31 for 21: Day 11: five minute friday: ordinary

…where a brave and beautiful bunch gather every week to find out what comes out when we all spend five minutes writing on the same topic and then sharing ‘em over here.

View More: http://mollyflanaganphotography.pass.us/starkey-family-2013


“Momma- Molly took a picture of the broken crackers on the pantry floor! Why would she do that? Shouldn’t we clean them up?”

…because the common is uncommonly beautiful. Because there is grace in the ordinary details of daily life. Because it is the moments between the moments you are waiting for where life is fully lived. Because our family’s true story lies in the detail of what is always around us that the busy work of life keeps us from noticing. Because when you don’t know what you can expect in life, the ability to do the simple task of eating has a profound effect on how you view the world around you. Because in the blink of an eye your world goes from neat, orderly and in control to being chaotic, out of control, messy and so incredibly full of love and wonder. Because when life threatens to take the ordinary out of your day you pause and weep with gratitude over all of life’s bounty from the precious life that you have been asked to protect to the food on your plate to the shelter over your head. Because sometimes your eyes and mind are so full of what you expect to see around you that it is impossible to pause and see what actually exists in your day. Because family, love and home are art and beauty in its most natural state. Because a single image, a grain of salt on your tongue, a smell from the frying pan in the kitchen can ground you in your day and lose you in your life all in the same moment. Because while that cracker broken on our pantry floor means we need to take the time to care for our home it also shows how very much we already do care for the ones we love, the home we live our lives in and the routines we have in our day. Because years from now when you all are all grown-up with a life separate from this one, you might find yourself racing through the grocery store to pick up milk and bread and soup and crackers with one crying baby in the cart-seat, one dawdling at your heels and one at home with a fever and you’ll lean down to grab the box of saltines off of the bottom shelf and be suddenly overwhelmed by the image on the box and find yourself thrown back into your childhood when you would spend Saturday afternoon snack time with kefir and crackers and freshly peeled clementines before racing out to the swing that hangs on the old oak tree; and you’ll wipe a tear from your eye before the baby swats the box out of your hand propelling you back into matters at hand. Because Molly is an artist whose gift allows us to take what is utterly mundane in the life we live and reflect the love, the light, the beauty in the ordinary, the seemingly  unimportant fractions of a second in the family’s life where their lives are actually lived. Because Momma didn’t see it laying their on the floor while I raced around to hide the broken down cardboard boxes, poopy wrapped up diapers and empty recyclable kefir bottles when Molly pulled into the driveway that afternoon….

…is what I will say when she is older and we can sit together over two steaming mugs of coffee.

Yes love- we should clean them up.


31 for 21: Day 4: five minute friday: write

…where a brave and beautiful bunch gather every week to find out what comes out when we all spend five minutes writing on the same topic and then sharing ‘em over here.

View More: http://mollyflanaganphotography.pass.us/starkey-family-2013


I pull the tub’s drain cover and wrap the toddling Quail in her towel, just as Zuzu positions herself at the stepstool between us. “H-A-T” she recites pushing the small square of paper over to me. And there it is, in her four-year-old scrawl. She licks the graphite tip of the pencil mildly as I grin over at her.

“Was Daddy helping you write about his hat?”
“No Momma- I did it. I wrote it.”

And just like that, she cartwheeled into the world of big kids. She did it herself. Probably someone unknown to us helped her figure it out- but as far as our parental involvement was concerned her ability to write and spell and read and talk appeared like magic.

“If I make the dots large enough, she knows now to connect them and form the A. She’s getting good at it. These three were hand over hand, but this one here on the end she did on her own!” Our Early Intervention worker handed over the orange construction paper for us to pin to our fridge a few months ago. Since then they have worked diligently on the next letter in her name with a goal of fading back the prompts and her writing her first name independently before her fifth birthday.

Magic versus practical. So different from her sister’s path into big kid-land. And yet, in the end, they are both there. They’ll both learn to write, to read, to speak and to spell. Lucky for us, Zuzu is a big fan of playing the role of the instructor. Lucky us, the Quail idolizes her. Lucky them, we can take either path to get them there.


five minute friday: true

…where a brave and beautiful bunch gather every week to find out what comes out when we all spend five minutes writing on the same topic and then sharing ‘em over here.



This is the stuff. I think to myself as I sit down at the cramped kitchen table to nurse Sugarplum. The smell of the chicken that Lovey had spiced and seared wafts over me and lulls me deeper into the hormone hit I look forward to with each nursing. It’s easy in that brief moment of stillness. Of thick hungry scents of dinner to come. Of Ryan Adams crooning on the Pandora. Of Zuzu singing as she skips to the living room to reach the Netflix remote before the Quail can. Of the Quail happily setting out a specified color of Fiestaware for each member of the family to eat with.

It’s easy in those moments to breathe, and sigh and smile. And then the Quail realizes that the opportunity for Barney has been swiped by her sister and Zuzu realizes we are pouring her a glass of homemade kefir rather than milk and the baby realizes that the blanket she was snuggling has fallen under the table and she bites down as she wrenches herself off to lunge for it…again. And the noise pitch of all of these realizations in these too small rooms pound into my temple and the migraine I had been nursing all afternoon flares as my temper strikes and I holler for everyone to go take their baths so that we can eat, and do our homework and do our bite-bites and maybe, just maybe get everyone to bed before my head explodes or at least eight o’clock.  

And just as quickly it stops and plates are served up and reassurances are made that you can just leave what you don’t want to eat and warnings are issued that if you walk away from the table your meal is done. And then the baby in her highchair utters a “bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp” in response to the command of “Everybody dance now!” that Zuzu has been chanting at random intervals since gym class with Ms. Young earlier that day. And the Quail sees me pull her beloved French bread from the toaster oven and starts signing her version of bread emphatically to be certain I don’t pass her up as I hand out the thickly cut and buttered slices and everyone sinks back into quiet chewing, the earlier tempers forgiven if not forgotten. The guilt of having lost my cool yet again as impulsively dumped as the tone itself had been issued.

This is the stuff. This is our life. These fluid threads of together and separate, of need, and impulse, and want and desire and plain ordinary chicken and bread, and days apart and evenings together that weave us into a blanket described as family that will wrap us tight and comfort us and infuriate us and catch us up all within the blink of an eye.

This is the stuff. This is what’s true. The anger, the tempers, the chaos, it’s no more real or true or authentic than the peace and the love and the feelings of joy.  It’s all of it. It’s life together minute to minute, moment to moment, person to person. It’s family. It’s love. It’s true.


five minute friday: she

…where a brave and beautiful bunch gather every week to find out what comes out when we all spend five minutes writing on the same topic and then sharing ‘em over here.


“What did I do wrong?”

I had been sharp with her. Unnecessarily so. She hadn’t done anything wrong. I was just tired of not being listened to and had raised my voice in response to the cacophony of the little ones running away from,  while simultaneously giggling at and ignoring my repeated requests. She had been sitting quietly on the couch watching Word Girl. It was almost bedtime for them and my head was filled with the swirling clutter of our kitchen, the undone daily to-do list, the mountain of unwashed laundry and the books and toys that the children seemed to see as a household obstacle course to be serpentined through rather than picked up after. She was sitting amidst the three ring circus of our living room and I wanted some help cleaning up.

She’s almost seven now. Light years from the toddler who used to grin with a carefree enthusiasm that was hard to pin down. She takes our words, our tones, our looks or lack of them into her tender heart and mirrors them back in her daily interactions with others.  I hear it as she scolds her dolls and reminds her friends and sisters of the rules and how to act in both their very real and make-believe-land and I frown making a mental note to temper myself. To give her more emotional freedom to remain the unencumbered little girl that darts between big-sister-hood and little-girl-dom on a whim. Who frequently entwines her unending mommalogues with requests to be the baby next lifetime around with predictions that when she grows up she’ll be not only a teacher but the person in charge of them.  


She’s not a baby anymore. Not a toddler or a preschooler to be shaped and shepherded at every turn of the schedule and activity. She is venturing out into her school and her community and becoming not just the person I expect her to be, but the girl she wants to be. A girl who matches her striped shirt with rainbow polka-dotted jeggings because she likes the way the patterns play together. A girl who wants to sing Katy Perry loudly in the car with the windows rolled down rather than listening to me sing another verse of the unending family version of the Barney song. A girl who loves to both get a smiley face on her weekly spelling test and ask in baby tones if I’ll carry her to bed tonight. A girl who wants to be the one to choose which restaurant we go to for dinner but will still only eat cheese quesadillas and mini-corndogs most nights. A girl who begs me to not take her picture in front of her friends but photobombs the shots of her sleeping sisters.

She didn’t do anything wrong.

She. She’s just growing up before I know how to let her.


five minute friday: red

…where a brave and beautiful bunch gather every week to find out what comes out when we all spend five minutes writing on the same topic and then sharing ‘em over here.


“That’s 3! Zuzu we haven’t even left the driveway yet and you’ve already earned a timeout once we get up to the mountains!”

The shocked look on her face passed over into the pit of my stomach and Lovey said he would be the one to take her to do her timeout and I could take the other girls on in to the bakery.

It was my idea to go apple picking this morning. We didn’t have to go. The baby had been sick all week. The Quail was exhausted from her first week of school and Zuzu’s attitude had been flaring all morning. But it was the beginning of September. The thought of the crisp air in the mountains, a coffee and danish from the bakery, pictures of the girls gallivanting through the orchard and a bag of apples to bake into pies all wreaked of seasonal holiday fun after a week home with a sick toddler.

Only it was barely 8 am and no one was having any fun.

As we drove on up into the foothills the expected requests for breakfast, a drink, how much farther do we have to go were easily enough assuaged and Zuzu decided to read her homework book, hand another book to the Quail and then pick up after the baby’s half thrown, half chewed Cheerio trail without even being asked.

“That’s two.”

Zuzu looked at me and grinned, “You mean I’m not at three anymore and if I keep it up I can take it back down to one and maybe not have a timeout?”



And in that moment as I drank the cup of coffee that would keep me going till I got my next cup, I stopped seeing red.

For a brief moment in time, as Zuzu chattered on about her week, the apples she would pick, the cider they would drink, the playground she wanted to run through and her birthday plans that were still over a month off, I breathed a sigh of relief and thought…this is it.

This is how families are. It’s not all good and it’s not all bad. Even in the same day. Even in the same hour. It’s so fluid- it/we vacillate between happy and sad, content and irritated, energetic and bone tired.

And that’s ok.

And what I take away from the day can either be how awful we all behaved for that portion of the day, or the happy ordinary after that eventually comes when the storm blows over.

That’s the stuff.

Now if I could stop the story there and end with pictures of us all frolicking amongst the other orchard-goers life would still seem pretty picture-perfect and rainbow sprinkled.

Unfortunately the reality is the red in the day bled from the Honey Crisps we plucked from the bin into the dotted rash that started to spread over the baby’s soft skin once she woke from her nap to her cheeks that filled with rage as she fussed and fussed until we finally gave up, packed it in and headed back down the mountain towards home to spend the afternoon in the urgent care making sure there wasn’t something else that could be done for this fussy baby.

She’s fine now though. And we do have apples for a pie. And we did actually make it out in spite of ourselves. And I did get that pastry and a cup of coffee. And we made it home when we needed to.

Because we’re a family.

And that’s what families do.


five minute friday: story

…where a brave and beautiful bunch gather every week to find out what comes out when we all spend five minutes writing on the same topic and then sharing ‘em over here.

photographed by mollyflanagan.com

photographed by mollyflanagan.com


My story is ever-changing and yet still the same, this narrative that I live and weave and breathe. What I know, what I think, how I feel and what matters to me, it stems from the same words and thoughts that once hinted at my future long ago. That was well over 20 years ago when I sat at our oval-shaped kitchen table with its smooth wood colored surface thumbing through the class catalog for the University I was to attend in the fall.

“I’m pretty social and I’m a hard worker- how about Social Work Mom?”

I still remember those words pushing up out of my teenage-heart and into my head and the unconscious nodding my head answered in reply. At the time it felt like a whim and a lark, not the life defining moment that it was.

I’ll volunteer. I’ll wrap presents for the homeless. I’ll visit the shelters and soup kitchens. I’ll work with children who have disabilities. I’ll help others.

And so my grown-up story began to weave itself out from me. Winding itself into other people’s lives and how they lived. How they are in the world and how to clear a path for them so that I and others could walk alongside rather than leading or following them.

I couldn’t see this current chapter of my story back then. I wouldn’t have even pictured this gabled home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge that my pages would unfold into. I couldn’t imagine the lives of the people I worked for as my own. Their ordinary, extraordinary lives. Lives that required others to step out of the way so that they could do the simplest thing. Live in their home. Go to their school. Shop in their community. Work down their street. Simple, ordinary, daily moments that require the commitment and love of another in order to make that possible. Things those of us without labels are blessed to take for granted in this world that is built for us, not them. The story I was reading and writing, I had no idea how one day it would be my own.

And now, now the narrative has shifted once again. The once energetic, young social worker out to save the world or at least walk beside those in it, has a clearly visible path as a parent and an advocate to take with her family. New characters are emerging.  Slowly unveiling their roles to the plot. The sense of our community and their acceptance of us peels off in thin pages as we understand what has changed and what remains the same in this old world. Their personalities full of strong will and generally good cheer. The villains not hooded and cackling. No. They are more ordinary and reasonable sounding as they build fences trying to line my children’s own path into this world and their future.  

My path is now the one that I had read about, but hadn’t recognized as my own. It takes shape each morning when the baby cries to nurse one last time before the sun rises. The four year old with her last wisps of strawberry blonde locks falling over her softly rounded shoulders, climbs out of her sister’s bed too early, to pad through the dark and quiet hall in search of her parents asking to start her day, to eat, to drink, to play, to go to school just like Zuzu. A school that is not yet as eager to meet her as she is to attend it. A school that requires us to sit up and focus our attention and feelings and knowledge into one kind and articulate presentation so that our daughter can walk through their door the same as her sister without the weight of the world and these reasonable-sounding decision makers pulling her into self-contained corridors.

My story, that I couldn’t have written yet, as I bumped into a soon to be Lovey while walking through a farmer’s market on a bright Saturday morning.

Our story, whose future words would float through our conversations unbeknownst to us as I would ask questions like, “What would you do if our child had a disability?” while we drove through a Wisconsin countryside.

My story, that flashed visions of dark-haired girls swinging from the heavy oak branches as I pushed the mower meditatively up and back through our mossy front yard around the abelia bushes.

My story, that rattled my nerves and my bones in those first weeks with each newborn and wild tangle of hormones.

Their story, as that once newborn kindly reaches over to grasp the hand of a new dark-haired wonder and nurse in tandem.

My story as I hold tight to Lovey after hanging up with the doctor editing the words Down syndrome into the next chapter.

Their story, as we bring home one last white-tipped, chestnut haired bundle, shifting each of their birth orders into the Sistred formation they now are.

Her story, as we sit around the  school’s table on a late spring afternoon, slicing into the cheesecake flavored peace-offering and discuss how this extra-chromosomed wonder of ours will learn the ways of the world she is so eager to be a part of.

My story, I understand now, as the Southern sun sets each evening around us. The back-to-school lists now printed and purchased for two. The legal books and memoirs I will curl up to each evening as we settle into the soft, brown couch. These books, they stack up in between fairy and coloring books. Southern Living magazines and Ipads.  Ceramic mermaids and bowls of speech articulation tubes and whistles. These pieces of our lives that cover our families’ worn wood table that creeks under the weight of the framed images of our loved ones. The girls snuggled under their fuzzy cuddle-uppets over brightly colored nightgowns that skim their summer legs with the day’s boo-boos and rainbow sparkled Band-Aids. Red clay stuck under the too-long toe nails.

These girls that accept their story as a whim and a lark without looking too far into the future tonight. These girls, they clamor at me each night to set down my computer, my phone, my legal books and memoirs for the last few lit minutes of their evening and read one more fairytale before bedtime.

My story.

My very blessed ordinary after of a story.


(PS: Yes, more than five minutes worth of words. That happens some times.)

five minute friday: comfort

…where a brave and beautiful bunch gather every week to find out what comes out when we all spend five minutes writing on the same topic and then sharing ‘em over here.


It would be so easy to trust the “experts”. After all, they’ve earned those accolades for a reason they tell me. They’ve studied and learned, and volunteered and worked and have been assured they know what to do. Nine times out of ten their expertise, it is spot on. Only I fear we are that tenth. No, I know that we are that tenth spot.

There is a certain level of comfort in being able to stand shoulder to shoulder with that someone who knows more than you. That someone, that with all of their expertise will take the lead. It takes stepping out of that comfort zone, putting one foot firmly in front of the other to step up and share your own knowledge, your heart, your mind, what you know- and to trust it is true enough for the day ahead.

And if I can’t trust what I know, how can I expect the others to do just that? I question myself day in, day out. I wonder if I know all I need to know to grow her, to educate her, to show her how to trust what she already knows about herself.

They came to me before she was even born to tell me what to expect, what to do, how to do it. To question my knowledge, my intuition, what I saw in her sameness, what I would see in the days ahead, how I would feel and how I would or would not know her. Then when she was born, they came to me again to tell me what I can expect- these experts with all their confident jargon and phrases. They tell me they’ve met others like her, that they’ve read all about her, that they know her and her special needs best.

Then she is born, she cries, she latches on to me and as she wakes her blue eyes sparkle while tracking me across the room. Her silent voice echos Momma in her heart, until it can no longer be silent, can no longer be contained there and it reverberates in all its impassioned righteous cries of “My Momma!!!” Each morning, she stands in front of the refrigerator stomping her own two strong feet crying “My Momma!!!” while I pry her small starfish hands again and again from my calves in the rush to leave for work, taking with her that essential piece of me she has always held.

Each evening I return as those same small hands fold into their home around my neck and she whispers our secret in my ear. “My momma.”, she tells me patting my cheeks, my back, welcoming me home. She shows me that she knows. That only she is the expert, she is who I will stand shoulder to shoulder with and she is who will bring me that comfort I crave.


five minute friday: brave

…where a brave and beautiful bunch gather every week to find out what comes out when we all spend five minutes writing on the same topic and then sharing ‘em over here.


In our home, right now, brave is:

It’s walking with Ms. Kip over to a group of bigger, older, stronger girls as she says with a hand on your shoulder, “Class, this is Zuzu, She’ll be joining us now.” It’s stretching back into the bridge even though you felt like the teachers helping you laughed as they called your name over your collapsing arms right as they lifted your legs up into a handstand. It’s holding it together until you can tell your Dad in the safety of silver car, on the way home from your new intermediate gymnastics class where you were the smallest girl there for the whole two hour period how hard it was. It’s laying your head into the crook of your momma’s arm and repeating the story in weepy tones while begging to not have to go back because it is just too hard for a six year old. It’s listening as your parents retell the story of your first semester in gymnastics 2 years ago when you cried and cried after each class because you had gotten in trouble for talking and fidgeting yet again and how you had insisted you were no good at it back then for weeks at a time until one day you decided by your ownself that it was more important to get to take part in the springtime annual gymnastics show then it was to worry about each individual class up until then. It’s listening as your parents reframe your self-talk from “I’m no good at gymnastics” and “those other girls are better than me”, to “you are good” and “you are so good your teachers said it was time to move up and challenge yourself on a whole new level” and instead of seeing those girls as “better than me” tring to remind yourself that you too will learn what those girls have and those girls are there to show you what you are to are capable of. It’s agreeing to go back and try again over a strawberry yogurt treat because maybe next time your arms will be stronger. It’s standing up seven times after falling down six times. It’s agreeing to try. Always agreeing to try, maybe just that one time more.


Five Minute Friday: friend

…where a brave and beautiful bunch gather every week to find out what comes out when we all spend five minutes writing on the same topic and then sharing ‘em over here.



The blessings of friendship in my life; they come from all around me.

They do double-duty as family members, as co-workers, as family helpers, as cyber-sisters. As daughters. As husband.

Some by blood, some by choice. Some unexpectedly. All dearly.

Some are so near that they hear the daily goings on and the babble that overflows from my head. Some are so far that they hear even more of that daily internal dialogue I keep. Some I need to catch up, and some stay caught up by their constant reaching out. They know my strengths. They know my weaknesses. They know my need for a cheerleading session and a good job email and pat on the back. They know when I’m just venting and when I need to problem solve. They ask questions that help me think and organize the thoughts I already have. They know my heart and they wait for me to show it. They read my words and see my pictures. They ask after those dearest to me. They know I need them as much as they need me.

There are minutes and days and miles that are between us but rather than keeping us apart these twines, they bind us together. No matter how much has passed they welcome us back into the fold and offer up a cup of comfort. I do the same for them. My cup, my door, my heart, my mind, my hand, my smile- it is open to this amazing group of human beings that continue to surround us and include us and support us and honor  us by calling us…



five minute friday: broken

…where a brave and beautiful bunch gather every week to find out what comes out when we all spend five minutes writing on the same topic and then sharing ‘em over here.



“Let go of your sister’s neck. Do not pick her up by her arms.”

“Stop talking so loud. Please be quiet and let me think for one minute.“

“If you yell at the table one more time you are going to time out. You shout. You’re out.”

“That’s it. I’ve had enough bickering for the evening. Everyone in bed. Now.”

“You need to go say you are sorry too. It doesn’t matter if she started it.”

“We all help clean up because we are a family and we help each other.”

“You can either help match the clean socks or go play by yourself.”

“Stop telling on your sister and focus on what you need to do.”

“Go. To. Bed. And no more getting up.”

“If you get up again you will need to tuck yourself back in.”

“No you can’t sleep in here. It will wake the baby, baby. Please go back to your bed. I love you.”

“If you aren’t going to eat your peas than there will be no dessert. That’s your choice.”

“You cannot wear the itchy dress to school. Your skin is too dry right now. It does not matter if Aliviah is dressing up. Your Momma said no and we don’t do things just because ‘everyone’ else is. We’ve talked about this”

“You go to school tomorrow. Not today. Put your backpack down please and finish your Cheerios.”

“Asked and Answered.”

 Again and again I hear words come out of my mouth and they feel unkind in that heart of the moment. These children, they push and push and push. That perseverance, that confidence, that determination, it will serve them well as adults. In the meantime, it’s this hard parenting work that ties my stomach in knots and drains the energy right out of my tired head each day.

Did I just break their spirit or teach them a valuable lesson that was really as necessary as my voice insisted it was?

No, she isn’t thanking me now when she pops out of bed for the 6th time insistent she has to tell me again why she needs to wear the shiny pink dress to school for the egg hunt all the while scratching at the itchy patch on her belly.

No, she doesn’t sound grateful at all as she is hauled out of the kitchen hollering her teacher’s name, her insistent fist tightly wrapped around her Dora backpack on a Wednesday morning before the sun has even come up.

No, the baby is quite certain we are wrong and she should be back up climbing the bed frame and toppling over our tired selves rather than staying put in her pack-n-play and sleeping for more than a 3-4 hour stretch at a time.

It breaks me, this firmness. This need to hold fast to the routines and rules. It breaks them when we give in to their whims. It’s not the free-range, light-hearted, happy-go-lucky parent I envisioned when I saw that first positive test. Their tears bring my own when I turn around.

Of course, I hadn’t actually met my children at that point either…