A Bear, Tomatoes, and an Exercise in Resisting in Metaphor

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A black bear is wandering our small city. Braving the busy main roads, trotting down quiet side streets and into little backyards, finding temporary refuge in the marshes and sparse woods.¬†Two days ago, he was across from my mother’s house, moving so stealthily through the neighbor’s yard, he didn’t even disturb the laundry on the line. He took the beach route to our side of town, must’ve walked right past our house to get to the tennis courts by my dad’s where he was last photographed. He’s a young male black bear, alone, and most certainly lost. I wish he’d stop by our backyard and rest awhile in an Adirondack chair. I’d bring him a stack of toast with butter and jam and a drink of cool water, walk him over to a good fishing spot where the woods meet the marsh, and invite him back when the tomatoes are ripe.

Days of rain kept me from the garden. When the sun finally returned, I went out to weed and see if it was too late to plant cucumbers only to discover there wasn’t an inch of space. The garden is wild with tomato plants, volunteers from last summer. I have only a little tending to do: some transplanting to reduce crowding, a bit of weeding and watering. Sometimes the things we create take on a life of their own. Some growth comes not with labor but with ease.

Before I get metaphorical and compare gardening to writing, I want to pour my Marie Howe collection of observations on the table. If you decided to play along, I hope you’ll leave me a few (or a whole bunch) of yours.

A man, large and bald with thick glasses, sweeps the cafeteria floor near the table where I sit writing, looks at me and asks, “How do you like world war three?”

The boy with the missing front tooth and greasy hair always wears the same grey-brown clothes and sits alone, but at least he has a phone, and today talks briefly–so briefly–to a girl sitting nearby.

The copy machine in the teacher’s room whirs and chugs and spits so loudly, I can practice my poem in full voice without anyone hearing.

My daughter runs across the wet, green grass through the sprinkler and shouts, “Drink, mommy, drink!” I bend down and lower my face to the spray, catching the cold metallic-tasting water that feels somewhere between a tickle and a sting. I shriek with laughter.

Thin clouds gauze over the blue sky. We count two lobster boats, one barge, four sea gulls. Charles Island in the distance.

Tiny 3-year-old feet with chipped red nail polish run through the sand.

I press my nose to the back of my daughter’s head and breathe deep the scent of salt air, sunscreen, and a sweetness that belongs only to her.

The tides comes in and we watch the seaweed–green, brown, red–dance around our ankles.

Evening on the front porch. The swish-swash of the swamp maples waving in the wind. The tink-tonk of the bamboo chime.

The full moon casts a glow over the rippling water. I sit in the wet sand and watch.

 

 

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Choose Your Own Adventure

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My friend T and her ’86 Volvo, Chit (after Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) on a stretch of highway somewhere in the southwest.
I used to wish I was from the Midwest, where people speak in gentler tones and kindly turns of phrase. When I was young, I thought it would be fun to be in TV commercials and wished we lived in California, preferably Hollywood. After spending a week in the waves on Block Island, I thought it would be romantic to live in an isolated community out in the middle of the sea. I was always dreaming of somewhere else.

Even now, I imagine different places, different lives. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. If you want to follow the path into the woods, turn to page 61. If you want to venture into the cave, turn to page 21.

And that’s as far as I got this morning when I began this post, before the day spooled out in ten different directions. Certain items on my list resist being checked-off, mainly those that require sustained attention, like writing my friend T a letter for her 40th birthday, which was a month and a half ago. Determined to finish and mail it, I wrote the letter in scraps of time throughout the day.

I started to write about our road trip, the one we’d always dreamed of as little girls. We played her dad’s 60s records, Joe Cocker, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and imagined driving out to California in a VW bus. As it turned out, we chugged along in her ’86 Volvo over the course of a month from New Mexico through Arizona to southern Cali, camped in Joshua Tree. In San Diego a friend took us across the border to Rosarita and Tijuana. Then we headed up through Cali. L.A., the Pacific Coast Highway, the Redwood Forest, Yosemite, Death Valley. Then we cut back in to Las Vegas, Zion National Park in Utah, past Shiprock and back home to Santa Fe.

I know, I’m listing all the places and skipping the stories. But anyway, I was writing memories to her like, remember when we drove away with the book of CDs on the roof of the car in Joshua Tree and lost all our music? Think about that for a minute. A month on the road, desolate highway stretches with no radio signal–and when I say signal I mean antenna. We had one cassette tape, a 70s disco mix from college, and damn if disco doesn’t still make me think of winding our way around the sharp curves of Pacific Coast Highway at night.

And then I wrote, remember how we read Barbara Kingsolver out loud in the tent at night by flashlight or in the car on those afternoons the road seemed to go on forever?  We read Small Wonder, and I want to say we had The Bean Trees along with us, too. Or maybe I’m just remembering The Bean Trees because we both loved it so much as teenagers. Either way, I’d forgotten all about Kingsolver and reading aloud to each other until I began writing her that letter. That’s the funny–and magical–thing about writing. You can have an idea about what you’re going to say, an idea about what you think you remember, but when you set pen to paper, you will surprise yourself every time.

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Backcountry in Zion, hiking to “The Subway.”
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Inside “The Subway,” where the monoliths meet and form a tunnel with pools of icy blue-green water. Just as I slipped, T rescued me. There is another story here, the one about the person who took this photo, a man our age named John who we happened to meet the night before in the pitch black, all of us gathered with a group of astronomers and massive telescopes. I saw the red ring around Saturn, crisp and clear. John had just arrived and had nowhere to camp. We told him he could camp at our site for the night. In the morning we saw his pick up with the custom cabin he’d built himself. It was outfitted with gear and functioned as both a bunk and storage. He decided to venture with us into the backcountry. No trails except for the odd cairn, no park rangers. A 700-ft drop into the canyon and up a rocky, winding river. In his pack, John had a water purifier and iodine drops, and throughout our trek, he pumped and purified water for all three of us. There was no way to carry all the water we needed for an 8-hour hike, and without him, I suspect we would’ve gulped river water and hoped for the best.
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Family Reunion

Hot, sticky August. A family reunion on my mom’s side, up north on a lake lined with pines, rocky outcroppings with rope swings. My mother’s people are genuine and kind. It’s all easy conversation and laughter.

Today everyone was in the water, splashing, playing games, paddle boarding, jumping off the dock. I swam with my little fish, and then swam way out by myself, and then again with my cousin Grace. Later we went out on the boat. Early evening sun beating low and strong. Music playing. Wind whipping our hair. My beautiful sisters sitting across from me. Pure happiness. We jumped off the boat into the deep water. I was in heaven.

And now I’m dead tired in that wonderful waterlogged way. My favorite day of summer so far.

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Cathedral Maple

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On Saturday night at the barbecue, everyone gathered around the picnic table eating, drinking, toasting, laughing. We were serenaded by a live band playing at another party a few houses away. The air was breezy and mild. And upstairs the little toddler slept soundly.

As the night went on, people gravitated toward our old maple tree, the heart of our backyard. At one point, I found my brother-in-law and a friend gazing up into the branches, remarking on the maple’s tremendous height, the careful pruning, its possible age. I told them the story about the open house last year when we first saw the property. I loved the house, but I felt drawn to the backyard. I went out to wander more than once, placed my hand on the old maple’s trunk and promised I would return.

We all sat around the fire sharing conversation beneath the cathedral branches. We hadn’t thought about where to set up the fire, we just ended up there, drawn to the maple’s presence.

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Blessed

It’s been a long week, but we made it through. Yesterday we discovered Chris has Lyme disease, which explains why he’s been so sick. A relief to have a diagnosis, and to have him on the mend. It’s easy to take our good health for granted. Today I felt especially grateful.

Grateful, too, that it’s June, the weather showed up spectacular, and that we live in such a beautiful place.


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Mindful Driving


Cars fly down our street. 50 mph in our 25 mph zone. Everyone in a rush. We’ve talked to the neighbors about petitioning the city for speed bumps. This morning maybe it was speed, maybe distraction, maybe just not-giving-a-shit that killed the opossum, bigger than my cat, as he scurried across the road during the early morning hours, probably tired from a night of foraging for his family. I passed his newly-dead body at 7:30am on my way to the gym. He was lying in the center of the oncoming lane, poor buddy.

It’s Spring and I’m constantly seeing casualties: opossums, raccoons, squirrels, sea gulls, even a small grackle. Why don’t people hit the brakes? Swerve? Try? Of course, accidents happen. And yes, I have hit animals; I am not without fault. I was also a distracted teenager and speeding (read: bad driving is what often causes accidents). I can count at least three times this season I’ve actually seen cars accelerate toward the squirrels scurrying across their paths. I cheer for the squirrel, c’mon buddy, you’ve got this, go go! Fortunately, all those squirrels made it.

What is the disconnect between drivers and their surroundings? Distraction is a given and that rush-rush-rush, but there’s also that strange thing about being behind the wheel that separates drivers from those on foot. Some drivers operate as if they’re playing a video game, as if that little creature going about his day isn’t really real, or maybe isn’t as entitled to life. Like when someone hits a deer and the first question is, oh wow, how’s your car? The first thought isn’t about the deer that was just maimed or killed, it’s: is your car going to cosmetically be okay?

I think about those casualties in the road and the families that mourn them. I always wish I had a shovel in my car so that I could at least give them the dignity of lying dead in the grass rather than being run over again and again and again until they’re finally a stain on the pavement. On my way home from the gym, the dead opossum was still there, but not yet run over again. I had time to do something about it. So I got gloves and the garden shovel and drove back. I parked in front of the poor opossum with my hazards on, waved a few cars around me, then lifted his stiff body from the road and laid him gently on the grass. It wasn’t much; it was nothing really. But I felt a little better seeing him there on the soft grass, the spot he would’ve reached if only he’d been given the chance to take a few more steps.

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Fierce and Fragile

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This fickle Spring will not decide. Rain and cold and gusting winds have made a perilous beginning for the robins. The cedar bends and sways while the mama holds her perch in the tidy nest. She hops around, chirping her warnings when we come near. I wonder if I will ever cease to feel it in my heart, tenderness for the fierce and fragile new mother, creator and nurturer of life. The awesomeness of that responsibility.

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Bright Green Warm Happy


Mid-May sunshine day, green leaf trees, lilacs in full bloom. At least five projects begun but not finished. A small pocket of time spent editing when I should’ve been writing. Toddlers at the water table. Little birds everywhere. And a robin nesting in our cedar tree.

Some days success is measured simply by how patient and present I am with my little one. Bright green warm happy.

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Faith, Miracle and Motherhood

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A picture from 2014 that captures all the joy in my heart.
This Mother’s Day I feel settled into motherhood, not so new anymore, not so green. There is a rhythm and a dance and a comfortability in knowing. There is the sacred tapestry of our finely-woven bond of cells and blood and breastmilk. There is self-trust. And there is the powerful feeling that my baby-turned-toddler is now fully of this world. Throughout my pregnancy and during those first fragile days, weeks, months, it felt like there was always the small chance of losing her. Nothing hinted at vulnerability, other than pregnancy and infancy being inherently vulnerable. I’d had an uneventful pregnancy, a natural birth, and a baby deemed “perfect” by the pediatrician. But it took so long for the miracle of her to arrive, an almost 3-year journey to become pregnant, that I could never quite believe it was finally happening. This blessing, this good fortune, this miracle of miracles.

The odds weren’t against us, but we were approaching our our mid-thirties, biologically short on time. Everything was normal and the eventual diagnosis was “unexplained infertility.” A mystery I was determined to solve. Life was suspended during those years of not-knowing. All energy was focused on one intent. I changed my diet to gluten-free, caffeine-free, alcohol-free, sugar-free. Mixed maca root and water like a magic potion. Consulted with doctors, acupuncturists, clairvoyants, priests. Nailed a wishbone above our bedroom door. Prayed Catholic novenas, Lakota blessings. Meditated. Built cairns on the shore. Asked of the sea, of the air, of the trees.

It was two years before we lucked upon health insurance that included fertility coverage, which would end up being exhausted on months and months of tests. Tests that ultimately provided very few answers. The endocrinologist lost interest in us as our coverage bled out, so eventually we decided to take the last bit of money to a new doctor. He seemed friendly and more hopeful. When journeying through a test of faith, the act of hope-seeking is repeated again and again. Omens arrive as great blue herons, roadside signs, changing weather. You must renew and renew and renew faith. When it is written on your heart, etched in your bones, you do not give up.

The new doctor began by running blood work, the same blood work I’d had seven months before with normal results. It was an easy hurdle the first time and would be again this time. But when the call came, he said the numbers had changed. The blood work indicated almost no ovarian reserve; suddenly, supposedly I had only a few eggs left. Even if we’d had additional fertility coverage, I would not be an ideal candidate for IVF. A few days later came Mother’s Day. I focused on my mom, on gratitude. But I carried a heavy heart. My cycle was a few days late, but after receiving the devastating blood work results, it seemed past foolishness to even hope. I did not bother with a pregnancy test for another two days.

It was Tuesday morning after Mother’s Day 2013. Chris was in the shower. We were getting ready for work, a regular day. I ripped open the foil wrapper on what felt like the millionth pregnancy test. I started breakfast while I waited for the result. Hope, that irrepressible little drummer, thumped in my heart. I returned to the bathroom to check the test, not wanting to look. I wanted to suspend that tiny hopeful feeling, hold it a little longer. When I picked up the test and found a plus sign, I screamed and my heart exploded and I jumped around like a maniac on a pogo stick. Elation will send a body straight into the air. Chris pulled back the shower curtain with a big beaming smile and said, “I knew it.”

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Spending a rainy Thursday among the dinosaurs.

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National Parks: 89/365

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U.S.A. National Parks I’ve hiked/camped/visited:

Acadia (Maine)

Carlsbad Caverns (New Mexico)

Death Valley (California)

Grand Canyon (Arizona)

Joshua Tree (California)

Redwood Forest (California)

Sequoia (California)

Yosemite (California)

Zion (Utah)