Mother of Mermaids

I used to be a mermaid. For a land locked girl who only made it to the swimming pool in town once or twice a summer, it seemed unlikely. But my cousin and I, we would use the big rocks up on the hill next to the pink county road to mark out the boundaries of our underwater cove and then we would swim to the surface to sit up on those rocks and see the world from a new perspective, the perspective of a sea dweller.

And we’d pick our mermaid names, and declare the color of our hair and our tails and we would pretend we were weightless and spinning and flipping through the water, and that we held some sort of magic that we don’t have up here on the surface, on the prairie, where the summer heat browned our skin and flushed our cheeks and the wind whipped the curls out of our hair.

Who knew then, when I was 5 or 6 years old, that I would one day become a mother of mermaids. I saw my daughters’ final transformations recently when we headed to the lake cabin in Minnesota to carry out the tradition of spending the holiday with my grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. The weather was hot and sticky, and the lake was warm and clear. We had summer sausage sandwiches with potato chips and juice boxes, topped it off with a Popsicle and we moved from the shade to the sun to the water. All the elements seemed to be just right for the magic needed to make a mermaid out of a kid. And so off they went from the dock into the water, with no hesitation, just bare feet first, and then up to their armpits and then, poof, under the water they went to become a part of that little lake with all its mysteries and enchantment, down below the surface with the other swimming, slimy and shiny creatures.

And I didn’t notice the shift right away. I was out there myself, the way moms and dads are, to float and splash, supervise and clear away the dreaded seaweed. I heard them little by little make the declaration, the color of their fins, their mer-names, and the sea-monster older cousin they had to escape from. And after an hour or so, I thought they may want to come in for a break, maybe have an ice cream or warm up under the sun, but they couldn’t be distracted by such mundane human things. And so I sat my human body up on the dock, and then back on the floating hammock thing my mom bought online that looked bigger in the picture but worked just fine for observing mermaids. I watched them splash and screech and swim and play and I wondered if there is anything more magical than a kid in a lake, both things sparkling in the sun? I wondered if there could be any feeling more free than the dive of a little body, young and bursting with energy made for just this, learning with each bend of an arm, arch of a back, kick of a leg or water up the nose, what they’re capable of. What they truly love. Joy embodied.

And if you’re wondering, someone has to come up with a way to feed those who have just grown their tails. And so that evening, before the sun started to sink, before the fireworks crackled across the dark blue sky, I made those sea dwellers a paper plate full of ribs and corn on the cob and macaroni and cheese, and used it to bribe them back up on land.

You see, I used to be a mermaid once, so I know a little magic myself…

Yes, I used to be a mermaid. And those big rocks, well, they’re still there up on the hill next to the pink county road where my mailbox sits now. It’s all these years later, but if I stand up there and the wind’s just right, if I close my eyes tight, I think I might be able to be a mermaid again…

Maybe it’s the rain

Maybe it’s the rain
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I’ve been working on another book the past few months. Like the last, it’s a compilation of some of my favorite photos, columns, blogs, poems and recipes from the past 10 years I’ve spent documenting what it means to raise kids and cattle and make a life on the ranch.

Like the last, it’s been a nostalgic and difficult project to take on with full-time work, ranch life and two loud and wonderfully distracting kids in the house.

I typically don’t spend much time looking back on what I’ve written because I have to focus on what to write. And so I’ve been seeing our lives a little differently lately, thinking about how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t, how some things have changed completely and how some things haven’t changed at all, and it’s from that place that I share this piece on that limbo between past and present, a reflection brought on by the rain.

It was late August, and it had been hot for weeks, the kind of heat you remember as a kid, where Popsicles melt on sticks in the heavy air that sends the flies gathering at horses’ bellies and driving them to bob their heads and swish their tails in the trees.

We were sweating it out in the little house in the barnyard where my grandparents used to live, three years into our marriage and three months into unpacking our lives back home at the ranch where I was raised. And it was only six years ago, but we were just kids, really, with plans big enough to keep us busy.

But that day we resigned to the weather, keeping busy with tasks in a house that was sinking and shrinking with the weight of time.

And then the clouds rolled in, dark and as ominous as the lightning on the horizon, and we found ourselves standing, noses pressed to the screen door, watching the water form new rivers and waterfalls in the corrals.

The buttes in the horse pasture turned from rock to slick mud in a matter of minutes, and soon I found myself running behind my new husband through the mud, past the new barnyard river and scrambling up to the top of those buttes where we stood side by side before launching our bodies down the steep bank of that hill, sliding on the slippery, wet gumbo, just like we used to do as kids.

I’ve told this story before. You may remember it and how it ended in bruises, bloody scrapes and a heap of laughter spilling out into that dark, rainy night.

I’m thinking about it now because last weekend I found myself out in the rain again with my husband. We were riding through an unfamiliar pasture looking for a couple stray cows. The day was still, but the sky kept spitting on us, a little mist followed by small, flying drops hitting our cheeks and gathering on our horses’ manes.

It was a quiet rain, the kind that seems to clean up the landscape, making the colors richer against the gray sky. And I just kept looking at my husband on the back of his bay horse, his black hat and red scarf moving along the big landscape, and I started thinking about the times in my life where the rain made the moment.

I decided this was one of them.

And it was perfect timing, I think, following behind him on trails where he broke branches for me or hollered my name from a hilltop. We were doing work, and we were living out a plan, rain or shine.

But that day, I preferred the rain, because I was starting to wonder if it is possible to spend the rest of my life here without losing the magic of this place. A few days before, I received a note from a man telling me that my life seemed romantic in a way that few people know and that I was lucky for it.

I sort of felt like a fraud, wondering if I gave him a false conclusion. Settling into a new life as a mother and a new partnership as parents, no matter how much we wanted it, hasn’t been an easy and seamless transition. I’ve been struggling with it in ways I hadn’t expected.

I began to wonder if I was the same woman who slid down that gumbo hill with that young man six years ago.

We pushed up the bank of a wooded coulee, and I listened to the rain hitting the leaves and the branches break against the chest of my horse, and I thought about how I was taught to lean forward as a horse takes you through the trees so that you don’t catch one to the face and get pulled off.

It’s a lesson I reach back for when I’m in the thick of it, the same way I reach back for the girl who kissed a boy under that old oak tree in the field, promising him forever, no matter the weather.

So maybe it’s the memories we make that keep this place magic.

Or maybe it’s just the rain.

Rain on the Buttes

I’ll be performing at the TAK Music Venue in Dilworth, Minn., on June 17 and in Jamestown, N.D., on June 24. Hope to see you all out and about!

Checking in with dad

Father’s Day is just around the corner so I thought I’d check in with the dad of the house.

How’re you doing?

A. Fine. Tired.

What’s your favorite thing about being a dad to two girls?

A. They see me as fun and I love that.

 What’s your favorite thing to do with them?

A. Everything is my favorite thing to do with them.

What’s the biggest challenge about parenthood that you didn’t see coming?

A. Personal time. It’s not that I didn’t see it coming, it’s just that you don’t know what that means until you can’t poop alone.

How do you think it’s changed our relationship?

We have a relationship?

Haha…ugghh…that’s depressing.

It’s not. It’s going to sound like it’s a bad thing, but in my mind it’s turned our relationship into a partnership. It made us a lot closer in a lot of ways, but a lot farther away in a lot of ways. It makes you appreciate each other I think. At least me anyway.

I think parenthood has shown me what I’m capable of. Do you think it has changed you in any way?

A. It makes me want to be better. It’s very important to show my girls what a good man looks like, what a good dad looks like, what a good husband looks like. All of those things they don’t know they’re learning, but they’re learning it. How I speak and the language that I use and how I talk about people and to people. Now it’s more important than ever because there are little people who are going to be doing what I’m doing and saying what I’m saying.

What are you most looking forward to doing with the girls as they get older?

A. I think about it in two ways. I’m really excited to see which one of them is into what I’m into. It would be so awesome if I could get one or both of them into archery, but I’m also really excited to see what they can get me into. Like, I live my world, but it’s pretty exciting to think about how they can influence me. I try to imagine, are they going to be athletes or artists? Or am I going to get super into physics or some scholastic thing? I like that stuff, but if they were into it then I would be super into it just so I could be at their level.

Plus as a dad you have to be one step ahead of everybody. So if they’re into math then I have to make sure I’m just a little bit better at math. I don’t know what moms feel like but dads are just supposed to be good at everything. Think about it, as a little kid, your dad was invincible. I’m not fully serious, but that’s what dads are to me.

How do you define a good dad?

A. In its simplest form a good dad is somebody who cares and can be a role model. And being a good role model means showing them how you treat yourself, how you treat other people, how you interact, how you resolve conflict by not losing your temper, that it’s never OK to treat people poorly. It’s very important to teach respect.

That will be one of the hardest challenges that we’re going to face as parents. How are we going to teach our kids to treat people with respect and dignity, to not be mean, not be a bully when they’re going to be bullied and people are going to be mean to them and they are going to be disrespected? How do you teach your kid to live one thing while understanding that you’re playing by a set of rules that other people aren’t going to play by?

 So what do you hope that they learn from you?

A. I think more than anything, and maybe especially because they’re girls, I want them to learn that they can do anything. I want them to be self-sufficient. There’s no reason that either of them can’t do anything that they want to do. And I want to give them the opportunity to do it and the know-how. I want to teach my kids that even if they don’t know how to do it, they know how to learn how to do it. I’ve always said from forever, that if I ever had girls they’re not going to be the kind of girls who have their boyfriends back their pickup and trailer up for them. That’s a metaphor for everything I think.

And I want to teach my girls to be what and who they are regardless of what anyone says and have the confidence to own that, because having that confidence is what’s going to make and break it for them. How do you give your kids confidence? I know you can break it, but can you give it?

I think you can.

I look to your dad a lot because he raised girls and he raised them here (on the ranch). I think you just do stuff with them, and you just keep doing it. And you know, knowing him now, I know that he was terrified, but he did it anyway. Because mostly being a parent is finding a new thing to be afraid of every single day. You figure one thing out just in time to learn the next thing to be scared of. That’s what being a dad is.

Oh man…some day they’re gonna start driving. I don’t even want to think about that.

I don’t want to think about that either. Last question. What would be the best Father’s Day ever?

A. Going fishing. Hopefully we would catch some fish because fishing isn’t very fun if you don’t catch fish.

You want to go fishing with Rosie? She’s crazy!

A. Yeah. I’ll give her a bucket of minnows and she’ll be so happy. She’ll probably eat a worm.

On pain and carrying on

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

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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
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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 
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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.

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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.\

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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.