sunshine on my shoulders

sunThis weather feels like a drug to me, or more specifically, it is this autumn sun that is my vice. I’m pulled outside, away from chores like laundry and dishes, cooking dinner even, because I cannot resist that tang of fresh air, that low flying sun, shooting rays directly onto my face, tingling my skin. I can’t turn away. I know that it’s leaving, going, turning towards the gray of November that eventually becomes February, and the threat is more than I can bear.

I’m like a lunatic, kicking the kids out, away from books and art projects, homework even, insisting that they, too, must feel what I feel. They are glad for it, I think. Like a drug, the energy of this particular sun is taking over my everything and I’m eschewing responsibilities left and right.

It was one of these days, the sun slung low following its autumn arc. Bright and direct, it warmed the earth, releasing the musky smell of decaying leaves. It’s these days exactly where the sun makes all the difference – one step to the shadow and you feel the brisk air threatening its bite, but the sun entices you to pull off layers, strip bare to reveal skin, as careless as a teenager in summer. I think of it as storing up Vitamin D, like a squirrel hustles acorns.

The kids were home early, released from school to free up their teachers from conferences. Because of these conferences, Mark was home early, too, and after we returned home from meeting with teachers, I made it no option to the kids but to be out. Some days you just have to run for the hills, turn your back on those daily habits that slog you down. Some days, that sunshine promises freedom like a drug.

At the park, I told the kids I didn’t care so much what they wanted to do – swing, climb, run – but I was going to find the sun and sit in it until I couldn’t anymore. My eyes followed the stream of light to just one bench, a bit further away than I normally would be from the action, but the only one in the sun. I claimed it as mine. Grant grabbed his bike, snapped his helmet, and took off for the path. Renee and Griffin ran towards the slides, chasing and climbing and shouting in some fascinated game of imagination. Mark sat beside me for a few moments, but sensing I had few words to share, he chased his own energy back to puttering with the kids.

I sat in the sun.

Griffin ran back to me, breathless and glowing for a moment as he crossed into the path of the sun stream. He grabbed at the bench for balance, paused, looked at me.

“Mama,” he panted, “l love you,” he declared. He didn’t stick around long enough to hear my response, instead pushed off the bench once again to chase Renee. My words, “Griffin, I love you, too” were shouted into the streaming sunshine behind him, but they’re there. I knew that he’d catch them some time around.

Lulled into a different kind of peace, sitting there on that bench, I flipped my sunglasses up on top of my head, to really feel the sun on my face. I closed my eyes for a moment, not in rest, but more in adoration and gratitude. The kids were happy, and occupied. Their chatter faded from the forefront of my brain, now more like a holy chant swirling in my consciousness. The sun had already begun to move; I moved to angle my body again towards it and breathed deeply.

sun face

Even with my eyes closed, feeling the charge of sun on my face, I knew when to look up and wave to Grant on his bike, hearing the rhythmic racket of him pedaling on past. He waved, too, happy at his speed and balance, showing off with only one hand. I watched him longer than he watched me, as he and his bike cross the path of the sunshine. There he was, turned black in my vision, silhouetted by this lowering sun behind him. For a moment I was reminded of that iconic scene from ET where Elliot and ET are biking, high in the sky, across the face of the moon. Grant may as well be on that same journey, lifting off the ground in ways that defy my mind. The moment lingered, suspended, time immemorial.

Maybe this is what it means to be wholly present: to sit in this perfect moment, and see it for what it is. It was not a struggle for me to be awake to that moment, to watch Grant pedal harder, gaining momentum to push himself up that hill, then cascading back down again. To watch him find a freedom that exists nowhere else. I saw Grant’s perfect being lit up by that sun, for all he is, and all he will be. In this thinly veiled state, it’s almost as if I could hold the tiny body that was Grant as a baby, hear his tender mewing cry, and see, too, the young man he will be, lanky and muscular, a warrior of love in this hard world. I know, I know – it’s crazy. I’m just a mom on a bench in a park watching my kid ride his bike, but in that moment, staying right there, it was the whole world.

In time, the sun dipped past the edge of the tree-deckled horizon and the warmth left my face. A shiver ran down my spine, and I was in the shadows once again. Imminent concerns trickled back in, no longer able to push off figuring out what to feed the family for dinner. The prickly edges of familiar angst crept back into my body, tensing up already in anticipation of homework have-to’s and bedtime battles. I closed my eyes, trying to bring back the sensation of peace and warmth. All I felt was the empty breeze.

A week later, now, and November has settled in, unpacked its bags, here to stay. Its bleak gray and heavy tones have brought the sky close enough that I feel like I can touch it, but unlike last week I’m not sure that I want to. My shoulders ache from the tight clench of warding off the shivers. That drug that was the sun is a wisp of a memory. I am grateful for the memory, for my instinct to prioritize that glory. It is much harder to be wholly present, equally thankful, for the darkness. Shadows are easy to find; the sun is low and I’m folded into the creases of the earth.




this, too, shall pass

When Grant was a baby, not so teeny tiny but probably about eight months old, I was incredibly sleep deprived. Grant hardly napped, and when he did it was a hard fought battle, a mixture of finding the right pattern and casting the right spell. The same could be said of bedtime as well, and his middle of the night wakings were taking a toll on both Mark and I. I was losing my mind and desperate for reprieve.

Somehow (I shall call this a miracle) Grant slept during the day for about an hour while I talked with my cousin, Beth, on the phone (I think the universe knew that I needed intervention). Beth was in the thick of parenting her own two boys – Elias, who was only two weeks younger than Grant, and her then four year old, Will. Elias was an easy baby, a peaceful sleeper who went along with whatever the day or night may bring. But Beth knew difficult babies. Will had not been so easy and peaceful. She was ready to talk me off the ledge.

I remember this all so well because I took notes. Copious scribble on a journalist-style notepad, as if researching for a project, this project that would save my sanity. I don’t have that notepad anymore, can’t remember most of the things that we talked about, her tips for sleep and naps and peace and love. There is one thing that sticks with me, though.

As we talked, I watched the lights on the baby monitor, willing it to stay quiet so that maybe, just maybe, I could get enough tips and pointers, this beacon of hope, before Grant woke up. Walking in circles around the sun porch that we knocked down some years later, the sun bathed me in light and warmth, and through the phone Beth spoke this truth: It won’t always be like this. She didn’t say it gets better, or easier (or harder). She didn’t promise me a formula. She didn’t minimize this anguish that I was feeling. But she did promise me that things change. This, too, shall pass.

That they do.

Grant is almost 8 years old, and while I can say that bedtime remains a difficult time for us, it looks very different than it did 7 years ago.

Last night (or was it the night before? Or last week?), sunk in my own self-pity and weariness, I whined my latest worry and weary to Mark. At the end of pouring out my mind to him, I heard myself say, “One day looks just like the last, and I feel like it’s never going to change.”

It’s easy to feel stuck. To feel as though bedtime will always be treacherous. That I will never any substantial writing done because it’s always interrupted every few minutes. That the kids will never learn to keep their hands to themselves, or that I will never learn to stop yelling at them. To feel as though my wells of patience and love are almost, almost run dry. The wheels are spinning, working ruts in the mud, and there is little other than sheer force to push this heavy one out.

It won’t always be like this, she told me.

This summer was hard. Hard in ways that I didn’t want it to be, in ways I don’t want to admit. Hard in disappointments. Hard is lessons learned. Hard in battles fought, and most often not won. I felt weary and heavy, the weight of it all pressing me deep into those mudded out ruts. It was with this weariness and a heaviness that I opened the door to fall.

Yesterday, while waiting for the bus a gust of wind swooped down our hill. As it did, the kids and I watched a flutter of yellow leaves lift briefly in the gust and the tinkle down to the ground. This, too, shall pass. There is significant beauty in its delicateness, in its fleeting presence.

This beautiful will pass. This hard will pass. There will be more beauty. There will be more hard.

Though I may feel like I’m driving down rutted out roads, caked thick with dried mud, spinning my wheels hardly moving, it won’t always be like this. Maybe this is the trick. Watch, this minute: watch it become the next. Stop spinning those wheels, digging myself deeper down, rutted in. Be still a moment. Feel it, learn it, know it.  Notice what is passing, how it is all changing.

This, too, shall pass: those crocodile tears with the flailing legs on the floor, pounding, pounding about some injustice in the life of the three year old. This, too, shall pass: the way she holds my hand, confidently and proudly, as we walk along the sidewalk to her kindergarten classroom. This, too, shall pass: the nervous wave from the soccer field while he checks, again and again, to make sure we are standing stalwart and watching before his game begins. This, too, shall pass: the curtain calls after lights out, just one more drink of water, and then can you walk me back up, too? And check my bed for snakes.

The clouds push through the bright blue sky, the sun rises and sets each day. One moment passes into the next, the river washing grit from beneath rocks, rounding out sharp edges.

Isn’t everything that’s ever been written trying to say just this?


changing landscapes

changing landscapes 1

The storm came in quickly. I remember seeing a warning for a thunderstorm at some point, but had written it off as a typical summer’s day – hot and humid and always a threat of impending doom to ruin afternoon plans. Mark was working late, which is something that we as a family have adjusted to, another familiar landscape that is changing. The kids were watching a few minutes of TV to simmer themselves into quiet after a day of summer play and swimming lessons. After finishing some quick work on the computer, I snuggled into the couch between them all, hoping that maybe it would go unnoticed if I closed my eyes for a brief moment before making dinner.

The lights pulsed, dimming and then coming bright again. I hadn’t even noticed the sky grow dark, but it certainly had. I couldn’t see any rain, yet, but knew it was only a matter of time. The wind was picking up, and I could see the tell-tale sign of the pale green underside of the leaves waving around. With the next gust of wind, the TV flickered off, and that is when the shrieks and cries of worry began. First, it was the disappointment of losing their show, but it quickly escalated to a tizzy of panic when the lights didn’t immediately come back on. Renee looked out the window just in time to see power lines dance with a wildness none of had ever seen.

Then everything happened all at once. My phone screamed at me to tell me of a tornado warning. I chased the kids, all crying, into the basement, dragging Maggie, the family dog, and a lantern with us. Passing the kitchen windows, we could see already a huge branch from one of the giant tulip poplars had blown down, crashing into one of our pear trees, where it stuck, entangled in the branches. Through the crying, the questions from the kids were rapid fire, leaving little pause for me to answer: “Is it a tornado? Will our house blow away? But we don’t live in Kansas! What’s going to happen? What about the electricity? Will we have to sleep down here? Will Daddy be able to get home? What are we going to do?” It’s in these moments of panic that I find myself most at home in my mothering. I stay calm. I hold hands, answer questions, do the next thing. The adrenaline roars through my body, and I think I know what my cave-mother ancestor must feel. Only after the storm is over do I let myself succumb to my own inner anxiety, and sheer exhaustion of mothering.

After the storm, we crept into the yard to inspect the damage. It’s not evident at first, but tends to reveal itself in the days following. This storm was destructive. A branch I had thought was fine turns brown quickly, an indication of its break from its life-giving tree. We spend the next few days driving some back country roads to survey the toll of the storm, the kids pointing strongly, shouting “damage!” every time they see a tree down. Some transformations are slight – the branch, still full and lush and green, that is outside my bedroom window hangs closer than it did, pushed lower and out by the storm. We spend days dragging limbs into the woods. I pay the kids a penny per twig to clean up the driveway.   The skyline of my back yard is different. Changed.

It has been a season of changing landscapes. Things that were once as familiar as the freckles and veins on the back of my hand seem foreign to me now.

It continues to change.

As long as we’ve lived in this little house-on-the-hill we have had a vacant wooded lot catty-corner to our property. We have long used these woods to cut through to the neighborhood behind us, and further still to the sports center and beyond. These dense woods have afforded deer and other animals the cover that they seek out, and the tall, thick trees have added density to the canopy that hems us in.

Someone bought that plot of land this spring. Then, just last week, they began cutting down trees, tying pink ribbons on the giant ones marked to come down, clearing space for a house. One hot morning, I opened the back door to sit on the patio with my coffee and I heard the roar of chainsaws. Thinking not much of it at first (after all, chainsaws have been roaring strong and fierce in the aftermath of that storm), I then heard the creak and crack and then the crash of a felled tree. This was not simply clearing debris. The kids and I stormed up the hill, to see with our own eyes. Dozens upon dozens trees, already down or marked as such.

I wanted to wave my hands, shout at the top of my lungs. I wanted to say that nobody had asked me! I didn’t get any warning! Tears stung at my eyes, and I couldn’t quite rationalize why. I slowly walked back down the hill, turning to look back when I reached my patio. Already, there was more sky than I was used to seeing, big holes in the canopy cover of green.

It has unnerved me, this change in my view.

Sure, I feel this grief for big important reasons, like the ecology of my intimate environment. The kids keep talking about the squirrels and the birds, and I feel swirled into the idea of growth and life and death.

But deep down I know it shakes me on a more personal level. Falsely, I had come to know this landscape as mine. These trees were my view, with my morning coffee on the patio, the backdrop as the kids run through the sprinkler and leap into the splash pool. It is what I see at night, the moon descending below the trees, when I sit with Mark around the fire pit.

But I don’t own those trees. Don’t own them any more than I own the sun and the clouds.

I came inside, to my familiar family room with its familiar piles of paper and same old furniture, and I began moving things. My desk went from one end of the room to the other. The TV is at the opposite end now. Little things, baskets of books, end tables, all rearranged. Standing back to survey the change, I realized how crazy this all seemed.

Isn’t that how it is, though? When the outside landscape changes in ways that seem so dramatic and sudden and out of my control, I go inward and insist on control in my interior space.

My scenery is constantly changing in such minute ways, too. The flowers in the front garden bloom and, overnight, fade. Grant tells me that his hair grows one millimeter every ten days. There countless ways that the things that I look upon are in constant flux – birth, growth, death, decay. Perhaps it’s refreshing to experience the shock and intensity of this present destruction. It forces me to see it for what it is, instead of growing numb to change over time.

This landscape has changed. The skyline up the hill and beyond my house is different. It will take time to learn the shape of it, but I will. It feels all wrong now – light in the wrong places, shadows drifting unfamiliarly across the grass. But it won’t always.   Someday this new landscape will feel as familiar as the veins and freckles on the back of my hand.


lessons from a hawk

I can sit on my front porch, or perch on the hill in my back yard, and most always I will see some type of raptor.  Lured by the tall canopy of tulip poplars that create a fairy tale forest, or sometimes just the stink of rotting roadkill, the hawks and vultures love to soar where I can see them.  They easily display their magnificence with their wings stretched wide, and underneath them and the towering trees, I am made small in my world.


I find myself in this strange new phase of mothering.  Griffin is now three, and is so much more of a three year old kid than Grant ever was, and probably Renee, too.  What I mean is this: he chased those big kids right into their territory.  I would not call him so much of a toddler, because that sounds way too primary.  Grant as a three year old was sedate and mild compared to this small-bodied faux-big-kid.  He does not want a hovering mother telling him what he can and can’t do.  It’s lovely, and scary.

It’s lovely, because for the first time in seven years the demands on my physical presence are so much less.  I don’t have to have eyes on everyone all the time.  They can all handle the stairs on their own, the bathroom (mostly) on their own, can build forts on their own.  For the first time in a long time, I have some breathing room.  This is lovely.

(It’s scary, too, because Griffin has no fear, and doesn’t back down from a challenge, nor suffer from lack of imagination.  He’s been climbing trees now for a full year, and it’s perplexing to me that he’s the child who has yet to see the inside of the ER).

This transition, like my experience with most transitions, has filled me with angst.  During those earlier, physically demanding years, their sun rose and set with me, pretty literally.  Especially with Grant, when it was just the two of us, I was the whole show.  Whatever his experience, it was a good bet that I had orchestrated it.  At times feeling suffocated, or at least limited, I didn’t always embrace my starring role, but there I was, nonetheless.   As the kids grow, however, they have learned to take charge of their own experiences, mostly.  Throw a few siblings in there, and I’m hardly the center of the show anymore.  No longer the central character in their story, I much prefer a supporting role.

Though of course I do still spend time playing with the kids, reading books, building towers, doing puzzles, so much more of their time is play that is all their own.  They don’t need me to build a fort for them – they do it themselves.  They don’t need me to entertain them with activities or arts and crafts – they have their own ideas and initiate their own games.  I’m called on to tie something up, or to reach a box way up on a high shelf.  They don’t want me hovering or interfering.

This is beautiful, and magical, and I love to see their true selves come out through this type of play. But left out of this part of the equation, I have yet to find exactly my place in all of it.  It’s an awkward transition, to find one’s self pushed from center stage to the wings, however welcomed it is.  Released from the starring role in their lives, I know have to find my way back as the central character in my own story.

When the kids run off upstairs, lost in a world of imagination, I’m left behind downstairs.  I strain my ear to catch snippets of their play, at once grateful that we have dragged our feet to put away baby monitors, not to monitor their safety, but to allow me the joy to hear them play so uncensored.  After a few moments, it’s clear they aren’t coming down for a while, and this is where my angst swirls in.  My supporting role as mother leaves me here, ready and waiting for when they need a snack, or help unbuttoning a dress, or to work through squabbles, but until then I spin pointless circles around the kitchen.  I empty the dishwasher, prep for dinner.  I busy myself with housework, needing to feel productive, but eventually I feel utterly dissatisfied.  Because a pile of laundry can’t give cuddles and kisses, and the kitchen counters, no matter how shiny, don’t ever say I love you.

Recently, I was reminded of the idiom “work before play” and I crinkled my nose at the thought. It’s not that I don’t possess a strong work ethic, or want to teach my kids the importance of earnest dedication.  It’s because I recognize how unfair and misleading it is.  There is inherent wisdom in this, of course, that have-to’s trump want-to’s, but in my world, as in most of ours, the work is never done. There is always something else that needs to be taken care of, and by continually chasing that dangling carrot, trying to finish it all before rewarding myself with leisure and enjoyment, I succumb to burn out.


My world swings on the pendulum from acedia to freneticism, so while it may sounds luxurious or indulgent to spend an afternoon in the sunshine reading a book while the kids play on the swing set in my periphery, I know that I’m warding off mothering fatigue and storing up for the next challenge.

Though I can’t drift far, I can involve myself in things that are my own – an art project just for me, a cup of tea and a book, work in the garden.  The constraints are still there – I still need to be flexible enough to change directions, dropping it all in response to arisen needs.  And we all know how it is: the minute my hands are deep in raw chicken prepping for dinner, I’m needed in a thousand directions all at once.

I know that my work as a mother is just as important now as it was in those earlier years, and that this time I have is a gift to strengthen myself for whatever season may be next.  I know that, out of the trenches of such physically demanding mothering, next I face into years of harder emotional parenting, navigating problems that grow as their bodies and brains do. Some days, even, the next hard thing is homework battles in the afternoon or bedtime whack-a-mole. I take seriously this responsibility, then, to find the beauty for myself in the gift of this freedom.


I’ve been watching this hawk for a while, now.  He seems so peaceful, soaring above the noise and grit of it all.  He beats his wings once, twice, and then not again for minutes and minutes.  Conserving his energy, he reads the air, observes the breeze, then tips his wings and rises with the wind.  He soars, and he soars, higher and higher, then lower again, waiting, and watching.

the writing life

Is it weird to tell you how hard it has been for me to write?  Because it is hard.  To find time, sure, but to choose the time, too.  Because we all know this: there is time for the things that matter.  Sometimes the thing that I’m choosing to matter is rest: to sleep a bit later in the morning instead of yanking my bleary-eyed self out of bed to stare at a blinking cursor. Of course, there are the things that matter always: packing lunches, and brushing little ones’ teeth, and paying bills.  Sometimes, even, the thing that matters most is sitting with my face in the sunshine and doing very little.

When I’ve been away this long, I have a hard time catching you up.  But the truth is there isn’t much to catch up on: the kids are growing, we’re marching one foot in front of the other like everybody else, through soccer practices, and homework and preschool pick up. Through making dinner, and maddening bedtime routines, and reminders to stop all the shouting.  There’s BIG STUFF, and little stuff, and everything in between.  We’re finding ourselves outside mostly, because it’s that type of weather, and we’re filthy-dirty at the end of the day. That’s life, isn’t it?  Maybe the catching up is more in my own head, because it’s never quiet, never still there.

I’m writing, sure, even if it’s not here.  There’s always something going, always an idea, or a project, or just a sentence, even.  But if I’m honest with myself, I’ve also been avoiding writing.  It’s hard work, don’t you know?  And while it feeds me, truly deeply is the thing that stirs my soul, it can be so difficult to do it.  For so many reasons.

Anne Lamott is known to have said that in order to be a writer, one has to glue one’s butt in the seat and write.  Stick it out, and do it.  This is wise in that the only way to do something is, of course, to do it.  (Here I am, glued to my seat, finding the words, tapping them out).

But to glue myself to the writer’s chair it takes me from where I’m most needed now: in my home, as the mother of this family. It is downright messy and unbeautiful to unglue something, or more accurately rip it off – I’m envisioning ragged edges and apologetic offerings. There is very little flexibility in this line of thinking.

I have found that I have a remarkably low ability to multi-task (or, more rightly, that I can multi-task, getting things done, but with only mediocre results).  I can make dinner, while helping with homework and braiding hair, but inevitably I’ve forgotten if I was at two teaspoons, or three, or that the worksheet was addition and not subtraction.  What I’m saying is this: writing, good writing, real writing, takes my entire brain.  My entire being, really.  It’s not something that I can enter lightly, or leave easily.

A room of one’s own may be the exact prescription, here.  Virginia Woolf’s observations that concentrated creativity can be groomed out of luxurious sequestering does seem indeed both and truthful, and indulgent.  If what I’m saying is that in order to think clearly, and therefore write clearly, I need to enter into time and space with my whole brain and body, then yes, there is truth to this prescription.  But I also know this: without the volume and mass of life around me, I have not little to write about.

But maybe that’s it exactly: that being a writer is so pervasive that it seeps into all these other aspects of my life.  Just as I’m a mother, always, even when I’m all by myself in the grocery store, nary a kid of mine around (this has only happened to me, like, twice) so also am I a writer, always, even when my fingers aren’t at the keyboard. It is simply truth that I can’t turn my writer brain off.  In any ordinary day, I’m forming sentences, jotting notes, describing whole scenes in mind alone . I’m paying attention to my life, seeing these ordinary things and holding them to the light, turning them around, feeling them from underneath, observing the shadows.

Maybe this whole “gluing to your seat” thing still applies, just not the way I’ve been thinking about it.  Maybe it has more to do with gluing myself to my life.  Staying here, staying in it.  Maybe it’s about escaping less, and sticking through the hard stuff.  The boring stuff, the tedium, even the straight up pull-my-hair-out hard stuff.  It’s about continuing to scribble notes on the back of a groceries lists and old envelopes, or talking into my phone while I’m driving.  It’s about noticing the sound the last autumn’s leaves make as they tumbled down the hill, pushed by the warm spring air.  It’s about noticing what is going on underneath it the surface, mining life for the truths that connect us to each other.  It’s about simply finding pockets of time to tap away at the keyboard, stringing it all together, not in a room of my own, but on the laptop at the kitchen table next to the kids who are pounding out their own play-doh masterpieces.

That’s my experience of being a writer. Glued to the seat of life, with pen in hand.

“every once in a while…”

The bedroom door cracks open a little before 5am. Mark is awake and out of bed already, and I’m pretty sure I already heard the coffee maker grinding beans a few minutes earlier. But he’s back now, standing in the doorway.

“Campbell?” He whispers, loudly enough to rouse me, stern enough to know that something serious is going on. “I need you.”

About a thousand things run through my mind, all of them tragic and scary, so that when he tells me that Maggie, our dog, has been sprayed by a skunk I sigh with relief (if not exasperation). I throw the blankets off, and step quickly to get to work.

And we do get to work. Triage the situation. Mix the hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and dish soap. Scrub, rinse, repeat. It’s cold outside; I worry that the sudsy puddle is going to freeze into an ice rink. Make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pack his work bag. Send Maggie to the basement to dry off until the sun comes out and she can be warm enough outside. Light the candles, burn the incense, throw the laundry in. Send Mark off to work. The rhythm of the work carries us, and we barely say a word. We’ve been partners in this work of life for long enough now.


Heat’s in the tools, Mark is always saying. He has these things he says, these trademark quips. Maybe it’s a fatherly thing, a piece of the brain that cracks open as these men grow into dads. Maybe not. But my dad had them, too, and I don’t remember Mark saying them when we were younger.

“The heat’s in the tools,” Mark says standing in the swirling snow that blows around him, sturdy and unmoved like the weight of a statue, ready to shovel the driveway. He says this to the complaining kids getting out of the car to begin a hike. Heat’s in the tools. I’m sure that he says this to the motley gang of guys that he oversees at the jobsite, each morning setting down his coffee and strapping on his tool belt, his breath puffing like cold clouds from his mouth. Get moving.

(Heat’s in the tools, he whispers to me, his breath warm on my face in the quiet moments alone, tucking a strand of my hair behind my ear, and I soften at his words).

And of course, he’s right. Soon enough I’m sloughing off my extra layers, setting my hat aside as the work of shoveling snow heats my core from the inside out. Once on the trail hiking, the kids no longer complain, but are engrossed in the tracks of the deer and dogs and boots printed into the mud. It’s the rhythm of the work that makes time pass, and the work of it that brings the glow and the sweat and the warmth.

This week I stepped up to coach Grant’s soccer team. They were low on volunteers and high on players, and so though I don’t have any coaching experience, I said yes. The heat is in the tools, I remind myself. I know a bit about the game and a lot about first graders and enthusiasm and teamwork, so while that first game might be cold and scary, I think I’ll get warm fast. Just get moving, right?

Mark’s quips don’t stop there. Rubbing is racing, that’s another. I guess it’s from the movie “Days of Thunder,” but I’ve never seen it. To me, it’s pure Mark.

Chasing the soccer ball down the backyard, with his hip pressed into Grant’s lithe body, he laughs out “rubbin’ is racin’, Grant!” He says it when he comes back from a trail run, mud splattered down his back, thorn pricks on his calves. He’ll say it with the corners of his mouth turning upward in a puckish grin, and I’ll know that he’s dancing that line of fair play, whatever the situation. He says it as he puts Band-Aids on the kids, or grabs ice packs to ease a bump, the simple results of playing and running and being a kid. He says it to me when I share a hurt feeling, a misunderstanding with a friend. Rubbing is racing, and life is nothing if not filled with friction.

“Every once in a while, a blind squirrel finds a nut.” This is probably Mark’s most used line. Humble at his core, he says it after someone gives him an ‘Atta boy, or a congratulations of some kind. He says it after he offers some useful information, or knows a bit about something, or fixes something. He says this when I thank him for something – “every once in a while…” He says it so much, actually, that I’m pretty certain that this squirrel is not so blind, but is a very good nut hunter.

I wonder how the kids will remember this.  Doubtless, these word are a soundtrack of their childhood.  There will be times when they will roll their eyes at these remarks.  Mark might just sound like a corny dad, but he offers sage wisdom behind his witticism.  All of these quips point us in the same direction:  just get started, get moving, doing whatever it is that you’re going to do.  There will be bumps, rubs, accidents, and you’ll be on both the giving and receiving ends.  That mostly it’s work, and often you go at it blindly, not certain which direction is right.  And then every once in a while…. it all falls into place.

And that you’ll always have a dad to remind you of these things.


Maggie was skunked about five years ago, too. Then I had a toddler and a newborn, and had never smelled the nauseatingly strong stench of fresh skunk spray. It was scarier, then, and harder. Mark was a servant hero, taking control and dealing with the situation. This time when it happened, we knew the recipe to mix the right de-skunking concoction. This time I was less panicky about the stink. This time, I threw open windows, begging the kids to put on sweatshirts, pulling blankets around my knees to let the brisk almost-spring air into the house. I know to expect that Maggie will have strange frosted tips, the result of the hydrogen peroxide on her black coat. This time, the blind squirrel knew to ask for help, and Mark and I did it together. I know by now that the heat is in the tools. That though it may painful and cold sometimes to get out of bed, I’ll be warmed by the work, whatever the work may be. I also know that rubbing is racing, and that life is a full contact sport. We’re going to end up with some scrapes and bruises (and sometimes a foul smelling dog), but the race is long, and I’ve got good teammates.

Today is the first day of spring, but it’s snowing here.  Heat’s in the tools, friends, heat’s in the tools.


chasing sunsets

photo 2Our car bumped along the back country roads a few evenings ago, the voices low and small in the backseat humming along with the rhythm of the tires. Mark and I were quiet with the exhaustion of a long weekend. The sunset was setting gloriously in front of us, setting the trees on the horizon aflame. It was burning out in such a surprising way – the day had been dreary with spots of rain. But just for a bit, the clouds were gone, the sky instead painted with swaths of burning pastel. We pointed out the windows, sharing this moment with each other, staring it into memory. I tried to take a picture or two, but nothing on the screen looked like what I was seeing.  It was directly ahead of us, and it was poetry – driving off into the sunset. We chased it down to home. But we never got there, to that sunset. Because you can’t actually get to a sunset, can you?

Here’s the hard truth: I’m spinning, and I’m spun. Winter is hard for me: there is less actual light. We are not outside as much, though we try (if last year was called a polar vortex I don’t know what to call this year’s record breaking cold temperatures). Our house is small; we are in close quarters. It’s hard to admit, but I’m having a hard time seeing the light, and finding the glory. And I feel convicted, and embarrassed because isn’t that supposed to be my thing? To just slow down enough, to see life for the beauty that it offers, to say thank you, always. Right now, though, I’m doing a terrible job.

Towards the end of a really rough day, Mark shooed me off to take a long hot shower all by myself while he took over trying to manage the post-dinner, pre-bedtime crazy. As I stood motionless with the water pouring over my head I tried to fix myself, pull myself out of my ridiculous pity party. I thought of all the families that I know, personally and intimately, whose lives are harder and more devastating than mine. I thought of all the tragedy in the world, and reminded myself over and over again that a day in my life is so far removed from that. But it didn’t work. All it did was make me feel guilty.

Later that night, after the kids were (finally, finally) all asleep in their beds, Mark and I did our rounds, pulling blankets up, sweeping hair from faces, and kissing them with blessings. After I had done all that, I stood at Griffin’s bedside with slow silent tears on my cheeks. The beauty pounded in my chest, my heart beat so fiercely that I thought Mark could probably see it, glowing in the dark room, right there. I was so twisted up about it – about why it takes this dark and quiet moment to be thankful. About the work it all takes, plodding one foot in front of the next through the tantrums and the raised voices and the chores and the sheer constancy of it all. About how elusive and slippery beauty and truth are.

Just like that sunset.

That’s the thing about a sunset, about any beautiful landscape on the horizon, really. It’s there for us to see, not to actually get to. That sunset is always just ahead, leading the way. The peaks and crags of a mountain are beautiful from the ground looking up. When you’re climbing that mountain though, what’s right in front of you is decidedly less glamorous. It’s steep, and hard, strewn with brush and bramble, and often you can’t see much but a few steps ahead.

This is my metaphor right now.

It’s easy while I’m writing to take a step back and see that the mess is beautiful and daily and necessary (and I guess that’s one reason why I keep writing). But it is hard, really hard, to do it when I’m living in the middle of it, and things are unfolding all around me.

Most days I have that chance to see that sunset, look out into the horizon and see what beauty is there. But if I’m trying to chase it down, trying to hold on to it and claim it for my own, then I’ll only be disappointed when I never get there. If I have my eyes on the sunset, I’ll always know which way is west.

Sometimes it looks like the peaceful reprieve of sleeping bodies, rising and falling with breath in the dark.