be able to withstand the bitter cold or the blazing heat or this relentless uncertainty alone, we can lean into the wind and, like the geese and the cranes, find our spot in the V and together, find a safe place to land.

5652112461_e7b2f1b57a-1