Outbuildings

The property was maybe a forty-five minute drive from my grandparents’ house in the St. Louis city limits, but the contrast between the expansive country acreage and the tidy urban parcel led me to believe that we must have circled the moon and stars to get there. I can’t even remember the color of the outside of my dad’s Aunt Joan and Uncle Dave’s massive Victorian home, but I clearly remember the musty smell that filled me with wonder each time we entered through the parlor (no one else that I knew or even have known since has had a parlor). I remember the secret TV room where the teenagers hung out and where my sister and I spied on them from an even more secret closet that led somewhere that we dared not explore. I remember the velvet couches and the fancy swirling armchairs, the ceilings that nearly rose to the heavens, and Aunt Joan’s homemade dinner rolls that tasted just like the ones that pop out of a can. The best part, though, was the swing: a board suspended from somewhere above the clouds, attached to sturdy ropes that took me far beyond that patch of Eden.

I don’t even cry anymore when the chickens die; at least, I haven’t in a while. This morning, one of the young hens was lying in the roost with her neck twisted. I wondered what had happened as I carried her to the compost pile where she will be returned to the earth. I will never know. Disregard was probably not a very good name for a chicken, anyway. This year has hardened me in so many ways.

“I love outbuildings.” My son’s comment jarred me, mostly because I didn’t realize that he knew what an outbuilding even was, but also because I wondered if I had been thinking out loud. What is it about the sight of a tiny barn wood or rusty iron structure that compels me…and, clearly, my son…to want to know more, to want to venture inside, to want to be part of something that had been meaningful to someone else, however long ago?

If I could get in your soul, and you in mine, the mystery might cease to be. It must be fear of really knowing that keeps us from opening the smallest door.

A few years ago, a treasured childhood friend sent me a kitchen towel printed with a whimsical design, a map of Cape Cod, where her family has a cottage, along with an invitation to visit one day, when the time seemed right. I don’t think she would mind that the towel is now worn and some of the threads have loosened. A mirror to our days, time has weathered us. I hold her in my hands, though, with every dish I dry.

Uncle Dave had a shed on that Missouri property; it had probably been a garage at one time. I don’t remember him ever letting any of us in there with him, but from time to time, he would emerge from that shed, usually with a contraption of wood or wires or something else and there would be a softness about his face and an indiscernible music to his presence. He had been to his place, the place that filled him up.

The grandeur and mystery of that old house will forever be with me. Aunt Joan and Uncle Dave have been gone for years, and I can’t go back there anymore, at least not physically. Perhaps if I did, the magnitude of my memory would disappoint.

It has been hard for any of us to go anywhere this year. The safety of the issued stay-at-home orders brought some relief to me in those early days of the pandemic; I couldn’t go anywhere even if I wanted to. And I didn’t want to.

There has been sadness, loneliness, and loss. What has pulled us down, though, has left a wake of gratitude for simplicity and normalcy: for the rhythm of our earth’s seasons, for the little memories that beckon at every turn, for the everyday chores of tending chickens and drying dishes.

Perhaps we don’t need to go places to know that we have been somewhere. Maybe outbuildings look different to each of us. Maybe if we never bring ourselves to look inside, we’ll miss part of who we are.

Someday, though, I’m going to Cape Cod, and I think I’ll take my son along for the memories.

xoxo

No Elderberry Tree

“Mom, why are you crying?” His question came from a place of innocence that I feared was about to fade before my eyes, which could no longer contain what I knew.

“Because she loves you,” said the nurse softly, gently, poignantly.

I knew it would be different this time, for so many reasons.

So I’m gonna weep a while…

It wasn’t at all what I had thought. They were words that I had heard, words that resonated and meant something to me. They weren’t even the right words.

Shortly after moving to the farm, we were delighted to discover the elderberry bushes that we had inherited with the land. We learned to make elderberry syrup, elderberry jelly, elderberry liqueur, elderberry vinegar, and, at the urging of Uncle Bob, elderberry pancakes. Elderberries seemed almost magical, promising health and well-being to me and my family in many forms.

I often play a song over and over, for weeks or even months, if it means something to me…if the lyrics strike a chord somewhere inside of me…even if their meaning is far from the writer’s intention. Sam had shared such a song with me; with a line that I had interpreted to include “there’s no elderberry tree….” After the song had made circles through my head, I found out that I was wrong. I had misheard the lyric. I think I needed it to sound just as I had heard it, though, in that space of time. I know there’s no elderberry tree, at least not one that can fix everything. But I think I much prefer to keep believing in the magic.

Oh, the demons come. They can subside.

It was the first time since he had come to us that we had been separated. Every time we talked during those longest and shortest twelve days, he asked if one of the dogs had died yet. He wanted to know how the birds were doing and if the chickens were okay. He asked about the bearded dragon, and even about his brother’s friend’s visiting bearded dragon, whether it was still at the farm. The barn cats, I assured him, were out every night, and the stealthy raccoon had returned with the warmer weather to show up each evening precisely when I replaced the food for the cats. His voice was happy, and he always seemed eager to get back to watching movies and winning prizes alongside his hospital mates.

“I tried really hard to hold in my crying. I only couldn’t a couple times.”

Twelve days.

How could I have known?

This time, I had to enter through a tent where a young woman with mirrored glasses and a mask which nearly engulfed her entire face motioned for me to enter the hospital. From this port of entry, nothing seemed the same. After reporting my child’s name, I was directed to sit on a nondescript, unexpectedly comfortable chair next to the elevator. Voices rose from all directions. Sharp, fast, thick, unintelligible words formed conversations from behind the doors and inside the closets. The glare from the lights bounced towards me in an attempt, I was sure, to flatten me.

These lights, they haunt me like orchids in a graveyard.

Men and women crossed lines before my eyes as they moved to wherever they were going. I wondered if they were coming for me, or if they thought they should be, or if they even noticed me. Time slowed with every breath. I wondered if I would be here again.

I was only for your very space.

I heard a person screaming. A child, not mine.

“Stop smiling at me,” bellowed the child. Then there was more screaming and this time, some very discernible bad words.

The screams turned into the rumble of the elevator. The heavy sounds filled my bones, making them hurt. The doors opened slowly as theater curtains, revealing the towering blue food cart which I had studied previously. Years before, it had been pushed by an old man who leaned heavily to one side when he walked and who always greeted me with his eyes, without smiling. As the cart emerged from the elevator, I saw the same man, leaning similarly, perhaps a bit further, to one side, pushing the cart. I knew his kind soul behind his mask. I heard his voice, though he said not a word.

Time slowed with every breath. I wondered if this would be my last time.

No one could understand all the lyrics: not anyone, ever. How could they?

It’s hard to find it when you knew it.

A masked attendant brought my little boy to me, then, simultaneously announcing that my son’s boots were lost and thrusting paperwork toward me, one piece that she noted was attesting that he had been given back all of his belongings. I wondered about the boots, his muck boots that he wore when we foraged for elderberries in the swampy August dawn.

We stopped at the donut store, because we always do on our way home from this hospital. Maybe it’s our reward for making it out; maybe its meaning is as magical as my elderberry tree, which isn’t really an elderberry tree at all. On the way in to get our donuts, my little boy reached for my hand.

“Mom, you know all those times I said I wish I had a different mom? I kind of regret that.” His words were clear as the sky’s vibrant blue, even through his mask.

Everything that happens is from now on.

Maybe there’s no such thing as an Elderbery Tree, in a theoretical sense. I did make some elderberry jelly last week, because I had more time than usual while the boy was gone. As long as there are still some elderberries in the freezer, though, I am holding on to the hope that one day, I just might find the recipe for what we are really looking for.

XOXO

*Musical inspiration from randomly heard and interpreted (or perhaps misinterpreted) lyrics mostly from Bon Iver (Salem, Towers, Re: Stacks, Calgary) but also from Ben Howard (London) and Keaton Henson (How Could I Have Known?)

Tie Me to a Tree

The six year old practices every bad word he knows in one long stream, shot directly at my quiet request to put on fresh underwear. Three days seems a little long for the same pair of boxers…even during e-learning.

“Home is their haven.”

These were words that I shared more than once or twice over the years, words that, if nothing else, helped me to define the gray lines between home and school, between running outside in the grass without shoes (and sometimes wearing underwear alone…even three-day-old ones) until dusk or sitting frustrated alongside half-inch-thick piles of worksheets at the kitchen table as the sun draws the shades on the day; between having fourteen snacks in a six-hour span and ranging free with the chickens, and following a bell schedule when you really just need someone to say, “it’s okay.” The hard stuff that happened at school wouldn’t have to be a worry once the bus home stopped in the afternoon…until this year, when things are different.

I think my sons’ teachers (angels from heaven, every one) might say that my kids do eat fourteen snacks and run all over (albeit inside the house) during school hours. At least our cameras are on. And we are trying.

“Shit. Hell, yeah.” Sideways glance, just to make sure I am listening.

My grown sons would certainly be aghast at some of the parenting techniques (or lack thereof) in place at the farm these days. I have been studying (in my spare time…yes) about beekeeping. Worker bees produce propolis or “bee glue” to seal up the hive and for other things, too. When a mouse or another intruder makes its way into a hive, it seems the bees “propolize” this enemy, wrapping it like a mummy with their bee glue if it is too large to carry out of the hive. It might be fun to have some propolis, just to keep everyone still enough for me to be able to use the bathroom with the door closed for a change.

“Sure, you can play video games for two more hours…”

Dan and I have decided that the holes in our walls make our house look lived-in. That’s charming, right? We’re not defeated; not yet. But they might as well tie me to a tree. With propolis, even.

People are getting vaccines. A magical sunrise brings the first hint of above-freezing weather, nearly warm enough for the boys to run around the farm in their underwear. A lot has been lost, but maybe that will make what we have left stronger and brighter.

The bees number tens of thousands, living harmoniously in the hive for the benefit of the colony. Home, their hive, is clearly their haven. After a long, cold winter, a global pandemic, the hopeful end of what must be the hardest days, it’s going to feel pretty good to look back on how much we have learned, bad words and all.

The Secret Room

Once, I cried at a baseball game. It was dark, so no one probably even knew. By some sort of twist in the interpretation of a rule…or something…the very reliable little league pitcher for Aaron’s team had to be pulled from the game. Though the details elude me, I remember that much was on the line. This could have been the last at-bat before this precious team of nine-year-old sluggers and playground base runners could be crowned league champions of their beloved summer game… Not, though, before my small backyard hero was called on to face the other team’s hope that the championship would instead be theirs.

He could throw a fierce, hard strike for his fifty-five pound frame. In step with his personality, though, he also tended toward wild unpredictability with his efforts on the mound. Amidst some groans and eye rolls from the gallery of less-than-confident little league fans, I was at once hopeful and terrified as my son kicked the dirt beneath his feet and gripped the baseball with his tiny hand.

He didn’t know. In his starry-eyed innocence, he had no idea of the magnitude of the task at hand. He struck out that batter and his team won the game, earning the title of champions. It was, in the end, just another day, the end of another chapter. But I did cry as my son’s teammates crowded the mound to join him in celebration. It was the flash of the failure-to-thrive infant whom we had propped up through so many dark nights to make sure his airway was clear; that’s what brought the tears: tears from a chapter that had closed years before but the reminders of which still bring me right back to that place of fear and uncertainty, of medical appointments and thoughts of what might have been. I cried because my eyes had been opened, and I understood that the gravity of what had just happened on the baseball field actually extended far beyond the game.

The main bathroom at the farm has a closet that was part of the original house. It extends under the stairs into a small space that was perfect for my boxes of paperwork that I had packed up years before we moved. I had nearly forgotten that they were there, tucked far beyond the toilet paper, extra toothpaste, and guest towels. I thought about this space that nobody knew of except me, considering that it might be worth cleaning out to make a “secret room,” a fresh spot for the little boys to do their schooling. Following an afternoon spent pulling the boxes from the closet, sweeping out the spider webs, and setting up a disco light and cushions to make the space enticing, the two youngest boys retreated to their new area while I set out to look inside the boxes that had spent the last five years under the stairs.

Three of the boxes were from my days working as an in-home therapist, packed with obsolete case files and assessment manuals. A slip of paper dropped from one of the folders that held my collection of resources for working with babies with visual impairments.

“Vision is the ability to gain meaning from eyesight.” These words, copied in my writing by an unknown author, resounded in my head with added interpretation.

A fourth box was full of files from our years as foster parents. Letters from caseworkers, service plans, receipts, notebooks used to communicate with parents, licensing files, a few photos, and an avalanche of emotion was unpacked on our kitchen table that afternoon. There was so much inside that box; so much that once consumed every bit of me, so much that I did not even remember, now nearly lost in the tide of today.

All of these books, these files, these papers, opened and closed. Still I am here, turning the pages of the new chapters, chapters which one day soon may themselves be taped up in boxes forgotten with the turning of the years.

These days, as many things keep us quiet and inside, I am trying to find meaning in the seemingly meaningless. In discarding the files of the last few seasons of my life, I wonder if this time of questioning where or what I am is actually a season in itself, part of a greater vision that’s much bigger than me, and bigger than anyone could see with their eyes alone.

Spring will, if I am lucky, bring another season on the baseball field…another chance for a little boy to be a hero and for his mama to remember what brought us to where we are. All of the manuals, medical appointments, emotions, disappointments, sadness, fear, twists of fate, pitches, and even magic that we have taped up and hidden away inside the boxes of our own secret rooms bring meaning to something beyond our greatest vision. When we take the chance to lift the lid just a little, to look inside, we are reminded that through those seasons we have come to be where we are, wherever that is, which is probably just another passageway to the next adventure, disco lights, cobwebs, and all.

Bumblefoot and Bread

I brought her in the house to die, but she didn’t.

Rosalina is one of my original twelve hens…actually eleven, because Wendell turned out to be a rooster. She has been quieter as she has aged, still maintaining her berth in the pecking order with an unspoken respect and reliably laying her pale green eggs in the nest boxes through the seasons.

On a very cold morning earlier this month, Rosalina’s high-pitched squawks were insistent. She approached me when I came to the coop to toss out fresh pine shavings as if she knew she needed help. Her breathing was labored, and she had blood coming from some indeterminable places around her head and eyes. I tended to her and held a good thought as her labored breathing scraped at my soul. By nightfall her cries were urgent, almost desperate.

We brought the ailing chicken to the house as we have done with so many of her flock mates over the years. A few have gone quietly and peacefully after a lavender-and-epsom-salts bath. Some have been treated to a couple days of scrambled eggs and cider vinegar along with a little extra TLC before their return to the coop. Others come and go a few times before their fates are determined.

Sometimes I just want to close the coop door and pretend I didn’t see. Sometimes I even do. On a given day, I am not sure I have the fortitude for pushing a chicken’s prolapsed vent back where it came from or helping herald the angels when a predator has struck.

Sometimes I want to close the door when this longitudinal study of parenting overwhelms me. Sometimes I even do…but not for long, because that would be irresponsible and potentially very dangerous. We certainly, though, close the chrome books when e-learning gets to be a little too much.

It’s just hard to know the right thing to do. The days have turned so slowly: doors have shut and we have closed ourselves away from what we once were. We miss what we had but are afraid to move toward it.

What do I do if the chicken has bumblefoot? Would she be more comfortable if I just left her in the coop? What if all the chickens get bumblefoot? Will keeping the children at home do us more harm than good? What if we all get bumblefoot? Is that even a thing?

These are terrible decisions.

Last week, I finally retired my bread machine that my mom gave me when Elliott, now nearly 30, was fourteen months old. For decades, that Panasonic worked fervently for our family, kneading for us our “almost daily” bread. Though it gathered dust during gluten free experiments and busy traveling baseball days, it continued to produce those perfect little crusty loaves that turned butter to gold when we plugged it in.

Shortly after we moved to the farm, I noticed an uncharacteristic struggling noise to the bread machine, as of the motor was tiring. A bit more time passed, and the loaves were harder to remove from what could no longer be classified as a non-stick pan. Some recipes came out looking (and tasting) more like bricks than our beloved bread. I tried again every few months, but clearly the time had come to resign myself to a future of kneading by hand. It was okay. It was time.

It’s just not as easy with the chickens or the children. We have to make hard decisions about big things. If I don’t bring the chicken in the house, she might die. If I do, she still might. If we keep the boys at home, we may continue to struggle and feel defeated. We might also remember a lot of good that came from simply being home. We could all get sick anyway, just as all the hens could get bumblefoot or prolapsed vents.

We are all going to stay home for a bit longer…except Rosalina. She has healed and returned to her roost in the coop. Hope is around the corner, ready to cast aside our frozen flowers, beckoning the spring thaw and all that nature calls in rhythm. And, I really do like kneading bread.

New Garbage

She remembered things differently from what I could recall. Seasoned in some ways, I couldn’t see what was right in front of me. Despite our proximity, there was a lot in the way.

Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or discouraged, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

–Joshua 1:9

Decades ago now, my volunteer job at a health food shop slotted me in the Saturday evening shift with Nancy. (And yes, that is her real name, because I somehow hope she might know how much she meant to me). I stood at least a head taller than Nancy, who had incessantly pink cheeks and a glorious cascade of waist-length gray and white hair which, even when pinned up, made me stare.

Nancy taught me how to clean the bulk bins of rye flour, green and yellow lentils, and dried cranberries. She led me down the stairs past the old conveyor belt where she explained the steps to putting the store in order for the next day’s business. We swept the floor, emptied the garbage, and cleaned the bathroom. Before my first shift had even ended, I looked forward to seeing Nancy again.

When I had finished my assignment of wiping up the bathroom, I asked Nancy where I should put the dirty paper towels, as we had already emptied the trash bin.

“Oh, that can be ‘new garbage,'” said Nancy.

New garbage. How liberating!

I tossed the paper towels without looking back and followed my wise new friend past the old conveyor belt and upstairs to lock up the store.

One Saturday, Nancy arrived for her shift with her hair cut to a chin-length bob which was, somehow, just as perfectly suited to her and as lovely as when it had been nearly three feet longer. I thought how brave and bold she must have been, and how I would have probably felt too vulnerable to part with even a few inches of my own forgettable hair.

After maybe a year, I stopped working at the store. Nancy and I lost touch over the years. I am not sure why, except for the fact that our routines no longer brought us together on Saturday evenings. She may never know the impact that her words, which she likely did not remember past the moment, had on me. They have served as a metaphor for my emotional release, helping me to see that it’s okay, really, to leave the new garbage there. I shouldn’t have to worry about every little thing. It’s okay to have some new garbage, a little bit of the mess still to remain for the next time. It’s okay to leave a bit of our burdens, a bit of what has brought us here. We have given the best of ourselves: the best for that space of time.

We had traveled the long stretch of highway to my daughter’s school so many times before. The icy aftermath of the winter storm, though, brought ethereal beauty that I hadn’t expected on our late afternoon drive. This time, things seemed softer between us, and I knew there was a whole lot that we were both learning to leave behind.

We reached our destination just as darkness beckoned. It had been a good holiday visit. She hugged me hard; it wasn’t just an obligation as it had often seemed before.

It has taken a long time to begin to feel the strength of trust. The eight-years-ago me may have tried to understand, to mend, or to empty the new garbage.

While I drove through a daze with my music at a volume suited only for driving alone, fog lowered all around. Soon I could not see more than a short distance ahead. I checked the lights. My hands gripped the wheel. The music no longer made sense. The familiar fear made my heart pound.

Just as I began to wonder if my time had come, a semi passed into the lane ahead of me. Surely, it had been sent by the Heavenly Father. For nearly an hour, that truck guided me through the wintry thickness, safely home.

It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.

–Deuteronomy 31:8

The storm, though breathtakingly beautiful, was frightening and unpredictable. The ice still holds fast to the trees, adding sparkle to an otherwise bleak season. In the aftermath of the lingering frost lies damage and destruction, new garbage, and hope…mostly hope.

And to Nancy… Thank you for what you gave me all those years ago.

A Little Toast to Hope

Yesterday, I was having a good day, which really wouldn’t seem extraordinary except there just haven’t been a whole lot of them lately.

A year ago, I had just lost 22 pounds. My hip didn’t hurt anymore, and I was a little closer to keeping up with the boys. All of the big kids were coming home for Christmas, and we were looking forward to taking the little boys on a spring break trip to Florida to visit my mom and dad.

It’s different now.

When I encounter people for the first time, they see me on the screen as I carry a chrome book, doing my best not to slip on the cheese or whatever is stuck to the floor while I chase my kindergartner through one disastrous room after the next. We meet again and again in this same, awkward manner. They don’t know who I used to be, and I don’t know how to tell them because I am not sure I even remember.

Maybe it started during the first days of this forgettable year when I decided to try combing out my dreads. It took nearly a month of stolen time with my stiff hands to salvage probably four inches of hair; the razor would have been so much easier. Now, though, I want them back. It’s easy to forget about the incessantly itchy scalp, how bad they were for my already-bad posture, and the chickens getting stuck on my head. I just miss how things used to be.

My half-full glass sometimes seems to be evaporating. I think I’m sinking. As the walls cave in around me, I might soon be swallowed by this very earth that I love so desperately, that I dream of feeling in my hands, that I did not get enough of, as with so many other things in this sorry season.

Yesterday, my son brought in the mail, including a little paper package tied up with a string. My friend had left for me the sweetest pair of fingerless gloves, knitted with flowers in colors of red, purple, gold, and robin’s egg blue, vibrant as a street fair or holiday market, neither of which I could attend this year. In the attached note, she said she thought of me when she saw them. I was so touched that I nearly cried for the fourth time that day. The sun was peeking out, and I had the best new pair of fingerless gloves, just perfect to temper the burn of my arthritic joints. Maybe things were finally going to turn around.

We know what we need to do. We just need to do it. At some point, defeated too often by the slamming of the chrome book and the falling of our collective spirits, I stopped doing what I knew was right. I ate sugar and bread and bakers dozens of Christmas cookies. The creak came back in my hip, accompanied by all but about five of the pounds that I had lost. It was too much to think about. I knew what I needed to do; I just didn’t do it.

When we returned from the grocery store that night, the usual frenzy of carrying bags and unloading food ensued. Some hours passed, and as night fell I thought of my precious new gloves. I went out in the darkness to look in the van where I found only one glove. It had fallen between the seat and the door. How could I have lost its match on the very day that they had been given to me? At least, I told myself, I still had one glove.

The year has taken so much from us. I wonder if we will ever get any of it back. If I don’t even remember who I was, how is anyone else to know?

I went to bed wishing for things I no longer had, forgetting that so many things still filled my glass.

I’m trying. I haven’t had sugar in three days. I have been drinking beet and kale smoothies. Maybe the shortened time in the garden this year was actually good for my achy joints. Maybe they will stop aching if I eat more beets, which I actually love, and less Oreos, which I also love. Maybe I could dye my hair pink. Chickens would probably stay away from that.

Someday, the boys will be back at school, and I will have stretches of my days before me. I know my people don’t care if I have lost or gained twenty pounds, or if my hair is pink or my scalp is itchy. We know what we have to do to get through all of this. We just have to keep doing it.

I could hear the roosters crowing on my way to open the coop early on this cold, gray morning. There was, though, a small patch of jubilant brightness on the frosty ground near where the van was parked. It was the missing glove.

After warming it up on the heat vent inside the quiet house, I slipped it on my “bad hand,” which immediately felt better. The little gift…actually a big gift…from a blessing of a friend was a bold reminder that we can find what we once had. It may, though, be extra bright and beautiful, and warm like never before, because we felt, if only for a short time, what it was to have lost so much of what we had known.

Peace, love, and hope to all! XO

I Like Your Pants

The elastic was stretched thin on the worn red cotton gingerbread-printed pajama pants. My second-hand find from years ago slipped dangerously low despite my bread-and-sugar belly. The chickens never seemed bothered by my fashion sense; they fluttered to greet me that morning as I delivered their feed.

“I like your pants.” My little son’s words jolted me out of my morning reverie wherein I was actually having coffee in an actual coffee shop with one of my actual friends.

He had come out of my bed (which he says he prefers to his, because it’s bigger, and also comfier) where he had been sleeping while I went to tend the chickens. “Thank you” was my simple response because I could think of nothing more to say. My pajama pants had been marked for the rag pile a while ago, but he liked them. He really did like them, I knew, because six-year-olds have not yet learned to say things to make people feel good just for the sake of doing so. They say kind things when they genuinely mean them.

Juliet was like that. She was quiet even for a cat, except when she was sleeping in my bed, breathing like a freight train coming right at my face. She must have thought that my bed was comfy, too. She did, though, have a particular way of making me happy…really happy.

She liked to stand on my paperwork, right in the middle of it, and park herself in my chair precisely when I was making my way over to sit in it. I could always count on her to sit with me (actually, right by the coffee pot) while I had my morning cup.

She also, though, appeared like a faithful angel in the aftermath of our struggles with mental illness, when the demons had retreated and we were left to assess the damages. She would always emerge, watching me, as if to say that I was going to be okay. And she would roll her eyes at the foolish antics of the rest of them, while she certainly thought about how nice it was, and I thought how nice it would be, to be a cat. Juliet was my quiet companion on the rough seas, the soft, white ball of fluff who appreciated every warm load of laundry that ever came from the dryer. She loved me, she loved butter, and she died on the kitchen floor last month.

It’s lonely around here, even with all of the people. I think many people are lonely these days, even when their best cats didn’t just die.

It sure is a hard, weird world these days. All of these meets and zooms are getting to me. I know I am not the only one. I would like to live life with my camera off, perhaps in the forest in my backyard, maybe close to where Juliet is buried. I can’t, though, because I have to chase my six-year-old around with his Chromebook. It’s my new job, one I got when I didn’t know I was getting one. At least he likes my pants.

I miss how things were before, when I missed how things were before that. I miss my tiny windows of time alone in my garden. I miss sitting with my people in Common Grounds, our downtown coffee shop. I miss the freedom that I didn’t even know was a thing. I guess we all do. Also, I miss Juliet.

I guess I can learn from my little son to be genuine and generous, too, with my words… To take a lesson from what is right before me, because now, that’s pretty much all there is.

I still have visions of Juliet. I expect to see her on the kitchen counter, scoping out the butter, waiting next to the crockpot, planning her next move. She’s not coming back, though. Things are going to be different from now on. The hole in the living room wall will be patched soon. The boys will grow older. I will get my time in the garden again. I don’t think we will soon forget about this isolation and how it has made us feel. And I think those old pajama pants are worth wearing at least a few more times. I just hope the elastic holds.

RIP, sweet Juliet❤️

Photo credit: Sam Ihm

Aftermath: Burning Desires

At first glance, I wondered if it was just an enormous burn pile.

My first memories place me under the tree in the yard of my early childhood home on Varano Drive in St. Louis, where I spent so many hours picking at the grass and digging in the dirt. I longed to go with my big sister as she boarded the bus to school. When she returned from kindergarten, we would wait together for the ice cream truck. She would always be first to proclaim that she could hear the magical music…probably, I figured, because she was the big sister. I wanted to do “big girl” things, just like she did.

I started to wonder if it was more than just burning leaves.

At four years old, I clearly remember sitting between my preschool peers at Virginia James Dance Academy. It was snack time. I wanted the ice milk that Vicky, who had some kind of food sensitivity, had gotten, instead of the paperboard cup of ice cream before me. As I scraped a tiny vanilla mound onto my little wooden stick-spoon, I secretly wished that I, too, had been special enough for ice milk.

The cloud of smoke rose and widened.

At six, I wanted so badly to swing high enough to wrap the chains around the support bars, even while I held fast to my seat.

We stepped outside. The fire was audible from our front porch.

As a third-grader, I really admired Mary Ellen’s new shoes. They were shiny black patent-looking vinyl with a grosgrain ribbon glued across the top. I asked her where she had gotten them. My mom took me to Kmart after my successful pleading, and soon I had my very own pair. I felt fancy, indeed! By the time my toes crowded against the front of the shoes, I was ready to trade the once highly-coveted ribbon shoes for a pair of canvas Keds which seemed better suited, anyway, for making potions in the backyard from baby powder and food coloring.

Under the rolling smoke, we could see flames coming toward us.

In sixth grade, my dad took me to a Cubs game. I got my first baseball mitt, and, at the end of that season when my love of the great game began, I learned of the dreaded baseball depression that begins with the last out of the World Series and, thankfully, lifts as the first pitch is tossed in the springtime.

Just in case, I called for help even as the sirens could be heard in the distance.

I wanted to ride the highest roller coasters and the fastest spinning rides with my friend, Sheila, because she was really funny and good, and I knew she wouldn’t throw up on me.

The flames, topped with billowing smoke, continued to roll furiously toward the farm.

I wanted to know what those girls who sat along the wall were laughing about in my eighth grade classroom. I hoped very hard that it wasn’t me.

We could see flashes through the smoky clouds, far across the burning field.

In high school, I wanted to belong. I could never, though, really find my way in a crowd. My message was awkward and quiet, though my inner voice roared. I joined service clubs that worked to clean the convent adjacent to our school, packed harvest boxes for the holidays, and volunteered at a summer camp for preschoolers with autism. I wanted to “help people” because I thought that was what I was supposed to do, perhaps because I though it would somehow make me a better person.

Fear was rising.

At twenty, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of friends, I walked along Clark and Belmont, hunting for vintage treasures at Flashy Trash and scouring the record bins at Second Hand Tunes. I waited long hours for entry to concert venues, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of friends. I studied hard. I wanted to travel, listen to music, and, perhaps one day, still, have a little part in saving the world…or, at least, the children.

Fire trucks and rescue vehicles arrived with flashing lights, strength, and fire hoses. The helpers had come.

The days turned quickly to years, love, babies, home keeping, and gardening. I wanted to stay right where I was, alongside my dear friends as we pushed strollers to the coffee shop or sat on the bench outside the conservatory. The simple days were numbered, though, as the children grew.

The sky had transitioned to an eerie, unsettling yellow. The air swirled with remnants of harvest, brittle and broken.

Time presented years of fostering and subsequent adoptions, years so different from my early days of parenting. I wanted to fix what I never quite could. The words just never seemed right. I hoped to be the one that could make a difference…but I wasn’t enough. The strength…even wisdom…that I had once felt gave way to the anger, the trauma, and the tragedy of what we had signed up for. What I wanted, upon this slow realization that I would never be enough, was uncertain.

It was so hot. The smoke had fallen heavy, permeating our beings. The wind shifted, and with it came new fears of the flames reaching the forest or the chicken coop.

Soon it will be sunset, a mystery of nature’s paint box; one day’s stunning show that leads to an unimpressive tomorrow. Maybe that’s enough.

A tractor circled the fiery field, turning up the soil to aid in combating the flames.

What I want now is to sit next to my aging parents, to hear my mother’s voice of reassurance, quelling my uncertainties about whether the turkey is done or if I should use bleach in the laundry; and to catch a Cubs game on TV with my dad, always faithful as my biggest fan.

The billowy smoke began to give way to sun. The worst, for certain, was behind us.

Sitting under a tree, picking at the grass and digging in the dirt seems nearly enough for me, now, and certainly more desirable and manageable than trying to save the world.

I checked the freezer, but there wasn’t enough chocolate chip banana bread to offer to all those helpers. I called to them, but the noise echoed so loudly in my head that nobody heard me.

I hope that my daughter might stop by on her lunch hour to pick up her mail, or that my son will take a little break from his work day to eat a piece of bread while it is still warm enough for the butter to melt. I think of the faraway boys…now men…and hope that their days find them happy.

The last fire truck was pulling away as I returned from the chicken coop, where a few hens perched inside, seemingly doing their regular chicken things. I waved to the driver and he, to me, as we both went about the rest of our days.

I wish they could all be home, taking their places around the table as the day fades to dusk. They are what I have always wanted, and now, with my grown children in their various stages of adventure, after the smoke has mostly lifted, it has finally come clear.

The November sun was particularly bright in the aftermath, reflecting hope and relief. Though I could not discern the colors, I know they were there.

As the fire, we ignite, rage, succumb to help from others, and fade to quiet.

“And at once I knew, I was not magnificent.”

–from Holocene, Bon Iver

Dearth

“Mom, why is your garden really empty right now?”

The words of my five-year-old came from a place of curiosity. The corn stalks that had poked skyward for many months had been cut. Lemon cucumbers no longer hung along the fence posts like bright lamps strung for a party. He had noticed. He wondered: why?

Some might suggest that it would be my chickens, but it is my garden that is closest to my soul. Why, he might have asked, is your soul empty right now?

I can see where this is going. I can feel the thoughts. They come from so many: many who have not gone before. Without words, I know how they perceive me. They don’t hear what I say. They can’t. It doesn’t matter that the story ends…or almost…the same way, every time. Once again we pry it open…stitches for a paper cut from pages that we have known for a million days. We have to begin again, because we still don’t understand the words.

The moon was a giant orange ball, a jeering jack-o-lantern to guide me along the darkening road across, once again, the endless miles. Hope was a tiny space, fading to nothing, gone like the color of the moon by the time another could see.

The judgment reaches through the slammed doors. The noise of misconception, fabrication, and blame drown out the quiet truth which no one seems to hear. Who are we anyway, to step forward with our intentions? The fingers point at every turn; invisible laughter and thoughtess remarks grind into my hollow, guarded heart.

Beneath the balloons and party horns, the colors are faded, unnamed, indiscernible. A lifetime of celebrations is written in invitations lost along the way.

It’s not your fault. It’s not her fault. Really, it’s nobody’s fault.

I might know parts of the story, but only what I was not supposed to be told, that which poured from a young child’s glassy memory, like a kaleidoscope, twisting and fleeting at every turn. These patterns pervade, engraved in the stones of loss.

I lay awake as the voices rejoice. The circle is complete, but I find myself outside, cast out, perhaps. A questionable purpose known only to our Maker. So in the end, it’s just me, back where I began, gutted empty. The starry eyes have faded in favor of those gaunt and knowing, circled dark…a wisdom desired by no one.

How can this be God’s work?

When the day comes at last, when I am called home, will I look back and understand the work of His hand? Will we stand together, welcomed back into the circle?

It’s so dark, and we are far away from even the light of the moon. We know, though, that the winter sleep will yield its cold blanket of snow, and the magical asparagus will once again poke through the soil. The brittle grape vines will bring renewal with fresh green shoots to remind us of the promise of late summer fruit.

One season turns to the next, and our circle opens once again. Heaven’s garden knows no dearth; bountiful harvests flow like honey.

My little son marveled at the harvest moon’s surreal presence…a perfect circle, the color of the sun. Together we stood, watching as it faded to ordinary before our eyes. We knew, though, just how magnificent it once had been.