Notes on Generosity, Writing and Change

I’m wearing gloves and wielding a knife. Jalapeños litter my cutting board and papery garlic skins float along the counter. My mom is dumping a bowl of green peppers into the food processor when the phone company technician opens our back door and sniffs.

“Mmm, smells good,” he says with an accent. Indian, maybe? He nods appreciatively and  heads down the basement stairs, pulling wires behind him.

“It’s a lot of garlic and onions,” I say. “We’re making salsa.”

Each trip he makes to his truck in the alley he inspects my yard with interest. When he comes back in he asks me about the raspberries, plums, grapes and other plants. Then, just before he leaves I hand him a plastic grocery bag, throwing it into the air to puff it out. “Here. Do you eat tomatoes? Hot peppers? Take all you want!”

I turn around and get back to work. For the next 15 minutes I’m in a dark corner of my basement, sorting through canning jars and looking for lids. At the same time he is stuffing the bag I gave him, harvesting every ripe and juicy tomato on the property. His shopping bag bulges to overflowing with produce. When I come upstairs with my load of jars he is gone.

“Well he certainly took your word for it. He grabbed as much as he wanted,” my mom comments while looking out the kitchen window at the garden.

The heirloom Brandywine tomatoes I was waiting for, heavy on the vine but not quite ready, are gone. As are the romas–the ones destined for another batch of sauce and the beefsteaks. “Mmm,” I respond at first, not too bothered. But then I start thinking of all the hours of labour, of starting seeds from scratch in my window, gingerly handling the transplants, mulching with last season’s leaves, of watering and tending. That’s when I get a little ornery. I had, after all, expected him to say “Oh thank you so much” and take a dozen or so back to his wife in Saskatoon. I had not expected him to ravage every last plant.

I’ve been reading Braiding Sweetgrass  by Robin Wall Kimmerer and loved her essay on generosity and gift economy. It gave me such warm fuzzy feelings in my armchair. I had murmured in agreement and savoured every word. Obviously, the philosophy of lavish generosity is easier for me to swallow than the practise.

The earth on the other hand, especially at this time of year, seems to stick to the “no holds barred” motto. We spin out honey, stuff moose sausage, make wine, dry garlic, catch fish and yet we still can’t keep up to her. Gifts spill over and around us.

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plums, melons and grapes are now in season on our lot

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PREFACE- Six days. Three boats. Four adults. Six kids. Five portages. Three bears. Zero attacks.

On the way to meet my sister and her family for our adventure I say to the kids, “So there will be more portaging on this trip than we’ve ever done before but we’ll just enjoy the hiking. Maybe stop for snacks, you know, or sketch wildflowers…”

Stan shifts in his seat and reaches his hand to adjust the rear-view mirror. “Well, we don’t want it to be too easy do we? We still want it to be character-building.”

EPILOGUE – I lay in bed for 2 days after the trip. I thought I had maybe caught a bug–my whole body ached and my fingers felt arthritic. Turns out I was just recuperating from all the character-building portages.

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before the launch

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Tara and I paddled with 4 kids. Our canoe was dubbed the “voyageur school bus” or the “party canoe”.  The men and two other kids traveled with the gear.

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totally posed at the beginning of an arduous portage

In a few years those delicate bodies pictured above will be strapping young men and women able to shoulder most of our weight. What a day that will be! They owe us a canoe trip or two.

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Day 6

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Back to school. Back to routine. Back to sticking around our home. Summer is fast, furious and fleeting like the heat. “You can sleep in winter; we don’t have time for that in summer,” I tell the kids when they tire of our pack-go-unpack-repack routine. With all of this going it has been hard to squeeze in writing. I still want to find words for speaking at camp, kitchen parties and growing food but am not sure when it will happen. I have started an essay about canoe tripping and listening. I will submit it somewhere eventually, because that’s writers do.

That’s when a writer is successful–when she is submitting, not when her article is accepted, not when she’s long-listed for the CBC non-fiction prize (which I wasn’t, Kirsten) and not when an agent hunts her down. She is successful when she cracks open her laptop. When she punches out a jumbled paragraph, when she lands on a metaphor in the shower. A writer is successful when she’s writing.

Can you tell I’m getting ready for Wonderscape? And can you guess what the theme of the retreat is?

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Coming up in 10 days…

Success, Failure and YourCreative Journey(1)

Can’t wait to gather with strangers and friends from around the country. Every year it’s been magical. Hopeful this year will be the same. (There’s been a cancellation; check out this page for your last minute chance!)

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Change is a constant around here. Changing shoe sizes. Changing instruments (cello and trombone have been added to the mix). Changing heights. Changing accents. (Vivian has been experimenting with articulation, specifically her hard Rs. I try to remain non-chalant every time I hear it, but it’s about as sharp and conspicious as a machete.)

One thing that never seems to change is the big girls’ devotion to the little girl. I smile when I remember the well-meaning visitor who came to visit two days after Vivi was born. She watched Susanna and Belén flutter around the baby, sighed and commented knowingly, “This won’t last long. Give them two weeks and the novelty will wear off.”

Well, it’s been four years and here they are, fighting at the table, each older sister desperate to show Vivi how to draw an uppercase E at the same time. This is a kind of bickering for which I am entirely grateful.

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I’ve written so much. Thanks for reading.

T

 

 

A Moving Hallelujah

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In the months following the birth of my first child my own mother made me walk. When I couldn’t see through the thick fog of postpartum depression she took my hand and led the way. The instructions she gave were simple: eat, go to bed, and let me hold the baby. But the most important direction was Go for a walk. At the beginning I resisted. My shirt was wet from leaking milk, the baby was crying, and I didn’t think I had it in me. She told me I did.

Just go around the block. All you need is a few minutes to get outside and breathe.”

Because I didn’t have the energy to fight I would schlep myself around the block and this feat would take me all of seven minutes. These walks didn’t make everything better, they didn’t make my baby stop crying or transport me back to my old life, but they became a key part of my routine. And although I’ve been following my mother’s instruction for the last 13 years, it’s only recently I’ve realized that walking is not just a tool in my self-help kit. Walking is one of my most important spiritual disciplines.

I’ve always longed to be a woman of prayer. I am awed by the privilege afforded us to partner with the Creator to effect real change in our world. The problem is, I can never seem to find enough time, or muster up enough focus, to do it in a way that seems world-changing enough. Whenever I resolve to sit and pray, for even ten minutes, I disappoint myself. Two minutes in and I’m suddenly noticing how heavy my head feels, at six minutes I’m humming along with my 10-year-old who is yodelling in the shower, and by nine minutes I’ve shifted to the reclined position, convincing myself that rest is also an important spiritual discipline. To those of us who struggle, sage prayer warriors often suggest dedicating a specific space for prayer. A special room, chair, or even a closet may be just the thing that fuels your prayer life, but it hasn’t worked for me. My home is too small and my walls are much too thin, but I’ve found something else to house my prayer life: a mile-long stretch of ground.

My favorite place of prayer isn’t a location but an action. As one foot moves in front of the other, my body relaxes into a rhythm my spirit remembers. Like a skilled musician whose fingers carry the muscle memory of a sonata, so my entire body opens itself to the Divine invitation. My flexing calves, rotating ankles and expanding diaphragm coordinate with nerves, synapses and that part of me which can’t be parsed into cells and tissues—my soul–to answer His call with a resounding “Yes”. Yes, I am ready for you Jesus. Open my eyes, ears and heart to your gifts. Teach me today.

Occasionally, I take a slip of paper with a verse written on it to guide my meditation, and recently I tried to follow the acronym ACTS (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication) to make sure I covered all my bases, but most often I lace up my shoes, get moving, and give up control of the whole process. Much like a conversation I might have with my sister, my prayers usually don’t follow a formula or a linear time-line. For example, I see a flock of chickadees trying to perch on a tree to face the setting sun. About 150 of them fly around, land, switch places, face the western horizon, switch places again, then re-settle into their botanical theatre to watch the show. While observing the whole charade, praise surges through me. I am in love with this comical and beautiful world and its Creator! In the same moment, I continue to pray for my friend Jacquie, that her vertebrae would miraculously shift to make room for her nerves and that she would be permanently healed of her searing neck pain. My thoughts tumble around, as thoughts tend to, and while I plead for Jacquie I am also aware of God’s great care, beauty and humour, all manifested in a flock of chickadees.

The astounding thing about this approach is that it works. And it’s not because God decides to show up, He’s always already there, but because I am in a posture where I can recognize him. Although I don’t hear a booming voice from the sky, I still hear Him speak. Sometimes I get ideas for articles I’m in the middle of writing. Other times I feel a clear call to action; to check-up on someone with a phone call, to apologize to my daughter for my harsh words, or to introduce two people who need to know one another. And every single time I manage to inhale and exhale, which is a holy “word” from God in, and of, itself.

Interacting with my Designer in this visceral way is as natural and intimate as catching they eye of your lover across a crowded room. He understands my intentions, and laborious explanations are unnecessary. When I walk with Him I am spending time with the One who knows me best and there is nothing contrived about it. In fact, my recent awareness of this discipline is thrilling because it feels exactly the opposite of a pious act. I don’t have to sit indoors, close my eyes, and will myself to focus, focus, focus. I just move my body and that, alone, is an amazing hallelujah.

It’s not a new trend either. From Adam and Eve, who walked and talked with God in the garden, to pilgrims around the world, his followers have been doing it all through time. I am merely another in a long list of devotees who has discovered that my Maker meets me in this kind of moving meditation.

Perhaps all of this sounds too easy. Where is the discipline in this open-ended approach? Shouldn’t a spiritual practise involve more rigour than simply going for a stroll? Although the discipline of walking has become a joy, and something I crave, there are a few guidelines I follow:

Walk regularly. If you don’t have time to walk for an hour, start with 15 minutes. If you think it’s too cold, too windy, or too hot, dress appropriately. I walk in all four seasons, in the giddiness of spring and in the languor of summer, when fall leaves turn bright as mango flesh and when the snow crunches underfoot.

Walk alone. Although I have occasionally gone on prayer walks with other people, my conversation with God is more stilted when I am with a group. Unless you have no social filter, or are never self-conscious, it’s best to do this on your own.

Walk where you won’t be distracted. Choose a route you are familiar with, preferably on a quiet street or trail where you won’t have to interact with a lot of other people.

Expect God to join you. Don’t worry about an agenda or try to force your prayer. Begin your walk by asking God to give you an open mind and heart. Take a slip of scripture in your pocket if you like, or start by praying for the people and houses you pass, but most of all remember that God is as near as your breath and promises to walk with you whether you notice him or not.

These days I don’t need my mother to tell me to get outside and go for a walk. I know when I hear the wind in the long grass, feel the sun on my face and stretch my legs that I’m doing exactly what I should be doing. I am listening and responding to God with all my muscle, mind and spirit. I am praying the best way I know how.

Note: This piece was published by David C Cook in Power for Living earlier this year. I’m sharing it here today to celebrate fall and routine and that I’m back to walking… It’s been a wonderful summer but I’ve only had time to write blogs in my head. Looking forward to coming back here soon. As always, thanks for taking the time to read. -Tricia

How to Remind Yourself of Who You Want to Be

A sense of dread and awkwardness fills the van as we pull up to the reunion.

“Why are we coming to this thing?” one daughter asks, pulling suitcases from the trunk. “We should’ve stayed home or gone to Grandma’s house.”

“Yah, we’ve never even been to South America!” adds another one.

Our kids are here because we made them come. Stan and I are here because, along with everyone else at this gathering, we volunteered with Mennonite Central Committee in Bolivia. Some attendees overlapped with our terms of service (1999-2004) but many others are from different eras.

“This will be great,” I say halfheartedly, while sweat trickles down my chest. I push my sunglasses on top of my head so I can greet people in a few moments, but even I’m starting to wonder why we made the trip when I open the doors to the retreat centre. The lobby is full of people, most of whom I’ve never met, and our family of five maneuvers through the crowd to get to the registration table and pick up a key to our room as quickly as possible. It feels like we need to regroup already.

Once we unlock our door, the kids and I survey the space; worn grey carpets, thin mattresses, a bulky TV from the eighties, plain grey walls with no pictures and a line of cabinets, circa 1960.

“Mmm, this is authentic,” I say. “It’s hot out and the hotel is just a wee bit nicer than most hotels we stayed at in Boli.”

Susanna is checking out the linoleum tile and pokes her head out of the bathroom. “Well I never want to go to Bolivia then!”

After gathering to eat, after singing a prayer together (a doxology in 4-part harmony almost like this:) ), after group introductions and watching row after row of people come forward to talk about the small villages and cities where they volunteered in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s, after catching up with people I hadn’t seen in more than 15 years, memories begin to stir…

The setting sun throwing shadows on the San Juan mountainside; how the hills became a giant piece of emerald velour carpet, crumpled with canyons and creeks, vines and trees. The smell of baking bread in a wood-fired clay oven, a mix of yeast, hot clay and smoke. The fresh milk squirted straight into my cup under the cow’s teat–immediately mixed with a shot of alcohol and sugar. The nausea of 12-hour bus-rides; winding through switchbacks up and down the infamous Inca Wasi to get to our home in Taperillas. The kiss-and-hug greeting in the city, the traditional arms-length pat-pat in the villages. The red dirt in which we grew Lab-Lab beans and tomatoes. Making almuerzo with our roommate Juan, squatting on the cement floor slicing onions. The wild honey. The walking. And walking. And more walking. The women who became my mothers, sisters, friends and confidantes when I had never felt more alone. The chicha, oh the ubiquitous chicha–a sweet, fermented drink made of chewed corn and saliva. The horse races in the chaco. The day-trips to town for a backpack full of grocery staples.

The next evening of the retreat is filled with stories and Bolivian folk songs. “Viva Santa Cruz!” we all stand up and shout, while looking out at the Winnipeg river and the Canadian shield. Stan sings and plays his favourite taquirari, Sombrero de Sao. Rene holds his hands high and claps when Brisa and Helena sing the cueca Moto Mendez; another lady waves a white handkerchief to the rhythm. Later that night, while getting ready for bed, my three-year-old sits on the potty and sings earnestly. It’s all gibberish, with a rhyme or two, and a melody I don’t recognize. I raise my eyebrows and look at Stan.

“She’s singing in Spanish, just like everyone else,” he informs me.

By this time it’s beginning to dawn on my why we came to the retreat. We came because we need to remind ourselves who we are and what has shaped us. We came because we wanted to be inspired by the farmers, professors, artists, business people, kids and wanderers who landed up in Bolivia alongside, or before, us. We came because we wanted to speak Spanish and eat empanadas. We came because we wanted to rub shoulders again with adventurers, dreamers and doers who are willing to explore other cultures. We came because we needed to visit with people who are passionate about social justice. We came because we wanted our children to see that there is more to this world than the small, prairie town where we currently live.

And yet, when someone asks me if we will take our family to live abroad, I’m not sure what to say.

“Of course, that was the plan,” I say. “It’s always been the plan, but somehow it’s not happening.” I pause. “My wanderlust has a hyper-local focus these days.” It’s true that I’m more interested in the bacteria growing in my compost pile, or the neighbour who just immigrated to Canada, than moving across the world. In fact, it seems unlikely we’ll be going anywhere when there is so much happening right where we are.

The person who asked the question nods and seems to understands, even though he took his own children to live in Bolivia.

We need to gather in groups like this where it’s easy to understand and be understood. To find our people. Whether they be scrap-bookers, gamers, Young Living distributors or whatever. In fact, if you’re like me “your people” aren’t constituted by a single group. Some are likely family members or classmates from years gone by. Some might be work buddies or old friends. Where ever they are they remind you of who you are and what you want.

My people certainly aren’t perfect, and this particular reunion wasn’t even that long. And yes, the first few moments were painful. Yes, it took energy to meet and greet and reconnect. Yes, I got tired of talking. But it was worth it. I remembered again who I want to be.

An adventurer.

Passionate for social justice.

All because of Jesus.

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Taperillas community store, 2002; Don Pascual and I are helping with accounting.

Thanks to all of you at MCC who taught me and continue to inspire me!

 

 

Do People Like Bugs in Their Hair?

I’m brushing through Vivian’s hair when I see it. A big, greyish-white piece of something. Is it a wood chip? It doesn’t move when I run the brush over it so I take a closer look. That’s when I see the bloated body lodged in her scalp. It’s a wood tick, swollen like I’ve seen before on cattle, but never on my daughters. We get them frequently but usually pull them out before they reach this stage of bloody gluttony.

“Oh,” I say, measuring my response, as if I had just noticed a piece of lint.

I call Stan at work for some moral support, give her a piece of chocolate to suck on and lay her head in my lap. I brush away her hair and slowly extract the bulbous insect with tweezers, taking pains to avoid injecting bacteria into my daughter’s body.

I drop the tick into the jar and cap it quickly. “Here, do you wanna see what was in your head?” I ask Vivi.

She picks her herself off my lap and peers into the glass. No reaction. Then her eyes meet mine.

“Mommy, do people like it when they have bugs in their head?”

“Um,” I say, stalling for some reason. Obviously, the right answer is NO but I can’t bring myself to say it. Maybe it’s because she’s so sincere, with her bobbing pig-tails, looking for a cue on how to respond. At this moment I am acutely aware of my responsibility in shaping her world and am almost scared to say anything at all.

“Well,” I say, “what do you think? Do you like bugs in your head?

In ten years, I won’t have this kind of power. I know this all too well. Then I will wish and hope and pray that my influence will be lasting. That everything I say, stand for and believe in will stick. If I’m anything like the mom I am today, I will get in her face, ask her questions when she doesn’t feel like talking and remind myself of a desperate boyfriend. Funny how life works like this. When we’ve got power, it makes us uncomfortable; when it starts slipping away, we grab on tighter. Even when we know we need to let go.

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Some other stuff happening around here…

June beach day

swanky beehive box

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proof that Grandma from Indiana is here

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Dressing the corn with a bit of compost… Hoping for our first crop ever!!

Purple beans, garlic, brandy wine tomatoes, cukes and grapes in the foreground

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Major project of the week: 8-frame honey extractor made with a one-horse motor and upcycled materials, which my husband a father-in-law call “ingredients”.

Belén’s grade eight grad…

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Happy Canada Day!

 

 

 

On Jesus and Indoctrinating Your Children

An open letter/blog to any parent considering sending their child to Bible camp…

When the camp director asks me to speak for a week at camp this summer I am totally surprised. How did my name come up? And why would they want me to speak? My first inclination is to say no; partly because of the time it will take to prepare and partly because I don’t feel like I’m a good fit–you know, the rah-rah preacher raising the chapel roof. It’s not that I don’t identify with the core beliefs of the camp, but I’ve never been comfortable selling Christianity. In general, I can smell a sales pitch from a mile away and feel violated when someone targets me as a potential client, whether they’re pushing a political view, Tupperware or the Watch Tower. It all makes me want to run the other direction.

While on the phone with director, asking him about details, I’m also thinking about conversations I’ve had with multiple parents and their distaste for Bible camp. Particularly the emotionally-charged services where vulnerable children, many away from home for the first time, are subjected to religious manipulation. Now I was being asked to be a major player in this? To stand at the front of the chapel, preaching to the sunburned, mosquito-bitten, hyper children who come for a week of fun but go home indoctrinated?

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I’m driving with 4 other teenagers in my car and listening to their animated conversation.

“She told me I was going to hell on judgement day! Can you believe that?”

A burst of laughter erupts in the back seat.

“Yeah, it’s just a bunch of rules. Outdated and boring.”

“I once had to say the Hail Mary, like, 59 times. I hated it!”

“Religion is so repulsive,” says another.

More laughter.

My hands grip the steering wheel and I bite my lip. I can see there has been a terrible misunderstanding. The programs, curriculum, traditions, institutions and well-meaning followers are eclipsing their centre, their very heart. Which is what happens when people see Christianity instead of Jesus. A religion, instead of a person.

Soon the conversation skips to another topic, but my insides ache while I process my unspoken response:

Have you read the book of Matthew lately? Or even just chapters 5, 6 and 7?

Have you watched him turn water into wine? Water to wine! Not the other way around.

Have you listened to his stories of mustard seeds and outcasts and rebel sons who return home?

Have you seen him bend low to draw in the dirt to save a desperate woman?

Did you hear his whisper at the cross, his compassion for the criminal hanging beside him?

You can complain all you want to me about religion and I will probably agree with most of it. But show me Jesus and I come undone.

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I decide I will speak at camp. Every hour I spend drafting and researching, I get more excited. I still couldn’t care less whether your children go to church every Sunday or have never sat in a pew. Whether they Muslim or Christian, cynics or charismatics. I’m not in the business of selling Christianity, nor of converting, convincing or conniving. That is impossible. And as absurd as forcing someone to feel the rhythm of a song, gape at the northern lights or fall in love with a person.

You can sell things or even ideas, but you don’t sell people; you introduce people, you connect people, or maybe even match-make people. So dear parents, don’t worry about me indoctrinating your children. I’m not the least bit interested in that. My only agenda is to show them Jesus. And, if you’ve ever heard music, looked at the night sky, or felt the spark of romance, you’ll understand that most of this has nothing to do with me anyway.

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Propaganda

I’ve been trying to come up with a story or something meaningful to blog about so I can sneak in propaganda* about Wonderscape. The problem is I don’t have anything funny or thoughtful that I can spin into Come to Wonderscape. Especially not before I have to get off-line and pick up my three -year-old from her play-date.

So there it is. Come to Wonderscape. Sign-up before Friday (the early-bird deadline). Sign up before it fills (less than 10 spaces left). Sign up if you want to talk about success and failure and how it affects our artistic journeys. Sign up if you like autumn, lakes and prairie skies. Sign up if you want to create, eat, then create and eat again. Sign up if you’re a professional artist. Sign up if you are an amateur. Sign up if you live across the country. Sign up if you live next door.

Okay, tired of that?

Wait, here’s more propaganda…

On the way to school this morning I told my daughters I was doing a radio interview today on Wonderscape.

“Really?” Susanna asked. “They can’t find anyone else to talk to?”

Luckily for me, they slipped me into their schedule! Thanks to Jordan at the Rock 98.5, you can listen to the conversation here. Or watch another interview on CTV News if you’re still curious. (I come on at 16:33 minutes.)

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*Propaganda is the Spanish translation of “advertising”. It doesn’t carry the same negative connotations as it does in English (which might be why I get funny looks when I use it) and is more fun to say.

…And then some things never change

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I will always be a mother. Even when we’re out of pink rubber boots and sparkles. Even when my kids are 43 and 51 and 53.

Stan heard this song on the radio, on his way home from work, and made the girls listen to it. They learned it a couple days before Mother’s day, and instead of breakfast-in-bed they sang it while I was still in my pajamas. I made them repeat it at least 4 times. I’ve since played Brandi Carlile’s video over and over, and requested they perform the song at an upcoming coffee house. Both of them think that would be weird, since they are 11 and 13 and neither are mothers. I told them it doesn’t matter and please sing it and play guitar and fiddle and harmonize and make me cry! They are not convinced.

Here’s the official video since you might never hear it from them.

The Mother
Welcome to the end of being alone inside your mind
You’re tethered to another and you’re worried all the time
You always knew the melody but you never heard it rhyme
She’s fair and she is quiet, Lord, she doesn’t look like me
She made me love the morning, she’s a holiday at sea
The New York streets are busy as they always used to be
But I am the mother of Evangeline
The first things that she took from me were selfishness and sleep
She broke a thousand heirlooms I was never meant to keep
She filled my life with color, canceled plans, and trashed my car
But none of that was ever who we are… (see video for more)
Songwriters: Brandi M. Carlile / Phillip John Hanseroth / Timothy Jay Hanseroth
Ps. This post is an addendum to the previous post, titled Change.