Room 231

My sister Kelli’s appendix ruptured and there were complications, so I went back home to Wisconsin to be with her. I arrived Saturday night and went straight to the hospital in Green Bay. I’m a teacher by trade, not a nurse. I felt inadequate and clumsy as the nurse did her best to maneuver around me. When the she left the room, Kelli said she needed to use the bathroom. I rushed to her aid and quickly learned I wasn’t following procedure. Her IV equipment had to be unplugged from the wall, the cords had to be arranged correctly, and the IV stand needed to face Kelli in such a way that she had access to a handle to lean on. She was in tremendous pain. I worried that if I didn’t work quickly, I would add to her suffering. In the bathroom, more procedures. She needed help arranging the IV stand, sitting on the toilet, and completing personal tasks. Back in the room, I forgot several of the steps it had taken to get her out of bed. My sister’s husband and my cousin stood by looking on like bystanders at the scene of an accident. I had no idea what I was doing, but nonetheless approached each task with gusto.

Once Kelli was seated on the edge of the bed, it was my job to lift her legs and gently swing them with her body as she reclined onto the bed. Before doing this, I saw that the sheets were crumpled. I knew Kelli would be more comfortable if I smoothed them out and tucked them in. From somewhere I heard Kelli’s pained whisper, “I need to lie down.” I ignored her as I tugged on the damn sheets. Again she pleaded with me, but I was hell-bent on making her comfortable. Finally the sheets were in order, and I gently lifted her legs. When it was over, my cousin asked if I still planned to take an EMT class I had been talking about. I said that no, I had decided against it. “Good,” she said. “That’s a good decision.” I looked over at my brother-in-law who nodded in agreement.

I am the woman who gets things done, takes control, makes snap decisions, plans events, and manages a home and a career. I went out into the hall and noticed the plaque on the wall— Room 231. I am the oldest of four girls. The Colburn girls. It is my birthright to take care of my sisters, and I have done my best—doling out advice, smoothing over arguments, keeping in touch, but there wasn’t a thing I could do for Kelli. I had shown up unannounced and she had cried; thrilled to see me. That would be enough. I was there to be with her, not to do for her.

Over the next several days, I sat with my sister where the sub-zero temperatures, daily tasks, jobs, social media, and other mundane distractions were checked at the door. Sometimes she slept and sometimes she wanted to walk around the nurse’s station. We watched awful television and when she was up for it, we talked about how she was feeling. The human body is a remarkable organism. Fevers and a high white blood cell count told us she had an infection that needed to be addressed. Debilitating cramps came on without warning like sirens alerting nurses she was in pain. Bed sores were a reminder we are creatures meant for locomotion.

Kelli is at home now and doing better. I am doing better, too. Room 231 reminded me I cannot control everything. I am limited in my skills and influence, and that it is enough to just love the people in my life.



Roses are Red and Violets Make Me Sneeze

Image result for Love Ron and I recently celebrated our eighth wedding anniversary. This meant a trip to the store to buy an anniversary card. I hate buying my husband cards, but I was raised to give them on special occasions, and until I can deal with the guilt associated with breaking tradition, I will continue to find myself standing in the card aisle at Target feeling awkward. The romantic cards seem written with another couple in mind: “You are my best friend” “Our love makes every day special.” “You are my missing piece” I could go on, but I’m feeling uncomfortable just writing this. Then there are the cards that are supposed to be funny, but miss the mark: A man gives his wife a gift. The bubble above his head reads, “I hope it fits. I had to guess. You’re a size 2, right? Underneath it says, “And they lived happily ever after.” How about the animal cards? I don’t need to elicit the help of a penguin or Golden Retriever to express my love. The poems are just plain awful: I love you today/ as I have from the start/ and I will love you forever/ with all of my heart.

I don’t profess to know a thing about anyone else’s husband, but I can’t help but think that there might be other women who feel the way I do. My husband isn’t the flowery, sensitive type. He also wouldn’t appreciate a card poking fun at either one of us. This is a man who sees an empty wall and thinks hanging cork board to hold his tools makes more sense than a painting. He calls foul on kissing scenes in movies, and would rather see me in Levi’s and a pair of work gloves than a dress. Add to this he’s an engineer. Romantic cards, poems, and cute animals rubbing noses make little sense to him.

Valentine’s Day cards are even worse than anniversary cards and that mushy day is just around the corner! This year I am going to buy Ron a blank Thank You card in which I plan to write my own note. It will go something like this:

Dear Ron,

Thank for all you did around the ranch this year. The orchard and yard look great. Thank you for taking care of the numerous bee swarms that took up residency under the eaves of the house and out in the yard and for taking care of our rattlesnake problem. I appreciate you washing the truck before I go to town and taking the garbage to the dump. Every time I open the freezer, I think of you. We have enough elk and venison to make it through the year for which I am grateful. Thank you for fixing the pellet stove and the electrical problem in the bunkhouse. I didn’t think I would like the hot tub, but I do. It was a great idea! Thank you for taking me on dates when I ask (or sometimes beg) and buying me a Pepsi when you go to the Mercantile. It’s been a busy year and a good year. I’m happy we (along with our crazy crew of animals) are in this together.

Happy Valentine’s Day. I love you,



A Christmas Pass

220px-How_the_Grinch_Stole_Christmas_coverA cartoon in the November 27th issue of The New Yorker shows a woman entering her living room where her husband is sitting on the couch with his laptop open. The caption reads: I thought I would wander around, vaguely forgetting what I was just doing until the Presidency is over.

Oftentimes I feel alone in my feelings. The cartoon, along with recent stories from friends, gives me comfort in knowing I’m part of something bigger. It’s the holidays. I should be suffering from sleepless nights and bloating brought on by cookie dough and binge eating. But no, I’m well-rested and have lost two pounds since Thanksgiving.

The malaise I’m experiencing is insidious and instead of humming Silent Night while waiting in line at the grocery store, I find myself tapping my foot to Mr. Grinch replacing the lyrics with something more appropriate:

You’re a mean one, Mr. Trump.

You really are a heel,

You’re as cuddly as a cactus, you’re as charming as an eel, Mr. Trump,

You’re a bad banana with a greasy black peel!

I’ve gotten as far as hanging lights from the wood beams in the cabin. At night it looks like a Christmas wonderland. By day, it’s business as usual. But here’s the thing. I don’t care. I haven’t done much shopping, party planning, or baking.  Christmas cards? Forget it. I don’t even have a turkey in the freezer. The Christmas-loving perfectionist in me is taking a pass this year.

New Yorker Cartoon

But there is more to this. Out of  the political ashes rises the Phoenix, or in this case, the meaning of Christmas. Without the hustle and bustle, I have plenty of time for friends and family. This past week I took a trip to Washington with a dear friend and her family where I learned something about fine wine and Leavenworth, a little Bavarian-esque town tucked away in the Cascade Mountains devoted to keeping the Christmas spirit alive. I spent an afternoon decorating Christmas cookies with our three-year-old granddaughter who took such delight in her creations, she took a bite out of nearly every cookie she decorated. My husband and I bought ourselves a hot tub for Christmas. It’s our new go-to place at the end of the day. A place where we can relax and chat about whatever comes to mind. My mom and I are hosting a Christmas Eve dinner for folks who don’t have family nearby, and it reminds me how lucky I am to still have my mom. So many of my friends have lost their parents.

Leavenworth 2Instead of running around checking things off an impossible holiday to-do list, I have had time to reflect on this past year. We had a bumper crop of apples but few pomegranates. These mysteries keep me connected to God and faith. I received a card from someone who means everything to me. Her gesture gives me hope for the future. I have made some new friends and said goodbye to some old. Sometimes it’s okay to let go. Another year has gone by, and I haven’t sold my manuscript. Patience and tenacity are virtues I struggle with. We lost our little dog, Kipper, and the three baby owls I had come to love. Grief is powerful. It’s easy to get stuck. A friend shared her love of bird watching with me. Through their songs I have learned there is delight in little things.

Here it is, the morning of December 22nd.  The dogs and cats are fed and resting. Little birds are vying for their perches out on the bird feeders, and I’m still in my pajamas. Life goes on. This Christmas I am looking forward to a good meal with family and friends followed by midnight Mass. Leavenworth



2017-11-26 11.33.10I went out to the greenhouse early in the morning to find the pecans I had picked were gone. I’d collected them in a five gallon pail and had left them on the porch. Hunters had been at the ranch all week, so it wasn’t a stretch to think maybe someone had bagged them up to take home. But something didn’t sit right with that assumption. Who would just help themselves to a bucket of pecans? As the day went on, I was preoccupied with thoughts that perhaps I had put the nuts elsewhere. The vanishing pecans puzzle stuck in my head like a bad song. By nightfall I’d ransacked the house, interrogated the hunters, and accused my husband of hiding the nuts.

A few days passed and all was forgotten as I went out to the orchard with my empty bucket to pick more pecans. Again, I left the nuts on the porch in the greenhouse and again they were gone in the morning. In an effort to keep a slew of profanity at bay, I paced the greenhouse where I noticed a trail of pecan hulks leading to the hot water heater closet. Inside Ron and I found an impressive stash of pecans. We had a thief on our hands in the form of a pack rat. Though I took some solace in knowing I wasn’t losing my mind, I couldn’t shake the fact that misplacing things is becoming an unavoidable problem.

I’m finding as the years pass, I’m having a difficult time keeping track of the things I own and my busy schedule. I have a hectic life that I would like to pin this dilemma on, but it’s more than that. Much of this is tied to forgetfulness. I keep a running grocery list on the counter that I sometimes forget to take to the store. I write appointments down in my calendar and can’t make sense of my cryptic notes: Lunch with Karen 12:30. Where are we meeting? I wonder. Free concert at the library. What time? Yes, I could keep all this information on my phone, but more often than not, I forget to charge it and forget to pack the charger when I go to town.

With the mystery of the disappearing pecans solved, I hurried to get ready for appointments I’d made in Sierra Vista. I arrived in town early and stopped by my mom’s house where, after digging through my purse, I realized I didn’t have the house keys with me. Praying the patio door was open, I went to the side gate, which was also locked. It was ten o’clock in the morning. What might a neighbor think of a middle-aged woman wearing black tights and a paisley print blouse climbing over the fence? I was hopeful it didn’t warrant a 911 call. That was five days ago, and I still haven’t found the keys to my mom’s house.

I envy the pack rat. For two nights she had one job and that was to move a couple hundred pecans ten yards from the back porch to the hot water heater closet. After we found her cache, Ron shoveled out the pecans and plugged up the hole leading to the closet. I wonder if upon finding her stockpile gone, the pack rat worried maybe she’d lost her mind or maybe, unlike me, she’d been spared the emotional upheaval of growing older.

Pecan Pie, Oh My!

2017-11-15 13.47.45There is a brief moment when, as the weather changes and the leaves on the fruit trees fall to the ground, I am lulled into feeling that it is autumn in Wisconsin, my favorite time of year. Here at our ranch in the Chihuahuan Desert of southwest New Mexico, we are down to the final stretch in the orchard. I’ve been picking pecans. It’s the last crop we harvest, which means soon we will collect our garden tools, roll up the hoses, and wrap the pipes until February when the whole rodeo starts up again.
The pecans hold mysteries that make them worth picking. The husk is green and the size and shape of a Medjool date. When the fruit is ripe the husk cracks just enough on four sides to allow fingernails in to pry it open, exposing a moist nut as though a single drop of dew found its way inside during the night. The pungent aroma that gets on my hands smells like something I might use to clean my counter tops. The only unpleasant part of the experience is that the husks turn my fingers and fingernails black and it takes weeks for it to wear off. This isn’t a problem except when I go to town and feel it necessary to explain why it is my hands look like I’ve just changed the oil in my truck.
There are two times during the growing season that I contemplate Creation. First in spring when the seeds we planted pop up through the soil and again when I pick something as lovely as a pecan. In the third grade my teacher handed each student three Styrofoam cups, a bag of dirt, and a few tomato seeds. After creating holes in the dirt with our index fingers and sticking the seeds inside, we were instructed to put one cup on the shelf in the broom closet and the remaining two cups on the windowsill. One cup went under a sign that read WATER; the other under a sign that read DO NOT WATER. As you can imagine, a week later only those seeds that had been watered and received sunlight poked through the soil. When I asked my teacher why it happened she mistook my question and answered instead with how it happened. My family had an enormous garden in our backyard where my sisters and I spent summers planting, weeding, and picking until our little finger bled. I already knew the how of things and was disappointed with my teacher’s response. I still have not found the answer to my original question. Why does a tiny seed grow into a pecan? Yes, I have a rudimentary understanding of biology, chemistry and genetics, but even the scientific disciplines still wrestle with that moment—that spark of life. As I get older, I’m growing comfortable with the fact that not all questions need answers. 20171031_113107
As our work is slowing down in the orchard, wildlife is frantically stockpiling for the cold months ahead. While I scouted the ground under the trees searching for pecans, I noticed the rabbits were one step ahead of me. They’d shown up during the night and hauled off with their bounty. I found a trail of empty husks leading out to the horse corrals and beyond. Not long ago I discovered pecan shell in a pair of winter boots.
20171031_130402 (1)I think of my own roots while I’m plucking nuts from branches high above my head. Both my grandmothers made pecan pie during the holidays. All that Karo syrup and whipped cream, it’s no wonder the adults yelled at us kids to settle down after Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. We are a big Irish-Catholic family. There were nine cousins born within five years. Our parents drank and smoked and now I know why. My aunts tried their best to herd us to bed as our uncles sat back with the top buttons on their pants undone as they digested a good meal. My grandma swatted at us as we danced around the living room like maniacs while one of my cousins manned the music beat buttons on an electric organ that sat in the corner of the room. There was swearing and crying and carrying on, but there was also a lot of laughter.
Maybe what I like most about this time of year is that pecan picking and cooler temperatures stir memories, and I am transported to a time when my life was immediate and simple. To a place that once held all the people I loved most.

Little Spaces in Big Places

2017-10-30 17.38.27I spent this week cleaning up after remodeling our bunkhouse. It’s a small one bedroom with a kitchen, bathroom, and a living room big enough for a sofa and chair. As I went about wiping down walls and scrubbing out the shower, I fantasized about moving in; how nice it would be to have a small house to clean. My animals would still have plenty of space to romp around outside. I would finally have a reason to get rid of the mountain of stuff I’ve collected over the years.

Across the orchard sits the house Ron and I live in. It’s a lovely log home set against the desert landscape where dust collects in every nook and cranny making cleaning a nightmare. The logs need Murphy’s Oil Soap and my nemeses, the stone fireplace, requires air blasting. My lower back screams for relief as I vacuum and sweep floors. My hands ache while wringing out rags. There are times I feel at war with this place. Papers, glasses, phone cords, napkins, coffee cups, etc. clutter counter tops and tables as though invisible hands are at work to disarm me. All this takes valuable time. Time I would rather spend reading or writing or visiting family and friends or hiking or bird-watching or napping.

The house feels heavy with all the stuff we have collected over the past year, and I’ve started filling trash bags headed for either the dump or Goodwill. But that’s only part of the problem. There is also the matter of our crazy schedule. Ron and I continually promise each other we are going to slow down, but to date, we haven’t done a thing to make that happen.

I don’t know how it has come to this: two trucks, three sets of dishes, plastic bins stuffed with extra pillows, blankets, table clothes, and a closet full of clothes I will never wear. My attire at the ranch consists of short skirts and t-shirts in the summer and yoga pants and sweatshirts in the winter. Sure I make an effort when I leave the house, but nowadays that happens so infrequently, I could get away with half the clothes I own.

There was a time in my life when I owned very little. I lived without electricity and an intermittent water supply among farmers in Honduras. Without a vehicle, I either hitch-hiked or took a bus and everything I owned fit into a hiker’s backpack. I didn’t worry about paying bills, making appointments, or juggling a hectic schedule. I got up with the chickens and went to bed when the sun went down. I had few worries and really didn’t appreciate my circumstances until years later, like now, when I reflect on the joys of a modest life.

Yesterday I got online and ordered a shower curtain, knobs for the kitchen cabinets, and curtains for the bunkhouse. I’m fully aware it adds more things to my already crowded life, but I want this new space to reflect what it is I aspire to—a small, comfortable home unencumbered by a never ending to-do list and the weighty feeling of being surrounded by an abundance of junk I don’t need or will never use.

I’m planning to invite Ron for date night over to the bunkhouse—the small simple space I yearn for. Maybe we’ll both be inspired to do things differently.

Border Talk 5

2017-10-08 08.44.10Ron missed the call from a Border Patrol agent while we were in town last week. We didn’t think much of it at the time, but when we came home the next day to find tire tracks leading up to our gate, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. We live at the end of a mile-long dead end dirt road. People generally don’t just drop by unless they are lost. I thought back to the call from the Border Patrol agent and wondered if there had been illegals crossing our property while we were gone. With much to do, I shook off the notion as I hauled in groceries, cleaned out the cat litter box, and fed the animals. At some point I realized Ron hadn’t helped carry in bags from the truck. I put the groceries away and threw in a load of laundry all the while wondering where he was. Soon my imagination got the best of me, and I worried he’d run into someone out in the shop or the airplane hangar. After I peeled potatoes for dinner, I grabbed the pistol I keep in our bedroom and went looking for him.

This was an odd predicament to find myself in. I have no doubt I would shoot someone who tried to hurt my husband, animals, or me. I’ve had my life threatened and know what I am capable of. But it’s a part of life down here I would rather not have to deal with-this underlying fear that I might look up from my garden or walk around the corner of an outbuilding to find someone standing there prepared to do me harm. After walking the property, which seemed an eternity, Ron appeared carrying a long stick. He’d been out looking for rattlesnakes that may have come in close while we were gone. He looked down at the pistol at my side. “You’ve been gone forty-five minutes,” I said. “I got worried.”

The next day two agents stopped by to inform us there had been activity at the ranch while we were gone. The men joined us for coffee and banana bread, then asked if they could take a look around. The illegals they had caught the day before had dropped bundles of dope somewhere nearby. Ron and a friend went to harvest honey while the agents combed the property on their ATVs. I went out to water trees, and by the time I came in, the agents had left and I was home alone. A twinge of vulnerability set in while I did chores, but I consciously dismissed it so that I could get on with my day. There was too much to do. I couldn’t just lock myself inside the house and pull the curtains.

Despite illegals on the border or criminals in our cities, most of us are resilient and are able to carry on with our lives. Trouble seems to happen when we give in to our fears. That’s when we begin to lock our doors, avoid eye contact with our neighbors, and withdraw from the people who care about us. I heard today that the FBI is setting up a billboard campaign in hopes people will come forward about the shooter’s motives in the Las Vegas mass killing spree. I’ve been asking myself if knowing Stephen Paddock’s motives is really all that important. The damage is done, isn’t it time to move on? To heal? But at the core of our humanity we need the question answered. If he was just a regular guy who opened fire, then what prevents any of us from doing the same? Until he is culled from the proverbial herd, we won’t rest. In the meantime, it’s important to our well-being to leave the curtains open to let in the sunshine.