Sand and Music


The fairies are at work on the farm at this time of year.  I am grateful for the renewal of spring, when I am surprised by all of last year’s plantings and those from years past, by the reminders of the new life as the year, however challenging or joyous it may have been, completes it’s circle only to begin another turn.

“It keeps changing fast, and it don’t last for long.”

My mom loved the water.  We traveled the country for many summers in our state-of-the-art Coachmen RV, visiting the classic American tourist spots from coast to coast.  We loved riding the horse  trails, panning for gold, and visiting Opryland.  Our adventures, as the driving, were endless.  My mom listened to Elvis across a vast majority of the miles, but (perhaps at the hands of my dad) there was also music from the John Denver 8-track, which was my favorite.  I felt as though the songs were written just for us, as I, along with one cousin or another, jumped on the bed at my aunt’s lake house and roasted marshmallows with my brother and sister at the Yogi Bear campground.  Mom was happiest, though, walking on the sandy beaches of the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic Ocean.  We were along for the ride, which was a great one, but the high tide, the starfish, and the shimmer of the sun in the ocean waves filled my mother’s soul.

We grew up, and the camper was sold in favor of more practical adventures such as college tuition and wedding expenses.

“Someday,” my mom would say, looking at old vacation pictures which surely brought back more than thoughts of sandpipers and sun.

If you long to do something, you must find a way.

When my college roommate and I were young mothers at home, we both bought bread machines at the same time.  I still have the recipe cards that she shared with me: Honey Wheat Bread and Apple Spice Bread, among others, especially endearing as they are handwritten, and I cannot look at them without thinking of her and of the life carving impact that she had on me as together we crossed the threshold to our adult lives.  

Just a handful of times have I seen my college roommate in recent decades, and my bread machine had long since been retired to a remote basement shelf.  

Led recently by a friend to do more scratch baking, I have been making our family’s sandwich bread.  To accomplish this, to mix the bread dough, I have resurrected the bread machine that had been used nearly daily for the course of several years during my early motherhood.

The dough cycle takes about two and a half hours, which seems just enough time for me to forget that I am making bread in the first place.  

At the end of the cycle, eight faint beeps can be heard.  If I neglect to take out the pan right away, the dough will keep rising over the edge of the pan, spilling into the heat mechanism and causing all sorts of trouble that does not result in sandwich bread.  If I respond to that tiny signal just as it calls, though, just at the right moment, the dough will be perfect for baking into two golden loaves to fill the bellies of my family.

If I don’t hear the sound, it’s like it never happened in the first place.  The window, the opportunity is lost.

I have to pay attention.

“And they say that he got crazy once and tried to touch the sun.”

I am grateful for one more chance to visit the ducks at the lagoon, to throw rocks into the waterfall under the bridge, and to be transported back to 1986 by the smell of the mingling of library books, musty furniture, and strong coffee which greets me as I open the door to the music building.  A great advantage to living at the edge of your college campus as an adult is that you know the best places for picnics, you remember where the soda machines are, and you are able to navigate, even with a stroller, to the bathrooms in the university buildings.  

We heard the sound of drumbeats as we passed by Still Gym on our way back from our circle around the lagoon.  Today, we could wait, and we could listen, unlike the students who were making their way to lecture halls and dissertation seminars in pursuit of the quickly approaching end-of-spring-semester.

It had turned out to be a bright, warm day in spite of the dismal forecast.

As we passed Gilbert Hall, it became clear that the sounds hadn’t been coming from Still Gym at all.  A group of students were practicing their music just beyond where we had parked.  We paused to take in this unexpected gift, which minutes before had been a bit of a mystery.  Up close, we could see and feel the passion and rhythm that had once been just background music.

With a greater level of awareness, we wonder how it could have been anything else.  When we think we have arrived, we may have only begun the journey.

“His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand…”

The springtime is no subtle beep, but rather a magical burst life, of new color and fantastic patterns that grow and change on a daily, even momentary basis.  If I fail to make it to the east edge of my property within a day or two, I will find spent magnolia blooms spilled throughout the grass.  I will have missed the skyward flowery burst that heralds spring’s beauty.  

Tomorrow, despite the expected rain and gloom, I am going to cut some lilac flowers and take in the gifts before me.

“Now his life is full of wonder, but his heart still knows some fear of a simple thing he cannot comprehend.”

I understand why my dad took my mom to the ocean.  It was time, and he couldn’t miss it.  The music was beautiful.  The songs were not from Elvis this time, or even John Denver.  This music was such that anyone would recognize, though it made no sound at all.  It was the music of a longing fulfilled, a soul opening to another, and a gift that can only be given when it’s bearer is truly able to listen.

Song lyrics: John Denver, “Rocky Mountain High”

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Undone

Right now, nothing else matters to her.  She has put her whole self, every ounce of her energy and every hour of her days and nights into sitting on a fake egg and two brown eggs which will never develop into chickens.  “Poor girl,” as my friend pointed out, “just wants to be a mama.”

I actually jumped up and down as I listened to what the investigator had to say.  Of course, we would love to take a fourteen-month-old little girl.   As I waited for my son to finish a late evening band practice, the air of this early fall evening was fresh and full of promise as I thought of this little girl who liked bananas and was just getting over the chicken pox.  Soon, she would be sitting on the counter making buns with me.  When I heard the message that the little girl would not be coming after all, that things had been worked out with her family, I was, admittedly, a little disappointed.  It hadn’t occurred to me, in my wave of selfish excitement, that somewhere, on the other side of this story, someone’s world was crumbling, coming undone.  It had nothing to do with bananas, baking, or me.

There was a good chance that one of my hens could go broody, that her mothering instinct would kick in.  There was also a good chance that I could fall in love with every child that walked through my door.

Any time my phone would ring, I would secretly hope to see the caller identification light up with the words, “State of Illinois”.  Each time the answer was, “yes,” my mission and purpose would be further defined.  In the days that would follow, there would be meetings, visits, appointments, and encounters to pepper my calendar and fill my hours.  It seemed our house was at capacity all the time.  The months, then the years, passed.  I turned around to see that, whether we felt this way or not, we had become seasoned foster parents.  There was much joy and much healing, but there was also the stark reality of the weight of forever, and the heaviness of things that cannot be undone.

In the wake of it all, the aftermath is a vivid reminder of the gravity of our commitments, of the importance of standing up and honoring what we signed up to do.

In the deepest dark of the night, when I am with people that are not here anymore, I hear music that my children have stopped playing.

On some of the days, sometimes, I wonder if the stuff inside your soul can be undone. Can the paths which we once walked with such confidence be covered and forgotten?

The state licensing worker had left a message.  Some time ago, I had stopped jumping up and down at the prospect of a call for a new foster placement. We have not had an opening in a long time.  Further had been my realization that there is no reason to celebrate when these calls, due to one sort of unthinkable trauma or another, must be made.  This was not, though, the purpose of his contact. Our license is nearing renewal, and his call was to find out if we would be keeping our foster license for another four years.

I don’t know if I am ready to be done. Somehow, though, I don’t think it is up to me.  Not anymore.

It was time to let him know, to make it official.  I waited a few days to return the call.  The noise in my ear was harsh and drawn out; I was relieved at the sound of the recorded message.  I didn’t have to say it out loud.  I didn’t have to tell him that our days were done.  Not today; not yet. 

I waited several more days after the first time that I put the light up to the eggs in the darkness of the chicken coop.  My chicken-keeping friend urged me give it a while longer, but this time I knew.  Nothing is growing inside those two eggs to which Fried Chicken has been so dedicated.  I slipped them, still warm, back under the hen.  I offered her a handful of scratch, playing along.  I wished her a good night and locked the door to the coop.  I am just not ready to take her eggs… or her purpose…from her.

When the door closes, what if there are no more words to write?  How do we really, truly, know when it’s done?  If we were to have just one more day, one more turn, would it change the course, or would it merely allow us to be here, in our space just as we are, putting off the uncertainty of tomorrow?  I wonder if we will ever be ready.

Maybe the part of not wanting it to be over is our way of holding on to the comfort and certainty of how we want things to be.  Just maybe, when we allow ourselves to come undone, we will be free to discover what awaits in another nest.

As for Fried Chicken, I think she knows. And I hope she takes great delight in the new little chicks, soon to arrive from the hatchery.  I hope she will love them just as if they had found their way out of the eggs that she had faithfully warmed for so long.

Lions and Lambs

Darkness had already fallen when I finally made my way out to close the chicken door on this cold March night.  I was almost startled by the nondescript, shadowy figure that mimicked my gait against the grain bin, until the motion sensitive light snapped on, taking me with it,  back to the reality that it was just my own image.  It could have been anyone, though, in the dark.  I could have been anyone.  

My first semester of college was going just fine.  I had a fabulous roommate who quickly figured out how to make me laugh until my stomach hurt, at things that noone else might even find funny.  I fell head over heels for the university city, which held such treasures as Cracker Jax, a vintage haven beyond worthy description; Record Revolution, where I found rare music and, later, my best job; the balcony in the old public library where I could spend hours buried in the musty air among the stacks of books; and the nondescript square stone wall, which, to me, held promise and mystery at the same time, and which was just the right place for people-watching, in a clandestine downtown alley.  

I went home for Thanksgiving break, which began abruptly after I sheepishly turned in my exam to my PolySci 100H teaching assistant named Tom, who, as the story goes, once had a Cheerio stuck to the inside of his glasses for an entire day.  

When the turkey, cranberry sauce, and all of the leftovers were gone, when my friends were on their own journeys back to their college towns, when darkness had fallen, I said my words of farewell to my family and began the short drive back to DeKalb.  Though I loved the freedom of living on my own, there was part of me, that day, that just wanted to go home. I wanted to turn around and run straight back into the arms of those who raised me.  I didn’t really want it to be over. Not yet.

Wish us back to the day when we wanted to be where we are now.  What, really, was behind our hurry?

I’m not sure where it came from.  It fell from somewhere as I was moving the March china girl and some other little things on the top of my dresser.  I had given it to a young teenager on the day of her baby brother’s memorial service. A simple silver chain bearing a tiny fairy who held a sprig of lavender: this was my attempt to bridge meaning to what had happened, and to show this young girl that as I had loved her baby brother, who had come unto this earth without a fighting chance, I, too, had loved her. When you spend hours of days that stretch into years as a helper to a family, if it ends, a part of you is still there. Years passed, though, and chance encounters told me that our time together was done. Meeting the eyes might be too painful.  Maybe they didn’t remember, or maybe they needed to forget.  And then there was the fairy; how did she get back to me?  Perhaps this was not the same charm?  Perhaps it was a message from the little boy that I had so loved so many years before?

I have never taken my children to the mountains, where they could shout from their souls and breathe freedom.  I want to take them to the seashore, where they can abandon their burdens along with their shoes, taste the salty waves, and let the sun turn their hearts warm.

Just when I have heard so much of the endless string of words, random facts woven through stream-of-consciousness chatter and reiterated movie scripts, there is silence. I look back at him, and his eyes are glassy. His pink lips are slightly open, as if the words had somehow been halted by an outside force.  He is turned to the window, but he seems to be somewhere else.  

“I want to go home.”

Sometimes, the thought of my own shadow is something to fear.  I long for one more story through the silence.
When it was over, when this moment’s tirade of impossible anger had passed, he lay over me in a puddle of grief.  For the first time, his fear for his own future was palatable.  He cried out for things that a nine-year-old should not have to hold.

My boy, if you have nothing, if you have nowhere to go, I will come for you.  I will find you, and I will bring you home.  I will take care of you.  You will never be alone.

After a while, we can’t really go home anymore.  We can’t go back to where we long to be, because it isn’t there anymore.  The scenes change: the street signs read differently, and the chairs around the table hold different memories.  Home is no longer a physical space, but something more.   I could have gone anywhere, and I could have been anyone. Still, I am going home.

The brightness of pink that lit the otherwise black grayness of the night sky was a beacon: the connection, the recognition, the fairy that materializes to remind me of a past encounter, the way I feel after a spirit-cleansing cry. We are not in this space forever.

Home is where we are on the inside, and, someday, when I take you there, we will find the air more crisp than that at the top of any mountain, and the sand will be as white as the heavens.

What’s In Your Egg Basket?

Something happened.  Something went wrong, or maybe it didn’t.  Words that interrupted my idle thoughts as I stood at the kitchen sink,  face-to-face with dinner’s aftermath, cannot be taken back.  Even as I feel the blood rush through my legs and the empty space grow in my soul, I find solace in a cupcake.  It’s the last one, hidden in the back corner of the freezer, leftover from a forgotten celebration.  Rich chocolate of the most devilish kind, with a perfectly swirled pink vanilla piped frosting, made extra special with a fairy dusting of sparkling sugar…gone in an instant. The experts would probably call this emotional eating.  Alone on it’s plate, it beckoned, and I ate it.

If I get out to the coop at just the right time, I can get an egg that still feels warm to the touch.  Fresh from it’s laying hen, this egg rides in the cup holder of my car as I take the baby in to town for therapy. It acccompanies me across the road to the mailbox.  I hold it gingerly in my hand as I look around the farm, thinking of the blooms that will pepper the summer’s garden and imagining the tiny herd of goats that might one day entertain us in the pasture.  Everything seems to hold a bit more promise as I am reassured by the blue-green chicken egg that brings so much to me.

It’s an egg.  I could get a dozen eggs for a little more than a dollar at the grocery store.  

After what seemed like two hours but was actually just over ten minutes, I could feel his body melt into mine.  He made his way to the pink chair, my favorite one.  The storm had subsided, and Dan was home by now.  There were no more cupcakes, but I could get my egg basket, and I could see if there were any eggs to gather.  Even if the hens were done laying for the day, I would breathe the peace of the outside air and know that in this moment, I am okay.  We are okay, right now.  Even if I returned to the house with an empty basket, I would know, because of what it represents, that the basket is actually quite full, if not of eggs. 

There might be different things inside the basket on a given day. Pink sparkly cupcakes, my best well worn sweater, the anticipation of my sister’s visit, my special water bottle, the thought of my fairy roses and my Christmas milk punch: these are in my basket.  In it I can also find the way it feels when all is quiet, when I am washing the last plate, when bedtime has blanketed the little ones in a soft hush (at least for a few hours), when I am able to sneak down to the cellar to start my onion seeds in their fresh peat pots, and when the promise of spring is tangible in the form of garden catalogs that have begun to arrive two-a-day by mail.

To me, it’s much more than just an egg.

There are people, many people, in my egg basket, which is also full of robust donut shop coffee and baseball.  These people fill me up when I most need them, and even when I don’t know what I need.  One brings me ice cream in the middle of the night, another sends me a message that makes my stomach hurt from laughing, and another came to sit with me and did not mention one word about the cheese that stuck to the bottom of her shoe as she walked through my  kitchen.  

When the questions are bigger than the answers after a quarter century of parenting, when the pancakes burned because I had to step away from the griddle to mediate a fight, when I don’t want to look past today for fear of what I might see, and even when someone has eaten the last secret cupcake, I can go to the chicken coop with my egg basket, and I know that I will feel better for having gone.  Experts might think that this is emotional egg gathering.  Though I am far from an expert, I think it might be.  

I don’t think we can really know what is in someone else’s egg basket, at least not everything, anyway. It’s probably not even an egg.  For our deepest friendships, yes, we sometimes do know some of what the basket holds, or we can do our best to try to figure it out.  And even the thought of someone trying to understand what is inside can be enough to fill it up.

When the bread is baking, when my grown son calls to share his excitement at his new venture, when I take a minute to look at my vintage cookie jars, when my daughter’s eyes flash so brightly that I can nearly feel the warmth of her happiness, when the little boys drive their construction trucks in rare harmony, perched together atop the gravel pile; these are the times that I have enough to share my basket with others.  

I might miss the glory of the Northern Illinois sunset if I don’t hurry out now to close the chicken door for the night.  While I am out there, I will be sure to check for eggs one last time.

What I Hope You Will Know

 

 “And just as the darkness got very dark, he bumped into his big fur mother, and she took her little fur child home in her arms and gave him his supper.”  –from “Little Fur Family” by Margaret Wise Brown

Here is what I hope you will know: it is different.  Raising babies that I have birthed is not the same as raising children not born to me.  Do I love you, my children, differently?  I would like to think that love can rise above the unknown, and even that which is known but unthinkable.  I would like to think that love transcends all boundaries and fills the hollow spaces with what needs to be there.  The difference lies in circumstances, in history.  With my biological children, whom I have known since before you were born, the history is ours.  Together, we have been one.  For my children that came to me when the journey had already begun, for you that were matched to me by the stars and the forces beyond, at the expense of a different path and different players, the history is yours, mine, and others’.  Only eventually is it ours, too.

I hope you know that you are not fortunate or blessed to have me.  We have been given to one another in this life, and we have each other to stand alongside against our struggles.  There’s a place between wanting to cover up and hide away from all the bad things that happened, to pretend that they never were, and wishing I could share more than I even know, to help your actions and behavior make just a little more sense to others in a world of judgment.  I don’t want to make excuses, nor do I feel that I should hold your hand through all of the challenges and conflicts, which are almost daily, and which are often sporn from a place deep inside and from many yesterdays ago: a place from where the fallout never ceases.

I hope that some day, you can see yourself as I see you;  I hope that you will let others hear your laughter and let them see the real sparkle that dances in your eye.    I hope, too, that you know that when your day is guided by anger, grief, sadness, despair, and darkness, these hours will not define you, and you will not be alone.

I hope you will believe and understand that what “happened” is not for all to know.  I hope you understand and believe that you will be a strong adult for what you have overcome, but that you are still yet a child who is trying to find your place in a world that is not always gracious or forgiving.

When you fall, when you are shattered, I will do my very best to help pick up the pieces.  I know, though, that in the end it is up to you to forge the path to your future.  No matter where the path leads, you will always have a place here, at home.

I hope you hope, right along with me.

I hope you know, too, how very deeply you are loved, no matter how or when you arrived.  

 All of you.

“Sleep, sleep, our little fur child, out of the windiness, out of the wild.  Sleep warm in your fur all night long, in your little fur family.  This is a song.” –from “Little Fur Family” by Margaret Wise Brown

Frostbite 

I didn’t even want him.  I certainly didn’t expect to love him.  It wasn’t until he was at the mercy of another, in danger of demise, that I realized how deeply I loved him and how I would fight to save him.

Four new baby chicks will be coming to the farm this spring.  By the end of the summer, these new girls should be laying eggs alongside our other hens.  

Hens lay eggs.  Roosters don’t.

I was careful to repeat my request several times to the gentleman that was taking my order: “all females…two of each.”  This time, I chose a hatchery out of Ohio as the birthplace of my chickens.  It didn’t seem to be much of a factor at the time, but last year, when I picked up my “reserved pullets” from the local feed store, I also chose a few extra from the “I’m pretty sure those are females, too, bin.”  I guess that is where things went wrong, or at least took a bit of a detour.

We usually kept the door closed to the main bathroom at our old house in town.  This sometimes confused people, as there were several similar doors in a small corner of the house.  Each led somewhere, but we thought our guests would benefit from a telltale sign on the bathroom door,  so they could be sure.  I found a small vintage wooden sign with a raised image of a little child on a chamber pot.  It was perfect, and nobody ever asked where the bathroom was again.   

When we moved to the farm, I brought the little sign along and attached it to the guest bathroom door.  It looks as though it has been there forever, although it hasn’t.  

It had been a pretty good day until, at some point, something didn’t happen the right way.  There was warfare of the sort of whatever was in his reach being catapulted at whoever was in striking distance.  Thankfully, the afternoon’s biggest casualty was the relatively new Oscar the Grouch garbage can which now slumps slightly sideways and no longer closes properly.

Nobody would know that my little  sign had previously announced another bathroom in a different house, and that I had simply mounted it here using double sided tape.  Nobody knows where it’s first home was, and if there were many places between.  

People that I don’t know certainly remember the little sign from one place or another, but nobody knows it’s whole story.  In some ways, now, the story of the bathroom chamber pot sign starts here, with my family.  We cannot properly honor what we don’t know.  Still, though, we can know that there was something before, perhaps even a long, hard, road,  which cannot be separated from today.

Wendell has not been his usual self since he was attacked, innocently enough, by the dog.  He had always been a great protector of the hens, but he had also been inquisitive, guardedly social, and the first chicken running to check for leftover cat food when allowed to range free.  He let Aaron tote him around, and he only used his “power of intimidation” when he must have really felt at risk, as when someone ran at him while wearing red shoes.

Now, though, there is much more to his story.  Yes, he has a few black spots on his comb where the harsh winter left it’s mark.  But deeper and not visible to the eye, is that which cannot be seen but is very much there, and that which changes everything.  

I am on guard now as I gather eggs or throw feed, and the children must be aware of where Wendell is at all times.  Wendell moves to attention when I enter the coop, and he watches with a new hypervigilance my every move.  And I am just a bit scared of Wendell.  Several times, now, he has flown up to me in fight mode.  I feed him, I take care of him, I love him, and still, I am afraid.  

The black spots tell of frostbite.  Something happened.  But what about when we can’t tell, when the pain of past trauma is deep and, though it affects my child’s every step, nobody really knows.  There are no words or warnings, no tangible reasons, just emotions.  And there is a story, never to be told.  

This morning’s sky was as bold an azure blue as ever I had seen; it looked like some sort of surreal stage curtain draped behind the used-to-be white farmhouse on what might be the last unbearably cold day in this long winter.  Beauty could still be found in the bitterness.  We, along with the chickens, have made it through the worst part of this season.   The chickens have survived their first Midwest winter, but not without a little evidence of frostbite.  

The “chicken experts” advise carrying an aggressive rooster around to ease his combative behavior.  Likewise, we carry on, continuing to support our children through their own angst and battles, with reverence to the unknown, and while looking  forward to the new season which will, inevitably, bare its freshness when we need it most.

Fight


It’s going so fast now, and I can hardly hold on.

Sometimes, I really don’t know which way to look.  When Aaron was a baby, he had medical issues that affected everything he did.  We visited specialist after specialist, and each time I hoped we could find “answers,” as though there would be some sort of watershed.  That day never actually came, but I can look back now on his seven years and know that he has come far, that he has grown into a kind little boy who has all but overcome the chains of his early childhood. 

I kept vigil with this boy through the long nights, listening to the rhythm of his breath in case it should leave him.  This boy who struggled to keep down food and narrowly avoided a feeding tube now stands beside me as my ally as we both fight to help Ethan understand.

Sometimes, I am afraid.  We are afraid.

It’s a little overwhelming to think of looking into Ethan’s future.  What if  there is nothing there?  What if it doesn’t get better, if the fight never goes out?

I only hope that the tiny footsteps of every given day will lead somewhere, anywhere, that includes joy, fulfillment, and tiny celebrations that pepper the days to come.  

The assault and combat hurt now, as he hurls wooden trains designed for an entirely different purpose, narrowly missing his brother’s head in favor of adding yet another hole to the living room wall.  We should probably move the pictures again.

The constant banter, the incessant voices that plead for nothing tangible, these hurt too, perhaps even more, because there can be no defense.  My soul would open if I could will it that way.

Thoughts of my own mortality have moved into my head.  What will happen if the day should come when we can no longer care for our child, a beautiful boy who fights with the force of a squadron?  Who will meet his bus?  Who will butter his toast?  Who will love him?

There are days when the questions overwhelm me, and I am carried by the force of the waves, out of control. The tears wash away the thoughts, and we carry on for another day.

The brothers walk arm-in-arm, dressed in a combination of army suits, sunglasses, snow boots, and Star Wars gear, out to the barn to find their bikes.  As they drive through icy gravel patches and slide along in the mud of winter’s aftermath, I can hear them plotting and laughing.  The noise is great music.

They are little boys.  They are little boys that carry burdens too great to close into a knapsack.   

They are little boys that speak of one day living together at the Super 8 Hotel and buying as much pop as they could ever want to drink.  They cannot imagine life without the other. I cannot imagine life without either of them.  

One day, something will happen.  I will look behind me and know, even as I see the shadows of the brothers playing combat in the gravel pile,  that we have survived the long winter, that the storms are behind us.  Somewhere, all along, was a light to lead us home, home to where we did not even know we belonged.