05 September 2016

Midwest Autumn

Image found here
The cold leaves late and enters early in Wisconsin.

The winters are wet and cold, and colder because they are wet. To breathe the air freezes the nose hairs and sears the lungs. Shadows long, world a morality play of thigh-high pristine white and stark gray.

The summers are hot and wet, and hotter because of the wetness. We breathe as if through bathroom towels, smelling the heat of the clean moisture in the air and the saltiness on our arms, necks, and faces. And green — the green of corn ripening, of squash and carrot leaves sprouting, of weeds thriving, of forests drinking, of lawns that need no sprinklers.

And in the autumns the thick, wet heat relaxes into the sweet, cool spice of yellow leaves and red apples. Things don't yellow in Wisconsin. They are yellow. There's a difference. Even the leaves that fall still live.

As the temperature drops, we get our signal: it's time again.

As children we don't recognize the signal. But one day our mother bundles us up in our color-block '90s puff coats, loads us into the red diesel GMC van and drives the hour or so to the orchard.

Connell Orchard. Acres and acres, it seems, of apple trees. They bend under the weight of thousands of reddening orbs we can't fit our two hands around. The sun shines, but the air is wet, so it feels cooler than it is.

Out come the bags and buckets from the trunk. And off goes our mother, through the trees, and we trooping around her. I don't remember who picks apples, who watches the little kids, or how my mother manages to fill the buckets and bags while not losing sight of us. We can't reach most of the apples. And we're too young to be much help with watching each other. But we never get lost or left behind. We never get hurt. And the buckets and bags get filled. Filled with apples that crunch as sweet as the crisp Wisconsin air.

I don't know how long it takes. I am a child, running around in tights and saddle shoes, or reading a book in the van while I wait. It is hard to wait. I am hungry.

What seems like hours later, the trunk door opens, and my mother and the orchard hands heft the buckets and bags into the van. My mother herds us back into our seats, turns on the diesel engine and backs out of the orchard. We peek around and over the seat at the buckets and bags. So many apples! Apples for eating, apples for saucing, apples for pies ... and still there seem to be apples left over.

We drive past the reaping machines in the ripe cornfields, telephone line upon telephone line of corn. Drive through little towns with two-story establishments and past one-car-garage houses lining the highway behind their great trees.

Drive to a one-room shack just a little way off the road, from which my mother emerges with a single paper bag lumpy and with grease stains on the bottom. We bounce up and down in our seatbelts with excitement.

Our mother is amazing and never gets lost. I can never remember how to get from home to the orchard, from the orchard to the cheese shop, and from the cheese shop to the park. But our mother knows.

And we know when we see the massive yellow-red trees and the small wooden pavilion. We have arrived!

Our mother parks. While she walks to the trunk, we pile out of the red van into an ankle-deep carpet of oak leaves, yellow, orange, and red. They crunch all around as we jump in them, kick them at each other, and run through them. This isn't a park with toys. But we are not disappointed. Or bored. We only come here once a year. It means lunch and leaves.

Our mother brings a bag of apples and the paper bag and sets up her feeding station at the old-fashioned iron water pump. It stands the only attraction at the park, marmalade and cranberry leaves carpeting the stoic black base.

We all jostle and fight about who gets to pump the water out. Some of us lose interest as soon as our hands close over the handle, cold to the touch. Other of us don't have the muscle to persuade the heavy handle to make its upward and downward arc. But our mother does. The mechanisms creak awake as she lifts and lowers, lifts and lowers the heavy handle. And the water coughs, spurts, then splashes out of the pump's mouth.

Our mother fills an empty water bottle or two with the yieldings from the pump, then passes them around to us, along with slices of apple and the contents of the paper bag — finger-sized cheese curds of all shapes, white and squeaky between our teeth.

Those are sensations I still have not forgotten: the crisp, sweet crunch of fresh apples; the contrast of the soft, squeaky cheese; the sweet, ice-cold water that froze our hands and seared our throats as it passed down in tiny delicious sips. Too cold to gulp. And the thick, soft rustling of the leaves all around, red and gold and orange, as we chased each other around our mother.

Each year autumn rolls around in the Rocky Mountain desert. And I miss the bite of the water; the milky-curdiness of the cheese; the smart crunch of each apple bite and sweet juice that ran down our throats and dribbled down our chins; and the leaves, rubies and gold pieces lying thick like a pirate's dream come true. Hands and noses sticky and nipped with cold, smiles big and laughter loud. A day's outing with our mother, nestled safe around an old iron pump.

Simple pleasures. Wisconsin autumn.

23 February 2016

Every Last One

I like this scene from Disney's Robin Hood a lot:

Robin Hood and Little John runnin' through the courtyard,
Got a cart of villagers and tryin' to get away,
A forgotten baby rabbit calls for help with king's guards close behind.
Robin scoops the baby up from them and saves the day.

It gets to me, the concept in that scene—Robin Hood about-facing into the mouth of the beast in order to save that last little one who is in danger.

But I didn't realize why it gets to me until just recently, when I read a rather obscure verse from the Book of Mormon:

"Go to and gather together thy flocks, both male and female, of every kind; and also of the seed of the earth of every kind; and thy families; and also Jared thy brother and his family; and also thy friends and their families, and the friends of Jared and their families." (Ether 1:41)

These words the Lord speaks to the Brother of Jared struck me for the first time in the 20+ times I’ve read this story. The Lord is about to Babelize the known world, and in answer to one humble man’s pleas that he and his family be spared, the Lord gives this answer: Escape this place. Not only you, but your families. And not only your families but your brother and his family. And not only them, but all your friends on both sides and their families. Leave no one behind.

The Lord goes to such lengths to detail this caravan; it’s as if He wants to make sure no one is left behind. He could have said something generic like “all your loved ones,” but he made a specific and comprehensive list, something that showed how individually He knew this amalgamation of people, and how he cared about them as each one — individuals He did not want left behind. Not one.

When I was little and still played with dolls I went through a nightly ritual. Every single doll had to be off the floor, nestled around me, covered with a blanket, and nose showing so I could make sure each of them could breathe. I used probably three or four different blankets, and by the time each doll was safely settled I couldn’t move for fear of brushing one or more of them onto the floor again. But I didn’t feel right unless they were all safe around me. Every last one.

Could it be the Lord is like this, but on a far more perfect scale?

I who played mother to my dolls couldn’t imagine leaving one out of bed. And the Lord promises that even a mother’s love and devotion to her child’s well being can’t compete with His devotion to His children on earth. (Isaiah 49:15).

Robin Hood turned back to save the very last peasant. The Lord declares that He will gather His people, His chosen ones, around Him, sweeping through “the four corners of the earth” to find those who are scattered and believe themselves lost. (2 Nephi 21:12)

None of us are lost to Him. He loves unlike any father. And He is thorough. He promised Abraham, “in thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed.” (1 Nephi 22:9) That means something different when you consider the thoroughness of God.

We are not forgotten. Even tucked away where we sometimes find ourselves, lost and in the dark and wandering, wondering, or just trying to breathe. He sees. He knows our names. He will turn back to rescue us.

He keeps painstaking track of each child. He forgets none. He loses none. And He will leave none behind who choose Him. Not one. 

10 January 2016

Morning Ramble

One doesn't expect it — wet gray sidewalks and soggy grass at 7:30 on a January morning in the Rockies. Everywhere, rather than white or even dirty snow, is slick water runoff and that thin green in the grass sprinkled over the weary mud-yellow the now-melted snow flattened. Such a color Crayola cannot duplicate. What would they call it? "Warm winter."

Birds chirp outside the apartment and flit between the buildings, trying to keep warm. An alien but welcome sound in winter. Though the weather app has promised snow for the last three days straight, the sun diffuses pale through friendly white, harmless sheets of cloud.

I still bundle up to walk. In the hills, where I'm from, I put on fewer layers for romps on January mornings. But these are the flatlands; half the exertion required, and thus twice the cold felt.

I miss the hills—the trails, and even the roads and neighborhood streets that wind and rise at unexpected angles and gradients; no grids where I come from. Here it is flat, civilized, loud, and hazy with exhaust. Ambulances and police cars wail past at all hours. I climbed the hills in the dark of morning; here I have to wait until it's light. The least square path I can find is a cement track that winds in a circle around the soccer field at the local high school. More often than not I wend my way there and walk laps. Strange when you're used to just hitting the hills and never hitting the same point twice until it's time to bend home again.

In the summer when I started I would most often meet white-haired men and women walking along the track: the men in single file, the women in chattering twos. They walked slowly, the women, but I suppose that had to do with the fact that some of them didn't stop talking long enough to draw a breath the entire time they walked the track. I nodded at them once, twice, and then by mutual consent, we kept our eyes ahead as we passed each other.

Two men I remember well. Both tall, but one more broadly built than the other. This larger man beat me to the track every morning. We would pass each other five or six times before one of us left, and every time, he'd give me a big smile and a different, friendly comment—about the weather, my pace, his pace, etc. It warmed me clear through, and I made sure to give him a big grin back every time. What did he used to be, I wonder? I could picture him an officer in the army as easily as I could picture him a friendly grocer. I never asked. We just smiled.

The other gentleman, more spare in build, took a creaking jog around the track, so we passed more often. A smile did not come as easily to him, but every time he passed, he told me "Good job!" or "How far are you going?" I was sad when the cold weather crept in on the flatlands and I no longer saw them at the track.

Now the older walkers are gone, shut indoors by the cold. Younger women come jogging in their bright tops and huggy bottoms, and we don't speak or smile. I walk in broad, exposed daylight on a flat track, the soggy winter grass keeping pace with me. I fill my time, and walk home again. To have an enjoyable walk, I think, one must have either wilderness and hills for the imagination, or good company. I shall be glad, then, when the warm weather returns and the two gentlemen shuffle along the track again too.

29 October 2015


I opened it by accident last night — the StoryMill program right next to Microsoft Word on my dashboard. What was I trying to open from Word? An outline of legal cases to add to for finals in five weeks. A class-notes document. Or a book to edit for someone else. That's been the extent of any creation or literary merit on my part this whole semester.


I think in legalese. Passive voice. Just the facts. No feeling. Trying to translate a case from something my English professors would condemn to plain, understandable English. Trying to learn how to write in the same dead way.

I can't form coherent creative sentences. So many times each week story and blog ideas wisp by my tired brain like teasing smoke: Wisconsin autumns, the "etymology" of Halloween, the stubbornness of summer, Wilfred Owen, the people on the walk around the park...Things that breathe beauty and freedom, history and pathos. But I haven't the breath to describe them.

I'm brain-dead. Sitting in class, trying to stay awake or pay some semblance of attention in case I'm called on (thank you, Socratic method). Reading from 3-inch-thick case books so I'll have something to answer for if I am called on. Drafting the beginning of the end for the thesis I'm still working on. Feverishly clicking through and reading unfinished manuscripts to make editing deadlines. And when I'm not doing that, I'm bonding with my new husband, with my family. Or I'm in bed. Or watching a movie to destress. Because my brain's overworked; it hurts to create.

My creative brain has lapsed into obesity and lethargy. It can't reach out and grab the ideas. Sometimes it tries. And about a paragraph in it's out of breath. So little used. Shut down.

I miss it every day. And move on to "more important things."

But last night my finger slipped on click, and StoryMill opened instead of Word. Opened to a scene I'd written years ago. When I felt more, and wrote more. When my writing breathed people and feelings and trueness.

It was a short scene. So I read it. And it breathed into me. I watched my favorite character, my companion for a decade, die. Watched it through his only child. Unfair circumstances. Not ready for death. Felt his struggle for breath in my chest, the child's pain there too.

His breath failed, and mine returned.

I used to write. Well. And last night that put-out-to-pasture part of me was remembered. Like the "Please" in the Book of Virtues that finally got used again and bounded up with breath, it hops around in me and asks to be used.

So we're taking a chance, it and I. Because today the professor has started his interrogations on the opposite side of the room. We're writing. Quickly. No poetry. Just get the thoughts out. Let's exhale a little, and then maybe we can inhale a little better. And exhale a little better. Inhale...Exhale...Deep and healthy...

It's rusty. Instead of writing about creativity, we're writing about the lack of it. And honestly, how interesting is that? We're out of shape. But we're breathing right now. And that's a start.

18 September 2015

A Vow's Merits

I remember this post from three years ago and the way I planted my flag, dug in my heels and vowed I'd never go to law school.

I also remember vowing up and down for four years I'd never marry that boy from church whose beard was bigger than he was.

Within three days of each other, I vowed myself to both.

And it's a crazy. Exhausting. Thrilling. Rollercoaster. And I can't imagine doing it differently.