Unplugging like it’s 1998

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Layers of Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hear what I’m saying?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And pulling on my layers.

Taking a back seat to the dogs

If you like dogs this is the podcast episode for you. I recently realized my true place on the ranch and, well, this is my way of working it all out. I sit down with my husband, Chad to reminisce about the good dogs, the bad dogs and all the reasons we love them. Which got us thinking about the best dog movies of our childhood, our infamous pug and that time Chad found himself butt-naked on the deck with a shotgun in the middle of the night…Listen at the link or on Spotify, Anchor or Apple Podcasts


I have a little beef with the hierarchy of things around here and I guess it’s time to complain publicly because, well, maybe someone out there can sympathize.

Recently, I was getting a ride from my dad in the side-by-side from my house to the farmyard to pick up another vehicle. This sort of exchange is common here during this season because of the tractor moving and stock trailer moving and cow moving that come with the change of weather. Dad hopped in the driver’s seat while me, his dear middle daughter who, at a certain dramatic time in our lives together, could be credited with saving his ever-loving life, had to balance on the end of the bench seat with half a butt cheek and one leg out the door while we tooled down the road.

Why? Because heaven absolutely forbid, we ask the dog to move.

Nope. No one say a thing about it.

Well I’m saying a thing about it.  See my dad has three dogs. They’re working dogs, cattle dogs, they have a job and they have a place and their place is inside the cab of the side-by-side waiting for Dad to come out of the house and get to ranching so they can come along.

The cast of characters is lovely really. Juno is a fluffy Aussie and Border Collie mix with the sweetest temperament who is nearing the end of her days here.

Juno in a flower pot

About seven years ago she had puppies with our dog, Gus, and dad kept one and named him Waylon. And Waylon is not a pup anymore, but a giant Hanging Tree mix with one blue eye and a real aversion to drama.

Waylon

Then, last winter, around Christmas time, anticipating Juno’s last few years here, enter Oakley, a pup he added to the mix with the idea that the old dog would help her get wise to the rules of chasing cattle through the trees before that old dog is too old to come along.

Rosie and Oakley as a pup

Not like you can really stop her though, remember. They’re all waiting for him. And they. Are. Not. Moving.

Nope. Not even for a grown woman who politely asks if maybe they can scooch over just a smidge, ugh, just a little, just need to get the door closed, ah, nevermind, this is fine, I’m fine, I’ll just sit on the floor here and let my leg dangle out the door…

As it turns out, along with teaching these dogs to ‘sick ‘em’ and ‘sit’ and ‘go back’ and ‘stay,’ they’ve all mastered my dad’s art of selective hearing in times like these. Did you know that dogs have that skill?

I’ll note here, that during this recent incident, the other dogs were not along. So it was just Waylon and me and Dad and there was plenty of room for scootching. But there was not scootching.  Not even a nudge. And there certainly wasn’t any suggestion that maybe the dog could get out and run over the hill with us.

Waylon was visibly making the move to ignore that I exist, suddenly forgetting his name, turning his back to me and focusing his gaze intently on the smudge on the glass of the driver’s side door. I think he even raised his left paw and put it on my dad’s shoulder, just to prove his point.

We got to the barnyard and I swear Waylon would have kicked me out before we came to a full stop if he could. “Good riddance, where we going now Boss?” And both dog and human left me to get my own ride, carrying on with their day together like this was normal.

Which apparently it is now. Just last weekend we were loading up horses and help in the pickup to roundup cows a ways down the road. I thought I might sit up front with Dad and my little sister, maybe be in charge of the radio dial, take in the autumn foliage out the window. But Dad cut me off at the pass to open the tiny back door for me to slide on in. With Waylon. But Waylon wouldn’t move of course. Apparently, he couldn’t see me. He wanted the window seat. So I said “excuse me” and slipped on past to take my place the middle tiny back seat of the old pickup with the missing fencing gloves, miscellaneous tools, half-empty water bottles, extra feed store caps, sandwiching my body between two dogs who had just taken a dip in the stinky black mud at the crick in the barnyard while my little sister and the new puppy sat up front, the fall breeze blowing through their hair/fur on our way to get work done.

I mean, I’m a grown woman! I’m dang-near middle aged! I have aches and pains! I survived cancer! I saved my dad’s life once (or maybe more, probably but who’s counting?)

And this is my beef. I have taken a literal back seat to the dogs.

Thank you for listening.

Peace be with you.

A piece I wrote when I was 8 or so. I guess I have always known…

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get your goat

Listen to the podcast here, where Chad and I talk growing up in the 90s and all my goat related incidents.

Did I ever tell you about the time my best friend and I went to pick up a goat in her dad’s old Lincoln? I just got my driver’s permit and off we went 20 miles on the highway to pick up a rodeo goat from our neighbor. I think I told you this, but it’s one of those core memories you get when you’re young enough that not too many scary things have happened to you yet and old enough to start putting yourself properly in harm’s way. Anyway it ended up with a blown tire and two thirteen-year-old girls in the ditch crying in the rain by the old church and it ended with our friend’s grandpa helping us change a tire and a goat standing in the backseat popping his head up between us as I drove that Lincoln back home at 30 MPH.

This is what friendship, teenage-hood and wild and free looked like in the 90s, before cell phones, affordable all-wheel-drive vehicles and hovering parents. Mostly we were left to our own devices, and mostly we were fine until the times we teetered on the edge of disaster on a back-road somewhere.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I entered my daughters in a kids’ rodeo in my hometown. I spent some of my life entered in barrel racing, pole bending and, of course, goat tying in high school rodeo back in a time where you could bring your fastest, most sound ranch horse to town in a stock trailer freshly cleared of cow poop and you wouldn’t be entirely laughed off the rodeo grounds. I wasn’t competitive really (*read, ranch horse,) but I had fun working to beat my time and with my friends on the road trips across the state where we would ride part of the way in the gooseneck of that trailer, bundled up and stretched among the horses as the highway rumbled underneath us (And that’s just one example of 90s safety standards and I’m hoping the statute of limitations protects my parents in this confession, Amen.)

The thing about the sport of rodeo is that it’s more about the practice, practice, practice than the 12-20 second race you’re running, or the 1-8 second ride. And I loved to practice, particularly goat tying (hence, the goat-getting adventure). For those of you unfamiliar with the event, in goat tying the cowgirl races her horse at its highest speed down the center of the arena where a goat is staked and waiting for her. The cowgirl dismounts the still-moving-at-a-rapid-speed horse, hits the ground running (literally and hopefully) and catches that goat, flips it over and ties three of its legs together. The girl with the fastest time wins and now that I’ve typed that all out it sounds sorta brutal. But the goats weren’t injured, switched often and were well cared for between rodeos. The girls? Well, there’s plenty of face planting and dirt eating in this sport to which I’ve contributed my fair share of statistics.

Anyway, my girls are too young to enter the goat tying portion of the rodeo, but when I lead them into that old indoor arena in my hometown, the one that served as a hockey rink in the winter, the smell of the cool dirt, concrete walls and horse sweat transported me back to my high school rodeo days when my girlfriends and I would spend countless hours practicing our goat-tying dismounts inside the dimly lit and echo-ey walls. The taste of that dirt hopped right back on my tongue and I swear I scooped some out of my waste band as I remembered us as teenagers hauling our goats to town in the early mornings to put them up in the fairground’s pens while we went to history then algebra, then choir then Earth science with the plan to practice tying those goats right after school.  But our plan to practice together comfortable and temperature controlled in a real, indoor arena honing our skills no matter the North Dakota weather didn’t come without a handful of hitches. Well, just one hitch really. One hitch a handful of times. Because I’m not sure what qualified as embarrassing in your high school experience, but getting called by name, over the intercom for the entire school to hear because “Jessie, Gwen, Nikki, please come to the office right now. Your goats have escaped and they’re loose around town. Again, Jessie, Gwen and Nikki, your goats are loose in town and you need to go get them,” could have qualified for us if we weren’t so thrilled for an excuse to leave in the middle of the school day to go do cowgirl stuff.

Did I ever tell you that story about the goats? No? Well, there it is.

My friend Gwen and I back in the day

A sentimental branding day roaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a cowgirl carries

What a Cowgirl Carries
Forum Communications

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

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

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

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

How the grass sparkles under the glow of it.

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

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

You can be terrified and brave.

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

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

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

And the horses.

The horses. That’s where we started.

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

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

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

Notes on Summer

Notes on a Rural Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.