These unexpected gifts

The summer morning air is cool and heavy. I instantly feel it resting on my forehead and arms as I cross the yard to let the chickens out. My yellow farm clogs leave dark footprints in the grass, proof of life in the quiet, early hours. I open the coop and watch the chickens pour out in a flurry of feathers and straw, then turn to the bigger coop housing the ducks and meat chickens. Something green hanging on the barn catches my eye.

Every so often in the summer, and usually after a rain, the farm becomes home to some amazing moths. We’ve found various Polyphemus types resting in the grass, but this moth was new to me. Her wings were a perfect creamy green, with four small, yellow markings, and her antennae were like an intricate ivory lattice that twitched gently.

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I finished chores and came back to check on her, and, knowing how excited the girls would be, decided to bring her inside. I gently reached my hand under her wings and waited until the delicate legs grasped my finger, and then slowly carried her into the house. The girls were thrilled, and no matter how many times I reminded them to move slowly and quietly, they shrieked and jumped with excitement.

Picturing a sticky preschooler foot as an untimely cause of demise, I scooped up the moth, which I later looked up and discovered was called a Luna, and set her back outside. After a wobbly start on the grass, the moth suddenly started shivering (a precursor to flight), and then caught the breeze and fluttered into the sky, looking for all the world like a delicate leaf suddenly come to life.

I stood back up, brushing my hands on my knees, and watched the grays and blues of the clouds marble the sky. And in that moment, I decided it would be a slow day for me and the children. A day for margin, for space. A day for looking for the extraordinary in the framework of our normal lives.

***

We spent the morning sprawled on the rug, playing games, clapping for the baby who practiced his squats and stands with the dogged determination of an Olympic athlete. His strong legs pushed him up and down, and I marveled at how tall he’d grown, and how much work it must be to learn the art of balance and motion.

We moved outside to the swings, the bikes, the trampoline. The baby joined me in the garden and learned the sheer joy of smearing, squashing, and raking his way through the dirt. I staked peas, pulled weeds, spent time staring at the intricacies of the flowers in bloom. Instead of rushing from one thing to the next, I slowed down. Took notice. Enjoyed.

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The rest of the day flowed steady, easy, like water from the garden hose. Please don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t perfect. The girls fought over stuffed animals. The baby cried and messed an extraordinary amount of diapers and clothes. I still did dishes and laundry and sweeping and the lego-to-heel dance of pain.

But somehow, those things were okay too. It seemed that having margin for both joy and error was equally important. After all, life doesn’t favor one or the other. Could it be that joy and error were necessary partners in the everyday?

***

Later, we piled into the van and headed for the library, where we ran into our neighbors and miraculously both had time to chat. A surprise text landed us next to my best friend for supper at the local Drive In, where our kids ran circles around the fountain pond and chowed down on hamburgers.

Out of nowhere, someone anonymously paid for our family’s meals. I looked up from wiping food off the baby’s face, and stared incredulously at the waitress when she told us. I couldn’t have been more surprised, or more grateful. We hopped back in the van and left the radio off, making time instead to talk about the about the gifts of thoughtfulness, of generosity, of blessing.

Later that night, I kept thinking, “I could have missed this entire day.” And in a sense, it was true. Yes, I would have lived and breathed for the same 24-hour period. But it would have been easy enough to hurry my way through chores before diving into house tasks, and miss the experience of the Luna moth delicately spiraling into the sky.

I could have skipped playtime to fold and put away laundry. I could have thrown together something quick for lunch instead of making my daughter’s favorite meal. I could have said no to the library, which would have then been easier to decline meeting up with my best friend, and not afforded me the chance for sharing an unexpected object lesson on generous living with my kids.

I could have missed it all.

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When I create space to say yes, to be awake, stay present, and actively appreciate the good things in my life, I rarely feel as though my minutes pass me by, or that they’ve gone too fast. Savoring my days ensures that even if I look back and yearn for a certain time period again (newborn stage, anyone?), I can know I lived those moments to the fullest, leaving no space for regret. Conversely, time moves slowest when I put the blinders on, doggedly pushing forward, bound by my own perception of duty in lieu of enjoyment.

And some days, that might be reality. Some days are meant for doing, moving, accomplishing. Some days run beautifully on a schedule. But when we’re given the opportunity and reminder to slow down, to watch, and to feel grateful, there’s endless surprise and delight waiting in life’s simple, unexpected gifts.

Amateur Farm Hour: Family Picture Day

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I will never forget the first time I drove up the driveway and onto our farm yard. I was blown away that one place could possibly have everything we were looking for: small acreage, apple trees, gardens – and lo and behold – a barn.

The barn was an enormous presence stretching across the west end of the yard. It had a wide open center, easy for drive-in storage, and two flanking sides that housed random leftovers from it’s previous lives, including an old cook stove, fence posts, and a giant stack of lumber. It wasn’t in the best of repair, but that didn’t matter. It was a barn. I was smitten.

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I grew up spending hours in a barn, holding kittens, swinging on a bag swing, and watching the snuffing pigs escaping the mid-afternoon heat. I hoped the same for my kids, but soon after we moved in, we realized the barn on our farm was a little too haphazard to safely let our daughter loose in. Sadly, we implemented a “no-play” rule in the barn, and used it mainly as storage for the family fishing boat.

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Unfortunately, the barn is really showing its age. The beams are bending and buckling, the roof is leaking, and this spring, we made the sad decision to take it down. How that’s going to happen is still up in the air (unfortunately there’s been another change in plans,) but nevertheless. Come summer, our landscape will look pretty different. As my oldest daughter says, “at least we’ll get to see sunsets now, right?” That’s right, baby girl. Keep me positive.

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So last weekend, we welcomed the very talented Christine Henne of JoyNoelle Photography to the farm to commemorate our life around the barn. Folks, she’s amazing. She gave us some great ideas, and then just clicked away as we played. I don’t remember how many pictures she said she actually took (and then edited and returned to us with SUPERSPEED!) but if it’s anything like what it takes me to get a simple shot of one baby smiling per month, I’m pretty sure it was enough to crash the average computer. 😉

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I mean, it’s basically next to *impossible* to get six people, four of whom are age five and under, to look in the same direction and smile. But somehow she managed to document not just our faces, but our feelings.

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Friends, I can’t tell you how grateful we are to have these pictures as a reminder of the first few years here with the barn as the backdrop to our lives. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll be able to build something (on a much smaller scale!) to put in it’s place, but until then, bring on the sunsets.

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For the mom who failed yesterday

Untitled design (2)Hey friend.

You too?

Sigh.

Maybe it started off so well. Maybe you put real breakfast on the table for the first time in awhile, and knowing that you and your kids ate something besides sugar covered corn bombs for breakfast felt, somehow, refreshing.

Maybe you picked up the house the night before and awoke to a clean slate, a day of possibility.

Maybe there was the thick aroma of dark coffee.

Maybe your eyes found the sunlight through this morning’s windows and felt the promise of new mercies for the day.

Maybe it was all going along just perfectly…

And then. And then. And then.

Maybe you forgot an appointment and felt like a complete dolt for yet again unsuccessfully straddling your schedule.

Maybe you had to rewash the same pair of pants you just washed yesterday because someone’s diaper leaked. Maybe there was another pair of wet jammies and sheets. And another few loads of tiny clothes that seemed to mushroom in every corner of the house, no matter how many times you picked them up.

Maybe you remembered a relationship that was off kilter, a wound still full of sting.

Maybe your littles managed to make a mess in every room of the house before 9:30 am.

Maybe it felt impossible to say good things because everyone seemed to need correction.

Maybe there wasn’t much food around because last week’s meal plan was for last week, and you didn’t get a chance to go to the grocery store yet. Or maybe there was never a meal plan in the first place, because you can barely keep up with the constant requests for snacks, much less think that far ahead.

Maybe you longed to ward off the loneliness, the kind that makes no sense in the mothering journey when you’re surrounded by children, that crept in as you washed yesterday’s dishes and stacked them up haphazardly to dry on their own.

Maybe your phone dinged, and you picked up it up hoping for a post or message from a friend, only to find that your Flashlight app was done updating.

Maybe there was angst and noise and constant movement and it started to wind you up tighter and tighter as the hours slowly slid down the wall of the afternoon.

Maybe all you wanted was an unsuspicious silence.

And maybe all those things started swirling up and threatened to topple you, head over heels, off the rest of the day, even though there were still plenty of hours left that you had to manage, especially the ones containing bedtime, and it all started to feel impossibly difficult and when, for the love of Pete, were you ever going to just. get. it. right?

Maybe you sat in the rocking chair at bedtime and sang the extra lullaby.

Maybe you dug through the backpack and repacked clean gym clothes.

Maybe you stroked the perfect silk of someone’s hair an extra minute or two because they told you it felt so good.

Maybe you caved and read just one more story, even though you’d already read four.

Maybe you remembered the child who had a nagging cough, and managed to find the cough syrup now instead of in the middle of the night when the hacking started.

Maybe the words I love you mama relaxed the wrinkles you didn’t know you were holding in your brow.

Maybe you walked a little slower down the hallway or the stairs, just in case someone called for you one last time.

Maybe motherhood wasn’t as easy as it looked when your mom stood at the counter making dinner, folding clothes, pulling weeds, buying groceries. Maybe it’s because she wore it better.

Or maybe it’s because we were too busy with the stuff of childhood to notice the raw mechanics of life in place all around us.

Maybe that was okay.

Maybe it will still be okay.

Maybe those mercies will be new again today.  Maybe that’s simple, or feels trite, but maybe that’s all the hope we need to start in yet again, the possibility for failure notwithstanding.

 

 

 


 

PS. New Header! Christine over at JoyNoelle Photography captured some perfectly amazing moments with our family last weekend, and this photo was exactly what I have been wanting as a feature image for a long time. Stay tuned for more fun pics from our session and a glimpse into the reality of getting six people to smile for the camera all at once.

 

What I Want my Kids to Remember

IMG_20170404_092229_495Outside my office windows, I’m starting to hear a sound I haven’t heard in months. Birds of all sizes and songs are migrating back north, stopping by our hobby farm in the St. Croix river valley and nestling themselves into the dense green of the arborvitae and the budding branches of the maples. They trill and chatter, and somehow, my soul relaxes, reassured that spring is approaching.

It’s not particularly trendy to love spring. People are not making stylized memes or posts about sloppy shoes and brown grass and endless piles of damp, dirty-kneed laundry the way they do about fall and marshmallows and bonfires.

Maybe that’s because new life doesn’t start clean and dry and wrapped in buffalo plaid. New life is wet, dirty. Babies emerge from their mothers covered in a primordial mixture of blood and water. Seeds break out of their shells and push themselves through dirt and mud in order to find the sun.

Life requires mess.

This past week we had an incredible opportunity to welcome a film crew to our farmhouse for a project. However, in order to prep for filming, there was a lot of cleaning to be done. I mean A LOT. Thankfully I had help, and come go-time, the house was glowing (and basically unrecognizable in it’s oil-soaped, shining-floored glory).

It has now been precisely four days since that clean house, and aside from the layers of fingerprints which haven’t had enough time to accumulate on the windows and cupboards, you’d never guess how pristine it was in here just a few days ago.

There’s dirt all over the entry way rug, and apple cores that made their way to the counter, but not quite the garbage can. The fireplace room is littered with crayons and paper and My Little Ponies, and the ladybugs have reinstated their domain in the window sills.

And even though I want to cringe, I know all of this is inevitable with four small children, a few acres, and the abundance of nature around us.

What matters is where I choose to look.

The dirty floor, or the open window?

The dishes in the sink, or the tangle of sweet girls and coloring books spread across the kitchen floor?

Saturday night, I was about to put the baby to bed when I noticed the rest of the family sitting on the front steps, watching robins and chickadees hop and flutter across the yard.

I was bone-tired, ready to shove the rest of the dishes into the sink, and fall asleep to the whir of the mixers on the Great British Baking Show. (Griff is still not sleeping through the night, and wakes up anywhere from one to five times per night, depending on…well…who knows.)

I was a single track mind, my brain flashing like neon: bedtime, bedtime, bedtime.

I wanted to look at my pillow. My eyelids.

Suddenly, our eldest daughter shrieked and pointed to a giant shape swooping out of the pine stand across the road. It landed on a corner fence post and settled, statue-like, about a football field’s length away from us. I assumed it was a hawk, but as we watched, he turned his head and leveled us with the unmistakable gaze of a barred owl.

Jason quietly went into the house and came back with the binoculars, and we all took turns watching the owl. And I can’t explain it, other than to say that the whole event was a gift.

A gift I could have missed if I had been looking elsewhere, like the task at hand.

When I was little, my parents and brother and I used to go over to our grandparent’s farm in the twilight of  summer evenings. My grandpa would have the metal folding lawn chairs ready, the kind with orange, yellow and white woven patterns that would poke your legs where the plastic fabric frayed, all set up in a line facing the north grove.

And then we’d do something unthinkable by today’s standards. We’d all just sit quietly together. No phones, no devices save for my dad’s 35mm Pentax. I’d settle into my grandma’s lap, absentmindedly rubbing the soft, wrinkled skin of her hand, and watch a family of owls emerge from the trees and settle on the clothesline posts, hunting for mice.

Their low, silken hoots echoed from tree to tree as they talked in stereo around us. Darkness would slowly fall on the yard, imperceptible at first until we felt our skin cool and shudder. It was normal for night to arrive without our noticing.

Was it inconvenient for my parents to keep us up past summer twilight, which was probably a good two hours past our regular bedtime? I’m sure. Were my brother and I tired and whiny that night, complaining our way into bed? For certain. Could my mom have stayed behind and had the house to herself to clean, rest, relax on her own? Of course.

But none of those things were as important as making time to watch the owls together.

I don’t know what my little ones will remember from their childhood, but I have the feeling it won’t be how on time they were for bed, or whether or not I picked up the house every night.

Hopefully, they remember owls.

 

 

 

 

Small Things, Great Love

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Yesterday, in a fit of nervous energy, I baked a batch of shortbread cookies.

In my head, all I could hear was, “Tomorrow is Valentines Day! Tomorrow is Valentines Day!, which meant I should: bake cookies, deliver homemade cards, clean up, get pretty, take pictures of the kids, buy fancy groceries, make a special children’s dinner, make a special-er parent’s dinner, light candles, etc. Etc. ETC.

As a mother of four children five and under, the list was enough to give me hives.

Meanwhile, the cookies emerged from the oven in a perfect balance of crisp and soft, studded with a rainbow of doughnut sprinkles. My daughters, entranced by the smell of fresh cookies foolishly baked the hour before dinner, immediately began bargaining. Half the batch was gone in 10 minutes, and the one thing I wanted to cross off my list stubbornly remained.

In years past, I’ve made similar lists for Valentines Day. It didn’t matter if I was single, dating, married, working outside or inside the home. The power of should shadowed me all day long.

What should I give? What should I receive? If ever a day was fraught with expectation, I’d say it was February the 14th. I’d also wager that most of us are left wondering what grand gestures we should do to communicate love beyond what we manage every day. Will they be enough?

Last week, the kids and I took a spur of the moment trip to my childhood home on the farm in South Dakota. My husband had parent teacher conferences and obligations all week, and it felt like a good time for a change of scenery (once I shouldered through the reality of road tripping with four kids).

One afternoon, a framed quote in my parents’ living room caught my eye. Not all of us can do great things. But we can all do small things with great love. – Mother Teresa

Those words stuck with me all week, and they hit me again this morning.

I am not in a place to do great things today. I’m laying low with a sick baby, cutting out paper hearts with my preschoolers, trying to ignore the glitter glue and scraps that are stuck all over the kitchen table. I need to go to the grocery store with four children in tow later, and also collect all the documents necessary for a tax appointment scheduled for tonight before dinner.

The question is this: can I do those things with great love?

Can I hold the baby a little longer and wait to fold that last load of laundry? Can I settle into a kitchen chair beside my girls, look into their eyes, and help them with their work? Afterwards, can I clean up the table and scratch off the glitter glue with my fingernails without cursing under my breath? Can I dig deep for the gold of patience today as we shop, search, collect, file?

Can I simply let go of the “great” things I think I should do, in favor of the small things I can actually accomplish?

My to-do list above is real life. It’s not about expectation or the list of should-do’s that seem to accompany all holidays. It’s the every day reality that I have the chance to dwell richly in, if only I set the intention and make the time.

Small things, great love.

Today, and every day.

May it be so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living Life Unfinished

 

 

If I were organized, I’d be a killer list person.

Alas. If I manage to find a pen in my house (the child security locks on the office cupboard have long been hacked) and write out a few daily tasks, more often than not, I find myself staring at them at the end of the day, in all their bullet point glory, whole and uncrossed.

Let me tell you something. It’s tough to never, ever finish things.

The work ethic in my family is strong. My mom still wakes up at 5:00 am most days to exercise, shower, make breakfast, and tackle what needs to be done. My dad will run the combine at harvest time long into the cool fall nights. My husband will stick with a project for hours until it’s done, or he’s reached a finishing point.

Me, on the other hand? I move around my home in never-ending circles. Load more dishes in the dishwasher. Pick up the deflated socks that seem to be everywhere. Comb someone’s hair. Change the baby. Check the dryer.

Kitchen. Laundry room. Bathroom. Circle. Circle. Circle.

It’s work of the most frustrating kind. Things never, ever stay finished. As soon as the holy grail bottom of the laundry basket appears, someone throws another wrench in my Indiana Jones-like quest for clean clothes. Dishes get dirtied. Something spills and the floor has to be swept. The circle starts all over again.

I know it’s a phase, and that these days of my children being little are like the sunlight hours after daylight savings time: so very short. So I’ve been trying, trying to sit down in the middle of the chaos and be present. To be silly. To take *awesome* family pictures so I can remember life in this season. I’m learning to leave dishes in the sink. I don’t pick up toys every night. I can’t tell you the last time I deep cleaned anything

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But somehow, it’s still not working. I still find myself a little on edge most days, wanting to recount just what it is I’m doing besides endlessly picking up gently browning apple cores left out from morning snack, and supervising cleanup of whatever catastrophe happened while I was nursing the baby last.

Last night at a family birthday party, my sister in law recounted the wonderful stuff she’s been up to lately. Then the tables turned on me. My mind went blank. What have I been doing? Um. *Scramble scramble scramble* I’m…reading a manuscript for a friend! Painting a bedroom! Teaching Ellis not to use an entire bottle of shampoo in one sitting! Making a small attempt at national novel writing month (#nanowrimo y’all!) with the goal of two chapters!

See my exclamation points? Isn’t that big? And exciting? Have I convinced myself I’m worth something because I made a list? Yes? Yes? Yes?

Sigh.

As much as I’ve always wanted to be the serenely-listening Mary in the new testament story when Jesus visits two sisters, deep down, I’ve always know I’m the Martha clanking away in the kitchen, furiously working the dishrag, trying to do all the things.

The things that could have waited.

Because they were just that. Things.

Jesus didn’t care about a clean counter or a swept-up floor. He wanted to be with his friends, Mary and Martha. Likewise, when my daughters come tromping down the stairs in the morning, they aren’t looking around going, Wow. I sure feel safe and secure at home because the house is picked up. Not a chance.

They’re looking for me.

Which means maybe I need to figure out a new approach. Maybe I need to stop measuring the value of my work by the things I’ve accomplished, and starting looking for more places to be available.

Maybe I need to listen to more Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros, because if home is wherever I’m with you, then the best things I can offer my family are my empty, waiting hands.

And maybe one of those creepy automatic vacuum robots.

Maybe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the Woman in the Bathroom

bathroom-signDear friend,

Can I presume to call you that? I hope so. Because that’s how I felt when we met eyes for a second in the women’s bathroom today.

I walked in with a baby in a car seat on one arm, a purse slung across my tired shoulder, and three little girls pushing to get around me. The girls were chattering excitedly, for a minute, I saw them as a stranger might.

I saw the black and white striped pants with the over-sized pink dress that Gabby loves to wear. I saw Ellis’s stained white tank top with the pink sparkly flamingo, and her black stretch pants that have somehow gotten a little too short over the summer. I saw Lucy and her curtain of self-cut bangs, trimmed up by her auntie but still managing to look like a short haired version of Farrah Fawcett. Gabby turned and I noticed I’d forgotten to comb out the bird’s nest in the back of her hair, the one she manages to recreate every night with great skill.

Then the baby started crying, and I whipped back in to the present, racing into the stall so we could get out before he started a full-blown beller of discontent.

I sat there on the toilet, counting the pairs of feet running past my door, and I thought of you, the stranger standing at the counter, watching all of us with a smile on your face and not a hint of judgement in your eyes while you washed your hands.

Friend, I’m so grateful for your kindness. I know most of the time, we are all a hot mess trying to get out the door. Someone’s shoes don’t fit, someone’s pants are dirty, and I’m desperately hoping that the blush I managed to swipe on my cheeks will make me look at least a little bit like I tried.

Heaven knows, I try. I wake up with Ellis at 6:45 most mornings, and haul the baby downstairs with us even though he’s not totally awake yet so that if he cries, he won’t wake up his twin sisters. I attempt semi-health conscious breakfasts and a load of laundry each day so that we have clean clothes. I remind myself to slam a glass of water after my two cups of coffee so I don’t get totally dehydrated and give the baby too much caffeine.

The day keeps going like that – full of tries that sometimes work, sometimes fail, but generally keep the wheels on the bus, and right now, that’s the best I can do.

So us out of the house this morning, dressed, fed, and generally in good moods, is a pretty good accomplishment. We’re definitely not the most stylish, but we’ve managed to get into the world and interact, and that makes life better.

And you, with your warm smile and kind heart? Well, I want to be more like you. I want to smile at people more. I want to not think twice about snarly hair or mismatched clothes, or even looks in general. I want to heap grace upon grace on everyone I come in contact with, knowing that being comfortable in another person’s presence is one of the greatest feelings ever.

Thanks friend-that-I-don’t-know. I needed that.

Maybe we all need a little more of that.