Tearing down fences

Tearing down fences

While I was away on Friday driving back and forth to pick up Andrew from that film camp, I got a text message from my husband that said this: “I’m taking down the fence.”

What fence? I responded in my mind, but not with my fingers.

Surely, he doesn’t mean the six-foot fence that surrounds our backyard, keeping people from randomly roaming onto our property.

He couldn’t mean the fence that probably cost many thousands of dollars for the previous owners to build.

Not the fence that has given me great peace of mind when my children are playing in the backyard.

Could he be talking about the fence that might someday keep a hypothetical dog that we have talked about purchasing from potentially running away?

From the day we moved into this house four years ago, my husband has been talking about tearing down our fence. We’ve discussed it several times since then, but I always assumed this was an idea for a project he would work on after the kids had all gone off to college or maybe once we retire. I didn’t know he meant we should take down the fence right now!

When I got home, I walked through the house and straight to the backyard. For the first time, I could see from our deck into the prairie behind our house without anything obstructing my view. It was amazing!

Still, I felt a tinge of uncertainty as the reality set in that the fence was gone. What was making me so anxious?

I’ve been reading a great book the past few weeks by Bob Goff. The book is called, Everybody, Always. In it, Goff tells stories about how he has been convicted in life to try to love everybody.

Always.

I often choke back tears as he writes about the woman in his neighborhood that he cared for as she died of cancer. I feel inspired by how he learned to sky dive, just so he could spend more time with his son doing something he loved to do. I get motivated reading about the parade that he organizes in his neighborhood every year, just to create a sense of community.

I listen to his stories and I tell myself that I want to be like that. I want to do stuff like that. I want to live like that.

But then reality sets in, and I realize that what I really want is to live inside a fence.

At the church our family attends (and the place I work), we have four core values, which we call our “code.” One of them is that we want to leave isolation for community. It sounds so simple. So fun. And really like a no-brainer.

The truth is, it’s easier to live in isolation. It’s easier to hide inside a fence. In fact, it’s cozy.

Living in community sounds fun. But then you have to start dealing with reality. People get cancer. Their husbands walk out on them. Their kids do stupid things. When you live in community, you can’t just sit inside your nice fence, pretending you can’t see over the six-foot wooden barricade.

But an amazing thing has happened during the past few days since my husband tore down our fence.

I’ve been mad at myself for holding onto that fence for so long. I can’t believe how much prettier life is now. I can see all of the white flowers that are blooming across the prairie. I have an even better view of the sunset, without having to stand on my tippy toes. When people walk by on the trail behind our house, we wave and yell, “Hello!” I feel silly that we didn’t remove that fence a long time ago. We’ve already spent four years looking around it and through it and over it when we could have been enjoying our beautiful view!

Sure, there’s always the risk that someone I don’t know will meander too close to our yard. There’s a very real possibility that a coyote or fox could run through our yard during the night. And we will probably bother our neighbors at some point with all of the kids that gather in our back yard.

But that’s OK. Our house is so much better this way.

I want to remember that next time I’m tempted to build a fence.

**

 

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Fresh starts and flower fields

Fresh starts and flower fields

I woke up this morning with a heavy heart thinking of all of the devastation in our world today. We have been praying all weekend for friends in Florida who had to evacuate their homes, not knowing what they might return to after Hurricane Irma swept through this weekend. And Sept. 11 brings with it so much grief as I think back on what was the most devastating day in the United States in my lifetime.

I felt a strange sense of guilt this morning as I headed out to walk our second grader to school, enjoying a gorgeous blue sky, radiant sunshine and a crisp cool morning. It’s always strange on days like this to continue doing what you normally do when you feel like you should be able to just make time stop as a way to commemorate the pain people are enduring.

So, I hope I don’t seem callous or uncaring, but this morning I’m also thinking about fresh starts. In the wake of all that’s happening around us, I guess I should be happy that one of the most exciting things going on in my little world lately has to do with mowing.

What?

One of the things that brings me a ton of joy every morning is that I get to step outside on my back deck and look out at a huge expanse of prairie grass. Our subdivision is built around a 64-acre prairie, and our house backs up to a nature trail that circles the tall grass.

For the past week, the park district, which maintains the area, has been sending out a mowing crew to cut down the grass. This is our fourth fall living here, and this is the first time we’ve seen them attempt to actually mow the entire prairie, which is about 10-feet tall in some areas.

To call it “mowing” really seems like an understatement. These guys have been driving around on vehicles that look more like farm equipment to cut down and then chop up the tall grass.

I absolutely love stuff like this. I’m not very good at keeping up with house work or maintaining day-to-day chores. But I love a big project. Give me a super dirty garage floor or a deck to stain, and I’m all in!

I’ve been amazed to watch them out there, day after day, whacking away at all of those acres of grass.

We’ve never been able to see across the prairie before, so we have taken great joy in walking right across the middle where it used to be completely covered in grass that was so tall and dense you couldn’t possibly create a path. I’ve also been amazed to see what has been growing all of this time right in the middle of the prairie.

Thankfully, the mowers have spared the big sections of wildflowers that were hidden in patches behind all of that tall grass. For the first time, we can walk out to the middle and look over large sections of yellow wildflowers.

Of COURSE, I have been day dreaming about what a nice family photo we could take standing in the middle of all of those yellow flowers. I convinced my family to walk out there with me last night to snap a few quick photos with the tripod and self timer.

I love watching them clear out all of that grass that is dying and turning brown. Most of the time in fall and winter, we stare out at that field of dried up brown grass, feeling like we need to go out there ourselves and chop it down, but knowing we couldn’t even make a dent in such a large project.

I’m happy that the prairie gets a chance to start fresh. The new grass won’t have to fight its way through all of that brown, dead growth. It looks so thick and heavy, it seems like it would suffocate the plants.

It also reminds me of my own life. I always love fall because it feels like a chance to start fresh again. Once we get back into our fall routines, it feels like permission to try something new. To do things differently. I love that no matter how things went during the previous season of life, we always have the hope of new beginnings. We don’t have to always do things the way we’ve always done them. We can start over. Or try something for the first time.

Looking out at the prairie, I’m also reminded that I need to let go of some of the things that are weighing me down. I have dead prairie grass in my life that needs to be mowed and chopped up to give me room to breath and grow.

I’ve been thinking about what’s dead and dried up that I can clear out of my life. Because, who knows? I might just uncover a field of wild flowers.

**

What about you? Is there anything you can clear out of your life to give you a fresh start?

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The disaster in our backyard

The disaster in our backyard

One of the universal truths about life it that sometimes the most difficult situations are the ones that create the best and most long-lasting memories.

These are the times when everyone in a family has to set aside his or her agenda and expectations and work together as a team. They have to think strategically and problem solve together. And sometimes, they have to race against time to work toward a solution.

That’s what happened to our family this morning. And I’m certain that someday we all will look back at Dec. 26, 2016, and be able to laugh at how we worked together to fix the disaster in our backyard.

**

As many people know, we built an ice rink in our back yard this year. This is the fourth year that we have built a rink, so we consider ourselves somewhat experienced in how to build a solid rink that will endure for the winter. However, it was the first time we had built a rink at our new house, and it was the largest rink that we had ever built.

For the past week, we have been excessively excited about the fun and joy the rink has brought our family. Our kids have had lots of friends over and spent hours during the day and into the evening outside skating. The kids have played broom ball, we taught our youngest to skate, my husband and I have enjoyed skating and we have had big plans to invite friends over throughout the Christmas break for some outdoor fun.

I wasn’t too concerned when I heard the temperature was going to suddenly rise to nearly 60 degrees today. What’s the worst that could happen? I assumed the ice would melt, giving us a nice smooth surface to skate. No worries.

This morning, we were getting our things together to head out to celebrate Christmas with our family. We could see out the window that the rink was full of water, but we still weren’t concerned. The hubs went out to check on things, and when he came back in, he delivered the startling news.

“The ice rink is done.”

I struggled for several minutes to comprehend the meaning of the word, “done.”

Done?

**

I went outside to see for myself.

Constructing a backyard ice rink is a fairly simple process. It’s basically a wooden frame, an enormous piece of plastic and a ton of water. Because the yard at this house has a slight incline, the back of the rink is about two feet deeper than the front of the rink. My husband had built a large wall at the back of the rink to hold the extra water. The plastic was clamped to the top of that wall.

As the ice melted and the wind picked up overnight, the plastic had been pulled away from the clamps. It had been pulled under the water and was sitting at the bottom. There was no way to pull the plastic back up because it was weighed down by an enormous iceberg that is 35 feet wide by 45 feet long, mixed with thousands of gallons of freezing water.

As we both stood looking at the situation, our minds were racing with the inevitable situation before us. Without the plastic tarp as a barrier, water was already leaking out several cracks in the wooden wall. It was only 8 a.m., so the ice would continue to melt as the temperature rose all day. The water would continue to pour out the back. We needed to leave town in three hours and while we were gone, the water would freeze again, trapping the tarp underneath. We wouldn’t be able to fill the rink again because we wouldn’t have the tarp to hold the water. So basically, several hundred dollars in materials and water and about 40 hours of work were now all going to waste.

As my husband said, “Done.”

 

**

“We can’t leave.”

I’m not sure why this thought had not crossed our minds before. We were going to have to all deal with our sadness of missing my family gathering. We needed to stay here and come up with a plan.

His suggestion sounded crazy to me.

First, we would need to drain the water. I watched in dismay as we purposely let thousands of gallons of water pour out the back of the rink.

Next, he would use a chainsaw to cut the ice the length of the rink about five feet in from the wall.

 

We would remove the huge chunks of ice.

 

We would remove the wall and pull out the separated sheets of ice.

We would pull up the tarp.

We would move the back wall in about five feet, reattach the tarp, patch the holes and have some chance of saving the rink.

All hands on deck.

For the next six hours, my husband and the kids went to work. (I mainly took photos, made food and cleaned up after everyone.)

I remarked several times that I was very thankful we had a 60 degree day to get this done. “If it wasn’t 60 degrees we wouldn’t have this problem!” my son kept reminding me.

We raced against rising temps that threatened to melt more ice, letting even more water pour out before my husband could reassemble the wall.

**

Shockingly, after a full day of hard labor and team work, the rink is looking good. We went from thinking the situation was hopeless, to creating a plan and working together to make it happen. Everything is put back together, and we are hoping the holes in the plastic are sealed. We are all sad we didn’t get to be with family today, and everyone is sore and tired.

Hopefully, sometime in the future when everyone is warm and dry or maybe skating on the rink, this day will make us smile. Maybe someday, this day will stand out from all the rest as one of those days when we worked together to solve a crisis.

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the little red barn that could

the little red barn that could

It’s been such a mild winter so far, but back in November we had a nice snowstorm. Normally, I wouldn’t have even gone out that day. But the girls and I are devoted shoppers. So we headed over to our church for our annual fair trade shopping event, Hope for the Holidays.

By the time we were coming home, the snow was falling in big wet flakes. The roads were a mess, and the snowplows hadn’t touched the country roads we take back to our house. We were taking our time driving home, and the girls were anxious to get out of the weather.

On the other hand, I was doing my usual thing. I was scanning the beautiful scenery covered in fresh-fallen snow. The air was thick with snowflakes. Everything was covered in white. That’s when I spotted the red barn. It looked so peaceful and bright in contrast.

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“Do you mind if I pull over for just one second,” I asked the girls. “I have to take a photo of that barn!”

“NOooooooo!” they cried. “Please take us home.”

I kept driving. It was about four more miles to our house. I dropped them off with their dad, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that barn. I just had to go back for one quick photo.

The snow was falling so hard now that I was the only one who seemed to be driving anywhere on that Saturday afternoon. I stopped my van right in the middle of the country road, stuck my camera out the window and snapped a photo. Then I turned around and drove back home

A week later, I noticed that the U.S. National Weather Service was having a photo contest. My friend, Cheryl Lynn, had actually told me months earlier that I should submit my photos to the weather service contest, so I had liked their page. But I didn’t take the time to figure out when the contest was held or how to enter. On this particular week, they were posting the results of that week’s contest, which had just ended.

I sent a note asking how to enter the contest, and uploaded my barn photo to their page. I didn’t realize that by uploading the photo, I was entering the next week’s contest. I had simply meant to share it with other weather geeks like me. I actually thought it was too late to enter since I had taken the photo the previous week.

A week later, I didn’t notice the next contest had begun. And I didn’t notice my photo was included. I didn’t even know they were having a new contest until Sunday night when a friend posted on my FB wall a notice saying I had won! The “award” for winning was that my photo became the cover photo for the U.S. National Weather Service’s Facebook page.

My husband and I were cracking up that evening after it was posted. We both sat with our phones in our hands, watching people like and share my photo. By the next morning, it had gained more than 2,500 likes. I know that doesn’t even come close to the world’s definition of “going viral,” but it was the closest I had ever come. More than 150 people had shared my photo and dozens more left me nice comments.

That was early December.

This week, the U.S. National Weather Service announced that all of the winners of the weekly photo contests from 2015 would go into a contest for Photo of the Year. I didn’t think my photo had a chance of making it past the first round of 52.

Over the past few days, I’ve watched as my photo made it into the second round of the 20 top vote getters, and then into the third round of the Top 10. Today it made it to Round Three, the Top Five. In each round but the first, it has been the second most liked photo.

I realize this isn’t a prestigious photo contest with professional entries and a big prize. But it has been so fun for several reasons.

1. I love the way my simple photo of a barn in a snowstorm has touched people’s hearts. Even by my own standard, my photo lacks glamour. It’s been up against gleaming shots of the the Chicago skyline. It’s stood up against the blood red moon by Navy Pier. And it’s outlasted menacing storm clouds and amazing sunsets. People have left comments saying they feel like the photo is a slice of Americana. It takes them back to another time or reminds them of home. It makes people feel good.

2. I’ve been blown away by how so many friends have shared and liked my photo. At first, I thought it was kind of annoying that the contest was based on people voting. I didn’t want to ask for votes. I just wanted people to like it if they really liked it. But then so many friends started sharing it, and their friends would share it. It has been so fun just to see so many people get behind that little red barn. Honestly, seeing my friends get involved has been more fun than the contest itself.

3. I’ve really been proud of that little red barn. I didn’t even notice at first the broken rail on the fence. Or the American flag blowing proudly in the wind. I drive past the barn almost every day, and to be honest, I don’t even give it a second glance most days. But on that particular snow-covered day, that barn was showing off her beauty. It makes me feel great that I got to show that to so many people.

The little red barn made it to the final round of the photo contest this evening, and I’m really good with whatever place she takes at this point. Thank you so much to everyone who has voted for the barn and what she represents. Thank you for voting for an old farm still standing in the middle of suburban sprawl. Thank you for voting for small town life and an American flag waving proudly in the middle of a snowstorm. Thank you for voting even if it was just to be nice. And if you feel like it, you can vote once more for the little red bard that could. #votefortheredbarn

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See the beauty all around you

See the beauty all around you

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As we were wrapping up another year this past week, I spent some time thinking about what was different for me in 2015. What was the one event or activity or mindset that marked the year? Like the past few years, photography was a big focus for me. But I actually had a big shift this past year in my approach.

It happened in late July. We were driving home from vacation. I was already feeling that post-vacation let-down. We had a relaxing week just hanging out together as a family. No work. No sports. No schedules. We had some fun adventures and great time together as a family. I also had been able to spend lots of time doing what I do when we go to a new place. I love looking at the world through the lens of my camera.

I love looking for the beauty in a new place. I love capturing the interesting angles or finding a unique perspective. I often get up early before my family and sneak off into the quiet of the morning to capture an image. They are used to me veering off the path or lagging behind because I’m taking a close-up of a bug or a flower or a tree.

As we were driving home and I was staring out the window, I wondered if the people who live in this place every day could see its beauty. How did they resist the urge to stop their cars and take photos all the time? Were they so accustomed to the beaches and the trees and the lighthouses and the sunsets that it was harder to appreciate their charm?

Then I started thinking about the place where I live, and I asked myself the same question. Why is it that I feel such a sense of urgency to capture the beauty of a place when I’m on vacation? While I don’t have beaches or lighthouses nearby, I do have plenty of interesting scenery just a short drive from where I live. Maybe I needed to try harder to really SEE the beauty that’s all around me.

Maybe the shift in my thinking isn’t completely obvious, so let me explain a little more. I’ve always been good about taking photos of our life. If I saw a beautiful sunset, I would grab my camera. If the kids were playing a sport, I would take a million photos. But what if I really made an effort to go out and SEE the beauty in the everyday landscapes, fields, paths, flowers and moments that were there all of the time?

I started the very next day. While we were on vacation in Michigan, I had read online that there was a field of sunflowers about a half mile from where we were staying. We tried to find it, but apparently, the farmer had decided to plant something else in that field.

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Then it hit me. Maybe I could find a field of sunflowers at home! We looked on the Internet, and I found one about 40 miles away. Driving 40 miles to find a field of sunflowers was something I would easily do on vacation. Why not do the same thing in my normal life?

The next day, I decided I really wanted to start collecting photos of the area right around my home. I drove down a road that I take numerous times each week to go to my job and our church. This time I took my camera. I’ve noticed the horses and the fields and the beauty of this farm before. But I wanted to really SEE it. I wanted to look through my camera and follow the long white fence and focus on the amazing view of the fields behind it.

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My photography adventures have been neverending since then. I rarely leave the house without my camera in the passenger seat. I take it on walks. And I take walks on new trails and different paths, looking for the beauty. If the weather is particularly interesting — the sky could be full of big fluffy clouds or consumed by fog — I don’t hesitate to stop what I’m doing and go out looking for the beauty. Why not?

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I have an app on my phone to keep track of the pattern of the moon and the time of the sunset and moonset. I leave a few minutes early when I know it’s possible the sky could light up in astounding color while I’m driving to pick up a kid somewhere.

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I’ve found the best spots to get a clear view of the sunset or the moonrise. Since that moment in July when I decided to start seeing my world better, each day felt like a new adventure to find the beauty in my world.

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I read an article lately that talked about how Americans are obsessed with vacation. We spend 95 percent of the year planning and counting down to the 5 percent of the year that we’re on vacation. “But what if we tried to create a life that felt like a vacation everyday?” the author asked.

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For me, that’s how I’ve felt this past year. I love going on vacation and exploring new places. But finding the beauty in the world doesn’t have to only happen when I’m far away from home. I go out looking for spider webs. I search for animals in the pond. I sometimes make an early morning drive to the river just to watch the sunrise. Making such an effort to see the place where I live has made me really stop and appreciate the life I have and the beauty of what’s around me every day.

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So what about you? What was different for you in 2015?

 

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