braiding, memory, and the landscape of a simple vacation

I took some time away.

On Friday, setting down the yoke of daily deadlines, I turned from work and toward my own vacation.

It was easier than I thought, this transition. I didn’t worry much about what would happen while away or what might be lurking in my email inbox when I returned. I slipped silently into the promise that whatever lessons awaken from this absence, I intend to receive with grace.

And now I stay home.

No travel. No adventures. No expectations.

Waiting for me is time. Time with my daughter as she prepares to shoulder the yoke of another school year. Time to sit outside and allow the trees to remind me who I am.

There are books to be read, notebooks and pens waiting to marry. There is grass I have decided to walk barefoot through rather than mow. Tasks unfold in their own time instead of wedging into an exhausted weeknight.

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass” comes alongside. Here is the first, luminous line:

“Hold out your hands and let me lay upon them a sheaf of freshly picked sweetgrass, loose and flowing, like newly washed hair.”

As I read the first chapter, my child, 16 years now, asks if I will brush and braid her dampened hair. She offers her locks to my palms and stands patiently before me as I twist shimmering strands into place.

In these hands I hold memories of hours of brushing and braiding. This girl has always sat without complaint as I brushed out the leaves and sticks and petals that inevitably traveled with her, clinging like offerings to the hair that tumbled to her waist.

I remind her that her hair is like spun chocolate. She reminds me that mine is spun gold. We laugh at this ritual of language that pairs with the physical ritual of braiding. She has brushed and braided my hair as well over the years, her designs growing more intricate and elaborate along with the imaginings of her remarkable mind.

I consider, for a moment, how her father enjoyed braiding her hair too — pulling firmly so the finished braid read like an accomplishment. The result mimicked a sailor’s rigging, perhaps. Or rope worthy of rappelling from a tower. He would show off his effort and declare “a nice, tight braid.”

It occurs to me that he never braided my hair, or brushed it, and I wonder if this was a harbinger of our eventual divorce. I consider briefly how his gaze was captured by other enchantments, laid upon the palm of his hand. Or perhaps it was that my hair defies tightness. It is perpetually loosening, slipping all bonds to become, again and again, undone, and therefore … unsatisfying.

These thoughts are probably unfair, and they pass quickly through my mind. Perhaps hair braiding rests firmly in the domain of women (or parents) at least in my cultural memory. No matter.

What matters is this:

I am still welcome at the ritual of braiding my child’s hair.

I can still become captivated by the first sentence of a book.

I can love my job and still drift unapologetically over a new landscape that unfurls itself before me. I slip the bonds of work and linger in this place called “time away.”

The view is lovely.

on whangdoodles, leadership, and putting oneself in the way of love

IMG_4314

My daughter was given a PEZ dispenser.

Plastic. Delightfully silly. A small piece of novelty to contain and release tiny bits of candy.

I remember PEZ, the girl wonder muses. It reminds me of the Whangdoodle.

The memory is this: Her on the couch, snuggled up next to me. She is eating chocolate PEZ, because chocolate PEZ is her favorite, and she is savoring each individual piece, because that’s the kind of girl she has always been.

She is one-who-lingers, even with candy.

Central to this moment, this vivid sensation of chocolate and warmth, is the memory of me reading to her. I am reading “The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles” on the couch, while she savors the sweetness of sugar and story.

I remember this too, of course, though I had forgotten the PEZ.

If there is anything I did right as a mother, if I can admit that now, it was reading aloud. I read to her as an infant, for hours. I read to her whatever I was reading at the time.

Poetry. Novels. Newspapers.

I read to her as she grew up, whatever she was into at the time.

Poetry. Novels. Newspapers.

I think I read the Whangdoodle book three or four times. And “James and the Giant Peach.” And every single “Jenny and the Cat Club” book. We stayed up late many nights, sometimes to one in the morning in order to follow a story to its thrilling and sweetly satisfying conclusion.

We read outside, under the canopy of backyard trees. We read in bed, propped up on pillows. But most often we read on the couch, her gazing out the picture window. She folded her body next to mine. We cried, when the books invited us to cry. We laughed far more often than we spilled tears.

One time, I remember she looked up and noticed a female finch dangling by her neck from our bird feeder outside. We dropped the book to curl the bird’s delicateness into our hands, ease her to freedom, release her again to the lightness of the air.

If we hadn’t been reading right then, we told each other … and we shook our heads, too shaken to finish the sentence.

When we read, we let the phone drop to voicemail. We didn’t answer the door. Lunch was whatever we could eat from bowls in our laps as we read and turned pages. Dinner went unplanned. Work, undone.

Maybe this reading habit bordered on irresponsible. I have been told I was irresponsible, for what it’s worth. I don’t agree with this assessment, but I’m willing to let others have their opinions about parenting and about earning and about housekeeping and about life.

To be fair, I didn’t know what I was doing — I had no goal, no master plan. I read because I wanted to know what happened next. I read because I love books. I read because I love my daughter.

There didn’t seem to be any harm in all that loving.

When we went to see my Gram, I would sit with my child on the powder blue couch and read, and Gram would come and make sure the fire was going well. Then she would sit down and listen as I read, no matter where I was in the book. She might stitch a little or she might just sit with her hands folded in her lap.

Listening.

The dog would sneak onto the furniture and nuzzle Gram’s hand. Gram would pet her head.

I’m calling this an inheritance.

I still read aloud, though these days, most often to the dog. This does not sadden me (it is only my current season of life after all) but it does make me joyously happy that my child, now 14, would recall fondly those long days of reading.

What am I doing for her now though, I wonder — now that her evenings are filled with homework and music, play rehearsals and her own quiet moments of reading and drawing, writing and thinking?

I don’t know. I don’t know where I’m leading her now, as a mother. I am only loving her, fiercely and clearly and, more often than not, quietly.

There doesn’t seem to be any harm in all that loving.

The other day I scribbled a note on the chalkboard that hangs in our hallway.

“Put yourself in the way of beauty,” I wrote. I pulled those words from a book. I wanted to see them every morning when I woke up.

On Saturday, I went to work. My daughter stayed home. It rained that day. November rain.

She texted me, asking if she could open the windows, sit by the picture window, listen to the rain, and read.

Yes, I replied. Yes. A thousand times yes.

Neither of us said it, but I suspect we both longed to be together that day, under a blanket, reading in the rain.

When I came home, I found a message, chalked underneath my words in her handwriting.

“I’ll just follow you mum.”

Today I have no goal, no master plan.

I am only loving.

I love because I want to know what happens next.

IMG_4303

on brokenness and soup

IMG_3755

On October 5th, I broke myself.

What happened was this: I went running.

Actually, I’d been running injury free since July, and things had been going well. Three miles turned into four, and the splits on the clock began to look promising. Everything seemed possible with my running shoes laced.

I felt good.

I felt so good that I started remembering my days of running across the state. I remembered long runs on the bike trails and how after I passed the “Happy Face Bridge”  (my father called it that) I always knew that six miles had fallen away and my brain could finally turn off.

I could relax and just be.

Maybe I could get back to those long runs, I told myself. Maybe I could do another half marathon — a goal for springtime even. Maybe I could run long and well enough to finally call myself a real runner.

An athlete.

Long ago I used to train with a lot of people faster than I. They’d say — not entirely unkindly — that it hurt their knees to run at my pace, so they’d sprint ahead and I’d push to keep them in sight. Frankly, this didn’t used to bother me, but all of a sudden it does and so this year I decided to push my pace. All at once I needed to eradicate the memory of girl outpaced, girl left behind.

I decided to run faster.

You can probably guess what happened next. My shin started to ache. I took a few days of rest paired with a few doses of Advil and then got back on track. It hurt again. I rested it again.

I ran again. It hurt again.

And then I got sick of it. I got sick of waiting and I repeated to myself what I have been told countless times over the years: Sometimes you just have to push through the pain, no matter the consequence.

Listen: They are wrong, the people who tell you such things. It turns out there are precious few times when you should push through physical pain. I once walked around with a ruptured appendix for three days before admitting I needed a doctor. This experience almost killed me, so I should know better by now.

Why does it take me so long to learn my lessons?

On Monday, I ran until I could no longer walk. On Tuesday, I limped into the doctor’s office. I hobbled out on crutches.

For an added dose of idiocy, I didn’t tell anyone I was so badly hurt because I was afraid my friends would show up at my doorstep clutching containers of autumn soup in their hands.

This secrecy makes no sense whatsoever because the good people of South Dakota make excellent soup, and why would anyone decline the opportunity to have such delicacies delivered to your door by people who care about both you and soup?

Anyway.

I am broken. Limping. Aching.

Humbled.

Healing.

This beautiful fall week has been lived mostly in bed. When I drop my daughter off at school, at orchestra, at play rehearsal, I don’t get out of the car.

I wave and I smile. Waving and smiling is enough.

The world rushes by swiftly when you can’t walk, I have noticed. During this week of mandatory rest, I have also noticed that my dog can no longer leap off the bed particularly well. Sunset fades more quickly in the fall compared with the lingering of summer. It’s been a long time since I dusted the ceramic birds perched on my windowsill that once belonged to my gram.

I have been unfocused, it seems. Distracted. I wonder what else I have missed.

IMG_3564

Most significantly, I noticed that my hiking shoes are beaten and worn and faded and repaired, but they held their own on the trails this summer … unfaltering. My running shoes, on the other hand, are obnoxiously bright and new-ish, but will need to be replaced in a few months all the same.

IMG_3758

And so I made a decision.

I put the running shoes in the closet.

I set the hiking shoes by the front door.

My shin will heal. And when it does, however long it takes, I know what my feet need this season. I know what my soul needs this season.

In the meantime, I probably ought to figure out how to make soup.

in the company of bees

First, this …

My father used to say you could tell when summer was ending because the bees were out looking for new homes.

Then, this …

A friend texted this morning to remind me:  Today is the final day of summer. Enjoy it.

And so, this …

I take my work outside and flop onto a blanket under the trees. I wish my dad was sitting beside me. I wish my friend was sitting beside me.

Instead, I find myself in the company of bees.

IMG_3452

We are never truly alone, are we? I lie here in the grass, sun warming the soles of my feet, because someone who cares about me turned my gaze to the gentle passage of another season. I lie here in the grass, a handful of leisurely bees hovering about (and I, hoping they find what they’re looking for) because someone who cares about me taught me how to be in the world.

They are both with me now. My father. My friend. More so because I have scribbled their names into my notebook. I close my eyes and my blanket overflows with beautiful company.

IMG_3446

This morning I took a walk with my dog. Her paw is infected, I’m nursing a shin splint. We explored slowly, gingerly.

The neighborhood was wrapped in fog … a parcel bundled in damp gray paper. I half expected to stumble upon a white loop of string binding us all together. Yet each time I glanced at my dog, fur graying, limping slightly, she appeared as if inside a bubble of clarity — no fog pressing upon her at all.

She stops for every smell — this dog who knows her purpose — every taste, every texture. She turns to look at me, check up on me, smell me, as if to say, “Are you still here? Are you still yourself? Are we still on this journey together?”

IMG_3438

This is what we do for those we love.

We walk with them. We share their stories and their sunsets and we hold their hands on the last day of summer. We love their gray hair and worn away hairs,  their slightly battered bodies, their lines and their scars.

We close our eyes and hope they are capable of knowing us this much in return —  that this unconditionality will somehow continue to make us real.

It’s been almost a year since I had to say goodbye to my father. I haven’t seen my friend in more than two decades. My dog is graying, yet I have not yet begun to gray. Sometimes I swear she notices this injustice, notices this inconsistent aging process between human and canine and it bothers her as much as it bothers me.

And so it goes.

IMG_3409

At my dad’s funeral, one of his friends told me: “How you feel about your dad  — the way you looked up to him, the man you knew he was — that’s how your own child feels about you.”

I replied, simply, “I find that hard to believe.”

I am not my father. I am not that resilient, that indomitable. In some ways, however, his friend was right (of course).

And so I am left to wonder. Will my own child remember, long after she is grown and living on her own terms, to sink into a blanket in the grass with a journal and an afternoon stretched before her?

Will this girl, born on the vernal equinox, remember to pause and see, really see, the nuanced changing of a Dakota season?

Will she close her eyes and wonder, “Are you still with me?”

“Are we still on this journey together?”

IMG_3238

 

today, we had rain

IMG_2938

Years ago, I read an essay by Anna Quindlen, where the author’s daughters headed into the woods for an explore and Quindlen casually mentioned that her own place was on the porch, watching her children follow their wanderlust.

Though I liked the essay, I disagreed with Quindlen about sitting on the porch, even to write. If there is exploring to be done, I, as a general rule, like to be in the middle of it. My daughter was four (or so) at the time, and we had already done a good deal of forest work together — building fairy houses, examining toadstools, pretending to get lost among the trees and refusing to find our way out again.

In some ways, I couldn’t imagine doing those things without my child — or her without me.

She is 14 now, this wonder girl. Today, when a light sprinkle began, she collapsed her weary body onto the grass and faced the sky. I, tucked into a deck chair, knees folded to my chest, smiled for a moment and prepared to join her.

All at once the seam in the sky split and the firmament loosened its flood onto her face, her t-shirt, her bare feet.

She laughed.

Even the rain has nothing on that laugh.

It was at that moment — the moment I hesitated — when I understood what Quindlen had been talking about. This girl didn’t need a playmate. She needed rain. And lots of it.

IMG_2945

She moved through it. Drank it. Swam through rushing rivers of it in the gutters.

Screen doors slammed and other girls came dashing into the deluge. The dads across the street, bare chested and tattooed, beer cans in their hands this Sunday afternoon, sauntered down the street side by side, supervising and ignoring their kids at the same time … the way only fathers can do.

Today there was mud and flooded streets and long tangled hair flecked with leaves and seeds from the air.

I stood under the awning, hugging myself. Soon the dad next door launched his three-year-old into the storm and stood next to me, both of us dry. We talked about politics and forgiveness and what it means to raise girls.

And as we settled into the quiet, I thought, for the first time in a long time, of my mother.

I was 18 years old and leaving home. It was June. Raining. I went outside and made ‘rain angels’ in the middle of the flooded street.

She stood inside and smiled at me from behind the screen door.

I loved her. I would miss her. But I didn’t need her at that moment.

I needed to believe that I had invented this — rain angels, abandon, delight.

I needed to explore, alone and with friends, the outer reaches of joy and love and heartbreak.

Today, we had rain.

Today we had rain … and I stayed dry.

IMG_2943

 

 

dear teachers …

First, a confession: I considered homeschooling.

I take the education of my daughter seriously. At five years, she was a sensitive and intelligent child—introverted, artistic—and I figured she’d struggle in a traditional classroom and, perhaps, flourish if given freedom to continue learning at home.

Now, as she launches into summer after three of the best middle school years imaginable, I’m shaking my head, wondering how I could have ever considered education without teachers?

Before you fire off those emails and letters, please understand that I am not against homeschooling. I am simply allowing myself to gush a bit about the educational system I know best. (But, seriously, how could we—children, families, society—manage without teachers?)

Virtually nothing about school is simple. The homework alone gives me anxiety nightmares. And yet … allow me to offer a slice of wisdom from my now-14-year old:

“Mom, just because something is complicated doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to figure it out.”

This, in fact, has become one of her pet peeves—when adults chuck an idea out the window because it feels too complex. When finals week arrives and she has a chorus concert, honor’s night, cello lesson, and a stack of homework that makes her mother want to wail and rend her own clothing, the girl pats the mother on the head and assures her everything is under control.

There you have it. Sometimes, when the going gets tough, the tough serve cheese and crackers with fruit for dinner (all week, mind you) and sit in the audience and cheer. Oh … and drive the car. I still get to drive the car. Maybe school is simple after all.

How do you thank the people who have become your tribe? How do you thank a music teacher for providing a three-year jam session that has made middle school raucous and joyous and cool? A science teacher so awesome that a teenage girl wants him to teach her how to drive? A social studies teacher who celebrates the arts? An art teacher who celebrates everything? How do you thank a poetry-slammin’ language arts teacher, an orchestra genius, math master, quirky gifted ed dude, Spanish maestro (maestra?), band wizard, power principal, compassionate counsellor …

Can I just come to the school, sit on the front step and weep now?

I didn’t send cupcakes to the middle school staff during appreciation week. I didn’t send gift cards or flowers.

I have only this to offer. A story. Because story is what I know.

I’m sitting in my car outside school, waiting for my child to amble out the door. As usual, she’s going to be the last student to leave the building (a topic for another day). I wait, watching all the Whittier kids. This school doesn’t have a “uniform,” I think. No one really dresses the same. There’s no popular brand I can discern, no must-have shoes or bag, no haircut that signifies your belonging. I like that.

The buses pull away, the crosswalk signals flash. A teacher sporting an orange reflective vest remains, standing next to a student I don’t recognize. The boy is holding a football. He tosses it to the teacher. The teacher backs up and throws a tight spiral back to the kid. The kid drops the ball.

Maybe this boy has an awesome dad who throws the football around with him every day after dinner, I don’t know. But it sure looks as if he’s never been taught how to pass and catch. It sure looks as if he really, really wants to know. Without words, teacher guy holds up his hands in that universal triangle position men use when showing sons and daughters how to catch footballs. They pass back and forth for a while. The clock sneaks past four. They keep going.

Another kid jogs around the corner, and he’s a ball player for sure because the teacher launches a long one and the kid snaps it out of the air, and now it’s a game of three-way pass, and everyone’s smiling and laughing, and I’m pretty sure the contract doesn’t cover this kind of after school instruction, but there it is.

I sit in my car with my memories and my gratitude and my tears.

How many times have the teachers here given my daughter—this sensitive, artistic, brilliant human being—something I didn’t know she needed at the exact moment she needed it?

When no one was watching?

When they could have been doing something else? When they probably “should” have been doing something else?

Yeah. How do you thank someone for that?

All I can say is that I see you. I see you and I love you.

when in doubt, hire a muse

IMG_0104

 

I woke up today in a ridiculously chipper mood, but not wanting to work, like … ever again. Maybe the long winter is making me punchy, but I really just felt compelled to take the rest of the year off. Problem is, it’s February. Taking the year off isn’t really an option.

I goofed off for a few minutes (read: hours) and still couldn’t seem to focus. Finally, I had reached my threshold for shame (surprisingly high, I admit) and I decided I had to do something—anything—to force myself to get down to the business of being a writer.

So,  I hired a muse.

Here she is:

IMG_0109

Cute, yes?

And now, writing seems so much more … colorful.

IMG_0105

 

Also the muse has little pokey spikes sticking out of her, which I find just menacing enough to force my right-brain into compliance. At my house, we call this her cactus suit.

Some days we all need a cactus suit. For protection. For motivation.

I am happy to report that things are moving along much more responsibly now. I highly recommend every creative type hire a muse. Particularly one who can give you little puncture wounds whenever you slip off into hapless daydreams …

ouch! … oh, thank you … 

Back to work …

 

 

time as tyrant

IMG_0077

Sometimes, time seems like a tyrant when it should be a blessing. I have three weeks ahead of me that promise to-do lists, deadlines, and, most likely, yet another blast of unforgiving winter.

Even a stretch of lovely hint-of-spring days doesn’t seem like enough when the cold swirls around once again. An evening with a good book and good company pales when morning dawns, too much work penciled into a too small calendar square awaiting. Have a better attitude, I tell myself. Just keep swimming.

In the quest to live more simply, I have discovered rather quickly that a schedule, like an ocean liner,  does not turn on a dime. Things I promised to accomplish weeks ago are now glaring at me, demanding to be done. Unexpected requests wash ashore. The phone rings. Things break and need to be repaired or replaced. Other things just fall apart.

So what?

So … nothing. I have decided to stop and enjoy this time anyway. For the next few weeks, weeks when I have pressing business every single day (often into the evening) I vow to pause. I will use the camera on my phone to take a photo every day. I will take the time to notice life around me unfolding, blessing me with the gift, not the tyranny, of time. I will participate in that life because I am meant for more than just keeping my nose to an imaginary grindstone.

Of course this means I may  fail at one or more of my pressing-business-to-do list-items. I may fall behind on a project. I may miss an appointment.

Enough.

I am allowed to fail. I allow myself to fail.

The photo above is far from perfect. But when I looked up at this ceiling, I was comforted by its symmetry. There might be an order to this, it seemed to remind me, even if you don’t always notice it. The ceiling is white, but I filtered to shade it blue—my small attempt at painting the sky, at stepping out of my chaos and joining in the chorus if only for a moment.

Then today I paused to record this dusting of snow tucked inside last years blossoms. The flowers will be back, I tell myself. As will the rain, the air, the light.

And I will be here as well. Noticing.

IMG_0099

 

 

When I am 100, I will play with my dog

1975225_668540139851181_1598273618_n

 

Walking the halls of a local elementary school this morning, I paused to take in the bulletin board outside a third grade classroom. The kids have recently celebrated the 100th day of school and, as part of the commemoration, spent time imagining what their lives might be like when they reach their 100th year.

Each mini-essay stapled to the board was accompanied by an age-accelerated photo of the writer. Some of those photos looked eerily like little old men and little old women were gazing back from the future, ready to impart the wisdom of a lifetime to their younger selves.

One student wrote: “When I am 100, I will live in a nursing home with my friends.”

Another: “When I am 100, I will walk with a cane and play checkers.”

“I will wear odd clothes all the time. Also I will be dead.”  (ah, pragmatic!) 

“I will play on my iPod all day long.” (read: I will do whatever the heck I want to do, thank-you-very-much.)

“I will look like a zombie and scare all the children.” (hmm …)

“When I am 100 I will think about my Mom and Dad. I will play with my dog.”

This last one got to me, I admit. Because this child writer is the sort of child writer I was, and maybe still am. She owns an early awareness that the longer she lives, the more loved ones she will outlive. That’s not an easy thought to tote around elementary school.

She knows she cannot change this fact, so she will honor her loved ones by remembering them. But then she adds this intriguing line about playing with her dog. Maybe she’s imagining adopting a dog in her nineties, but more likely she is imagining herself, in her advanced age, romping with the dog she lives with right now.

Because dogs never age. Dogs are eternal.

Pippin (our family dog, seen above) is starting to show some gray hair. I, as a human, have not yet started to gray, so my dog’s gray hair sometimes makes me supremely uncomfortable.

Perhaps the best kept secret about making your way in life as a writer or artist is that you get to spend an extravagant amount of time with your dog. And I, having long passed third grade, already know that everyone ages. Everyone. All of creation. Even dogs.

Imagine for a moment a grown woman standing in a hallway on a Monday morning trying to press back her tears and not doing a very good job of it.

Why?

Because she loves her dog.

Yeah. That’s pretty much how my day started. Don’t worry. I’m good with it.

The same writer, near the end of her reflection on aging wrote this: “I will tell everyone that I love them.”

This is too good not to share—a prescription for right living, in the present and deep into the cave of old age, all from the pen of a nine-year-old.

You’re welcome.

When I am 100, I will play with my dog. I will sit with my daughter and laugh until I must cease laughing in order to concentrate on catching a breath. I will stretch. I will read. Write. Listen to music. Sing. Dream. Cry. I will tell everyone I love them.

I will do all these when I am 100. I did all these impossible things today, and all before breakfast.

And you? What will you do when you are 100? What will you do today? 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: