Earlier this summer I was a little saddened to see my son’s reaction to being in the unfamiliar forest (see this) – my beloved forest! He hated it. He cried to go back. Meanwhile, his local cousins happily romped through the ferns and pine needles. Oh, my beautiful, beloved, wonderful Black Hills forest that I’d explored since my earliest days! But during our three weeks there, he began to reach out more, to touch things, to not feel so out of place. This cheered me. One day we followed a path in town lined with purple dame’s rocket and other wild flowers (and invasive weeds, if we’re being honest), and he reached out to touch things and notice them. I was so proud of him, so very happy to see him becoming acclimated to a place (the Black Hills) where being outdoors is basically a part of everyday life. We have the misfortune to not be able to live there currently, but my hope is to claw more and more time each year out for us to spend there, in the place that I love and consider home, and that hopefully he will come to love as well. Baby steps. Isn’t that what it’s all about?
Even now, only November, I’m counting the weeks until we can return in early summer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Taking the cousins down to Art Alley in Rapid City with paint and brushes seemed like the next logical step after doing sheet murals in the backyard. The boys (ages 3, 4, and 7) especially were very thrilled to be painting on the walls, doing something that would normally be off-limits. We brought tempera paint, brushes, and rollers, and they quickly set to work adding some color to a very black, oppressive wall (final work pictured in the last photo.) The oldest painted a train after hearing one’s whistle a few blocks down. All of them added their handprints to the walls. We had quite a few smiles and laughs from passerbys when they saw the tots out painting alongside the spray painted graffiti. Of course, even though Rapid City is quite safe during the day, we planned carefully, going in mid-day, having four adults (including one big male) to keep an eye on the four children, painting near the end of the alley so we were not able to be blocked in, and keeping a close eye out for traffic or unsavory characters. The kids loved it and felt quite special to contribute to this bit of public art. Afterward, we took them to Main Street Square to run in the fountains and wash off the remaining paint from their hands and arms. I’d say this was one of our most successful cousin camp experiences this visit.