Tale of a Black Ballerina Barbie

January 3rd, 2014

*Today I got an itch to write a bit of memoir. I started this just trying to tell the story of being in a school play. It turned into something much bigger. Non-fiction writing never ceases to amaze me. Enjoy!


“This one,” I say, running my hand over the dark magenta floral print fabric.

I look up at Mom. Two lines of skepticism form between her eyebrows.

My excitement deflates. She doesn’t like it. I look back at the fabric to be sure I really want it. Calico, it says to me. That’s what Laura Ingalls Wilder wore on the prairie. I pictured her in floral print every time I read one of her books. I don’t actually know where I got that idea, but Laura never actually said her dresses weren’t floral print.

“I’m not sure this is right for a prairie dress,” Mom says finally.

“Why not?” My eyes are drawn back to the colorful fabric. I can see myself in it now, standing up on stage and singing all the words to my duet for the Davy Crockett play. Nobody will deny I’m the best-dressed. The rest of the kids are probably just going to throw something together that resembles clothing from the 1800’s. But my mom can sew. We picked out a pattern already. Mom was skeptical about that, too because I’d picked out the most complex prairie dress costume there was. It’s going to have a bonnet and a girdle and a long ruffled skirt.

“I think we need something more muted,” she replies. “How about this one?” She pulls out a length of striped material in brown hues from among a line of cotton prints.

I wrinkle my nose. “Eew. That’s ugly.”

“I thought you wanted to look like a real prairie girl,” Mom remarks as she thumbs through bolts of fabric, pulling out a few and assessing my reaction to them.

“I do.”

“Well they didn’t wear such bright colors.”

I consider it. She’s probably right about that. I look at a few more samples but I’m continually drawn back to the fuchsia material. I have to have it. How else will I stand out on stage? This fabric is me.

“I don’t care,” I tell Mom finally. “You already said I have to wear it as my Halloween costume, too, since it’s going to take so much time to make. So I want to get something I’m going to like.”

“You’re sure?” she says, watching my expression for some sign of backing down.

I nod eagerly, cracking a grin that won’t stay hidden. I don’t like to get too excited. Adults never take kids seriously if they act like whimsical flakes. And I always want to be taken seriously. It’s pretty much all I ever care about. Except for magenta floral print calico. And my duet delivered in the school play while adorned in a prairie dress.

I don’t like to admit I’m still a kid inside sometimes.

I asked for a Ballerina Barbie for Christmas last year. It was embarrassing. At eight years old I decided I was too old for Barbies. But I still loved them and I really wanted Ballerina Barbie. I wanted a Ken doll, too, but I would never, in a million years, admit that. Only little kids liked Barbies. And Ken dolls? If you have one, everyone knows you’re slated to act out romance and pretend weddings. I was too mature for all that nonsense. At least I wished I was. But I still desperately wanted Ballerina Barbie, so I summoned the courage to bring it up to Mom.

When I was done mentioning off-hand how I thought I might like to have a Barbie that was a ballerina for Christmas, my heart was beating wildly and I worried my cheeks had flushed. No way I can pull off asking for a Barbie without looking childish. If I get one though, I think it will be worth it.

In fact, I owned several already, but they were used ones Mom got from somewhere. I’d never had a new Barbie. I played with the ones I had on the top bunk of my bed. By myself. I was too embarrassed to be seen pretending. That’s what little kids did.

Except for my friend, Sarah. She owned a huge collection of Barbies and her imagination was better than mine. When I would spend the night at her house, we pretended. She also owned several Kens. And lots of clothes. And Sarah was never embarrassed to play pretend in front of her brother or her mom or anyone else. And she liked to pretend her Barbies were superheroes. When we were done pretending to be superheroes, we’d watch X-Men cartoons and Sarah would talk about how she wanted to be Rogue. Sarah loved Rogue because she could fly and she could absorb anyone’s powers.

“But you wouldn’t really be able to touch people,” I pointed out. “You’d hurt them.”

“Who cares about that if you can fly and pretty much have any superpower?” she replied.

I wished, like Sarah, I knew exactly what I wanted to be—and what I didn’t want to be.

When Christmas rolled around, I was quietly giddy to see the tell-tale Barbie box shape under the tree. As soon as I pulled the wrapping paper away from one pink corner, my dream was confirmed. I grinned excitedly (But not too excited. I wasn’t a kid after all.).

I yanked the paper off all the way and there is was:

A black Ballerina Barbie.


I think I must have stared at it for a conspicuous amount of time. But my mom didn’t explain why she’d gotten me a black Barbie doll, and as a twenty-five year-old stuck in an eight year-old body, I wasn’t going to ask. If Mom wasn’t going to offer an explanation, that meant she assumed I would know. But I didn’t know.

I thanked her and tried to adjust my expectations. I was disappointed. That much I knew. Only I knew I shouldn’t be even though I couldn’t articulate why.

She’s a girl, just like you, I told myself. She has pretty, dark hair. A new outfit, just like you wanted. The only difference between this Barbie and the one I’d snuck a peek at in the store months ago was that this one had brown skin.

I opened Black Barbie later when no one was around. I turned her over in my hands, trying to figure out how to fit my imagination into her skin. I had daydreamed all the ways I would play pretend with my new Ballerina Barbie prior to that day, but in my head she was always white. My Barbies always behaved like the real me—the one I didn’t want to admit being. They were me. But I was not black. What was the black version of me?

On opening day of Davy Crockett, I don my fuchsia dress and matching bonnet proudly. When I show up at the school, my teacher oohs and ahhs over me.

“Where did you find such a pretty dress?” she asks.

“My mom made it,” I say self-importantly.

“Oh my. She’s very talented. Such a pretty color. Did you pick it out?”

A twinge of anxiety derails my excitement. She thinks it’s too bright. She must think I look stupid. Now I’m going to  look dumb in front of all these people. I should have listened to my mom…

And then I’m aggravated with myself. Standing out is exactly what I wanted.

“Yes,” I reply in my small, nine year-old voice. “It took my mom a long time to make and so I wanted to pick something I really liked so I could wear it again.” I rush through the explanation because it’s barely true. When Mom was making the dress, she did bring up that she’d appreciate if I’d wear the dress more than a couple times. I agreed heartily just because I wanted her to know I appreciated her hard work. I’m grateful for that now because at least I have a good explanation for why I’m going to stand out like a sore thumb at the school play.

At least now my teacher won’t think I picked the fabric because I wanted to stand out.

I can pretend like none of this was my fault.

Other kids in my class begin to trickle into the classroom where we’re waiting to go to the gym for the play. My best friend Brooke is among them. I can tell she’s jealous as soon as she sees me. She loves the color. What is that thing laced at my waist? I look exactly like a girl from the wild west. Can she try my bonnet on?

It looks like Brooke’s mom bought her a cheap pilgrim Halloween costume. Brooke is obviously not as thrilled about it as she was before she saw mine though. She’s the other half of my duet and her costume looks cheap and drab next to the colourful stitches my mother skilfully sewed me. But Brooke lets it go and smiles at me anyway. The two of us hold hands and giggle all the way to the gym to release the last of our nerves.

When our duet comes up, I stride to the microphone confidently, eager to show off my singing and my dress. I am fuchsia in a sea of blacks and whites and browns.

I am a Black Ballerina Barbie Doll.

So I’ve been writing a book…

December 14th, 2013

And it is now available!

For a book description, visit the website, here.

To buy, click here.

Don’t forget to leave a review!


The Truth about Time

February 5th, 2013

When I moved to North Dakota over a year ago I quickly noticed something really unusual: time goes faster here. I literally mean that time flies in North Dakota. I was perplexed for a while why this was.

Was I busier? No, actually, I had more free-time. I then thought maybe it was because I was feeling more fulfilled than ever before, thus making the moments more joyous and easing the times of comparative suffering. But as I brought this observation up to other people, pretty much everyone agreed with me: Time moves faster in North Dakota. Each week Friday arrives and I wonder where in the heck the week went. This is my feeling EVERY SINGLE week.

Anyway, shortly after making this observation I watched a documentary about the feasibility of time travel. (Yes, I’m a science documentary nerd and by the way, the Hollywood version of time travel really isn’t feasible according to current understanding of time) Time, of course, was the main topic. And they began the show talking about how time works. Basically, you have to think of time passing the same way you might think of wind. So it should come as no surprise then that the greater mass an object has, the slower time “moves” past it. You might think of tree breaks in windy areas that are designed to slow the wind down. Well time is the same way. If there are objects of large mass around time passes more slowly as compared to time as it passes around smaller objects. In fact (and I found this REALLY interesting), satellites have to have their clocks manually adjusted back to account for the fact that further out in space (farther away from the earth, an object of exceptional mass), time is passing much more quickly.

So back to North Dakota. What do we have around here that would “slow” the passage of time? Not a whole lot. What would you have in mountainous country to slow time? Mountains and trees, of course. What do you have in cities and more populated areas? Buildings. So in places where there are many objects of large mass, time is passing more slowly because, quite literally, the large objects are slowing down time. Having lived in metropolitan areas, mountainous areas, and the Piedmont I can attest to the differences in the passage of time.

Here on the prairie, however, there’s not much around to slow time down and that’s why time goes by much more quickly. You can literally experience time passing faster.

Maybe that’s another reason why I like it here so much. Experiences are quicker. Suffering passes much more swiftly making it seem less signifcant. It’s not that suffering doesn’t affect me, but it feels like I change and adapt to it more quickly. Had I not experienced time passing more slowly in other places, I’d never have picked up on it. Like everything else, you have to experience differing time-speeds to really get how time seems to affect experience so strongly.

Isn’t science cool?

Why 20-somethings know next to nothing.

January 22nd, 2013

My mom says that as a kid I was always eager to grow up and to get to the next thing. I was never satisfied being 5 until I was 6 and I was never satisfied being 6 until I was 7. I always wanted to be able to do things myself and be self-sufficient. I was anxious to just ‘get there already.’ I know that’s not unusual, but this attitude has carried even beyond my childhood. In being a 20-something, I have longed for the days when I would be a 30-something. In fact, I think I’ve been longing to be 30 since I turned 20.

So why is that? Well my quick answer has always been that nobody takes a 20-something seriously. But the truth is that 30 is the age where I felt like I could finally take myself seriously. I might finally be able to trust some of the things I’ve come to think I know over the years.

And in all honesty I think I was right. I’m 30 now and my universe actually makes sense way more now than it ever has before, and certainly eons more sense than it did at 20. Sometimes I’m just amazed that I’m even alive after such a turbulent and ignorant youth. I wonder to myself how I ever managed to get up in the morning with such a limited view. And I have to confide that the most horrific thing I can imagine is having the past 30 years of experience stripped from me. To go back to such an unsure and ill-educated state seems like a fate worse than death. I’ll take grey hairs and wrinkles, thankyouverymuch, if it means that I’m moving the veil of ignorance aside.

I don’t suppose I would know the difference if somehow all of my memories were stripped from me, but what frightens me is the idea that I might then spend more time than necessary saturating the universe with my ignorance. I’m already embarrassed and ashamed of my past self for being so know-it-all and prideful so much of the time. Ignorance is such a horrible injustice to reality.

And now that I’m 30, and am experienced with the myriad of methods in which I might be compelled to humility, I hate that it’s more than likely that I’m STILL floundering in ignorance. And so guess what that means? 30 is my new 20.

Can I just be 40 already?

When I learned my muse was a romantic

January 5th, 2013

When I used to frequent the library (before the days of Kindles and free e-books), I had two stipulations for choosing a book:

-the cover must intrigue me in an understated but thought-provoking way

-the back blurb must NOT contain any indication of a romance to commence therein. No “and she met a boy…”, “he was relentless in his pursuit…”, “their paths collided…”. No, no, no, no, NO. I refused.

At the time my reasoning was that books ought to be thought-provoking. How many ways can you describe falling in love before it gets boring? How is falling in love not THE most overdone topic out there? Where are the life lessons and the philosophical questions? Where is my ‘aha!’ moment in something like romance that has been occurring since the dawn of time?

I know, I know…I’m the Grinch who stole Valentine’s day. Kinda like that invention that Phineas & Ferb reverse engineered when it landed in their yard:

The Anti-Romance invention…the name speaks for itself, right?

I have a history of rejecting romance. My DH, Brad, says I beat the romance out of him. Which is probably true. He used to be a lot gooshier  in the early days…making me dinner, breakfast in bed, writing me poems, and I was like, “Ummm…manly men don’t do romance! Where’s my manly man?”

Sheesh, what is wrong with me? I still don’t know. I think I’ll blame my parents who, to my knowledge, never went on a date and I only remember one time my dad got my mom flowers…okay, so that explains why getting flowers is the one thing I DO appreciate to this day. Hmm, you discover something new everyday, don’t ya? See why I love writing?

ANYWAY, back to the topic. Despite all this, I woke up one morning about a year ago to discover that somehow, despite my every intention NOT to, my book, which I’d been already slaving over for over a year,  revolved heavily around a romance.

It just happened…okay?

And to this day, I still feel uncomfortable with it, like I’ve somehow perjured myself by writing something that I very likely would have made a point to ignore back in the day.  And to my chagrin, I went with it. Because I’ve learned that you have to let the story tell itself. Writing is such a revelatory experience for me which is why I love it so much. The writer’s heart wants what the writer’s heart wants. You just can’t force it to go where it doesn’t want to.

As much as I hated learning that about my book—about MYSELF no less—I began to understand why so many books must revolve around the conundrum of the human relationship… it is the hardest thing we have to deal with. No matter how many times we replay it under different scenarios, it still remains a mystery to most. And to the few who get it, it’s a hot mess of trial and error.

And for any writer or artist, it is a universal theme, sure to rivet the masses if told just so. That’s the challenge of writing really: relaying the common struggle in a way that touches the reader’s heart.

There is nothing harder to get right than marriage/relationships. And, in my opinion, there is nothing more important. Everything we do can be made or broken by those relationships we have–especially the most intimate ones. For example, choosing to work my behind off to get my novel ready for publishing is all because my DH is my greatest fan. If he was someone else, less interested in my business (and possibly less annoying), I’d still be writing to my laptop, never letting my words see the light of day. And probably letting my writing die because of it. It would be a sad thing. But instead it’s a romantic thing. Life is romance. Or it’s trying to be. All the time.

So writing books is romance. It’s talking about relationships. You take something ordinary like love or marriage or meeting someone or just friendship, throw in a few interesting “what ifs,” and you’ve got yourself a riveting read.

In that case, what the heck else is there to write about?

Breath, Neck, Hand

December 28th, 2012

This is a flash essay I wrote a couple months ago. It describes a powerful, faith-affirming moment for me . I’m amazed that I always look back on this memory with wonder, not sadness. Death, after witnessing it so intimately, seems as marvelous and mysterious as birth.


Dad’s hand lies inert in mine; the only indication of life there is warmth. His breaths, much louder than anything else in the room, rush in and out of his lungs as if something artificial propels them, but he is not on a ventilator. Marking them is hazardous to my nerves as often ten seconds pass between them. I begin to hold my own breath with his, marveling at the duration. His muscles twitch regularly, fighting against oxygen-deprivation, and I glance at his neck; his pulse throbs, easily visible given his emaciated state.

He has not varied from this condition for hours, and as I settle myself for a long night of watching and listening, cathartic smells of a bowel movement fill the room. I step into the hall, instinctively knowing this is the body’s final purge. After hours of identical moments, death has drawn a step closer. When I return to the room after his cleaning, I note the nurses shaved his face. His hands now rest too perfectly at his sides atop white sheets too unnaturally smooth and neat. His body looks more mannequin than human.

I stretch my hand out for his again to interrupt the stillness. His hand is warm. He is here, I think. But all that is left of him are his lengthening breaths, the pulse at his neck, and the warmth of his hands. I move from one to the other, always coming back to his hand in mine. I have not held his hand since I was a child. Not even for the briefest of moments. His seeming absence now provides me with the unique opportunity of connecting to him through his skin. I imagine that if he knows I’m here, my rapt attention must make him uncomfortable, and probably a little surly at my hovering. I can’t be sure, nor can I be sure that I am connecting at all. His hand is just a hand; warm and rough from years of manual labor. It does not speak to me, only warms my own hand with a kind of assurance, with presence.

I look back at his face, his mouth slightly ajar as air forces itself in. I don’t think his body wants to breathe, yet the programmed force of his mind keeps the rhythm anyway. At his neck, his skin bobs at regular intervals, his blood still pushes life through his limbs and into his hands, warming them. The twitching has stopped. Time stretches agonizingly once more as I become impatient for death, wondering if he will die at all, thinking I will remain forever entranced with his vital signs. The moment immortalizes itself, stretching on beyond this late night hour, filling the entirety of my life. The timelessness has captured me in its limbo, separating me from the rest of humanity—even those in the room with me. I consider that he might be dead already; only his body continues on, soulless.

I watch the analog clock. How many seconds pass between each breath? Finally, a full revolution of the second hand. My attention returns to his slack face thinking this must be it. I furrow my brow in puzzlement. He does not breathe, but the pulse at his neck continues with persistence. His hand is still warm. His heart still beats. Amazed, I adjust myself. I now watch the small but defined thump of life that appears at his neck every second.

I have not been watching the clock since he stopped breathing, expecting death much sooner than this. Has it been a minute? Two? Just when I think his pulse might go on for hours, it stops abruptly. I wait as if it is simply an illusion and will take up pace again. Cessation of life cannot be this seamless and unassuming.

A minute passes; this is not a trick. Released from the final endless moment of his life, I am relieved. But I cannot help marveling that his hand is still warm. I release it, thinking it wrong to grasp the hand when the person is not present. I cry with relief and longing, sewn into the seams of both his life and death at the same time, wondering why, like the other threads of his life, death could not have been more defined.

But then I look up at his face and am shocked at what I see: Life has been stripped profoundly from every pore more certainly than the absent sound of his breath, pulse of his neck, or warmth of his hand. Vacant.

Smoke and Mirrors

December 13th, 2012

The worst part of living in the Bakken… are the complaints about it.

I get rubbed the wrong way when I hear people say things like, “I cried all day the very first day I came!” or “I cry almost EVERY day!” (Yes, I hear this FAR too often). Just the other day, I was complimenting a mother and daughter on their commitment to keep their families together by coming out here even if it meant they had to live in a fifth-wheel or a single-wide trailer.

The reply? It was, “Yeah, I used to never get why people I talked to thought it was so awful to move here, UNTIL I MOVED HERE! Now I get it!”

I bit my tongue, people. Hard.

Far too many people (*Women, cough, cough*) refuse to leave the familiarity of their surroundings, sending their husbands off to live a solitary life for weeks at a time. I don’t know about you, but I’d get pretty lonely if it was JUST me. At least the women (usually) have their kids with them, not to mention familiar faces and friends.

Then there are many who move here, and I think they have blinders on. Because all they see are dirty roads, amusingly outdated shopping, funny-looking movie theatres, and men in rig-hand jumpsuits which they perceive are just itching to molest them on their way to their car at Walmart.

I always think the landscape looks like someone sprinkled a giant bag of powdered sugar everywhere. See that glow on the horizon? It reminded me of that scene of looking toward Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. So neat!

Women are certainly not the only culprits. I heard a man once say that he’d flat-out never allow his kids and family to go to Walmart in Williston. He just wouldn’t. I couldn’t understand that, not even a little. I mean, I’ve seen far more sinister characters at Walmart in southern California than I have ever seen in Williston.

Probably the most annoying complaint is that “there’s no shopping,” as if shopping should constitute a large enough part of our lives to have ANY effect on our decision to move somewhere, ESPECIALLY when things are so readily available online. For many who move here, shopping now plays a large role in how they translate their own happiness.

People also don’t want to be seen as “complaining” so they deliver their angst through clever quips and humorous jibes , their tone saying their words shouldn’t be taken seriously, but the frequency of delivery indicates they very much SHOULD be regarded.  The effect is far-reaching. And it results in situations like the mother and daughter who must have heard any number of these statements, and it affected their expectations, and thus, their perception.

Because that’s really what this is about. Perception.

I recently moved from a single-wide trailer into a duplex (a house for all intents and purposes). I’m not going to lie that in a past life I looked upon trailer living as not just lacking in luster, but downright trashy. So when, last September, I learned I’d soon be living in one, I laughed a bit at God’s humor (not only was I moving to a state I never wanted to live in, but I’d be in a TRAILER while there).

Single-wide suburbia, where I lived for a year after moving to Williston.

But in the end I didn’t much care that it was a trailer (the lack of space, however, was tedious at times with my 4 kids). And in fact, I considered myself fortunate that I wasn’t living in a 15-foot camper (that ALMOST happened). And it was kind of fun when I was packing to ask myself, “Now, do I REALLY need to bring my family photos?”, “Will it be worth bringing baby clothes for the possible next child or just buy new ones when and if it happens?”, or “Do I HAVE to have my entire book collection with me?” Furthermore, I can say that I looked forward to moving here. It was an adventure. It was a challenge. I was dreaming of the moments which would inevitably change my perception of North Dakota (that state in the union with too much wide open space that you NEVER hear anything about on the news–until now of course). I was excited to figure out what it was exactly that drew people to live here oh so long ago. There must be SOMEthing. It couldn’t just be the dustbowl I imagined.

Scene from the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the best kept secret of natural wonder in North Dakota. (Oh my word that sky is so lovely in this picture it hurts!)

I enjoy being surprised. I enjoy having PEOPLE surprise me. I want to know what makes them tick. Everyone is different, and every place draws a different type of person. But that’s not to say that we can’t appreciate each space for what it is even if it isn’t our particular cup of tea. Enjoy marveling at the diversity of human preference. SEE what they see. WALK where they’ve walked. Open your eyes. Each small corner of the globe, from the vastest dessert, to the smallest park, has something unique to offer our experience. There is something to love about everyone. And something to love about every PLACE. Happiness can be found anywhere and is nothing more than optimal perception. The rest is just smoke and mirrors.

Bobbing well-heads always seem so peaceful to me. They don’t really interrupt the landscape so much as look like they belong there and have been there forever, quietly and unobtrusively.

Going Small Town

December 4th, 2012

Just this past weekend I moved 45 miles west to a tiny town, Culbertson, Montana, to avoid the exorbitant cost of living in Williston. Well, it’s still rather exorbitant, but not nearly so much.

Anyway, I have found the past week delightfully entertaining as I have come to explore my new home. For example, I had to call a few places to arrange utilities, and never once was I put on hold (unless you count when I called the Culbertson Propane service and the lady placed the phone down on her desk while she asked someone a question), and neither was I transferred to another department. In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve had a few encounters that would be considered “small town-isms” (like how every person I meet, when I tell them my address, knows exactly where I live). But one particular outing really brought home exactly the kind of place I have moved to.

I was informed that I must visit the town hall in order to pay a deposit on my city water account. Setting aside the modern conveniences of GPS and the Internet, I decided that finding the town hall should be easy. There are about two streets that would be considered “main” streets and no stoplights to speak of. Downtown itself is not difficult to run into, and the absence of traffic allowed me to inch slowly along as I tried to spot a building grandiose enough to be the town hall.

By chance, and not because of any ornateness on its part, I caught sight of a one-story, tan building with plain black letters: “TOWN HALL.” I quickly adjusted my thinking that town halls should be the most impressive structure in a town and accepted that this building was erected for utilitarian purposes, not impressive displays. How practical, I mused to myself as I pulled into a parallel parking spot. I was the only person parked on the nearly empty street, and I left my car running since it looked like there wouldn’t be waiting in line involved.

Once inside the single glass door, I was confronted with a wall and a door to either side of me. A single brown placard hung on each door: to my left, “SENIOR CITIZEN CENTER” and to my right, “TOWN CLERK.” I opened the door to my right and entered a small room with filing cabinets and two desks. A woman sat at each desk looking busy. As I glanced from one to the other, unsure of how I should announce myself, one said, “Can we help you?”

“I need to pay a deposit on my water account?” I asked, assuming that one of the women would definitely be helping me, but still feeling disbelief that I should be able to walk into one room in a building and be helped by the first person I saw. There were no other doors in the room other than the one I came through, and besides the two women, I was the only one there.

“Sure!” the one on the left said, a thin woman that looked like she’d probably be quite tall if she were to stand up. I moved to the chair in front of her desk. “You called the other day, didn’t you?” she asked. Hmm, well I guess they don’t get many phone calls. :-)

“Yes,” I replied. “You told me I needed to come in and pay a deposit.”

“Yes, Rachel Kelly, right? Okay, so what’s your address again?”

“220 5th Street West,” I replied.

“Ah yes, and who are you renting from again?”

“The Snyders.”

“Thaaat’s right. Let me see if I can find your account number.” She pulled out a small collection of stapled papers, perhaps five or six pages thick and began thumbing through them. She had a computer, but it remained untouched for the duration of my visit. The screen was black in hibernation mode, indicating it hadn’t been used in a while. I wondered what other daily tasks she handled and if any of them required a computer.

“So you live over in that duplex behind the school?” the other woman asked from the desk on the other side of the small room. She had obviously been listening in and smiled at me warmly. “When did you move here?”

“This past Saturday,” I replied, marveling at the antiquated efforts of the woman before me. They keep their records on paper? I marveled to myself, wanting to giggle at the unbelievable quaintness. Having lived in LA county, the comparison of government buildings and service felt akin to time travel. I glanced around the room which had wood paneled walls that I knew were popular in the late seventies. There was a bird’s eye view of the town on one wall and several city plan layouts. Papers litter nearly every wall surface, but mostly I noted the aged nature of the place, how it smelled sort of comfortable and settled with it’s industrial carpet that was probably original to the building. The desks were both brown lacquered metal and a folding table behind me had stacks of papers and flyers and forms of every sort. I got the impression that this was the town center, full service and the place one would go for any kind of town business.

“Here it is,” the woman in front of me said.

“So you take checks?” I asked, already having been told they don’t accept credit cards, hence the personal visit.

She replied in the affirmative, to my relief, (at that point I would not have been surprised if they told me these things were cash-only), and while I made out the check to the City of Culbertson for the amount of fifty dollars, she wrote something down, then pulled out a massive ledger, about two feet long by three feet wide, and placed some kind of oversized carbon copy receipt book on top of it which she aligned with the grid lines of the massive ledger. She wrote my name and the amount and signed it, tearing off the receipt and handing it to me. Once we completed our transaction, I began to ask questions about the trash service and the postal service (the USPS doesn’t deliver mail to each home here). She answered pleasantly and informed me afterward that should I have any questions about anything, I should call her. I knew she was serious about that. I wish I had asked her name, because if I spot her in town, she’ll probably remember mine.

I walked out of the building with the flimsy receipt in my hand, proof that I now belonged to this infinitesimal corner of the globe in some respect. People know where I live. The secretary at the school hugged me when I brought my kids in to register. And the lady across the street watches my goings and comings with interest from her living room window. I’ve been sucked into the fabric of small-town living. And it’s delightful!


North Dakota: A Love Affair of the Soul

November 19th, 2012

“How do you like it out there?” is a question often asked of me when people learn I live in North Dakota or when I meet people who have just moved here.

My answer is always the same, “Oh I love it!” which seems to surprise the asker. Before they can ask for clarification, I say, “I’ve lived in southern California and eastern, western, and mid-North Carolina too, and this is by far my favorite place that I’ve lived.” I go on to tell them all the reasons like how everyone is so friendly, how there’s some kind of hope here that permeates every one of my senses—I swear I can smell it—which infects me and makes my thoughts buoyant. I tell them how I’ve fallen in love with the sky, how every morning that I leave my house to take my kids to school, I look at the eastern horizon where the sun performs its ritual peep show over the edge of the basin. It undresses itself with rare color and form, every morning the effect more tantalizing than the last time. I think the sun feels free here, showing us a side of itself that won’t be seen anywhere else, and this because of the rarity of this place. This endless sky which constantly pulls my chin upward and my spirit into the clouds holds me like a lover, gripped in passion and newness.

Sometimes I feel like I might be living in a dream, like one day I’ll wake up and the adoration I have for this place will have faded like an ill-fated love affair. But the truth is I’ve loved one thing or another about all of the places I have lived, but I have never loved myself in a place more than I love myself here, in North Dakota, where the expanse of land seems endless and unwavering, where rebel dust clouds visit every surface and crevice, where trees, my true love, are as scarce as rainbows, where the biting winds of winter torment my face, forcing me to hide behind layers of clothes. Beneath these clothes which shroud me in protective warmth, I am as free as ever.

I’ve started to think my soul must travel the prairie while I’m sleeping. When winter ties me up, I still manage to feel my life is more open than it ever was in nearly-year-round shorts and t-shirts in southern California or in the seasonal varying beauty of North Carolina. It must be the pioneer in my bones that feels trapped unless I’m moving (or the air is moving around me as it always seems to be here). The flux has caught me up in weightless abandon.  All these things have me the grip of awe, but I suspect it’s really the people.

The people, from every clime of humanity, are more diverse than the great melting pot of Ellis Island in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. Virginia, New York, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Oregon, California, Texas, Florida, New Mexico, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Montana, Washington, Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia, Nevada–I have met people from each of these places and I would bet that North Dakota must now have long-term visitors from all fifty states as well as internationally, (there are a group of employees at Walmart with curious accents I have yet to place). As different as the places are that they come from, the people share something monumental in common: They each possess a spirit which frees them from the bindings of their birthright, a fearlessness that brings them to the prairie. The tenor of their souls is a missal of challenge.

In my experience, so few leave the familiarity of home–if they do leave, they always return. They stay in or around their birth places, their families and friends, and even when life is difficult and dependable livelihood a constant struggle to come by, they stay, grounded by their roots. But here we share the same story. Our lives intersect because of who we are, not where we come from or who we knew. Our bindings are loose, yet we are kindred spirits pulled to the same place. In a world of such diverse ideologies, cultures, and people in general, finding yourself among a large population of those who share some common spiritual thread exhilarates the mind.

I have lost myself here among these people and this place of refuge. These people, aurora borealis of humanity, reflecting the same sky, undulating with color and passion, ridiculous tenacity, conviction, and flaunting fearlessness. How stupid you are! How gloriously careless and free. I would not want to find myself anywhere but among you.

Sunrise on a foggy day.


A Rig is Down

November 19th, 2012
      A shrill ring invades the quiet of our bedroom. Just barely on the edge of sleep, I hear one side of a mumbled conversation, and then my husband says to me, “A rig is down.” A fairly common phrase from him, I know what it means. An oil rig engine needs a part. Rigs can’t run without engines, and just one hour down costs tens of thousands of dollars.  Despite the seduction of sleep, he’ll go save the day like an oilfield superhero. I think of him like that at times like these.
      I see oil rigs every day. Similar to the Eiffel tower, they are a massive construction of steel beams, cables, and our country’s flag fluttering at the top as if they represent something inherently American. Perhaps they do. After all, the oil rig has a reputation. The rig, whipping boy of environmentalists everywhere, has become something more than just a means to get oil; it embodies many things: greed, abuse, capitalism, rape of the earth, pillaging of natural resources, money, power, inequality, pollution.
      But to some of us saving a rig is a big deal. Like saving Freddie-Mac. Or Lehman Brothers before its crash in ‘08. Or the auto industry. Like saving the California Grey whales in Barrow, Alaska in 1988. How ironic.
      I’m no stranger to irony. When I drive by an oil rig at night, and the thing is lit up like some kind of heavenly beacon of hope, I inevitably measure the angles of my reasoning and find them incongruent. The uninvited feeling of pride I get when seeing a rig still hangs decidedly under ‘need to reconcile’ in the orderly convictions of my mind.
      Many times I’ve examined the conflicted feelings whose origins belong to the oil rig. Aside from its sheer size, the oil rig is not so amazing in-and-of itself. However, the bright lights and heavenly luminescence only make the feeling that much stronger like dramatic music does for movies. Oil rigs are dirty and dangerous up-close.
      I often wonder if I’m the only one that sees a rig this way, but I realize the irony has nothing to do with how others see a rig. The paradox lies with me, the avid proponent of clean energy and technology, who admonishes her children to never neglect the sanctity of life, even if such life resides in a caterpillar or housefly. “We respect the earth. We respect all God’s creations,” I tell them. My son stepped mercilessly on a beetle once, and I nearly lost it. How do I remain in awe of the oil rig yet stand so avidly on the side of my earthly home?
      I suppose, in my mind, hope trumps the realities of oil. The hope inspired by a rig is bigger than anything the rig may mechanically do. The rig saved us: my husband, my children, and me. Even that wouldn’t be enough for me to revere the rig this way, but it didn’t just save us. The rig saved that dirt and grease-clad man in front of me at the post office whose hands bear the evidence of manual drudgery. He’s mailing his son a Transformer toy for his birthday because he can’t be there. He’s here, in North American Siberia to save his family.
      The rig saved the guy and his daughter who slept in the church parking lot under some bushes while they looked for jobs to save the rest of their family back in Washington. It saved the man lugging his meager belongings in a backpack down the side of the road on his way to find the well-springs of hope promised by the rig. His rolled-up sleeping bag slaps the back of his legs as he walks, urging him onward toward his goal.
      The artist from Arizona, who custom designed welded architecture, came here too. The housing bubble devoured his dream and his livelihood as if they never were. But the rig saved him and his family.
     The rig saved the guy who lost his job—there are so many of those guys. Hundreds of thousands the rig has saved. Perhaps millions. The rig has the power to save every person that comes here.
So when a rig is down, we have to fix it. The rig has lives to save.

Oil Rig outside of Williston, ND