Shine

So there’s this house, tall, 2 to 3 stories high, and there’s a front yard and a back yard. In the back yard is a big fucking party but to get there, you have to go over the house. There’s a ladder. And most people learn very quickly how to climb the ladder and get over the house. But you can’t even find the ladder; it’s like the ladder doesn’t exist for you. You can hear the party in the back and it sounds so fun and you’re told that it is fun, the best fun, the fun you should be a part of if you want to be somebody. And by god, you do want to be somebody. You really really do, so you run and jump, but not high enough to get over the house. And people encourage you, they say “You can do it! You can do anything you put your mind to.” You believe them and you run and you jump and you run and you jump, you practice and you get stronger, but you can’t make it over. And you say you can’t make it over, but they tell you, “Don’t be so negative. Try harder. We made it over.” But you can’t find the ladder and you can’t jump over. Turns out you can paint the house and you can mow the front yard and you can plant beautiful flowers that all the people stop to admire before they climb the ladder to the back yard, but people don’t really care about that because the back yard is where it’s happening. You look at your flowers and your stick fort and you love them and you don’t understand why other people don’t love them, but you want to understand so you grab onto the house. One hand, one foot, one hand, one foot, and you climb. You focus and you climb and the people on the ladder scurry past you. Some laugh, some are bewildered at why the hell you’re climbing the side of the house instead of using the ladder, some climb alongside you. But you can only hold on for so long. Gravity, weight, vertical walls, physics defeats you and you fall. And you’re injured, pretty bad, but you can kinda fake that you’re okay, so they tell you to grit yer teeth and git’r done, stop whining, stop belly-aching. So you do that and think that maybe you can build your own ladder. And they tell you, “Take this pill. It helped us.” And they tell you, “Why do you sleep so late? We don’t need that much sleep. How lazy are you?” And they don’t see that you need all this sleep, because you’re so tired from climbing the house and building the ladder and it keeps falling about and they keep telling you to try harder and it’s right there, just do it. But for god’s sake, you just can’t because you’re dying trying, you’re killing yourself trying to get over the house. So for a little while, you stop and instead you tend to the trees in the front yard and you tend the people you discover are in the front yard with you because that you can do. Because even though you can’t climb the ladder to the back yard and you can’t climb the house, you sure as fucking well can walk with these people in the front yard and you can plant seeds to trees that in time you can climb. And you can fill yourself with sunshine and shine for people and this, this doesn’t kill you, this doing what you can in the front yard doesn’t break you and you can shine and glow and even when the people climbing the ladder tell you that you should climb the ladder and shine in the back yard for them, you just can’t. You’ve tried and tried to get over the fucking house, but when you try you can only get so far and then you fall and then your shine dims and the time it takes to recover your shine is years and one day you realize you don’t have that kind of time. You have to choose. Shine in the front walk or die trying to get to the back yard that people keep telling you is the place to be? You have to choose. Finally, you choose to stay in the front yard, to build rock sculptures and snow tunnels, to rest by deer and howl with coyotes. To hold close and shine for the friends and family who visit you in the front yard. To write poetry in chalk on the sidewalk and know that it is damn good poetry. When the people on the ladder tell you that you can totally share this poetry in the back yard and they would love it; you just have to get over the house. And for a second, you consider trying again, because that is so much of what you’ve strived for: to get over the house, to understand and be understood, to have your poetry heard. But now you’re old enough to know the terrible consequences of trying that particular task and you’re old enough to know the terrific rewards of working in the front yard and seeing how the flowers and vines and trees and butterflies and people grow when you shine when and where you can. And the people on the ladder will always tell you to climb the ladder to the better back yard, but now you know how to tell them no and feel no shame about that.
You shine and shine in the front yard.
The people you shine for
love you
and are grateful
and they shine too.

Mouse Poem by Alex

You’ve read my version of the Mousey Tale. Now here is Alex’s poem about the mouse in the house. He wanted me to share it here. Enjoy!

Mouse Poem

The mouse went in,
It made Foster bark,
The mouse disappeared,
And the mommy sneered.
The mouse scurried,
The mama screamed,
The mouse climbed up the curtain beam.
She said it was impossible,
Maybe she was just irresponsible.
The mouse was there,
The mouse was here,
You could here mama in your ear.
Off the curtain the mousey fell,
Splat on the floor with the sound of a bell.
Up the mouse got and scurried away,
Down the stairs and some other way.
Now mom has to set the traps,
Or else the the mouse’ll keep coming back.
Set them with crackers,
Set them with cheese,
Catch the mousey or else you’ll sneeze.
If the mouse is caught it’ll go to the park,
Never again to make any dog bark.
The mouse’ll live till it dies of old age,
Or is revived by a wizard or mage.

Wild Garden

The earth around my house grew wild during the 12 days we were on road trip. When we arrived home on Sunday the first thing I did was walk my yard. The petunias, lilies and lobelia needed water. The rabbits munched all the coneflowers in our new raingarden, but the Golden Alexanders, sideoats grama, New England asters and butterfly weed were green and growing. The wood sorrel had taken over the little garden by the cedar tree; new thistles had sprouted.

I pull and uproot this wild growth, making room for the purple petunias, the hostas, and the day lilies that will bloom this week. I enjoy the profusion of green, but it’s empty spaces that make a garden, so I tug out the quack grass and other weeds whose names I don’t yet know. A garden emerges: colorful, simple, beautiful.

Even as I uproot what I call weeds in this situation, I love them. I love their spirit, their tenacity and perseverance, their yearning towards life wherever they can find it. These weeds that return, that live in the undesirable locations—the edges of places, in disturbed ground, clinging to soil that is insufficient for other plants. I admire the thistle plants that I didn’t pull soon enough last year. Their seeds spread and are now germinating. I prick my fingers to pull them out. This is the back and forth, the exchange, the relationship between plants and me. The thistles sprout and I pull them out, letting the growth return to the soil to decompose.

We both try; we both do our part. The thistles and I: we find opportunities to live, we wound with our thorns, we return to the earth.

Green: A Spring Poem

After shooing a robin out of our porch, I saw the fresh green sprouts of day lilies, so it’s time for my spring poem to appear again.

Green                                                                                                       

 Green has finally come
Sweet-water scent of life
Cool, tender reeds on sandaled feet
 
Green brings birds
Chirps, twitters, warbles, whistles, clicks, streams
Masked by leaves, hidden among trees
Song from everywhere and nowhere
 
Green wild prairie grass
Untamed spirit of growth
New emerald spires piercing
Through the brown blanket of last year.
 
On graveled path, old railway tracks
Breeze through trees whispers
“Come, walk my shade and relax.”
Slight breeze, quaking jewels
Spinning, vibrant leaves of youth
 
Green has finally come

A Mousey Tale

Mice are little critters. Big dark eyes, but small furry animals that can squeeze through the tiniest of holes. Holes you can’t find. Ever. So we sent out live traps, mini mice-condos, if you will. One-way doors keep the scroungers contained until we release them into the woods. I suspect we are only delaying their demise as they either freeze to death or become fox or owl food, probably both. But that’s better than dealing with carcasses in my house. And the kids like peering at the live mice (“Aww so cute! Can we get pet mice again?”).

We’ve tried to find and plug holes, but the cold winter and a warm house are mighty motivators for creatures in search of shelter. They’ll find any way in that they can.

One sunny midday my dog Foster nosed the bells hanging hear the deck door to let us know she wanted to go out. As I neared the door, I caught movement outside. A wee brown mouse scurried past the door. While the bird feeders that hang just outside the kitchen windows delight us with exceptional bird viewing (recently spotted, never before seen: female common redpoll!), the seeds draw a variety of mammals as well.

Mousey caught my movement, reversed direction and headed away from the door. I pulled open the door, furry Foster trotted out and before I could shut the door, furry Mousey had reversed direction again, scooted under my dog and into my house. Dumbstruck, I shrieked, “No, no, no! What? Why?” Like some heat-seeking laser, Mousey dashed into the warmth of my kitchen with no concern for the big dog or the human standing there. I had just opened the door and let a mouse ran right in. No need for holes when you’re welcomed in through the back door.

Foster startled but completely missed the mouse. So much for those terrier instincts. I continued to screech, not scared, but totally freakin’ baffled that this mouse ambled across my threshold. The kids ran over to see what the excitement was about and laughed trying to find where Mousey had gone to.

I saw Mousey run along the wall under the kitchen table. How does one catch a mouse on the move? A box? A fly swatter? I opted to leave the door open, dash to the other side of the table and frighten Mousey into going back out the door. Mousey did indeed turn around.

“Alex, where’d she go?” I asked from my side of the table.

“I don’t know. Last time I saw her she was running towards you,” he said.

“But then the mouse turned around back towards you! Did she run out the door?”

“I don’t know. Cute mousey. Mom let a mouse in!” he laughed. I made a face at him and he laughed harder. Where did that mouse go? I checked outside, I looked under the rolling cart, I pushed aside the floor-length curtains. No mouse. Drat.

“Fine,” I closed the deck door. “She probably ran back outside with all the scrambling and screeching in here. Wow. Can you believe that mouse just ran inside?” Both kids laughed. I was gonna be teased about this for a long time.

Still aghast, I picked up my phone to tell my sister of this ridiculous occurrence. She would love it. As the phone rang, I pondered where Mousey could have disappeared to. She had been running toward the open door, but no one had actually seen her go outside. Could she still be in the house? Maybe I missed her when I brushed aside the curtain. I held my ringing phone in one hand and swished the curtain with the other. No mouse on the floor. But mice climb, don’t they? I sifted through the folds of the curtain.

“Yikes! Mouse in curtain. She’s in the curtain!” Me screeching again. Kids laughing again. I dropped my phone on the table, possibly hitting the hang up button. I’m not sure because I was all out of wits by then. If I’d had any wits left at all, I would have bundled up the curtain, trapping Mousey within and then carried it outside. I thought of that hours later.

No, in that moment, I searched for a box. I had some idea that I would slam the box down over the mouse, though box-on-swishy-curtain makes no sense. The kids were laughing again because really what else could one do? I don’t recall what Foster was doing at this point, but she wasn’t catching the mouse. With a box in hand, I returned to the curtain. Mousey clung. I stared. Mousey climbed. I yelled, “Oh, come on!”

Up the curtain went Mousey, then out onto the smooth curtain rod, then plummeting down to the floor went Mousey. I couldn’t get behind the table to slam my box down over Mousey, so I just watched as she stood, shook herself off and darted towards Alex who had thoughtfully positioned himself at the end of the table. Finally, Mousey would see that the best route was back out the door.

Mousey paused atop Alex’s foot. Alex giggled. Mousey did not turn around. Mousey was a heat-seeking laser, remember. Heat seekers do not head back out into the cold, cold outdoors. Mousey ran under the table, down the steps into the little alcove leading to the garage. The little alcove with the recycling and shoes and boots and boxes and a bazillion hiding places. At least, I think that’s where she went. She may have hurled herself into the sunken room on the other side of the steps where our desks and art table are located. I don’t know and I wasn’t going to find out.

“Okay, Mousey,” I said, “You win. Enjoy the warmth. Have a lovely afternoon and evening. You certainly earned it.”

That afternoon, we shared our house with Mousey. That night, we set out a mini mouse-condo with a cheesey cracker and peanut butter.

Red Rock

The path between two houses was clear. It did not seem to belong to either house. Tucked on the far side of a small cul-de-sac, the asphalt path led down a hill. Would I be trespassing? Would someone see me? Where did this path lead? The last question tipped the scale in favor and I strolled down the path.

I followed the curve to the right. Buckthorn was so thick, the view of the lake was obscured. The path led to the water’s edge and a wide vista opened up. Sun shining off the lake surface, trees on the other side.

My breathing slowed. I opened my palms out to catch the lake breeze, so it could sweep my angst, my anxiety, my concerns away for a moment. I basked.

When I turned back up the path, I noticed the asphalt trailed into the thicket. Overgrown buckthorn clogged the trail, but a hint of path remained. I followed, the twigs grabbed at my coat and hair. I swept the spider webs aside with a broken branch I picked up. I followed. Bits and chunks of tar and asphalt poked through the soil and leaves. Where had this trail come from? Why was it uncared for? Why had it been allowed to become nearly impassable? How far did it go?

A few steps further on, there was an opening at the shore. I sat on the leafy trail. A muskrat swam away, the fur of her head wet and sleek. A heron at the other shore took flight. I didn’t mean to disturb these creatures. I felt I had stumbled upon a secret place, a hidden, long-untouched place.

After years of living in my house, I discovered this side of Red Rock Lake, two blocks from my house.

Bird Feeders

This February we hung two bird feeders outside our kitchen table window. The feeders, one star-shaped made of safflower seeds and one typical feeder with two little perches, hung under the eaves and over the deck. During the winter while we ate breakfast or supper, we enjoyed our Chickadee TV.

The little black-capped chickadees were the first birds to find the feeder. They swooped in from the trees towards the window and landed lightly upon the perch. While the house finches that discovered the feeders later would lounge at the perch, crunching seed after seed, chickadees don’t linger. Instead they grab a seed and fly off to the crabapple trees to munch while other chickadees fly in for their turn.

A pair of cardinals, downy woodpeckers and nuthatches continue to frequent the feeders, especially after we added a larger feeder that the bigger birds could land on. Blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, and house finches continue to bring us to the windows to ooh and ahh.

In the spring, the kids delighted in identifying new visitors to the feeder: migrating warblers and white-throated sparrows. Recently this fall, juncos joined the bird feeder jamboree. 

The feeders of course brought squirrels. Gray ones, red ones, baby ones, ones who climbed the roof to sit atop or in the feeder to feast. Young red squirrels dashed across the deck to grab fallen seeds then rushed back to munch the seeds in the shade of our potted tomato plants. Only occasionally burying those seeds in the pots.

One red squirrel and I maintained eye contact through the window. Neither of us moving; not frozen, fearful non-movement, but respectful stillness just watching each other. This stillness I learned at a young age outside with my mom and sister and Pelican Lake. This stillness I nurture in my own children. This stillness that I have no idea how to nurture other than taking my kids outside and being around wildlife.

One day, Alex sprinkled seed on the deck ledge. Then he sat outside still and quiet waiting for the birds to arrive.

 

On Shagawa Lake

In the bright morning sun and cool breeze, Mike put-puttered the rental pontoon away from the dock and steered toward the middle of Shagawa Lake. Our family—Mike and I, our two kids Alex and Amy, and our dog named Foster— settled in for a lounge on the water after a week of exploring Ely, MN, our summer road trip destination.

 “I want to go on an island,” Amy, age 11, announced.

“You’ll have to swim to it because we can’t get too close with the pontoon,” I said. Small rocky bumps and large pine-covered islands dotted the lake. Sharp, shallow rocks ringed those islands, like anti-moats.

Zipping on her life vest, Amy beamed. Clearly the swim was not a problem and with the vest on she could go on her own.

When we were several pontoon lengths from a pair of islands, Mike lowered the anchor off the bow. Amy stepped down the pontoon ladder into the water and swam for a rock island. Alex, age 13, remained indecisive about joining her.

As I watched Amy swim, I felt that familiar feeling of wanting to make sure she was safe, to send someone with her. My joyful, curious daughter glanced back to smile before focusing again on her destination and I said nothing.

She didn’t need us to be anywhere other than standing on that anchored pontoon.

Amy climbed onto the smooth, sun-warmed chunk of bedrock. She glowed, standing tall, raising her arms and sticking her tongue out the side of her mouth in her usual goofy pose for the camera.

“I’m going to the island, too,” said Alex. As both kids swam for the island, I turned to Mike, “I was tempted to ask you to go with them, but they don’t really need us out there, do they?”

“Nope,” he said and I leaned into his shoulder. Amy and Alex were well on their way to not needing us, a fact that both delighted and distressed me. I wondered what they would find at the island of mossy rocks and scraggly pines.

Barely two barefoot steps onto the island, Amy howled, “Ow! Something stung me! I stepped on a bee!”

In mere seconds, I cycled through a blur of reactions. Crud, there goes our relaxing afternoon…I need to dive in, fully clothed, to rescue her! What if she has an allergic reaction like my dad did when he swallowed a bee and had to be rushed to the emergency room?!

“It hurts!” Amy yelled from the island that now seemed miles away. In a long-practiced adaptation of mine to balance the emotional scales, I became calm and focused.

“You have to swim back. You need to get in the water and swim back to the pontoon.”

Amy grimaced, but reentered the lake, pulling herself through the water with her arms, her right leg dragging behind. “It hurts when I move my leg.”

“Just keep swimming, honey. You’re almost here. You’re doing great.”

She wouldn’t step on the ladder, so Mike and I grabbed her hands to pull her up until I could reach under her arms, hugging her soaking wet body to mine and lifting her onto the pontoon. That’s when the tears started. Big gasping sobs.

She sat and lifted her foot. There, on the soft pad of the bottom of her right foot dangled the bee stinger and its gooey venom sac. I scraped it out. A piece of the stinger remained in her skin, the spot hot, red and swollen.

“Are you breathing okay?” I asked. She nodded. I checked for hives and found none, meaning no crazed hospital dash at pontoon top speed.

“I want Foster!” she wept. Since Foster was a puppy, she’s licked the tears from Amy’s face. As I dug through our bags for something to extract the last bit of stinger, Foster licked her cheeks, nose and chin and Amy’s crying slowed.

Alex found his Swiss army knife that had tweezers and he even had a band-aid in his waterproof hiking kit. I removed the last of the stinger and had Amy dangle her feet in the water, the coldest available substance.

After a few minutes, we dried her feet, applied the band-aid and Amy stretched out on the pontoon bench seat. I draped her big pink beach towel across her and handed her The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, one of her favorite books. Still in pain and understandably grumpy, Amy retreated into her book while we pulled up the anchor to relocate away from Bee Sting Island. Over the next two hours, we snacked on cheese and crackers while watching two loons, one adult and one juvenile, diving and emerging. They called back and forth to an adult loon further away. We never knew where the loons would come up next, but we looked and looked and pointed excitedly when they bobbed to the surface.

By the time we returned to shore, Amy was walking with no problem.

“Will you still explore islands, Amy?”

“Yeah. Of course. But I’m gonna wear shoes next time.”

And next time life stabs her with a barbed stinger, whether I’m there or not, I hope she’ll remember to find comfort in doggie kisses, a beloved book, and the joy of gazing across the water to see where the loons will surface.

Stick Forts and Survival Stories: Locating their worth

In the building of the many forts, I hope my children are learning that you don’t need all the stuff that society and consumerism does and will continue to tell them they need: electronics, devices, a bazillion friends, stuff to do the work for you. I want them to learn to use what is at hand. Think of and create solutions rather than buying solutions. Make do. Be content once in a while rather than always wanting, wanting more stuff. Determine their own needs and wants, don’t let marketers determine for you, because they will. They will happily inform you your entire life of what you need.

I consider one of my main jobs as a parent is to teach my children to ignore advertising: on tv (glad for Netflix), on the radio (turn the station), in the mail (straight into the recycling bin), in magazines (flip on past), online, on billboards, on Kindles, on clothing. Everywhere. Ignore that shit. In high school, I took a mass media class because it was offered by one of my favorite teachers. This class, so valuable, taught me how advertising works, how it pulls at emotions and convinces you you’re not good enough unless you have their product, tells you what you need and what will happen if you don’t buy their product. Alex and Amy are learning to sort through and identify what they need, what is important to them, what they want and what they can let go of: squinkies, planet inflatables, etc. Advertising sells happiness: you’ll only be happy if you buy our product and everyone is, especially beautiful people. You too will be beautiful if you buy what they’re selling. I want my kids to locate their worth within, by who they are and how they interact with people. Do not let marketing or consumer culture or groups of other people determine your worth, because I guarantee that society, marketing, advertising will always tell you you’re not enough. Will always tell you that you don’t have enough. You need this and this and that, in at least two colors. This is the pervasive message in our culture.

I have not been immune to this message, but I am decidedly less influenced by cultural norms than seems the norm. Why? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect all the time I spent outdoors as a kid (which was still a fraction of the time my parents likely spent outside as kids) had a protective effect on me. As a stay-at-home mom, as a writer and editor, as an artist, my worthiness as calculated in dollars by insurance companies and society in general is low. Add to that the fact of a depression diagnosis and my $ value nearly bottoms out. I’m not fishing for reassurance though years ago I would have been. I am immensely lucky that I have learned to identify my worth. I am immensely lucky to be surrounded by a husband and children and other family and friends who know my worth. The devaluing of creating a home, raising children, and learning a craft is so ingrained and ubiquitous in our current society that there were many times I found it difficult to stay the course. But when that happened, when I was ready to just find paying work outside my home, I checked in with myself. What did I need? What did I think? How did I want to live my life? How did I want to raise my children? In answering those questions, I would return, renewed, to my non-paying work of raising my children, maintaining a home, volunteering in my community and writing.

Stick Forts and Survival Stories, Part 2

The white mulberry is a tree that keeps on giving. They grow in odd spots around my yard, along fences, shooting up through the middle of bushes. The lobbed leaves look like hands catching sun. In autumn, I choose several to lop down to the ground, but don’t apply poison to kill the stump or dig the roots out. Some of the mulberry trees have three or more little stumps; new growth continues to find a way. We’ve found it useful to have trees that sprout out slender trunks from below the cuts and reach skyward year after year.

We pile the cut mulberry trees and other trimmed branches next to the kids’ stick fort under the spruce tree in the front yard. Mulberry leaves blanket a section of the fort where this spring my son and daughter twined the young, flexible trunks among the dead sticks. The stick fort is an ongoing project started two years ago in the backyard during my son’s 11th birthday party.

A walk at Edenbrook Conservation Area planted the seed of the idea. During that walk, on a sunny September afternoon, I spotted a large stick fort set back in the woods. How wonderful that kids muck about in the woods to build a shelter together. I had been thinking about birthday party activities and realized building stick forts would be perfect. We had our own branches from recent tree trimming and the party could be in our backyard.

My son loved the idea and helped us gather all the branches together and fetch more from the woods behind our neighbor’s house. One day on a walk around our block with my husband and dog, we saw a woman lopping branches of the maple trees lining the boulevard. Beautiful autumn maple boughs.

“Do you have plans for these branches? Can we have some?” I asked, “We are having the kids build stick forts at our son’s birthday party.”

“Sure. Take as much as you want. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with them,” she said. We walked home, dropped our dog off, grabbed a tarp, and hustled back to pile the branches on the tarp. Brilliant red, orange leaves. Like treasure. Long branches two inches in diameter, sturdy yet pliable. We carried our treasure home and stacked them in the backyard with the rest of the sticks.

beautiful-leaves-for-fort_small

On the day of my son’s birthday party, ten kids gathered in our yard. Building the forts was their job, but we wanted to give them some framework to start. My husband used twine to bind three or four of the thicker, longer branches together in teepee shapes. He made three of those. We needn’t have bothered. While the kids started on those, ultimately they took them apart and built one long low fort across the backyard, draping burlap and blue curtains around the outside.

For more than an hour, the children ages 4 to 11 worked together on the fort, leaning and weaving branches. “This is the best birthday party ever!” exclaimed one of my son’s friends. We enjoyed cake, ice cream and presents before everyone headed home.

That evening I stood in my yard pondering the stick fort, remembering the natural forts of my youth and wondering how long it would last.

fort-oct-2014_small