Mirrors and Empty Containers

Maybe he didn’t intend to leave it here, but I’m happy that he did. The whole kitchen fills with the smell of good coffee, because it’s whole bean, and I have to use the grinder, which makes me appreciate the roast even more, when I already feel like I am getting away with something by using what may have been accidentally left behind.

There was a little caddy with a handle, one that held the toothbrush, deodorant, and, among other things, the particular lotion with the patchouli-lime scent that my younger son wore every day. I could tell when he had been in the room; it was undeniable. Now, though, the scent has faded, and the little caddy has nothing inside.

There were some other boxes and baskets, also empty. He no longer needed them. He left them behind when he moved away.

I could fill them with something else.

Strip me down, bring me to the hands of my Maker, when I am empty, when there is nothing left inside. For I was full from my love, from my experiences, and from those that have shared my life. Without these things, I am merely an empty container, for it is the collective sadness and joy that has created me, filled me up, and left me in the wake of what has been, what remains, and what is yet to come, with its own containers waiting for their fill.

A daily rhythm is of such importance to our young children. We can read volumes on the importance of consistency, of predictability, of bedtime routines….I would argue, too, that my own days are ordered with a sameness that helps me to move forward. The sun rises, the rooster crows (well, my rooster actually crows at all hours), and I let the chickens out, turn on the coffee pot, pack the lunches, and prepare for the day’s offerings.

The rosy cheeks of a feverish child, the harrowing evidence of a predator’s attack, the unexpected visitor that bears news: good or bad; the return of a grown child, if just for a short visit, and the stark absence of another at the Thanksgiving table…the rhythm breaks, and we are left, hands outstretched, for strength to carry us in this moment.

Chickens are very much like people. Teenage chickens are very much like teenage people. I have had several sets of teenage chickens (and similar numbers of teenage children), so the rhythm and characteristics of these unique breeds has been observed over the course of time.

Chicken teenagers like to hang out in the chicken run even past dusk, well after the rooster and the laying hens have retired to the coop for the evening. Teenage children like to hang out on the front porch or on one of the couches well into the morning hours, when parents have long since gone to bed.

When the big kids are home, even though I may not see much of them, still they are here, and the familiar circle of wholeness is tighter and safer.

Teenage chickens also love looking in the mirror; one hangs in their chicken run. They cannot seem to walk past their dirt-splattered reflections without stopping for a mouth-gaping stare. I have also known many teenagers like that.

My sister visited the farm this week. She stayed a bit longer than usual, and we had time to sit together, which is just what I believe we needed. On the morning that she left, I heard a song on the radio. It had been the hit song by a band that my sister and I had seen together just after our sophomore and senior years of high school. My sister and her two friends took me and my first boyfriend to see Asia, and at some point we had picked up a hitch-hiker. This terrified me. I remember trying to catch my breath, pushing my teenage self as far as I could into the car door, hoping I would not fall out, yet fearing the alternative fate.

I am not sure what I was afraid of. I was with my big sister, and I knew she would take care of me. She always did.

And when I heard that song on the heels of her visit to the farm, it reminded me of the passage of time, but also how fleeting our time here must be, and how deeply we must love while we can.

I see my own image in the mirror, at the same time a woman of half a century and a girl of seventeen. Some thoughts are the same, but there is now a realization that what’s next is really just in front of me, and if I carry on, in a passing glance, it will, inevitably, be revealed.

Maybe we spend our days trying to fill our containers, looking in all the mirrors, rehearsing our lines, trying to figure out who or what we are supposed to be…until our days are done.

When the curtain closes for the final time, if I am not yet sure what I am supposed to be, I will hope that it has all been enough. When I have been emptied out onto this earth, may I keep rhythm with the sun and moon, to become part of where I have lived and loved.

I would like to think that my son left the coffee behind on purpose, because he somehow knew what I needed to fill me up.

If ever I meet up with that hitch-hiker again, I hope I will have more to offer than fear: at the very least, a cup of good coffee.

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Dandelions, Cranberry Sauce, and a Fairy Tale

Had I paid more attention to the dandelions, these years may have made more sense.

I figured that’s just how it was going to be. So many times I have thought about how it could have been different, how I could have been a different mother, how in different circumstances the fairy tale might possibly have come true.

My mind sometimes goes to a place well into the future. We are at the farm, and it’s Thanksgiving. Through the happy chaos, amid the carved turkey, cranberry sauce, and sweet potato pie, I know that my grown children…at least some of them…have come home for the holiday. There is a new generation, too, taking places at the table, the same table that has served us so well through these years, the table where our friend drew scenes of our family’s favorite pastimes, pastimes which may again be lived out in these new days. When I would look, though, as hard as I would try, I could not see her there.

What is it that moves you to put your brushes to the canvas, to sing out the music in your soul, to move your body to rhythm or beat, to put thoughts on paper with the furious movement of a fountain pen, or to do whatever it takes to exercise the baring of what is inside of you?

It must be the same as that which allows you to cry out with a deep, soul emptying force in an attempt to destroy, or at least damage this wall of grief which has held you back for too long. It must also be the same as that which allows you to rejoice with such passion that tears well and flow in honor of what seems infathomable joy and grace.

We paint, we sing, we dance, we write, or we otherwise release our inner turmoil and exaltation, and all our passions, into the air around us. And herein, our humanity, the thread which serves to connect even the unconnected, is revealed, is stripped to sameness. We are one another; we are one.

At times it seemed an arduous race. There would be no winner. The time crawled as the pins dropped, but there was no quiet. Then, in the blink of an eye, we somehow crossed a finish line, closed a door that we did not even know existed.

Through the separation, the days filled up in ways different than before. There was strife and worry and wonder, and many days that turned to weeks absent of word. It could have been a natural part of growing up, of growing away, had it not felt so purposeless and empty.

I had done the best I could…or had I? I was the mother that I had been, right or wrong, confident or fearful, steady or shaking, and at the mercy of my best intentions. A child, my child, was no longer, for she had navigated herself, with or without my guidance, to the world of grown ups.

The mower had put an end to the sunny bursts of yellow atop the hollow, thin dandelion stalks. By late afternoon, though, new flowers shone with equal brightness to once again decorate the fields at the farm. How did this happen?

I wondered, if I had stared at the lawn through the hours of just one day, if I had had the patience to just be, would I have actually been able to see the dandelions take form from bud to bloom?

When I turned around with my eyes open, she was already a flower.

I guess it just might be a different kind of fairy tale. It’s not that she wasn’t to come home again. It’s just that in that moment, in the reverie that played as a familiar song, that I heard as a story, that I felt in my soul, that was painted in oil on canvas, I hadn’t seen her. Like my dandelions, though, I knew that she would come in her own time, when I was least expecting her.

True Story: A Crack in the Egg

The sun was just beginning to set as I finally made my way out into the evening, leaving the confining walls of the hospital, alone, as I had done more times than I might like to recall. Hoping, beckoning, begging, crying out that this will be the end, the catharsis, the transcendence, the awakening…the time where the past is swallowed into the promise of the future. Nothing about this sunset was remarkable or beautiful; maybe they are never much to behold from this part of the city. I, though, have seen the other side. I know the glistening orange and candy pink, the fairy tale mystique that shows itself when I need it most and that assures me there is something beyond.

Fried Chicken had been sitting on her eggs for 21 days. I know I annoy her when I lift her wing several times each day to check the eggs in her nest, but this day was different. She pecked my hand hard in a protective gesture for the tiny blackish brown downy chick that she kept warm beneath her. There was new life, and Fried is a good mama.

Chicken keeping presents a good bit of anxiety; there is much to learn. If I can step back, though, and watch nature’s mysteries without trying to carry them, the chickens…and the children…will teach me what I need to know.

Another chick, this one black with a splash of yellow atop its head, emerged from a sandy brown egg at some point in the wee hours of day 22. Later that day, both baby chicks had made their way out of the coop and were learning, under Fried’s constant surveillance, to drink from the waterer and to forage for food.

If something is not fully mine, only entrusted to me for a tiny space of time, is it up to me to intervene, to try to make it whole, or is it best to carry the hope, knowing that there is a much bigger breath behind this, a breath stronger even than the fiercest wind?

The sun was warm; it seemed the arduous hold of winter’s aftermath had finally given in to the renewal of spring. This, I thought, would be a good day to prune my elderberry bushes.

I didn’t think Fried Chicken would go back to her nest, as she was busy keeping track of two lively, miniature chicks. If she were to leave the babies alone, they would be easy prey for barn cats or turkey vultures. I wondered about the five eggs that had been left behind. When I checked the box, I noticed a crack in one of the green eggs. This was at once fantastically magical and utterly terrifying. I could not just leave the egg to perish.

I took the advice of my chicken keeping friend, and I put the egg in my shirt.

The bushes were not nearly finished when I heard the peeping. My first thought was that one of the babies had somehow gotten separated from Fried. Then, I remembered the egg. It had opened further, and there was blood. The peeping had stopped, and my heart sunk.

What would I do with this egg, which surely had been alive, working it’s way to this world, just a short time ago.

The tears were for what I had done, for what I couldn’t fix, for loving so hard to be distracted from what is before me, and for the lost souls, chickens and children, for which the world seems to hold no mercy.

I didn’t know what to do, so I set the cracked egg in a nest of pine shavings under a heat table that is used to keep baby chicks warm in the brooder. I knew it couldn’t survive. I decided to wait until morning, though, just in case…of something.

Before my little son, my best chicken helper, left for school the next morning, he visited our baby chicks. He also checked on “the egg.” I never know if he is telling a straight story when he gets the sideways sparkle in his eye.

“It’s bigger. The crack is bigger. And it’s moving.”

And it was. All night long, that little chicken had struggled, working its way out of the compromised egg.

I met my friend at the park. I told her about the chicken, and we traded difficult stories about our children. I felt better having been with her, and I returned home to find a grayish black bundle staggering on the pine shavings.

I had been close to giving up, to burying her. Then, Hope was born.

I don’t know how long this is going to take. I am not going to be the one to say it’s over, to say it’s good enough.

I put the four remaining nest eggs in the makeshift brooder along with our Hope, because truly, this is not up to us.

My children struggle, but my chickens show me the way. They stop along the way to peck at some grass or to chase after a worm, so the path is anything but predictable.

At the end of the day, I took Hope to the outside coop, “returning her home”, as so often happens in our world of fostering. I did my part, and now I hope, for Hope, and for all the others, with feathered wings or angel wings.

The next morning, my chicken helper again came to announce that a new chicken was laying in the nest, out of his egg. This time, I believed him right away.

The sun warmed my soul early this afternoon as I cut away overgrown lavender wood. The mint was just beginning to green up, and its aroma was stirring. I heard a chorus of tiny peeps and looked up to see Fried with her original babies along with Hope, who she had taken under wing without a second thought.

I hoped I had done my part, but I know it was just another step along the way.

Am I Good?

There’s true magic to outshine the first bloom of an orchid when, through self-study, patience, crossed fingers, and a bit of fish emulsion, buds emerge on nearly-two-years-barren stalks, only to show themselves in quiet succession with breathtaking beauty, sugar plums in shades of violet and pink, worthy of the most compelling dance of the Nutcracker Suite.

I think I could hear music coming from the little pot on the windowsill; I think I could see the blooms dancing, until my eyes were opened.

“You’re the worst parent.”

Springtime, though not without the graceful unfolding of ordered beauty and renewal, holds its share of struggles. As the snowdrops and crocuses burst forth to herald a new season, also awakened is the force of hurt and anger which has little mercy for those standing in the way.

Just three feet tall and a spritely vision of wild happiness (until he turns tempest), my smallest boy puts his boots on all by himself. He has had plenty of practice this long winter. They are nearly always on the wrong feet, and he likes it that way.

“I don’t need any help, especially not from you.”

My longtime friend loves chickens nearly as much as I do. He has been incubating eggs and hatching them. Just a few days ago, and perhaps against the advice of most chicken experts, he assisted in the hatch of a few of his newborn chicks. He had been worried that the shells were too thick and that the babies could not get out on their own. I wondered about those little chicks through the night, and I know my friend wondered, too, if he had done the right thing.

“All made it and are good.” That’s the message that came through from my chicken friend. He was brave and did what he thought was best. And now, three tiny Marans have made it to their brooder.

Through the uncomfortable blanket of fear and insecurity, we make the choices as they are handed (sometimes not very nicely) to us. We step up, we stumble, and we rise to our weary feet once more.

That’s the message I hope to one day hear: all made it and are good.

Do I help him switch his boots to the right feet? “I’m good,” says his three-year-old self. Yes, my boy, you are.

There are eight blooms on my glorious orchid; a ninth is poised to open. The blooms were very long in coming but as rich in beauty as ever a flower, or anyone, could be.

Get Me Some Milk, You Idiot!

Pillars of light danced from the early evening waters of the lagoon, a thousand glow sticks from a summer’s festival stood mid air. The moon would rise, and the lights would fade as the sky’s darkness would give in to what had been its destiny all along. If there had been magic, still it was there, but hidden away, beneath the angst, the long lists, the confrontations, and the harsh reality of the face of today.

“I said, ‘GET ME SOME MILK,’ you idiot.”

I know him, and I understand, though his delivery is harsh, that his immediate desires, perceived as urgent needs, override magic words and kindness.

We have come a long way, but I turn around and the baby, and now almost the little boy have gone. Sometimes, the look is far away. The eyes are glazed by words that cannot find form. When it all makes sense at last, will there still be time?

Maybe it’s good that I’m not a maple tree…a silver maple, or, especially, a sugar maple. I’ve heard the sap flows freely…

Before you know, maybe it’s simpler. Before your eyes have opened, your sleep was the peaceful comfort of a down blanket with the softest satin edge. A dollar for a dozen grocery store eggs, perhaps even eighty-eight cents during the Easter specials. Each precious egg, colors of green, blue, or brown, was laid by a hen with a story, a hen that spends her days roaming the farm property, trying to sneak food from the barn cats, peeking in visitors’ cars, and running to greet me as I come from the main house with a handful of millet. The eggs from our hens are part of nature’s rhythm, and we cannot put value on that.

A light so bold, fierce, amazing, and brave, once was and still is.

The sap from three trees drips into buckets at our farm. We gather it daily and have been boiling the contents once a week. Eleven gallons of sap, gathered and boiled, boiled for hours and hours on a Saturday, slowly evaporating and condensing into sweet syrup, just over one quart, which tempts us straight from the bottle. We wondered if it would turn out, for all the hours and guesswork, for all the hope.

Maybe it’s a little like parenting; we keep going, because it’s what we’re here to do, and even with experience as our guide, we falter. We falter, until one day all of our gallons of labor have boiled down to one quart, one childhood, to which we gave all we knew.

There had been so many horizons ahead, some which were yet unknown, when the turn in the path finally answered. What is before me is greater than what has been.

The sap drips at a good clip when the sun warms the day. I can’t keep the tears back when I am reminded of the steps not yet taken, the steps to places where people are just expected to go, the steps where I will no longer walk with my child on this earth.

The tears are for him, that the vague and diluted questions may find answers which satisfy for all the seasons of toil, when we did not understand where we were to go.

He asked for the maple syrup the night we had pancakes, and he did not call me an idiot this time. There was a lilt to his laughter, a new sound that rushed in to fill the air. There was a dance and a magic, as the light on the water, to remind me that he is here.

Nothing Left to Give

It’s going to take some time.

I hope it doesn’t take forever.

I must have been in second or third grade, and she was a year or two younger than me. On the rare times that I saw her in the school hallway, I thought she looked older. Without a doubt, she was wiser.

“It’s a type of cancer in her brain, and the medicine makes her feel sick. It makes her hair fall out.”

It has been a cold, dismal winter. Dan came home early from work one afternoon. “I’m going to tap those maple trees.” The temperature had begun to rise above freezing during the day, and he did not want to miss the best window for tapping.

I wondered when she would be better, and when her hair would grow. I was curious about her long hospital stays. She came back to school again, and this time she wore a fabric scarf on her head. Her face was very pale, but I thought she looked pretty, and I hoped she was healing.

Our schoolmates held a fundraiser, and we collected enough money to buy an Easter basket that seemed to be tall as a mountain. I went with my mom to pick it out. A trophy of pastel beauty, brimming with prize eggs, gold coins, sparkly suckers, a giant solid chocolate rabbit, a pail and shovel in anticipation of summer days, and…best of all…a plush pink bunny with satin ears and a big white ribbon, perfectly tied around its neck.

This is probably how it’s going to be.

I’m not sure there will be an end.

There’s something so very big that has a way of clouding almost everything, obscuring the little surprises and making the good things a little less good, a little harder to see.

She was going to be so excited. I had trouble sleeping that night; my starry-eyed eight-year-old self was bursting with anticipation. This was going to make her so happy.

It’s going to take a long time, much longer than it has already been.

I’m afraid it might not happen.

I don’t know what she needs. It’s not what I thought she needed, or even what I had hoped she would want. No one knows, because she doesn’t know. And maybe she never will. I like to think she needs me, even when she is sure she doesn’t need me or anyone else.

We hung sap buckets from three silver maple trees just north of the barn. I felt a tempered excitement at the prospect of making the first batch of maple syrup in the not too distant days.

Something, some things, happened before our days even began. For that, everything that followed had to be different, affected by what happened. The happiness can still, I think, be happy. It’s just different, and maybe a bit more guarded.

We arrived at the girl’s house in the late morning. I thought I might split apart with excitement as we approached the door. My mom let me carry the giant basket, and I could feel my heart pounding with the eager footsteps inside the home. Someone fumbled with the lock. Was the girl going to be the one to greet us at the door?

I didn’t expect what happened next. There was a sharp cry, and the girl burst into tears and hollow screams of pain. She had caught her hand as she tried to unlock the door to let us in. When the door finally opened, we saw only the girl’s little sister and their mother, who spoke apologetically and appeared caught between wanting to graciously accept our gift and needing to tend to her sick, and now injured, child. The little sister stared at the fancy basket; her eyes were wide as saucers. I hoped the girl would share. I wished that I had something to give the girl to make her feel better.

I felt a little like crying on the way home. I, perhaps selfishly, was disappointed that the girl did not delight in the basket that we brought her. She couldn’t; not then. There was something much bigger getting in the way.

The girl didn’t come back to school anymore after Easter vacation. I secretly hoped that she had been able to enjoy the suckers and the chocolates. Surely she loved the magnificent pink bunny. We learned that the girl died before the summer came.

My girl will, I hope, find her own sort of happiness, despite the big stuff that tries to get in the way.

On a property full of barren trees, sloppy puddles that freeze in the night and never quite go away, and the aftermath of last year’s garden, sweet sap begins to drip, slowly but steadily from the old trees that had been all but forgotten. This is a gift to herald the sweetness of days to come, a gift that has found its way from deep within, when it seemed there was nothing left to give.

The Most Beautiful Place on Earth

I always think of my college roommate on Valentine’s Day.  Today, she must have thought of me, because she sent me a little message about heart-shaped pizza.  We shared a heart-shaped pizza at a restaurant on Greek Row as college freshman on what, to many, is a day of great romance and candlelight.

Underneath the candles, I have found the real light.

Lynne and I were seated at a cozy table with love-struck couples at every angle.  The pizza was perfect; the company, somehow, even better.  The stars aligned to deliver me the perfect roommate (with whom over the years, I indulged in many more pizzas) when I was an innocent and vulnerable just-turned-eighteen-year-old.   My perfect roommate had come to the university just days after suffering an unthinkable loss, one that made her among the most courageous people I have ever met.  I am pretty sure that in my selfish oblivion, I had no idea the depth of her grief, and how she would comfort me over the years as she carried around her heavy suitcase, one that nobody could actually see.  Those were such formative years for me; great blessings, indeed.

I want to fly, away from the part that hurts, but still into what I am now, never changing or passing with time.

Dan and I moved our young family back to DeKalb in 2000.

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From my journal, dated 1-22-01: “As I was walking past the river on an afternoon…, I again realized that DeKalb is the most  beautiful place on earth.  The Kish(waukee River), yet to be frozen, was running northerly, broken up in some spots by very white balls of smooth, snowy ice. All was still, and the university very, very quiet.  Never, ever will there…be any regret for choosing this place.  This is our home.  The smallest reasons are the strongest confirmations.”

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I have always loved cookies.  Lynne and I shared our passion for antiques: we would visit the dusty back rooms of whatever doors were open, it seemed, in search of Fiesta ware and vintage cookie jars.

I had ordered a plate of decorated cookies from the student catering building.  On Valentine’s Day, 2008, I ventured onto campus for the first time in perhaps over a year.  With my three-month-old foster baby in tow, I collected the sparkly heart-shaped gems and stopped at Record Revolution to share some with an old friend.  The baby was safely in his seat (I think he was actually sleeping, which did not happen often in those early days) as I crossed the alley at the back of the parking lot which edges the campus.  I was taken aback by a student running, cell phone in hand, from the direction of the theater building and Cole Hall.  As a wild animal runs to escape its hunter, so perhaps a dozen frantic-looking students followed suit of the first. Curious, I thought, as I pulled through the alley and drove down the street to get a coffee before picking up the elementary school set.   Was this some sort of scavenger race?  Maybe an acting class?  It was, after all, near the Stevens Building.

As I left the drive-through, latte in hand, my ears were flooded with sirens.  First one police car, then many.  Rescue vehicles and frenzy filled my usually peaceful university.  Reports were coming across the radio by now.  I just needed to pick up my kids.

It wasn’t until I was safely home that I realized how close I had been to the horrific, the absolutely unthinkable.  Innocent people were breathing their last breaths as I passed by, as I was enjoying what may have been the most decadent butter cookie imaginable.

We are these people.

Clear the thoughts…rub your eyes…it’s almost time to fly, fly.

Today, I am eternally grateful for my rich and deep blessings: my dear husband, my beloved children; my extended family; my deep and sustained friendships; my spirituality; my precious kitty, Juliet; my cookie jars; and, of course, pizza, heart-shaped or not.