The Way Home

It wouldn’t have mattered how many books I had read or that I had attended lectures and breakout sessions from the foremost experts in the field. Whether I had a master’s degree or the highest level, most current certification was insignificant. It meant nothing, and it never would.

I had coffee with a longtime friend this morning. Actually, it ended up as more of a soul opening than a coffee date; I guess we both needed a good cry. It is in looking for answers that we come to realize there may be none…at least, not yet.

I love Ed Sheeran’s music. I have been listening incessantly for three years. This is a departure from my decades-long habit of overplaying my post-punk college music. It began with one song, then another. For now, anyway, I am hooked. My little boys know the lyrics to many of his songs. Perhaps they have heard them enough times in the car or in the chicken coop to have committed them to memory. Regardless, I like to believe that they think there is something about his music, too.

When the concert was announced late last winter, I bought tickets for the Milwaukee show, as traveling to Chicago heightens my anxiety. Seven months was a long time to wait. No matter what my days would bring, I could look forward to the show as a great prize for making it through the days, weeks, and months. Though my potential travel companions changed several times, the concert was finally on the horizon. The opening band played, and then our hero took the stage. I had been waiting so long for this. The moment arrived, and the music was breathtaking. Then, it was just over. The show was fantastic, but one song that I had expected to hear had been left out. I had waited expectantly, but it was never played.

We struggled and stumbled through my daughter’s childhood. So many times, I had searched for meaning, for direction through the haze of angst, confusion, and emptiness. Now, I have turned to see that with or without my awareness, the circle of the seasons has come and gone enough times to blur the hardest times. I see that both of us, right now, are mostly okay. Perhaps it’s a different kind of okay, but it’s more okay than it could have been. I used to fear that once she left, I would not see her again. She came just the other day, though, with my best coffee drink. And it was not the first time she had come home. I realized, too, that there had been much that was good.

We had taken our medically fragile little boy to one appointment after another over the course of years. Each time, we hoped that this specialist or test would be “the one” that would give us the answer. That never really came about. Today, the tiny boy that struggled to breathe through many nights runs endlessly up and down the soccer field, spins cartwheels through the grocery store, and belts out “Castle on the Hill” with abandon. We may not have found the answer that we thought we were looking for, but somehow, that doesn’t matter, for we have arrived at today.

It seems I am always looking forward…to a certain show, to the telltale appointment, even to God’s kingdom. I guess I don’t know how this moment will bring me to the next. Still, I think I’ll get there.

The answer, the real truth, is not in a college course, within the pages of a best seller, or in the lyrics of a favorite song. It’s in the soul of someone who understands; it’s in the heart of the friend who is not afraid to walk with you, to pull you closer to her. It is inside all of us, whether we understand or are ready to believe.

Maybe the absence of the song I had hoped to hear was a little bit disappointing. There were plenty of songs, though, that were just as beautiful.

“…getting myself lost… I am so gone, so tell me the way home.”

–Ed Sheeran, “One”

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Laughing

Sometimes,

I can see it getting closer,

But mostly, it’s really far away.

I try hard to keep it from coming back, but I can’t.

It’s fierce, lively, bright, sharp, glorious, and terribly sad, all at the same time.

Even from a distance, its force brings me to my knees.

I try to catch it, to hold it, to contain it. Rings of sage and flashes of yellow burst forth, laughing,

Laughing at me.

You’re a fool for trying.

I push it away, but it surrounds me, invades me, makes me small.

It’s always there. It’s everywhere.

Have mercy on me.

I’ll fall on my way back to where I thought I was going, again.

Again.

Girl on the Swing

On the day that summer turned to fall, I took my little son to the park. The blue of the sky made the clouds stand out, drawing our attention to the heavens.

There was a college-aged girl on a swing when we arrived. Though I studied her, her eyes never met mine; maybe she never knew. Her gaze was strong and fixed. A hint of a smile crossed her face; the rhythm never broke. I wondered what purpose the swing served for her, what emotions she was stirring as she moved through the air.

Blackbirds, backwards, forwards, fall…

Our connection to the past is undeniable. Though our days ahead can seem full of such hope and wonder, looking back to yesterday, I can remember what happened, and it was mostly good. I pushed the hard parts down to make them go away, at least for a time. In the days that are gone, I had no way to know that today’s burdens would slow me down and make my bones weary.

I was like the girl on the swing; I actually once was the girl on the swing. Not the same girl, and not the same swing…my swing was in the South of France.

Blackbirds, backwards, forwards, fall…

There is so much I don’t understand, so much I can’t say; there are so many words I cannot write, not ever.

The air carries a heavy burden even in its invisibility. I am afraid to walk through it, to break it, for fear that it won’t be contained. Though it is everywhere, I often cannot see it before the darkness takes over, threatening to engulf me in its wrath.

I am consumed; I am spent. Let the day begin.

Blackbirds, backwards, forwards, fall…

When I was a small girl, when the bell tolled for summer, the first thing I wanted to do was to swing in my backyard. I believed, and part of me still believes, that if I were to swing high enough, I might be able to wrap all the way around the support bar at the top of the swing set. I have flown so high as to nearly disappear into the clouds, but I have not yet made it around the pole.

Blackbirds, backwards, forwards, fall…

When you came to my door, the stories were big, almost daunting, though you were very small. Without words, you told me things that I shouldn’t know. You guided me to places that I didn’t want to go. Still, there was so much hope.

In the beginning, I thought that we could do it together, that the rest didn’t matter. You’ve grown, and we’ve grown, though I often am made to feel smaller than before.

During my week spent at Aix-en-Provence as a twenty-year-old, I walked through the storybook pages of cobblestone streets, lined with cottages…jewel-toned shutters open to the sunny morning…smell of noisette loaves and pain au chocolat wafting by to further decorate my senses. At the top of the road, there was a clearing, defined in part by what remained of a flagstone wall. In the center of that clearing was a wooden board suspended from a frame by the longest ropes that I had ever seen on what was certainly the most magical, enchanting swing. It was there that I felt the deep laughter and joy of my childhood even as I eagerly anticipated crossing the threshold into adulthood.

Blackbirds, backwards, forwards, fall…

What if you didn’t have a chance to try the magical swing because it was too hard to find? I am pretty sure we can find it together, if you will trust me enough to take my hand.

When we left the park that afternoon, the college girl was still as we found her, still swinging. Perhaps the swing at this little park, tucked into the edge of the university’s campus, held the same charm for her as mine had all those years before.

You can find your swing; it’s not too late. It’s never too late for the magic.

••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

Inspiration taken from R.E.M.’s “Half a World Away”

Ode to My Child’s Teacher

You have been my child’s teacher, and I am grateful.

For a span of nearly twenty-five years, children of mine have had the privilege of being taught, nurtured, cared for, and loved by so many extraordinary teachers, men and women who have helped to form these young beings into who they are.

My nearly grown son stopped by the farm earlier this week. He was about to leave on a business trip, but he made time to deliver a bag of apple cider donuts from the nearby orchard. I had been harvesting watermelons when his car pulled in; I have a bit of time now to work on the chores that have piled up for too long, as the littlest boy is now at school for a few hours each morning.

My son drove off just before the bus returned my preschooler to me. Time has a way of turning our boys to men even as we spin around to tend to the things that fill our days.

In the early years of motherhood, we hold our little ones close. To them, we are the whole world. The doors open, though, and there are influences that reach past our own fingertips, influences that help to form these tiny souls into who they will become.

And that’s where the teachers come in.

I am busy with the things of adulthood; I have waved to my child as she looked back at me through the school bus window, and I hope I held a thought of gratitude for the teacher who was moments from receiving my teenage bundle of attitude, unrest, and great promise (who just happened to be wearing pajamas).

Because you have always worked to forge a partnership with us, and to find something good in difficult circumstances, even when actions and behaviors were beyond understanding; for your tenacity, I am grateful.

Perhaps the nature of my family makes for a good longitudinal study of some sort. At the very least, it has allowed me to see over and again how the great love of a teacher can make a vast difference in the life of a child.

You made me feel like I am a good enough parent, through my tears and frustration, when life’s forces were bigger than me; for your support, and for your kindness, I am grateful.

For seeing past my child’s dirty fingernails, for praising him for his careful coloring, and for asking him to tell you more about his special train engine; you have done these things, and you have made a difference.

For helping my little boy to see that he is magic and brilliant even as he struggles with below-grade-level work; for your compassion, I am grateful.

For giving my daughter the time and space that she so desperately needed to be ready for learning, and for lifting her up so the burdens she carried were just a bit lighter; for your understanding, I am grateful.

I sometimes wondered how we would ever make it through the day. Then I turned around, and a whole year had passed. The year turned to decades, and I see grown children whose lives reflect the gifts they have been given by their teachers through the years.

I love those cider donuts, especially at this time of year. I ate three in a row that morning, right from the bag.

Perhaps it’s the time of year: transition, gratitude, thanksgiving as all around me are fields in the throes of harvest. I am grateful for the little things, which really might be big things. I am grateful for my children, for what is before me, and for you, the teachers that have given so much of yourselves for so very long.

I am grateful beyond any words I could write, and I hope you know that as you offer your hand, once again, to my child.

Thank you.

See Ya, Buttheads

It was the wax bottles, the Maryjanes, the sixlets, and the caramel bullseyes, along with a vast array of other vintage candies that held my attention until I looked to the direction of my son. We were at a downtown sweet shop, and he was engaged in conversation with a young girl who looked to be about his age.

“What grade will you be in?” asked the girl.

“I’m already in fifth,” he answered.

“Who’s your teacher going to be?” I don’t ever remember a longer spontaneous conversation between my son and anyone else.

“Well, I’m in a special school, and I am already in fifth grade because I went to summer school.” Ethan spoke without emotion. This was the first time that I had heard him volunteer this information, and I am not sure if I was relieved by his matter-of-fact delivery, or saddened that he recognized the difference that separated him from another fifth grader.

“Oh.” The girl turned her attention back to the television screen. She must have deduced that since they would not be in the same class, the conversation was no longer worth pursuing.

I can’t tell where one cloud ends and another begins.

Maybe it doesn’t even matter anymore, or maybe it never did.

I’ve been hit in the head with a size 10 toddler light-up boot one two many times this summer. I am ready for something.

I’m getting coffee, and you’re not. I am not really mean, and I certainly hope I don’t qualify as an idiot, whatever that is. Is that self-care, going through the drive-thru for coffee? I think it qualifies, and I think I am not obligated to buy cake pops for all of the trash-talkers in the back seat. They, of course, think differently.

I don’t talk to the clouds for fear that they might talk back.

Aaron spent many hours at the orthodontist’s office as a baby and toddler while his older siblings had their turns in the chair. On this day, he was going, brothers in tow, to see the doctor for his own orthodontic consult. We sat in the chairs in the waiting room for a few minutes, and then a bit longer. When Aaron’s name was called, our ill-behaved, complaining parade filed past perhaps a dozen teenagers, all in various stages on the path to straightened teeth. Some of them were accompanied by parents or companions. None seemed to be accompanied by little brothers, at least not cantankerous, impatient ones.

One brother carried on (loudly) about how long it was taking. Another performed full-body stunts on the dental chair. The third just kept running away, until I offered to take him back to the lobby to see the waterfall. On our way out, he proclaimed, “See ya, buttheads!” to the captive audience of orthodontic patients whose mouths probably hurt when they laughed at him…or maybe, more likely, at me.

School started this week, and with it comes a highly anticipated (by me) break from our summer rhythm (or lack thereof). Here I am, with three hours in front of me. A blank canvas, no obligations, and embodied inspiration that has left on the school bus.

I think I miss them.

Olive is such a silly chicken. It’s hard not to love her best, with her downy fro, her frantic postures, and her unmistakable charm as her feathers fall in her face and she accidentally collides into absolutely anything in her path. I wonder if she is lonely, if she longs for someone to explore the farm with her. Earlier this week, she seemed to have found a friend. One of the Cream Legbar hens, the type that is supposed to lay sky-blue eggs, had joined Olive in her usual hiding spot under the roost. By midday on the second day, I shooed the two young hens from the coop. It was a perfectly sunny day, and though I was delighted for Olive that she had found someone to keep her company, I thought they should get some air.

Olive’s friend had trouble standing. Her breathing was labored, and her eyes were half-closed. I separated her from the flock and tried to figure out the best way to help her. Olive looked on, likely wondering why I had taken her friend from her. By nightfall, the Cream Legbar was gone. She had settled under the roost not to keep Olive company, but to seek refuge from herself. Maybe, deep in her chicken heart, Olive knew this. Anyway, I know she was grateful for the company, however fleeting, and I’m sure the Cream Legbar was grateful for a companion to see her to the other side.

We’re trying to find our places here. Maybe they are determined from the beginning of time, or perhaps they are made clear as we grow, evolving as we do.

The sinister tides of trauma and mental illness overwhelm me, engulf me once again. Mine or theirs? I cannot tell.

Maybe the time spent in the waiting rooms, struggling, frustrated, and confused, helps us find what we’re looking for, even if we don’t understand what that is, as we stand (possibly wearing light-up cowboy boots and eating caramel bullseyes) at the threshold of a new relationship, a sacred friendship, a new school year, or an unexpected journey.

And if there were never clouds, how would we ever appreciate the rarity of a clear blue sky?

I wonder what color Olive’s eggs will be.

Racing the Clouds

“I know a lot about dinosaurs.

My favorite is the Velociraptor.”

“Is that a big one?” I immediately regretted encouraging this boy to carry on with what was clearly going to be more information than I could…or would want to… process.

We were at a birthday party, and my little son was playing ball with a few older boys. I had been standing in the shade in a rare moment of solitude when the dinosaur boy came upon me.

He answered the question that I wished I hadn’t asked.

“No, it’s small. It’s the size of a turkey. It has a tail that’s all feathery.”

The boy was six or seven years old. His dark brown hair was neatly trimmed. He wore a golfer’s polo with a collar that fell just right, pressed tan shorts, and clean running shoes.

He continued, offering words that I did not expect to hear on a sunny Saturday.

“And they eat meat. YOU are meat.”

With that haunting thought, I took my attention elsewhere.

Three has been a challenging age this last time around.

“Shut up, Mom. I hate you.”

I thought of that Velociraptor, coming at me when my back was turned.

I know they are just words, circles and lines from the tongue. Still, I fall in defeat. I cannot stop them. I cannot stop him. I cannot stop anyone.

For the times that I stood alongside you yet could not hear what you were saying, for the times when my own thoughts were too loud to hear your words, for the times when you felt that what you had to say did not mean enough to me, I am truly sorry.

I took the three little boys to visit Sam and Emily at their new house. The drive was nearly three hours. We spent a great day in the late summer sunshine, and before we were ready to go home, night had fallen. As we drove into the darkness, the stark evening sky called up emotions from my soul as a tiny three-year-old voice.

“I see the moon.”

Indeed, it was bold and full, holding stories and mysteries of cheese and an enchanting man who lived there. This small boy, too, would know them.

“I hate you, and I love you.”

Moving from one highway to another, across an illuminated trestle bridge, into more darkness…senses reeling. I still had a vision of the string lights as they lit up the backyard at the house of my grown son, my small child, my backpack baby no longer.

We were not used to these evening drives.

“It feels like we’re racing the clouds,” piped one boy.

“You’re like a race car driver! We’re going to win,” announced the youngest.

The oldest of the little boys sat in quiet solitude, but I know he heard everything.

We drove on into the night, stripped to our senses, and I was grateful for the chance to share the space in the old black van, alongside an abandoned camp backpack, a couple of baseball mitts, and treasures from today’s trip, with these three small beings that have given me the chance to care for them, to be their mama, and to take a day’s journey in the car to visit a brother who was once this small, and who would still appreciate the wonders of the night sky.

Three hours is a long time; twenty-four years is the blink of an eye.

There was truth in what the dinosaur boy told me, whether I wanted the information or not.

Sometimes I hear you, but I don’t know what to say. Though my words are elusive, I am listening still. Your chatter confuses and overwhelms me. YOU are meat; WE are meat. Please, keep talking. Keep talking, my son. Help me face what I cannot see.

Race the clouds with me. The moon is amazing, just as you are.

Sunsets and Storms

“How long do you think I’ll last? I mean, when do you think I am going to die?”

Ethan’s questions still sometimes catch me a bit off guard. I am not sure I ever give him answers that satisfy or even make sense to him.

I had to come up with something. “Well, Grampa is eighty. You could live a very long time.”

“Grampa eats fruits. If you eat a lot of fruits and healthy stuff, then you can live a long time. I don’t eat that many fruits.” He went back to what he had been doing before. The conversation was enough for him, though to me, rather unsettling and incomplete.

There are times when nothing makes sense…to anyone…at all.

I had hoped to hide from my embattled reality for at least three minutes. Just as I turned the lock to the bathroom door, I heard the skip that is unmistakably Aaron, embodied, bounding upstairs.

“Mom? Are you up here?”

He knew where I was; there was no hiding, no refuge to be sought. I was glad that he spoke first, before my annoyed retort for befallen peace sent him away, certainly without skipping this time.

“Mom? It’s a beautiful sunset. You should come see.”

That’s why he had come upstairs. That’s what he wanted to tell me: that the sunset was beautiful. He wanted me to see.

My little son knew that tonight’s fleeting gift of God’s creation would be worth more to me than a little time alone in the bathroom.

My birthday is coming up again. I am keenly aware that I am at the brink of the manifestation of the sunset of my life. While the future had once been something to envision from a great distance, that tide has now caught up to me, and my steps are not defined as I had expected that they might be. They melt; they disappear into a million grains of sand, indiscernible from the tracks of those who have gone before.

I wonder how my son, my child who views the world through a black and white lens, would make sense of the loss of a child. I wonder how anyone would.

The behavior specialist from Ethan’s school called last week. After analyzing the data from the past year, she was pleased to report that though the incidences of physical holds had increased, the overall challenges with his behavior had decreased to the point where he would be dismissed from her caseload. This, for us, is a type of victory.

Are the days that follow the second half of what has already happened, or is it a new start? Is it the end of the beginning, or will there be an entirely new purpose?

Olive Chickens (thanks, Elliott, for the middle name) does not appear to know where she is going in a given moment. Her feathers hide her eyes, and one wonders how well she can even see. Somehow, though, she finds her way home, or close to it, at night. Once, though, she almost didn’t.

I had taken Ethan to the specialist out of town. The driving rain made travel hard, and it was well after dark when we finally returned to the farm. Dan and Aaron had locked the other chickens down for the night, but Olive, who had been with us for just a handful of days, was nowhere to be found. She was certainly scared, cold, wet, and tired, if she had even been spared. After what seemed an eternity in the darkness of the still-stormy evening, I heard her unmistakable peep. I was a child on Christmas morning: Olive Chickens had wedged herself in a less-than-two-inch wide space between the coop and the run. She was trying to get home. She was scared, but she was okay. With the help of a rake and some urgent prayers, she was soon safely perched with her coop mates.

The boys were waiting for me when I finally made it inside. Ethan was first to approach. “Mom, you really care about that weird chicken.”

If only he knew.

So when the storms are inside, coming from a now medium-sized boy, and they overtake an hour or a day, I remember that we have come far. I remember that the beautiful sunsets had been further between. I only hope that we won’t run out of time before we make it home.

When I am gone, when my days are done, I hope that someone will be glad that he is alive, that someone will search for him when he is lost in the storm.

Here’s to eating lots of fruits, always finding our chickens amid the thunder and lightning, and never, ever missing out on a beautiful sunset.