The land is laid bare

The land is laid bare.

The earth is cast in silver, and snow stays behind curtains of clouds, awaiting its cue to come and create the world anew. Trees display their stark branches, no ornaments or robes to hide behind. Waving grasses have slowed their dance and flowers have ceased their song. The world is quiet and dark and honest.

Today is the day of our imperfections.

Today, we have no pretense. We hope for no certain weather to adorn the view from our windows, we need no gifts to replace our words. We make foolhardy attempts at excellence and laugh as we fall gloriously short. We know that no one had ever made the perfect pie crust, except for in the fictional world of our memories. We know our turkey will be too dry, and our stuffing too wet. Our football team will lose and someone else will eat the last piece of pumpkin pie. Our great aunt will voice an unfavorable opinion that causes the rest of us to avert our eyes while we sip our wine. Today, we relish our imperfections and rest in the grace of our honesty.

In house after house, bread is broken. Families gather. Unapologetic grandfathers will give babies their first tastes of pumpkin pies. Dinners will be left uneaten on cold hospital trays, and men and women will stand in line in shelters, scooping mashed potatoes from large, steaming bowls. Chairs that should be filled will sit empty, surrounded by loved ones with heavy hearts. Announcements will be shared of new lives beginning, and crackly phone calls will be made, the words traversing the country, flying over the heads of people eating their supper. I love you. I miss you.

Like bread, we are broken and shared.

Our gratitude grows out of our imperfections, not inspite of it. The realization of our failures makes us cherish our triumphs. Our losses implore us to hold tight our gains. We are thankful for our blessings, for the trials we have been spared, and for the ones that we have been given.

The earth rests, naked in its honesty. The colors have long faded, and the wind is all that moves. And we are grateful for the air in our lungs.

 

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Oak Trees and Apple Butter

I come from oak trees and apple butter. I come from a land of blue rolling mountains, weighed down by the weight of generations. A world where grand abandoned farmhouses dot the hillsides, and red brick churches line the roads.

I come from the Appalachians.

Growing up, my sisters and I swung on grape vines in the forest that grew wild behind our house, fruitlessly dared each other to explore dark caves, and sledded down the neighbors’ hill when they weren’t home. My mother pointed out magnolia leaves that had dried into tight rolls and told us that is where the fairies slept, and we collected acorn hats for elves to use as bowls. When black walnut trees took over the land near the road, my Nana and I cracked their hard green shells and baked black walnut blondies. We were the only two  in our family who enjoyed their sweet bitterness, and we held that in common.

Winters were mercifully short yet snow filled. When the blizzard of ’93 hit, we danced for joy; it only took one glance out of the window to realize school would be out for weeks. We piled on layers of socks and undergarments, threw on pink snow suits, and ran outside to dig, sled, and play for hours. We bounced back, sopping wet, and ate Campbell’s soup and saltine crackers while we waited for our noses to thaw. When our power went out, my parents drove us to our grandparents in North Carolina. A week later we returned to find our house still dark and ice cold, and so my father lit a fire in the living room where we slept, huddled together in sleeping bags. The electricity came on the next morning, in a surge that burnt my neighbor’s trailer down. The firetrucks stood watch helplessly, the water frozen in their hoses, and no fire hydrants for miles.

Appalachian summers stretched long and gloriously, filled with fairs to attend. We would buy jars of homemade jam and fairy crowns, and in election years, seek out every candidate’s booth for the free balloons and popcorn. Quieter summer days were reserved for running through sprinklers until we were matted in grass clippings and making Kool-aid on the deck. Once every summer, twice in good years, we would pick blueberries at a local farm; the sound of the plunking berries falling into my coffee can is one etched permanently into my memory.

In the fall, the hills were ablaze with the fire of maples, oaks, and sassafras showing off their true selves. Pumpkin butter topped toast, and we bobbed for apples at the church’s Halloween party.

Of course, no time or place is as perfect as the picture memory creates. A struggling economy plagued the hills and brought the expected problems along with it – poverty, drug abuse, and the like. As I grew, I longed to leave. I pictured the hills replaced by skyscrapers and envisioned myself surrounded by culture and diversity, eating at restaurants where I couldn’t pronounce the names of the dishes I ordered, walking streets where I found new discoveries instead of familiar faces.

It is one thing to realize you love the place you are from. It is another to realize you love it only after you have already left.

Every time I go home, I realize I have traveled a little further away. The streets are slightly less familiar, and the faces are growing older or moving away. One summer visit home, I was surprised to learn my toddlers were scared of the cricket’s endless song and the call of the coal train, sounds that had comforted me when I couldn’t fall asleep on hot summer nights. They are growing up in a different world, and their home is not my home.

I will cook the boys apple butter, and teach them about the oak trees that do not grow on this side of the country. I do not regret my decision to leave, having found a home and grown a family in a different range of a mountains.

When my oldest boy developed croup, the raking cough that torments young children in their sleep and is best treated by cold night air, on our last night visiting home, I wrapped him in warm blankets and sat outside with his Papa on their patio. His crying ceased instantly when he saw the stars stretching over us. “Stars!” he hoarsely called out. I had missed the Virginia stars, so easily found in the quiet darkness of our empty hillsides, and forgotten how stunning they were.  He is little, and will not remember the stars, just as I did not remember, just as none of us can remember the homes of our youth with perfect impartiality. We filter out the trivial and the painful, making room instead for pails full of blueberries and star filled summer nights, oak trees and apple butter.

Today

Today, there was a coffee pot in my youngest’s crib, and a box of tampons in my living room. I agreed to the current placement of neither of those things. There were crumbs in my couch and stains on my carpet. I did not consent to those either.

Today, it was cold and we played outside while wind swept through down jackets and wool mittens. I wondered if I could survive another Montana winter and researched base layers for toddlers. I thought about skiing and wondered if the kids would enjoy following behind in a sled, blankets tucked next to rosy cheeks.

I watched the boys play with friends and wondered how I was doing. Were they kind enough? Did I yell too much? I thought about my husband’s cousin who met his future wife before he had even learned all his letters, and I wondered who would be the friends that stay in my children’s lives forever, and who would move  along with the winds of time.

Today, I discussed the plot holes of a book with my husband, debating why a frog would be driving an already anthropomorphized  truck. I played paleontologist. I made bread. I ate the bread with excessive amounts of butter, like I always do. I forgot to feed the kids a single vegetable.

Today, the tiredness ached through my body and  I wondered when it will get easier. I thought of the mothers fleeing Syria and wondered what right I have to feel tired at all.

I folded two baskets of laundry and watched half an episode of a show I don’t really like before my little one needed to be rocked back to sleep in the middle of nap time. He dozed on me and I scrolled through the Internet, wondering how I could teach my children to be more than kind – to be just. I cried over the anger, hate, and fear I saw poured out towards people who needed love. I put the laundry away.

Today, I listened to the steady heartbeat of our rocking chair as my husband convinced the little one to sleep. I thought of my oldest asking his brother, “are you okay?” every time he cried and thought of the little one’s subsequent squeals of laughter, and I wondered how I could be so lucky.

Today was neither a good day nor a bad day. It was another day of mess, of tears, of joy, of frustration, of fun. Today was a day just to be.

Today, we were simply and magnificently alive.

It is the mothers

It is the mothers who never stop crying.

The tears flow from one generation into the next and bleed new life into being. Hopes and dreams, gratitudes and fears pour from mothers’ eyes, gracing milk covered cheeks. First steps are taken and drops of love and pride wet the footsteps left behind.

The mothers stand on both sides of the river holding babes in arms and in hearts. Prayers stream out. Be safe. Grow strong. Do not be killed. Do not kill. The tears fall more urgently for some.

It is the mothers who never stop crying.

It is the mothers who rock their little ones, wondering, “what if it had been mine?” Their tears water the flowers that burst up from the graves. Their tears salt the oceans that wash ashore on foreign lands.

The tears are the same, though the faces unfamiliar and unlike our own. It is the universal language of motherhood, spoken with the eyes. In every land, scraped knee children press their tear stroked cheeks into their mothers’ chests. The tears are absorbed and released at graduations and weddings, bedsides and hospitals.

It is the mothers who never stop crying.

Mothers hide the tears that fall silently in the footprints of children walking continents to safety. They hide the tears as sons and daughters go off to school and off to war. The tears stream down, carving new and greater caverns to cross.

It is the mothers who never stop crying.

The rivers flow to far reaches and past every end. They preside over death and life, hope and fear. They are our prayers without words. The tears form an ocean, and the mothers beg us to lay deep an anchor and calm the storm.

It is the the mothers who never stop crying.

It is their tears that flow through us all.

Bless us, O Lord

“Bless us, O Lord.”

His eyes are bright and smiling, staring directly at me. Hands are clasped together, and held high in front of him. Dinner sits hot in front of us, the steam rising along with our prayer. Heads are not bowed, eyes are not closed. Instead they stare at the little ones. One says the words, the other bobs his head along to the rhythm.

“And these thy gifts,”

He speaks slowly and carefully, in a way I do not. I pray while motioning for my husband to grab the ketchup. I pray while falling asleep. I pray when I stare at their sleeping faces, unable to conjure words and pleading hope instead. I have said these words ten thousand times, over holiday feasts and bowls of ramen noodles. I have said them awkwardly in restaurants; I have said them with my mouth full of food.

I am not sure if he knows what we are doing. Why we gather nightly to speak some words in concert, but he knows that we do. The rhythm of the words beats inside of him. Understanding is not necessary.

“Which we are about to receive,”

I wonder if it is possible to be thankful for something you’ve never been without. This table has never lacked food, the way so many others have. It has never lacked companions or warmth. It has been covered in bills that were able to be paid. We have never been without, and I know our gratitude is inadequate. His mouth wraps around adult words he does not understand. Mine does as well.

“From thy bounty,”

My youngest now says “pray!” whenever he sees food he wants to eat. He asks, and he receives. He one day will learn that he doesn’t need to pray in order to eat, and that there are those who pray and still go without.

The blessings we have been given are not for us to keep. The gifts which grace our table are not here to remain.

“Through Christ, our Lord,”

The oldest spreads his hands wide,  prepared to clap when we say “Amen.” It is how he first learned to pray. As a baby, he saw us hold our hands together and assumed we were clapping. He now says the words, most of the words, at something close to their actual pronunciation. Next will come the understanding of the words. And then the forgetting of the meaning, as the mundane rhythm of daily life drowns it out.

And then the remembering.

The boys smile and bounce in their chairs, proud of the task they have just finished. The words are the easy part, I long to tell them. It is the living that will be harder for me to teach you.

The room is warm as we pass the bread around. They will learn eventually, I think. Here is where it will start.

“Amen.”

Send help, I’m trapped.

I’m trapped. I’m being held hostage.

My captor is twenty four pounds, covered in snot, and will only sleep if being held upright. For the last three days. His snores sound like the bubbling of primordial ooze and gunk flows out of every orifice.

He’s captivating.

I think I’m developing Stockholm Syndrome.

I stare out the window and wonder what I would be doing today if I hadn’t had kids yet. Sleeping still, or just laying in bed with the quilts pulled around me, wondering what the day would bring. I know what this day will bring. The first day of a baby’s cold is for pinning organic chicken soup recipes and researching the best essential oils for toddlers. The third day is for only consuming things that come out of a box and can be eaten by the handful.

I can hear his older brother coughing in the next room. I’m not sure why I have been insistent on wiping down the bathrooms and washing our hands over the last few days when germs can be directly applied to the face by a little one’s sneeze. The cold settles into my chest as well and burns my throat. I hold my breath, not daring to cough. The little one coughs in concert with his brother. He sounds like a seal. A seal that has been smoking for the last twenty years.

We sit in the chair, rocking, rocking, rocking. He alternates sucking on his pacifier and taking it out to breathe. I pray that he falls soundly enough asleep so that I can move, take a shower, eat. Eventually, he does. I don’t move. I stare at his gunky nose, feel his warmth, stroke his curls, appreciate his rare stillness.

After a while, we enter into hostage negotiations. My captor agreed to release one hostage, but only in exchange for another. He snuggles into my husband’s chest, rocking, rocking, rocking.

I am free.

I peek back through the door at them. They sit there rocking, snuggled in a noisy heap, a mix of sweatpants and applesauce encrusted curls. I am captivated.

Here I am

If you were a friend of mine from high school or college, and decided to do a little friendly Facebook stalking, you wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see where I am today – happily married, and a stay at home mother to two hopelessly cute boys. The only thing mildly surprising you might find in my profile is that I moved across the country. If 21 year old me could have taken a peek, however, I think she would be both happy, and slightly surprised.

I left college the same way most of us do. Over educated, idealistic, unprepared, and broke. The night of my college graduation I lay awake in bed, terrified at what I had just done and what I was about to do. The day before I had ended a four year relationship. In an effort to ignore the dark tempest that had been brewing between us, I had decided to move across the country to join a service organization for a year, with a shaky promise that I would be back. Although I had every intention of moving home, I had no desire to keep the promise. And things were over.

Three months later, I flew across the country. I was free, finally free to be myself and pursue my dreams. I wanted to live radically, simply, to move to Haiti, to travel the world, and to remain single for a very, very long time. A few hours later, I met my husband. He introduced himself. I told him I was hungry and we could talk after I found something to eat. We married two years later. Thankfully, my plans seem to have a penchant for falling through.

We married young, but I had and still have every belief it was the right choice for us. I had no desire to put off our life together, and I likewise had no intention of settling down. We were young and in grad school, children and careers were far away on a distant horizon.

And then this time, a less welcome detour.

Two months after our wedding, I was diagnosed with an onslaught of frankly, quite embarrassing, painful conditions, including interstitial cystitis and endometriosis.  The first is also known as painful bladder syndrome. Bet you weren’t expecting the word “bladder” to enter in here, were you? Neither was I. Having IC changed my life. The physical pain was, at times overwhelming, but the emotional pain was harder. The list of foods I had to avoid was three pages long, I couldn’t sit through an entire class without using the bathroom at least once, and I found it nearly impossible to talk about it with anyone. I saw dreams evaporating before my eyes. Traveling the world on an extremely restricted diet seemed impossible, even holding a job became questionable at times, and worst of all, because of the endometriosis, having kids became an uncertainty as well. It was some of the hardest times of my life, but I fell in love with my husband a thousand times more during it all.

We made the decision to start trying for children as soon as we would be out of school. And much to our surprise, I was suddenly pregnant. We moved, started new jobs, and had a beautiful boy. And much to our surprise again, we had another.

And suddenly, here I was, married, a mother, and still on the other side of the country.

It is a completely unsurprising story. No one is asking to buy the movie rights for the story of a white, college educated woman who married a white, college educated man and had babies. I’m sure none of my Facebook friends pause their scrolling at the pictures of my kids, faces covered in spaghetti sauce, and think, “I never pictured her doing that.” I am not surprised either, but the path that led me here was an unexpected one.

I am not unique. Each one of our lives are ordinarily complicated, hopelessly beautiful and majestically quotidian. Our journeys may not be the paths we have chose me but they are the ones we have taken. And they have brought us here.