Health and Wellness

The Boy I Could Have Been

I put my hand over my heart, and I begged it to stop rattling against my rib cage. Rain was hammering my bare flesh. The trees were suffocating me, and I was locked within them. If I stopped now, they would be my tomb. Strands of wet red hair clung to my face where salty tears mixed with freshwater raindrops. I was going to die.

Thorns and branches tugged at my limbs. They scraped my skin until pebbles of blood pooled along the surface. Wobbly legs led to a break in the forest where I could see an empty beach. Dark thunderclaps rolled in the distance. Waves broke along the shore, swirling and frothing with rage. The last time I was here the sun was kissing my cheeks. A cold pink popsicle melted over my fingertips and ran down the length of my arm. My cousins laughed and my mom handed over napkins with smile. This time, I was alone.

I gagged on the sobs I tried to contain as vomit threatened to burn my throat. My mom was probably being told that no one could find me. I imagined her pouring her heart into her hands as she screamed my name. I’ll bet she was giving people a description of the dress I was wearing. It had been so pretty this morning, with delicate blue flowers printed on white cotton. It wouldn’t be recognizable now. I used it to wipe away mud that was smeared up my legs. I raked my hands across the hem to unpack the grime from underneath my fingernails.

I had twirled my way to the campground showers like a princess. Yet the longer I waited for my cousins to finish getting ready, the more impatient I became. I decided to venture off towards the direction of the campsite on my own when one path turned into another. Had I gone to the left or to the right? Or maybe straight? If I could just get up higher… to see where I was, then perhaps I could find my way back.

I climbed a dune near the beach knowing that my mom would be furious. It was against the rules to be out here alone. Although I wasn’t normally a rule breaker, an exception was made in my mind for life and death situations. Yet the water would remain off limits even as the hot sand burned blisters into the bottom of my feet. The task to reach a higher perspective was daunting, and my leg finally gave out from underneath me.

A twisted piece of driftwood sliced through my arch and blood stained its bark crimson red. I screamed in frustration, my wound, throbbing. I sat back on my bottom with a hard thump so I could have a good cry. A random hiker might find the shoe that got sucked into the mud pit. Or maybe they would find the one I threw out of anger when I couldn’t get mud-pit-shoe out of the hole it sank into. I wondered if they would locate my body sometime after that. 

Using the back of my hand, I dried my tears. I was a tiny speck of blue and white among miles of rolling sand mounds. I would allow myself to cry but I wasn’t allowed to give up. When the sun broke through the clouds, I shaded my eyes by using my fingers like a visor. A boardwalk path leading back into the woods could been seen in the distance and I whooped for joy! I still didn’t know how to get home, but I might be able to find help. I sprinted and the mud smeared dress swirled torn and tangled behind me.

When I reached the path, the knots in my stomach cinched tighter. I had barely touched breakfast and it was nearly lunch time now. The walkway wound through an eerie marsh lined with stumps and dead limbs, but I tried to keep my mind focused. I giggled when a long tongue darted out from the muck to catch a fly but stuck to the frog’s green eyeball instead. The creature looked confused and wiggled his mouth a little which made me laugh even harder.

A seagull, suspended in flight tucked its wings against its body. It danced with the breeze at a dizzying speed. Through moody storm clouds and patches of sunlight it dived headfirst into the wind.

I bet he could see my way home… I wish I had wings like his.

I rounded a corner to find myself no longer alone with the frog, the seagull, and my thoughts. A stranger materialized and for a moment I was relieved that I might be saved. I wanted desperately to tell someone that I was lost. Yet the voice in my head told me that he was untrustworthy. He tried to appear friendly, but his blue eyes struck me as menacing as he squared his shoulders with mine.

“Where’s your mom?”  He asked and I groped for words to wield like a weapon.

“Catching up to me.” I stammer and point in the direction I had come from.

I have the sudden urge to run, so I do. I carry myself as far away from the stranger as I can. When I am out of breath, I think about how his eyes brightened when he thought he caught me out here alone and how they darkened when I pointed to where I wished my mom would have been. It gives me a second wind to pace myself so that my legs can pump even harder in case the man tries to catch up to me.

The boardwalk ended at a dirt road and a three-way junction. I didn’t know where else to go from here. My stomach roared with hunger. The sun tucked itself behind the clouds again so I could barely stay on the path. I was exhausted. My resolve to hold onto hope was weakening with every step. Then I heard something. The rumble of an engine. A man wearing a park ranger vest on the back of a four-wheeler was coming for me. His vehicle skid to stop and relief floods his expression as he shouted into a walkie-talkie that he yanked off his belt.

“I found her! I found her! Tell her mom that I’m bringing her back to camp now!” The static was electrifying.

Through tears of relief, I explained how I lost my shoes. As he doctored up my blisters, I talked about making my way to the beach to look for help only to find it empty. The ranger winced as he applied a sunshine yellow sticker to the cut on my foot. His kind face was contorted into a grimace as he told me that the beach was empty because a boy my age had drowned.

He had been ripped away from his family by an undercurrent. Search and Rescue had been on the water trying to locate him and they cleared the beach, but it was too late. When my mom heard a rumor circulating camp that a missing child had washed up dead on the beach, she thought that the kid might be me. She spent the hours I was missing praying that it was someone else’s child as she searched the campground trying to find me.

The ranger scooted forward and tucked me safely behind him. My legs suspended around the seat; my fingers griping so tightly that my knuckles turned white. I rested my head on the strangers back as we flew through the forest. Myhair waving goodbye to the marsh, the dunes, and the boy I could have been.  

Every year three to four people drown in Lake Michigan at or near the Indiana Dunes State Park. Men, women, and children have disappeared. One boy fell through a sand dune never to been seen again, and police in the area are still looking for three women who went missing on a beach full of out-of-state visitors.

While there have been other times throughout my life when I have gotten lost, I’ll never forget how lucky I was to be found that day. In moments when my health has tried to drown me, or in instances where I’ve felt like I couldn’t find my way, I remind myself to keep moving forward. As my grandfather use to say, “If you don’t know where you’re going, and you don’t know where you are…put one foot in front of the other.”

Health and Wellness

The Zebra Farmer

There’s a famous one-line quote that many doctors have heard in medical school that refers to looking for a diagnosis that’s more common than not. “If you hear hoofbeats, remember to think of horses and not of zebras.” The problem is that medically speaking… not everyone is a horse.

Six months after I got married, my husband and I sat down to a large cheese pizza and a movie. We did this little routine every Saturday night to ensure that we made time for one another as much as possible. Rob was stationed in South Korea, and we could never be sure when he would be shipped off for training or getting ready for war.

We lived in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom flat a few streets over from the Army base with a rice paddy in our back yard. It was our first home together and the minimum requirement that we would be living there (through military contract) lasted at least a year, but possibly longer. None of that mattered so long as we could be together… until the night that changed everything.  

I was positive that I had the stomach flu. By the time the movie ended, I wasn’t feeling so hot. My stomach churned, my face turned pale, and I made several trips to the bathroom to get sick. I had hope within that moment that everything would work itself out. That I would be feeling better again in a couple days.

That’s the funny thing about hope, in the beginning you have a lot of it. Yet as time wears on, it becomes the most dangerous emotion that someone who’s chronically ill can have. When days of being sick turn into weeks, and weeks turn into months… with no end in sight. You begin to lose it. You bargain for your life. Have another hospital stay, see another doctor. Sit down in your 100th exam room and hope has dwindled until there’s nothing left.

When you’re young you start out with the notion that all doctors are smart. You feel as if the world is full of incredible people, and that someone somewhere will know how to fix you. You move on to hoping that there’s a pill to take or a treatment to try that will give you a better quality of life. Yet you settle on symptom management. The ability to have more good days than bad ones… or just any good days at all.

My husband watched me waste away from being vibrantly healthy to counting the bones in my body just from looking at me. I weighed 64 lbs. Just a few pounds shy of the weight my almost eight-year-old boy is now. My body punished me for every morsel of food or liquid that passed my lips, and I was told more than once that I was probably going to die. I was racked with abdominal pain, and I couldn’t prevent myself from throwing up repeatedly no matter how much I begged to make it stop.

I reached a point where I longed for death. It took great effort to get dressed, to brush my hair, or just to walk from one room into the next. Upon trying to make my way to the hospital on base (The TMC), I would sit on the curb and lean away from traffic to avoid getting hit by cars when I passed out. I was transferred to a better hospital by ambulance, where doctors discovered that I had a kidney disease… which had nothing to do with regaining my able to eat.   

I went from having a needle phobia and being terrified of hospitals to showing up to medical exams for regular testing. I was forced into being dependent by allowing my husband to help wash my hair when I couldn’t do it myself. Rob spoon fed me broth or soup when my hands shook too much out of weakness from malnutrition. When he couldn’t be there, and we were back in the states (two years later) my mom helped take care of me.

All the while my husband was forced to continue going on training missions that kept him away from home for weeks at a time. He would stock the refrigerator and pray that I would still be alive by the time he came back home again. I was unrecognizable. He didn’t handle the new adjustment to my health very well. Alcoholism ran in his family, and he relied heavily on that to help him cope. Which began another kind of sickness that we had to fight to get through together.  

I spent nine years of my life more bedridden than not. I fought to avoid feeding tubes and TPN, I tried every medical miracle I could find (sometimes at the detriment to my body and peace of mind) because deep-down I wanted to live. I wanted a full life on my terms without lasting side effects from daily medications or being hooked up to machines that would barely help me survive.

Six months of testing at Mayo Clinic and I was diagnosed with a little-known illness called Gastroparesis. Which is the shortened medical term for stomach paralysis. To this day episodes of what I call GP strike fear and anxiety within my heart. It never fully goes away. It can become more manageable (like it did for me) but for the millions of friends I’ve made over the years through support groups… Gastroparesis doesn’t always get better with time (or in my case… with pregnancy). It can get so much worse.

I have a long list of zebra-like symptoms beyond Gastroparesis. Things that happen to me that can be explained under other diagnoses in which I was given, and things that can’t. I’ve had more than one near death experience and knowing my medical history… I’m sure there will be more. My husband and I have spent thousands of dollars trying to figure everything out only to walk away with less money in our pockets, and no answers to show for it.

One of my favorite primary care physicians I’ve ever had once told me that my medical history was so interesting, he took it to bed with him as reading material. While under his care, I contracted a rare parasite that no one in my area had experienced in almost 45 years. Upon returning to his office for a follow up exam, he shook his head, and we laughed over the absurdity of it together.   

When new doctors are forced into my life because physicians retire or move away, I am coaxed into relaying the bizarre sagas to fresh faces. The jaw-dropping reaction of disbelief is one I’m all-too familiar with. I can tell within the first five minutes of conversation whether that specific doctor can handle my case or not.       

Farm life and motherhood are my reasons for getting out of bed in the morning. There are moments when I am so overcome with pain that it takes everything within me to do the most basic tasks. My ability to run our farm, be a professional photographer, write, and build a small business is accomplished not because I’m young or feeling my best, but because I am resilient.

One of the many roses in my garden.
A picture of me right after I got pregnant. I got worse before I got “better”
I didn’t take pictures of myself very often but I took this one to show how much
weight that I was losing
farm life

The Things We Hide

Opening credits roll and the camera zooms in on a group of kids navigating a boat through a series of channels near the ocean. They’re looking for lost treasure and you can’t take your eyes off them because you’re invested. People make books, movies and T.V shows about treasure hunting (Outer Banks on Netflix for example), and viewers of all ages are on the edge of their seat.

My husband and I have very different ideas on what Treasure Hunting looks like. His version entails going through boxes in the sweltering Georgia heat while mine, involves searching for new blooms in my garden. Yet who wouldn’t want to know what’s in that old trunk, locked box, or what’s buried underneath the surface… right? So, when my husband tells me that he wants to go treasure hunting, I can see the appeal even if I’m not in the mood to join him.

X doesn’t mark the spot here and I’m usually groaning when the topic comes up. Yet when Rob has the itch, I know without a doubt that I’m getting roped into helping whether I want to or not. It also means that I am forced to reorganize inventory, so we don’t end up with a ton of junk stored inside our little house.  

Thankfully my husband grasps that even if I’m not nearly as excited as he is, it doesn’t make me any less grateful. Especially when I’m able to donate large quantities of items to those who need them most or furnish our house with unusual finds. Knowing that we possibly helped a single mother, a kid just beginning adulthood, or a low-income family in the process… is a completely different kind of treasure in my opinion. A more valuable one.

This past weekend my husband had the itch and because I knew I was going to be involved in the adventure… I decided to take a more proactive approach. I logged in online and I began to search for storage units that we could compromise on. That’s when I hit the jackpot. We would have to wake up early in order to place our bid using the coffee shop Wi-Fi, but if it all worked out… we would be busy for days.

After reluctantly rising to greet the morning sun, and refreshing the page several times, my night-owl heart fluttered when the winning banner danced across the screen. It’s not quite as glamorous as Storage war’s makes it out to be. That T.V show is dramatized to add a more competitive nature, but I will say that bidding on storage units can be a lucrative side hustle… if it’s done correctly. It’s also, a ton of work but the excitement of discovery is what makes the daunting task feel lighter.

Imagine helping a stranger move. Except that there’s no free pizza, and the payment comes only after you sell the things you find within their belongings. Unboxing, organizing, then packing it all back up again after taking several trips to the local garbage dump… and repeat. The upside (besides selling things) is not having any sentimental ties to the valuables that are in storage because it makes easy work of sorting everything.

It never fails to baffle me when we win a unit that someone has been paying on for years only to find that it’s mostly filled… with bags of garbage. What a let down! Why pay to keep things that clearly belong in a landfill? The hasty departure almost gives off an apocalyptical feel.

Contrary to what you may be thinking, poverty is not the only cause of units being listed for auction. In many instances we have discovered drug addiction to be the primary culprit. This is evident by the number of needles and drug paraphernalia that we find stuffed into old socks and bags of dirty laundry.

Other units have ended up in our possession when the previous owner has passed away. It’s heartbreaking to come across obituaries, yet these units typically contain the most significant treasure troves for just the change we’ve had in our pockets. Gold jewelry, real diamonds, full bedroom sets, brand new sofa’s, leather furniture, kitchen appliances, cell phones, computers and so much more. Stunning antiques, newspaper clippings from world events, old love letters, and items just waiting to be refinished and repurposed.

More gut-wrenching than death are the units that go to auction because of a divorce or jail sentence. Witnessing happier memories though photographs, wedding guest lists, childhood treasures, and High School yearbooks filled with hope for the future, only to see them end up in the rubble of things discarded and left behind. It’s enough to leave you twisting internally and wishing that you could save someone from themselves.

You can learn a lot about people by things they keep. Yet you can learn even more about them from the things they hide. Underneath the family photographs, and ever-changing events throughout an individual’s life, are the items that were once tucked into the back of their closet. Burner flip phones with messages to mistresses. Naughty toys, dirty magazines, and bizarre sex fetishes. We’ve identified cheating spouses in what looked like happy homes and long-term marriages, as well as sex addicts and pill-popping mothers.

Upon discovery it has at times, left me wondering if the people around these human beings knew who they really were. Yet the more I learn about humanity, the more I realize that we all have something to hide. Weather it’s the ugly parts of ourselves, some unusual extracurricular activities, or the things we do when we think that no one is looking… we’re all a little bit guilty of something. We’re all searching for acceptance and forgiveness in one form or another.    

The beauty of losing the stuff that we think is important… is that it makes space in our lives for better and healthier things. Weather it’s surrounding ourselves with the kind of people who lift us to a higher standard or finding a partner who respects healthy boundaries… we all deserve some wiggle room for growth. Who knows, maybe in losing everything, the drug (or sex) addict may finally have the strength they need to get help.

There is also a beauty in old things being made new again. Repurposing discarded items while simultaneously making the lives of other’s just a little bit easier. Perhaps a young mom who couldn’t afford to buy a brand-new pack-and-play, is able to get one because we donated what we found in a storage unit. Maybe a father that couldn’t furnish his house can have a house that’s just as beautiful as anyone else’s because of the furniture we refinished. Or perhaps someone, somewhere found healing from moving on.

The truth of the matter is that while you may not know who’s sitting next to you, I’ll bet that there’s something you regret or have kept hidden yourself. You know exactly what’s buried underneath the surface in your life. The gift is that you’re not alone. It’s never too late to box it up and throw it out.

Ya’ll have never seen my client work. Meet my amazingly talented friend Kayla who was both the makeup artist & the model for this shot that I took in my living room in the middle of summer. Her dress is one of our storage unit finds!
Travel

Stay on the Path

Sometimes I’m forced into managing my expectations. I get an idea in my head about how something should look. A picture of perfection that I attempt to manifest but circumstances out of my grasp humble me.

When we took our family vacation this summer, I thought I’d be feeling my best. I planned for the unexpected by bringing all my medications along, but I told myself that I wasn’t going to need them. We were going to have an amazing time, and I wasn’t going to let my family down.

The guilt of disappointing those you love most when your body refuses to cooperate is one of the hardest feelings to manage. The list of plans you made, go out the window. Hearing your kid try to be understanding even though he’s holding back tears… is devastating. Your husband gripping the steering wheel tight lipped even though he doesn’t blame you, he’s just attempting to manage his own feelings of frustration… it’s gut wrenching. Worse yet, is trying to contain the anger you feel towards yourself.

If you weren’t there, they would be able to tackle all the plans that were made. If you were someone else or had a different body, then you could go with them. If you were healthier. If you were stronger. If you were better. Yet it took a lot for me to accept myself as I am and to know when to call it quits. To know when my body has had enough. After days of limited sleep, camping in icy weather, attempting to hike,  and trying to stretch out in the car, my body was telling me that I couldn’t go on anymore.

We were walking together on a boardwalk on the top of a volcano. One of the largest volcanos in the United States and Nikolai couldn’t stop asking questions. Steam was rising out of these amazing blue pools. Water, mud, and other organic material was frothing along the bank. On our way to see these spectacular sights, a HUGE fountain of water shot up into the sky and shocked the crowd of people.

Big signs said things like “Enter at your own risk.”

“Caution hot thermal temperatures.”

“Unstable ground. Stay on the path.”

As we were walking and reading the labels on the different phenomenon’s surrounding us, a Hispanic man with a baseball cap pulled over his eyes decided to step off the platform. His feet shuffled across forbidden earth and bubbles formed around the souls of his shoes. Nikolai gasped clutching my hand tighter out of concern. The man proceeded to bend at the waist and put his face inches above the fountain that had gone off a few moments prior.

“What do you think you’re doing?”  My husband said sternly.

“It doesn’t look that hot to me.” The man smirked and shrugged his shoulders.

“What about it doesn’t look hot to you? The fact that it’s boiling water? The signs telling you to stay on the path? Or the fact that it launched like a rocket as we were walking up to see it? Do you seriously need the flesh on your face to melt off, and life-flight to haul your ass out of here before you’re able to admit that you’re standing on top of a volcano?”

Anger rippled across my husband’s face. Nikolai’s eyes widened, the confrontation had him feeling unnerved. The man just laughed and got back onto the platform. He made his way past us, a swagger to his gate. He was undeniably full of confidence… as if nothing out of the ordinary had just occurred even though he risked his life. My husband shook his head in disgust and strangers murmured under their breath.

“This is why we respect nature and follow the rules.” I said with an unamused expression.

“What was that guy thinking mom!” Nikolai wondered out loud.

“I don’t know, but he almost ruined it for everyone.”

A chilling sweat broke over my body even though I had burrowed into my sleeping bag like taco meat inside a burrito. I couldn’t stop shaking but my body was on fire. It was confusing. I hunted for a bottle of water inside our tent to help me swallow my pills. I didn’t want to wake my family. My bones throbbed; my stomach churned. So many of my chronic illnesses began hitting me all at the same time. I worried that I might not make it to the restroom and wished I had a hot bath available.

The signs had been there, I just didn’t want to read them. The exhaustion, the fact that I was struggling to hike and opt for staying in the car. I waited alone for my family to see the amazing things we had driven so far to set eyes on. I wanted to be with them, but I had pushed myself and I could feel the breakdown starting to happen. My head feeling light and dizzy, the worry I felt over making my way back to the car. Wondering as I walked if I was possibly going to pass out.

I had pushed through and now it was the end of me and the plans I fought so hard to create. The medicine wasn’t working this time and the only way to recover would be to get a hotel room and sleep heavily for the next day or more. The thought of missing out on our last adventure broke my heart. It would break Rob’s and Nikolai’s too. I tried to put off the inevitable, I attempted to sleep, but I ended up getting sick in the campground restroom. My ability to spend another night fighting the elements had come to an end. It was time to head home whether I wanted to go or not.

Nikolai stifled a sob in the back seat of the SUV. He wanted to be brave for me. We had one last amazing day planned but I just couldn’t make it happen. His little arms were crossed over his chest, I could see the rise and fall of his breath weighing heavily. We had packed up our tent and all our things before our last night in Yellowstone was through. We had come face to face with grizzly bears, black bears, bison, elk, five point bucks, and so much more. We saw old faithful, and some spectacular waterfalls. We had ONE last place we wanted to visit but it just wasn’t going to happen. We had one last animal encounter on our list but that wasn’t hopeful now either.

I should have paced myself better, I should have listened to my body more. Yet I wasn’t reckless like the man standing above the hot springs was. Recklessness would have closed our trip with a hospital visit instead of heading home a day early. Stupidity would have been going hiking and needing someone to carry me to the car instead of staying behind, wishing that things were different.

“Don’t feel bad mom. I know you can’t help it. I’m just disappointed.” Nikolai sighed.

My husband gave me a sympathetic smile and held my hand. It was hard to see in the dark. Winding around twisted roads and praying we didn’t hit something as twilight descended. It took over an hour to find our way to the exit. We made a quick stop at the restrooms before entering a canyon.

Our headlights were turned to the high beam setting once we pulled back onto the highway. Something shook the tall grass and darted across the pavement. To our wonderment, a white tipped tail, red fur, and two pointed ears bounced to the other side. A breathtaking red-tailed fox with copper highlights was on the hunt for his dinner. The final encounter we hoped to have… spectacularly checked off our list, all because I stayed on the path and respected the signs.   

Flower Farming

A Life Fulfilled

Earth chunks soared over my shoulder. Some fell short only to land onto my itchy scalp. My shirt was soaked all the way through, my jeans… pressed so tightly against my skin that in order to remove them, they had to be peeled below my hips. Once I tossed the last of the carnage into the compost pile, I am rewarded by sinking into a hot lavender bath. I can almost taste the icy bottle of water that I left in the freezer before it’s pressed against my sun kissed lips. It only takes about an hour for me to get the job done because I am determined to get it over with.

The war on weeds is my biggest gardening frustration to date, yet I feel so empowered and satisfied when I’ve finished the task. I wait until the sun begins to set after a small rainstorm has loosened the soil and then… I attack! I rip unwanted stems out by the head and dig for their roots with my hands until the muscles in my legs feel too wobbly to keep me in a squat position. Sweat pours from my brow and my hair lacks luster when I’m done, but tiny red curls form at the nape of my neck.

The long-term reward of weeding around all the beautiful things in my garden is spying brand-new buds on my camellias the next morning. Eagerly waiting for my dahlias to make their appearance and having the room I needed to tuck new blooms into the paradise I have created with my own two hands. I use the hose to fill up my mud smeared watering can, and then I take a little walk clutching a pair of nippers against my chest.

Stormy and Waddles, (our ducks) are usually taking a stroll as well. I typically need to wave them away from my vegetables or they will use them as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Sometimes I’m forced to chase them off because they like to crush my flowers as they walk and nibble leaves and petals off my blooms. During our big family trip this summer, I received a call from one of my best friend’s informing me that Waddles wasn’t a drake (a male duck) like I had originally suspected.

Waddles had laid a clutch of eggs near Stormy and the two ducks were terrorizing my farm sitters. The girls were determined to have babies, but I didn’t have a drake old enough to provide them with fertilized eggs. This problem also caused havoc for Harlow (our big black and white paint) and Caspian (our miniature donkey). While trying to eat their feed, Stormy and Waddles would launch themselves at the equine and horrify them by nipping at their hooves. It was hysterical to watch the boys retreat to a corner of the pasture and eye the ducks suspiciously out of fear for their lives. Two large animals at the mercy of two angry females.

Izzy (my daughter of sorts) made a wonderful suggestion. She recommended buying some baby ducks and in the cover of darkness, to swap the duck eggs in exchange for ducklings. This way the girls get the babies their hearts desired, and the little ducklings get the mothers they never had. So, I went to Tractor Supply, and I carefully selected and bought four tiny, orphaned puffballs. I had never witnessed an adoption like this before and I couldn’t wait to see the outcome.

I sat on a log nearby and watched the shadows in the forest grow longer. I listened to the chuck-will’s-widow and heard an owl shake off the cobwebs of slumber. A daddy-long legs with two missing limbs crept over the dirt but when blackness encompassed me, I made my move. Moose (our farm dog) had stolen Waddle’s eggs earlier in the day, but thankfully I was able to snatch some from Stormy. Izzy had told me that the two ducks would share and raise the babies together if the imprinting was fruitful.

Stormy tucked those babies underneath her wings as if they had been hers all along. The relief in her body language was evident. Her purpose in life, fulfilled. The next day my neighbor drove by with her granddaughter and watched the ducklings play in a puddle with their two mothers. I myself stopped mid-snip of a flower stem to witness the binding love between adopted ducklings and their protective mothers. Rather than chasing two ducks out of my garden beds, I was now having to watch my step and encourage six to find another place to feast.

I adopted a love for gardening in the same way my grandfather adopted me. I didn’t have a father who was present in my life when I was young until my mom meet my stepfather. My childhood after their marriage became even more complicated but that’s a story for another day. My papa was the one (besides my mom and grandmother) who was always there for me no matter what. One of my most favorite memories was of holding his finger in my fist as he let me pick an armful of flowers.

He had sewn the seeds inside a drainage area that was fenced off and locked up when he worked as a ground’s keeper for a local hospital near Chicago. The skill seemed to come naturally to him while it took a long time for me to learn how to have a “green thumb”. It’s funny that I say that because the secret to growing beautiful things is simply… sunshine, food, and water. I reached a point in my adult life where I had a moment of clarity and suddenly an achievable passion blossomed. My papa however… he could grow things in the middle of the desert.

Long before I was good at growing things, my husband knew that simply pulling over on the side of the road to pick a bouquet of wildflowers was the way to my heart. I can’t imagine what people driving by must have been thinking. I wonder if they sat and watched as a tall man with broad shoulders, in full military uniform stood alone in a field of flowers as he carefully selected which blooms to add to the handful. They probably assumed he was in marital trouble. As a friend pointed out to me not long ago, my husband understands my love language and he knew what would make me happy. He still does.

Before that green thumb kicked in, I used to dream about having a secret garden full of beautiful flowers. It helped me cope with events in my life that were out of my control when I was young. Underneath my bedroom window a large cluster of daffodils bloomed and there was (to this day) the biggest lilac bush I had ever seen near the edge of our property. I would pick clusters and stash vases on every available surface. It was my way of bringing light into the darkness. Storm clouds brewed within the walls of that house. It was beautiful on the outside, but what lied within was destruction.

As an adult, I have surrounded myself with people who bring peace into my life. One of my most precious friends is a woman named Heather. When I was feeling especially lost with yet another health crisis, she invited me to see the farm where she worked and encouraged me to bring along a bucket for cut flower clippings. Her hard work and encouragement inspired me. She had created an oasis of living things with a few seeds, some bulbs, and a lot of hard work. The beauty of it breathed new life into my soul again.

“Do you think that I could have a garden like this one?” I asked her.

“Girl, I believe that you can do anything!”

My first year growing cut flowers was so successful that I made floral arrangements and gave them away weekly. Seeing how much joy it brought into the lives of other people had me researching ideas to improve my output. One of the first steps I needed to take was to expand our farm. We succeeded in doing that in March and rebranded our farm with the name Everpine Forest & Farm. This year we’ve cleared trees and worked to create a new pasture space that would allow us to move the equine around.

Harlow’s original pasture has served as my new gardening space. This spring I bought out four stores of their cut flower seeds. I planted hundreds of dollars in seeds and bulbs. Most of the time it was a matter of experimenting to see what worked and what didn’t, but each day taught me something new. I now know that next year I need to stagger my blooms by their growing season to help me have flowers to cut year around. I also learned that it’s best to keep each type of flower together with its own kind, so they don’t have to compete for sunlight.

I have discovered that like any crop… spacing is EVERYTHING. Rather than planting thick rows like I did this year, I need to plant smaller rows with a narrow space in between so that I can walk in and gather blooms without trampling, tripping, or dancing my way around them. I’ve learned that it’s better (and cheaper) to buy seeds and bulbs in bulk than it is to buy from your local Walmart, nursery, or dollar general. Best of all… I learned that in order to keep my output flowing efficiently, a greenhouse is a must have essential.

While all these changes are in the works to help me improve next year’s garden, I am thankful for the joy that this year’s garden has brought with it. I look forward to planning and building our greenhouse, and I can hardly contain my excitement regarding my future cut flower stand. I have high hopes of donating arrangements to people in hospitals and nursing homes who need a little extra love to lift their spirits.

A couple weeks ago Heather called to tell me how proud she was of my hard work. To my delight she told me that she was envious of my flower garden this year! This woman is the most selfless and hardest working human (besides my husband) I’ve ever meet. Her house is covered in plants, and she basically helps grow lovely things for other people even though she works three jobs and has no spare time. I’ll never forget her kindness in sharing seeds and bulbs with me to help get me started.

I can’t adequately put into words how much sunshine floods my veins when I’m standing in the middle of something tangible that I thought I could only dream of accomplishing. As a summer storm unleashes above me, I’m laughing as I chase six ducks out of my haven. I have rose petals plastered to my cheek. Rain is dripping off the tip of my nose, and my butterfly top is drenched as I attempt to carry a watering can stuffed with blooms up to the house. My favorite pair of nippers are clutched close to my heart and I’m overflowing with fulfillment.

One of my most recent arrangements from my garden 🪴
My magnolia that I planted a couple years ago.
These beauties took my breath away this spring
An arrangement that I made for my neighbor
I had rows of seedlings lining every countertop in my house and covering my porch.
Created with roses that I grew myself
A special delivery
Another bouquet that I was delivering
I hand deliver to our local coffee shop as well
Roses from my garden and some rather beautiful weeds that I was trying to identify
They’re everywhere!
It’s hard to see everything that’s in here but there’s rudbeckia, poppies, zinnias, marsh pink, cosmos, sunflowers, cornflowers, sweet asylum, marigolds, Asian forget-me-nots, cowcockle and so much more! Not to mention I planted a bunch of various bulbs, roots, about a hundred dahlias (no joke), and peonies in another area closer to my house.
Stormy and her ducklings
Stormy, Waddles & the youngsters (plus one chicken) playing in a mud puddle near the creek
My favorite butterfly top!
New business logo!
Nikolai & Moosey (our farm dog)
Nature

The Challenge with Connection

Most people are shocked when I tell them that we don’t have access to internet out here. I must be honest; it was a learning curve for me as well when we first moved to our little farm. It’s not because we don’t want to pay for it, but rather because no working internet provider will bring it this far out of the way. Our town Facebook page is littered with posts about how the only satellite that provides internet is down time and time again.

The town grocery store puts up a sign asking people to pay in cash and Nikolai’s school has internet access issues too. When you live deep in the woods like we do, there’s no point in paying for something that rarely works. Large pines, poplars, and oak tree’s spread their limbs and reach to the heavens causing the signal to be disrupted. It’s almost as if nature is blocking the path for a reason.

The more I read the news and catch up with old friends on Facebook, the more thankful I become for the interruption. My ability to get into stupid debates when something rubs me the wrong way is limited to moments when out of nowhere my phone suddenly receives two bars of LTE. As soon as I’m invested in riveting conversation… the moment has passed and I’m unable to respond again. Instead, I use my phone as a paperweight. I listen to Audible, pull up pre-downloaded books on Kindle, or just leave it to charge while I spend the afternoon in my garden.

We don’t live “off grid” but I’ve come to enjoy my life being this way. When I want to upload a blog post and catch up with other writers, I must drive to the coffee shop to connect or wait until I need to go get something from one of the bigger towns nearby. I often pull up Facebook while I’m picking up feed for my animals. In other words, I schedule time to use the internet and my time is limited.

About six months ago a man came and knocked on my door to ask me if I wouldn’t mind putting my dogs up so he could access the powerlines. His bald head was a glossy glow in the morning light, and he had the kind of nose that was thick through the bridge but flat around the nostrils. He was doing research for an internet company who was determined to “bring knowledge and connection” to rural towns that are hard to reach. Apparently, there is a government contract for this kind of thing.

“Knowledge and connection.” I think towns like mine have more to teach the world about knowledge and connection than the millions of people who live in large cities and never look up from their phones. I’ve read articles that detail the problems that social media has caused on the mental health of billions of people. So much so, that humanity likes to boast about taking social media breaks (which I have done myself).  

One of my biggest accomplishments was the time I deleted all my social media apps from my phone for six months. I didn’t miss a single thing. I did, however, enjoy more phone calls from loved ones. They made my day burn brighter. Friends reached out with cellphone numbers so we could chat and there was far less confusion about the tone in which something was taken because it was a lot easier to clarify misunderstandings.

The gentlemen from the internet company asked me if I was excited at the possibility of getting internet. His brown eyes lit up with the prospect of gifting something of such great importance to most people. I attempted to smile.

“Not really!” I replied. His bushy salt and pepper eyebrows furrow at my response, so I elaborated.

“Why bother with that when I have all of this?” I reached my arms wide to gesture to our 11.2 acres.

He didn’t get it. My niece and nephew who live near Chicago didn’t get it either when they first came to visit. It took time for them to see the value in how we do things out here. I took them hiking on our farm, drove them to see an amazing waterfall, and took them to an empty field where they could learn to drive for the first time. The learning curve hit them harder than it did for me. Yet by the time they had to go home… they were wishing they had what we have here.

It all comes back to connection and real connection doesn’t come from a screen. It comes from immersing yourself into your environment. The feeling of your bare feet touching solid earth, seeing a creek turn into a waterfall, holding hands with the ones you love, and listening to the soothing voice of a friend. Salivating over an amazing meal and mentally stimulating your brain with conversation that bubbles over into laughter.

The internet can’t provide substance for you and knowing a lot about the world is meaningless without experience. People were social distancing long before Covid ever came into play, we all just got better at it. It’s a lot harder to handle the news when you’ve lost sight of things that have real value, and we can’t expect to change people’s points of view without first being able to connect with them.  

Upon returning home from our amazing family vacation and having the alone time to sit and reflect on everything I have learned… I continue to come back to the topic of connection. It doesn’t take living in the middle of nowhere to find it (though I truly believe that it helps prevent us from slipping into old habits). You can limit your time social distancing exactly where you are.

My hope in writing this is that these thoughts of mine will touch someone who is as exhausted as I am. That perhaps they will read what was on my heart and have a desire to take a leap into connection with me. Challenge yourself to put your phone down, to limit your internet access and use the extra quality time this week to read a book that shakes you. Grab a loved one and hike to somewhere you’ve never been. You don’t have to be in shape for it… Lord knows I’m not!   

If you’ve decided to commit to doing this with me… I want to read about it! Write me a comment to tell me what worked for you and what didn’t. You don’t have to make it an everyday thing, just circle one day a week on your calendar. If you can’t do a full day, try an hour or two. Contact some friends or family and see if they can’t meet up with you or give gardening a go. Most importantly of all… share how this challenge made you feel, not just with me but with others.

Nikolai standing in the rain on an empty mountain road. WiFi free, making connections
My usual work spot is in a quaint little place down the road from my farm but since Izzy is working today… I popped by to brighten her day and say hello.

Side note: I had originally planned on posting more about my incredible vacation today but in light of what happened with Canada loosing internet service… I felt this was a better fit for this week. I’ll post amazing images, videos, and stories next week instead. Hopefully I didn’t disappoint anyone!

Health and Wellness

Fragile Lemon

I knew it was a bad idea the moment I had agreed to it. The gravity of how unbelievably stupid I had been didn’t fully register until I was holding on for dear life, staring at my muck boots while watching the ground skate underneath my heals. I kept recalling all the times I walked by a mirror and was struck by the realization that I’m not as young or as thin as I once was. My age and poor judgment left me with a crippled right hand, a limp, and a trip to the emergency room.

As I was withering on the ground with pain sending shockwaves through my body, I wondered how I was going to explain what happened to my friends and family. I didn’t last more than a handful of seconds before going bottoms up and mooning the evening sun. I tried to do a mental inventory of my extremities, but I had already assessed that something felt broken. Perhaps multiple things and there was no way I was going to be able to write for a while.

One moment I was screaming and the next moment I was uncontrollably laughing at the absurdity of the accident. My husband looked at me in horror. Blood was pouring down my hand, running over my arm, and dripping off my elbow. He doesn’t do blood. He handles it well because he was a soldier, but the sight of blood makes him sick to his stomach and causes his head to feel woozy.

“I’ve never seen someone get so injured going under five miles per hour. Why didn’t you hold on better?”

“ME? Why did YOU speed up?”

“Well, we’re not exactly tiny people Lish. I had to build up momentum!”

“Yet I was begging you to stop! I think I broke something. No, I KNOW that I broke something.”

He helped me limp my way to the house by slinging my arm around his shoulder and we left that stupid minibike where it fell. If I didn’t need one good leg to stand on, I would have kicked it out of spite as we were hobbling by. I had spent all day gardening. I was sunburnt, exhausted, and possibly a little heat sick. That’s the only reason why I recalled agreeing to his request. That and my desire for a little excitement. The walk up our driveway had looked especially daunting and the thought of a cool breeze getting tangled in my red hair sounded magnificent.

“Want a ride to the house?” he asked

“It’ll be fun! Come on… live a little. You won’t have to walk!”

“You’ll be fine!”

It looked like a bad idea. I said as much but he’s always good at talking me into stepping outside my comfort zone. Yet a conversation I had with Izzy just a week or two before didn’t resurface until after the accident. Rob had attempted to convince her to ride on the back of that stupid minibike too. She came into my bedroom laughing about how ridiculous someone would have to be to take him up on it. She talked about how there was no way they both would fit because there was barely enough room for one adult person. That’s when I told her that saying “No” was probably the smartest decision she had made that day. Yet somehow, I had forgotten to say no.

“Eighteen years babe. You should know by now not to listen to my bright ideas.”

I snorted, laughed, and then admitted that he wasn’t wrong.

Two broken fingers in my right hand, tons of bruising on my side, a possible fracture to my right kneecap, and I had obtained some wicked road rash on my palm and knee as well. I almost needed surgery and I had to re-learn how to do things. I still have months of physical therapy to tackle in order to get my middle finger to bend correctly. What’s interesting is that this isn’t even the first time that I’ve broken the exact same middle finger.

I can no longer make a fist without flicking people off which to be honest… may have come in handy a time or two. Yet I didn’t grasp just how messed up I was until the night after the accident when it took over two hours to open the bottle of painkillers that the doctor had prescribed me. Or the almost three hours it took me to accomplish farm chores the next morning (not including all the regular housework I had to do later in the day). Hauling feed, tossing hay, washing dishes, opening packages were only a few of the things I began to dread doing.

While contemplating the state of my existence and waiting in line to order my favorite drink from our local coffee shop… the barista asked me what had happened to my bandaged hand. I laughed nervously, trying to decide if I should add the fact that I injured myself on a mini dirt bike or if I should go ahead and leave that part out to make myself sound cooler. In the end, I relayed the truth of it and had her grinning. Then with a mischievous spark in her eyes, she said something that profoundly changed the way I saw myself… curvy body and all.

“Yeah… but at least you got on!”

At least I got on. I stepped outside my comfort zone. I tried something extremely stupid. I failed, but I got back up and I had been physically and mentally open to doing something spontaneous. As my husband had slung my arm around his neck to help me limp back to the house, he beamed at me and shook his head.  

With a chuckle in his throat, he said “Think of it this way my fragile lemon… you have a good story to write about.”

He wasn’t wrong.

Taken with my “good camera” of one of the ducklings on our farm a couple years back.
A cellphone picture I took of Nikolai and his cousins playing with our baby ducklings in our kitchen sink.
Animals

Written For Me

“Do you know what you need? You need a service dog.” 

That was how my husband proposed the idea after I began battling with severe vertigo and had passed out a few times. I had seen several doctors but we still didn’t have an explanation for the new bizarre symptoms that were honestly ruining my life. That wasn’t even my only health issue. I also had been spiking chronic low-grade fevers. I had issues with a butterfly rash across my face, joint pain, exhaustion, a stomach disorder, a kidney disease, blood pressure problems that I had never dealt with before, and ocular migraines where I would suddenly lose my vision.  

I couldn’t figure out how to handle everything or where to go next. My quality of life was greatly diminished and the issues with my body would easily wreck the kind of havoc that made every-day tasks nearly impossible… especially when things hit me at once. I could go a couple of weeks feeling amazing when out of left field I would be knocked on my behind for a month or two… or longer. I once lost my vision while I was in the middle of driving. I never saw the semi that was barreling down the highway towards my car. It happened so fast that Nikolai and I were almost taken out of this life for good. Something had to change. Anything! I was desperate.

Still… a service dog? Dogs like that are expensive right? Was I “sick enough” to have one? What did “sick enough” even mean? Was there a person behind the scenes who would qualify sick people for service dogs? What would people think of me for having to rely on a dog to make me a more functional person? The questions swirled around in my brain until it made me feel that much worse. I decided to do the only thing that make sense to me… I sat at a booth hunched over my keyboard inside our local coffee shop and I googled the heck out of it.

I learned that the only one who could approve my service dog request was my physician. I also came to the realization that people used service dogs to do all kinds of things, from helping with PTSD, to managing anxiety, and other health problems as well. Yet the biggest thing I discovered was that I was over qualified.

Incapable of preforming daily tasks due to a disability or illness?  

Check.  

Hospital visits that are frequent?  

Check.  

Official diagnoses on my medical records?  

Check. Check. Check. Check. Check! 

I read that owning and training your own dog with the help of a professional trainer was the fastest way to obtain such an animal. Otherwise, you might be sitting on a wait list for a couple of years or more. It takes a minimum of two years to train a service dog and you need to be committed to the endeavor or you both will fail. It’s one of the hardest (and most rewarding) things that you’ll ever do. Finding the right kind of dog would be a whole other mountain to hike. Temperament testing the dog’s personality for service dog traits and willingness to learn was just the beginning. Even that wouldn’t guarantee success. Dogs have a high rate of flunking out of service work.

Most people don’t have family who raise purebreds at their disposal. Most don’t have an army of people in their corner who have physically seen them suffer over the years either. I was blessed enough to have both. My grandparents had been raising Rough Coat Collies for well over fifty years. They came from a long line of calm, quiet, and gentle dogs. On top of that, my grandmother’s adopted daughter Isabell had worked for a neighbor who raised search and rescue German Shepherds, police dogs, and yes… even service dogs!

My mind was made up. I needed a service dog and with my doctor’s approval in hand… I knew exactly where to get one. I picked up my cellphone and called my grandmother. From that moment on, my life was forever changed by the most amazing dog my family and I have ever known. The events of her birth and that of her siblings are of such epic proportions that you almost had to be there to believe it.  

“I’m not positive, but in my gut, I think that Bambi is pregnant!” 

“How do you know Grandma?!” 

“Well, I don’t know for sure… but I feel it.” 

A week before easter my grandmother had felt that Bambi (Isabell’s German Shepherd) had been filling out her naturally lean frame. Bambi had connected multiple times with my grandfather’s dog Sampson, which was within itself rather miraculous. You see, Sampson was an old man for a purebred Collie. Even though my grandfather had passed away years earlier… Sampson (who was the last generations of purebred collies on my grandparent’s farm), was still very much alive.

We had wanted and loved these puppies before they were born. It was the end of an era for my grandparents but the beginning of an era for me because one of the babies was going to be my service dog. I spent many nights lying awake and praying for a pregnancy to take place. Begging God to provide the kind of dog who would help me become a more functional person for my family. It wasn’t a cure, but I needed to be more confident in my abilities to manage my household and health on my own while my husband was away for work.

The day before easter I was sprawled out in bed with my husband by my side and my 6-year-old son’s foot in my face. Nikolai had crawled into bed with us and spent the night kicking me in the head. It was a beautiful Saturday, there was a periwinkle hue over the mountain peaks and the fireball in the sky was just beginning to show off. It was going to be a lovely, relaxing weekend… until my phone rang.

“You’re aren’t going to believe this! You just aren’t going to believe it!” My grandmother’s voice was lively and animated. 

I yawned, stretched my legs out before me and mumbled sleepily “What time is it? Why are you up so early?”

“SHE DID IT! WE HAVE PUPPIES!” 

I flew to a fully awake sitting position among piles of blankets and maneuvered the limbs of my family away from me. “What do you mean? How?! Last week you weren’t even sure if she was pregnant and now, we have puppies? WE HAVE PUPPIES!” 

I squealed and my body shook with excitement “I HAVE A SERVICE DOG IN TRAINING!!” 

Had I stuck to the typical service dog rules… it may have made my life easier. Rules such as, “not choosing a puppy until you have them professionally evaluated first” are important to a higher success rate. My wonderful trainer lived in Georgia with me and these puppies were located in Arizona with my family. I decided to trust God and do my best to evaluate them myself through facetime. I don’t recommend doing what I did, but if I had done things any differently… than this would be a different story. Tallulah wasn’t the right dog but she was right for me.

Bambi had her babies in a field, choosing to hide them rather than be cozy and warm inside the house. My mom and my grandmother saw blood and found a hole that she dug to hide them in. The first two (and the oldest) puppies never made it into the foxhole. Their bodies were discovered lifeless several feet away. My mom ran her hands over them, rubbing the puppies with all her might. She breathed life into their mouths and gave them CPR to revive them.

One of the two puppies yelped and began rooting but struggled to latch or eat. The other laid limply underneath my mother’s hands. She called me with tears pouring down her face and I listened to her voice quiver as she whispered a prayer over the tiny animal’s body. Hours went by and she continued begging the fellow to live until his body became cold to the touch, stiff, and ridged. There were no more soft sounds from a beating heart. No shallow breaths being taken. He was gently set aside in the dumpster behind the house so that the other dogs couldn’t take him away before she had a chance to bury him. She devoted the rest of her time to encouraging the puppy who didn’t want to eat, to nurse.

Tallulah was found with one of her brothers in the hole her mom dug out of the earth to save them. The moment I saw her picture on my cellphone… I knew that she was mine. It was as if God took the extra time to write my name on her. She was the only puppy born with a large black letter “L” marking on her back… a characteristic trait that she eventually grew out of. Yet she had been written into existence especially for me. Her marking was a beacon of light within the whirlwind of darkness that my health had plunged me into once again.

After a long day, my exhausted mother had to dispose of the dirty towels and blankets from Bambi’s birthing room and move them into the dumpster. She had helped Bambi’s babies to nurse and even delivered a few more puppies along the way. The sky was fading from blue to silver and the stars were making a dashing appearance of their own. It was almost time to bury the body of the first born. The closer she got to the trash can the louder a scuffle from within became. Twelve or more hours had passed and there had been no sign of life or a will to live. Yet she lifted the lid and there he was! A living, breathing, wiggling miracle searching for his mother. That’s how “Lazarus” changed my mom’s life. A puppy that was completely dead came back to life with nothing more than faith and a prayer… the day before Easter.

My own prayed for puppy, has rescued my life countless times. She has warned me when it wasn’t safe for me to be driving. She has told me when my blood pressure became dangerously high. She helped chase an intruder out of my house and away from my son. She’s watched over my baby as if he were her own. I’ve seen her soothe Nikolai on sick days, and giggled to myself over the joy of her bubblegum pink tongue kissing away his sadness until laughter was all he had left. She has put herself between me and those she didn’t trust on multiple occasions and I’ve learned that she’s the best judge of character that I have ever meet.

There were moments within this amazing first year together when I thought that she wouldn’t make it as a service dog. We have been through trials that I never saw coming. Yet between my wonderful trainer’s advice (thank you Sharon!) and Tallulah’s desire to learn, my relationship with this incredible dog has only strengthened. She has saved me again and again. I owe her my life.

If you enjoyed this post about Tallulah, I have written other posts about her as well that you may want to check out! You can find those posts here, here, and here!

Health and Wellness

Discarded Fear

I sat on the dock with my feet dangling over the edge. Wisps of my red hair that had mixed with the salty sweat on my forehead and neck had practically glued themselves to my skin. I tried to pry them away by piling the mass of flames onto the top of my crown to cool myself but they just kept tumbling back down again. I felt sticky and it made the humidity that much more unbearable. Maybe that’s why the idea popped into my head in the first place. A combination between the wicked Tennessee heat wave I had been enduring and the stress that war had brought into my life.   

Fear constantly played in the background of my mind like static taking over a good song on the radio. Somehow the events of the day had subdued it for the time being. It was as if someone turned down the volume just long enough to quiet my insecurities so I could enjoy myself for a spell. The worry that my husband might not make it home was still there, it just played a little softer. My irrational fear of deep dark water was still there too. The fact that I never really got the hang of swimming any more than I could flail my arms during a doggie paddle. A graceful swan dive wasn’t within my skill set so it probably wasn’t the best idea. I also never really got over that weird self-conscious feeling whenever I was forced to undress in the girl’s locker room.

Hush.  

Hush.  

Hush.  

I swirled my toes around the murky darkness at the edge of the bank. It was a fear facing kind of night. The stars danced on the water like fireflies in the middle of summer. The moon shattered into pieces of light over the lake and three of my favorite girlfriends gathered around me. We laughed together after a full day of trail riding horses and eating buttered popcorn for dinner. We smelled like manure and bug spray which made me happy even though in the back of my mind I knew that somewhere in Afghanistan my husband was probably running from mortars. Every day without him was a struggle. I thought a lot about death in between the moments of living my life and I needed an escape.

I was the girl that never really took risks- unlike my husband who pulled me out of my comfort zone whenever he had the opportunity to do so. Mid-twenties at the time and I had never been drunk (I still haven’t). I had never so much as considered trying drugs, and I certainly never put a cigarette to my lips. I was proud of that (I still am), but I wanted to know what freedom felt like. To not be so wrapped up in worry that it prevented me from actually living my life. To all my church friends I was the “bad girl” who made inappropriate sex jokes because I grew up in Chicago. I thought they were funny… they didn’t. Yet to all of my non-Christian friends, I was the religious kill-joy who played it safe and ruined their fun.

All of those things encompassed who I was to some degree or another and yet none of them expressed me at all. There was a whole other version of me that very few got to know. Sure, I was uptight at times. Yet my soul had been searching for the kind of freedom that came with letting go of what was expected of me and finally doing the things that made me happy. I needed liberation from the prison I had built within myself. I looked at the water rippling below me and I couldn’t shake how good it might feel to be fully submerged. To quench the heat of the day. To put a stop to thinking endlessly about what could go wrong and just enjoy everything that could go right.

The tree frogs serenaded one another and the crickets joined in harmony. My friends and I talked about our lives. We cried over things we had never spoken out loud before. We howled over shared memories that had long-since passed and the mood of the night unchained me, link by link. The background noise in my head sounded a lot more like my husband’s voice of reason and his endless support.

“We should go swimming.” Did I say that out loud?  

“We don’t have enough swimsuits.” My blonde friend replied pouting with disappointment.

“Do we really need them?” I pondered.  

“You mean like… skinny dipping?” My brunette friend giggled.  

“Why not?” My heart was racing as I said it.   

How deep was the lake again? I couldn’t remember. Could my feet touch the bottom? Doubtful. Weren’t there fish in there? Probably.   

Snakes? Most definitely.   

It was too late to take it back; a pact of trust had been made. All four of us left piles of discarded clothing on the landing. I pulled the hair tie from my tresses and curled my toes around the edge of the pier. My stomach lurched and goosebumps sent a shiver over my spine but the rest of me was still. My bare-bottom faced the woods but I was locked on the rippling reflection of the sky beneath me. I took in several gulps of air, squeezed my eyes shut, and squealed before launching myself into the milky way.   

Twisted red locks suspended like a halo and my heart paused for a moment. I left everything I had been afraid of behind me with the heap of laundry that I didn’t need. Within that moment I was the brave one. Within that moment, I could do anything I set my mind to and I could do it on my own. The lake kissed my flesh with ice water as I plunged below the surface. It was a shock to my mind. I was swimming naked in an inland with no bottom while facing some of my biggest fears. My soul had never tasted such joy… right up until my foot touched something slimy.

My pale legs danced beneath me and parted water to keep me afloat. I imagined that I looked something like a gladiator or a goddess because that’s how I felt. To everyone else I probably looked like a fish slapping its fins against the shore and begging to be released… but it didn’t matter. A whippoorwill cried out from the darkness like my soul had been reaching towards the light.

I didn’t need anyone to help me get there. No hand holding was required as I stood at the edge of the pier. I did that all on my own. There’s a sense of empowerment when you tackle things you didn’t originally feel comfortable doing. You become washed in pride over having proved to yourself that you could do the unthinkable. A caged bird no longer, fear facing nights are the kind of nights that set you free.  

So tell me, what fears have you faced and how did coming to terms with those fears help you? 

An old image of me before I had my son
Back when I was a lot skinnier 😉
farm life

Unconditional

I have recently started writing as a ghost writer for a wedding photography business. The endeavor has kept the topic of marriage on my brain throughout the week. The other night my husband slipped into Walmart to grab a few things for our house and came out bearing a planter full of violet calla lilies, tulips, and a slew of bulbs to add to my garden. After a stressful January, Rob (my husband) decided it was exactly what I needed to start my February off correctly. His superhero-like ability to recognize my needs before I’ve gotten a moment to recognize them myself, has had a profound impact on our relationship.

The man is more than just my partner, he’s my caregiver, the supporter of my dreams, my cheerleader, the brilliant father of our son, and the man who gets things done. He’s held my hair back while I’ve thrown up, helped me bathe when I couldn’t do it by myself, and I’ve witnessed him pleading with God to save my life. He’s taken our son fishing to give me time to rejuvenate even after working himself to death. He’s accompanied me to more hospital and doctor appointments than I care to admit, and is the hardest working person I’ve ever known. He continually fills the cups of others before he fills his own.

In the middle of a war zone with bombs going off, my husband was sitting in a bunker writing english essays and solving complicated math equations to send to his collage professors. He worked out at the gym on base, yet still managed to call me twice a day while witnessing things most people only see in their nightmares. He graduated with two associate degrees, and a bachelor’s degree in technical managment and engneering. Before we were forced to move (in order to be closer to my team of doctors)… he was just 6 classes shy of graduating with a second bachelor’s degree in electrical engneering. I am forever proud of all that he has accomplished and all that he does for the future of our family.

In the six years that he spent serving our country he made a career out of fixing Apache helicopters. His first job after leaving the service entailed working as a civilain contractor on other types of helicopters as well. More specifically, his original job title was to work on electrical system repairs. However, since he fought in a line unit on the boarder of Pakistan and Afghanistan… he was able to become certified as a civilian to work on mechanical system repairs as well (this is not an easy task to achieve in the world of aviation). This qualified him to work on helicopters, airplanes, and jet turbine engines. He knows how to strip a bird down to the bare bones, rewire it, and put the parts back together again without assistance. He later went on to work for several life-flight companies (which is what he does today).

My husband and I meet my freshmen year of high school (a story that I can’t wait to tell at a later date). We got married in South Korea at his first duty station as a United States soldier. I was eighteen years young when we signed our marriage cirtificate at the embassy and he was just ninteen years old himself. Everyone we knew thought we were crazy. Both friends and family struggled to talk us out of it, but we never waivered. Throughout our marriage we struggled to overcome almost every crisis a relationship could possibly go through. Not because of our age, but because life threw a lot at us all at one time.

We once told our story to a marriage counselor who sat back in her large brown leather recliner to gawk at us. She stayed that way for several moments, eyes wide in disbelief before exclaiming- “Most marriages don’t survive ONE of the events you two have been through, let-alone ALL of them. The fact that you are still together is… beyond impressive.” It could have been taken as an insult but we chose to take it as a compliment.

That wasn’t the first marriage counselor we went to see over the years, or the last. Yet somehow we woke up every day and chose to love one another through our trials. We chose love despite days when warm fuzzy feelings were nowhere to be found. We chose love after seeing the ugliest side of each other and the ugliest parts of ourselves. We chose forgivness over mistakes we both made along the way and we grew stronger for it.

“I chose to be with you because you are my best friend and I didn’t want anyone else.” My husband replied with a wicked grin “Plus, you’re really hot.” I laughed at his remark and shook my head.

We’ve been married now for seventeen years, spent eighteen years of our lives together, and have been best friends for more than twenty years. We’ve been with each other longer than we have lived without one another. We are able to look across a room full of people and understand without words what the other needs and is thinking. Somedays the decision to choose love is an easy one, other times it becomes far more challenging.

There have been situations where one of us ended up working harder on our marriage than the other. Yet, the hard work that was poured into our relationship is what carried both of us through challenging times. Whatever trials we face, we are in this thing together. When we got married we had no idea what was to come. We were two babies full of promise and hope for the future. Despite serious obstacles like near death experiences, PTSD, financial crises, serious health problems, alcoholism, and so much more… our ability to choose love has only strengthened.

My marriage is living proof that when two people decide to put one another first, you can achieve a love that is unconditional. I promise that you read that correctly. No, it’s not a fairytale. That doesn’t mean you don’t get angry or struggle to get through horrible events. It doesn’t require one spouse to be a punching bag for the other spouse either. Love isn’t the warm fuzzy feelings people get when everything is going well. Love is a choice that both parties commit to making, simultaneously. That’s the real secret to a successful marriage.

My husband and I. Images by my amazing friend Chris Hansen, taken long after we were married in Korea
The two of us on our horses
Health and Wellness

The Value in Being Validated

I am no stranger to doctor appointments or hospital visits. My favorite primary care physician once told me that my medical records were so interesting that he took them to bed with him as reading material. I laughed and told him that interesting wasn’t the word I’d use to describe them. I’m thirty five years old but before my twenty fifth birthday I had already had several close calls with death. I’ve seen more specialists in the past seventeen years than most people see in a lifetime. Yet if you had asked what the hardest part about being sick has been for me… I would have told you that it was going through the motions unheard.

I would spend weeks or months counting down the days until my next big doctor appointment. I would carefully make a list of talking points, plan out what I was going to wear, and even decide what kind of makeup to use… all because my life depended on it. Within the few minutes of meeting a new doctor and going over my case with them I could tell whether or not they were going to write me off. If I looked too pretty I was labeled as having psychological issues instead of physical ones. If I wasn’t put together enough, I was (in their mind) a possible drug seeker. If I looked too young… I was a healthy woman physically but a hypochondriac, or a woman who had severe anxiety problems and a nervous stomach.

If the doctor chose within those first five minutes to write me off, then the process of finding someone else and having to wait for an appointment time would start all over again. It would pull me back into the cycle of trying (and failing) to manage symptoms on my own over and over again. I would pin all of my hopes on receiving a diagnosis or finding a doctor who would take a moment to hear me out. Someone that could possibly provide me with the knowledge and power to change my life for the better. Yet when those hopes were dashed… I wanted to claw my way under the silver and white comforter on my bed and stay there.

To say that my quality of life was significantly diminished would have been an understatement. At one point I weighed sixty four pounds… total. I knew if I didn’t fix it, I was going to die. While trying to figure out why I couldn’t hold food down, my doctors discovered by accident that I had a kidney disease. From vomiting, to severe weight loss (then later rapid weight gain), to random fevers, OBGYN trouble, unusual swelling in my limbs, heart and blood pressure issues, to kidney trouble, vertigo, unconsciousness and beyond. Every day of my life was a challenge (and still is).

I can count the doctors I credit for giving me hope again on one hand. Not a diagnosis. Just the ability to have hope that someone was willing to fight for me. When compared with the money spent seeing hundreds of doctors throughout my life… it’s a tragedy. All they had to do to be counted was to take the time to listen. I had more respect for the OBGYN who tried to think outside the box than I did for the OBGYN who brushed off my suffering and told me to only come back and see her when I had my yearly physical exams.

Upon being sent to a cardiologist recently, I sat in the waiting room with one foot out the exit. Having experienced things like severe high blood pressure, unconsciousness, heart palpitations, forgetfulness, feeling jittery, and my hands shaking uncontrollably… my husband pushed me to be seen by a specialist. My husband was afraid that I would have a stroke, but I was afraid that it would end up being another useless endeavor.

This time will be just like all the others” I told myself as I tapped my foot impatiently. I was so sure of it.

I felt that it would be a total waste of time and that our money was better spent elsewhere. Another long battle to find the right doctor to figure out how best to fix me (with medication) or to help me learn to live with my new symptoms. When I was finally ushered into an exam room, I started answering questions being fired at me by the nurse. Ten or fifteen minutes went by after she had left, a short elderly gentlemen entered. He announced that he was my doctor but I only felt relieved because I couldn’t wait to get the whole thing over with. He started off by asking me if I still had fevers. I’d been struggling with them again for several days.

How did he know about that?” I wondered thoughtfully.

He went into great detail about reading my medical history all the way through my time spent at Mayo Clinic many years ago. I began to feel impressed, most physicians wouldn’t take the time to get that far. He went over my kidney disease, my stomach illness, and even read the report that had my autoimmune specialist puzzled. I discussed being a wife and a mother while trying to find balance with my health. I talked about having a small farm, and struggling to accomplish daily tasks. I revisited times when I had left a shopping cart full of groceries sitting inside a store so I could return home quickly in order to rest. I didn’t have to say anything he didn’t already know, but he listened anyway.

When we got done discussing my case, he looked me in the eyes, touched my hand and said “I can’t fix everything, but I think I can help you.”

My eyes overflowed with emotion, fat drops stormed down my cheeks. I sobbed and asked him if I could hug him before wrapping my arms around his shoulders. After we discussed testing, treatments, and follow-up appointments, he bowed his head and prayed with me. Before I left he said I seemed like a kind woman who just wanted her life back. His words planted seeds of hope not because he knew what was wrong with me, but because he spent time listening. He made me feel safe and he validated my concerns. I walked out of his office feeling like I didn’t have to carry my burden alone anymore. Someone was on my team.

You don’t have to be a doctor to validate someone. You just have to be the kind of friend who listens. It takes such little effort on our part to change someone’s life by letting them know that they are being heard. To remind them that they have someone on their team. We get so wrapped up in our own lives that we forget to nurture others. Just the other day I caught myself making this grave mistake while I was talking to my mom and I had to correct myself. The true value in being validated is that burdens become lighter when they’re shared. If you really want to see someone bloom… take the time to listen and plant seeds of validation.

Roses from my garden
Some of my favorite garden blooms
Helping others bloom will add to the joy in your life