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.

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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.

Sparkles and Fear

She didn’t say a word, and neither did I.

It may have seemed like just a piece of paper, but to me it represented much more. For nearly eighteen years, I had held on to it and kept it safe. And just as I handed it to her, she let it slip away.

Wendell was our first rooster at the farm. He was aggressive and would flap up at us randomly. We loved him, but we were all a bit fearful of him, because he sometimes hurt us. Wendell died suddenly last September; he had not been with us even two years. A few unsettling weeks passed for our vulnerable hens before we got Ben, our new rooster, from a farm in Wisconsin. He fit right in with the flock. He has been as gentle as Wendell was ornery. Not once has he approached any humans with aggressive tendencies. I can fill the feeder with Ben standing right beside me, patiently awaiting the fresh crumble. Still, though, whenever I make my way to the chicken coop, as the flock follows me from behind, my guard is up. I turn around every few steps to make sure Ben is not getting too close or coming at me. I guess I am so programmed from my angry rooster, that I can’t quite let go of the thought.

I think this is a tiny window into the minds of our kids who are hyper vigilant every moment as a function of a traumatic past. The fear, the worry never quite goes away.

Ben is the sweetest, kindest rooster. He stands near the door of the chicken house, eyeing the pie tin filled with warm oatmeal and buckwheat groats, likely wishing that the hens will leave just a bite for him, just this once. He dares not even try to join the others. His first priority is to make sure he guards his flock. But it’s not about Ben. It’s about what we remember, about what happened before. It’s about the fear that is still so raw, that becomes part of who we are.

I know she can do it. She just wants to forget what she can’t remember, but she must remember that she will never forget. She is strong enough, but her eyes must open so she can see.

I love the new fallen snow. It sparkles like glitter across the acres. As I trod over the property to open the coop in the nearly knee deep blanket, the ornamental grasses that surround a nostalgic metal tractor…garden art, in summer…bend slightly under the weight of winter’s latest gift. The colors are bold and definitive, showcasing nature’s artwork, marking the seasons in a new, unexpected way.

My son sent a miniature orchid for my first Mother’s Day at the farm. It was delicate and profuse in its blooms of lilac and pink, striking beauty for my kitchen windowsill. As spring turned to summer, the last blooms had gone. I read about orchids. I fed my plant with fish emulsion. I watered it regularly and saved its place in the window. I gave it a bigger pot. All the while, I wondered if it would ever bloom again. Nearly two years later, almost overnight and to my utter surprise, seven buds have appeared on a single stalk that looked, until days ago, just like the shoots that have come and gone without flowering.

I’m different than I was a couple decades, even a decade ago. There’s fear in having experienced more, in knowing more and less at the same time, but there’s also complacency in knowing that the hope will find me, that there will be something, no matter how small, to let me know that I am still on the trail…even when I have to turn around every so often to make sure the rooster hasn’t turned on me.

I can hear my little boy laughing from the other room. For him, it has taken much more than two years. It has taken twenty-eight medications and most of his young life to find a few moments of stillness, sparkling as they are, in this space of time. I don’t know where this will take him, or what this even means. I know, though, that it’s a better place than anywhere he has been in a very long time. It doesn’t mean we don’t look back, wondering if a torrent is coming from behind. I think we always will.

We had to get a new paper, a new declaration, to replace the one that had slipped away. There’s a painful lot, though, that we can’t replace.

When the snow begins to melt into a messy slush, I look, but I can no longer find the sparkles . That doesn’t mean, though, that they were never there.

Cinnamon Coffee

Her baby wore a cotton sun hat, and I saw her at the old park that nearly met the expressway. We were neighbors, people that fell into the same space of time which would eventually lead us to forge a rich, strong friendship.

Now, I miss her.

We hadn’t become close friends until she moved away; I find this as no sort of rare occurrence, and something that happens not just with people, but with anything that comes to be held dear.

Sometimes there is a palpable break, an event, a transition, a falling out, a loss. There may be suffering, sadness, despair. Often, though, time steals away the memory until once again, unexpectedly, it emerges.

That’s what happened with my friend. That’s definitely what happened with the cinnamon coffee.

When Dan and I first set up house together in our Oak Park apartment, our morning routine always included adding a teaspoon (measured by the worn tin scoop that was connected by a ring to its graduated counterparts) of discount grocery store cinnamon to the Mr. Coffee with clear Leona’s influence.

I must have been in college when we first went to Leona’s, the fairy vision of a restaurant in the new wave hub of Chicago, where the best part of the meal, besides, of course, the cinnamon coffee, was the tiny complimentary plate of Italian cookies, some decorated with sparkly frosting in pastel pink and green, some with chopped pistachios atop, and others that had been dunked sideways in milk chocolate, the kind that melts into your hand before it reaches your mouth.

That cinnamon coffee seemed a rare, decadent treat, until we figured out how to brew it on our own, every day.

Every day, that is, until one day we just didn’t. We began brewing black coffee in the pot each morning, and there was my favorite coffee shop, where I could push the stroller just a few blocks to my afternoon latte. These too, were treasured rituals which were not intended to replace the beloved cinnamon coffee, but which played to a new rhythm for our days.

At Christmastime the year we were neighbors, she brought me a bag of coffee, the fancy, robust whole bean kind that would fill my kitchen with thoughts of her at each grind.

It was not long before she moved to the city, the same city where I had first been served cinnamon coffee.

We were connected by an affinity for cloth diapers, handmade soap, and vintage pink, among many other things, and our phone calls to one another became more frequent. I, too, moved away with my family, far away from the city and my friend. I once painted my little boys’ entire bedroom during a phone conversation with her.

On occasion, we would meet late at a town which fell between our two homes. We could catch up over coffee, and I would drive home, full of shortbread and the intangible gifts that my friend had given.

I once found some Italian cookies reminiscent of the days of our visits to Leona’s at the local grocery store. I bought some, and of course, I ate them, but they were just not the same.

She would tell me about her Catholic homeschooling adventures and trips to the ballet with her precious daughters, all three of whom were blessed with the angelic face of their mother, my friend. She listened intently as I described challenging behaviors that sometimes resulted in holes in walls, and summer weekends at the baseball field.

More time passed between the phone conversations, and it had been years since we had met for late night coffee. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional from either side; it was just that our lives had taken very different turns, and our spaces in time were filled with much else.

I’m not sure what made me think of her the other day; it could have been a million different things, one of so many that had woven so tight a friendship. I thought, but I could not remember her phone number, one that I had dialed sometimes several times in a day, for years running.

The boys were all home for Christmas this year. Two who had not seen Ethan in a year’s time remarked, on separate occasions, how different he seemed, and how much more peaceful the days felt. I’m not sure if his twenty-eighth medication is having a positive effect, or if there has been an undefinable shift in his lifelong struggle, but one can not deny that there has been change. We wished and hoped with all that our souls could hold, but we hadn’t seen it coming.

Though I take the cinnamon from the cabinet nearly every morning when someone inevitably requests cinnamon toast, this time, I thought of our cinnamon coffee from decades past. I thought of Leona’s, and I made cinnamon coffee. I wonder what took me so long.

I wonder if my friend would still meet me late one night. We could catch up, and we could try to remember what we never thought we would forget. If we look back and see how different we are now, that must make the beginning, the early days, worth so much more.

I guess if we just kept drinking the cinnamon coffee, day after day, we would not find the joy in it’s rediscovery.

And I do think I remember her phone number.

Still

“You could come to California.”

For a second, my feet sunk into the hot sand on Venice Beach and the rhythm of the waves threatened to pull me under, into the forbidden reverie.

“If only…”

It seemed as if I had just been there, but months had already passed since our idyllic late summer getaway.

Through my tears and the setting sun, the drive west from the airport was challenging. The sky distracted me: sharp blue penetrated pink, white, and orange to further obscure the formations which seemed angry yet somehow serene at the same time.

It had been a good, quiet holiday, but the plane took him back a day earlier than we had expected. We didn’t know he was going to leave just then. Maybe it was best that way, to be unaware. After all, I don’t want them to go.

If the sun is shining, there is a good chance that the chickens will come out of the coop, a least for long enough to discover that winter’s icy blanket is an unwelcome barrier to the day’s plans for foraging.

Five days in Maine was a perfect honeymoon.

It seemed as if I had just been there, leaving the hotel so early to board the plane on that May morning nearly twenty-eight years ago, hand in hand with my love, to uncover the first stones to our future.

It was cold enough for a jacket, and the breeze was mighty. When we stood upon the rocks at the edge of the water and looked far away toward the skyline, a lighthouse rose stoic and strong through the misty gray mid-morning.

Perhaps I should have been more aware. Maybe I should have paid better attention. Still I am not there, even through the trials and promises. We didn’t know it was going to be so hard.

I didn’t know the strength of the wind until I turned around and it had ceased to blow.

It has been unimaginably cold this winter. My thirteen chickens perch together in their collective down coat, closed in the coop well before each sunset. It’s a rare day that I gather two eggs. They are waiting, in the stillness of their own company, for the days to turn.

I am waiting, too. I am waiting for the moments to become hours and then days. I am waiting for the Lenten rose to bloom, for the herald of spring, for the chance to keep my promises.

And if you are here to keep me company, to give me hope, to carry me through the darkest hours, I will hear you, and I will know.

I didn’t know how much I had missed you until you came back.

We don’t know the depths of our love until it is very, very quiet.

In the space of time where there is nothing…no movement, no voice, no light…the thoughts will carry meaning to me, and I will try to understand.

There will be another morning, perhaps unbearably cold, where I will bring water to the chickens, where I will make sure my little son has an extra pair of mittens in his school bag, where I will try to find what has gone.

It’s not my footprint in the California sand, but the track of an adventurous chicken in the aftermath of yet another Northern Illinois snowfall. And in the stillness of today, much is revealed, and much is good.