The Promise of a Greener Summer

This week’s column on the rain and the rain and the rain. It rained almost five inches over the course of a couple days out here last week, filling the dams, pushing the river over its banks, sending creek beds rushing and greening up the grass. There are places that were flooded in the state and it got a little scary, but out here we opened up our arms, lifted our faces up to the sky and said a prayer of gratitude.

The Promise of a Greener Summer
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Click to listen to commentary and this column on the Meanwhile Podcast

It’s been raining at the ranch for the last few days.

Raining, and thundering, and pouring and making puddles and filling the creek beds. It’s been a while, a couple years maybe, since we’ve seen a long, soaking rain take up the entire day, followed by another and then another, so I didn’t believe the thunder when it was threatening my walk in the hills the other night. I thought it was bluffing the way it did all last spring when the sky refused to open up and the wind howled and the prairie was burning. So I carried on like the superstitious kid I am, the kid raised by a rancher whose never owned a rain gauge for fear that if he ever put one out, it would never rain again.

My dad, he judges the amount of rain by what’s sitting in the dog dish or the buckets outside the barn or the puddle that always forms in his driveway. And then he calls me, just a mile down the road, to take a look at my gauge. Because up until a few months ago, I didn’t know the reason my dad never had gauge himself was so specifically calculated. I just thought he never got around to it or something…so maybe it’s been our fault, this drought?

Anyway, it seems the sky has had enough of its silent treatment and just as I got to the gate a half a mile from home, it opened up and started to really pour and so I pulled up my hood and hoofed it toward home, turning my stroll into a jog into a full-on run when the thunder clapped again and the rain turned to little pieces of hail.

My kids were standing in the doorframe watching the drowned rat that was their mother struggle and puff her way back to the front door, laughing and thinking, well, maybe I was right to ignore it, to have low expectations so I wasn’t disappointed.

That evening a double rainbow appeared right outside our house looking to have sprung up right at our kids’ playground set. I called the girls out of the bath and they left little footprint puddles on their way to patio doors where we all stood with our noses touching the screen, breathing in the scent of the rain and counting the colors.

Now girls, this is what spring is supposed to do. Bring it on. Let the heavens pour down and wash that winter away. Wash it clean and squeaky. We’ve been dusty then frozen then thirsty and our hair needs washing…the worms need air…the lilacs need watering…The horses need waking up.

Rain sky. Cry it out. Turn the brown to neon green and make the flowers hunch over under the weight of your drops.

I don’t mind. Really. I will stand in it, I will run in it all day if it means it will fill the dams and grow the grass.

I’ll splash in your puddles, let it soak in my skin, slide down the clay buttes, jump over the rushing streams. Because I forgot what this feels like, being soaked to the core and warm in spite of it.

I forgot what it looks like when the lighting breaks apart the sky. I forgot how the thunder shakes the foundation of this house, how it startles me from sleep and fills my heart with a rush of loneliness, a reminder that the night carries on while I’m sleeping.

I forgot how clean it smells, how green the grass can be, how many colors are in that rainbow.

So go on. Rain. Rain all you want.

Rain forever on this hard ground and turn this pink scoria road bright red, his brown ground green. Let your drops encourage the fragile stuff, the quiet beauty that has been sleeping for so long to wake up and show her face now. It’s time.

I’ll be there waiting to gasp over it, to gush and smile and stick my face up to catch the drops on my tongue, and return home flushed and soaked and tracking mud into my house where the soup is on.

Rain. Rain. Rain. You fill up the buckets and gauges and puddles and tap at my windows… and promise me a greener summer.

We are the water

We are the water
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It’s the time between winter and the full-on sprouting of spring. The time where the snow still peeks through the trees, the wind still puts a flush in your cheeks, birds are still planning their flights back home and the crocuses haven’t quite popped through the dirt.

It’s my favorite time of year.

When I was a little girl, I lived for the big meltdown. My parent’s home is located in a coulee surrounded by cliffs of bur oak and brush where a creek winds and bubbles and cuts through the banks. And that creek absolutely mystified me. It changed all the time, depending on rainfall, sunshine and the presence of beaver or cattle.

In the summer it was lively enough, home to bugs that rowed and darted on the surface of the water and rocks worn smooth by the constant movement of the stream flowing up to the big beaver dam I loved to hike to. In a typical North Dakota fall, it became a ribbon carrying on and pushing through oak leaves and acorns that had fallen in its path. In winter, it slowed down and slept while I shoveled its surface to make room for twists and turns on my ice skates.

But in the meltdown it was magical. It rushed. It raged. It widened in the flat spaces and cut deep ravines where it was forced to squeeze on through. It showed no mercy. It had to get somewhere. It had to open up. It had to move and jump and soak up the sun and wave to the animals waking up.

I would step out on the back deck, and at the first sound of water moving in the silence I would pull on my boots and get out there to meet it, to walk with it, to search for the biggest waterfalls, gawk at how it would scream out of its banks and marvel at how it had changed.

Around every bend was something a little more amazing — a fallen log to cross, a narrow cut to jump over, a place to test the waterproof capacity of my green boots. The creek runs through multiple pastures on the place and as long as the daylight would allow I would move right along with it, and then return home soaked and flushed.

And I would do the same thing the next day. Because even as a kid I knew this magical time was fleeting and that there are places along that creek that very few people have ever been. I took great joy in the fact that I was one of them.

And it was performing only for me.

I still remember a dream I had about the creek when I was about 10 or 11. I dreamed it was huge, like a river you would find in the mountains — a river I had yet to discover at that time. The landscape was the same — the oaks and the raspberries existed there — but the water was warmer and crystal-clear and it pooled up at the bottom of gentle waterfalls that rolled over miles of smooth rocks and fluffy grass.

And I was out in it with friends I had never met before as an adult woman with long legs and arms and we were swimming in its water and letting the current push us over the waterfalls and along the bottom of the creek bed until we landed in the deep water. And we were laughing and screaming with anticipation, but weren’t afraid — we were never cold or worrying about getting home for dinner or what our bodies looked like in our bathing suits.

We were free. I was free. And the water was rushing.

And we may never know if there’s a heaven, but we know that there are snowbanks that fly in with the burning chill of winter’s wind. Those banks reach up over my head and stay for months on end only to disappear with the quiet strength of a sun that turns it to water rushing around the trees, settling in hoofprints and dams to be lapped up by coyotes and splashed in by geese, sinking in the earth and changing it forever.

And that’s something that makes me believe in something.

Like perhaps we are like that drop that fell from the sky, afraid of the mystery that was waiting for us as we hurtled through the atmosphere only to find when we finally hit the earth that we are not one drop alone in this world.

No.

We are the water.

Drive Careful, Watch for Deer and other things we say here…

Drive carefully. Watch for deer. How was the drive? Is it icy? Blowing snow?

Leave early. Drive slowly. Check the weather. Call me when you get there. Call me when you leave. I’ll wait up for you. I’ll leave the light on.

In rural North Dakota, especially in the icy and volatile tundra that is the 17 months of winter, I grew up hearing these statements as a sort of language of love. Because to get to most anywhere we need to go, we have to consider the roads.

A 30-mile drive to school, work, groceries and the nearest gas station. A 90-mile drive to a big-box store or an airport. A 140-mile drive to a specialty doctor or to have a baby near a NICU, to get your wisdom teeth removed, a treatment for your cancer or, sometimes, before Amazon delivered the world to your door, just to find the right size of envelope or diapers.

How are the roads?

My little sister just texted me that question as I arrived in town and she’s making plans to bring her girls to gymnastics later this afternoon. It rained all day yesterday, right on top of the ice and snow, and then, just to be dramatic, the wind blew all night at 40 mph.

The fact that the roads between the ranch and town were just fine was some sort of weather phenomenon, ruining any excuse I might have been able to scrounge up for why I barely got Edie to kindergarten in time. And why I forgot my workbag with my computer in it and basically everything I needed for a long day in town. It wasn’t the roads. It’s just me. It’s just me in the middle of winter — frazzled, pale and distracted, trying to get two tired little children up out of their beds when it’s still dark outside.

Because what I think we’re really meant to be doing this time of year is eating a bottomless serving of straight-up carbs and hibernating. My word, it’s hard to fight nature these days. (I yawn for the 50th time in 10 minutes).

For the last three weeks, I’ve been back and forth from the ranch and across the state on these January roads, bringing my children’s book to libraries, schools and stores along the way. I’ve driven in blinding snow and clear skies, in the dark of the early morning and the quiet of late nights, on patchy ice, highways wet with cold rain, by snowdrifts and through snowdrifts, into the sun and away from it, past big trucks stuck in ditches and moms like me pulled over in SUVs, and snowplows, and semis hauling cattle and giant wind turbine blades and crosses along highways and interstates, lit up with solar lights or decorated with flags and flowers or a high school jersey reminding us that, when we’re moving this fast — blur-shaped people on wheels at 80 mph, trying to keep a schedule, to get there on time, to get home for supper or homework or bedtime — it only takes a split second for the whole plan to change.

And that’s why we ask. That’s why we wait up. That’s why we tell you to watch for the deer or the moose or the ice or the snow or the wind or the rain. That’s why we tell you to drive safe. Please. Drive safe. Because it’s the only way to feel we have a semblance of control of these miles we need to trek on stretches of highways, interstates and back roads that are equal parts freedom and fear.

The moving, it’s always been hazardous for humans. It’s not new to these times we’re living in, the walking or riding across uncharted landscapes or well-worn trails. Handcarved boats with handsewn sails taking us out to a sea that angers easily or a river that goes from calm to raging just around the bend. If only all these years of evolution could protect us now from those unexpected waves. Sometimes we start to believe it can. So just in case, we say:

Drive safely.

Travel safe.

From the top of it all

I have a good life. Not much to complain about when it comes down to it really, except for the weird cat that keeps pooping on the rug right outside the door, my daughters’ occasional meltdowns about waffles not tasting waffle-y enough, impending deadlines, unending laundry, unfinished projects and cold toes.

Nothing out of the usual. Nothing unrelatable. So I’m sitting pretty lucky these days.

But some days, during a break in the morning news, I cry at the Walgreens commercial. And the commercial for a web browser that tells the story about a dad sending his daughter off to college. And then they video chat. And anything with a cute baby or a puppy or a grandpa or a soldier coming home. And lately, I cry at the weather report.

Now, don’t get all worried about me, I’ve got the serious stuff addressed. This is just me being hyper-emotional, the way I’ve always been. And I spend quite a bit of my life laughing, so I figure I’m balanced.

But some days are worse than others, and like so many things, it goes in waves and I find myself running for the hills. Because I’ve learned over the course of my pushing-40 years (gasp!) in this breathtaking and heartbreaking place it’s the only thing to do to recover my senses and gain my balance and center myself once more.

I remove my body from the television screen, the radio, the podcasts, the music, the computer and all of those heartbreaking, heartwarming and heart-wrenching stories and just try to live in my own for a moment.

It hasn’t been easy to do this lately, between the life-threatening cold temperatures, traveling each week to promote the book, darkness that falls too early in the winter, school drop-off and pickup and gymnastics and piano lessons and getting everyone to bed on time, I’ve had to make a special space in my day for clarity.

It’s why I keep an extra pair of snow boots and a furry hat in my car. Just in case. You never know when you might have a chance to escape.

I found my chance one recent afternoon. I had a few of those teary moments over coffee and the news while I moved through my morning trying to pull it together, get to the computer, make it to the meeting, keep up on emails, plan for an event, meet a deadline and keep my head above water in pretty work sweaters between four walls.

4:30 came around and I had a meeting at 6. I figured an hour and a half would do it.

So I got in my car and pointed it toward a favorite refuge, the only other place in the world besides the ranch where I can look winter in the face and call it truly beautiful.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

I’ve written about it here before, on similar weepy days in the fall when I’m overwhelmed and worried, on summer days when I’m tan and moving to the next adventure, and winter. I really love it in the winter. And it never lets me down.

So in 15 minutes I was there, turning off the highway and following the snow-coated road toward the river and the buttes, stopping to capture how the sun looks above the frozen water and if I might catch the bison grazing somewhere in the snow.

I drove slowly to admire the lighting. I rolled down my window a bit to feel the fresh, 20-degree air and pulled over where the road ends, next to a trail that can take you to the top of it all.

I checked my watch. I had 20 minutes before I needed to turn my car around and head back to my other world. I was in my town coat and dangly earrings.

I switched out my fancy boots for snow boots, covered my hair with a beanie and trudged on up there, slipping and sliding and panting because, well, I just felt like it.

I felt like climbing. Because winter looks like peace from the top of it all. All 360 degrees of it, surrounding me and telling me it’s OK to cry.

Especially for the beautiful things.

“Prairie Princess” Children’s Book Release

Ten years ago, I wrote a little poem that asked a young girl to show us around her home on the ranch.

I had just moved back to my family’s ranch in western North Dakota and was living in my grandma’s tiny brown house in the barnyard with my husband. The task I gave myself was to do all the things I used to do as a kid on this place: pick handfuls of wildflowers, ride our horses, take long walks up and down the creek, help work cows, eat Popsicles on the deck, linger outside doing nothing as much as possible and, of course, slide down a gumbo hill in the rain (which turned out to only be a good idea because it made a good story and I didn’t die…).

During that time, I was in a state of transition having just quit a full-time fundraising job and left town with my dogs and my husband for home on the ranch. I wasn’t positive I made the right decision, but then I hadn’t really been positive about much for those first seven or so years of my 20s.

What am I doing back here? What should I be doing back here? Should I take another desk job? Should I hit the road again or switch my career path entirely?

Should we try again for a baby? Should we give up? How is a grown-up supposed to behave?

I had no answers. All I knew is that it felt good to be in that little house trying to make something out of all those chokecherries I just picked. And it felt good to be on the back of a horse trailing cattle to a new pasture with my dad and husband.

It felt good to take the time to throw sticks in the creek and watch them float with the direction of the little stream. And then I sometimes wished that I were that stick, letting the current take me where it will. Or maybe the house cat, the one that used to be the kitten we rescued from the barn, growing up with no concerns except about being a cat. If only being human was that simple.

But we make it complicated, and so I found that channeling the 8-year-old version of myself helped balance me a bit. I spent so much of that summer writing it all down.

That’s how “Prairie Princess” was born. Because I wanted that little girl to show me around this place, to tell me the way she sees it — catching snowflakes on her tongue, helping with chores, dancing along the ridgeline and singing at the top of her lungs. Just like I used to.

I tucked that poem away then, but kept it in the back of my mind as I found my direction and became a mother to two little girls who looked exactly like the Prairie Princess I envisioned in that poem.

And so, 10 years later, I decided it was time to make that poem come to life in the form of a children’s book, so the voice of that little girl could help other kids see the special connection and responsibility we have to the land.

I took photos of my own little girls on the ranch and used them as inspiration for the artist who so beautifully painted it. Daphne Johnson Clark is a friend of mine with rural roots here in Western North Dakota and she made the book come to life.

And now it’s here, after all these years.

To celebrate, I am visiting libraries, museums and other venues across the state to read the book, talk about sense of place and conduct a creative workshop that encourages kids to express themselves through art and poetry. And I hope I will see you out there.

Even if you don’t have a child to bring with you, I believe this story will help you remember what it was like when the world felt wide open and magical and all for you.

I hope you know it still is…

Click here to order a signed copy of Prairie Princess and other music and merchandise

Click here for the KFYR-TV News Interview about Prairie Princess (with a few words from the kids)

Click here for the KX-TV News Interview about the book

On Charity and showing our kids they are loved

Charity and showing our children they are loved
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The other day, Edie declared she was going to give one of her dolls to charity.

“Who’s Charity?” Rosie asked, confused as to why anyone would think to give a doll away, even if you have another just like it in your room. According to a 4-year-old, you can never have too many.

“Charity is for kids who don’t have toys. Rosie, there are some kids who don’t have toys!” Edie explained to her little sister who didn’t seem convinced of the plan.

And she put the doll in a leftover Happy Birthday gift bag and vowed to look through her things to find more toys to add to it.

Charity. I tried to explain the concept to them last year, when they were freshly 3 and 5. I took them through the house on a deep clean, going through toy boxes and drawers, under beds and in the basement, pulling out misplaced blocks and tiny jewelry and naked dolls with tangled hair and making piles for trash and piles for giveaway.

Which, of course, resulted in my two girls rediscovering stuffed animals and games they hadn’t snuggled or played with in a year and falling back in love. And so I had to resort to the covert operation of sneaking things into boxes and out to the car while they were asleep or at school.

They have too much stuff and I hate it. What a very privileged thing to say.

“Eat your supper please, don’t you know there are kids who don’t have enough to eat?!” Which is a very mom thing to say. And sadly, true. I only wish making my kids eat the last few bites of broccoli was going to change anything for the kids who need and deserve so much more in this life.

To raise my children with a grasp of gratitude and compassion is something that keeps me up at night. How lucky are we that this can be one of my main concerns? Because we have the means to keep our children clothed and fed and, additionally, celebrating birthday parties with friends, decorated in their favorite colors, serving their favorite foods. Which makes it hard for their little brains to get a grasp on a perspective. Isn’t every kid’s life like this?

And so I took an ornament off the giving tree last night after Edie’s kindergarten Christmas concert. She stood up there on that stage in a fresh new outfit, black tights and new red, sparkly shoes that we had to get in a size larger because she’s stretching and growing out and into so many things these days. Shoes are just one of them.

On our way home, Edie asked me what the ornament said.

“Girl. Age 6. Special requests: gloves, winter gear,” I replied. “We’re going to have to go shopping. Will you girls help me? I figured you would know just what she might like.”

Edie wanted to know what her name was. Rosie wanted to know how we were going to get her the toys if we didn’t know where she lived. How will she know it was from us?

How do you explain that it doesn’t matter? We don’t need credit. We don’t need to know her. We just want her to have a good Christmas. How do you explain what real need is to two small children who have everything they could want?

How do we give them what they need, but also make them understand what it means to work for it? How do we give them a charmed childhood and keep them grateful? How do we make them feel special, but keep them humble?

My daughters are coming to the age where they are becoming aware of the world around them, of the kids who have more and those who have less. How do we teach them to treat each with kindness and respect? How do we teach them to only compare in the way in which it makes them feel grateful, generous and compassionate?

When my little sister was a kid, she was out doing chores with Dad and asked him, “Are we poor?” My dad was taken aback a bit, wondering where this question was coming from. Turns out she noticed that we didn’t have a four-wheeler or a new pickup, a boat or bigger house like some of her friends.

“Would all of that make you happier?” he asked her. She thought probably no, but she was aware. And she was wondering.

If only we knew for certain that every child in this community was held safe and armed with what they needed to stand up against the tough elements of weather and life. If I could give the gift of reassurance and wrap it up in that box with the hat and gloves and Barbie doll, I would do it. If I could make my kids understand that in the long run, they won’t remember how many gifts were under the tree, but for a child who has none, well, that’s something that sticks with them.

And we can’t do so much about any of it, but we can do something. And so we did something.

The Messy Middle

My husband and I moved home to my family’s ranch almost 10 years ago with a few little dreams that could live because of the big dream that came true when we decided to stay here forever.

Between then and now, it seems that we’ve learned most of our lessons the hard way (as if there’s any other way), maybe the most important one being that nothing happens in a straight line. Nothing is black and white. And sometimes we get there, short and sweet, but mostly it’s up and down and down further and further still and then up again and up again before we’re off shaky ground.

When you dream of your life as a little kid, do you dream of yourself at almost 40?

And then, if or when you marry the person you love, the vision is mostly of the wedding day and then hop, skip and jump to the two of you sitting side by side in rocking chairs, old and gray looking out into the sunset, reflecting on a beautiful highlight-reel history together.

That whole part where you wake up at 5:30 every morning to get yourself and the kids groomed and fed and out the door and then to school and then to gymnastics and then home and then supper and then bath and then bed and then up and at ‘em the next morning, that’s the less popular middle part of the dream-come-true.

The number of times you sweep the kitchen floor only to do it five minutes later after the kids spill the cereal or dump out the Play-Doh or your husband rushes in with muddy boots to grab the wallet he forgot. The flat tires and broken tail lights.

The stomach flu, the amount of grilled cheese you’ve charred on the stove because the kids are fighting over dolls or clothes, the arguments about closing cabinet doors that really aren’t about closing cabinet doors, the huffs and eye rolls, the little laughs, the banter, the leftovers that mold in the fridge — all of that we skip over in the planning and dreaming and the telling of our lives.

But the cancer diagnosis, the infertility, the loss of the people you love, the divorce, the firing and layoffs, the big epic failures, those things, those traumatic things, they stick in your guts, expanding sometimes to tug on your heart, to punch your ribs, to help keep you bruised and broken and human the same way we take all the good stuff and say we’re grateful, not giving proper credit to the hard stuff that likely deserves the accolade, too.

And I know what I’m trying to say here, but I guess I’m taking the long way. This month we lost a classmate. In my small junior high and high school, she was one of my favorites, who, upon graduation, became a person I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years.

And as I sat in that pew in that church next to my high school boyfriend who became my husband, surrounded by individuals who have woven in and out of our lives throughout the years, I couldn’t help but feel robbed. Not personally really, but on her behalf. Because she left us smack dab in the middle of her middle part, in the mushy and complicated center of her dream, in the part that may be skipped over in the Cliffs Notes version but is, in reality, where all the best stuff lies — the characters, the mistakes, the complicated relationships and small and big wins building and brewing and growing and culminating to get us to that last chapter, you know, the one with the rocking chair…

She didn’t get her rocking chair, but then, it was never promised in the first place.

So I guess what I want to say is something that’s hard for me to recognize when the mundane or hectic tasks of the days overwhelm me. That task is part of the day is part of the little plan that is part of the big plan and maybe, if you take a breath, if you pull out the weeds and worries that want to convince you otherwise, you might find that right where you are, sweeping that dirty floor, or rolling your eyes, or losing an argument, is sorta right where you dreamed you’d be someday. You just forgot to give the middle part the credit it deserves.

One of the helpers

He loves to help
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Here’s the scene: My little sister running up to me as I was about to pull the door shut on the passenger side of my car. Someone in the parking lot of the rodeo grounds blocked her big ol’ SUV in, so she couldn’t pull forward and she couldn’t pull backward, and Lord help her, with a 30-mile drive home, they were all on the brink of a meltdown.

My little sister isn’t known for her confidence behind the wheel, and with two little kids in the back seat who had been running around the rodeo grounds for three straight hours — three straight hours past their bedtime — she wasn’t looking forward to testing her skills that night.

Hence, her running toward me in the dark parking lot saying thank goodness Chad’s still here.

I did note that she didn’t ask me to drive her out of there. I mean, I only failed my driving test once, but I’m more than happy to pass those tasks along to my husband, if I even had a choice. He was walking over there and in the driver’s seat and out before she even finished explaining herself.

Our daughters were in the back seat and, of course, asked what Daddy was doing. I said he was helping. And one of them replied, “Yeah, Daddy loves to help.”

And that sorta stopped me there. Because there couldn’t be anything more true about the man except if they would have said, “Daddy likes to save things.” Which is also related to that helping statement. Helping. Saving. Restoring.

The man is a fixer-upper, and not in the way in which he needs fixing necessarily (I mean, nobody’s perfect). But if there’s something to fix, call him and he’ll see what he can do about it. Same goes with pulling things out of ditches, ravines or, in the case of me and the four-wheeler, just really deep mud I should have avoided entirely.

And if you need it lifted, he can lift it. And if he can’t, he’ll make a contraption that will help him lift it, because my noodle arms and I certainly can’t be trusted to help him pull the giant fridge up your narrow basement steps. He’ll just do it himself, thank you. It’s much quicker and less whiny that way.

It occurs to me now that perhaps I shouldn’t broadcast this in statewide newspapers, because it’s like if you’re the guy who has a pickup, then you’re the guy who moves all your friends. But Chad has always been the guy who has a pickup, and access to a flatbed or horse trailer, so yeah, he’s the guy who moves all the things. (Same goes with roofing projects it seems, but anyway…)

Which means he’s probably also the guy who has had the world’s most engine trouble and flat tires. Because we never said these trailers or pickups were in the best working condition. But never mind that. The man probably has a jack and a couple spare tires, at least seven tarp straps, a toolbox full of fluids and tools, and a chain or two in case he drives by someone who needs a tow once he’s back in business.

The time I got stuck in our driveway. Was three years ago and Edie still reminds me…

Now that I think about it, the man has made a business out of it actually, at long last — Rafter S Contracting, for all the stuff that needs fixing or flipping.

Anyway, where was I going with this? Let me get back on track. I think why I started was to tell you that my husband is leveling up his helping qualifications by training as an EMT. Because, as he put it, as a first responder, he didn’t like the feeling of helplessness at a scene. If there’s something more to be done, well, let’s go ahead and do it. Let’s figure it out.

A community, a thriving community, exists because of people with this mindset. People’s lives are literally saved because people exist with this mindset. This is a hands-down truth that we see every day.

Chad helping my sister that night, and Chad (and his classmates from our community) going to EMT training two nights a week and some weekends for months on end, reminds me of our responsibility here. And it pushes me to think of what I should be doing to make this a better, a safer, more compassionate place to live. That question, shouldn’t it be the thesis of our lives?

“He loves to help.” Well, what a thing to show our children…

Happiness is a wild plum patch

Happiness is a wild plum patch
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Western North Dakota grows wild plums. In the patches of brush where the poison ivy sneaks and the cows go to get away from the flies. They start as blossoms on the thorny branches and, under the hot sun, turn from green in early July to red to a dark purple bite-sized berry just waiting to be picked in the beginning of autumn.

Wild plums mean summer is almost over. They mean roundup is on its way. They mean sucking on pits and spitting them at your little sister. They mean scratches from branches on a detour for a snack on the way to get the bull out of the trees. They mean Dad’s stories of Grampa sitting at the table in the winter dipping into a jar of canned wild plums, drenching them in cream and stacking the pits neatly on the table.

They mean memories of Grandma’s jelly on peanut butter toast.

They mean reassurance that sweet things can grow in brutal conditions, a reminder we all need from time to time. Wild plums mean a passing surprise on our way through a pasture and coming back later with the farm pickup to fill up a bucket, me squished in the middle seat between my husband and my dad, the Twins playing on the radio as we bump along on prairie trails that haven’t been under a tire in months looking for that magical patch of fruit, wondering out loud if we could of dreamed it.

A wild plum patch means listening to the two men banter as they pick and reach and gather like little boys, making plans for the best way to fill our bucket.

“Shake the tree, we can get the ones on top.”

“Keep ’em out of the cow poop!”

“Are you eating them, Jess? Hey, no eating!

“I’ve never seen a patch like this. Jessie, you can make so much jelly!”

Yes. I could. With the 6 gallons of plums we picked standing in the bed of the pickup, ducked down in the clearing where the cows lay, scaling along the edges of the trees. I could make jars of jelly, pies, pastries and syrups to last until next plum picking. I could. Maybe I will.

But even if I didn’t, even if we did nothing more than feed those wild plums to the birds, it wouldn’t matter. The magic of wild and pure things is in their discovery and the sweet reminder that happiness can be as simple as a wild plum patch.

Tiny, perfect things

There is a hill on the ranch that is completely covered in tiger lilies. My little sister went on a ride with Dad and they discovered them, a scattering of bright orange petals opening up to the bright blue sky.

It has been a dry year here, with our spring rain coming to us late, and so our wildflower crop is just now appearing. And this news about the tiger lilies may not seem so thrilling to some, but it’s exciting for us.

Because the flower is so perfect, and so exotic looking, and they don’t always come up every year. So when they do, we feel like we have access to our own personal florist, Mother Nature.

I don’t know if everyone has a favorite flower, but the tiger lily is mine. I carried them at my wedding, a bouquet of orange walking with me down a grassy, makeshift aisle in a cow pasture. We had to mow and build benches and move cow pies to make it presentable for guests, but we didn’t get rid of all of the cactus. My little sister found this out as she was making her trek down the aisle in front of me. I didn’t know if she was crying because of the cactus in her leg, or if she was so happy for us. I think a little of both.

Anyway, that’s what happens when you live in a wild place. No matter how you try to tame it, the flies and the thorns, the barn swallows and the raccoons, they don’t care about your fancy new deck furniture that you got for the family reunion — they will show up to eat the cat food and then poop on it.

And so then you sort of become wild, too. I know because I caught myself standing outside in my underwear one morning yelling at the birds to find a new place to make their messy clay nests. Not here, swallows. Not on the side of my house! And my husband? Well, he likes to scare raccoons at midnight… also in his underwear.

Anyway, I guess that’s why the wildflowers seem so special out here. For so much of the year we’re battling the elements, praying for rain, shoveling snow, bundling up, tracking mud in the house, pulling burs out of horses’ manes, cutting down weeds and clearing and cleaning and building and doctoring. The wildflowers, especially the tiger lily, seem like a reminder that there is perfection in this world, in the smallest things. Tiny, pretty miracles surviving despite and because of the hot sun and clay dirt.

I took my girls to that tiger lily hill the other day to check out this year’s crop. On the way they were singing Bible school songs they just learned, doing the actions and repeating the lines over and not quite right the way little kids do in the cutest way.

They had never seen a tiger lily before, and so it was a fun and easy Easter egg hunt, each girl grabbing up more than a handful of the flowers and thrilled with it all. With the familiar songs they were humming, and their sun-flushed cheeks and mosquito-bit arms, I couldn’t help but think: Now isn’t this the quintessential ranch summer?

I wonder what they will remember about being a little kid out in these hills. Do they feel as wild and free as I used to feel out here, enamored with the mystery of this place and how it can change so magically by the hour, the sun sinking down, turning the tips of the trees and grass and my daughters’ hair golden?

I hope so. I hope they feel as wild and beautiful and as loved as those lilies, because they are to me. My own little tiger lilies on the hilltop, growing before my eyes.

My favorite little flowers reminding us that there are perfect things in this world.