life is messy

Permission to Play

My daughter, Madelyn, waltzes into the bathroom and puts her hand on her hip. She is every bit a confident three -year-old. “How do I look?” she asks, striking a pose.

It’s a rhetorical question. She knows what I’m going to say.

“You look beautiful!” I exclaim, scooping her up so we can look at our reflection together. I look at her brown eyes, crinkling from her smile. My daughter is my little mini-me – in every way my twin, but with a healthier self-esteem.

I put her down and glance in the mirror. I am surprised for a moment by my reflection, and frown in frustration. My shirt is snugger than it used to be, my stomach spills over the top of my jeans, and my hips have a little bit of extra padding. I don’t look in the mirror too often anymore and for a moment I’m glad that I don’t.

I struggle to be kind to that girl looking back at me with tired eyes.

The truth is, I am ashamed of my reflection. My body has never (ever) looked the way I want it to and as I look in the mirror I feel guilty. You have no one to blame but yourself, a snide voice whispers. If only you drank less wine, ate less chocolate cake, and loved working out, then yourbody would finally be beautiful.

“We’re both beautiful,” Madelyn adds, interrupting my train of thought as she wraps her tiny arms around my legs. Her enthusiasm is contagious.

“Yes, we are,” I say. “Ready to go to the park?”

At the playground, I trail behind her with my hands shoved deep in my jacket pockets. Madelyn, impervious to the cold wind, rushes eagerly around the playground, as though she has to touch each slide, each ladder, each swing to make sure they don’t go anywhere.

The internal shaming begins again as I watch her climb and slide, walk with one foot in front of the other on the cement curb. She seems to move nonstop.

Maybe if you moved more – like Madelyn – you’d actually fit your clothes, the voice begins. I sigh and let it yammer on for a bit as I help Madelyn clamor up a rock wall. I’ve named this negative voice in my head Nancy. In a way it’s an old friend of mine, albeit one I’m not too fond of.

As Madelyn settles into climbing up the slide (and slipping down) over and over again, I find myself by the fireman’s pole, watching her and feeling defensive toward Nancy. I actually do fit in my clothes, I respond. They’re just a bit more snug than they used to be. I idly grab the pole and let my weight hang against it. I’m unexpectedly delighted by the feeling of resting against nothing, the way my body is suspended against air, held up only by my arm. I feel a sudden urge to swing.

I look around feeling awkward. There is no one else around, but I still don’t want to be that strange grown-up on the playground. I dismiss the urge and straighten up.

Nancy is immediately critical. Perhaps, this is why you aren’t thin, she hisses, because you don’t move. You stand here, and you don’t move.

Maybe, I respond, clutching the pole again. Or, maybe, I’m so busy feeling bad about my body that I miss the chance to move. I pause. No, not move, I correct myself, play.

Madelyn crows as she slips down the slide, then runs past me on her way to the swings. I don’t view the playground or the mirror or any number of things like my daughter does. But I wish I did. I wish I saw myself the way she sees me, with love instead of criticism, with joy instead of disappointment. I wish I saw moving my body the way she does, as a chance to play instead of a means to an end.

The surest way to make sure nothing changes is to keep doing everything the same, and it is this thought that pushes me over the edge. I decide to swing on the fireman pole, not because of Nancy, not because moving might help me lose weight, but because it just might be fun.

I swing my weight giddily on the pole, smiling at the feeling of my body falling free, the slight swooping sensation in my stomach. I swing again. And again. I do it exactly as many times as I want to and not a single swing more.

Madelyn tires of the slide and is now walking on the curb like it’s a tightrope. I join her and we walk on the curb together, giggling when we fall off, exaggerating our flapping arm movements in an attempt to stay on the curb. As I watch her, I realize I know her secret. I’ve known it all along: she is too busy living in her body to spend any time at all thinking about what it looks like. She has legs for chasing and arms for hugging, a smile that lights up the room. And me? I have all those things too.


Words by Ashly Hilst.

Letting Go of the Garden

hello there friend

On one of the first cool days this fall, I walked over to my garden, pushed open the broken gate, and stepped inside. The picket fence surrounded me; the weeds so tall I could no longer see the raised beds. In every direction, I saw hard physical labor in the wood framed plots I have made (and remade) over the years — the mulch and soil that I moved by shovel and wheelbarrow, all the mowing along the edges and pathways with a heavy trimmer I can barely lift off the ground, and years’ worth of weeds pulled and seedlings planted, my knees wet and muddy from kneeling on the earth.

All I could focus on were the hornworms, shield bugs, rust, rot, beetles, moles, slugs, and wilts that I fought against season after season. Yes, there were dinners pulled out of this space, the miracle of a fresh raspberry and a refuge of quiet, but I felt closed in and exhausted. Instead of putting things to bed for the winter, I was ready to take the garden apart for good.

Growing up, my best friend’s mother had the most amazing flower beds and vegetable gardens. They were lush and ever-changing with their colors, patterns, and bounty of fresh food. If we were ever looking for her, she was always up to her elbows in these spaces. She worked on moving perennials, turning the compost, pulling weeds, and trellising fruit—always working on that garden.

As soon as I had a yard of my own, I knew I wanted something just as beautiful. I convinced my new husband to join me in gardening together — small rows of corn, cucumbers, and tomatoes at the back of our yard and perennials around the front of the house. I subscribed to Organic Gardening magazine and bought Eliot Coleman’s books as I tried to wrestle our suburban lawn into something beautiful and productive.

When we moved to a house with two acres and no garden, I couldn’t believe how much potential there was for not only a garden but also an orchard, animals, a clothesline — all the ingredients needed to live back to the land. I had young babies and no job, and embraced the identity of a homesteader with gusto. I started heirloom seeds in the basement, extended the season with cold frames, canned applesauce and tomato soup, made my own yogurt, learned to spin fiber and relearned how to knit, and of course diapered my last baby in cloth. I added chickens for eggs. Then ducks. Then guinea hens. Then rabbits. Two beehives. Then pigs. And, finally, chickens for their meat.

Some of these ventures worked, but many of them didn’t, and most of it was my responsibility. My husband was fine bragging to others about the homemade granola but wanted nothing to do with making it. He enjoyed the open space of the property but had no interest in working it with his hands. I was the sole force behind the vision and the execution because I needed something else to be besides “mother” and “wife.”

I also assumed that over time, the family would bow to my will and join in. But it never happened. Instead of accepting that all the manual labor was up to my small frame, I became full of anger and resentment. I moved animals, carried water, dug soil, pulled weeds, hauled mulch, spread straw, turned compost, caught escaping animals and buried the dead ones. That garden fence started feeling taller, the pickets sharper.

Wendell Berry reminded me that tiring my body with this work was good. The homesteading forums were full of stories of families who worked together. But I was planting fruit trees alone by flashlight after the kids were finally in bed, swearing under by breath at the physical frustration and loneliness.

I began to want a different way to spend my free time, but I didn’t know how to stop. I wanted to be a source for the local food movement, raising my fist against the evils of the corporate system. Neighbors knew me as the egg lady. We were featured in the city paper as “21st century homesteaders.” When someone asked what I did, I felt that caring for our small farm represented more of who I was than homemaker. I hung laundry on the clothesline, made bread, and educated others on how easy chickens were to care for — if I quit doing these things who would I be?

Some wise people in my life reminded me that I could support others who raised animals the same way I did. I didn’t have to do it all myself just because we own the land. It was freeing. That year, I phased out most of the animals.

Still, the garden remained. I tried to minimize the work by planting mostly perennials like asparagus, rhubarb, and berries. The rest of the raised beds and edges I filled with flowers. But between soil that was too depleted, the pests, and the weeds, I felt defeated.

This final season, I hadn’t returned to the garden after our trip to Ecuador in August. While we were gone, most of the raspberry canes had died and my suspicions about asparagus beetles had come to fruition. Seeing this eyesore with its leaning posts from the house made me cringe. I felt hot with the shame that comes from internal and completely unrealistic expectations: ‘How could you have paid for that fencing to just tear it down? Are you really a quitter? How can you turn your back on fresh vegetables from your own yard? Don’t you know how lucky you are?’

When I started homesteading, I wanted someone to ask how they could help me, what did I need them to do? Twenty years later, I still wanted someone to ask me those questions, but I know now that I have to answer them myself.

In those twenty years, I have learned that I am dynamic, that my passions can change and I continue to learn and grow. I am not a quitter, but I have new interests. I used to homestead. I used to make bread. I used to find our dinner in our yard. But now I can do things I could never do before — now I can run a 5K, travel across the world with my family, teach my children how to drive, and most weeks shop at the local farmers’ market. I am still me.

On Sunday, I found the crowbar and hammer in the bottom of the red metal tool box in the garage. I pulled on a pair of blue and white work gloves and called the dogs out to keep me company. Slowly and steadily, over three days, I removed eighteen panels of fencing measuring six feet long and four feet high. I even managed to pull some of the four-by posts out of the mucky soil. I took apart the rotting lumber of the raised beds, my shirt and pants full of sticky seeds. The dogs had a terrific time catching a few mice and voles, their coats a matted mess of burrs.

I posted the fencing on Craigslist and a few days later, a father and son carted it away. I boxed up my gardening manuals to donate to the library. My few remaining chickens are scattering the compost pile and soon I’ll use the tractor to mow it all down to a blank slate. I’m already feeling lighter and relieved, curious to see where I am headed next.


Words and image by Megan Fraser.

Tucked Away

hello there friend

Growing up I spent a lot of time with my cousins. We would create elaborate imaginary worlds and on-going dress-up dramas that would endure for several months. We played a lot of cards and board games. We watched Pink Panther movies over and over again. We put on embarrassing dance performances for large family gatherings by using our pastel-colored boom boxes to record music from the radio.

And we played a lot of Sardines. Sardines is similar to hide-and-seek, but instead of hiding from the seeker, everyone looks for one person, then crams into the hiding space together. When we eventually crawled into that space we would hold our breath, fight the giggles, and remain hidden until the final person discovered the sweaty mess of kids crammed under our grandmother’s back porch steps or in a musty closet with towering piles of our grandfather’s old tax returns. The last person to discover the “sardines” was the next one to hide, and the game would continue until my grandmother would call us into the kitchen for an afternoon snack.

I am sure we must have played Sardines in other places, but my strongest memory of playing it is at my grandparents’ home. Theirs was a large house, which at one point held nine children. But as they grew up and moved into their own homes, it gradually became filled with boxes, mounds of papers, unfinished projects, egg cartons, books, plastic bags, yarn, sweepstakes letters, empty margarine tubs, damaged or unlabeled cans of food, among other things. My grandparents had grown up during the Depression and they were both incredibly bright, resourceful, and witty. But they also had a strong need to hold onto anything that could potentially be reused, refurbished, and remembered. They were hardcore recyclers and hoarders long before those terms became commonplace.

I inherited my grandparents’ tendency to hold onto things, but as a military family who frequently has overseas assignments, we are limited in the weight and size of our household goods. Moving every three to five years forces us to reevaluate all of our belongings. It is an incredibly draining process for me and with this most recent move from Maryland to Japan, I started to think about the different ways I “box” things up in my life. While weaving in between wobbly piles of books and my excessive collection of tablecloths, I realized that it goes so much deeper than objects. I don’t just cling to physical items — I also clutch bits and pieces of stories and raw emotions. And just like any seasoned Sardines player, I hold my breath and cram them into the tight spaces hidden from view until they are ready to be rediscovered and reexamined. Sometimes these memories reemerge in expected ways, but most of the time they catch me off guard and take my breath away.

Since moving to Japan, my eleven-year-old daughter, Camille, has discovered the joys of origami and has spent countless hours transforming single sheets of paper into three dimensional creations that are both fragile and surprisingly durable. One of the very first things Camille learned to make were boxes, lovely little boxes that are able to hold their shape with only a few deft folds of the paper.

Soon, after she mastered those boxes, we visited the Hiroshima Peace Park. At the entrance to the Memorial Hall honoring the victims, we stopped to admire a set of miniscule origami cranes. Camille and I were amazed by how tiny, perfect, and beautiful they are. A Japanese docent noticed our fascination with them and guided us over to her desk where she proceeded to hand Camille a little origami box, similar to the boxes she had been making but on a much smaller scale. Nestled inside that box, were two of the smallest cranes we had ever seen.

The docent told us that she had made them that morning and that she wanted my daughter to have them. My eyes filled with tears as we thanked her for her generosity. Camille and I moved on to the memorial space, and the tears continued to flow. I was struck by the power of the paper box that my daughter was so carefully cradling in her hand. Surrounded by the haunting presence of war, loss, and sorrow, there was also this gift of peace, hope, beauty, and human connection all tucked into an itty-bitty box, made by a Japanese woman and gifted to an American girl.

We returned home, and my daughter found a special spot for the origami boxes in her room. Sometimes it’s the smallest boxes that contain the most important pieces of ourselves and others. Sometimes we cram as much as we can into whatever size box we have – a back closet filled with cousins or a moving box packed with seashells and favorite photos. And sometimes what’s most precious to us is hidden in unexpected spaces, small containers, just waiting for the perfect moment to be discovered, a moment of clarity and resonance. These are what I treasure and carry with me around the world.


Words and image by Lucia Saperstein.