If I had just one more arm I could read to the kids while pitting plums. Or, make this while sweeping soccer mud off the floor. The grapes are purpling, the tomatoes are juicing up, the apricots are conducting their own middle school biology fruit-fly experiment. (I recently taught a canning class in which I explained that if you opened an apricot and found a little white worm, just discard it with the pit; the apricot is fine. Later—like 2 seconds later—I wondered if that’s the sort of advice that keeps me from rising like a star in my field. Just kidding, I don’t really have a field.)
New September chores are inventing themselves, like: clip spent cosmos flowers daily to prevent the deposit of billions of seeds, while swooning over the pinkness of those in bloom. Or, teach Rosie to actually bring green beans, cherry tomatoes and grapes inside rather than simply raccooning around the yard (just kidding, I love how she grazes at the backyard buffet). Dan says,”it’s that season when you have a sneaking suspicion that there’s something lurking in the fridge or garden that you should be eating.” Indeed. I am haunted by a 5-pound turnip.
We’ve started homeschooling again, meaning another year of experimentation and prayer. However, we walked out of the library recently, and Col said about his teetering stack of self-chosen books, “I can’t wait to get started on these.” Later that same day, walking a Humane Society dog, Col reached up on the river trail and grabbed a shiny brown acorn, shelled it and popped it in his mouth. And I thought, well, my work here seems to be complete.
September is the month of Dan bow-hunting, which is so traditional it seems to be encoded into our DNA. The familiarity of slipping skins off green chiles, or salting cucumbers into pickles while the house is bright and loud with children is terribly reassuring. These days solo-parenting is less about swooping around with a rag in hand (ready to wipe butts, faces, chins, floor) and more about connecting with these increasingly independent children.
Without another parent on which to deflect responsibility (Maybe Dan will make dinner, I think lazily from my Facebook haze), we become this small, rag-tag team, this 3-person pod conducting our own little nurture-fest. I become so available! They lap it up! I feel so fulfilled! We break out the same 700-piece puzzle that vexes us every hunting season (still vexing). We bike to the farmers market, play boardgames with grandmas at the UU Church on Friday night, lounge around the house utterly plan-less, choreographing the day in real time. I consent to my annual game of Monopoly, bored out of my skull, yet filled with the joy of being a mother who will play Monopoly with her kids. The September weather is endlessly perfect regardless of sun or rain; and even in the midst of whatever sibling nano-crisis is occuring, we are rich with the blessings of this season.
:: We got to have Chica for a two week sleepover, and I swear, we all became kinder, gentler humans in her presence. If anyone knows of a small, fun, kid-friendly dog who likes to take morning runs and give kisses, please don’t tell me about it.
The moment where life has a distinct before and after: Chica discovers elk liver.
Also, we loved this book, in which a rescue dog, much like Chica, brings people together.
:: Dan, “I can’t believe we live on an earth with this sort of bounty.”
Gorgeous Boletus edulis.
:: Boletes, when sauteed, taste like bacon cake.
:: Do you see how I can get a little distracted when Dan’s around? Holy moly! The fruit, the fruit! Just talking about all that fruit.
And Rose, for her bouquet titled “fruit fireworks” which included apricots, chokecherries, rose hips and crab apples.
:: Just in case you have a few sneaker zukes around, recipe for zucchini sliders:
:: Don’t forget to eat your broccoli leaves, and freeze copious greens to slip in your children’s mac and cheese.
:: For the historic 2016 Southwest fruit bonanza, my Fruit leather recipe:
Sending ALL the love, wishing for you ALL the blessings, and that maybe you will find yourself playing your least favorite board game with your most favorite people, and finding the hidden wealth therein.
We’re backpacking through stunted trees and out into the green alpine where late season wildflowers flare in a last stand of fertility. The sky is forever blue, making the threat of thunderstorms seem as menacing as a fictional villain. A pika squeaks its raspy warning bark while a pair of peregrine falcons swoop overhead.
We stop to fill water bottles at a spring and everything feels so poignant and peaceful. Perhaps this is because Dan and I have left the children back in town.
We’ve been steadily trying to indoctrinate the children into the family culture, which can be loosely summed up in slogans like: Follow your heart! Celebrate the bounty of the earth! In practicality it looks something like: Let’s spend the weekend scouting for mushrooms in the woods, throw a roadkill deer in the Subaru and head home for leftover elk goulash accompanied by a salad-like assemblage of every toothy, edible green leaf in the garden.
And honestly, the kids are a little skeptical. Col is happy to snap legos together in the dark opium den of his room while the sun rises and sets on another day. Rose’s current greatest adventure is walking with a friend to the Rec Center pool with a backpack full of store-bought snacks, “without any parents checking on me.”
And for Dan and me, walking in the lush mountains during the brief blaze of summer feels actually, well, ecstatic. And at our age, this may be our best bet for an altered state. There’s something about moving my feet on the wildly gorgeous earth, where every living thing has everything it needs, where the complexities and artifices of human culture haven’t infiltrated, and choices shrink to the elemental: set up tarp here or here? that I remember my best self, which is to say, my simple and ordinary self. And at this stage of life, that is ecstasy.
I have no doubt that someday the kids will forge their own meaningful relationships with the wild world. Someday Rose will yank her car—full of raucous, singing girlfriends—to the shoulder and knife out the prized backstraps from a roadkill deer all without bloodying her fabulous outfit. And Col, with his keen skills of observation plus big heart for wild animals (not excluding “cute” skunks) will be called to his own nature path.
“It’s looking good for our future,” Dan says as we’re eating goulash by an evening fire.
We’ve had wonderful family hikes and camping trips, in which we hike one whole mile each way, stop for hundreds of snack-calories, and make tremendous amounts of noise. Recently, getting us all to the top of Olga Little Mountain required recounting the abridged, semi-accurate life story of Michael Jackson, while the kids bushwhacked uphill, listening, utterly distracted and rapt.
It’s easy enough to hustle sleepovers for the kids and zoom out on one-night backpacking trips, which is like speed-dating for couples already in love. Or like a discovery, like realizing that limbs that had been pruned to accommodate the intense needs of young children are growing back. Or maybe like being born again, as yourself. We come home refreshed and inspired. And this seems as much a gift to the children as it does to myself.
A place where orchids congregate like cliquish middle schoolers under seepy cliffs; and the larkspur sing a song called purple. (With senecio hitting the high yellow notes.)
A place where weather is an animal that will never be tamed.
Here, being human feels like just the right size, appropriately small amongst the stout spruce and fir trees, and the ancient, storytelling rocks. For a brief, wondrous time you may find your desires shrink into something manageable, a small parcel that you can put in your pocket and examine later.
You may be led by your own curiosity, like honeybee to pollen.
What about the columbine, which manufactures its own nectar in its elegant spurs?
It’s hard to remember that wildflowers and pollinators have signed their own covenant – no humans required. And yet, walking in the wild garden, you may learn something new about humanity.
Here, the flavors of happiness may begin to look different, less about accomplishments and acquisitions, and more about the privilege of walking this beloved earth. You may allow yourself to be schooled by the resident teachers, the living things who seek only what they need. Maybe life need not be so complicated.
If you feel tension unravel, or the deft brush of clarity sweep away what is no longer necessary, trust it. Who’s to say this is not the real world. Beyond.
Rose is fumbling in her wallet while explaining to me that she owes Col a dollar.
Me: Oh yeah? What for?
Rose: For giving me a massage, painting my nails and counseling.
Me: (turning to Col) Counseling?
Me: What happens in this counseling?
Col: We discuss her needs.
Turns out summer is this strange phenomenon, parts of it warp-speeding by while I gape in bewilderment and panic. Other minutes stretch into a sticky eternity of frenzied boredom, everyone flinging themselves and their neurosis cumbersomely around the house.
The days I like best are when we’re all together for these brief cosmic stretches of harmony, everyone living out their particular notion of home. Col whistles a symphony while snapping together legos in the cool, dark opium den of his room. Rose zips around the garden, pulling carrots, snarfing hard, unripe, stomach-acidifying grapes and presenting me with assortments of palm-sweaty berries. Dan is in some stage of hide-tanning, which looks a lot like the exact stage he was at last week, last month, last year because it’s all a little pleasingly repetitive.
Behind Rose is the deer/elk hair pile, a byproduct of tanning so many hides. Filed under: strange things that have proven to be useful that you can find in our yard.
The vultures are circling to the south. Tomatoes are both mundanely and miraculously turning red. One chicken is flaunting a worm she just nabbed while her sisters chase her. And I am in the garden contemplating our latest set of non-problems, like: how can I get adult salads (kale, chard, arugula) to merge with kid salads (lettuce, lettuce and more lettuce)? Should Rose be paying Col for his services? (And, could I benefit from Col’s counseling services?) How did my kids become such capitalists? Who’s going to homeschool my kids if there is an uprising in the house and Dan and I revolt?
Growing a garden is such an unruly way to eat. We’re currently in a frenzied prosperity of spinach. A mutiny of green leaves winks suggestively, and slightly threateningly, from the garden. Eat me. Water me. Save me from bolting. Hey, hey you! Yet, in another week, spinach will be scarce and we’ll all be crying from missing it. We’re just safely passing out of our cherry-abundance, when we all had a daily quota and the cherries would ripen a little more fully every time we turned our backs; now we are hording the last few bags. There is no moderation.
Our monsoon season seems to have started (!!), which for Col means playing soccer in the rain; for me it means the garden can finally be all it wants to be, and for Rose, well, yesterday she told me, “I have a problem. When my clothes get wet from rain I leave them in a pile and they get stinky.”
:: We just finished up the cherry harvest, now moving onto apricots. We’ve secured picking options to several apricot trees and are now feeling a deep sense of security.
:: Did you want a rat update? Well, despite grim prognoses from the extremely compassionate and competent people at Kindness Animal Hospital (who not only don’t laugh at us for showing up with our ragged, elderly rat, but call to check on her and Rose), the little rodent seems to be thriving in her avocado-snarfing golden years. Every night I pray that if she has to die today, please let it not be between the hours of 7pm and 9pm, which would greatly disrupt bedtime.
:: Driving home from the mountains recently and listening to our one car music option—the radio!—Dan started beat boxing.
“Dadeeeeee!” Rose protested in embarrassment.
“What? You didn’t know Daddies could be cool? I was cool before you were even born.”
I was wondering why a ladder was propped up against the shed.
:: We spent almost two weeks with my dear cousin Amy, her husband and their three boys. It was ridiculous fun. I want them to move here immediately. Amy had spiritual experiences picking cherries and walking through the chest-high wildflowers, you know, the things we do every July.
Amy’s sons were endlessly fascinated with Dan, who always seemed to be into some project that involved antlers, animal brains, knives, etc… Here are two cousin-boys not missing a second of Dan sawing off a dead chokecherry limb at our campsite.
:: Our blessed, odd, urban homestead. Long may it thrive!
Col is trying to get me to give him a dollar bill in exchange for a half dollar coin. He lists the four reasons he thinks I should agree:
- The half dollar is bigger than a quarter.
- You don’t see them all the time.
- Might be worth more money someday.
- He found it in the driveway so it’s good luck.
“I like that you thought this out,” I tell my little Alex P. Keaton, “but I aint no suckah.”
Col: (thinking) “Okay. Then will you give me 75 cents?”
Enjoy the rest of summer friends,
We are at 11,500 feet, staring across a sloping meadow, wildflowers swirling in a Monet-like blur of color. Three kids are deep in the meadow bent over a gopher hole, every cell in their bodies magnetized to this precise spot. The other two kids are out of view, proving the axiom: when you have a slingshot, every spruce tree looks like a target. It’s so cool, everyone absorbed in their own particular experience of the moment. But wait, the adults are trying to do this absurd thing of propelling ourselves forward on a trail to a destination. You know, actual hiking.
I glance at the storm clouds aggregating over distant peaks and wonder about our destination above treeline; wonder how to motivate the kids to keep moving forward; and wonder why adults and children have such different goals.
“Rach-uhllllll” five year old Teo calls to me from down meadow, still crouched over the gopher den, “come see! Dere’s a whole ‘nudder world!” It’s like being challenged by the smallest Zen master urging me to trade my future agenda for the splendors of the present moment.
The sling-shotting boys come into view, curtains of hair eclipsing their chiseled tween faces. They hardly notice the waylaid herd of parents stopped on the trail, for their deep discussion regarding slingshot rules and regulations.
We’re so close to our high ridge destination, where a view of forever-mountains saws open the sky. Just to take in the wild country: alpine snow banks; gouging drainages; aspen-electric slopes; dark, secretive forests; it fills me with a sense of peace, awe, and inspiration. I could walk that ledge between mountain ranges all day, feeling deeply fed by the interconnectedness of this ecosystem. We arrive and the kids want, simply, lunch.
Turkey and cheese slices are passed around, oranges peeled and shared. I imagine us all taking monk-like vows of silence to better hear the raven wingbeats above, or a butterfly slurping columbine nectar, or to simply absorb the mountains’ particular July song. But no. The kids shout to each other from ten inches away. They negotiate, fiercely, the splitting of energy bars. They snarf their lunches in minutes and are on their feet discussing, with amplified passion, rules for the slingshot competition.
It so lovely to be here in the mountains for three days with this tribe of families. The kids form permutations that change as dynamically as the weather. The girls emerge from their tent each morning with brushed hair and eye-strainingly high ponytails; the boys have become their own traveling Maker Space of sap and dirt. After breakfast, Col announces he and Cedar are heading off for a bit. “Ok. Where will you be?” I ask. “Around,” he replies and glides away.
Possessive pronouns lose their edge as we all feed each others’ kids and forget whose camp chair belongs to whom. I understand that the kids are here for something completely different from us adults. They are masters of searching out the next exciting thing, while I await my own predictable nightly hour of reading in bed with an embarrassing amount of relief and enthusiasm. On the hierarchy of kids’ needs, adventure and play can eclipse, well, dinner. Everything is fair game in the pursuit of fun. I remind myself of this when the volume soars, when the campfire becomes venue for circus fire tricks, when slingshot safety is drowned out by the roaring call to push the limits into the next galaxy.
Lunch is packed up. Clouds are zipping around tauntingly. The adults long to climb higher on the ridge, to gain the whole enchilada of San Juan mountain views from Lizard Head to the South San Juans. Meanwhile, the kids’ world has distilled down to one spot of earth where slingshot competitions are heating up. It’s almost funny, how we were once them, and they will someday be us. For now, I am grateful to share this place where inevitably everyone gets what they need.
Summer is this precious bird, so exotic and lovely and fleeting. Miracles are occurring daily in the garden, by which I mean sun + rain + soil = food, which sounds somewhat like 2nd grade biology, but still, it astonishes me every season. It’s like there’s some unseen force plumping up peaches and luring bean plants to the sky.
Our house has become an accordion, expanding with children and then squeezing them out into the yard, the street, the trampoline. Rose knows all the neighbors’ knocks. Pound pound pound. That’s Kamea. Soft repetitive raps. Chloe and Jordan. Owen and Lyle burst through the door and then knock as an afterthought. No one is turned away.
This is a subliminal message: you will now pour your coffee into ice cube trays.
The days last forever and still we can’t seem to unpack soggy bathing suits, send off the water bill, find the escaped rat. (Dan comes in from tanning hides and I say, “Rat’s on the lam.” And he sighs, “Is this the same being lost as this morning, or is this a new being lost?”) A little summer homeschooling sounds like a really good idea, but, what – I’m going to pry the kids from their lego airport building/novel reading/street soccer practice to run through multiplication tables?
Bedtime is a moving target, hovering farther in the distance each night, the children breaking free from their bunkbeds and appearing by our bedside at hours that used to belong only to me and Dan.
For the grandparents: we’re not totally off the homeschooling wagon. Col reading his work at the kids creative writing class I’m teaching. In our yard. To his best friends. It’s very formal.
I’ve given up on cooking. It’s just too repetitive and heat-producing. Everyone can fry their own egg and forage for a popsicle. Last week before heading out to Junction Creek for the day I threw some sweet potato chips into the leftover rice I was heating up for Col and immediately felt redeemed. Steamed chips, people. I couldn’t tell if I was a kitchen genius or shameless slacker. Turns out I forgot to pack him a spoon, but Col found one at the base of a cottonwood tree, which turned out to be the very spoon I left there several days ago. Or close enough.
This is the time of year I move through the garden like a life coach, supporting every plant to be their best. I spent this morning
yanking laboriously transplanting the many dill and cosmos seedlings that sprouted in the carrot patch back in May, seeming just like cute neighbors at the time.
Rose likes to take a few trips around the yard on her yard sale crutches everyday while she’s waiting for something exciting to happen.
Rose has been extremely excited about making mint tea from the garden—Watch, I don’t need any help. I can do this all by myself, Mama—and less excited about drinking it. It’s like living with a raccoon, our house and yard full of half-finished glasses of murky-colored water.
The strangest development is I’ve been getting out early and running with my dog-friend, Lucy. I am the waddliest, most awkward runner and sometimes feel I should offer an explanation to the other morning trail users, like why I’m panting while moving so slowly. My goal is 30 minutes, but if a Taylor Swift song comes on Rosie’s iPod at 28 minutes, I am good for a full 32, and while Taylor sings “I’m feeling 22…” I retort: “X two, babe,” and then endorphin all the way home busting the Tupperware Heights finish line tape.
Sometimes I can’t believe we get this rare bird gift called summer. Today, Col and a small posse of friends spent the morning gathered around the lego pile, collaborating on the spaceships of their dreams. Meanwhile, outside, Rose and her girlfriends lounged on the trampoline, talking. I wanted to eavesdrop on these kids all morning, these happy, giggling, engaged children. But I had a few hundred dill and cosmos seedlings to find homes for.
:: Our sweet rat is on hospice. She has some incurable tumors and is expected to live just a matter of months. She’s in no pain and as friendly as ever. The good thing is that now we all feel mandated to offer her homemade almond milk and other treats from our fridge.
:: Dan’s new mushroom cards! Available in his etsy shop (Right, Dan? You did list them, yes?). Also, see the summer issue of Edible Southwest Colorado for more of his art.
:: I can’t believe I get to share a planet with Parry’s primrose.
:: Scrabble at 11,000 feet. Pinch me.
In town the sky is grotesquely cloudless, the sun shimmering like a pool of heat you could drown in. We spend the morning consulting the camping checklist circa 2009 (which lists stuffed animals now obsolete and beer, twice). We rattle up through the dusty pine-oak belt, through the aspens reflecting sunlight like a thousand fractured mirrors, and into the cool, spruce-fir zone, which only Southwesterners could appreciate as green and lush. And we do.
We’ve been here before, every year to be precise. And when Rose hears of our destination she pumps her fist in the air as if she’s just won something, something like a weekend with her family in the mountains.
By afternoon camp is set up, and we’re like caricatures of our own predictable selves: the tarp’s tied to the usual trees, tents occupy familiar ground, spotting scope is set in time-tested elk-viewing location, beers are cracked and Dan sings about how the elk, who’ve just meandered out into the open slopes—the very slopes we’ve been watching them on for two decades—are “so traditional.”
The ultimate elk-viewing scenario.The elk have recently calved and their troop of spotted children frolic and nurse and slip on snow patches. Watching them makes us all feel like nostalgic grandmothers.
We too, are so traditional. Being here is like being inside my own deja vu, while also watching it from a thousand different incarnations that have already come and gone. (In fact, I’m certain I’ve written this very post before. Oy. Apologies.). Rose emerges from her tent in new aerobics instructor outfits while Col looks like an escapee from Woodstock. Col and Rose argue over camp chair placement and then he begs her to accompany him on a spruce sap-finding mission. I want to start a hundred conversations with Dan, but we circle around the same topic for three days. “I’m so happy to be here,” I say. “I know,” he answers. “Can you believe this place?”
Rose goes off on a 5.3 minute solo hike and comes back to report breathlessly on all the wildflowers she ate. “Bluebells and red columbines and the yellow banana ones.”
We take a hike, Dan-style, trail-less and ascending the steepest path to avoid disturbing the elk (who’ve conveniently bedded down in the gentler path). It’s time, Dan announces, to discover where that waterfall we gaze at from camp—the vertical one—starts.
Rose’s journal: “It was the hardest hike I dune.” But, we did have “turke raps” at the top.
We return to camp and install ourselves under the shade tarp. We play scrabble, guzzle icy spring water, read a billion chapters of the Lightning Thief, pass around two bags of chips and stick limbs out into the sun to test its strength. That feeling that I have so often, that time is breathing menacingly down my neck, evaporates. Instead, the hours stretch and pool luxuriously around us.
The solstice sun sinks into the western trees. The kids are at the fire, Col tending flaming sap in a sawed-off beer can and Rose chattering cheerfully, as if she’s a new English language speaker, thrilled just to practice. Whatever agenda I may hold for this time together doesn’t matter. Something bigger and out of my control is happening.
This place is imprinting on the kids.
By evening, swarms of insects are backlit by the falling sun. One second later, swallows are deployed to nab dinner on the wing. A thousand robins wake us each morning, no doubt descendants of the robins who’ve woken us every year before. That waterfall, ever-visible from camp, is now on our mental map, the absurdity and the triumph of having scaled it an eternal family footnote. Col puts down his book to watch a goshawk turn breathtaking circles over the forest.
I can’t quantify this knowledge, these experiences, the enthusiasm with which Rose greets a red columbine, eager to suck the nectar from an elegant, red spur. There will be no “local bird identification” section on the SAT; no colleges looking for students who can scrap together a salad from the forest.
But this education, this spending time in nature feels foundational. It’s a force, an entity, a benefactor shaping our lives, offering us a roadmap to what’s valuable. It’s imprinting truths on all of us: there is enough time, paths may be trail-less, there is value in being traditional, trust the questions, drink the spring water, your sibling can be your best friend, the earth overflows with miracles that require only our attention.
We’re driving up to the mountains. I’m aardvarking up the last dregs of an iced mocha, determined to extract any remaining particles of caffeine and sugar. Rose is sighing heavily between interrogating us on the exact plans. She seems to be mistaking innocuous words like “hike” and “picnic” for something sinister. “So, we’re gonna hike? How far? What’s in this picnic?” Heavy sigh. Col has fortressed himself behind the fifth book in the Heroes of Olympus series and is utterly unreachable.
And it’s my birthday. I’ve requested that we take a short hike up to a mountain spring, have a campfire and picnic dinner. The kids are miserable about this plan. They want to know if we can leave them with friends, if we can skip the actual hike, if we can eat in view of the car.
I understand this. Truly I do. My kids love being outside, they love exploring and playing and tinkering in nature. They don’t love hiking. It doesn’t feel playful or fun. They could exert 500X more energy on the trampoline/soccer field and hardly notice, but a 1/4 mile walk can feel like I’m dragging them uphill naked through the thistles. Plus, it’s always suspiciously our idea.
Dan and I get many needs met through hiking: connection, exercise, meaning, relaxation, learning, participation in the beauty, harmony and order of nature. The kids? They want fun! Play! Laughter! They get nervous about the unknown: how far are we going? How hard will the hiking be? How hot? How cold? Mosquitos!
And yet, after approximately 103 hikes with these kids, we’ve noticed something. The kids always eventually have fun. If we can help them release their fears and judgments they can relax and come alive in their wild world.
How to take a hike with aggrieved kids
- Don’t take it personally. People’s behavior always says more about them then you. The fact that my kids are not on board with my birthday plan does not mean they don’t appreciate me, or don’t see the importance of celebrating this day.
- Don’t catastrophize. Because my kids
aren’t excited aboutwould rather clean the toilet than go hiking doesn’t mean that they’ll turn out to be nature-phobic adults who hysterically call exterminators when an insect crawls across their kitchen.
- Look for feelings and needs and empathize. “I know hiking doesn’t sound fun. It sounds hard and long. You don’t like all the unknown. You wish you had more choice in our activity. I can totally understand that.”
- Offer information. “This is the plan I’ve chosen my birthday. It means so much to me to be in the woods with all of you. There will be chocolate.”
- Remember kids may be acting childish because they’re children. If your child is showing her displeasure in an immature way, it’s likely because she is a child. Maybe she fears she won’t be heard unless she whines, threatens and criticizes. Try not to make the whining or criticism the problem (It has more to do with her immature pre-frontal cortex than any true disrespect of you, see #1). Use every opportunity to model the way you want to be spoken to and treated.
- Employ self empathy. If you can identify and take ownership for your feelings, you are less likely to get stuck in blame and judgment of others. As we were hiking on my birthday and the kids were drooping and complaining, I felt frustrated and disappointed. When I gave myself care for that, I stayed out of judgment of their actions.
The hike is entirely uphill and requires a lot of stopping, literal hand-holding, and goofy hijinks to keep moods elevated. I spend much time running through steps 1-6 while practicing my childbirth breathing. As we climb higher, the views open up onto neighboring peaks. Wildflowers pop into focus and aspens sway in the wind. We arrive at the spring a full hour later. The kids immediately shed shoes and pants and get down to business. Rose cartwheels around the small pond, singing a medley of Taylor Swift songs, while Col gathers materials to build a dam.
Dan makes a fire, pulls out a surprise birthday beer, and grills a gorgeous deer backstrap studded with chopped garlic. The kids discover caddisfly pupae encased in DIY shells. They create a target practice course, nailing sticks with propelled rocks. Dan and I take in the moment, the shimmery aspens, the elk tracks crowding the pond, and the kids, happy and engaged. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” Dan says, “if tonight, as we’re tucking the kids in, they tell us that they were actually glad they came.”
We pull the kids from their target practice course to eat dinner. We all exclaim over the perfection of the meat, crisp on the outside and tooth-tender rare on the inside. The sun slides west, mingling with the aspen canopy. Swallows dip and dive. With meaty juices painting her chin, Rose announces, “I’m actually glad we came here.” Col nods. “Yeah. Me too. It was a hard hike, but I can’t really remember that anymore.”
Dan and I smile at each other. There’s a lot of things I could say, some of which involve cussing. I discard the told-you-so, the mini lecture, the if-only, and say, “I’m really happy to be here with you all. This is exactly what I wanted.” And it’s exactly true.
It’s Saturday morning and Dan and I are drinking coffee and playing Scrabble while the kids are on the couch, reading. When I ask them to please wash their breakfast dishes, they shuffle to the sink, minds sealed off against the interloping world, lasered onto their respective books. (Col recently came out of the fog of reading to ask, “is it raining?” Meanwhile, our house had been carried off down the street in a 3-day deluge).
It’s like a fantasy novel I might have written five years ago, “Angels visited the house and the children began reading and washing dishes.” Dan no longer needs to sing his version of Twisted Sister’s,“We’re not gonna take it” when confronted with the rising tide of dishes in the sink. (Although, he still does, out of habit. And, to be perfectly honest, dish-washing is an emerging skill. I say this to you warningly, lest you’re at our house eating off a mangy plate).
Later, the kids are roused off the couch to watch YouTube videos with me. They introduce me to Taylor Swift (catchy!) and I introduce them to the decades of music they’ve missed. We play Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime and the kids are fascinated with David Byrne, the antithesis of their flashy, dancing, sculpted young ladies.
And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful
wife. And you may ask yourself-Well…How did I get here?
Last month I taught my last class for Col’s homeschool co-op. This group of four children who five years ago named themselves “The Fertile Ground Life Learners,” and decided that way in the future when they were like fourteen they’d be hitting the road together and…what exactly was their plan? Riding bikes to Utah to protest climate change? Hitchhiking around the country and serving Swedish pancakes baked in a solar oven?
Fertile Ground Life Learners, first class 2011
Fertile Ground Life Learners, last class 2016
Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
We’ve had so many endings already. It’s like the theme song of childhood, the soundtrack that plays predictably as you weep over old board books and the creepy baby teeth staring at you from a small dish on your bookshelf. (No joke. Why am I saving these?)
Parenthood is like going through your file cabinets every few years and realizing that half the documents are irrelevant. Wait – when did they stop needing the bedtime lullaby?
Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/in the silent water
Under the rocks and stones/there is water underground.
These children are the daily reminder that everything is in flux, that signing on the dotted line of parenthood is like entering the Get With the Warp Speed Program of Impermanence. The fine print reads: be prepared to accommodate the next stage, details unknown, but coming your way soon. Start the deep breathing practice now.
Rose and I watched a series of videos from her and Col’s early childhood recently. So much singing! So much nudity! And hints of who they’d someday become. In one video, Rose and Col are dancing in ten pounds of jewelry and nothing else, twirling umbrellas over their head. Rose, age 4, stops dancing, grabs her older brother’s sagging, half-open umbrella and with a quick wrist-flick extends it fully and hands it back to him. Col is obviously, joyfully anchored in the present moment, while Rose’s radar is trained on every particle of her surroundings. Still true.
Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…
Yesterday, Rose decided to help me in the garden. It was a like she had just done a few lines of cocaine while simultaneously discovering we had a garden out back. “I looooove planting – lets plant flowers everywhere!” She shouted, dragging the hose manically through the garden, accidentally strangling tiny kale upstarts. “Time for tomatoes!” she proclaimed, popping in a row of tomatoes in the time it takes me to put on my gardening gloves (about which Rose said I needed a new pair. Mine were dirty.) “It’s so great to have your help,” I told her as I did my deep breathing, reminding myself that this was the day I had been waiting for, even if it looked slightly different than I had imagined.
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right?…Am I wrong?
Rose, age 2 under the blooming crabapple.
Rose, age nine, under same blooming crabapples.
Meanwhile, Col was upstairs, inhaling words, currently magnetized to the Percy Jackson books. Col has recently started devouring books. Like, getting so completely engrossed in novels that he finishes them in two days and gives us the “just a minute” finger when we interrupt his reading, unable to actually lift his eyes from the page. I’ve been coming home from the library with new books for him weekly, feeling a little like a pusher, a dealer, trying to get him hooked on the next series. It’s so exciting! And yet, it’s interfering with everything.
Everything changes. I feel the truth of these words like a limb I can’t remove from my body. Things are lost, things are gained. Col and Rose no longer need the nighttime lullaby, because bedtime is no longer bedtime: when I flip off their bedroom light, the headlamps go on, the reading just commencing. What becomes obsolete clears space for what’s next. I’m like one of those Russian nesting dolls: if you remove the outside, nostalgically wistful shell of me, the next layer is like, “Go on you amazing children! What’s next?” Like a tree, these children have their own growth rings, each ripe, rich stage contained in their own archives as the next one pushes forward. There is nothing to do but stay awake, ready to celebrate the next transformation.
Into the blue again/in the silent water
Under the rocks and stones/there is water underground.
Time isn’t holding us
Time isn’t after us
Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…
(Derived from the book, “If you Give a Mouse a Cookie”)
If you get 24 hours to go backpacking, chances are Dan will suggest somewhere wild and remote.
If you’re going somewhere wild and remote, you’ll ask to please avoid excessive, steep bushwhacking.
When you make this request, Dan will nod, assuring you he knows a great place. “No other human has ever set foot there,” he’ll say. (Which, retrospectively, could have been a clue).
If you go to this place where no human has ever set foot, chances are Dan won’t remember all the actual excessive steep bushwhacking this hike entails (even though he comes here each spring. “Never seemed so bad,” he’ll admit while your torn-up legs go wobbly from fording precipitously downhill through wild rose bushes).
Because your torn-up legs have gone wobbly, you’ll request numerous rest breaks. And on one of these breaks (maybe because this is a place “no human has ever set foot”), a curious vulture will circle your reposed bodies repeatedly. “Still breathing,” you’ll call out, waving an arm in illustration before the bald-headed bird retreats.
If you’ve had a rest, chances are when you’re back picking your way through the bitingly scrubby brush, Dan will turn around and whisper, “You hear that? It’s the thrush singing!” and you’ll be forced, grudgingly, to prioritize awe for the glassy notes of the hermit thrush over grumpiness for the state of your legs.
(Chances are, if you leave home for one night, just one 24 hour period, you will find a love note from your daughter tucked in your pack)
Dan code name: DOD (dear old dad).
If the hermit thrush sings near by, chances are a grouse will be stationed not far from your sleeping bag, rising with loudly flapping intensity, at first morning light. (As well as swallows, tanagers, warblers, ravens, Clark’s nutcrackers, jays and black-headed grosbeaks).
If the grouse and friends are close by, chances are you will feel comfortable and accompanied while Dan goes out on a surprisingly long early morning foray for water.
If Dan goes out on an early morning foray for water, chances are he’ll find a few elk antlers, which he’ll leave at the spot where he’s found a few other antlers over the years.
Because this place is so wild and remote, you’ll see numerous bear tracks, the uncommon fairy slipper orchid and shade-loving pippsissewa. And even though the hike out is pantingly uphill, chances are you’ll feel lucky to have gone on a 24-hour backpacking trip with Dan.
Fairy slipper orchid
Approaching the car, Dan will grab your hand and say, “Thanks for sticking with me.” And you’ll squeeze that hand, smile and say, “Next time we’re gonna vet our spot a little more thoroughly.” And he’ll say, “You wanna kick my ass now or later?”
And later, home, showered and reunited with the kids, you find your thighs burning as you walk down the stairs. And chances are, if you find your thighs burning as you walk down the stairs, you’ll smile, remembering only the joy of spending 24 hours in a wild and remote place with Dan.