The rhythm of mornings on the Ridge

(I am spending two and a half months living on my parents’ place in the mountains in rural Eastern Oregon with my two preschool-age children. Shaye, who is five, insists on going to kindergarten, even during our short stay. This is a vivid slice of life.)

I rise out of deep sleep with the trill of my cell phone, which has been demoted to a glorified alarm clock out in the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon with no signal.

First I inhale deeply before my eyes open. There is the pungent fragrance of the pellets that feed the little stove and the undertone of snow. My eyes open to the flickering light of the little orange flame at the foot of the big bed.

I reach over and fumble to turn off the alarm, so it doesn’t wake up Marik. Then I reluctantly role myself out of the froth of white blankets that cover the bed. I wish I had this nice of a bed at home in our little house near Prague in the Czech Republic. So much for roughing it in the mountains.

I stumble the few feet to the creaky ladder that leads to the loft and blink hard to clear the sleep from my head as I climb in the warm semi-darkness, lit only by the stove. Above is the tiny loft, mostly crammed with boxes my mother is storing. There is a small space that has been cleared for two pallets on the floor and my children sleep there – four-year-old Marik and five… almost six-year-old Shaye. I squeeze into the opening between a cabinet and the railing to reach Shaye.

I gently stroke her cheek in an attempt to wake her gently but she doesn’t stir. I can’t fit entirely into their tiny space without causing a fair amount of noise, so I resort to reaching down and lifting her by both arms as she sleeps. She wakes up as she is pulled out of her blankets but she doesn’t cry. She’s used to it and she loves kindergarten.

At first, her legs don’t hold her but I put her hands on the railing and guide her quietly through the little space. I have to hold her from behind as we slide down the ladder because she isn’t awake enough to be reliable.  Back down on the floor of the tiny one-room cabin, we dress silently by firelight. Shaye is usually done first, despite the fact that I have laid out our clothes the night before. My head is still full of fluff.

She opens the door as I get my boots on and the icy air of the still-dark morning blasts against my nose. It must be more than ten below again. We step outside onto the frozen path. There isn’t much snow this morning, just a powdery dusting. I close the door quietly. Marik is still fast asleep. Shaye and I make our way toward the big house  

I put my hand on her shoulder and let her bob against my legs as we walk. The moon is waning but still fat and bright, hanging among the pines that tower above us on the western slope. An owl hoots up there in the trees. Then another answers from down in the woodlot in the hollow far below. Something else cries out in the predawn, an animal I don’t recognize.

We step quickly toward the house. A light has been left on for us but otherwise it is still dark and silent. We bustle inside, shedding boots and coats. I put water on for tea, while Shaye snuggles with the two dogs and one cat that greet us. In thirty five minutes, I get Shaye through hair brushing and a small bowl of cereal, sometimes half a cup of warm fruit tea and a few minutes of reading. Sometimes I can salvage the coals of last night’s fire in the big hearth. But sometimes I have to build it up from scratch.

When my watch says exactly 6:45, we have to start putting boots and coats on in earnest. At 6:50, Shaye stands outside while I lace up my high tops and mash my hat into place. Both dogs barrel out of the door, growling and nipping at each other playfully.

“I hear the bus,” Shaye yells and we start down the steep quarter-mile mud track that serves as our driveway. I can see the lights of the bus far below, making its way up the road beyond our property. In three minutes, we drop down to the county road that runs through the bottom of the hollow. The sky is barely starting to get light but the morning as clear as the perfect note of a penny whistle.

We’re the furthest out on this school bus route. The driver, a sweet lady named Cindy, has to drive another mile up the road to find a place to turn around. Then, she comes back down the hill and picks Shaye up on her way back. That way we have the five-minute warning to get us down the hill and we rarely have to wait long.

When we hear the bus approach again and see the warmth of its flashing lights in the distance, Shaye burrows against me, suddenly demanding of comfort and multiple hugs. I hug her and put the required kisses on her face as the bus slows and the doors open.

“‘Morning!” Cindy calls.

“‘Morning,”  I reply, as Shaye bounds up the steps and disappears into the darkened bus alone.

I stand and wave, even though I can’t see her behind the glass or at that distance. The one time I forgot to pretend to exchange waves with her, she gave me a hard time about it for days. So, I wave and smile and pretend that I can see her as the bus pulls away. One of the absurdities of being a legally blind mother.

In a moment the morning is as still and peaceful as that clear note of music. The sky has lightened a little along the horizon, though it will be a half an hour yet before the sun peeks up.  The only sound is the yipping of the dogs as they chace each other out in the neighbor’s pasture. I turn back up the road and hike to the stop, pausing a few times just to admire the morning. The brightening skyline and the pink-hued clouds are blurry to me but still beautiful, something like an impressionist painting.

I take the grassier path back up the ridge. That one ends back at the little cabin where Marik is still asleep. I slip in as silently as I can and sit in the rocking chair reading for a few minutes as the sun comes up and slowly illuminates my mother’s paintings which hang close together on the walls. This is normally her art studio, when we aren’t here. I can’t actually see the paintings unless I stand on the bed and put my face a few inches from them, but the amorphous blobs of them on the wall are comforting.

At about 7:30, Marik snuffles awake and calls out to see if I have returned from the bus yet. Then he pads over to the ladder and climbs down. He sits in my lap for awhile and I read one of the new stories I’ve ordered online. I tuck our latest addition into one of the big duffle bags I’m packing for the long trip back to the Czech Republic, a land of limited English-language children’s books, and we head back into the house.

Most mornings we are alone. My mom and my brother stay overnight in town more often than not. So, Marik and I make a more substantial breakfast, carry a load of wood down a long flight of narrow stairs to stoke the fire, wash the dishes and try to call Papa on Skype. Then it is time to find something useful to do with the four-year-old-oriented part of the day. Sometimes we just go for a walk to visit a neighbor or one of the huge trees on top of the ridge. Other days we cook or make cookies for the holidays. About once every two weeks, we can finagle a ride into town to visit the library.

Such is the rhythm of our mornings on Pumpkin Ridge. There is peace to it along with hard work.

The Festival of Spring

IMG_3053

Our little family seems to be growing tentatively. Here is a picture of Ember, holding Marik, with Ember’s boyfriend Tomas and his 11-year-old sister Eliska, standing in front of me. We are standing under our Maypole which we are getting ready to dance around. We had a wonderful Beltane celebration, which you can see more pictures from on my special Wheel of the Year writing project page:

https://ariefarnam.wordpress.com/the-wheel-of-the-year/

IMG_3087

IMG_2955

A video of the winter celebrations

I’ve updated the Wheel of the Year page again to include an Ostara update and Beltane plans: https://ariefarnam.wordpress.com/the-wheel-of-the-year/

But I also wanted to make sure this video didn’t get lost in the shuffle for those who are interested. I made a video of our celebrations of the rhythms of the earth over the past half year. The video was originally meant for a presentation I’m giving at a conference in May but it is a fun look at some of the highlights of the past half year.

I would like to note that I have often felt intimidated by videos online showing perfect families and children doing wonderful crafts and activities. I generally feel a sinking feeling and think, “How wonderful for them but that could never be done with my children.” But then I made this video, piecing together the calm bits and pieces of our activities that made sense. I had to do it that way. The video is for a conference, not just for kicks. And presto! The video makes it look as if our children always do as they are asked and cooperate delightfully in every celebration. The truth is that if you pick out the nice, calm ten or twenty seconds of various scenes and piece them together to make sense, you can make almost any chaos look calm.

So, enjoy and keep your perspective:

A tale of four cousins

Literally, as I was trying to send the last post a fresh onslaught of tension erupted. We are spending the weekend at the Dusan’s parents farm in South Bohemia. The farm is fairly bleak, a muddy yard. There is an ancient Communist era playground nearby that consists of a few iron sticks in the ground, one merry-go-round and one half-way broken slide. There landscape around is agricultural and the forest is too far to be a convenient walk. There is not much to attract children. One of our main reasons for coming is the hope of seeing Dusan’s brother’s kids, our children’s only cousins this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

For years, this has been a point of tension. Dusan’s brother Martin is not the type to respect our lifestyle or values. He is a wheeling-dealing businessman type. He is a significant citizen of a nearby town, in with the political elites. He spends much of his time at various networking events and has expensive hobbies. His wife Eva enjoys being the wife of a prestigeous man and is very conscious of what is in style and who is in or out of social favor. Needless to say, we’ve never been exactly close. Eva rarely misses an opportunity to comment on my lack of up-to-date wardrobe and lack of make-up or hair dye to cover my “embarrassing” gray hairs.

I have had moments of sympathy with her, such as when she told me the story of how Martin proposed to her and accidently called her by the name of his former girlfriend. As in “Won’t you marry me, Alena… er… I mean, Eva?” But those few moments of female solidarity have been buried in years of tension.

Martin has often felt closer to us. Dusan loves him deeply as his younger brother and they often feel an understanding between them. And yet, I have always felt a strange disconnect under the surface with him. I have generally dismissed my misgivings and tried to take Martin at face value but today that backfired.

Ever since their older daughter Evicka, who is nine, could talk, she has been oddly attracted to me. I have always loved small children and certainly, before we had kids, she was the closest child that I could put my love for children into. I did play games with her and bring her art supplies to play with together. I never gave her candy or bribed her in any classic way, but I was activelhy an aunt. From the time she was about four, Evicka has responded with enthusiastic love and adoration.

Whenever we met at the grandparent’s place she would immediately leave her mother’s side and remain glued to me for the duration of the visit. And this bothered Eva. Whether it had to do with my lack of social acceptability, I don’t know, but she was consternated and jealous. By the time, Evicka’s younger sister Bara and then Shaye came along, Eva had responded by trying to keep her children away from me.

In the beginning, I would always call Eva to try to coordinate visits to the grandparent’s farm, so that we might all end up there at the same time. But it quickly became apparent to both Dusan and me that our efforts had the opposite effect. If we let them know when we were coming, they would initially promise to come and then end up with “other plans.” It was soon only major holidays that grandma coordinated and times when we came unexpectedly that ever allowed us to see our neices.

Both Shaye and Evicka have been very disappointed as a result. Bara has not had much of a relationship with us because she was so young that it was easier for her mother to keep her away from us, even during visits, and Marik has scarcely seen them four times in his life and has little sense of who they are.

But now Evicka is nine. She was given an emergency cell phone last year and at first her parents refused to give her or me the number to it, but eventually she discovered the number and gave it to me, asking me to tell her when we were planning to come, so that she could get her parents to let her visit.

Trying to be make the best of a difficult situation, I did let her know with a text message a day before we were to come this week, after she had messaged me several times during the week. As a result she had a big argument with her parents because she wanted to come to the farm this weekend to see us and they claimed that there were other plans. The grandmother told us that Evicka and Bara are here almost every weekend otherwise.

As it turned out, this evening Martin showed up alone to talk to his parents and brother, without the children. In the past, it seemed that he was at least making a small effort to bring the children and so I stopped him on the veranda and asked him if he could try to get the girls to be able to come here to see Shaye and Marik this weekend. His response shook me to the core.

“We thought we were going to the mountains today but we didn’t go. The girls are at home. They’ve been upset because you sent the message and they want to come here. And they aren’t coming. I don’t know. We might go to the mountains tomorrow or we might stay home but we’re not coming here.”

By the norms of this society of emotional prudes, I should have simply turned away, swallowed the pain and the grief of losing my children’s cousins and my neices to this animocity. But it is not in my nature. I am not Czech. I am emotional, even by American standards, and so I did not take it quietly. I agrued reasonably at first, to which Martin responded by repeating nonsense words whenever I tried to speak. Then, I “lost it” and called him a Czech word that is apparently very impolite. I did know it was impolite, if not it’s exact meaning. And things went down hill from there.

No one has ever mentioned whether or not Shaye and Marik’s Romani background is a factor in this tense relationship. Dusan and I have discussed it but have never been able to tell entirely, and yet in this country where the issue is so extreme, it is difficult to imagine that it plays no role. I have heard Martin’s virilently racist views on the Roma. When we were in the process of adopting children, he once told me in the snowy darkness outside a family party when he was mildly drunk that he had “the political influence” to see that we would not be able to adopt Romani children. “But I won’t do it,” he told me magnanismously, lord to peasant. At the time, I clung to the hope that he would keep his word. When we ran into “Knife Sharpener Lady” and she seemingly out-of-nowhere tried to block us from adopting a second Romani child, I did wonder. I always wondered but out of loyalty to my husbands love for his brother I never let it go beyond a vague anxiety. Now, I wonder again. How much is this about Eva’s jealousy of my relationship with her daughter and how much is this about race relations?

I am left shaking and tearful. As usual, when adults can’t get along, all the children suffer for it. Shaye pleads again and again to see her cousins. Evicka fights futily with her parents. Evicka has been diagnosed with significant learning disabilities and ADHD. She struggles in school and her family is not particularly supportive. She is often sarcastically called, “Our little Einstein.” I tried to tell her before that this hurtful name can be turned back on itself. Einstein was learning disabled after all. I have tried to tell her that learning disabilities don’t mean one is stupid. But my encouragement seems to be far too little. Her self esteme is very low. I have never known a more caring and considerate child and yet she seems to have no defenses against the hardships life has dealt her.

So, tonight I pray that all of our children may somehow be given the strength they need to live and love well despite the blows they have to endure. And I pray that my own anger and hatred may somehow be magically turned into healing energy. Whether it is called god, goddess, spirit or ancestor, I hope that there is some spiritual power beyond my small abilities, because this is magic that I cannot work alone.

A Joyous Yule overall

We had a wonderful holiday season over all. Thanks to the cooperation of the calendar, Dusan had plenty of time off work without having to take much vacation time. The weather didn’t cooperate, so we were mostly indoors or wet to the skin with snow slush and mud, but as the song says, “Heedless of the wind and weather.” 🙂

Marik and Eliska the cat soaking up some rare and precious rays of noontime winter solstice sunshine.

Marik and Eliska the cat soaking up some rare and precious rays of noontime winter solstice sunshine.

Shaye used the last of the snow to make a snowgirl, decorated with the fruits of the year's harvest, not just a carrot nose, but potato eyes and an apple mouth. Okay, the rocks were still buried by the snow, though that didn't last long.

Shaye used the last of the snow to make a snowgirl, decorated with the fruits of the year’s harvest, not just a carrot nose, but potato eyes and an apple mouth. Okay, the rocks were still buried by the snow, though that didn’t last long.

Wholesomely chaotic Yultide chaos with cookies, candles, bread sourdough, piles of unsorted papes and children's crafts in the background. The cookies were a bit unwholesome with the food coloring in the decorations that caused Shaye to melt down for about two days. We may have to ban food coloring in future, though it was fun to decorate colorful cookies.

Wholesomely chaotic Yultide chaos with cookies, candles, bread sourdough, piles of unsorted papes and children’s crafts in the background. The cookies were a bit unwholesome with the food coloring in the decorations that caused Shaye to melt down for about two days. We may have to ban food coloring in future, though it was fun to decorate colorful cookies.

By the second day of Yule, a steady downpour had turned the snow into a dangerous mix of ice and slush. It was almost impossible for anyone to drive in the mess. We went out caroling in the rain on the 23rd to bring gifts to two neighbors who most needed the boost, a lonely elderly woman and a woman in one of my ESL classes from the Ukraine. Our rewards for being heedless of the wind and weather were huge smiles and two wonderful gingerbread cookies. Shaye was delighted to find "Grandfather Deer" again.

By the second day of Yule, a steady downpour had turned the snow into a dangerous mix of ice and slush. It was almost impossible for anyone to drive in the mess. We went out caroling in the rain on the 23rd to bring gifts to two neighbors who most needed the boost, a lonely elderly woman and a woman in one of my ESL classes from the Ukraine. Our rewards for being heedless of the wind and weather were huge smiles and two wonderful gingerbread cookies. Shaye was delighted to find “Grandfather Deer” again.

On the fourth day of Yule, the spirits and grandma gave to Shaye and Marik an electric piano, a little red wagon and much joy.

On the fourth day of Yule, the spirits and grandma gave to Shaye and Marik an electric piano, a little red wagon and much joy.

During the holidays we went to visit the in-laws in South Bohemia and while there we encountered the one great sorrow of the season. My 19-year-old American niece Ember was along to see the Czech relatives and my mother-in-law and father-in-law took the opportunity to try to lecture her on the dangers of living without a television and the genetic flaws of the Romani people. When my husband came in the later topic started to get out of control. Ember had the presence of mind to check whether the children were within earshot and, since they were in the next room, she left carrying them. Having overheard raised voices, I was coming to find the children when I met Ember and the children leaving the scene. The children appeared oblivious to the poisonous racist rhetoric being produced… this time at least. While we are blessed in so many ways, the shadow of the times follows through every season.

Shaye knows that she and Marik are Romani. I think she is a bit confused about how it is that they are and we are not, although I have reassured her that we are all partly Romani because part of our family is Romani. She enjoys our few Romani books and fondly remembers our Romani language teacher, who couldn’t continue teaching due to major health problems. Shaye’s preschool teacher remains wonderfully open and welcoming of our cultural and ethnic differences and I have begun to do monthly volunteer workshops for the kids at the preschool about different cultures.

For now, the hardest part remains relations with the Czech side of our family. We continue to visit them because, aside from Ember, we have no other family here.

A rare and precious picture of us with Shaye and our Czech nieces Evicka and Bara during the holidays - Need I say more? This is why we keep going back despite the difficulties and conflicts.

A rare and precious picture of us with Shaye and our Czech nieces Evicka and Bara during the holidays – Need I say more? This is why we keep going back despite the difficulties and conflicts.