76. A Room of Her Own

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My sister and I were teens the summer our family went to Yellowstone, and our mom spent much of her time in the cabin instead of touring the sites with us and our dad. We all wanted her to come along, but now I understand why she may have wanted to stay behind. Beyond the fact that she didn’t really enjoy being away from home, she also loved, craved, needed quiet time, time to write and think. Staying behind at the lodgings while we went out was her one chance for a bit of solitude during our road trips, even if it meant missing a geyser or a bison herd.

Such were my own plans this June when I found a remote cabin for us to rent in the Black Hills. I would bring the laptop and try to get back into the groove of writing while my husband and son rode the 1880 Train, went to Jewel Cave, and visited the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research. They could have fun while I had solitude – and perhaps most important, solitude in a peaceful place that was not my own home, because at home it’s all too easy to be distracted by all of the other tasks and projects piling up around me.

I have several hours a week to myself when my son goes to preschool, but my most productive period of writing was when my son was an infant and I hired a babysitter at home for four hours a week. I locked myself in an upstairs bedroom and wrote. I wouldn’t leave that bedroom because I didn’t want to risk setting off another round of separation anxiety. But now when he is gone, I have the entire house to myself, and so I can roam and gaze at my clutter, the art projects, boxes of supplies for the Montessori course I took recently – and sitting down to write is easily put off.

Nothing I could write or photograph or paint or make with my hands even comes close to the amazing, creative journey of parenthood. But beyond parenting itself, motherhood has opened me up to a stronger sense of creativity than I have ever felt. And with all of these new ideas to pursue, new plans to implement, I am often unable to complete the course due to lack of energy and time.

So I quite happily settled myself at the old wooden table in the historic cabin with a wide view out over a green field, racing to put as many words onto the screen as I could while the guys were out. There was nothing I could distract myself with, other than attempting to light a fire with newspapers from the 1990s and making countless cups of tea. They were gone much longer than I expected, and while I relished my hours of quiet, I was very happy for their hugs when they returned.

75. Cauliflower Clouds

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Between rain and cold wind, and day trips into the Black Hills, we did actually manage to get our son to one of his scheduled mornings at Art in the Park through Rapid City Parks & Rec. He and his cousin joined others of their height and size to make prints with vegetables in the picnic shelter (and do sidewalk chalk.) I liked the cauliflower clouds he made, and I was impressed with the pizza box drying rack that their teacher put together. But mostly, I was happy to find such a fun summer program run by the city, for a relatively modest price. I may do this kind of art with him at home on a regular basis, but I know that many parents can’t or don’t, and it cheers me to see the classes offered.

74. Progress

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I took my son out early one June morning for a stroll in the meadow near our rented cabin. It was foggy and grey and beautiful, a wonderful time to be outdoors in the Black Hills. I planned to follow an old road bed over a slight hill and see where it went. I took his little hand and he bravely crossed a cattle guard for the first time, placing his feet carefully on the metal bars so he wouldn’t twist an ankle. He seemed braver than I remembered being as a child when I had to walk across cattle guards, something I still don’t like to do. I was proud of him.

We crossed the gravel road and entered the field. Within a few steps, he was unhappily demanding to go back to the cabin. “I don’t like it out here!” he proclaimed. The grass was wet and so his shoes, feet, and pant cuffs were getting wet. The fog was so thick we couldn’t see the horizon. The field was full of yellow dandelions and the very tall grass was a lush green that we don’t ever see in the brown, dusty desert where we live. Perfect conditions to me, but not to him. He began to cry even harder and so I turned back reluctantly, leaving behind my hopes of a beautiful morning walk. I knew all of it was unfamiliar to him, and I knew it must be a bit overwhelming on a sensory level. I remembered our hike the week before and was again saddened by his reaction to being outdoors in a place that I love.

But the next day, when his cousins visited, he very happily followed them back into that field, way out into the deep grass that reached nearly to his waist in places. He even sat down in the tall grass and sprawled out on his stomach, rolling in the grass like a puppy, picking dandelions to show me. The sky was gray with an impending thunderstorm, but he didn’t mind. I was confused by his sudden change of attitude, but also very happy to see him enjoying himself. This time, he was the one who didn’t want to leave the grassy field when we finally had to seek shelter from the storm.

73. Stories from Stones

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Early one morning at our rented cabin in a remote corner of the Black Hills, I finally brought out the small stones, brushes, and paints that I’d been promising my oldest nephew. We sat down at a picnic table on the piney slope in the cool breeze, where underfoot many lovely little shooting star wildflowers popped out of the thick layers of pine needles. We followed directions that we found elsewhere online, putting down a white base (to help with color vibrancy when the top layers were added), letting it dry, and then completing the image. He made a house, a star, and other symbols that must appeal to seven-year-olds. The younger three also had their turns, happily painting away in the dappled shade. The idea is to create pictures on stones that one can then use to make up stories, arranging the stones in a different order each time and challenging the parent and child to tell a new tale with each iteration. At home, we have used purchased story cards, and my three-year-old adores setting them out before me and waiting to see what story I can come up with.
It seems like just a children’s craft, but it’s so much more than that, as I realized this morning thinking about the various ‘story stones’ that have been added to our life this summer, mainly that of Mom’s passing. Just think of all of the story stones we could paint of our life’s journey: pieces of our identity, challenging events, happy events, accomplishments made. Just as a child can re-arrange a set of story stones to make up a different narrative, I suppose that we can do the same, finding new, creative ways to view the collection of memories and choices that weigh us down at times with their emotional significance. In our mind’s eye, we can set out our story stones and adjust their placement, giving them a new meaning and role just as we might as we make up a different story for our children every time we bring out the story stones they’ve painted.We can add new stones as we grow older, stones that can completely change the meaning of the story, stones that change something that seemed final into something that was just a passing challenge, stones that can turn what looks like a sad story into a happy story.

72. Stavkirke

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The oldest cousin groaned when he heard we were going to go visit a church on a sunny summer weekday morning, but he was quickly won over when he saw Stavkirke, a wonderful treasure of a carved wooden building. Telling them how much the building was like those they see in Frozen (which I have still not seen entirely) and How to Train Your Dragon also helped garner excitement. The kids took off to play hide-and-seek in the covered passageway that surrounds the interior body of the church. They admired the wood carvings and the metal door knockers. My son saw the altar and asked if we were going to have Communion (sweet little Orthodox preschooler that he is, ha!) After I finally corralled them back together they ran up into the pine forest along the newly developed prayer path while I admired the statuary along the way. It’s usually a quiet, peaceful place, and I’m so glad we finally fit it in again during our trip.

71. Inheritance

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An Elna sewing machine, a few boxes of Derwent drawing pencils, a box of fabric and denim quilt squares, 140-plus original poems scanned and digitized – these are some of the most meaningful items I’m bringing back from my mother’s home in Minnesota after she passed away at age 60 on July 4. Early-onset Alzheimer’s prevented her from channeling her creativity into her writing, doodling, and sewing as she once did, so I am honored to take her tools and put them to use once again. My sister and I were blessed to be with her during her last week, and then blessed to have another week with her husband to help plan services and gather her writings together from the many places where they were tucked, filed, and stashed in dressers and desks. The entire experience has given me so much to think about, and likely to write about as well, just as she might have.