Dear New Year

Listen to the podcast where Chad and Jessie sit down to talk about highlights of the year at the ranch and why margaritas and cookies should be included in more New Year’s resolutions. Listen here or on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Yesterday I watched my young daughters and their cousins fly down a slippery hill on a little orange sled, negotiating time after time who rides with whom next. Who sits in the back to hold on and who gets the front to take in the view and the likelihood of snow on their cheeks. We were experiencing a regular heat wave here. Thirty-seven above zero was a 50-some degree temperature shift toward a warmer winter day, and even though we could only find one sled buried under the giant drifts, we took it and we went to play.

Because the weather had been so cold, so well below zero for weeks, the snow piled so high that we haven’t been able to play in it. And around here, besides filling the creeks in the spring, that’s the best thing about snow.

We got a blizzard for Christmas, and a broken tractor, and a couple chances to get stuck in our yards and dig each other out. But the New Year forecast doesn’t look as brutal and so that’s the weather report in the quiet of the morning, from a mom sitting under the glow of our Christmas tree lights in that timeless, wonky, magic space between Christmas and the New Year, the dishwasher humming before sleepy kids wake up, reminding me that it’s all a little bit of a mess around here, there’s always something to be done. And we’re lucky for it. And also we’re tired. And overwhelmed sometimes. And grateful. And worried and wondering if we’re doing any of it right while simultaneously holding our ground on what we fiercely believe.

At the turn of the New Year I always feel compelled to reflect, as it seems we all do, on time and how it’s changed us, our family, and the promises I intend to make from here on out. But the further I get into this life the more I realize there are things that are so fundamentally out of our control, that maybe the ultimate gift we can promise to give to ourselves and those around us is a bit of grace.

Dear New Year,

I promise to do the best that I can most days, and other days, when I am not at my best, I promise to sleep on it and try again and be OK with that.

New Year, I won’t ever stop declaring it. If it’s wonderful, I’m saying it out loud so that I hear it, and you hear it and they hear it. We need more talk about the good things. But if it’s bad, if it’s bad in the ways that truly matter, I’m declaring it, too. I’m going to be better about that one, because I’ve learned this year that’s just as important. Because in the saying it out loud we give ourselves a chance to grieve, or to hope, or to find solutions, or to be there for one another.

New Year, I am going to continue eat the cookies. And order the steak. And pour the margarita when the occasion calls for it. Life’s too short. But I’m also going to continue to walk to the top of the hills to take in the view, and I’m taking the kids with me.

Because as I watch them dig tunnels through snow banks, declare themselves queens of the snow drift mountains, as they negotiate flying down the hills holding on to one another, I promise, New Year, if there’s fun to be found, if there’s beauty, I’m gonna be out there looking for it. That’s the most important one to me, it always has been, but more so now that these kids are watching.

Dear New Year, I look forward to the memories.

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.

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.

September and what keeps it precious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This world needs more barn dances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to lose in a fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I think about where my soul might live next.

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

A bird attached to nothing but the sky.

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

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

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

I could be all of those things.

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

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

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

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

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