Keeping it Real

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. ~Kahlil Gibran

Sean Eric
Sean Eric

Today is my youngest brother’s birthday. It is the second year I have marked the occasion without him. It is a day that almost feels suspended in time, a space where, for a moment, I cannot move. Then I remember.

He was sure that the tiger was real. We talked about it for weeks after he read Life of Pi. I had sent it to him almost a year before, and he finally read it. It was his second time in rehab. When he finished it, he called me from the break room phone. “That was the best book I’ve ever read. Maybe it’s the first book I’ve ever read,” he quipped. I could tell he was pleased with himself.

“It’s fucked up” he said, about the ending. “That anyone would believe that the tiger wasn’t real is just fucked up. Like eating cereal with no milk. What’s the point? Better to just throw yourself overboard or go hungry.”

It was basic gut for him. He couldn’t entertain the other story. Maybe my own exhaustion or age or cynicism allowed me to consider the hopelessness of other options. Maybe when stripped down to nothing, people truly are just terrors fighting for survival? Maybe we each just do what we have to do in order to get by? I thought it could happen, but not Sean. He couldn’t imagine it.

I think about that series of conversations about the tiger, and I could read so much into it. I could try to find some bigger meaning, to make sense of where he was and the struggle he had with trying to find a connection to himself and a community where there was hope and aspirations without heroin interrupting his beautiful beautiful self. I could tell myself so many things about our conversations.

I could have told him that he was not alone, even after the tiger disappeared off into the jungle trees.

But the coulds and the shoulds are not real. They cannot save. Him or me.

But cheerios, those are real. And joy, that too. Real. And my brother was always good for keeping it butt-slapping real.

So on his birthday, I remember our conversations about Love and Pi. I remember him and I keeping it real, bungee jumping at Worlds of Fun above asphalt on a 100 degree day in August.

RIP Sean Eric Christenson
April 1, 1992-September 14, 2014

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The rural urbanite (or urban ruralite), and loving it.

city porchIn the last year I haven’t written on this blog very much. I have been collecting lots of images and stories to post, but my family and I have been gathering our strength (and our belongings) for new adventures that have taken much of our focus, spirit and strength. Transitions are time consuming endeavors. Often exhausting and scary in their unknown beauty. But also just in the sheer number of tasks to get to where we want to go, even under the best of circumstances.

And right now, our adventure is learning to live as a family in two places, in the city and in the country, in one place where we walk to the neighborhood grocery (or Target) and in another place where we “drive into town” to get our groceries. We are learning to live on our own in many ways, and be more independent. It means that I have to do the dishes all the time now, and that Ric has to cook sometimes. I am trying to fill the freezer full of food for him. And I have to do my own laundry too. But it also means other things too, like growing up and appreciating our roles. It means being flexible (oh my god!) and making due. And it means changing (even more OH MY GOD!).

And after a few months, the differences are quite remarkable, and beautiful to say the least. Urban living is glorious in its ease and convenience. A gallon of milk is across the street from me right now as I write, and so are a new pair of blue jeans. And I have bought a couple pair. And even a jog in the neighborhood park where there is no mud and lots of gorgeous grass and picnic tables is right there. People I’ve never seen before are picnicking, playing frisbee, and running their dogs. The sheer beauty and diversity of people everywhere at any point in time is simply lovely. And I am simply one. Beautiful and anonymous as well.

italianos snowAnd at home, in the mountains, I can also run. In the mud, and snow. With a background of magnificent sky, mountain and plains that most people really never imagine. And when I hiked with my husband last weekend, we were alone. Just us and our dog, hip deep in snow for miles, laughing and having the world to ourselves.

These two worlds seem opposing at times. In one I need quiet, and in the other I need diversity, sounds and sights varied and delightful. In one I need space, and in the other I need chaos and busy city noise. And lucky for me, I have both, and can grow full from them both. They seem oppositional, and often in politics they are, but in real life, I think we need them both. I need both. Alone and together.


Cultivating presence in DIY

Fence. Completed.

We believe in DIY in our household. There is almost nothing that we can’t do on our own. If we don’t know how to do it, we ask someone for help. That person is usually our neighbor because we all believe that he knows how to do everything. Sometimes we just have to figure it out.

My husband has been known to watch YouTube videos to learn how to fix certain parts (complicated parts like the dashboard) of his car. And then, actually fix it! We have built bathrooms, fences, and chicken coops, dug French drains and re-landscaped every part of our house at one time or another. DIY builds self reliance.

DIY also builds something else, presence. This weekend my husband and I had a marathon work weekend in the yard. We pulled weeds, built two rock walls, spread landscape fabric and hauled gravel. We painted our deck. We pulled more weeds. When I see my husband DIY, I see him in his true element, open, singing, hard-working and happy. I see the stress from his finance industry day job fall away. When he’s enthralled in DIY projects, there is an ease with the process, moving rocks and dirt from one place to another, and trusting the outcome. It is his creative action. It is his art.

That is the beauty of DIY in our household.

Fence. In progress.

Each of us have our niche. My husband will take on any household or car related project he can get his hands on. Going to the dump is as fun as taking apart the BMW. He and my son, with my neighbor, will spend hours on projects. And he has a list long enough to keep them busy for several years to come. The list is constantly shifting and growing based on what breaks, or who finds something too cool to pass up. But there are projects, lots of them, to keep everyone thinking and ending the day with sore muscles, a bit too much sun and a smile.

And me, I bake. Anything I can buy tastes better homemade. Pastries or fig pudding, mayonnaise or marshmallows. The journey of making my own and then sharing it with family and friends is, I think anyway, what truly makes the world go round.

Recently, my neighbor made bacon jam. She has a thing for bacon (don’t we all!) and she’s constantly trying out bacon recipes. Even though the bacon milkshake was not high on our list, she and I love the process of experimenting and perfecting. Me, I’m always in search of the most perfect melt-in-your-mouth cake recipes. But I’ll settle for creating my own recipe for the perfect kale juice or lettuce wrap too. It is a standard joke in my house that we never eat the same thing twice. I always say, there is more deliciousness in eating my new food creations.

In some ways DIY can be brutal. My hamstrings were aching like crazy by Sunday night. And DIY takes time. Sometimes I find myself all tied up in anxiety about how much time a project will take. I have a list of chores and other work that won’t get done because of the project. But 45 minutes into DIY, that list disappears from my mind. There are always chores, and there is always work. And in the end, my aching hamstrings felt so good. It was evidence of my hard work. I felt stronger. I mean, who doesn’t feel strong when they fill wheelbarrows with gravel and haul them around the yard all day! My husband always says that all his body aches and pains feel loosened up after a long DIY weekend. He lets the stress out of his shoulders, and relaxes his gait. DIY helps him become firmly placed in his self again, through the physical work, and he experiences life as it is. That is the beauty of presence.

That presence, whether gained through bacon, pastries or rock walls, makes for a good weekend. A good life. We didn’t finish our project, and my husband noted that there is so much more to do, but we could see the progress. We sat and enjoyed how clean and fresh the deck looked. We also felt satisfied; we savored our work and how it gives us hope. That is all good.


Newest rock garden. In progress.
Newest rock garden. In progress.
Homemade Apple Tart
Homemade Apple Tart


Bushwhacking Education

My son at the summit of his first 14er.
My son at the summit of his first 14er.

I had never considered myself “that kind of mom.” Last year I let my son drop out of school. He was not yet 16, the “legal age” a person can drop out. In order to work around those legalities I was confronted with owning the title “homeschool mom.” In the last year, I’ve come to respect this title because of what has happened in my house since taking this less-traveled path.

The public school system was not working, and Ez had struggled through a couple of very challenging years. We decided that the best decision was for him to skip high school and go directly to community college. It felt like a bold move. It was a hell of a bold move actually. For the last year, we have been basically bushwhacking our way through his schooling. We’ve not known for sure if we were headed in the right direction, but the signs have felt right.

We tried the online school idea, and he found that it is basically a ridiculous task to learn Algebra II from pre-recorded lectures. He needed people. And I respected that. My most memorable learning moments have happened with people, teachers, professors and classmates, who changed my view of the world. I saw Ez missing those opportunities. So we took a bold step to find those opportunities. It has been scary and uncertain, but I have supported him and driven him on to bushwhack because I saw him change. And I continue to see him change in beautiful ways.

Since Ez started this adventure in his education, he has taken 23 hours of college courses, which he has been dedicated to and enjoyed immensely. He has excelled. He has become a person who is confident in being seen as smart, and he’s started supporting other students in his classes, most of whom are ten years older than he. He is becoming a leader and an inspiration to others. And most importantly, he and I have ongoing conversations about what is best for him, what his dreams are, and where he wants to go. These are amazing and thoughtful conversations to have with a young person.

The biggest question he’s gotten from other people is, “Aren’t you going to miss going to prom?” His response is “sure, but I might still be able to go to a prom if I had a girlfriend to go with. And prom isn’t a reason to go to high school.” But prom represents a something bigger, a more reliable and known paved avenue that is comfortable, even when it doesn’t lead a summit worth climbing for.

There are valuable, beautiful aims in life, and if Ez wants to aim for those, then I will face my own fears and support him to climb. Like learning. Like happiness. Like using strengths and doing beautiful thinking. Like letting him push those as far and wide as he can or wants to. Like supporting him to be as awesome as he can imagine.

I kind of think about it like driving to the grocery store. I can do that drive in my sleep, and probably do half the time. Going to middle school was like that for Ez. It was driving him to sleep. There was a lot of work, and he was busy, but he could not drive to any of his own interests. It was so prescriptive that I saw him settle into a numbness that was disturbing. Bushwhacking on the other hand, keeps him aware and thinking, looking for ways to ascend to the skyline or to descend along a creek or around a steep drop off.  He has to use his tools, gather more tools, and rely on his dead-reckoning. There is no sleeping, just more awareness, and learning to trust that the summit is reachable. There is a truth in self about bushwhacking that builds self reliance.

Now that he’s had a year of bushwhacking, he has found other teenagers who have skipped high school. We have read about learning communities that support teenagers who have dropped out of school. He has found other people who have taken the road he’s chosen. And I think, well of course, if a person sets out on a mission, inevitably you find others on the same mission.

We recently watched (and Ez read the memoir) the documentary of Laura Dekker, the young woman who sailed around the world on her own at 14. It was remarkable in many ways. She had the drive, tenacity and trust in herself to embark on that adventure. She was beautiful and poised, and she trusted herself. I think it said a lot about adults and our fears too. Sometimes I find myself thinking, “I could never do that,” or “I could never let my child do that.” I try to ask myself “Is that because of my own fear?” Most of the time it is. And when I can set aside my fear and recognize that there is an incredibly capable and strong person in front of me, I let go of aiming to control his actions with my fear.

That fear of the unknown is most often what keeps us from taking the less-traveled path, even if something inside us says “that road leads to beauty unseen before.” My son embraces that road that with such grace that wherever he ends up, I trust that it will be f**king awesome.

Bumps, bruises and lots of mud

cloudscapeSpringtime here in the mountains of the southwest is muddy windy season. There are cold and wintery, blustery winds, and warm, feel-the-summer-coming kind of wind. There is snow, mud, dirt devils and hail. It is a tumultuous time for sure. But we all basically bask in the loveliness of the warm days, and enjoy the rainstorms and hailstorms as part of the season, knowing that in just a couple of months the glorious days of Summer and Fall will be upon us. Of course, it is obligatory to complain about the wind, and so there is a fair amount of grumbling about that, but mostly in good fun.

I’ve been thinking a lot about transitions lately. As spring and winter are dueling it out, the flowers clearly recognize spring. They are blooming regardless of the cold nights, and sometimes snowy days. They trust that their time is close. I recognize that I am not always as trusting as the flowers. When summer is approaching, we all know what to expect, but with human transitions, well damn, who can tell? We have to go with it and live the ride. Trust in ourselves. That is the adventure, and the freaking crazy part too. Who knows where the ride takes me?

When you live on a dirt road, spring also brings with it enormous potholes, the road washes out and the mud on the car, well, is simply like a new coat of paint. The transition between the pavement and the dirt is where the biggest potholes grow. Huge enough to lose the car sometimes! It is always the rockiest part. It happens in life too, that colliding of the old and the new. It makes a mess for a bit. But it also requires an alertness, a taking notice. I actually love this alertness, the need to observe my surroundings and find what’s new and different.

Dirt roads do take us to all sorts of adventures. To unknown places of curious vistas and small out-of-the-way spots. This is truly the beauty of dirt roads, a path less traveled. And sometimes those roads can be a bit too bumpy, or they can lead to nowhere. Such is true with lots of things in life. My son said yesterday that solving trigonometry identities can become a road to nowhere, and the only thing to do is to start again. And therein lies the adventure.

 The future is called “perhaps,’ which is the only possible things to call the future. And the important thing is not to allow it to scare you. ~Tennessee Williams

There are so many metaphors for seeing transitions as part of our ever-evolving lives, and still when they are upon me, they feel new and unknown. And difficult, sometimes. Or enormously scary. Or all of the above. I remember when my son was learning to walk. He would take a few steps on his own and then throw himself to the ground and crawl again. In the beginning he could crawl like a mad man, fast and furious, so it was quicker than stumbling around on his feet. But then one day, I noticed, no more crawling. He got it – his feet take him around a lot faster. And there were a lot less bruises too.

oh the mud

To move from here to there, sometimes there is a need to suspend the present realities; they can be a distraction. ~Bidemi Mark-Morda

Snow in a mountain town

WProcessed with Moldivhen it snows, I mean really snows, our little town totally changes. The atmosphere completely shifts. Our town often has an air of depression surrounding it, but when it snows, that lifts immediately and those snowflakes bring in a feeling of celebration that is palpable. For the last week, the snow has heralded a beautiful celebration in our town. People arrive ready to ski. Children and teens take off to the valley, boards and skis in hand ready to catch new powder. My son brags about the runs he and his friends will do before any tourists even get up the lift. I remember what it was like when I first moved here, before the drought really hit hard. I remember what it is like to live in a ski town. The community that happens when it arrives. I remember that I love snow.  The stories that arrive with the headline “massive snowstorm blankets Taos Ski Valley.”

I also remember that I love making soup, warming up my house and snuggling up with a novel. I prefer to ski after the crowds have gone. I finished two novels this week, and to me that is almost heaven. It is worth celebrating the powder in the ski valley — I get to read! I do a bit of celebrating in the snow too — shovel the drive, chase the dog around and build the snow fort, but I also like to take advantage of town closing down. I can truly hibernate for a bit and let myself sneak away into a good book. And that is a change for me.

However we enjoy the weather, inside or out, it is good to recognize the good. The ease at which we move into and through more than a foot of snow (more the three feet in the mountains). It is more deliberate, and joyful. It is more hopeful even. That certainly makes me hope for more snow!