This is five

It’s a snow day at the ranch and all the roads in ND are closed. So while all the kids were in the house, I sat down to chat with my little sister, Alex, about parenting five year olds and trying to replicate the magic Christmases we had as kids. There are interruptions, per usual, I talk about Rosie and her packrat tendencies and Alex shares a story about how she and an egg went to town.

Listen to the podcast here, on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Spotify.

Happy snow day moms and dads! Don’t forget to move that elf.

This is Five

Rosie, my youngest daughter, turned five at the beginning of the month. If you’re wondering what five is like, if it’s been a while since you had a five-year-old living under your roof, or have been five yourself, then I’m here today to paint a picture.

And that picture begins with all of the things that could be hiding under a five-year-old’s pillow. Because I, myself, just had a recent revelation a few nights back when our household was conducting one of our middle-of-the-night bed shuffling rituals, the one where Rosie wakes up and climbs the stairs with her blankie at 2 am and then climbs up on our bed and then climbs up on my head to finish her good night’s sleep. And despite contradicting viewpoints on a mother’s need for personal space, I do admit that I like mine, especially at 2 am. So I made my way down to her big empty bed only to discover that it wasn’t as empty as I assumed. I slid my arm under the pillow to snuggle in and was greeted with a half-eaten bag of goldfish crackers, a Santa squishy ball, five rolls of Smarties candies, a tiny notebook, an ice-pop wrapper, a bouncy ball, a tiny doll shoe and a partridge in a pear tree.

And so it was 2:04 am on a random Tuesday night in December when I discovered my youngest daughter is a pack rat. A sneaky one.

And that not all five-year-olds are created equally.

I mean, I could leave a bag full of chocolate in the middle of the kitchen table, within reach and sniffing distance of my oldest daughter, and she wouldn’t dare make a move without first being granted permission. And chocolate is her absolute favorite thing in the entire world. But so are rules. She’s the firstborn and her universe can only run on order.

And so I’ve been moving through parenting both daughters naively and blissfully thinking that sort of discipline and obedience must be a package deal.  But it turns out the second one is sneaky, thriving on flying under the radar, letting the older one take the spotlight until her comedy routine is honed and she can steal the show. As a middle child myself, I should have known.

Anyway, today I offered to help her make her bed and the darling assured me that she had it under control, which just turned out to be a ploy to get me off her trail while she tried to figure out what to do with the sticky stash of pillowcase Sweet Tarts she’d been hoarding. I didn’t even know we had Sweet Tarts and so this is what I’m saying.

I took the child with me grocery shopping yesterday and we had the cart overflowing with what I was hoping would be at least a week or two of meals and snacks. And while I busied myself bagging up the vegetables and cereal at the end of the conveyer belt, Rosie took my distraction as an opportunity to try a new strategy. 

Among the string cheese and tortilla shells, Rosie got one of those Kinder Joy Egg things that is conveniently placed at small-child-eye-level, the kind with the candy and a tiny plastic toy, past me and through the grocery clerk. By the time I found it, I’d already paid for it.

“Rosie!” I exclaimed. “Did you put this candy in with our groceries without asking?”

“Yeah,” she replied, not phased in the least. “I didn’t ask because I knew you’d say no.”

“I would have said no,” I told her.

And then she told me, “But now you paid for it, so I might as well eat it.”

I was so baffled by her antics that I plowed my cart full of groceries right into the Christmas tree by the door on our way out, which apparently has now become a part of her core memory, because she’s reminded me and anyone within ear shot of it at least a dozen times already.

So that’s five.

Oh, and also, tonight at supper she told me she has a crush. He’s a cowboy and he’s cool and he ropes and she’s a cowgirl so what’s the deal?

The deal is, send prayers.

Happy Birthday sweet Rosie. We love every little thing about you.   

Mr. Tanner and the Joy of Singing Along

Dad in his high School band, Cherry Creek,

I’m excited to share this week’s column and podcast that hones in on the music and the stories and what makes them so significant and important in our lives. And so of course I sit down with my dad on the podcast and we hash out some of our favorite folk songs and the stories behind decades of making music together. You get to hear my dad in his element, reciting lyrics and talking about his favorite musicians and all his time spent performing in his 50+ career as a musician.

Enjoy and thank you for believing as much as I do in the power of the story of the every day characters, the fabric of our communities.

The joy of singing along

Listen to the podcast here, on Apple Podcast or Spotify

There’s a Harry Chapin song I grew up listening to on my dad’s tape player. Harry Chapin was a Grammy award winning musician in the 70s and one of the greatest folk songwriters of his time. He created characters in his three to five minute songs that took you along to fall in love or break a heart or, in the case of “Mr. Tanner, the owner of a dry cleaning store in a small town in Ohio who sang while he worked long hours in his shop, to follow the encouragement of his friends and neighbors and use all his savings to “try music out full time.”

In the performance and recording of the song, in the backdrop of the chorus among the instruments a deep and pure baritone voice emerges as Mr. Tanner himself, singing the chorus to “Oh Holy Night.”

It’s beautiful, the whole thing, and the song takes you to his performance at a concert hall in New York. And if you’re listening for the first time, you hope for the outcome of fame and accolades for Mr. Tanner and his beautiful voice because “they said that he should use his gift instead of cleaning coats.” 

But Harry Chapin doesn’t deliver that fairy tale. That’s what makes him one of the best. Mr. Tanner’s debut performance was met with cold reviews, “Full time consideration of another endeavor might be in order…” And so Mr. Tanner went back to Dayton, Ohio, and the song ends with him singing to himself late at night while sorting his clothes, against the haunting lines of the chorus …

But music was his life, it was not his livelihood
And it made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good
And he sang from his heart and he sang from his soul
He did not know how well he sang, it just made him whole

This song came back to me recently after a particularly challenging week where I was working to bring a renowned concert pianist to our small community and the logistics just weren’t falling into place the way I had hoped. I was anxious about his arrival and worried about getting the arrangements just right for him. The man has played for every president since Ronald Reagan and I wanted his time here in our little community to be up to a particular standard and I felt I was falling short. I was feeling flustered and tired and considering what it would take to retire early when the last song was played and the crowd emerged wowed and thankful for the opportunity. I watched as the pianist to the presidents signed autographs and chatted with the community and breathed the kind of sigh of relief you breathe when something challenging comes together in the end.

After the last guest headed for home and the pianist made his way to his hotel room, I stuck around the venue to gather our things and wrap up, always the last to leave. Then from the empty hallways of the big school I heard the trumpets, violins and high-pitched guitars of a mariachi band echo from small speakers and bounce off the concrete walls. Unexpectedly, a big, beautiful baritone voice joined in with the recorded singer, filling the dark school with life again and reminding me, in the best way, that at 10 p.m., the next shift had begun.

I stopped on my tired feet to listen from behind the wall for a moment, not wanting to disturb or embarrass that voice, not wanting him to stop. This man wasn’t singing for the crowd that had just dispersed. Or on a big stage, or for the president or on YouTube to be available for the masses. He was singing for himself, because “It made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good.

And what I heard was filled with so much joy and exultation it turned my mood and immediately reminded me that at the core of it all, what really matters here. These gifts we’re given and how we use them, it’s up to us and us only.

I turned the corner and the man realized, like me, he wasn’t alone. He smiled and turned the music down. I told him he made my night and please, please ignore me now, and keep singing. And then I made my way home in the dark, with the music turned up, singing along.

The perks of being a ranch kid…

Happy Day After Thanksgiving! This week’s column is an update on shipping day and on the podcast Chad and I catch up after a really busy couple weeks and talk about all things, including the significance this time of the year has for our family. We talk a bit about our rocky road to parenthood as well as how scary it can be to face taking over a ranch operation before you feel fully ready. Also, call us if you need a kitten or some tips on how to survive a 7 year old birthday sleepover party!

Listen to the podcast here, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google.


The perks of being a ranch kid

“Aren’t you glad you kept them home from school?” My dad said to me, standing in his work boots and Carhart jacket, looking a little out of place in the middle of the blinking lights and pings of the pizza place arcade.

He had just bought us all supper and he was sort of beaming watching all four of his small granddaughters take their best shot at skee ball and whack- a-mole and I just couldn’t help but declare, out loud to him and my aunt, that this had been a great day. And they whole-heartedly agreed, our bellies full of carbs and cheese and ice cream, all of us smelling, and looking, a bit like sale barn.

We started the day in the chill of a barely above zero morning watching the guys sort the calves from the cows in the pen. I’d been gone for two days before, across the state singing for my supper and was feeling the repercussions of messing with the weekday schedule and questioning my career path. The evening prior I was still sixty miles from home and my friend called to let me know my six-year-old was at gymnastics in town and was wondering why I didn’t pack her leotard. And then I had to explain that I didn’t pack her leotard because my darling dear daughter was supposed to be on the bus heading home where her dad was in the tractor moving corrals and watching for her. It’s moments like these when the thirty-mile drive to civilization to retrieve a confused kid seems vast and crazy. And it’s moments like these I thank God for friends who have made the same mistakes and help without judgment, and a sister in town for groceries who can pick up the confused kid on her way home.

I bring this up because it sent me reeling a bit. I have a crazy schedule and a set of unconventional jobs, so when something slips with the kids, I find it fair game to beat myself up about it. I wonder if I chose a more 9 to 5 route if it would make me better at schedule keeping. Or if I could have found a way to stay home with them full time if the laundry wouldn’t pile up so high and our meals would be planned out and I would be a better, less distracted mom. I was putting Edie to bed that night trying to sort out how I was going to get the girls to school and be back in time to help get the calves on the truck and make sure the soup was set up and ready for lunch when I was reminded, out of the darkness, that I was in charge here.

And the kids could stay home from school on shipping day.

Of course they could! It’s, as my aunt pointed out, “the perk of a ranch kid’s job.” And to prioritize our children’s involvement in the process of what puts groceries in our cupboards is arguably one of the most important jobs of a rancher. They’re never too young. That’s why we’re here.

Not that it’s easier. Because a six and four year old were no help at all in the snow and the chill of the morning sort, but they felt a bit a part of it anyway, even if that part was throwing snow in the air and kicking frost off the fence rails. But if you thought they weren’t helpful there, they really weren’t in the sale barn, strutting in with their purple boots and pink backpack full of coloring projects and plastic ponies, my little sister and her two young daughters right behind us.

But the moment we stepped into that sale barn, the scent hit our nostrils and we were transported back to when we were the kids, getting to pick out an orange pop and a candy bar from the café before finding our place on the sale barn bench. So, first things first, the only place in the world a can of pop still costs $1 and we were all sorts of nostalgic.

And also? We were a spectacle, the four little girls and my sister and me. Add to the crew my dad, husband, my aunt and uncle and our calves had a regular cheering committee in Dickinson that day. When those calves hit the ring and the auctioneer pointed us out, I turned around to my daughters and squealed with nervous excitement “our calves! There’s our calves! Then I hit my sister’s leg and turned around to face the music with a weird and nervous smile while taking pictures.

In case you are wondering, this is not sale-barn protocol.

You’re just supposed to nod. That’s it.

But you know what is sale-barn-protocol? Rounding up the kids and their plastic ponies from the far corner of the bench seats where they were using up a little too much of a stranger’s personal space for their make-shift-pasture and heading out for pizza and ice cream to celebrate, smelling like sales barn and smiling, reveling in the perks of the job.

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.

The parenthood juggle is real

In this week’s podcast, Chad and I sit down to pontificate on what we’re feeling here. Is it stress, the season change, or just trying to get the kids out the door on time for school? Plus, my current book choice and my fear of heights prompts Chad to give a bit of insight on what it was like working as derrick hand at the height of the oil boom, which then gets us talking about how far our community’s come. If you want a linear and precise hour of conversation, this isn’t it, but then, isn’t that life. Maybe you can relate. Listen here or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

We have to wake up early to make it to town before 8:20 am when they lock the doors of the elementary school, forcing you and your child to make the walk of shame to the front office and sign in as a tardy kid. We have to wake up early because, after pulling them out from under the covers, it takes my children at least an hour of coaxing and back rubbing and sweet talking turned to hollaring “open your eyeballs!” for my dear darling daughters to be convinced that it’s time to start another day.

Before kids, mornings were my slow roll into creativity, the time I would take to myself to sip coffee, reflect and come up with something to ponder for publication. I never missed a deadline.

These days I’m sweating before 7 am, and it’s not because I got myself into a morning workout routine. By the time we’re all up, dressed, fed, brushed, clothed, snacked, packed and buckled into the car, I’ve played the part of lawyer, cook, zookeeper, stylist, housekeeper, secretary, barista, chauffer and, depending on what kind of morning the 4-year-old is having, therapist, all in an hour and a half’s time.

I’m sitting down now, in the calm after the storm, and I desperately want to be profound, but honestly I’m just happy I remembered I had a deadline in the first place. After ten years of submitting a weekly column, it’s only now begun to surprise me.

The juggle is real people and the only thing I’ve mastered in this working parent game is the art of doing my makeup in the visor mirror of my car between preschool drop off and my impending appearance in public. And no, I have not figured out where that weird smell is coming from in the backseat.  

Speaking of cars, here’s a thing I’ve actually done and I’m not too proud to confess. Because maybe that’s why I showed up here today, not with anything deep, but to make you feel better about yourself. I have actually driven myself home from work, the kids safe inside with my husband, turned off the ignition and fell plumb asleep at the wheel. I don’t know how long I was there, but no one knew I was there, so no one came looking.  

Last weekend my husband and I decided to paint the old shop, a project that has been on my list all year. In the time it took to coach my daughters through the difference between painting-the-shop-clothes, school clothes and cowgirl clothes my husband could have had half of it done already. I made a wager that it would take Rosie, our four-year-old, exactly two seconds before she had herself covered in red paint and wondered if we should see if grandma wanted to babysit for this part.  And while I was right about the timing of the red paint, what I didn’t account for was the amount that would end up on the dog.

But the girls were happy to help. They dug in and painted every inch of the shop they could reach before Rosie started presenting all of the reasons she should be allowed to run the spray paint gun and Edie asked to use the 24-foot ladder. My dear sister showed up with the cousins to offer up a jump on their trampoline and they were off, leaving a trail of red paint in their wake and me alone to supervise my husband on that 24 foot-ladder.

So many things are harder with kids around. I am just going to say it plain as can be here. But then I’m going to say: of course they are. They’re supposed to be. I have to remind myself of that every once in a while.

It. Is. Supposed. To. Be. Harder.

If the goal is to raise capable, compassionate people then the lessons have to be taught in the day to day. In the encouragements and the apologies and the patience shown in letting them do things like pouring their own cereal in the morning when the very adult version of you is screaming inside for all the Cocoa Pebbles now scattered across the kitchen floor. And the time it’s going to take for her to go get a broom and sweep it up and on and on because have you ever read, “If you give a moose a muffin?”

Yes, if I want to raise a kid that understands how to make an old building look like new again, I guess it’s up to us to show them that it’s work. And it’s fun. And it’s a mess. But we can do it. And there will be some fighting. And early mornings. And sometimes you will pop right out of bed and get there early and other times you’ll be the tardy kid and no one’s perfect, you just have to try your best and sometimes your best is catching a power nap in the car alone. And that’s just fine too.

Just always use your manners. Please.

Ok, how’s that for profound on a deadline?

It’s tomato season, and I’m coming for you!

If you’re not hungry, you will be after listing to this week’s episode of the podcast. It’s all about soup season, comfort food and the different styles of cooking my husband and I grew up with. Listen at the link here or on Spotify of Apple Podcasts.


It’s official. When I’m in town and my friends, family and colleagues see me coming, they turn their eyes, put their heads down start walking for the nearest exit or crosswalk. And it may be because they know that if they make eye contact we could potentially find ourselves in an hour-long conversation about the weather and the meaning of life because I’ve lived as a Midwestern Lutheran Norwegian long enough that I’ve over-mastered the art of a good visit, but mostly I think it’s because of my tomatoes.

When I planted the tiny plants in my new raised bed this spring, along with the hope that was hanging in the air, apparently so was some magic, because I’ve never had a crop like this. And Lord help me, I can’t possibly process, puree, chop, stew or can one more. It’s not in my blood. I don’t have what it takes and also Chad will have to build me another pantry.

So I’m working on offloading and if you look like you could use a vegetable, I will hunt you down with a paper bag filled with produce. I will pop in your store with the offer. I will casually ask in a conversation that has nothing to do with vegetables. Need some tomatoes? Sure you do, I’ll be right back. And then I am right back with a promise of more tomorrow if you want, and I’ll throw in some cucumbers for good measure. If you leave your car unlocked, I will pull the old zucchini trick and leave you a surprise. Just this morning I left a grocery bag full of peppers on the desk of a coworker while she was out getting mail. “Peppers for Val,” I wrote on the Post-it note, and then I slunk away unnoticed, except I noticed the bag of cucumbers and tomatoes I dropped off yesterday still sitting in the corner untouched. If this was a sign to back off, I’m ignoring it.

Besides the dilemma of what to do with it all, I’m really in heaven over it. There’s nothing more satisfying than pulling a perfect carrot from the ground that was bare just a few months before. Each perfectly round tomato plucked from the stem in my backyard feels like a pretty little miracle and I’m so obnoxiously proud. Like, I’m not the only one who has ever grown a cute little red pepper for crying out loud, but it still feels so special, each one. Which is why I can’t bear to let any go to waste. I even save some semi-spoiled produce for my little sister’s chickens and make special trips to deliver it to the crazy birds myself. I consider it a little thank you for the eggs. And also, they seem to get as excited as I do about the whole thing, so that’s a bonus.

Anyway, in a few short weeks the frost will settle in and my garden will settle down, and I know that this growing and harvest season is so fleeting. Which is maybe the main reason it feels special, having a garden. It comes in its own good timing, which is such a holy thing to me. Am I getting dramatic? Maybe. Just this afternoon I started writing a song about tomatoes. Hit material…

Anyway…it’s been a few years since I shared the recipe my husband put together during the first fall we spent at the ranch using garden tomatoes and fresh carrots. It’s in my book, “Coming Home,” and some of you may have seen it before, but ‘tis the tomato-season. So here’s your reminder to try it out, try it your own way, and if you need tomatoes, there’s a bag for you in the corner of Visitor Center in Watford City. Or just send me an email me. I will deliver.

Cowboy’s Garden Tomato Soup

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup water or chicken stock. Add more depending on how thick you like your soup
  • 3 cups fresh tomatoes, diced
  • 1 cup (about 3 medium carrots) diced
  • ¼ of a large purple onion, diced
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
  • 1 12-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon celery seed
  • 1 teaspoon dill weed
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
  • 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
  • ½ teaspoon rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon chopped chives
  • Ground black pepper, to taste
  • 4 chicken bouillon cubes
  • 1½ cups heavy whipping cream (room temperature)

Directions

In a large soup pot add the diced tomatoes, carrots, onion and garlic to ¼ cup water and simmer on low for about 5 to 7 minutes or until the tomatoes start to gently boil. Stir in the tomato sauce, butter, seasonings and bouillon cubes and simmer the soup on low, allowing the onions and carrots to cook, about 30 minutes.

Once the vegetables are cooked through, slowly stir in the heavy whipping cream and say “M’m! M’m! Good!” while Campbell sobs silently to himself.

Heat (don’t boil) for a few minutes, serve it up and have yourself a happy and well-fed fall.

The yard light’s back on

This week on the podcast I catch up with my husband after he returns from leaving for a 75 day hunting trip (ok, maybe is was just 5 days). A small change in the barnyard makes me reflect on how wrong they all were about the future of our home, and Chad wonders if I would wish my kind of creative drive on my children, and then asks me to explain gravity. There’s lots to unpack here, figuratively and literally…listen here or on Apple Podcast or Spotify.

There hasn’t been a yard light in the barnyard of the homestead place for ten years. It went out when we took the old house down after a fire and we didn’t get around to rewiring it. When the house went, so did we, we left the barnyard and moved up over the hill to a new house and so no one lives there full time, we just work there now—we saddle up, feed horses, bring the bulls in, ride the ponies…

When I left home at seventeen, I had this vision of all of the yard lights in my rural community going out, one by one by one behind me as I drove away and kept driving. In my lifetime, at that time, I had only seen things getting quieter out here. I saw old neighbors packing up and moving to town. I saw schools close and businesses come and go and come and go. I saw star football players heading to college and not looking back. We were told not to look back, unless it was to reflect—on a simple upbringing in a less complicated time in a place where work ethic and sacrifice are badges of honor—because it makes you employable, you know, having come from a small place, heading off to the big places. But don’t come back here. Not when you’re young. Not when there’s more opportunity, more money to be made in places where the streetlights and stoplights replaced yard lights long ago.

Last week, in the dark, I pulled my car off the highway and followed my headlights down the big hill on the gravel road, past my parents’ place and across the cattle guard. It’s at this point in my drive, if the weather’s cooled down or warmed up, depending, that I like to roll my window down to catch the scent of that little valley with the cattails and the stock tank. It smells like cool summer nights riding home from moving cows, or long walks through the draws after a day that tried to break me. It smells like plum blossoms or cattle watering, fresh cut hay or the thaw or the cold coming in, you know, like the scent of snow.

It smells like home and I try to catch it when I can, when I think of it. When I need to be reminded who I am and why I’m here.

And then up another big hill to the mailboxes and grain bins I take a right turn into my drive and then look to my left at the sky past the buttes to see what the stars are doing and then down to the barnyard and then, well look at that, the light was on.

Dad got the light back on.

It caught me so off guard, that yard light once again illuminating the scoria drive, the barn a shadow behind it, the little guest cabin that replaced the old house, waiting, now under its watch, for someone to come slip through the gate and under the covers.

And I wasn’t expecting it, but I remembered then that my dad did tell me, that the electricians were coming, that some old wiring was going to be replaced. I didn’t connect the yard light to that information I guess. But what took me most aback was my reaction to it. It stopped me in my tracks, it bubbled a lump up in my throat. Memories of pulling into my grandma’s yard as a little kid sleeping shotgun in my dad’s pickup for a weekend trip and then as a ranch kid leaving the place after a family supper or after a long ride or a late day helping or running wild past our bedtime with the cousins when my grandparents were still alive and we were all young, all of us, and we paid no mind to how anything would ever change that.

Seeing that light on made me realize that I didn’t think of its absence at all really. Not the way I thought I would. When it went out it was just gone and life carried on. We put a new yard light in over the hill and felt lucky and maybe that’s why. I didn’t have to mourn it, because the story I was told as a kid about this place, it turns out that they got it all wrong.

Because look at me, I am 39 now and driving my children home in the dark and in front of me the yard lights glow like beacons of hope for the future.

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.

The vows and working cows

The Vows and Working Cows
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Listen to this column and Jessie’s conversation with her husband on this week’s Meanwhile Podcast

Do you know what almost 16 years of marital bliss looks like? It looks like yelling at each other in the wind across the cow pasture because 1) you didn’t fully understand his plan 2) even if you did, the plan wouldn’t have worked and 3) you don’t and never will understand his hand-signaling for crying out loud and 4) turns out catching an orphan calf with you in the ATV and him on foot real quick before our daughter’s piano recital was not, in fact, going to be real quick.

My husband and I have known each other since we were kids. We have had so much fun together, lots of lovely moments, which really helps in the stupid idea times, like taking on a total house remodel in our 20s and not taking the time to go get a horse to get this calf in. And the hard times, like years of infertility, a sick parent and cancer. But working cows together? Well, it’s in a league of its own in the marriage department. There should be a line item in the vows about it. Like, “I vow to not hold anything you say or do against you when we are working cows if you promise to do the same for me. Amen.”

When it comes to starting a life together, no one really mentions stuff like that. I’m not just talking about the annoying and surprising things, but the things that come with sharing a house, and plans, and dinner and children and new businesses and careers and remodels and a herd of cattle and six bottle calves in the barn.

Because, if we’re lucky, there’s a lot of life in between those “I do’s” and the whole “death parting us” thing. Not even our own wedding day went off without hitches. (If I recall, there was a cattle incident that day as well. Guess that’s what you get when you get married in the middle of a cow pasture.)

Yes, marriage officially joins us together, our love, yes, but also our mistakes and small tragedies, goofiness and bad ideas, opinions and forgetfulness and big plans in the works. You’re in it together. You get a witness. You get a built-in dinner date that sometimes is really late to dinner and it now you’re annoyed.

And it isn’t our anniversary or anything, but, after we chased that tiny calf across the pasture and down the road and into the next pasture and then into my little sister’s backyard where my husband finally dove in and caught a leg as I slid down a muddy gumbo hill in my muck boots after him and we finally got that calf onto the floor of the side-by-side and drove her to the barn, made her a bottle and got her to drink and wiped the sweat off of our faces, I couldn’t help but think that maybe the reason this will last until death parts us is that we don’t hold grudges.

Because (and this doesn’t always happen) we were laughing at the end of it. About the yelling part. About the dumb idea part. About the part where he’s terrible with a rope and knows it. About the ridiculous predicaments raising kids and cattle put us in. How is it that it’s equal parts easier and harder to do these things together? What a balancing act for a life that’s never balanced.

Because it’s all so annoying sometimes, and sometimes it’s his fault. Sometimes it’s mine. But I tell you what’s also annoying, that pickle jar that I can never open myself or the flat tire he’s out there fixing on the side of the road in the middle of a winter blizzard, proving that regardless of our shortcomings, life is easier with him around.

Ugh, it just has to work out. That’s something, isn’t it? As if the whole working out thing happens on its own because love will make it so. Love helps, but it doesn’t make you agree on the arrangement of the furniture. Love will not make him throw away that ratty state wrestling T-shirt, but it will make you change out of those sweatpants he hates every once in a while, you know, on special nights. And initially, love will send him running when he hears you scream in the other room, but there will come a time when he will wait for a follow-up noise, because love has made the man mistake a stray spider for a bloody mangled limb too many times. And, really, love makes it so you don’t really blame him.

And, just for the record, sometimes love is not patient. Sometimes it needs to get to town and she’s trying on her third dress of the evening.

And sometimes love is not as kind as it should be. Because love is human.

And no human is perfect. Not individually and surely not together. And especially not when working cows.