My View from the Back Seat: This Life-Altering Course of Parenting

I would always have someone with me, and I would never be lonely, not ever again.

At twenty-four, and I was about to have my first baby. Early Motherhood, though inherently challenging, treated me gently. It had been my deepest wish, to become a mother. With my new mom friends, I passed idle days walking to the Chocolate Moon for coffee, nursing my tiny sons, washing diapers, and learning to make wildflower jelly.

It’s just not that simple anymore.

It seemed a good idea to sit in the back seat with a tiny infant on the trips with our new family. I could keep an eye on the little being and feed him, entertain him, and clean him up if something happened to erupt. With him beside me, I knew he was safe.

When our second baby was born, his older brother was a bright and contemplative preschooler, capable of replacing a pacifier or making the little one laugh. I returned to the passenger seat for our family road trips, for an unsuspecting decade.

Our recent years have been peppered with people, with helpers that came to our home, that saw who I was deep inside, that saw the things I didn’t even know were inside of me; people that sometimes knew me better than my best friends. The helpers would come, some for short times and some for longer. I have never really known if we are better once they have gone, or if they were just there to help us pass the time.

And we have a lot of time to pass these days.

These were people that I didn’t want to need, people that I didn’t know we needed, and sometimes even people that we couldn’t live without.

At some point, after enough questionable behaviors and dangerous things, I started sitting in the back seat again, with all riders in strategic places to encourage the least amount of consternation. I have never really made my way out: not yet, anyway.

So many years in the back seat have made me question who I am, and who I thought I might be. It’s a lot of waiting…and a lot of hoping…that when my time is done, it will have been enough.

Sometimes the roads are easier. Maybe that’s part of the rhythm of the year, or because we are driving through the countryside instead of the city’s traffic. We try to make it uphill. We run out of gas. Maybe we are all a bit safer when I am in the back seat, or maybe it wouldn’t even matter.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if I just let them be, if I didn’t intervene, if I didn’t try to separate the brothers from their torment. Maybe I am not helping at all.

There are times, of course, when I am driving alone with a little person or two. There are times when I am hit by a flying boot, and when I have to drive with one hand and mediate a fight with the other.

It’s so hard for them to understand all of this; it’s so hard for us to see when we don’t understand, when we don’t even know what we need.

I miss the front seat for the little things: sitting alongside someone that I have loved for so much of my life, having idle conversation, sharing coffee from the cup holder, reading a book in peace. It’s a bit harder when I am in the back seat. I guess we have gotten used to it. Nearly thirty years have passed, and I am not yet back to this place that I once took for granted, that I abandoned by choice. I’m trying really hard to get back there.

I guess I got my wish, though…for I always have someone with me. Always. And I am far from lonely, especially when I am in the back seat.

Garbage Mom









Monday had a promising start: the sun shone brightly, and I had a few minutes to spare before I would be meeting my longtime friend, so I stopped at the post office. Two pairs of ladies occupied the lobby in front of me; both sets engaged in separate conversations.

The first pair consisted of the very pleasant post office clerk and a vibrant middle-aged customer whose hair was tied in a floral bandanna and whose presence radiated some sort of energy that (I inferred from my unintended eavesdropping) was clearly born from the relaxation of a beach vacation.

The second pair, two ladies who were standing eight feet or so from the first pair, off to the side of the line and presumably finished with any mailing business that had brought them there in the first place, exchanged a bit more concern with each turn of their conversation, which seemed to involve some unfortunate surgical mishaps or medical disturbances.

The two stories, in that space of time, in the stiff environment of the post office, blended into one conversation that was at once uplifting and unsettling, depending on which part I allowed myself to focus.

What entered my brain from the post office lobby went something like this:

“So good to see you… what a lovely day we have…”

“He lost part of one foot, then the rest of it, then the other foot…”

“I have my list, and I’m sticking to it. We just got back last night….the sun’s out for us; how lovely…”

How lovely, indeed, and how tragic, this dichotomy of our lives.

“Horns from my head, wings from my shoulders…”

I hadn’t seen my friend in more than a year. We had worked together for a period of time, what seems like a lifetime ago.

She spoke of her children, now nearly grown, of places that she had visited, and about how she had been starting flowers from seed. We talked a bit about growing older, about worrying about things, about food, and about how much changes in a space of time….well, mostly.

She asked about each of my older children, whom she had known as the young children that they once were. I told her, too, about the trials of parenting this second wave of children.

The struggles are mighty. My older sons referred to me as “garbage” exactly zero times (out loud, anyway) during their collective years at home. This week alone, I have been called both “trash” and “garbage”, a “toddler” (because I cried; perhaps I earned that one), “lazy”, “mean”, and a “pig”. I have also been told that my glasses were pretty, my pajama pants were cool, and that I smelled good. I have been fallen asleep upon at least six times, and I have been given no less than twenty-seven crayon drawings, also in this week, which I chalk up to mean that I am loved.

So maybe one skill that I have learned is to let the insults, the comments spun in webs of anger, bounce from my back like a crumpled paper which, I suppose, could be classified as either garbage or trash, depending on the moment.

These days, we have therapy sessions and behavior plans in place of baseball practice and band…oh, wait…we have that, too…

“Quick, Mama, look up…your baby has grown up…”

My friend and I drank good coffee and ran out of time before we had run out of things to talk about. At some point it occurred to me that I could try to fight and defy the challenges that interrupt my path, or I could spend that same hour, minding my own business, in my garden. While I might not have control over my problems, which may not even be my problems in the first place, I can surely stand to breathe in something of nature even as I bend in defeat. I suppose, then, all would not be lost. There might even be a flower at some point, maybe some sunshine instead of the amputation of some toes, depending on how I see…or hear it.

My friend went back to her work late on that Monday morning, and I went home to meet my little son’s bus, wondering if he would still think that my glasses looked nice, or if he would give me a few more reasons to spend a late hour in the garden.

Song lyrics from “O Behold”, by Kevin Morby, courtesy of Sam who, for the record, never called me either “garbage” or “trash”

Fostering Words: Love Isn’t Enough, But At Least It’s Something

As a fresh spring chicken of a foster parent, I was given by one of my dearest friends a candy-pink shirt with the words, “Love is Not Enough” boldly stated for all to see. This puzzled me just a bit. “Hmm…we’ll see”, I thought to myself, as I wore it with pride.

That was about fifteen years ago.

Love, most definitely, is not enough.

Sometimes, I truly feel that I may have learned more about things through unfortunate experience than the professionals to whom I have brought my children for expert advice. I have felt the thoughts of some:

“You are making this up.”

“This is not a big deal.”

“I just don’t see it.”

Others, certainly, have sympathized. Many have been helpful. Some have been compassionate. Some have made me feel like I am doing it all wrong.

To that, I turn to look at my grown children, who come home to us, who remember what kind of soap I like, my best coffee drink, or what era vintage pottery makes me happy, who carry my groceries, who make a positive difference to others in their adult lives, who love me and whom I love, desperately.

And how I have loved, too, the little ones. Love alone, though, as I have seen, isn’t enough.

It’s not enough to melt what’s frozen inside, nor is it enough to erase the things that happened, perhaps, at the hands of the unknown. Not love, not anything, can make the hurt go.

It can, though, make the path just a little easier.

Lots of people talk about trauma these days, and it’s effect on the developing brain. Trauma changes people. Trauma also changes people that love people that have endured trauma.

As a foster parent, I learned a lot about behaviors that children who have been abused or neglected may exhibit: puzzling, disturbing, hard-to-handle behaviors.

Over the years, I have participated in several trauma workshops and classes. I have taken my children to therapists, neurologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, naturopaths, spiritual healers, and other specialists that may or may not have been able to make things easier or more understandable.

I have lain awake even on the rare nights when everyone else slept, worrying, wondering, and feeling all the things that could possibly fit inside of me.

Not long ago, a thought came to mind:

  • “Are we really helping these children to whom we have opened our doors? Are they better off in our care than they otherwise might have been?”
  • Sometimes, the answer is obvious. Often, though, it is more elusive.

    Multiple children come to the door wearing only the clothes on their backs but carrying much more than we can see. They bear witness, as do I, to the pain of one another until things are so mixed up that we can’t tell where the behaviors began.

    One child finds a peaceful space, but another must interrupt with his own, new found chaos as this is all he has known.

    So in trying to offer a safe place, have we just added to what is hard?

    I know there is no real answer to that question. There can’t be.

    Earlier in my tenure as a foster parent, I had often thought that it would have been helpful to know as much as possible about the pasts of the children in my care, but over the years that has really changed for me.  I feel like my job is to meet them where they are, and to help them embrace who they are, even the hard parts, and to let them tell their stories as they are ready.  It’s a hard job: it’s hard to be okay with just being, instead of always attempting to be helpful or trying to find a solution.

    I just hope that they will look back at the footprints one day when I am an old hen and see that they were deeply loved through the silence, and though love may not have been enough, at least it was something. And just maybe, they will return, with or without coffee.

    As for the pink shirt, I am not sure what became of it. My friend, though, was right.

    The Purple Couch

    If ever you were a visitor to our family at the house on the hill near the university, the Third Street bungalow, or our current homestead, you sat on the purple couch, or, at the very least, took note of its presence.

    The purple couch was like an old friend. It accepted us, its people, where we were, with our dirty baseball cleats, fevers, and bad attitudes. It has been sat upon by State of Illinois caseworkers, librarians, hundreds of children, and a chicken.

    I nursed my last birth son well into toddlerhood on that couch. I spent the night there with a mug of chamomile tea after disagreeing with a seafood salad from a local sandwich shop. My children lined up on the cushions through nearly two decades for our annual Christmas photo. I sat there waiting for my teenagers to return from first dates and movie nights, and I sunk into the plush purple pillows with my tissues in hand, bracing myself for a good cry as I watched my almost-grown children close the door behind them, crossing the threshold to seek what their futures held for them.

    We first spotted the purple couch in all its magnificent glory showcased in a lifestyle magazine in an advertisement for flooring. Much to my great delight, a mom-and-pop furniture store in a neighboring town was able to special order the purple couch.

    It arrived on a truck just as promised, with five loose back cushions and two throw pillows which, when folded just right, were the perfect support for holding a sleeping little one (or twenty). Over time, all seven pillows have morphed into somewhat lumpier versions of themselves, having had many runs through the washing machine, and having actually spent more time on the floor than on the couch as intended. Our next couch, I swear, will not have removable cushions.

    Over the years, the couch aged gracefully…until recently. In addition to the hairy and puffy cats that we have had over the years, all of whom seemed to prefer this couch as the best nap spot, we added a dog: an old one that loves to roll on fabric things and sheds in the process. The purple couch became his favorite place; this only added to the charm and personality of this beloved piece of furniture.

    To some, it was just a couch. Others have fond memories of what this couch meant to them:

    “It was a very comfortable couch. It looked good under the painting in the old house, with the green couch (which, also, is now just a fond memory),” recalled one frequent visitor.

    One son remembers being bullied by an older brother’s friend, and being told: “you are what you eat, and you eat poo.” He said that he then sat on the purple couch which gave him comfort and made him feel better.

    “I liked it. I loved it. It was amazing,” offered another.

    In later years, the purple couch began to stab us in the back, not intentionally, but because the cushions were always strewn about, and because the wood and springs were gradually wearing through the fine purple fabric which had so many memories woven into its threads.

    “I want a black leather couch. To replace it,” chimed one small son who perhaps didn’t fully appreciate what the purple couch stood for.

    And then: “it smells like a butt. And bad feet.”

    Oh. No.

    What about the wedding? How could we replace the purple couch before the wedding, when it had borne witness to so many other celebratory moments with us, it’s family? Should we take it to the burn pile? That was a heartbreaking thought, but, after all, it smelled bad.

    After a little online research, out came the baking soda and the vacuum cleaner, followed by a thorough essential oil spritz. The cushions went through the laundry. Guests to the morning-after wedding brunch sat on the purple couch, and I don’t think anyone suspected a thing. It had seen our family through another rite of passage, and it had served us well.

    Soon after the big day, its freshness faded with the wedding flowers, and we knew it was time.

    I just couldn’t bear to think of all those years of life lived going up in flames. I decided to try passing it along on a social media marketplace site. But why would anyone want the purple couch? How could they not? How could we not? We did, but…it was just time.

    While cleaning out the purple couch, I found a fork, a whole lot of legos, and two phones.

    Within the course of a few hours after posting the ad, which apologetically offered a well-used candidate for a college apartment or basement, seven locals expressed interest in the purple couch. One by one, appointments were set, and excuses were made.

    “I wasn’t able to get the truck.”

    “It’s too big.”

    “I forgot that I had to work.”

    “Go on to the next person.”

    Until it came to the polite lady at the end of the list: “yes! I will be there soon!”

    Within about ten minutes, she appeared on the front porch, where the purple couch was already waiting for her. She was so gracious and grateful. As our husbands strapped the couch to the roof of her vehicle, she shared that just a short time ago, she had lost most of her possessions in a fire. She was so happy to have a couch again, and it was so ready for its new adventures.

    We rolled out our forty dollar estate sale find from the extra bedroom into the living room to stand in place of the purple couch. It was never intended as a replacement, for no one couch could ever hold as much meaning within its cushions. But we needed somewhere to sit.

    People that come to the farm for the first time will never know about the purple couch. The lady that came for it sent a photo of two of her cats resting comfortably on the purple couch. It makes me wonder, just a little bit…did we act too soon?

    The legacy of our beloved couch carries on. At our home, it had enabled teenage romance and supported my coffee habit. It had been the seat of numerous video game battles, a retreat for grieving children who had come through our doors bearing burdens deep within their souls, and simply a place to just rest with one’s feet up.

    The purple couch was not ready to go up in flames. We have trusted it with our secrets, which we know it will not share. It has room to hold another family with more animals, more butts, and more bad feet.

    We love you, purple couch, and we will always miss you, though we are kind of glad you are gone.

    XO

    Photo Credit: EMILY STRATTON

    The Way Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    –Ed Sheeran, “One”

    Mirrors and Empty Containers

    Maybe he didn’t intend to leave it here, but I’m happy that he did. The whole kitchen fills with the smell of good coffee, because it’s whole bean, and I have to use the grinder, which makes me appreciate the roast even more, when I already feel like I am getting away with something by using what may have been accidentally left behind.

    There was a little caddy with a handle, one that held the toothbrush, deodorant, and, among other things, the particular lotion with the patchouli-lime scent that my younger son wore every day. I could tell when he had been in the room; it was undeniable. Now, though, the scent has faded, and the little caddy has nothing inside.

    There were some other boxes and baskets, also empty. He no longer needed them. He left them behind when he moved away.

    I could fill them with something else.

    Strip me down, bring me to the hands of my Maker, when I am empty, when there is nothing left inside. For I was full from my love, from my experiences, and from those that have shared my life. Without these things, I am merely an empty container, for it is the collective sadness and joy that has created me, filled me up, and left me in the wake of what has been, what remains, and what is yet to come, with its own containers waiting for their fill.

    A daily rhythm is of such importance to our young children. We can read volumes on the importance of consistency, of predictability, of bedtime routines….I would argue, too, that my own days are ordered with a sameness that helps me to move forward. The sun rises, the rooster crows (well, my rooster actually crows at all hours), and I let the chickens out, turn on the coffee pot, pack the lunches, and prepare for the day’s offerings.

    The rosy cheeks of a feverish child, the harrowing evidence of a predator’s attack, the unexpected visitor that bears news: good or bad; the return of a grown child, if just for a short visit, and the stark absence of another at the Thanksgiving table…the rhythm breaks, and we are left, hands outstretched, for strength to carry us in this moment.

    Chickens are very much like people. Teenage chickens are very much like teenage people. I have had several sets of teenage chickens (and similar numbers of teenage children), so the rhythm and characteristics of these unique breeds has been observed over the course of time.

    Chicken teenagers like to hang out in the chicken run even past dusk, well after the rooster and the laying hens have retired to the coop for the evening. Teenage children like to hang out on the front porch or on one of the couches well into the morning hours, when parents have long since gone to bed.

    When the big kids are home, even though I may not see much of them, still they are here, and the familiar circle of wholeness is tighter and safer.

    Teenage chickens also love looking in the mirror; one hangs in their chicken run. They cannot seem to walk past their dirt-splattered reflections without stopping for a mouth-gaping stare. I have also known many teenagers like that.

    My sister visited the farm this week. She stayed a bit longer than usual, and we had time to sit together, which is just what I believe we needed. On the morning that she left, I heard a song on the radio. It had been the hit song by a band that my sister and I had seen together just after our sophomore and senior years of high school. My sister and her two friends took me and my first boyfriend to see Asia, and at some point we had picked up a hitch-hiker. This terrified me. I remember trying to catch my breath, pushing my teenage self as far as I could into the car door, hoping I would not fall out, yet fearing the alternative fate.

    I am not sure what I was afraid of. I was with my big sister, and I knew she would take care of me. She always did.

    And when I heard that song on the heels of her visit to the farm, it reminded me of the passage of time, but also how fleeting our time here must be, and how deeply we must love while we can.

    I see my own image in the mirror, at the same time a woman of half a century and a girl of seventeen. Some thoughts are the same, but there is now a realization that what’s next is really just in front of me, and if I carry on, in a passing glance, it will, inevitably, be revealed.

    Maybe we spend our days trying to fill our containers, looking in all the mirrors, rehearsing our lines, trying to figure out who or what we are supposed to be…until our days are done.

    When the curtain closes for the final time, if I am not yet sure what I am supposed to be, I will hope that it has all been enough. When I have been emptied out onto this earth, may I keep rhythm with the sun and moon, to become part of where I have lived and loved.

    I would like to think that my son left the coffee behind on purpose, because he somehow knew what I needed to fill me up.

    If ever I meet up with that hitch-hiker again, I hope I will have more to offer than fear: at the very least, a cup of good coffee.

    The Most Beautiful Place on Earth

    I always think of my college roommate on Valentine’s Day.  Today, she must have thought of me, because she sent me a little message about heart-shaped pizza.  We shared a heart-shaped pizza at a restaurant on Greek Row as college freshman on what, to many, is a day of great romance and candlelight.

    Underneath the candles, I have found the real light.

    Lynne and I were seated at a cozy table with love-struck couples at every angle.  The pizza was perfect; the company, somehow, even better.  The stars aligned to deliver me the perfect roommate (with whom over the years, I indulged in many more pizzas) when I was an innocent and vulnerable just-turned-eighteen-year-old.   My perfect roommate had come to the university just days after suffering an unthinkable loss, one that made her among the most courageous people I have ever met.  I am pretty sure that in my selfish oblivion, I had no idea the depth of her grief, and how she would comfort me over the years as she carried around her heavy suitcase, one that nobody could actually see.  Those were such formative years for me; great blessings, indeed.

    I want to fly, away from the part that hurts, but still into what I am now, never changing or passing with time.

    Dan and I moved our young family back to DeKalb in 2000.

    Image

    From my journal, dated 1-22-01: “As I was walking past the river on an afternoon…, I again realized that DeKalb is the most  beautiful place on earth.  The Kish(waukee River), yet to be frozen, was running northerly, broken up in some spots by very white balls of smooth, snowy ice. All was still, and the university very, very quiet.  Never, ever will there…be any regret for choosing this place.  This is our home.  The smallest reasons are the strongest confirmations.”

    Image

    I have always loved cookies.  Lynne and I shared our passion for antiques: we would visit the dusty back rooms of whatever doors were open, it seemed, in search of Fiesta ware and vintage cookie jars.

    I had ordered a plate of decorated cookies from the student catering building.  On Valentine’s Day, 2008, I ventured onto campus for the first time in perhaps over a year.  With my three-month-old foster baby in tow, I collected the sparkly heart-shaped gems and stopped at Record Revolution to share some with an old friend.  The baby was safely in his seat (I think he was actually sleeping, which did not happen often in those early days) as I crossed the alley at the back of the parking lot which edges the campus.  I was taken aback by a student running, cell phone in hand, from the direction of the theater building and Cole Hall.  As a wild animal runs to escape its hunter, so perhaps a dozen frantic-looking students followed suit of the first. Curious, I thought, as I pulled through the alley and drove down the street to get a coffee before picking up the elementary school set.   Was this some sort of scavenger race?  Maybe an acting class?  It was, after all, near the Stevens Building.

    As I left the drive-through, latte in hand, my ears were flooded with sirens.  First one police car, then many.  Rescue vehicles and frenzy filled my usually peaceful university.  Reports were coming across the radio by now.  I just needed to pick up my kids.

    It wasn’t until I was safely home that I realized how close I had been to the horrific, the absolutely unthinkable.  Innocent people were breathing their last breaths as I passed by, as I was enjoying what may have been the most decadent butter cookie imaginable.

    We are these people.

    Clear the thoughts…rub your eyes…it’s almost time to fly, fly.

    Today, I am eternally grateful for my rich and deep blessings: my dear husband, my beloved children; my extended family; my deep and sustained friendships; my spirituality; my precious kitty, Juliet; my cookie jars; and, of course, pizza, heart-shaped or not.

    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”

    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.

    Words 


    I was so distracted by what she had said that the rest of her words swirled together and floated in an elusive ring through the air, mingling with the incense before fading to a place where there are no words, only the deep sense that something indiscernible has happened.  

    What she said must have been true, or I might have remained a captive audience.  As my attention turned elsewhere, my thoughts rotated with the fervor of a metal merry-go-round, the splendor of its carnival colored paint chipping into oblivion with each passing circle as words trailed into the distance.

    I think this is how my children must feel.  Bags and boxes placed at the will of another on a mechanical conveyor belt, moving along at someone else’s speed, headed for someone else’s plan, and perhaps a bad one at that.

    I could only hear part of what you were saying.  

    It’s not my turn to talk.  It usually isn’t.  But when it is, and I do, the words begin to fall out to the story, and then there is before me a restlessness followed by first soft and then unbridled voices.  No one is looking at me anymore, and I can no longer even hear my own voice.

    But you said…

    No, that’s not what I said.

    I am quick with my chicken chores now, especially on days when I don’t have to refill the waterers.  As I ventured behind the coop to get one of the compost buckets, I was startled to find a possum  curled up in the leftover pine shavings in a nearly empty pail.

     Never before have I seen a possum in close proximity.  Its narrow, black and shiny eyes were open.  I could see sharp, foreboding teeth as it curled back its lips to hiss at me.  I shuddered.

    I didn’t have to say anything. That possum knew it had me wrapped tightly in fear.  My chickens suddenly seemed so vulnerable.  Wendell could crow, but would his flock be safe from this angry possum?

    Will you ever really, truly feel safe with me?

    I could think of ways to trick the possum and to make him go away.  I could turn the bucket upside down to trap him.  I took a little extra time with the chicken chores, and as I picked up chicken poop and tossed some herbs into the nest boxes,  I wondered if anyone had ever given thought to the well being of the possum, and if anyone loved him best.  

    At dusk, I counted nine hens and Wendell, perched safely in their spots on the roost.  The possum was gone from the bucket, and I checked the corners of the coop just to be sure he wasn’t hiding behind a feed container.  Until the morning, at least, my chickens are locked up tightly.  

    I couldn’t think of anything else to say, which is good, because you couldn’t listen anymore anyway.  The burdens of what brought you here have filled you up, at least for now.  

    We won’t be needing any words, just a safe place to land when we are weary.  And we are.

    Then the sun rises, the rooster crows, the aroma of the morning’s coffee mixes with the lively conversation, and we are here to listen, to hear every word.