Tamara Jorell

Writing life and the neighborhood

Writing life and the neighborhood

 

The song

The Christmas tree glows in the fresh hours of the morning. Everyone else is still sleeping. It’s too early to turn on music for the house, so I plug headphones into my ears and scroll through a music app on my phone. It’s just the dog, me, and a blanket on the couch. Transcendence is a tap away. I click.

Through the headphones, the beloved song about a small village in a faraway land two thousand years ago soothes me.

O little town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie!

Nothing still about our part of town. Too recently in North Minneapolis, gang members crossed into their enemies’ territory to settle a score. The sounds of gunshots reverberated off houses four blocks from ours, and before it was over, five men were shot. Ambulances rushed the injured ones to North Memorial.

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by;

That night before sleep could steal me, I gazed at the dark ceiling of the bedroom, listening. No emergency vehicles screamed by our windows. Only distant sirens sliced the night.

I thought of that day’s shootings, but no emotion stirred me. In fact, I hadn’t even heard the news until a friend, ragged with worry, called to check on us. And then too, I felt nothing; no twinge of pain, no lurch in my heart, no tug of mercy—not like in the early days in our neighborhood when I was all feelings, desperate to do something.  

Why didn’t this kind of news affect me anymore? Because this was gang violence and to be expected? That’s what many people believed. Were they right?

Alone the next day, I sank to my knees on the living room rug—in that favorite spot of mine where eternal meets temporal—and I raised it up: Let me feel something again. Let me see what You see.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light:

Now this morning, with headphones on, I draw a deep breath and let it go. Maybe that ancient village wasn’t so unlike mine. The streets were dark there too, weren’t they?

Blurry faces tied up in gangs and drugs and violence in my mind now morph into clear ones—the faces of the ones I love. The faces of the young kids in the neighborhood who once played basketball on our driveway. The faces of the ones we opened our door to—and always will. The faces of the ones I worry have picked the thorny path, the ones who might have already chosen the way of death.

What if some of my loved ones in the neighborhood have witnessed hatred blast their friends or family members from this world? What if they’re survivors with PTSD because they’ve glimpsed hell and have to walk with it? Or what if they’ve made the violence and have to live with it?

But there’s a Light. An everlasting Light.

And even in the darkness it comes to pierce their hearts—and my own again.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

This song of the season whisks me away now—and my fears with it—its message vaster than its lyrics. It reminds me we’re not from here, and it’s not where we’ll stay either. All of us were made for something higher than our fears, even higher than our hopes.

The song lifts us above the earth this Christmas season, so we feel again. And for a while, we fly free too. Together.

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*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

Rejoice

Rejoice with those who rejoice.

I’ve heard this twice now since Thanksgiving, and today a writer friend sends me an article about being grateful for what I don’t have (but others do), making this the third time the message has floated to me in one week. Be thankful for the good things that come to other people, the article says but in prettier words. Rejoice.

It’s a new facet for the gratitude journal; I could commit whole pages to thankfulness for what I don’t have but wish I did.

I mull it over with my coffee this morning and the same old thought patterns flicker like the lit candle next to me. How long will I wait for:

the thing I’ve bathed in prayer for over two decades?

the dream I offer up to the One who gave it to me in the first place?

the identity I think is for me, yet isn’t something I wear today?

But the Advent season, now upon us, is all about waiting—waiting for the One who hears petitions, the One who plants dreams, the One who is bigger and better than any version of us.

I’ll keep waiting. And I’ll rejoice in the not yet for me, but the right now for others while I’m at it.

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*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

The gratitude journal

Negativity slithered through our front door this fall, bringing darkness with it. We didn’t see it coming, of course, because that’s how it works.

But one day in late October, the dreariness captured my attention. How long had it been this dusky inside the house? I could hardly see the truth anymore for all the shadows.

“Not this again,” I said to no one in particular.

But I wasn’t the only one letting negativity’s gloom into our living quarters. Other family members had opened the door for it too. And we all seemed to entertain it most during our mealtimes together, venting our frustrations and irritations until the light over the table was as dim as a Minnesota morning in the fall before going off daylight savings time.

We were justified in our complaints, though, weren’t we? We were only discussing what was happening, right? There wasn’t any harm in it, was there? Facts were facts. And we could all agree there were too many hoops for Flicka to hop through in college, too many unanswered questions about Ricka’s life post-high school, too many worries about volleyball club teams for Dicka, too many schedule changes for Husband at work, and too many demands layered into my own days.

While the discussions stimulated me at first, negativity soon sucked away my energy.

Finally, I was done with it. So I resurrected an ancient solution for me—and for the family.

Gratitude.

“Here’s what’s happening,” I said one night at dinner, plunking down an old spiral notebook and pen. “We’re going to start a gratitude journal. It’ll stay right here on the table. Add to it whenever you think of something.”

I acted as scribe that first time, pointing my pen at each family member in the circle, forcing answers out of the whole lot of them until each had said something—anything.

At first, our gratefulness was staid: friends, family, volleyball, the dog. But as the days went, it broke free: Life Cereal, Dad telling his own embarrassing stories to comfort us, Dicka’s quick metabolism, God’s concept of time and money, when that car didn’t crash into Ricka in Uptown, candles, ChapStick, Flicka’s fast-growing hair, bagels, snow tires, the sun…

The concept of gratitude has existed since darkness was separated from light, and a person documenting his or her thankfulness has been around for eons too. Even so, I shared my not-so-creative-but-fresh-to-me idea of a gratitude journal with some loved ones.

Several had already tapped into the power of putting it on paper.

“It’s a life changer,” my sister said.

“It’s a game changer,” my friend said.

“It changes everything,” my neighbor said.

Hmm. So much change.

A week later, Ricka entered the house from school, her cell phone in hand. She tapped on it. “Mom, I took notes today about things I’m thankful for. Wanna hear them?”

She rattled off her list to me, and I transcribed the items into the gratitude journal. Taking a closer look, I noticed others had been in our notebook too—others beyond our family—scratching down their own notes of gratefulness.

That night at dinner, the dining room table looked different. Something had changed. I could see the food better—and my family too.

Was it just me, or was it brighter in here?

 

*Question for you, reader: If you started a gratitude journal today, what things/people/etc. would make your top ten?

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 *Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

Even more of yesterday's books

Two weeks ago, I invited you, my readers, to share your favorite books from childhood. Here is the final installment of your reading memories:

*****

Before I could devour books on my own, the earliest stories I remember were read to me by my mother, so the pictures carried the story for me. I memorized the artwork in Bible stories and in stories like Heidi by Johanna Spyri. Even today, the mental picture of the young Heidi sleepwalking, wearing a long white nightgown, brings me back to the story—an orphan girl who when living in the city became homesick for her grandpa and the mountains. Looking back now, I think this story probably gripped me because of the conflicts of the memorable characters, so unlike my own life as a preschooler.

Avis, Newfolden, Minnesota

*****

The earliest ones I can remember - from when I was three or so, and some of which I still have in the attic! - were Cyril the Squirrel, Miss Sniff, and a wonderful Cinderella. But I think one of the books which impressed me when I was about thirteen was The Diary of Anne Frank. I can actually see myself in my room reading this book and being so moved. As I teacher I also recommended books like Number the Stars and another favorite, The Devil’s Arithmetic, as important books about the Holocaust. I remember one my mother remembered from HER childhood, The Little Minister. And one of my all-time favorites - still, to this day - Alice in Wonderland! It is brilliant!

Sandy, Lacombe, Louisiana

*****

Nancy Drew mysteries! I think I read them all. An avid reader, I also snuck books from my mama’s bookcase. I read Jaws and The Exorcist when I was just 11 years old. Yeah, that was not my best idea. Be careful, Little Eyes, what you see…

Shelby, Crystal, Minnesota

*****

I suppose Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy by Henry Kissinger just cements my place in the warped corral. But I did read it when I was 10 years old. I went on to read Chemical and Biological Warfare by Seymour Hersh in 9th grade. The teacher wouldn’t take it as my book review until he quizzed me on the thing. I used to drive the librarians crazy at the bookmobile: I’d read every book and started on the college level stuff when I was in grade school. Thus, the me you get today.

Joe, Saint Paul, Minnesota

*****

I loved the book Snow Treasure written by Marie McSwiggen. The story was about Norwegian children who hid bars of gold on their sleds and took them down the mountain to the harbor to smuggle them out of the country right under the noses of Nazi soldiers. My parents and I all read the Little House books that I brought home from my elementary school library. In high school I worked at the public library which was a very uncool job, but it exposed me to many wonderful books.

Kathy, Maple Grove, Minnesota

*****

I liked the Maud Hart Lovelace books, Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High and then I started reading trashy romance novels my aunts left at my grandparents’ house. I was a little young to be reading them for sure.

Micara, New Market, Minnesota

*****

Any book about a horse! Walter Farley’s “The Black Stallion” series, the C.W. Anderson “Billy and Blaze” series, anything by Marguerite Henry and Sam Savitt (beautiful illustrator too!), and pretty much every other book on the subject I could get my hands on.

I grew up in a small town, and your prompt brought back warm memories of the excitement that I felt when the bookmobile would come to town. I would hope and wish and pray that there would be a new horse book for me to check out!

Gina, Rochester, Minnesota

*****

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*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

More of yesterday's books

Last week, I asked you about your favorite books from childhood. Many of you responded, so we’ll enjoy two weeks of trips to the past together. Here are this week’s memories:

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I don’t know if this counts as my favorite ‘book’ but I was obsessed with any and all things Nancy Drew.  I read every single hard cover published (sometimes twice) until they went to paperback. I loved the mysteries that involved her boyfriend (Ned) and her best girlfriends (Bess and George). She was the daughter of a busy single dad which I thought was cool at the time because she had a lot of ‘freedom’ to investigate all these mysteries.  Nancy had two major impacts on my life: 1) once I was able to learn to drive I didn’t know where I was going because I had my face in a book every time we got into the car and 2) Nancy, in partnership with Clarice Starling, was influential in my choice of my Criminal Justice college major.

Karyn, Mounds View, Minnesota

*****

Charlotte's Web: Simple but profound thoughts for everyday life as well as a glimpse into deeper more spiritual realms of our existence: “Why did you do all this for me?” he asked. “I don't deserve it. I've never done anything for you.” “You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing.”; “I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what's a life, anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die. A spider's life can't help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that.” I remember those quotes standing out to me even as a child. I'm quite sure I didn't I understand what it meant on a conscious level but I can say now that I'm sure it met and very possibly exposed my child's desire for love and friendship and a more peaceful world during that time in life. Ironically, it also sends the message that oftentimes there is a cost to it as well.

Peter, Maple Grove, Minnesota

*****

The Boxcar Children! I remember thinking they were living an exciting and adventurous life. I was extremely disappointed several years later to see the inside of a boxcar!

Sharon, Great Falls, Montana

*****

I loved all things Roald Dahl...especially his "Revolting Rhymes" which was given to me as a Christmas gift by my older (and therefore cooler) cousins in North Dakota, who really got my sardonic 9 year-old sense of humor. I spent hours in my bedroom memorizing his irreverent version of "Cinderella", and would perform it on command for anyone who'd get suckered into listening. I think I also performed in for a 4-H talent show. I'm pretty sure I can still recite it from start to finish... (Enjoy Roald Dahl’s “Cinderella” here.)

Carissa, Robbinsdale, Minnesota

*****

Readers Digest’s The World’s Best Fairy Tales from 1967. Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Billy Beg and His Bull, Rumpelstiltskin, The Musicians of Bremen, Blue Beard, and The Princess on the Glass Hill were some of my favorites. Also, Louis L’amour, Jack London, and Mark Twain.

Scott, Minneapolis, Minnesota

*****

*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

Yesterday's books

“Reading never wears me out.” Olivia, by Ian Falconer

What book from childhood did you like best? And why?

Write me a note about your favorite book from when you were a kid (photos welcome too) and send it here. Subscribers, simply hit reply to this email. I will publish your reading memories (along with your first name and location) in next week’s blog installment.

I’ll get us started…

I dragged my finger along the tattered bindings of Maj Lindman’s books. Inside their pages frolicked triplet girls from another time and place. I tagged along with them on their adventures—with a little dog, a new friend, their new dotted dresses, the girl next door, and the three kittens. Their mother always wore high heels in the house. And did she really cook for them all day long? Was that what life was like in Sweden even before my own mother was alive? The girls’ names—Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka—plucked at something inside me. How fun to say! Maybe one day I’d have triplets of my own.

Now it’s your turn.

And until next time… “But the wild things cried, ‘Oh please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!’” Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak

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*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

Doris

I first met Doris at a neighborhood block meeting in 2003. Nothing fancy, that meeting. Just a small gathering of people perched on folding chairs on the sidewalk in front of our neighbor Marta’s house. A guy named Don told us about some troublemakers messing with his garage, and he peppered the air with expletives. I shot a look at my girls—just two of them then, ages one and three—wondering if they caught the colorful language. Marta reined in the talk, funneling it in useful directions. And Doris floated above it all; she leaned into my double stroller, making funny faces at my babies until they laughed.

Doris worked in Mr. N’s yard in the summers, her face mottled from heat and hard work, sweat dripping off her chin. She bagged leaves in the fall and shoveled snow in the winter for him too. We exchanged waves and small talk whenever I spied her outside.

Then came the gifts. Doris dropped off little surprises for our girls on holidays. She worked at Litin Paper Company and snagged some good deals, she said. Each of the girls got orange pumpkin-shaped bags of goodies on Halloween, trinkets in Santa bags at Christmas, and little baskets of treasures for Easter. We’d come home from our out-of-town New Year’s festivities to jolly noise-makers and candy on our back step. And her fondness for Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka on Valentine’s Day came in the shape of hearts filled with chocolates—one for each girl.

Inspired by Doris, we decided to do some doorstep treats of our own for the neighbors. We began our Christmas cookie venture in 2004, the year Dicka was born. Just because people don’t normally deliver homemade cookies to strangers in a city neighborhood didn’t mean we wouldn’t.

Doris ranked high on our list. We trekked over to her street, a plate of goodies in my right hand, the baby propped on my left hip. My walking littles clutched the hem of my coat, and we trudged to her door through thick snow. Maybe she was too busy shoveling for the neighbors to clear her own. My hands full, I assigned the job of knocking to the toddler and preschooler.

A face in the door’s window. The sound of an unlatching deadbolt, then a chain sliding off its rails.

“Look who it is,” Doris said, her smile warming the air between us.

Behind her, the inside of the house was dark, the living room stacked with newspapers and containers. Near the doorway, a cat curved around a cardboard box, slinking toward us to check our identities.

Flicka handed her the gift of treats. And after that, the girls took turns delivering holiday cheer on red plates each Christmas until the year Doris didn’t come to her door anymore.

“Does she even still live here?” Ricka said.

“I don’t know.” I headed to the woman’s back yard, my now preteen girls scooting along behind me.

We dodged snow-covered garden tools and antique crates, rusted lawn ornaments and a broken wheel barrow, crumbled bricks and bent chicken wire. Maybe leaving a plate of cookies on Doris’ back step was safer. Maybe if we left our gift there it wouldn’t be snapped up by a passerby or squashed by a mail carrier.

But that day, the truth blew through my winter coat: we only knew the gift end of Doris and nothing else of her life. And even then, something told me our visits to her house were almost all used up.

 

Last week—fifteen years after meeting Doris—I clicked through a Facebook page for neighbors in our small corner of the city. One man grumbled about the meth houses too close to ours. Then he tossed out some facts about a certain address I knew well.

Doris’ house is boarded up now, and there are squatters there. She died a few months ago.

My mouth dried up. Where did our friend spend her last days? Did she have friends or family to see her off to the other side? How did her story end? Did she know we loved her?

I didn’t have the details I wanted, but I knew this much: As sure as Christmas cookies and snow and gift bags left on steps, the City that had hammered up those boards could take them down again, and goodness could move back in.

Doris may be gone, but hope was a survivor.

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*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

 

That day

And just like that, everything changed.

(The following blog post was my first, published four years ago now.)

*****

September 11, 2001. That dark Tuesday for the country was the beginning of a new day for my family, but we didn’t know it then.

I heard the news of the terrorist attacks from a friend who called me, breathless, early that morning. In a fog, I watched news coverage later that day in the waiting room of a clinic in our town of Sierra Vista, Arizona. Ricka, just eleven days old at the time, screamed during her appointment when the nurse pricked her heel, squeezing out a single drop of blood for each spot on a card for the lab. Distracted, I took my healthy baby home when it was over.

Wide-eyed and incredulous, we sat in front of our television for days like the rest of the country. I nursed Ricka, and Flicka, who was only twenty-two months old, played on the floor in front of the TV. I recall several living rooms in those days. Our viewing of the nightmare rotated from our living room to our friends’ living rooms, as if watching the horrors on TV in someone else’s house would bring fresh answers, a sound conclusion.

As usual, we Border Patrol wives stuck together. Our husbands continued to go to their jobs on the Mexican border, their station located in the town of Douglas, Arizona. Just because the country was grieving didn’t mean there wasn’t work to do. Maybe even more work now. America wasn’t impenetrable anymore.

Husband worked hot, dusty shifts in the desert. He had been unsatisfied with his job since its beginning three and a half years earlier, and I wondered if he would ever be happy in a job. It didn’t help that his work on the border seemed meaningless to him. The same groups of people crossing over without documentation would be caught in the desert, gathered up, brought to the station to be “idented,” and sent back to Agua Prieta, Mexico, only to return the next day to the same agents, the same scenarios.

Husband came home with stories. Fathers abandoning their families in the desert to escape to the U.S. alone. Desperate mothers tossing their babies over the steel fence separating the U.S. from Mexico. Federal agents finding drugs in a desert also littered with garbage, discarded clothing, full and empty mayonnaise jars—and sometimes a dead body. Eventually, the government instructed the agents to look the other way from illegal border crossings. The success rates would look better that way, and it was all about the numbers. Husband wanted out.

The unabating sun, the choking sandstorms, and Husband’s uniform—stained from the red clay soil of the Sonoran desert—reminded us we were far from where we came. We had two babies, and their mere existence in the world nudged me daily.

Go back home!

We heard reports in our town of “particulate matter”—dried feces—in the air we breathed, higher rates of childhood leukemia, drug use amongst kids as young as third grade, the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country, and eventually it wasn’t just Husband looking for a way out. Something had stirred in me too.

We kept our ears open. Husband applied for jobs elsewhere—the northern U.S. border as a Border Patrol agent, anywhere as a Secret Service agent, and the Grand Canyon as a Forest Ranger. But it was 9/11—the bleakest of America’s tragedies—that was our way out. The Federal Air Marshal Service under the Department of Homeland Security was suddenly hiring hundreds of new air marshals to supplement their paltry number of pre-9/11 agents.

Nothing about the federal government moves quickly, but the hiring process for Federal Air Marshals was expedited due to a new national sense of insecurity. They demanded coverage, and now. Husband and most of his friends from the Border Patrol in Douglas, Arizona, were hired. Abruptly, our lives changed. The mild winters, monsoon seasons, and slow-paced desert lifestyle came to an end. By March 22, 2002, we handed our house keys to the landlord, slammed the U-Haul doors shut for the last time, tossed one last look behind us at the Huachuca Mountains, and started our trek north.

We spent our first night on the road in a cheap motel in Deming, New Mexico. A long enough travel day for a six-month-old and a two-year-old, we decided. Burrs peppered the carpeting in that motel room, so we kept our shoes on.

We hit blizzard conditions in Nebraska, and memories of my northern Minnesota upbringing smacked me in the face. Oh, that’s right. That’s how winter feels. I was sorry the little ones were wearing light fleece jackets and that I had stepped into flip-flops that morning, but it was cozy in the cab of the U-Haul truck.

Having survived the trip from southeastern Arizona to northwestern Minnesota in four wintry days with a baby, a toddler, our miniature dachshund, and all our earthly possessions, we wended our way to my parents’ home in Newfolden, Minnesota. It was my first time seeing their new house and new dogs—a fresh life together in their almost thirty-eight years of marriage. I pulled Mom and Dad into vice-grip hugs, relieved Dad wasn’t greatly changed from the last time I saw him. The fear I nursed on the trip was that he was worse and no one had told me. But he was between chemo treatments, enjoying an upswing in energy, and ready to play with his little grandgirls.

I looked at Husband. We had made it. I squeezed him tight. We were starting something new. He was a Federal Air Marshal now and would report the next week to a training academy. The girls and I would stay at Mom and Dad’s for as long as it took to find a house in the Twin Cities where Husband’s new station would be.

We didn’t know that in eight weeks, we’d have found our first home—a 1919 stucco—and be living in North Minneapolis, an area we knew nothing about.

We had no idea what was about to go down for us living in the hood.

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*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

Coco and the county fair

If the Marshall County Fair back in the late 1970s had been an opera, my older sister Coco would’ve been the prima donna. A true Renaissance 4-H girl, she was a judge’s dream. Only in junior high, she already had talents with a camera, canvas, cloth, cooking, and Checkered Giants (rabbits.) I was in elementary school at the time, and while my younger siblings may have entered items in the fair too, my memories of their efforts are fuzzy; I was too busy trying to emulate Coco to pay much attention.

In four frames, Coco captured the different stages of my cartwheel for a photo series entry. She baked the best julekage and carrot cake I, to this day, have ever tasted. She showcased her sewing skills by altering a dress and transforming it into a skirt/top duo. And she nurtured an all-white male rabbit named Dandelion to winning heights.

My industrious doings, on the other hand, sang an off-key tune. While my dried bean and macaroni kitchen plaque was solidly average, I stitched a misplaced seam on my sewing project, turning my striped skirt with patch pockets into a bag. And for the baking competition, I whipped up some biscuits using baking soda instead of baking powder.

“What’s the difference anyway?” I asked Mom after admitting my mistake in the kitchen. “Does it really matter?”

“Bake them and see,” she said.

The dog wrinkled her nose at the hard orange biscuits that emerged from the oven. I started my projects over, mixing my dough again and later ripping out the stitches in my “bag” too.

If thoughts of the fair judges’ scrutiny rattled us, the promise of the payout kept us motivated. A blue ribbon equaled $3.00, a red ribbon $2.00, and a white $1.00. A grand champion ribbon meant even more money, but I imagined the sense of satisfaction was higher than the dollars earned by winning one.

Coco secured all blue ribbons, with the exception of her julekage and carrot cake; those were grand champion winners. I don’t remember what I won on my biscuits or skirt, but I know I earned a red ribbon on my dried bean and macaroni plaque. And those two dollars made me grin.

The county fair was bigger than ribbons, though. For several shifts a year, we 4-H members and some parents performed a sweaty service manning the food booth, and that was where Coco and I shared equal ground; we both feared making change.

We kids took the customers’ orders, the hot grill spitting grease at us as we scurried by. We plated hamburgers, potato salad, rolls, and pie. We filled cups with coffee and milk. And then came time for the money to change hands.

“$5.15, please,” I said to an older gentleman with a mustache.

He opened his wallet, extracted a twenty-dollar bill, and rummaged in his pocket. He slapped a dime and a nickel down on the counter along with the bill.

I furrowed my brow, plucking up the twenty and waggling it in the air. “This is enough. You don’t need the coins too.”

His eyes smiled even though his mustache stayed even. He nodded toward somebody’s mother who worked the cash register. “Bring it over there, give it to her, and see what happens.”

Wary, I brought the twenty and change to the till. The woman handed me back a ten and a five. A light dawned, and my mouth sagged open. Mr. Mustache had shown me new ways of the world—and making change. I shot a look over my shoulder at him. He winked.

In the evening, we collected our fair items with the judges’ notes affixed to them—and ribbons too, if we were lucky—and loaded them into the station wagon. Coco’s champion baked goods, along with other people’s, had posed for public viewing all day on flimsy plates atop white-papered tables. Flies buzzed in circles over the edible winners, but that didn’t stop us from tearing into the julekage on the ride home and washing down the soft wads of Norwegian Christmas bread with ice-cold strawberry Shastas.

Back at home, we bathed, sponging away the dust from the fair while keeping our memories. Coco displayed her ribbons on a cork board in our shared bedroom, and of course I copied her. As if that year wasn’t success enough, I could tell my big sister already had schemes brewing for the next year’s entries. And maybe I did too.

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*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

Angels and bananas

“I drive around the block every night before I head to work,” Edward says, forearms resting on his back gate. “I check on your house too. Make sure everything’s okay over there.”

I try to think of what we did to deserve our own nightshift-working guardian angel who happens to live down the alley and monitors our block while we sleep, but I come up empty.

“I appreciate it,” Husband says, his head bobbing.

“What would we do without you?” And this time when I say it, it’s not a rhetorical question.

Edward’s eyes glow, and the back door of his house swings open. His wife Marie steps out and saunters toward us, a smile splashed on her face.

I exchange a hug with the woman who gave me her grandmother’s ceramic bowls—and warm memories of her whenever I eat soup from them. Before those dishes, though, she gave us something even better: her daughter, whose presence improved our basketball court out back. For years, the sight of that kid’s pump fakes and dribble drives, as she played with at least six other teenagers on our driveway, made my heart clench. In those days, Marie gave all the neighborhood kids stern warnings about practicing manners while they shot hoops at our place too. And my heart squeezes even now.

But we have to leave.

“We’ll have you guys over for pizza,” Husband says for the umpteenth time, even though jobs usually trample our intentions when we pull out our calendars. But hope and pizza live together in our neighborhood, so here we go again.

 

One summer day, Marie calls, telling me she’s got something for me. She drops off the present—a black garbage bag filled with overripe bananas—on my porch. She rescued the fruit, destined for the dumpster, from her workplace, because why should it all go to waste? I peel, slice, and zip the bananas into freezer bags for their cold sleep. In the winter, I’ll do some baking with Marie’s gift and think of Edward and his watchful rounds night after night. And of course I’ll think of her too, always making our lives sweeter than banana bread.

 

We fire up the outdoor pizza oven on a rainy Monday, but Edward and Marie are working and can’t make it over for a slice this time either.

“Why don’t you put in your order?” I tell Marie. “We’ll make you a couple for after work. I don’t care how late it is.”

She laughs. “Okay. Sausage, green pepper, and mushrooms for me. Just meat—or whatever you’ve got—for Edward.”

Around ten o’clock that night, she pulls her car up to the curb in front of our house. I head outside, balancing one pizza pan on each palm. She jumps from her vehicle, meets me on the sidewalk, and hugs my middle because my hands are full.

“I would’ve delivered to your house, you know,” I say.

She laughs again. She’s appreciative, she says, but I think I feel it more. While pizzas are nice, I’ll take angels and bananas any day.

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*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

Little things: beginnings

I couldn’t think about anything else until I peeked. Just one little look. I wouldn’t have to go further.

I peeled back the tiniest portion of carpeting in the bedroom, and lifting a few square inches in the corner revealed exactly what I wanted: a hardwood floor. Despite its roughness, I spied potential. I ripped further.

It was 2002, and we were new to the house and not in a position to do any renovations yet. But to me, the timing was ideal; Husband was at work.

Nervous excitement roiling my stomach, I tore the stinky old carpeting free from the nails that anchored it. I heaped the offending mass in the dining room, whipping up excuses for why it needed to go that day. Several young children had lived in the house before us. How many times had their bodily fluids puddled up on the beige fibers and seeped through to the pad underneath? And with kids of our own, how many times would we add our own muck to the hard-to-clean textile? It was better off gone.

My picking away at the flooring ushered in a big project, and my impatience propelled it to its end.

Over the years, many other small beginnings have zinged me in the gut too: the initial step into the kindergarten classroom for each of my girls, the starting payment on a large bill, the first word of a manuscript pecked out on my keyboard.  

Frustration floods me—anxiety too sometimes—because first movements seem too tiny to accomplish big things, and I don’t like them. I’d rather jump to the grand, satisfying conclusion: the graduation, the pay-off check, my story’s The End.

But outside of time and space, Someone else values the nearly invisible debut, the almost imperceptible start.

Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.

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*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

Little things: the ten blocks

I drive along Dowling, a busy avenue in my North Minneapolis neighborhood. As I travel the ten blocks I know like my own hands, a quote swirls through my brain.

Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.

Small doings are in plain sight, but repetition has killed the landscape for me. I gaze at my surroundings now, resurrecting them. I want to see again.

More than a decade ago, the shoe repair shop with the clever sign—“We can heel you and save your sole”—at Dowling and Fremont vanished, leaving behind a blank plot of land. Today a man and woman, bent like twin hairpins, work the piece of earth where the shop once stood. It’s not an established community garden, but they till it up each spring anyway, hiding their vegetable seeds in the fresh furrows. The City isn’t onto them yet, or else the lot would lie fallow again. I want to clap for them, cheer for their success in bringing food from nothing right in the middle of everything.   

I roll on. Another farmer tends her property. But what is she doing? I’m happy for the red light, so I can see more. She lugs a watering can to the sidewalk in front of her house and sprinkles the length of one crack, then the next. Did she plant seeds between the slabs of concrete? Or is she nurturing the weeds that sprout from the gaps? I forget I have a passenger in my car—it’s Dicka today—and she’s watching the careful irrigation of cement too. She laughs, and the light turns green.

A block further, a three-legged pit bull hops along the sidewalk at the end of a leash, tongue dangling from his smile, his human affixed to the other end. The man’s strides are slow, matching those of his animal. I’ve seen that dog before—and his man—and those two own each other. The leash is just a formality society demands, because their affection would hold them together just fine.

Food coaxed from city ground. A drink for the cracks. Love on both ends of a tether. My ten blocks have cheered me today. And my eyes are open now.

What about yours?

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*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

Timmy and Trissa

Timmy and Trissa, ages five and three.

The kids were numbers sixteen and seventeen in our home placements through Safe Families for Children. We had hosted sibling pairs before, and our own girls were on a long break from school, so the timing was ideal. Two little kids to our three bigger ones? This would be easy. Lots of help, loads of fun.

The new guests burst into our house like unleashed puppies. But unlike puppies, they were potty-trained, so I didn’t have to worry about anyone piddling on the living room rug. Excitement glinted in Timmy’s eyes, and if that sparkle had a sound, I imagined it would make the same ping! as a dazzling smile in a toothpaste commercial. Trissa leveled a gaze at me that seemed to size up my soul—and plans—within a second.

The boy and girl barreled out the back door, because unlike all the babies we had recently hosted, these two could work doorknobs and deadbolts like the house was on fire and they better scram.

“Girls, go,” I said to my three, stabbing a finger toward the back door. “Follow them.”

The girls chased after the visitors who sprinted down the walk toward our back gate. Timmy made it there first, his sister drafting off him like a pro cyclist.

“Me too, Booty,” she hollered. “Me too!”

“Booty” jiggled the latch until it opened. Freed from the yard, the two of them galloped in circles in the alley, flailing their arms and laughing. A breath caught in my chest. We had committed our time to an organization with safe in its name. And we had made a promise that ours was a safe family. What if a car raced through just then?

My girls corralled the pair. And no cars came.

Safely back in the yard, I crouched in front of our houseguests, capturing a hand of each. “That was scary. Cars drive through here too fast, and you could get hurt. You’re not running out there again.”

Timmy nodded, but his eyes said, Yeah, we are.

“No running in the alley. Got it?” I looked back and forth between the two young faces, concocting a plan to slow them down. “I’ve got an idea. Let’s ride some bikes.”

I opened the garage door and dragged out the bike with training wheels and the tricycle. The kids hopped on their rides, and the girls and I steered them toward the double driveway next door, a perfect practice pad our neighbor had let our girls zoom around on when they were learning.

“Booty, watch me,” Trissa called out. “Watch me!”

The following days with Timmy and Trissa were a blur of running legs and closed ears. A buzz of snack requests and activity changes. A flurry of me snap-pointing at doors while barking commands at my girls.

“You,” I said, because a houseguest breaking loose made me forget the names of my offspring. “Trissa ran out the front door. Go watch her.” I turned on my heel to face another girl of mine. “And you. Timmy just took off out back. Go.”

 

A day or two later, we drove to the park because I needed some respite from door watching. I released our escape artists and the girls to the freedom of play and dropped onto a nearby bench. A handful of older neighborhood kids scrambled on and around the equipment, and our littles were no longer larger than life. Instead, I saw two small children, now navigating a world where they seemed cautious, even hesitant.

The girls guided them onto swings and bars. Timmy and Trissa stuck close. Some of the park kids edged nearer to my group. A verbal exchange, then they hooted over something funny about our little guests. Dicka, our youngest, scowled at them. I stood up and sauntered over.

“That’s only her name for him,” Dicka said to the laughing ones. “You can’t call him Booty.”

The other kids backed off, new distractions at the park tugging them away. All the freedom Timmy and Trissa could want stretched in front of them, but this time neither bolted. They played in one area, and when they were done, they clutched onto my girls’ hands, all smiles.

Our little runners weren’t running anymore.

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*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

 

The puppies

Wails from somewhere outside pierced the walls of our house and ripped me awake. What was that? A loud baby—or an animal? Another cry. Definitely an animal. If those neighbors across the alley had chained up a dog to its neglect—or if they were mistreating it in some other way—so help me. I looked out the kitchen window, eyes narrowed.

But nothing stirred on the plot of land beyond our chain link fence.

I set to work brewing a pot of coffee, memories of one particular dog across the alley flooding my mind and yanking something in my gut all over again. That poor thing had grown thinner and thinner—tethered to one spot under the elements—until Husband sauntered over for a talk with the tenants. But that was years ago.

Ten minutes passed. The mournful sounds continued. I abandoned my coffee cup and headed out back. No movement anywhere. Still, cries drifted to me from nearby. Was a dog caught somewhere—or injured?

I followed the noise, but before I stepped foot onto the neighbor’s property across the alley, a man burst through the back door of the house, his gaze trained on me.

He patted the air with an open palm. “It’s all good over here.”

With vivid colors, he painted a picture of the noise’s cause, explaining it was mating season for the dogs at their place. I shuddered. Too much information.

Too many puppies already wandered our part of the city, minus collars and supervision. Our neighborhood teemed with backyard breeders bringing more pit bulls into the world. And for what purpose? I had heard about the ones used for fighting or to guard guns and drugs in stash houses, but that was the worst case scenario, wasn’t it?

I walked back home, shoving away my thoughts so I could keep living in the neighborhood. But they caught up with me again a week later while sitting behind the wheel of my Honda at a red light on Seventh.

My pit bull, Lala, rode shotgun that day, scanning the landscape like a queen surveying her empire. A car rolled up on our left and honked. I looked over. The driver—a guy with a smile so wide I frowned—twirled his finger for me to lower my window.

“Boy or girl?” he hollered over, lifting his chin toward my dog.

“Girl,” I yelled back.

“We need to do some breeding.”

I wrinkled my nose. This wasn’t the first time a stranger had propositioned Lala. When I walked her on the streets of North Minneapolis, drivers of passing vehicles would often slow, roll down their windows, and propose “play times,” so their animals could mingle with mine.    

The traffic light snapped to green.

“She’s fixed,” I called out to the driver.

His smile slid off. “Too bad.”

I tromped on the gas, grateful for green lights and spay surgeries. Again, I shelved my thoughts, because life offered bigger dilemmas than an abundance of puppies.

 

One day, a few months later, Dicka peered out the kitchen window. “Mom, check this out. They’re so cute.”

Two pit bull puppies bounced outside our back gate, their skins too tight to hold their zest for life. Like so many before them, they looked eager to break into our yard—and lives.

I squinted through the glass. “Now where did these guys come from?”

“From over there.” She pointed at the house across the alley.

I did some quick math, and my calculations fit; these little ones were likely the result of That One Morning.

I sighed. “They’re actually smiling, if that’s possible.”

Beaming, my girl zipped out the back door and passed through our gate. In a second, the puppies bobbed at her legs, then glued themselves to her.

Where were the owners? How long would we need to double-check—no, quadruple-check—our rearview mirrors before backing out our vehicles? How many times would we herd the furry ones back home before they were gone—and then how long until we’d do it all over again?

I strode outside as a third dog bounded over to join the party. I released a breath and stowed my thoughts again. Happiness frolicked on our driveway, living in the moment. And in that moment, there were no calls to Animal Control or interventions with the neighbors.

For now, there was only love to give and ears to scratch.

*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

The award (Sounds)

On July 14, 2018, one of my pieces won the Aspiring Author Award from Bethany House Publishers. Enjoy it here:

 

Sounds

In my tiny hometown, some people wedged air conditioners in the open windows of their homes in the summertime. As a kid, I saw those units as a sign of wealth, along with carpeting and wall murals. But in our little rambler, we only had fans. And I sang into those cooling machines and laughed at the quavering effect on my voice. They made me smile too on muggy Minnesota nights when I dreamed to the sound of those blades beating behind bars.

If I snoozed away my teenage summer mornings, the sound of distant lawn mowers jostled me awake, reminding me of my chore. I had to cut our grass too before the afternoon, because my sisters and I had the grueling task of sunbathing—back when frying oneself in baby oil was a good idea. After my lawn mowing, we wriggled into our swimsuits, looped beach towels around our necks, grabbed the boom box, and sneaked out to the back yard where we committed our act of luxury. But the slam of a car door—that was Dad coming home for lunch. And we couldn’t let him see us being lazy in the back yard or we’d get more jobs added to our lists. Greasy and giggling, we scrambled back inside for cover. 

Some evenings back then—if the mosquitoes weren’t too ferocious—we sat on our front steps, sipping limeade. Our view was a gravel road, and beyond it, a field that stretched out forever—or at least as far as the place where sky kisses soil. Crickets chirped the soundtrack for those evenings, and fireflies ignited the ditches.

A decade and a half later, I traded the bucolic sounds of my youth for the jagged noise of inner-city living. Street fights in the night replaced the sound of purring fans, sirens trumped the buzzing of lawn mowers, and booming music choked out the crickets’ songs. But the commotion outside soothed my city babies to sleep. And Husband and I heard the pops of fireworks—or gunshots?—somewhere close, and the sounds lulled us to sleep too.

 

One Saturday night not long ago, I drove home from an event. As usual, I turned the car west at the exit and onto Dowling Avenue North. But what was up ahead? Inactivity on the streets snapped me to attention. I straightened my posture and glanced at the digital clock on the car’s dash. Midnight. I narrowed my eyes. The area was naked of violence and flashing lights. Why? I rolled down the driver’s side window to listen. Only the distant hum of freeway traffic floated into the car. As I drove deeper into North Minneapolis, I swiveled my head to scan each intersecting street. Something was awry.

Where were the police cars? And the sirens? Where was the normal activity—as common as jam on toast—of officers making arrests? Where was the yelling I had come to expect? Or the screeching tires that told me I was almost home?

That night in bed, I stared into the darkness. Like the whirring fans of my childhood, the clatter of unrest in our part of the city had become my white noise. I remembered two earlier conversations.

“A police car just went by,” an out-of-town guest had said, rushing to our living room window. “And it had its lights on!”

“Oh?” I shook my head. “I didn’t notice.”

On another occasion, a neighbor said, “That’s the third time this week police helicopters have circled over our houses.”

I shrugged. “I guess I didn’t hear them.”

Turmoil had become commonplace; dissension, humdrum. My senses had dulled, turning my gaze inward and blurring my motivation to serve the neighborhood. And one peaceful night on the streets felt wrong to me.

The next day, I let the dog out into the back yard. She sniffed the air, and I followed her outside to survey my garden. The usual sounds swirled around me: squeals from nearby tires, the bang of a dropping garbage can lid in the alley, and faraway sirens screaming toward crisis.

I breathed out a prayer for a fresh outlook, a renewed perspective—for ears to hear once more.

The bells from the church on the corner—louder than the neighborhood now—pealed out an old hymn, and I perched on a garden stool to listen. Memories of the song’s lyrics wafted to me on spring winds, nudging me out of complacency and back to my purpose.

Faith of our fathers, we will love

Both friend and foe in all our strife,

And preach thee, too, as love knows how

By kindly words and virtuous life:

Faith of our fathers, holy faith,

We will be true to thee till death.

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 *Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

© 2014 Tamara Jorell. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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