Seven by Cara Stolen


Seven years ago today, on the hottest day of the summer, we stood on the saddle house porch at 4:00 pm surrounded by our immediate family and eight of our closest friends. As sweat poured down our backs we answered “I do” to our friend Perry’s questions of “will you?” and promised to love each other, take care of each other, and stand beside each other in good times and bad. Like most people who get married in their early twenties, we couldn’t possibly know what any of those vows entailed, but we said them like we meant it and sealed them with a kiss.

It feels like yesterday, and like a lifetime ago. Time is funny like that. 

I told someone the other day that, based on our “dating” relationship, Levi and I never should have gotten married. It was tongue-in-cheek, but also: I meant it. We were, put mildly, a mess. Young, dumb, and stubborn; fresh out of long-term relationships to boot.

And yet, here we are. Seven years, six houses, five pickups, and two kids later. 

Yesterday morning I walked across that same saddle house porch with Maggie on my hip. I watched Levi slip a headstall over General Lee’s head and hand Royce the reins. Then he shortened the stirrups of my saddle, slipped a bit into Dinero’s mouth, and took Mags from me. By the time I swung my leg over Dinero’s back he was on his own horse; Maggie snug in front of him. 

I grinned at him, and we were off. 

Riding behind him, I watched his back and thought about how glad I am I said those “I do’s” on that dusty, hot porch all those years ago. While our life together has been much harder than I ever could have imagined, it’s much, much better than I imagined, too. And I can say with utmost certainty that we’re happier now than we were in the beginning. 

I remember once, early in our marriage, taking a walk after we had a fight. I was fuming mad, and kept thinking I’d made the biggest mistake of my life marrying him. Somehow, those vows had not transformed him into a perfect, selfless man like I’d expected them to and he was still, well, him. 

In those early months (and years) I spent a lot of time focusing on the ways in which our marriage and Levi disappointed me. I looked at all the couples around us and thought they were happier, more stable, and more content than we were. I envied them, and convinced myself that my friends had perfect marriages and perfect husbands. But, as we grew up, I realized I was wrong—nobody’s marriage is perfect. Nobody’s husband is perfect. And not even everyone’s marriage is happy. 

I read once that “what you look for, you find.” I think that phrase is true of a lot of things, but I know it’s true in marriage, because those six little words made all the difference in ours. If you want to see all the ways your spouse is falling short and all they ways they fail you … you will. But if you decide to focus instead on the ways they love you well? The ways they serve you? Support you? Cheer you on? You’ll find those, too. 

This morning, as Levi leaned off his horse to get the gate for Royce and I in a fluid, confident motion, I thought about how glad I am that I learned to stop comparing our relationship to everyone else’s. Instead, at some point, I decided to love the marriage I have and the man I married for what/who they are. I stopped focusing on what isn’t and learned to see only what is: a strong, steady marriage to a man who loves me better with each passing year and a stable, caring partner in life who serves our family in all the ways we need him to. 

Our marriage is undoubtedly different than every other marriage in the world. But that’s okay, because it works for us, which is all that really matters. 

Cheers to seven years, sweets. It really does get better every year. 


Wedding photography by Hailey Haberman Photography.

Show Me The Way by Cara Stolen


I helped Levi pull a backwards calf the other day. We were driving through our front gate when he leaned across me and pointed to one of our cows. “That’s not good,” he said.

To be honest, I couldn’t tell that anything was wrong. I squinted at her, but all I could see was that she had a foot out, so I assumed he meant she was just taking too long to have her calf. But he hopped out of the passenger side of my car before I’d even come to a stop, saying “backwards” as he slammed the door and ran to his pickup.

He roared down the driveway as I unloaded the kids, headed to get a horse from work. And twenty minutes later, I stood, pulling chains in hand, watching him rope the calving cow in the pasture behind our house. He swung his loop twice and caught her on the first try.

Together, we worked to get her tied off to a fence post in the half-finished pen behind our house where the head-catch will (eventually) be. He looped his slack around a post and alternated pulling from his horse, General Lee, with asking me to get her in closer. Eventually, we got her head a few feet from the post, and once Levi tied off to a second post he hopped off General and asked me to come get on.

I didn’t have time to think about the fact that I hadn’t ridden since before I got pregnant with Royce. I didn’t have time to think about it not being my saddle, or the stirrups being too long, or the irrigating boots I wore instead of riding boots. I just swung a leg over and took the reins and rope coils he handed me, following his instructions to “back him up and keep that rope tight.”

So there I sat, holding coils of blue rope in my right hand so tightly that my hand cramped, watching him strip down to his t-shirt before reaching an arm into the cow’s uterus to hook up the chains. He crouched for leverage, and said “it’s alive, barely” through gritted teeth as he pulled.

There’s so much here that I should probably explain if you’re unfamiliar with ranching, or cows, or calving. I’m far from qualified to give a lecture on calving cows, but Levi certainly isn’t going to, so I’ll just tell you the important things and get back to my point. For one, unlike humans, cows have a veryshort window of time in which to give birth after their water breaks (Google tells me 2-4 hours, but we allow 2, max), before their calf dies; for two, calves should be born front feet-head-body, not back feet-butt-body-head; and for three, most people use a stanchion to pull calves, which is basically a head and body “trap” that immobilizes the cow, and don’t use a horse and fence posts. So, to summarize: exactly nothing about this situation was ideal.

He tossed the pulling handle in the dirt and swore, then ran to me and unhooked his “backup rope” from his saddle. I knew better than to ask, so I just sat in silence as he ran back to the cow and tied one end of his rope around the chain hanging from the calves feet (still inside the cow…did I lose you yet?). He tied the other end to a fence post behind him, and stood on the rope. Then he tightened the fence post end and stood on the rope again.

The calf hit the ground in a splash of afterbirth and blood, and I winced. Levi grabbed a stick off the ground and cleared the calf’s nostrils, then bent to blow in its mouth. “Come on, come on,” he muttered, as he rubbed the calf’s belly furiously. Finally, the calf inhaled, and shook its ears just slightly, and I exhaled the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.

With a pull like that, you want to leave the mom and baby alone as soon as possible, so you don’t interfere with their bonding. So when Levi said “Ok, get out of here,” I knew what he meant, and as soon as he cut the rope off the cow I kicked General to a trot.

I headed toward the back gate, and as I rode I thought about what we’d just accomplished. What Levi had accomplished. And I thought about how I sometimes take for granted how awesome it is to watch him do something he was absolutely called to do: take care of animals.

When it comes to the cows (or horses, or dogs for that matter), he knows just exactly what to do—reacting to chaotic situations with confidence, knowledge, and skill that is more than just the culmination of years of practice. Skill that is God-given.

In today’s world it’s easy to confuse obtaining success and wealth with living into God’s calling for your life: the former is much more visible to the outside world, while the latter often looks like pulling a calf, and keeping it alive, in a less than ideal situation. But isn’t following God’s path for your life more important than gaining notoriety and fame among your peers? It should be, but if I’m honest I don’t always live that way.

I ask God again and again to “show me the way.” To reveal my calling. To give me the wisdom and talent and skill to lean into that calling.

But I look for signs of my calling in all the wrong places. I look for validation from my peers, when I should be listening for God’s affirmation. I count Instagram followers and “likes” instead of patiently following God’s whispered instructions. And I often find myself jealous of other women who have “found their calling,” forgetting that their outward appearance and social media presence don’t necessarily have anything to do with their calling at all.

I reached the gate, and smiled down at my husband. He grinned back and said “nice ride,” as he held General so I could get off. Then, he loaded him in the trailer, kissed me goodbye, and headed back to work in a cloud of dust before I had a chance to tell him how amazing he is.

As I walked back to the house, I thought about how much I have to learn from Levi. About cows and horses, but also about what it looks like to live into God’s calling for my life. And I thought about how lucky I am to have that kind of example in the man I love most.

So, God, I’ll wait. I’ll listen and learn and follow your cues. Because I know that when it’s my time you will, indeed, show me the way.

Butterflies by Cara Stolen


I grasped the cold fence panel with both hands, and leaned my forehead against the top rail as I watched. His movement was slow, calm, and steady. Holding the lead rope loosely in his left hand, he ran his right hand down the horse’s back. The gelding’s eyes flared behind a long black forelock, but he stood still, and the horse relaxed.

The wind blew my braided hair, and I squinted against the morning sun, mesmerized by the quiet confidence of the man before me. My heart beat hard in my chest, and my stomach tingled with butterflies. I’d never met anyone like him before, and I’d definitely never felt a feeling that strong before.

Though we’d talked on the phone every day for months, we’d only been on a few dates. I went to school two hours from where he lived, and the mountain pass between us made our time together infrequent.

But as I watched him saddle a three-year-old colt for the first time on that windy Spring day, I knew with utmost certainty that I could spend the rest of my life with him.

I was twenty.


I peeked through the double-paned glass of the house’s back door, my dress rustling behind me as I leaned forward. The white chrysanthemum in my hair tickled my right ear and momentarily distracted me from my nerves. But when I looked up again, I saw our photographer beckoning to me from outside.

“Ready?” she asked kindly as I opened the door.

The lump in my throat made it hard to speak, but I nodded to her to indicate I was as ready as I’d ever be.

Across the yard, his black wool vest and crisp white shirt stood out against the vibrant green grass. His back was to me, and as I waited for our photographer to take her place I thought my heart might beat out of my chest.

When she nodded, I gathered the white gauzy fabric of my wedding dress in both hands and walked slowly toward him in my mom’s well worn cowgirl boots. And as I approached him, I felt a familiar flutter in my stomach.

He turned to face me when I tapped him on the shoulder, and as our eyes met I burst into tears.

“I’m hot.” He whispered softly, leaning forward to kiss my cheek. I laughed, and dabbed my eyes with a tissue as he laughed too.

I’d warned him that wearing wool in August was a bad idea, but (ever practical) he’d insisted on buying a vest he’d wear again and again. So there he stood, with sweat beads on his forehead, looking handsome in a black vest made for December.

I was twenty-three, and I thought I could never love him more than I did on that hot August day.


The light at the head of the bed was on, illuminating the monitors and IV stand that I was no longer attached to. My hours-old son wailed in my arms, still swaddled tightly in the flannel hospital blanket. I heard the recliner squeak from across the room, and the gentle shuffle of his sock-clad feet on the linoleum floor. Then, he placed his hand on my arm, wordlessly offering to take our new baby.

Our eyes met as I handed him our son, both of us exhausted.

From the inclined headboard I watched the two of them settle into the green vinyl chair on the dark side of the room. He softly shushed our son to sleep before tipping his hat over his eyes and nodding off himself.

Though exhaustion coursed in my veins, I lay awake for a while, mesmerized by the two of them together. Amazed by this new exhibition of the quiet confidence I fell in love with. And as the butterflies took flight in my stomach, I marveled at how much more I loved him now at twenty-six than I did on our wedding day.


“Da!” Her feet pitter patter across the tile floor, as our daughter races toward the door. “Da! Da! Da!”

A diesel engine hums up the driveway, and our son throws himself against the window to see who it is. “Dad’s home! Dad’s home! Mommmmmmyyyy! DAD’S HOME!”

I smile and stir the stew on the stovetop. The kitchen is warm, filled with the aroma of browned beef and stewed tomatoes. I hum softly along with the Van Morrison song playing on my phone as I chop the last carrot for the salad. Glancing out the window, I’m surprised to find it’s still light outside—he hasn’t been home before dark in weeks.

His truck shuts off, the dog kennel door clangs, and finally, his boots clomp across the porch.

“Dad!” our son shouts as the front door squeaks open. “I wanna show you some-ting!”

I hear him whispering to our girl in the entry as I add the frozen peas to the bubbling pot in front of me. He enters the kitchen carrying her confidently in the crook of his arm, and heads for the dining room to see our boy.

“Daddy, want to play Play-Doh with me?” our son asks.

“Hey.” I call to him. “How are you?”

His answer is lost in our son’s excited chatter. I turn down the stove, put the lid on the heavy green soup pot, and wipe my hands as I watch the three of them.

His hands are cracked and calloused, his sweatshirt dirty and faded. There’s mud on his pant leg and gray in his beard. His eyes are tired, but he puts our daughter on one knee, our son on the other, and scoops up a ball of Play-Doh without hesitation.

I can’t help but grin as I watch them, and feel the familiar flutter of butterflies as I do.

He’s wearing the same black wool vest he wore on that hot August day six years ago. It’s faded from black to gray and it’s missing a couple of buttons. If you look closely at the seam you can see blue thread where I mended it last winter. But that vest is a little like us.

We’ve been torn apart by our egos and months-long unemployment, by our son’s undiagnosed cleft lip, and the feeding tube required to keep our daughter alive. We lost a button when the medical bills piled up, and another when we bought our fixer-upper.  

But we mended those places; our seams sewn back together with time and apologies and dedication to one another. They don’t look the same as they used to, and things don’t always feel the way they used to, either. Our love is no longer new and crisp, it’s worn and tested. But tonight, with soup on the stove and two babies on his lap, I feel the butterflies again.

// This essay was originally written for Coffee+Crumbs #loveafterbabies essay contest. You can find a portion of it published on their instagram.

Want to read more about #loveafterbabies? You'll love these essays by my dear friends Molly Flinkman & Stacy Bronec.

Wedding photography by Hailey Haberman.

Making A Home by Cara Stolen


The first time I set foot in this house I cried. Not tears of excitement or gratitude, but heavy sobs of shame and disappointment. Everywhere I looked I saw something that repulsed me. It was a hot July day, and I was seven months pregnant— covered in sweat and crying so hard that I refused to take my sunglasses off. I was ashamed that this was the house we could afford, mad that we had to move in the first place, and disappointed that this was what the real estate market had to offer.

We had many, many fights over this house. In fact, I think we fought more over this house than we have in our entire five years of marriage, or three years of dating before that. He was all in and I was all out. It was during one of these fights that he said the three words that have been weighing on my heart ever since: ‘you’re stuck up.’

As much as it pains me to admit it, he was right. I had somehow got it into my head that the kind of house we lived in defined our worth. I had developed the mindset that if we didn’t live in the right house, wear the right clothes, and drive the right cars than we weren’t good enough. More specifically, that I wasn’t good enough. And somewhere along the journey to this jumbled-up viewpoint, I equated ‘not good enough’ with ‘unlovable.’

I know that I am not the only one who has fallen into this trap. In an internet-based world it is all too easy to fall victim to the perils of comparison. As much as I wish I could tell you that I am free from the shackles of my materialistic chains, I can’t in good conscience do that. But I can tell you that I am working on it, and that this house is a big part of my healing.

Slowly, but surely, we are turning this stinky old house into a beautiful home. As we bring my designs to life, this house is teaching me what it truly means to create a home. Home, wherever it may be, is about so much more than the house itself. While I am incredibly proud of the spaces I have created here, I am more grateful for the space I have created in my heart for what is truly important, and for the valuable lessons this house has already taught me.