The Gift of Risk

IMG_0624I watched my two and four year old sons ascend the ladder of the tall slide.  Twenty, twenty-five feet?  Metal and a steep grade; this slide survived from the early days when playgrounds were actually pretty exciting, a place where you could feel a thrill of adrenaline-pumping weightlessness as you peaked the arc of the giant swings and hovered there, lifting out of the rubber saddle, gasping.  Sometimes you let go and went flying through the air, attempting to stick your landing, or at least not get your wind knocked out.

I lay back on the sun-warmed merry-go-round and watched the heavens circle above me.  Memories of white-knuckled thrill rides, holding on for dear life while centrifugal force tried to turn all of us wide-eyed kids into projectiles, sometimes succeeding, were as vivid as the smell of the chipping hot paint beneath me.

There was a high look-out platform at my elementary school, accessible by climbing a network of intersecting chains, clambering over the top edge, and standing with a simple rail between us and a bone-shattering fall.  There were rumors about kids who’d fallen to their possible deaths, but I don’t think anyone got seriously hurt on it.  We loved leaning over that rail, mentally picturing the ground zooming up at us, feeling butterflies of fear in our stomachs.

My children use playground equipment improperly.

If the spiral slide is too slow and not long enough, they’ll climb on top of the outside of it to challenge themselves; to seek that line between pushing away fear and holding back from foolishness.  To test their balance, their nerve, their ability.  If the swings are too low to achieve a good speed and height, they’ll climb the support poles and walk across the tops.  And when we find a precious vintage playground with merry-go-rounds, calf-crunching teeter totters, and high swings?  They’re in their glory, even if, and sometimes especially if, they get hurt a bit.

It’s been discussed quite a bit among those who study such; how managed risk helps to make kids safer.  How tame, “safe” playgrounds are simply boring for kids.  How kids who’ve never been allowed to test their limits are highly vulnerable to real dangers.  I think about that as I watch mothers forming an admonishing, controlling ring of managers around the merry-go-round.  The kids are made to stop the whole thing for each approaching kid to get on, and then painfully slowly they are given a light push, only to stop a moment later when the understandably bored kids want off.  When all their kids got off and they walked off to monitor other play with the same exacting interference, my kids got on.  The two year old hovered beside the spinning structure, tentatively reaching out and pulling back his hands as he gauged which bracket to grab.  He reached and his chubby legs pumped hilariously fast as he sought to retain hold, and he hefted himself inside, grasping for a handhold against the outward force.  He made it, and he smiled.  Moments later he misjudged and tumbled off; a scuffed knee and dull pain told him all he needed to know for next time.  Moms exchanged glances; I imagine that they thought there was some slacker of a mom around who’d let such shenanigans happen without stepping in.

 

IMG_2707 I gently lift the upper cover of each beehive, wafting smoke down through the inner cover’s vent hole.  I pry apart the structure, box by box, moving slowly, avoiding bumps and bangs.  Bees overflow and land all over me, some hovering at my bee veil.  Stings hurt.  A lot.  That pain informs the way I move, even the way I breathe.  It has made me a better beekeeper, and a safer one.

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There are no compromise times for me though; parking lots, streets, when I’m working with lye to make soap, when I’ve got a boiling canner going, when I deeply distrust a stranger hanging out near my kids; then the red flags are waving madly and I’m on high alert, and I’ll grip their hands just as white-knuckled as I’d held on to the merry-go-round bars as a kid.  But that fear all the time?  No.

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Sometimes things appear more dangerous than they actually are.  In Machu Pichu I posed for this picture which seems like a giant drop-off into the steep canyon below, but there was actually another terrace below me (and then the death plummet).  It took me a while to handle with some peace my older children being able to walk around town unaccompanied.  I imagined every creepy guy I’d ever seen, every wild driver, every scenario of disaster.  But what actually happens is that my kids experience new freedom and a sense of themselves in the world.  They purchase candy from the gas station and test their balance on low stone edge walls.  They talk to townsfolk.  They look both ways without me telling them to.

I don’t get a guarantee that they’ll be safe, only that they’ll have truly lived; a gift most of us grew up with, riding our bikes “no hands” on summer evenings.

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Many Thanks

It’s felt a bit like Christmas, gift after gift, and joy to match.  Two friends who faced cancer were healed.  My foster niece will soon legally be my niece after years of waiting and uncertainty.  Two of our children won a school supply raffle.  Family stepped in to help with tutoring fees for another of our kids.  A friend blessed me with a large bag of fabric to use.  Another anonymously sent me a box of fabric as well (thank you, whoever you are!  So sweet!  You blessed my heart!).  Another friend enabled me to attend an amusement park with my toddlers, while yet another had my kids over for the day.  My son got to spend a weekend at a lovely lake house enjoying boat rides and all sorts of fun.  My husband plugged away at our cottage we’re fixing up in the backyard which will be my soap studio and a sometimes airbnb to help with school fees.  My mother-in-law helped me with running kids about, and took them on special outings one-on-one.  A cousin’s wife gave me black raspberries and eggs from her chickens.

There are always hard things happening; our prayer list is ever-full and growing, but too there is joy and peace and encouragement in the midst of sorrows and trials.  20664553_661313794073816_3145693829644866278_n

For the Mall Averse; Alternative Christmas Shopping Ideas

It isn’t just the crowds and the fluorescent lighting and the endless racks and piles of goods.  It’s the loudness of breathless materialism writ in bits:  Buy One Get One 40% off!  Stocking Stuffers!  Buy More, Save More!  Gifts Worth Giving!

Everywhere you look the signs scream, plead, and croon about how parting with your cash for this or that will MAKE your Christmas, just absolutely.  The stores are practically doing you a favor!  Huzzah!  Jump on the buying train with your shiny shopping bags bumping heavily in your hands; let’s ride to Christmas-topia!

Let me just let that train go past.  Okay.  I am not anti-presents; I love them, giving and receiving.  But, folks, the way we consume our planet’s resources is out of control.  I’m not saying there isn’t a time to buy something new; underwear for instance is usually wise to purchase new (although just today I bought 10 pairs of boxers for my sons at the thrift store as they were quite immaculate).  But to believe without qualification that the only decent thing to gift is a new product says a lot about our susceptibility to the Christmas-topia train’s siren call.  A price tag does not a good present make.  Given that, there are some good ways to buy new things; things that will last, things that support our local economy!  Okay, looking both ways before crossing the tracks, here’s my ideas for great, responsible, wonderful gift-giving this year!

  • Thrift and consignment shops!  It is amazing to me what you can find for very affordable prices in these places, including sports equipment, lovely shoes and clothes, antiques, home decor, and on and on.  Buy a whole outfit for each kid or assemble baskets along a theme; a real toolbox filled with tools, fishing gear, knitting supplies, mud pie making kit with pie tins and kitchen tools (alternately a play-doh tool set with rolling pin, cookie cutters, you get the idea), old time lady gift (antique purse with vintage hankies, a brooch, gloves, hat pin), a bundle of good records or books tied with a piece of jute, baby doll bundle (doll plus preemie outfits and accessories), or any antique items like vintage pyrex mixing bowls stuffed with homemade cookies!
  • Make it!  Give homemade candies, breads, cookies, knitted or crocheted goods, candles, soaps, lip balms in repurposed tins, herb vinegars, dried apples, homemade jerky, canned goods, dried herbs in decorative bottles, hot chocolate mixes, etc.  Pinterest is your friend here.  Look around your home, in your pantry, in your sewing materials.  Irreparable jeans make AWESOME pot holders that will hold up for years.  If you have woodworking tools, cutting boards, pastry boards, pizza peels, and cheese boards are all possibilities.
  • If you buy new, buy useful!  Don’t buy the play tool set; buy age-appropriate real tools for your kids and let them practice on a piece of scrap wood or stump.  Don’t buy a “play tent”, buy a real one.  Kids find the real stuff super fascinating; it doesn’t need to have a Disney character on it to make it “fun”.  Give the kid with a love of cooking real kitchen ware that is of good quality; that will last them a lifetime, along with cookbooks that they can understand (and coupons for cooking lessons, one-on-one with you!)
  • Buy from local artists, spas, and artisans!  Investing your dollars in your local economy is a boon to your neighbors, and it keeps small businesses in business.
  • Antique Shops!  Not only are you reusing rather than consuming, but your gifts will be unique and clearly time-tested to last.  Ideas:  vintage postcards that you slip into an antique frame, a bundle of old children’s books, pitcher and cup sets, anything Pyrex, old linens, lovely candle holders with a bundle of your own homemade tapers, cast iron pans, copper pans, whimsical salt and pepper shakers, etc.
  • Give experiences!  Museum, aquarium, and gym memberships are great ways to bless a whole family for a year!  Tickets to concerts, plays, operas, spa treatments, sporting events are also well received.  Homemade coupons for “Dinner for Two” dates, “Mommy and Me” outings, etc.

Beyond these ideas, make a habit of “preventative shopping”.  I learned this idea from the blog Miser Mom.  The concept is to go garage sale and thrift store shopping throughout the year, picking up items that will be useful later (shoes and clothes in the next size up for your kids) and gifts for others.  I have put this into practice and am no longer assaulted by the crisis of snow boot and pants and whatnot shortages quite as often.  I also have a “gift box” of sorts of lovely items of good quality for birthdays and holidays.  Spend a wee bit now to avoid spending a whole lot later.  It works.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, so feel free to add to it in the comments section.  Happy gifting!

It’s All Unexpected

Maybe not everyone is so regularly startled as I am.

I came home from a ten day trip to find that my gardens had exploded with new blooms, clutches of green tomatoes, and dozens upon dozens of cymes of elderberries.  The grapes decided to indulge in a bit of conquest, leaping over the roses and aiming for the sidewalk. It reminded me of the children’s book character Mr. Tickle, who had extremely long arms and used them most mischievously, giggling at day’s end about his tickling pranks.  The sunflowers had thrown their orange petals back in glee and were waiting, swaying and smiling broadly.  I could almost hear them laugh; laugh at their own audacity and pomp.  A flower with a stem the size of a small tree!  The very notion!  In my mind they are the giraffes of the flower world; a small proof of God’s sense of humor.  I digress.

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So that was just walking in the main path.  Then I was assaulted by the sheer number of things, useful and good, that proliferated in my home.  Sturdy pots, a deep sink, machines to wash and dry, toilets to perform humble but ever-useful duties.  The prayer corner, a place that becomes more beautiful with time; this too is an astonishing sight after many days away from it.  There is where home feels most poignant.

It’s all unexpected and I looked about and in my heart the impression was, “Oh, so you’re all here still, I suppose!?  AH, you are so much!  How has this all come to pass?”

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My dear bird was wary.  For a number of minutes he stared back at me as I called to him in our familiar language of clicks and purrs and words.  Then his guard dropped and he pressed his warm little body close to the bars of his cage and purr-trilled back.  It was all unexpected for him, that he’d come home again and be with us all again.  He had no idea of return, of this remembered life being his again.  What joy!  I opened his door and he snuggled under my chin, rubbing his head back and forth.  “Pretty bird!”, he said.

There has been some healing in my soul though I was not aware of any particular treatment prescribed nor followed.  I used to expect too much, want too much; to my shame I truly did have an ugly expectation troll, grumping about in my heart, hollering about what I deserved and stomping around, ruining moments I should have been grateful for, should have enjoyed more.  Somehow he was evicted, and joy moved in, and gratitude. All is in reverse now; it’s a joyful pessimism of sorts…I expect life to be quite hard; I do not expect easy times and smooth ways, and yet, I am almost ridiculously happy with each and every good I encounter.  I do not lay claim to blessings, and yet I find them dumped over my head.

God is kind.  I don’t endeavor enough, I do not struggle enough, I am ordinary.  I did not merit any of this, but God gifts as He sees fit.  It’s all unexpected._MG_5001

 

Perhaps You Got Something Else

It is in this quiet, on this gray morning with gentle rain, that I open the door which is straining on its hinges and release some words, if for nothing else, to relieve the pressure of them within my mind.

“What is the matter?”, he asked, concerned, because I had withdrawn from conversation and was studying the design in the carpet.

“I’m sorry…I’m writing in my head.”

He understands without understanding, the way good spouses do.

My parents have been here from Montana, and I have been a sponge soaking up their presence, their words, their nearness.  When my rarely-verbose father begins to tell a story, we all gather near; we know it will be good.  And my mother, what a hoot.  We had gone to a friend’s reclaimed wood business to pick out slabs for some tables my father is going to make and she and I rode on the tailgate of the truck down from the warehouse to the storefront, holding on to the boards atop the pickup topper as Dad managed to find every low-hanging branch for us to duck and/or get our face washed by.  We roared with laughter, getting smacked with greenery.  Seeing her joy, silliness, and love of adventure is always, and ever, a gift.  Her and Dad are good people; they’re a matched pair,it’s hard to imagine one without the other to reference them by, to echo their characters back to.

Life is different on the east coast; many times I am out of step with cultural norms or ways of reckoning.  Many times my lack of university education shows and I feel shame, almost as though I wear a scarlet letter “U”, for “uneducated”.  I am always around my betters, and I know it.  Being around my parents reminds me, however, of the goodness from which I spring; of the generosity of spirit, the adventurousness, the good humor, and hard work ethic.

Once, in a self-pitying frame of mind, I was comparing my background with that of an English novelist friend.  Where he had been brought up in London, taken from the age of four onward to the Tate and the National Gallery, sent traveling on the Continent in every school holiday, taught French and German and Italian, given access to bookstores, libraries, and British Museums, made familiar from infancy on with the conversations of the eloquent and the great, I had grown up in this dung-heeled sagebrush town on the disappearing edge of nowhere, utterly without painting, without sculpture, without architecture, almost without music or theater, without conversation or languages or bookstores, almost without books.  I was charged with getting in a single lifetime, from scratch, what some people inherit as naturally as they breathe air….

How, I asked this Englishman, could anyone so deprived a background ever catch up?  How was one expected to compete, as a cultivated man, with people like himself?  He looked at me and said dryly, “Perhaps you got something else in place of all that.”

Wolf Willow, Wallace Stegner

 

I watched as my three older children charged upstream through the swift current.  They had found a fishing lure and attached line and were hunting a good stick to tie it to.  They spent the next hour fishing in the clear stream with their hodgepodge pole.  Their Grandpa told us how to best remove a hook if they got snagged, and that launched him into a related story.  I watched the smoke go up from the campfire and let his rich voice paint a scene in my mind, and I was glad for what I got, “in place of all that.”

 

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Even The Grays

It has been a week of clumsily wrangling table cloths and bedsheets over my flowering peach and nectarine trees in a futile attempt to save them from freezing into fruitlessness.  It has been a week of hunching over an old kerosene heater at midnight in the greenhouse trying to coax some robust heat out of it to keep the seedlings from certain, cold death.  It has been a week of washing poop out of underpants with a toddler who has no interest in potty training.  It’s been a week without a single order for soap and all the questions that can kindle.

It has also been bright.

Mr. Mango, our beloved parakeet, has begun making word-like utterances, much to my over-the-top delight.  Tobias has learned how to grin mischievously.  My daughter comes home from her long bus commute with a handful of poems she writes on the way; often springing from topics she’s learned about that day in history class.  Sunflowers, dahlias, and coxcombs are coming up in the seed trays, lifting their leafy hands up to the sun.  My boule bread has been turning out quite good, and we’ve cut down on our food bill via creative means.  My bees are still alive.

My daughter was asking me about hair dye.  She wanted to know why I rarely use it (I highlighted my hair in Chile, oh, six years ago or so).  I fanned out a handful of my hair in my hands.  “Look at all the colors.  Browns, blonde strands, copper.  Yes, gray too.  I don’t want to miss this, from bright to dark, even the grays.”

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It may not be a fashionable look; I may look older than I otherwise would, but I find some delight in looking my age, my thirty-six years of life under the sun.  I make no argument against dyeing of hair; just saying that I like to watch the march of time of browns and blonds and grays, right on my own head.  I don’t want to miss what the transition between youth and middle age looks like; I do not want to look perpetually young in anything but my childlike delight in life.  I welcome my years; would that I could kiss God’s feet in gratitude for all they’ve held.

As regards these days of both trials and blessings, I feel the same.  It is me, yes, bent over the toilet, swishing feces out of underpants for the third time in one day.  It’s me!  It’s also me that gets to hold my dear son, all cleaned up, and teach him the names of colors, and hear him mispronounce them, and smile all the way out to my ears.

I’ll take these days, these bright ones, and grays too, with great gratitude from a full heart, for God has dealt kindly with me.

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The Older I Get

It’s pie dough between my fingers and I’m tucking it under, slowly working my way around the dish.  I find it beautiful; the way the fat and the flour and the water do a half-dance and leave a lot undone; swirls and whirls of color which become airy pockets, flaky crust.

It’s his laugh as I push him in the infant swing under bronze fall skies; an identical giggle each time I catch his eye on the forward swoop.  He doesn’t tire of it; he can’t get to the bottom of the novelty, and neither can I.  The older I get, neither can I.

How many times have the November-defiant roses stopped me in my tracks with their unseasonable magenta pink?  They keep raising their audacious faces to the sun, to the short-lived fall sun, and they say, “Who cares?  I’ll bloom yet.”

_MG_4741 And the older I get I agree with the roses.  Who cares?  I’ll bloom yet.  I’ll enjoy, I’ll see, I’ll live, who cares if the mums have come and gone and the grapevines are shriveled and dry?  There’s still sun, see?

And there’s still swirls of fat in the pie dough and YouTube compilations of cats being afraid of zucchinis and children, oh dear children, saying all sorts of things, and you’ve just got to tilt your audacious head back and laugh from your very marrow.

The older I get and the more dear ones I’ve seen tucked into their graves, the more I encounter with joy those honest pleasures of life, pedestrian and exquisite.  The warm feeling in my throat after the first swallow of coffee in the morning.  Flipping the pillow to the cold side and sinking into it.  The warm cheek of a sleeping baby against my lips.  It affects me so, this novelty of living; of tasting and smelling and doing and being.  What a lark it is to have a body and to move it about in the world.

As I get older, I am the child with a bulging bag of piñata loot, hopping with joy, and I am oh-so-thankful.

Wishing you and yours a very alive, very lived, Thanksgiving.

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