These Things, For Certain

“Grief is love’s souvenir. It’s our proof that we once loved. Grief is the receipt we wave in the air that says to the world: Look! Love was once mine. I love well. Here is my proof that I paid the price.” – Glennon Doyle Melton

I was working in NYC full-time at a literary agency when my father died. I know in the months leading up to that winter I had tried writing stories about him, willing one to be good enough, for me or you or him, I’m not sure. I remember one of my first thoughts though, sitting on the subway about forty minutes after having received the call, being something about knowing my first set of certain things. He’ll never walk me down the aisle, we won’t have that dance, his name never again on my cell screen. I even – heartbreakingly – left him a voicemail on my birthday 24 days after he passed.

I was just a few months out of college – a time when life was endless in its what-ifs. Possibilities were everywhere, the sky the limit. But suddenly, these things. Written in stone beneath the shady canopy of a towering tree in my hometown, his name. My hand on his grave is every word I’d wished I’d said, every moment I’d wished he’d been there for.

The day after the funeral we crossed the George Washington bridge with my father’s dog seated on my lap. Our apartment didn’t allow for dogs. We called our landlord and said it’s all of us or none of us.

***

Chris and I don’t verbalize the way of our faith to one another. We live it, everyday. This past Saturday morning I stood in the laundry room at the cattle ranch where I work and prayed that He’d take our sweet, mischievous, large-hearted Murphy if he was ready to go. On Sunday morning He answered.

It’s been nearly four years since my heart hurt this deep, like not being able to swallow a rock lodged in your throat, your heart swollen with grief and drowning in tears. The grieving process is a black smoke that wafts about in the air, stopping your breath when it hits you, leaving bruises on your legs from your own raging fists. It is all the things that make this life seemingly unbearable.

Chris and I spent the night laughing at Murphy videos on our couch with our lab sprawled on the floor below us. We are the survivors of everyday life. And tonight, longing to kiss his furry head once more, we are certain of these things: The pearly gates to Heaven are indeed pee-stained. The sound of home is that of pitter-pattering paws. The volume of love is that of a running faucet.

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A grocery store ad and 11 years later. Rest easy in the big sky above, my beautiful boy.

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Murphy in our Queens, NY apartment

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“My own house in Montana? No more leashes?”

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Miles of trails at Murphy pace

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Heaven & Earth, our Last Best Place

Spring Cleaning, Wedding Dreaming

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” ― Henry David Thoreau

Just the other day, Chris and I loaded up the dogs in the truck bed and headed up to the cattle ranch where I work to hike its drylands and bottle feed a sweet baby calf. We nearly gasped driving up the dirt road at the aching beauty Montana bestows upon us in spring – so brilliant that you literally swoon over everything, like you’re some sorry lump of prey dropped from the talons of some lofty-winged bird, escaping with no broken limbs. Spring in Montana says you’re free again. One day is truly enough to forget a whole winter.

We did as we planned this past weekend – burned all of our winter rubbish in one smokey stack behind our home, filling the air with wispy designs like that of a morning tea. Our property was buzzing with the sound of our chainsaw and sudden thumps of wood being chopped. The grass is growing by the second between our intermittent rain and sun and all at once we are starting to daydream and ready for our home wedding this June. In the next few weeks that’ll mean: dragging the horse pastures and reseeding, finding room in our budget for a new front door, burning our ditch (an annual Bitterroot event), more barn building parties, building a new fire pit, and picking up a few loads of gravel to fill in the bare spots in our driveway.

Wedding plans aside, we’ll make time for saddling up our girls and getting them out on the trails (FINALLY)! We’ll hike with the dogs to the places we’ve suggested to our families and friends and I’ll post about their undeniable beauty. It’s funny, being surrounded – or in this case with spring finally here – being engulfed by nature, has a way of making you focus on the things that matter most, like being together with the ones you love and working hard.

It’s odd to remember ourselves in the concrete jungle, seeing each other for only a few hours a day, not being able to make anything our own and paying out the nose for all of it, feeling like another lifetime ago. But all in all, if we’re learning from where we’ve been, I’m infinitely thankful for our beginnings. It takes the rain to appreciate the sun, the winters to happily sob over the springs, the city streets to appreciate the dirt beneath my feet.

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Looking West

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Fiona, finding a way to the goats’ molasses mix.

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Today’s project: tidying up the vegetable and flower gardens.

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Our sweet, mischievous boy, Willoughby.

Raise Them Up: Barn Building

 

“Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me… Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.” ― Shel Silverstein

Part of the backbreaking beauty of being young property owners is not hiring anyone for anything. Well, sorta. We didn’t know just how many projects we had actually dreamed up until we were knee deep in all of them. One of them – the biggest one – being our barn. It’ll be a pole barn with no walls for our June wedding and a finished horse barn months later. Like everything else we’ve built, it was a matter of fact – we need this and it’s seemingly impossible to hire someone to do it so…let’s do it ourselves.

It started out as a 28X41 staked outline last fall, four lines of white string in a large rectangle at the northwest corner of our farm. Up until this past Saturday it was just nine posts in the ground, 13 footers and 9 footers, all hand-dug and set by Chris alone. Saturday we had our barn-raising party, which consisted of burritos, teamwork, celebration and cinnamon rolls. Chris, his friend Pat, my friend Julie, and I lifted three 200-pound beams one at a time and locked them into what are called mortise and tenon joints that Chris had spent weeks chiseling beforehand. The result? It worked. What was supposed to be hours of labor turned into a forty-minute completion!

Moments like this – when we’re standing on hay bales and laughing because everything went better than we imagined – are near miraculous. You can’t help but brim with happiness. Yes, things went right! But also, because you’ve satisfied the child in yourself. You haven’t abandon it in your adulthood. I’m still playing horses in the front yard and Chris is still playing legos or Lincoln Logs, just, ya know, bigger. Neither one of us will tell the other that we can’t, so we can.

In other news, spring weather is filling all the hard-to-get-to places in me and our home. I even opened the windows today. Since the barn took so little time, we took to the yard with rakes and finished the roof on our horse shelter addition. The burn pile is large and wiry with loose hay and fallen branches from a long winter. This weekend I will torch it and watch it burn the remains of a hellish winter. Its billowing smoke will say, we’re still here – we survived! 

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Right wing taking shape.

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SUCCESS!

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Spring cleaning, readying the burn pile.

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Holding Peckerina, Timber keeping a careful eye on the situation.

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Each hen needed to lay after I cleaned the coop.

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I spy…tulips!

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Despite spring, still chopping wood for warmth.

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Our photogenic Steve. Those eyes.

Lions & Lambs: March in Montana

“Kid, you’ll move mountains.” – Dr. Seuss

It feels good to be back at the keyboard after somewhat of a hiatus. Spring, despite the current snowfall, has arrived! Surrounding pastures are peppered with the beautiful black lumps of newborn calves, birds are chirping, farmers are plowing their fields. The air smells of dirt and manure and it’s absolute bliss. The days are a mix of sun, wind, snow, and rain. It’s twenty in the morning and fifty in the afternoon. It’s every season every day for probably the rest of the month. It’s all lions and lambs and not telling which came first or who will be last.

Chris and I are elated to be back outside taking care of our yard, finishing up fall projects and finally, finally getting ahead of the animals. For a while it felt like they were ruling over us. The goats were climbing the wood stacks, jumping off the chicken coop, using our front porch as their gymnasium. Our shunned chicken was living in our horse trailer because the fox was lurking around our house every night. It was chaos. Today, the chickens have made amends and live peacefully in their coop, together. The goats have their own designated area that opens up into the horse pasture, adding a whole new level of entertainment to their daily shenanigans.

I’ve been taking the dogs on hikes and the horses to the arena. Chris is at work on our barn for our June wedding. He amazes me with his knowhow and determination. This weekend we are having a barn-raising party, like how folks did way back when. We are getting our burn permit so we can torch our raked leaves and hay and kiss the mess of winter goodbye.

There is so much to look forward to in the coming weeks – more horseback riding, horses shedding their winter coats, muddy paws in and out of the house, spring cleaning continued. And maybe, though I don’t necessarily hope for it, maybe getting to bottle feed another calf whose mother chose the stronger twin. Nature isn’t forgiving but she sure is beautiful when she comes by way of thick eyelashes and a black velvety coat and tiny hooves.

Something inside me has come alive again. Like a bear emerging from her den, stepping out into the light.

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Chris using his new router. Notice the need for two hands! Thing is a beast.

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Timber & Steve snuggling on a 50 degree day

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Our breakfast nook. A project I took on once I was too sore to keep raking outside.

Last Hurrah, We Hope

“’I like the mountains because they make me feel small,’ Jeff says. ‘They help me sort out what’s important in life.’” – Mark Obmascik

It is cold today, and the moisture of another storm somewhere beyond the Bitterroot Mountains is rolling over their peaks and settling down in our valley. These mountains look mean in the winter. They’re the ones that make you imagine yourself lost in their abyss and shutter at the bitter cold they hide in their layers of blue and white. I can hardly bring myself to think of them in this wintery way any longer this season because I’m here on the valley floor, clinging to a blade of dead grass, wishing it to come alive. 

Montana has a way of making you feel…less significant. When people say that must have been a huge culture shock about us moving from New York, I wish I could better illustrate what the shift really is. It’s not culture. I can find that in Missoula or by attending community gatherings, which there are many. It’s an internal shift, really. To me, New York City-where we moved from-is a manmade masterpiece. Every square inch of it is not as it was before man, for better or worse. Man is top of the food chain, King and Queen, ruler of the roost.

Montana, though, is wild. At dinner last night I asked Chris, didn’t you feel like we were walking through the movie Jurassic Park when we last visited Glacier?  He laughed, of course, but agreed. This place is bigger than ourselves. Our instincts are alive as we sit in Mother Nature’s palm. It leaves us praying for things like rain and snow and now, spring.

Only patches of snow survive today. The ground is a prickly caramel-colored carpet and the air smells of dirt and cows. It is heaven. Just a few days ago we reintroduced the horses to their extended pasture, aka their playground. A small, very, very small part of me will miss their fuzzy coats against the bright white of winter.

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Horse Sense: A Trip To Buck

“Discipline isn’t a dirty word. Far from it. Discipline is the one thing that separates us from chaos and anarchy. Discipline implies timing. It’s the precursor to good behavior, and it never comes from bad behavior. People who associate discipline with punishment are wrong: with discipline, punishment is unnecessary.” – Buck Brannaman

Some girls talk to their hairdressers about life. Cowgirls talk to their farriers. We’ll joke about these things: how people have babies without having animals, how we get snarled at for treating people the way we treat our horses, about how the world would probably be a better place if everyone was a true horseman.

All joking aside, there are rich truths to these things. We’ve seen them arise in our own families and we shake our heads, not because we know it all but because we might know a better way – the way our horses have shown us. We’re not ones for nonsense, because the horse isn’t either. The only true way to teach a horse anything is to work with their nature and understand how they think. One of my most loved qualities about a horse is their ability to hold you accountable for your actions. If you’re mean, they will be fearful. If you lack the ability to be firm, they might kill you. They are mirrors of their owners, and in (more) truth, I don’t think the majority of this world could handle that – staring at oneself and seeing who they truly are.

Buck Brannaman came to Bozeman at a perfect time, first because my young horse, Lucy, has recently served me challenges I don’t exactly know how best to overcome. I needed his words and actions to help me navigate these obstacles that are sure to be ahead for she and I. Second, because I look to horses to better navigate through my own life. Why is that one trembling, why is this one angry, why is that one so calm. Which horse am I? Life, and horses, are easier to understand when I can see versions of myself and my horses in others. What worked, what didn’t, what can I take from this? Horsemanship has no graduation. It’s a wave of learning, ever rolling in.

While our Bozeman weekend was filled with lots of great horsemanship inspiration, it was a much needed getaway for Chris and I, too. We don’t have human babies but our ten animals keep us pretty busy, picking up toys and throw up and cleaning and feeding until we’re blue in the face. It’s a lifestyle we couldn’t live without but it sure was nice to bounce around Bozeman without a plan, eating and spending way more than we should’ve, but of course, laughing all the while.

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MSU students in the Colt Starting class listen to Buck’s narrative ride

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Peacekeepers On Sunday

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” – Oscar Wilde

Oh our Beatrice has found herself a war zone in our peaceful corner of the world. First, escaping the talons of some bird of prey, presumably. Second, brutally attacked by her fellow hens. Third, shunned completely from the coop after a few weeks of cat bed stealing and recovery. And yesterday, face to face with a grim future as she stared out at a fiery fox who was steps away from our porch.

Luckily for Beatrice, Chris and I are the peacekeepers of our place. All of our animals are under our wings, their lives equal. We jumped from our slumber and trailed the alarming sound of her cackling and opened the door into our home as her escape. The fox jogged away, unafraid thanks to our unaware dogs. So there she sat, alone on our stairs, taking shelter under my arm when I took a seat next to her.

Nature is an unapologetic mother who heals and hunts. Today, thankfully, we heal. And cherish the light when it hits us just right, like when we’re hugging our lab or bringing in fresh eggs. Or the way my boys light up when I say let’s go inside after a long day of cleaning up the house and building new fence. Let’s live and let live and find peace where we can.

Happy Monday! Nothing but sunshine forecasted for the next few days.

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Hello, Saint Mary’s Peak

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The stunning intruder

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Looking West from our living room at the beginnings of a bluebird day

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Sunday morning dance with Timber

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Ah, spring is near. MUD. Sweet mud.

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Does it get any cuter? My boys

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Breakfast, courtesy of our ladies.