Curtain Call

I have been fighting the demons for a long time…and I’m not speaking of my children. Deep inside of me I know, even when no one else does. They are all the things that I am afraid of; they are what I might have been; and they are the things I mustn’t ever tell.

On one of the early days in July, just as a lot of hard things began to happen, one of the boys fell down the basement stairs. I can still hear the sounds: crashing, calling out…and I can still feel the anguish of trying to decipher what needed to happen. It’s hard sometimes, because you really can never know what another person feels, physically or otherwise. Ever.

This time, it wasn’t mental illness that landed us in the emergency room. It was an injured knee.

You can’t see me in the darkness, where I am bright.

My beloved friend took me to a theater show on a weekday afternoon. The sun shone high in the opal sky, and the expanse of highway was insignificant as I rode alongside someone who didn’t seem to mind taking in a year-and-a-half’s worth of my voiced stream of consciousness.

We had lunch at an eclectic cafe. I ate my last sweet potato fry just in time for a brisk walk to the venue. The day was a welcome break from the sameness of overturned chairs, bad words, and tensive attitudes.

I followed my friend up the fancy staircase into the even fancier auditorium. To my great delight (and great relief, really), she did not stop until she reached the first row of seats at the edge of the balcony, all the way in a far corner of the theater. Nobody was near to us. Ours were the best seats in the house. My friend thought so, too. She knew I would want to go, mostly for the show, but also for the seats.

“Do we have a room for the knee?” Our nurse’s unsettling voice bellowed down the crowded hospital corridor, interrupting my thoughts about why the man who sat crumpled on the chair beside me might have an ice pack over his ear. She attempted to navigate the borrowed wheelchair through this much-too-brightly lit space, appearing to be only somewhat cautious to avoid collisions between IV poles, my son’s outstretched leg, and fellow emergency room inhabitants in need of some sort of stitching or another.

The knee? There was so much more to this boy. His deep brown eyes carry a burden that nobody could ever understand. He loves basketball; Golden State, specifically. He probably feels left out and lonely though he says he would rather stay home. He would eat cheeseburgers three times a day if he was allowed. His intricate landscape drawings and train layouts offer just a glimmer of the complexity of his thought processes. There would have to be room for more than just his knee.

I don’t want them to turn on the light.

Can we ever really understand people? I don’t think so; not completely. If we understand just a little bit of someone, though, like when even a small crowd will be overwhelming or that it might not be that fun to pick something new from the restaurant menu or to jump rope with the other fourth-graders, that might be enough. It might be enough to quiet the demons if we could just sit in the very corner of the auditorium for the afternoon matinee. It might be enough to remind ourselves that we are much more than just “a knee” even in a stifling hospital hallway. It might be enough for a boy to know that we would be going to a restaurant that served cheeseburgers.

I don’t think the cafe that I visited on that sunny day with my friend even had cheeseburgers on the menu, which was just fine with me. And my demons and I really did enjoy the theater show, especially for the company.

Oh, the demons come, they can subside.” —Bon Iver, Calgary

Weeds and Stings

You can’t possibly know the glory of the rose’s bloom while the climber lies in waiting.

The thatch and nettle push their way in front of my pink yarrow. Even the hollyhocks stand in the shadows of an unnamed weed that must have gone unnoticed for too long.

There is milkweed sprouting alongside the corn. The last few asparagus resemble pencil-style Christmas trees, and I can barely find the bush beans. Everything has gotten out of hand, but so much is beautiful.

I’m a first year beekeeper. Some days, I am feeling pretty pleased with myself, thinking that I am on my way. Then there are days like yesterday, when I really was trying my best to be slow and gentle, singing the best lines to the bees from songs that I know they must like as I used my already work-worn hive tool to open the boxes, looking for evidence of things that I do not yet understand. I had stopped singing long before I hobbled away in my useless pink bee suit with a body full of venom and a badly broken ego.

Inside those hives, though, was a treasure of golden honey. Just looking at those glistening jars makes the stings hurt a little less.

Aaron’s hair had been growing since the end of kindergarten. His lively, wild dreads were halfway down his back, and I so loved them. Last week, he decided to get a haircut. I took him to the barber and did my best to hold back the emotions that mourned the inevitable transformation of a small child to a middle-schooler. His baseball cap fits much better now.

Someone came to buy eggs a few days ago. She commented that our farm was beautiful. I considered making a remark about how many weeds there were or how messy the barn was. I held back and simply thanked her.

Sometimes the days are hard. Lately, there has been much to tell the bees. I have stretched my body over the growing stack of boxes, to feel the vibration from their souls to mine. I have sat quietly on the concrete bench at dusk, watching them finish their forage flights and return to the colony. Their response was unexpected, but still there must be meaning to uncover under the hurt, the confusion, and the sorrow.

I know, deep within, the good is still there. Years to pull weeds stretch before me. I don’t know what I am doing, but I am trying my best to figure it out along the way. The itching and swelling from so many bee stings won’t last very long. Aaron’s hair is going to grow again, but I suspect he will keep it short for a time anyway. Along with trepidation, change brings the unlocking.

I think I am going to ask the bees for forgiveness, for mercy, and, above all for clarity. Maybe it doesn’t make sense now, but it’s under there somewhere, and I know we’ll find it, and we’ll be okay. And the milkweed makes the corn look fancy.

“Too much for me to pick up…not sure what forgiveness is….” Bon Iver, 8 (circle)

Sitting on a Phone Book

“Can I say a bad word?”

At least he asked permission.

“If you really have to, go in the bathroom and yell it into the toilet,” I offered tentatively, still trying to get a handle on this fine art of parenting.

“What the hell….”

I heard a soft, almost apologetic version of this “bad word.” When Moses emerged from around the corner, I asked him if he felt better.

“Not really,” he replied as he returned to the same task that had frustrated him to the point of release a few minutes earlier.

I was reminded of another experiment involving Elliott, bad words (probably butt and poop…not the big ones, or even the medium ones) and a toilet. I think that strategy worked, at least for a time. With Moses, I wonder.

Karen always got to sit on the big dictionary. I got the phone book, sometimes an unsteady tower of multiple phone books. More than once, I fell to the floor with not even very much fidgeting as my sister sat tall and strong, getting impossibly smarter with every bite.

They knew me long ago, when the future was full of so much, and there seemed such an expanse to today that there were only vague visions and aspirations of a place far in the distance that was bursting with possibility. They knew my soul, and they helped me see mine. They were a few years older, already embedded in their dreams. The years took me; twenty years passed with only Christmas cards and all of the fanfare and falls through two decades.

Earlier this month, they came to see me: a surprise visit during a barn sale at the farm. I could feel them all those years, and they knew it. To them, it was still me. They saw inside my head; they recognized me under the weight of my years of emotions, despite the harsh treatment of figure and hands that so often had spent strings of hours in their dream of a studio sewing Waldorf-inspired dolls from pastel cottons and spun wool.

They turned out of the drive and onto the road back to where they had come from. When I looked up again, they were gone. I wondered, as I tried to pull myself together, what twenty more years might look like, and if I would long for this present day version of me, in spite of the drawn curtains, hip click and tight waistband. I think they would still know it was me, even if I wasn’t sure myself.

Tall as theoretical giants though tiny in stature, these two ladies remain ageless. Only… I did not know this then; how could I have known?

Sometimes maybe we don’t feel better right away. The things we think will help us might not make that much of a difference. Elliott did not get his PhD from sitting on a phone book or even the dictionary, but he was, just as my sister (also a PhD, but just coincidentally…maybe…) and I were many years before, better able to reach the table to eat his potato soup which, in some sort of way, did help him to grow.

If we think yelling something, or even saying it quietly, will help us feel better, as long as there is no harm in the act, perhaps we should just go ahead. Someday, down that long road, there will be something that you didn’t even know you wished for…perhaps in the form of an iced soy latte from one of your indomitably thoughtful grown sons or a surprise visit from two magical artist friends that brought you back a little bit of who you used to be…to really make you feel better.

I love you all more than you could possibly ever know.

Asparagus

He had spun me from what was left of my childhood, turning me toward the rich path of motherhood by his very existence. I made acquaintance with his wise, deep eyes and soft, wild hair. Together, we tried to figure out what to do.

It’s hard to make sense of things, to make them all fit together. I sometimes will the thoughts out of my head, yet they stay,…like souls of those who had come for a time and served a purpose before carrying on with their journeys. The beautiful girlfriend who sat with me to drink dandelion tea, a soulful college student who had come to work with my son, the once lost and found friend who faded again to memory…all have gone. I wonder if they ever turned to look back as they forged ahead.

The morning’s captive emotions burst from my youngest son’s six-year-old being.

“I got frustrated!” His voice broke and escalated as the car door closed. He lamented having had to write k’s and trace lined shapes for his kindergarten work.

I understand. K’s are hard.

By the time we pulled up to the farm, he was incensed. The unsuspecting baseball cleat in his path was kicked skyward as he entered the mud room. He dumped his backpack and headed to the couch, detouring long enough to turn over the kitchen stools to the familiar narrative:

“I hate you. You’re a piece of crap. You hate me.”

The dizzying harshness of his ever-changing moods has taken its toll, rippling forcefully through those that love him the hardest.

The seasons have cycled nearly thirty times. Through trials I have remained on the path, but it looks different now. Though it’s harder to know if I am still going in the right direction, the terrain along the way is wondrous, magnificent, and worthy of the detours.

Before the dawn, the grumbling, tiny voice beckoned for help. He was not in danger; he was merely done sleeping and just didn’t want to be alone. Ever. So, out we went to open the chickens, to visit the bees, and to see what magic awaited us in the garden.

He snapped a sturdy green shoot from the morning earth. He then announced that the fresh stalk smelled weird and bad.

“No offense, asparagus!” He retorted, almost apologetically, as he took a tiny bite with the few front teeth that he still had left.

“Huh. Pretty good,” he declared as he reached for my hand. He offered me the rest of the asparagus which I finished before we made it back to the sleepy farmhouse.

Can asparagus even be offended?

Before long, he had perhaps dropped a spoon or colored out of the lines. The demons came back.

“I have a worse life than you. Remember when I was over by the barn and I got glass stuck in my foot? Did you help me?” His voice slapped me with accusations. The sting was as real for me as it had been for him, so many times, for so many reasons…primal and beyond understanding.

Actually, I did get the glass out. What he knows in his memory, though, is the part that hurt. He remembers what was hard. Those emotions are the ones he calls up when something goes wrong.

It’s not always going to be like this. I hope that when the day is done, he will remember some of the good. I know I’m not going to forget. Asparagus is, after all pretty tasty.

Maybe we’re all just a stop along someone’s path.

Deep eyes wiser with time and hair tamed handsomely for the occasion, my firstborn child sat before his dissertation committee where he reviewed his research over a Zoom screen. The asparagus, which rises from mystery seemingly overnight, has nothing on this boy, this man, who so clearly defines my space on this earth as he moves through his.

Magnolia

It always seemed like by the time I would notice that the magnolia blossoms had opened, the petals had begun to fade and fall from the tree, leaving a disappointing, slippery mass which seemed to scoff: “You’ve missed it again.” This year, though, our tree held its flowers for much longer than I had ever remembered: for nearly three weeks, which was long enough for me to feel the passage of seasons and the true intention of nature, and to appreciate the pink-and-white balletic beauty as I hadn’t before.

There’s a little girl that I notice every afternoon outside the school when I gather my little boys for the day. She looks to be about six years old, perhaps in first grade. Her hair shines as the sun, bright golden ringlets dancing onto her shoulders as she moves. She stands by herself, perched and waiting, and I do not see her face.

Each day, a woman appears from the shadows: the little girl’s caregiver, perhaps, and stands at the edge of the schoolyard, arms outstretched. The girl turns, rises to her toes, and moves to the woman as if she is running along clouds, bouncing, squealing, and emanating pure joy. She reaches the woman, bounding into her embrace as the two seem for a flash of time to become one person. They turn, hand-in-hand, and fade into the afternoon sun.

This springtime, I have officially embarked on my beekeeping adventures. My head is full of podcasts on extracting honey, images of queenless hives and American foulbrood, and the fear that I will somehow let these magical creatures down with my lack of understanding of the mystery that I have stepped into, albeit with noble intentions.

Before I knew, I didn’t know.

I sat by my hives in the morning, watching the foragers return to the hive with orange and yellow pollen stuffed into the little baskets on their minuscule legs even as their fellow worker bees head out in search of more sustenance. As the dandelions have nearly faded, I wonder what my new friends will find, what the next baskets will hold, and what nature’s bloom has in store.

I am learning that historically, some have considered bees to be souls, returning to represent those who have gone. This concept is immensely comforting to me, giving the rhythmic hum of the hives much deeper meaning than the captive beauty of the present, as though the little moments of time will circle eternally, changing form yet remaining the same.

My little son is often overwhelmed by his days. He holds himself together until he no longer can, until it has all been too much, maybe a bit like our new winged inhabitants at the farm. He got in the car the other day and told me that he wanted to get a shirt with a mad face. He wanted it to have words that said, “I hate everyone.” I told him that sometimes I thought I would like one, too. He has been drawing lots of rainbows lately, with cheerful colors on lined paper, made with markers in fine point. There seems a bit of a disconnect between the levity of the rainbows and the unpredictable storm clouds that loom close. I think he’s still figuring it out.

Aren’t we all?

My first stings have taught me that I don’t know, and that I have much to learn. The bees will tell me, as clearly they have, when I have spent too much time pushing myself into the mystery of their world, when it is time to step back, to watch, to anticipate. Sometimes, that might just be enough.

Today, the joyful little girl waits in her usual spot, but it is a different person, a man in a brown sweater, who has come to take her home from school. Still, she runs effortlessly into his arms as before.

Having bid farewell to the magnolia blossoms, the lilacs have now stepped up. Their beholden beauty will soon yield to the honeysuckle vines and rose blooms. The presentation, some years, is different, though the rhythm remains as true as the hum that I hear when I put my ear, just a bit tentatively, against the hive boxes.

Maybe I don’t really need to know. Maybe I just need to wait, to welcome the change that each moment has to offer, and to hope that I can harvest a little honey along the way.

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.

So Why Does One Keep Bees?

Beekeeping is an invitation to a magical world of honey and beeswax, where understanding, cooperation, and harmony offer a golden gift.

With a trip to the hive, the day’s trials are lost to the whirl of purpose and production in the stacks of painted pine boxes at the forest’s edge.

We marvel at the dance of the bees; we witness a collective masterpiece, finding answers to questions we did not know we had.

Though I am a beekeeper, I do not keep the bees. It is they who keep me, filling the supers of my soul with wonder and awe.