Saturday, December 12, 2015


A friend calls it separation anxiety, this restless casting about for obligations in the sudden absence of pressure. I have things to do, wrapping presents and paying bills and cleaning a house neglected for months, but they are on my time.

What a luxury, to set one's own schedule! What a delight to know the alarm is off! Nevermind that I have woken at dawn as usual with lists scrolling through my mind. I don't resume classes until mid-January. For a month my time is my own.

This was the hardest part of leaving my job -- adapting to a different time scale. I had two markers for each day: the beginning and end of school. Everything else was arbitrarily set by me. True, my two year old required some structure, but the management of our household could be wrapped around visits to the museum or hours on the swing in our front yard. My world collapsed inward. I created tasks for myself to compensate for a missing sense of purpose. I signed Miss Awesome up for classes and I volunteered in The Fine Lad's school and I went to the empty grocery store at mid-day but still there was time in pools around me.

I have adjusted to the delicious timetable of a stay-at-home mom. The children require far less management now, and cleanliness standards in our home have been worn down by dogs and children and muddy boots. Instead -- an hour for coffee? What day? I'm free. I am profligate with my time, chatting with friends online and watching television every night with my husband. I stay in bed until 8 on weekends.

Then, when my classes start and I must shuttle back and forth to my school, the kids' schools, the kitchen counter where we do homework together between stages of suppermaking and afterward I must excuse myself from the dinner table to go study, then I panic, wondering how I'll ever adapt to the rigid schedule of the real world. I stare down the prospect of teaching long hours and grading grading grading into the night and finding myself at the occasional school dance as chaperone. I am so fortunate now! Why would I give up these quiet hours at my desk, these mid-day dog walks?

The answer comes on weekends when Miss Awesome goes on sleepovers. There is an absence. For now it is a relief, but all too soon it will become a wound. My home time will no longer be marked by morning goings and evening returns. The pools of time will spread and drown me. The bright world of clocks and routines will be my salvation, even if it does mean I have to get dressed every morning.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The King of Sciences

Physics is the most magical of the sciences. If chemistry is the science of creation, and biology that of transformation, then physics is the wondrous confounding science of interaction. Physics describes how everything relates to everything else, starting at the subatomic level. From there comes chemistry. From chemistry, biology. Physics is the root of it all.

This strange music of the spheres is not simple. The concepts seem obvious: drop a ball and it falls. Push a box and it slides across the floor. These are measurably predictable actions. The magic of physics comes with identifying that which is not intuitive and taming it with numbers and symbols. An entire mathematical language, calculus, had to be discovered in order to explore the seemingly basic concepts of action and reaction, push and pull. What we know when we first stand – the pull of the earth on our bones – is only half the story. Physics uses numbers to tell how we pull on the Earth, how the ball gives energy to the ground, how the box pushes back.

Physics is the science of the parted curtain, of seeing into the darkness beyond and understanding what strangeness lies in the unknown. To be a physicist takes creativity. It takes, I believe, a little bit of madness to walk the fine line between this world and some other that exactly overlays our own. I imagine the physicist’s world to be filled with lights and arrows, but that is a writer’s conceit. I am not a seer. 

Still, I try. Being a student is a humbling experience. Each class spreads a map of the vastness of ignorance, and lays a tiny guideline to the next waypoint. Mine is generally a joyful journey of discovery; I am delighted by just how much there is to learn. This semester has been more difficult. Numbers and formulae have floated before me like balloons. I have desperately attempted to tie them to the concepts which we are discussing, but they are slippery and transform. Most agonizing is the sense that I _almost_ get it. I know how something is going to work, but am unable to connect the language, the trigonometry, to the action.

Last week a combination of particularly difficult homework and a baffling lecture brought me to my knees. Between classes I hid in a bathroom stall and wiped away tears. Afterward I slumped to the lab, completely dispirited and wondering how I could ever teach this material to students when I can’t do it myself. My benchmate, who is in the same lecture section, griped with me as we did the performing-monkey part of setting up the experiment. We settled down to the routine of measure, test, record, measure, test, record. Then our third partner came in and asked me to explain what we were doing. 

They say teaching is the best way to learn. I outlined the basics of what steps we were taking, then showed her the diagram of the numbers we were collecting. After attempting three different explanations relating events to numbers, we achieved the a-ha! moment. You are a good teacher, she told me. I hope so, I replied.

In that moment of grace I was reminded that not everything can be explained by science. There is always hope.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


I spent yesterday morning in a dingy beige government facility, waiting with a friend, E, for his parole hearing. He has been in a halfway house for a year; we won’t know for a day or two if he will be released. If not, he expects it will be many months before he gets another hearing.

E’s isn’t my story to tell, but some parts of our friendship are. We met through one of DH’s laborers, himself a halfway house resident. By the time we met E, the crew had solidified, becoming as much family as employees. They joined us for supper many nights, grateful to avoid eating institutional slop. We traded stories. Our “white picket fence” existence was a source of amused bafflement to them – mom, dad, two kids, dog, sit-down supper every night. Even our food was different. Friend M was shocked when I told him the vegetable he had just enjoyed was broccoli. “I didn’t know broccoli could taste good!” We were as foreign to their experience as someone from an exotic country. Their histories were peppered with abuse and drug use and family cobbled together from whoever stuck around. 

E joined us for supper a few times. He was quiet in the midst of our laughter, and gentle. My children adored him. He was struggling a bit, we were told. No safe place to stay. Any place affordable enough for a con was full of drugs and hookers. Temptation. We helped a little, buying his tools when he needed cash, letting him crash on our floor for a few days, but he slipped, and was sent back to prison. 

We corresponded. E wrote every couple of weeks, signing off each time with gratitude for our continuing friendship. My letters were intermittent, full of cards and drawings by the children. Some were rejected by censors. No stamps, I learned. No colored paper. Rectangular letters only. Books or magazines had to be new and sent directly from approved booksellers. The prison system is a joyless place and privatization has monetized any attempts at kindness.

After six years E earned release to the halfway house. He credits me, our family, with some of his success. I am embarrassed. I have offered nothing exceptional. We are friends. He joins us for supper. His gratitude for the simplest of gestures – food, help understanding health insurance documents, a ten-minute ride so he doesn’t have to spend an hour and a half on the bus – humbles me with awareness of my riches. I have grown up in an abundance of comfort and love.  I have money, and education, and opportunity. My life is full of blessings – one of which is his friendship. We talk, sometimes, about his childhood, or prison, or the other men in the halfway house. He is wise, and shares insights about poverty and class. He takes the shine off my privileged perspective, laughing and laughing when I am sympathetic. I’m told it boils down to stupidity and bad choices. That there are no excuses – not abuse or bad upbringing or rotten circumstances. I excuse his bad decisions anyway. He’s in a different place now, I remind him. A better one.

Which is why we spent more than three hours waiting in that nondescript building, subject to a bureaucracy careless with our time. I was there to support his plea to the state that they grant him parole. Not freedom. My glancing acquaintance with the criminal justice system has shown me that people who have run through that grinder are never free. Even after the ankle bracelets are removed and the weekly parole meetings are ended and regularly peeing in a cup is no longer a condition of their release, “criminals” carry the weight of public perception. Housing, employment, even relationships are tainted with distrust and disgust. 

That was clear in E’s interview with a parole board member. He spoke to E the way I speak to my children. “What were you thinking?” Subtext: be ashamed, be sorrowful, repent. “How can I trust that you will never do it again?” Subtext: you cannot make good choices, you are not trustworthy, the public is not safe. We sat, hands on our laps, as E was subtly chastised. In time I was allowed to speak my support, promising that E has good (read: stable middle class white) friends on his side. We are hoping my good fortune can be leveraged on his behalf. E is grateful. I am, too. It’s nice to have done something actually worth his gratitude.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Fight to the End

In a stack of old school work I found this story, written more than 20 years ago. It's not too bad, so I thought I'd share it here, with some editing.

The gunfighter arrived just after the telegram did. Both attracted the attention of the sheriff, who read through the telegram several times before dropping it to the floor and resting his head in his hands.

The gunfighter tied his horse to the hitching post, lingering a moment in its shadow to rest his head against her sturdy neck. Then, breathing deeply and pulling his face into its customary sneer, he sauntered into the saloon. His dusty boots, stitching creased with dirt, creaked with the exhaustion of many miles. His heels thudded on the floorboards. He called for a bottle of whiskey and a room. The barkeep grunted, reaching behind himself and fumbling for a bottle, not wanting to turn his back on the sullen man before him. 

The sheriff knew, even before the boy burst into his office, that it was time. The town had stilled when gunfighter's horse paced down Main street. In his office, the sheriff scrubbed wearily at his face, saddened by the job ahead, then, adjusting his gunbelt, he strode across the street to the saloon.

"Here already?’snarled the gunfighter.’I thought you might take a few minutes to work up your courage.”The barkeep snorted indignantly and then turned to concentrate on wiping the counter when the gunfighter glared at him.

"Yeah, well, not much courage needed. It’s only you. Now finish your whiskey and leave my town.”The sheriff earned several admiring looks from the drunks at the bar as he spoke to the gunfighter.

"I'm just making myself comfortable. I’ll leave later.’With that the gunfighter turned away, grabbing his bottle and heading for the stairs to his room. 

“I say you leave now. You have plenty of time to find a rock to crawl under before sundown.’The sheriff followed the gunfighter to his room and slammed the door behind him. The growing crowd in the saloon heard nothing for nearly an hour. Only their confidence in the sheriff kept them from barging into the room and attacking the gunfighter. Finally they heard vague shouting, and the sheriff stormed out, yelling, “I’ll see you at sundown then, you lousy bastard!“

The town grew increasingly quiet as evening drew on. Wary citizens began finding good vantage points to watch the shoot-out. The sheriff called on the town librarian to say a tentative good- bye.

“I, uh, just wanted to say, ma’am, that if something happens, I, mmm, am glad for the pleasure of the few moments I have had with you. They kinda make the rest of the time go easier.” He turned to leave, awkward at having said so much, but stopped when she confessed that she enjoyed spending time with him as well.

“You’ll be okay, won’t you?” she asked, after exchanging more awkward pleasantries. “I will see you again?” He stammered out a positive reply, not quite sure what to say, and then hastily retreated, stopping at the end of her walk to wave.

The adversaries faced each other across the corral, waiting for the sun to set. Someone from the crowd began to count backwards, and gently the rest of the town chimed in, ticking off the moments until sundown, until the two men would draw and shoot.

“Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen.” 

The gunfighter nodded, a half-smile on his face, and loosened his gun in the holster. The sheriff grabbed hastily at his gun, loosening it in turn, caught off guard. He reached for his handkerchief, wiping his eyes, clearing them of dust and tears.

“Five, four, three.”

Suddenly there was movement and noise and the gunfighter lay dying. He didn’t try to move. The sheriff ran forward, crouching over the fallen man, resting his hand gently on the slowly heaving chest. One final rattling breath, and the sheriff called for the undertaker. Slowly standing, he ordered a funeral prepared at his own expense, then went slowly to his office. He sat, elbows on knees, tears falling onto the telegram forgotten on the floorboards.

The sheriff didn’t hear when the librarian came in. She put her hands on his shoulders and began to make gentle consolation noises. He snatched the telegram from the floor and thrust it into her hands, then stood with his back to her. She read it, and laid a gentle hand on his back.

“He used to be a good man, you know.” He sighed. “He had cancer. He was afraid. He asked for my help.” Tears coursed down his face, faster and hotter, digging channels through the dust of the corral. “He wanted to die quickly, with dignity.” He chuckled wryly. “Thought he might help me, too. Make me look good, he said. He choked up, unable to say more. She stepped to his side and rested her head on his shoulder, hoping her sympathy would be enough. 

Finally he spoke. “He was my brother.”

Friday, August 21, 2015


A trip to the store was just an excuse. I knew that as soon as I tapped the accelerator and my car jumped forward, as eager as I was to eat the road. We, my Amelia, my Pilot car and I, went straight for the highway, fast fast nimble between the slowpokes left and right. The sky glowed with citylight, we were guided by paired tail lights, and the wind circled me with enticements. Drawing into the parking lot felt like a temporary submission. Thirty minutes and a basketful of school supplies later I caressed her hood and climbed back in.

Dear god, make me a bird so I can fly far far away

We rode the margins of safe and smart. The wind grabbed my hair and flung it about, promising more, promising freedom, if I would just drive drive drive. I saw the first sign for my exit and moved a lane left, avoiding the gravity of family and obligation.  A second sign flashed by. A thousand miles of road lay before me, winding between mountain passes and then furrowing straight through a layer cake desert. I could be a state away by morning. The car purred and leapt past a granny hanging out in the left lane.

A third sign, a quarter mile left, and I sped past a slow semi which had trapped a stodgy line of minivans in the slow lane. I looked ahead to where the mountains were shrouded by a smoky sky. I could climb five thousand feet and breathe starlight before the quarter moon stood high.

Sighing, I cut right, and right again, waving goodbye to the little sports car that had been testing itself against my madness. Slow, slow, calm at the light, my impatience swallowed and tamped down with thoughts of todo lists and laundry that needed folding. Someday, I promised myself, I will be reborn a hawk, so I can truly fly.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Saga of the Orange Truck

Written 2007, revised 2015

My Darling Husband takes great pride in being a logical, reasonable, and efficient person. He's also, well, cheap. He says "practical and frugal", but really, he likes doing things on the cheap. Which is why, when my grandmother died last year and I inherited some furniture, he didn't want to ship it. Initial estimates were $1800 to ship the dining room table (seats 12 with all the leaves in) and chairs, and a child's bedroom set (two twin beds, desk, chair, dresser, bedside table, dressing table, and carpet) plus random other stuff from Grandma.  Personally, I thought $1800 was a good deal, considering they'd bring the "pod" to us, we'd pack it, they'd deliver to the door at the other end.  But no, it was too much money. Fortunately (?!) Auntie P in Massachusetts had a storage pod in her backyard (don't ask), so we hired a truck, moved the furniture, and there it has sat for nearly a year.  Now with us conveniently close this summer, DH figured we can just hop down to Massachusetts to get the stuff, and he'll haul it back when he comes home.

Unfortunately, our big blue truck holds only three people, so we can't use it as the family vehicle in Vermont. My beloved Honda Pilot doesn't really have the power to haul a trailer full of furniture back to Colorado. DH's solution?  Buy another truck! Okay, we've been talking about buying a replacement truck, one that can be a backup vehicle if the Pilot is in the shop, and one that doesn't require so much maintenance. So DH went out and bought an EVEN OLDER truck (1978) that has been sitting unused in his friend's yard for about three years.  

You see, DH figures he is SAVING money this way. The idea is, we buy this truck, fix it up some, he drives it across country and uses it as transportation in VT, then we buy a trailer and pick up the furniture. When we get back to Denver, he sells this truck and the trailer for the initial price, and that way we don't have to pay the $1800 to ship the furniture. MUCH more reasonable, practical, and efficient than taking our Honda Pilot and shipping the stinking furniture, which was my silly plan.

Before I go further, please take a moment to picture the "new" truck. It's a 1978 Ford. It is BIG and orange and has a brown plastic-wood interior. There are rust holes through the bed in at least one spot, and one side is more Bondo than metal. True, it has an extended cab, so it does have room for us all.  Sort of. The jump seats behind the driver are perpendicular to the road, and are little more than low boards with brown naugahyde on them. Even better, for safety reasons the kids have to be in the front seat (sitting sideways makes for dangerous head bouncing, plus their car seats can't be buckled into the back). But their car seats are kind of permanently installed (again, for safety). Since DH does the driving, this means I get the back seats. Of course, to get there I have to crawl over the front seat. 

I am NOT the smallest or most graceful of people. Imagine a slim hippo wallowing over a bench seat, trying not to kick the kids in the head, or tangle feet in the seat belt or step on the horn (It happened. I hit my head on the roof. More than once). Plus - 4/40 AC (that's 4 windows, at 40 miles an hour). From my huddled perch I recently discovered that the driver's end of the seat is held up by a stack of washers held roughly in place by a bolt. You know -- flat, round, hole in the center. I counted 15, but we were bouncing so I'm not sure how accurate that was . . . Oh, and the radio is AM only.  No tape deck, not even FM.

Can you see where this is going?

DH put in about 20 hours of his own time and paid someone else a couple hundred dollars to fix up the Orange Truck (fuses, gauges, patches over the rust holes). I got him a wonderful new iPod-ready stereo and loaded his iPod with audio books, and he declared himself ready to go. We cheerfully waved him off.

Four hours later I got the first call from the beside the highway just the other side of the Nebraska border. Possible oil leak, may have seized the engine.

Yeah, okay.  I gave him the Auto Club info (honey, the card is in your wallet -- remember?) and told him to let me know whether I should strap the kids into the faithful (and practically new) Honda Pilot Car and come get him.

In the second call he told me a mechanic took a look, added 6 quarts of oil, now it seems to be running fine.  

Third call - truck's getting 7 miles a gallon, he's filling up the oil almost as much as the gas tank, but it's running fine. Really. And oh, the speakers have gone out, so he has to use the headphones to listen to the iPod.  I resist pointing out that the Pilot has a good sound system.

Next call - May actually be as much as 9 miles a gallon! I resist pointing out the Pilot gets 22.

Next call - truck is "running a little hot" so he has to drive with the heat on.  Through the Midwest. In summer. I resist pointing out that the Pilot's A/C works really, really well.

Next call  - gas continues to be more than $3.00.  He figures gas and oil will cost him more than $800 heading east, probably more on the way back because he's be hauling a load. I resist pointing out that he's spending an awful lot of money to save $1800.

Then I call my mother and say "I told you so I told you so I told you so" because it's never a good idea to say that directly to my spouse.

After three days DH did get to Vermont safely. Now, however, he's not sure the orange truck can get him back to Denver, especially pulling a load. So, he's found ANOTHER "new" truck. It's the youngest truck he's ever owned (a 2001 - only six years), and only has 171,000 miles on it. And at $7500 it's "cheap". This doesn't, of course, account for the fact that the current owner estimates that he'll need a new engine in two years. DH keeps saying "it's only $7,500!"  I have expressed my reservations, but  the fact that we can buckle the kids into seats in the back and I get a door has pretty much won me over. We're going to try to sell the orange truck for $2000 -- a loss of only $250 in the end.  

Next, we acquire a trailer . . .  Oh, joy.

Monday, July 27, 2015


It is the last Sunday in July. I know this only from a phone call with my mother last night. It is Mountain Fair weekend in my home town, and the fair is held on the last full weekend in July.

Dates and alarms are anchors in my usual life. At home I am tethered by clocks -- next to my bed, on the microwave, on the computer, facing me each time I look at my phone. My schedule regulates me: rise, eat, listen, manage, shepherd, make, collapse. Again. There is little freedom in routine.

Confession: I need the boundaries of expectation. Without limits I waste time and use time and spend time, and when I am careless with hours and days my productivity "goes down" and in this day and age, this time, when value is measured and displayed in getting things done, I become worth less. Worthless.

I am unmoored here. We have clocks, but they are unreliable like the melted time pieces in Dali's paintings, mere constructs of an outside idea not germane to this place. We rise when we wake, sleep when we are tired. Lunch happens at 3 p.m., or 11 a.m. or is a bite of an apple taken in passing between events which expand or collapse based on who is interested in participating. We have Day and Night, but even those are fluid. In these northern climes dawn and dusk are elastic, stretching silver across the lake. I wake with birdsong. The dog barely raises his head in mockery of my wakefulness, so I roll over and go back to sleep. The clock means nothing.

I wonder at our fixation with time. We don't like to admit that it is a cultural construction. Travelling, I used to joke about being on local time, expecting people to be late for everything. I felt superior, with my promptness and exactitude. I hope I am wiser now.

Checking the calendar, we have three weeks more here. In a short while (what is short?) I will need to begin setting schedules again to ease us back into our normal lives. To anchor us again to the world outside.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015


Every once in a while a word flies into my head, fluttering in desperate circles like a moth against a lighted pane. Most recently it was dudas — Spanish for doubts. I was hauling branches at the time. My husband had decided to trim the lowest branches on the maples that ring our “back yard” to let in some light. There are many maples. There were many, many branches. Over and over again I grasped three or four limbs and dragged them from the tennis court past the house across the road to the burn pile. The abundant leaves rasped against the drying mud. At first I fancied myself a peacock trailing fifteen feet of emerald glory, but after many trips it became nothing more than drudgery. Sweat salted my lips. I resented the dull exhausting task, piled as it was on top of all the others that have been ticked off the list since we got here. Dudas flew into my mind.

It is easy to construct an admirable self-image within the bubble of day-to-day existence. In a carefully regulated environment of one’s own choosing, being strong or beautiful or competent or smart is a habit of circumstance. Displacement throws all those carefully established tropes in disarray. I pride myself on being strong and competent, characteristics I claim to have inherited from some remarkable pioneer women. My surety crumbles here. It takes so much effort to open, clean, and maintain the property; before it is ready I usually find myself overwhelmed and in tears. It’s not the individual tasks so much as the endlessness of them. Chore after chore is added to list of work needing to be done. My enthusiasm wanes with each. My husband soldiers on, promising that tomorrow we’ll go to the lake, or for a bike ride, or play tennis. We just need to get a few things done. I am daunted by his drive. More accurately, I am shaken from my sense of self by my own reluctance. My weakness. A few hours of physical labor and all I want to do is sit down and read. A week and I become unbearably grumpy. The shiny links to my ancestors tarnish with shame.

This upsets me. Perhaps it shouldn’t. I don’t often get challenged at home, especially not with big, ongoing projects. I’ve made sure of that. I’ll help on a workday at the maternal family cabin, or volunteer for an afternoon at a school-related function. Events are bite-sized and perfectly manageable. I have created a cocoon and happily snuggle in to it. When there is physical labor to be done, my husband usually brings his work crew over and they take care of it in a bustle of manly energy. Here, he is occupied with work only he can do, and the children and I are expected to fill in the gaps to the best of our abilities. Honestly, nothing he asks is truly beyond me; if I refused a job he would reassure me and, if I still felt uncomfortable, he wouldn’t push. His confidence in my abilities is higher than my own. The dudas are mine.

A friend once asked why, if it is so difficult, do I keep coming back. My immediate answers focused on family time and the guests I adore and, mostly, because it means so much to my spouse. There’s more to it, though. Traveling is as much about self-discovery as it is about seeing new sights. Last Christmas our family went to Italy for three weeks. It was a grand adventure for us all, but wasn’t a huge challenge for me. I’ve traveled extensively, and Europe has all the amenities a middle-class American could want or need. I picked up enough Italian to get by (with the gracious assistance of locals, of course). The food was deliciously familiar, as were the museums and transportation systems. 

In the weeks before we left both my children fretted about how long the flights were, and not being able to communicate, and staying in hotels, and what they would eat, and would pickpockets leave us destitute on the side of a Roman boulevard. By the end of our journey, however, they were easily navigating the metro, and choosing which sites we’d visit, and chatting in broken Italian with service personnel. They had discovered that capacity in themselves, and carry in their hearts the knowledge that they are capable of traveling abroad. I am sure that confidence will serve them well

I come here because I do want to see my East Coast friends, and because it does make my husband happy, and because our time here binds our family more tightly. I also come here because it challenges me tremendously to step outside my little world. I fail, and I cry, and I am weaker than I like. But we eventually cross everything off the list, and I can look through our photos at the end of the summer and say “I helped with that.” And whatever doubts may spring up, I learn again exactly what I can do. And sometimes, it’s more than I ever imagined.

Grocery store

The wind is sighing through the trees, through my heart. I am alone in the dining room as everyone sleeps. The sun glows through promising clouds, but I cannot read the promise.

I am planning a trip to town for groceries and sundries. This is not simple - I must think of everything before I leave. 7 miles to the mainland, 25 miles to the store. My lists are detailed and compartmentalized by store name. Hardware, grocery, home goods, thrift.

These trips are joyful in their aloneness, and fraught with homesickness. I miss the checkout ladies - Donna and Mary especially - who have been helping me with groceries for longer than my children have been alive. I ache for the ease of a store just 10 minutes away. I long for stranger-smiles, which are not customary here. Instead my fellow shoppers glare at me with suspicion, and walk away from my assumed intimacy.

Out and back, just like at home but somehow totally different. I still am a stranger here, caught in a web of partial familiarity after 5 summers in 10 years. I know the roads and the stores, but I do not know the place.

In these summers I am a traveler, restless and rootless. This is not a bad thing. The experience makes me more flexible and adaptable. I certainly appreciate the luxury of my home, my life, far more when I return. My children are ineffably enlightened as well, and we all become closer. Most importantly, I get the chance to spend time with people I otherwise would never see. Still, these mornings when I go through my list a dozen times, I dream of home.

Monday, July 6, 2015


We play games after breakfast here. Uno. Cribbage. Qwirkle. Waterworks. Dishes can wait. The work list is discussed (there is always work). With each card, each tile, a connection grows. We know each other better. It is subtle, but i learn to predict what they will play. The games get more difficult, more strategic.

Some days I beg off. I feel compelled to start my day, urged by habit and upbringing to complete chores early, as if a full sink at 10 a.m. says something awful about me. Other days I ache to be alone. The big homes and empty rooms of modern living suit me. I have a deep appreciation for doors, even though mine are usually open. The option of solitude is a grace not often acknowledged.

It will be sunny today, then the rain returns. Hurry, hurry to do more while we can. The weather is a capricious master, and it drives my husband mad. He cannot not work, therefore the children and I must as well. What fools we modern people are, always making lists for ourselves and condemning our imagined shortfalls and the end if the day. I hearken back two hundred years - even without artificial light there was so much more time. Progress is measured, I think, in strange metrics.

I will attempt laundry, despite the moisture that hangs heavy in the air. We will paint the house. These are Good Things. Perhaps I will steal time and waste it immersing myself in an enchanting tale of genies and golems and old New York City. An eyebrow will be raised my way if i am caught. I will apologize, but in my heart I know that my fanciful travels, the ones that change me from the inside out, those are the actions that give me meaning. That is my measure of a day well spent.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


The to-do list is growing shorter. The hedges are trimmed, roof leaks sealed, mower repaired. I unwrapped beds and aired linens while my husband rebuilt sections of rotted porch columns. Our children have been conscripted into yard work and cleaning, fetching rakes and brooms and hand tools when we holler for help. This kind of work is meditative. There’s a rhythm to sweeping and scrubbing and mopping that leaves me free to ponder our, my, relationship with this camp. It’s not a vacation. At least, not by my definition of the term. It is, however, a restoration. A reclamation. Together we are working to restore the camp from slow decay, and in doing so we reclaim our family, our friendships, and even my husband’s past.

The camp is called Dingley Dell. When it was established between the wars, the founders called the campers “The Adventurers”. My husband grew up on his father’s Peter Pan-esque stories of the boys who built giant sailing ships and roved pirate-style up and down Lake Champlain. Those glory days are long past. The assembly hall is filled with bird nests and pockets of blown-in leaves. Fractured remains of boats are beached in the woods. Each summer when we first arrive I have a tendency to make inappropriate jokes about arson and tell my husband we could pay the taxes if we rented the camp out as a location for a horror movie. He has different eyes, though. Here and at home he can look at a building and see its potential. Work doesn’t daunt him. He has the skill and the patience and the drive to make this place better. And he’s right. A week of work and it’s comfortable. A second week plus the artful placement of peonies — cut from the ghost of a garden — and the buildings become charming.

It’s not easy. At home, the children spend much of their summer playing electronic devices, sometimes with friends, often alone or next to each other on the couch — each in their own pixelated world. I am no different; I spend most of my days at my computer. I call it work but spend as much time chatting with friends as balancing checkbooks and paying bills. My husband works, hustling off after breakfast and returning just in time for supper. His evenings and weekends year-round are punctured by the need to accommodate customers who aren’t available during the day. While I aspire to be an engaged and inspirational parent, trips to the museum or  swimming pool often take more effort than I can muster. 

Here, electronics are forbidden until the end of the day for all of us. Instead we work, together. During a post-breakfast board game each day we go over what chores need to be done. We do take breaks for games and (when it’s warm enough) a trip to the lake to wash off the day, but so much needs to be done that we can’t just relax. The children gripe, but I smile to myself as I see them at their father’s side, taking in his lessons on carpentry, repairing slate roofs, how to properly construct a bonfire. They’re also absorbing our lessons on a strong work ethic and taking pride in a job well done. Their objections are slowly diminishing as they become accustomed to helping. They’re taking on more, too. At home I take care of all the housework. Here, each child is responsible for doing the dishes by hand after a meal. I no longer have to order them to help hang the laundry and bring it in when it is dry (or re-hang it indoors when the rain comes). They even have created a project for themselves, turning the loft into an indoor play space and sleeping fort. With some help from us they relocated drifts of abandoned furniture and pulled up layers of peeling linoleum to expose the wood floor that needs to be caulked and painted. They filled two giant bags with trash and detritus, swept the floor, and primed the walls. Together they chose a first paint color — fluorescent orange immediately vetoed by laughing parents — and settled for a gray green that won’t show dirt quite so well.

I have to admit: I am not good at this level of togetherness. In the usual course of events I spend several days a week by myself. I am adjusting, slowly, to the constancy of my family. Every activity is spent with at least one other person. It is difficult for me, but I can see how beneficial it is for us all. We are forced to express our needs out loud, rather than hiding in a different room until the moment passes. My daughter, queen of getting her own way, is starting to compromise and share. Our son, who excels at disappearing, is reluctantly participating. I am practicing being present rather than off in my own head or with my electronic circle of friends. My husband must take other peoples’ needs and abilities into consideration. We are growing closer. It’s subtle, but our family is gradually being reclaimed from the distractions available in the outside world.

Not that we’re entirely isolated. Our first guests came last weekend. He is a high-school classmate of my husband, nearly forgotten until a reunion five years ago. He and his wife are road-tripping up the East Coast thanks to their daughter’s summer camp plans. Their email, “Can we pop in?” was surprising, but by the end of their visit we’d exchanged email addresses and made tentative plans to visit them in the spring. Upcoming visitors will include college friends and some online pals I’ve never met in person. I count myself incredibly fortunate for this opportunity. Back home everyone is always so busy. Despite the relative flexibility of my schedule I have to schedule weeks in advance to have lunch with a friend. Without social media many of my relationships would completely wither. Even with that touchstone, I can feel how hollow many of those are. I do my best to share openly, honestly, frequently. I’ve been warned by at least one person that I say too much, too publicly. Most people give only glimpses of their lives, assuming that it is enough. How, though, can I call someone my friend if I have no idea what is really happening in their life? Here we have the opportunity to reclaim old acquaintances and forge new ones. So much can be said over — and after — a meal. We create connections without words while staring out at sailboats on the lake, and make friends of strangers over card games and croquet. I find the allure of the internet fading as I plan meals and prepare guest rooms and figure out what activities we will share.

My husband tells stories of roving the woods with friends and family, getting into, and out of, trouble. On our first visits here, when we had to place half a dozen buckets to catch the leaks and the ceilings were falling in and raccoons nested in our beds, I couldn’t understand why he wanted to come back. Now I have thousands of pictures of him working — raising sinking foundations and re-slating an entire roof and fixing, fixing, fixing. I have scrubbed floors and walls and ceilings and painted them as well. My pride-of-place is growing to match his. And with each sailing adventure or tennis match, with each cocktail hour and cheese plate, with every walk around the property and every tale told of the boys who built the place and the man and woman who have worked so hard to restore it, those peter Pan stories come closer to life. It isn’t easy, coming here. It’s not a vacation, but it is worth it.

Monday, June 1, 2015


In two weeks a stranger will move into my house. This is the truth. In two weeks a friend I respect and trust will be living in my home. This is the same truth.
We met online and have known each other about two years. I believe we’ve become friends. At least, friendly enough that I asked him to house-sit while our family travels. DH is anxious. He doesn’t have two years of near-daily posts to reassure him. I, on the other hand, have seen this man's regrets and hopes. I’ve read stories of his family and his parents and his pets. We have not met in person, but I know him as well or better than many people with whom I spend time in real life. This is the strange thing about online friendships — the intimacy afforded by distance.

Still, I am nervous. Every time we displace ourselves I follow rituals of deep cleaning, but this time feels more urgent. My friend has never been inoculated to the quirks of my family. He’s never been over for supper or stopped by to chat. He’s coming in blind. And that makes me feel strangely naked and vulnerable. I scrub in preparation and wonder what stories my belongings will tell. What conclusions will be drawn from the spines on the his-n-hers bookcases -- my side full of young adult fantasy, gardening, and poetry, my husband’s a catalog of military history. The paintings on the walls and the sculptures in corners are bits of me on display. Who do they say I am?

I’m culling. I’ve gone through the linen closet and the bathroom cabinets. The children and I sorted through their rooms and captured five trash bags full of donations for the thrift store. Five years of old records are cleaned from my files. Ancient canned goods are pulled to the front to be eaten, and the freezer is nearly empty. The drifts of paper magnetted to the refrigerator have been curated to a few important pictures. I joke that I do this every time. I know better. I’m trying to make a good impression. This is silly, because — assuming my friend reads my posts in turn — he knows me as well as anyone.
This is all incidental. The intersection of our lives will be momentary. I will come home, and nothing will have changed. After months away, new books will be added to my shelf. I will see my art with fresh eyes. My friend will leave, hopefully to adventures of his own. We will stay in touch online, or maybe not. I will have met a friend. We will part, still strangers.


Winter darkness is difficult for me. The spanish word for sunflower is girasol -- literally: turn sun. I am a sunflower, turning to the light. Today the sun shone and I woke and smiled. The dogs took me for a walk. I took pictures and said good morning to neighbors as they sat on their porches facing the sun with steaming mugs of coffee. We came home. I have faced the sun. My mug steams. I am filled with light, and life is good.


We went to the plant store yesterday, my daughter and I. She pushed a flatbed cart and we collected random pots. She had been eager for days, pushing pushing pushing for us to go to the store. There was no time for me to plan my purchases. Usually I stare at the ground, considering the gaps, imagining late summer lushness. Gardens are tricky. In the first lust of spring it's easy to be fooled by the spare shoots surrounded by bare earth. There's a post-winter desire for abundance. But too much and the garden chokes itself, the final hurrah fizzling in a pool of green. Gardens are a constant lesson in both hope and humility.

I wasn't prepared. She was hot and tired after field day, and impatient with me. She is often impatient with me. I am more deliberate than she. I read instructions. I plan. I ponder. I consider possibilities and only then do I act. She is a hummingbird, chirping and changing directions so fast she leaves me dizzy. I admire her until I attempt to redirect her toward half-finished projects. Then we argue, and I catch her impatience, throwing away half-used things and growling that she needs to think her plans through.

We lost two roses this year, glorious giant bushes of pink flowers that marked my home as much as the yellow slide in front. My daughter chose stately white replacements, tea roses rather than floribunda. I like the titles. Tea. Floribunda. Grandiflora. Rugosa. They feel like a secret code which I pretend to understand. I chose Spanish Sunset, an nother tea, because I crave intensity in my garden. The contrast beween winter's white and brown, and summer's vivid oranges and purples satisfies some ancient seasonal part of me.

I will plant everything today. Agastache and thyme and hyssop. In the heat of the mid-summer sun my garden smells like a fertile candy store. I will miss much of it this year. I am planting hope.
It's a solitary ritual for me, digging in compost, knocking the pots, watering everything in. Alone, but not lonely as I think of my mother and helping in her garden. Then I will stand back and admire the thin spires and tiny carpets, islands in the dirt, imagining the glory to which I hope to return in August.

Field Day

Today is field day. Today I will stand on the sidelines, cheering my child in ways my mother never could. I always came home with meaningless participation ribbons. We shared our disinterest in those ribbons, my mother and I. Field day still holds no meaning for me.

There is less competition now. There are more team events, and silly ones where blindfolded students with squirt bottles hunt down their teachers with the vocal support of their peers. The very tall first grade teacher is just the wrong height, and walks away from the field with a soaked crotch. We bystanders are unseemly in our amusement. 

I wish adults in offices could have field days. Not horrific structured "team building" events dreaded by everyone but management, who pat themselves on the back for their innovativeness while the staff wishes they could be back in their cubicles poking at the internet and avoiding the busybody in the next hole. No. A real field day. A day every year when we could romp and attack each other with squirt bottles. A day when we could be surrounded by good natured cheering and have ridiculous competitions and there was no judgement. Days when the reward was pointless and we could be honest in our disinterest, focusing instead on our popsicles. 

When I am finally released by my sticky and triumphant child I will come home to sewing projects and email. And I may enjoy a popsicle.


Shuffling through the routine this morning. My daily dance, done to the music of "mom, have you seen . . . " I resent and love it in equal measures. My son walks into the kitchen and we hug before I hustle him to his breakfast while I make lunches for us all, love quietly packaged with their sandwiches.

He is nearly as tall as I am, now. Each successive mark on the doorframe is a countdown to his leaving. I carry goodbyes inside my ribcage. If I think of them, they flutter until I can't breathe. Instead I wake my daughter and grump at her for being slow.

I can't cherish this time, this moment, because doing so acknowledges that these moments are finite. That my routine will come to an end. I give each child a hug and a kiss and send them off with my love. That will never end. 

Today it is warm enough to go to the garden store and acquire pretties. Miss Awesome and I are going to plant them this afternoon. Before then? Phone calls and deskwork. It feels good to get things off my list.

Memorial Day

The sun shines. The sun shines through the skylight. The sun shines through my eyelids. The inside of my skull glows.

Thoughts of war fill my head as I wake. It is a day to remember but I am confused. I think of our million-year ancestors and wonder at the gifts they gave us in tiny genetic packages. Strong spines, forward looking eyes, and the urge to conquer through violence. We call them primitive, these early hominids, but the first story on my oh-so-advanced electronic device is about war. Who is more primitive - the club wielder who attacks his neighbor, or the business people who develop ever more sophisticated ways to kill larger numbers with less personal involvement?

I remember. I am reminded daily by the men on the street corners who are broken and asking for help, though the only true cure would be a time machine to take them back before they were scarred into helplessness. I remember the cold maps with their arrows. I know how to translate the advances into casualties. I remember those lessons. My heart sinks, knowing that memory isn't enough.

The sun shines. The inside of my skull glows. I am become a being of light. I shine. I open my eyes and it is bright. I am safe and warm. There is blue sky. I have my children with me, and today we will remember, and maybe, just maybe, their generation will learn the right lesson. Before that, there is bacon, and there are cinnamon rolls.


I am surrounded by sounds today. The dishwasher gurgles. The radio sings. Rain attacks the skylight. My dog has begun to snore in wheezes and whistles that make me wonder if a cartoon is playing in a distant room. The house shivers and the plates in their cabinets rattle when the washing machine spins.

Today is a day for doing. I have destinations all around the city marked on a map in my mind. I draw red lines between each stop, making constellations of obligation. Do rats make maps when they run a maze? Can they see the stars? Like them, I shall reward myself when I have followed every line and found a stopping point.

The maze never truly ends. I understand why people seek gods. Seek meaning. Do rats measure the benevolence of humans-become-gods, or do they preach acceptance in their huddled dens? I have stepped outside that bewildering path, seeking to make my own meaning, create my own rewards. The same stars shine down, but the constellations are my own.

Grey Skies

The sky is gray grey gray and i wonder if we're in a Ray Bradbury story, living on a far off planet that is just almost like ours, but a key feature is missing. I am missing the sun. I read that it is warm, somewhere, and I yearn for that somewhere off this grey gray grey planet. 

I will fill the house with noise and activity today, and pretend that housecleaning is dancing and the strange light of swirling bulbs is the sun.

My son is ill. He has strep. He is home, but I cannot dance with him today. He is cloistered in his room. I am cloistered in the house, a recluse of my own making. A friend is whisking me away for lunch today. She is thanking me for something that to me is nothing. I am grateful for her gratitude, and her whisking. And for lunch. 

This weekend I am going to the mountains. This is not a metaphor, or a simile. I will be up high, closer to the greyness. I might reach up and tear apart the clouds with angry hands, pocketing fistsful of blue sky to share with sad friends far below. The sky will dissolve between my fingers. The torn sky will make my pockets damp with disappointment. The ragged clouds will fill with thunder at my impudence and sew the seams with lightning. I will laugh and tell my friends that I saw the blue. Together we will look up into the gray grey gray and dream of burning stars burning us.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mirror, mirror

Been thinking today about identity and control as they relate to housekeeping. To wit: how many women have poured outrageous amounts of energy into keeping their homes "nice" -- clean, tidy, organized, etc. -- because that's the only part of their lives that they can control. In a twisted way, the house becomes a reflection of the woman, and in turn becomes her identity. 

I'm pondering how much of that is self-imposed, how much is pushed on us from the outside-in, and how much changed in the past 65 years? So many women I know fret and fuss over the state of the house no matter how much other is happening in their lives. Our constant accumulation of "stuff" makes all of this far more complicated and time-consuming.

My husband seems to find security in the number of objects around him. I call him a Collector. He loves yard sales and bargains. He brings me presents I don't want, to fill already stuffed drawers. It makes me anxious. I marvel at how much time I spend moving things from one spot to another. One lesson I learn every time we go to Vermont is is how little I need, versus how much I have. I'm driven to unburden myself of the extraneous when we return to our very full house. It's cathartic, like a lightening of my soul.

I don't know what, if anything, any of this means. I do know that after a long semester, I'm looking forward to cleaning my house. I'll feel better for it. And better about myself.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


We met in Paris, and it was as romantic as it sounds. I took the night train from Budapest. He was coming in from Copenhagen. We hadn’t seen each other for two months, and had only two weeks before flying home and spending yet another summer apart.

I arrived at dawn to an empty city. It was some saint’s day. The Metro tunnels echoed with my solitary footsteps as I made my way through station after station, ever closer to our hostel. It was too early to check in; too early find my way to the station and wait for him. I made an adventure of finding a working ATM and then paced until I could go.
He came into Gare du Nord. It was like the movies — the man alights from the train, travel-weary, and she is there, waiting. They kiss. 

We kissed. 

From our little room at the hostel we could see the top of Sacré-Cœur. It felt symbolic. Together we visited the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, and the Eiffel Tower. We couldn’t afford to climb it, but we circled, staring upward together. He ate merguez sandwiches from street vendors. I gorged on tomatoes and cheese and fresh bread. We were in love.
The calendar was against us. Saint’s day. Bank holiday. Sunday. Everything was closed. It didn’t matter. None of that matters when you’re in love. We went to EuroDisney, laughing at the absurdity of visiting an American icon on the continent. We ran into schoolmates there, and it was even funnier.

On our last day in Paris the Louvre was open. The visitors were quieter than they’d been in Notre Dame -- until they reached the tide surrounding the Mona Lisa. There we were shoved in to the current of people and carried away. We left the museum and it was raining. We walked the Champs-Élysées until we were soaked, finally taking refuge in a McDonald’s. In the bathroom I removed my shirt, wrung it out, and stood over the hand dryer trying to warm up. The other women were scandalized. I didn’t care. I was in love. He laughed with me as we headed back into the rain.

We left Paris the next day to visit his cousins in Italy. The long tunnels through the Alps made me homesick. His cousins were gracious and kind. He begged me not to speak Spanish to his Italian family, for fear of insult. They took us for a mountaintop feast far above a lake. We were in love, and on an adventure.

We broke up the following year. There were spastic attempts at a friendship, but we didn’t know how. I said my last goodbye to him at a friend’s wedding where we danced one time, in honor of what had been. 

My memory is crazed and much has slipped through to obscurity. Still, the noise of a hand dryer always brings back the Champs Elysee in the rain.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Music of the Spheres

Joseph stepped from the faintly swinging gondola onto the polished scale and hesitated. The operator held up his hand silently, intent on the marker which sank, bobbed, and quickly settled on a figure which made no sense to Joseph.

“Boy, you’ve had a tough Turn.” The operator smiled sympathetically. “You’ll get a good rest just as soon as you’ve Washed.” Joseph didn’t move. “Still disoriented? No surprise. You’ve been through a lot. Over there – the bridge. Sit. Rest. Dangle your feet in the stream. You’ll feel better. Afterward, take the left-hand path to the inn. Folks there’ll give you some pointers.” Joseph started to step off; an ethereal chime caught his attention and he looked upward.

The Ferris wheel towered above, fading into brassy clouds which parted to reveal other machinery. “A clock!” Joseph thought, before his tilted head began to spin. He stumbled, and the operator grabbed his elbow.

“Watch it, kiddo!” he warned, then gently urged Joseph toward the bridge further down the path. “Go sit. I got work to do.” His smile was big and cheerful as he looked upward to the next gondola already swooping downward to the scale.

Joseph stumbled toward the bridge, ears ringing in a sudden cacophony of ratcheting gears and whirring springs. The sound faded as he sat on the edge of the rough wooden planks and dropped his tired feet into the creek. It was cold enough to make him flinch. He withdrew, then gently dipped his toes back in. The current curled around his ankles with a faint tickle. Joseph sighed. It had been a long day. Hadn’t it? He tried to remember, but the clockwork noise returned so loudly he collapsed backward to lie across the bridge.

Silence fell again. Joseph heard the creek grumbling along its bed, gurgling at the banks and dashing over a rock somewhere downstream. He was in a grotto. Ferns clung to niches in limestone walls, watered by tiny cascades that converged at the bottom. It was moist and felt cleaner than even the hospital where he’d spent the past weeks. Hospital. Joseph sat up, ignoring the clock sounds that tried to return. He’d been in the hospital. He had hurt. It was new pain on top of old familiar hurts. It had scraped him raw until his eyes leaked, and the morphine offered no respite. The nurses had occasionally graced him with a hand across the forehead, or a squeeze of the shoulder, but everything else was pain.

Joseph felt a pinch at the tip of his big toe. He looked down, half expecting to see a fish nibbling, and instead saw an ash-gray blob floating down the creek. A line of smaller blobs streamed from both feet. He lifted them in alarm. Darkness flowed from his heels into the water. He shook his legs and it shattered, refracting strangely with gold and emerald.

“You gotta put them back in.” A girl cheerfully plopped down next to him and dunked her feet without hesitation. “It’s the rules. You put your feet in, get washed up, then you go get something to eat. I’m gonna have some chicken piccata today. I love chicken piccata. I like saying it, too. Pih-KA-ta!” she pronounced joyfully, the colorful plastic barrettes at the ends of her many braids dancing with each syllable. She swished her feet around, watching as brilliant oranges, yellows, and greens swirled away. “You got a LOT of washing to do,” she observed as a stripe of navy joined the gray from Joseph’s feet. “Must be ‘cause you’re so old.” She cocked her head. “I’m eight.” Dark brown twined with turquoise flowed from her right foot, and she made a face.

“Are you all right?” Joseph asked.

“Yup. That one kinda stings. But it feels better when it’s gone. I did this before. I was old that time, and it took a while. I think I’m almost done now, though.” She giggled and said softly, “I like capers. Nobody expects a kid to like capers but I had them at this one restaurant and I liked ‘em even better than pickles. That’s the real reason I like chicken piccata. CHICKEN PICCATA!” she shouted and kicked her feet into the air as the final streamers tapered away. Joseph clung to his plank as the girl jumped up, bouncing him precariously close to the edge, and exclaimed “I’ll see you at supper!” before racing up the left-hand path.

The grotto echoed with the girl’s laughter for a long time. Joseph stared at his feet. Loops of gray and forest green and navy blue continued to wash downstream. Occasional flashes of crimson showed up, or cobalt. Time passed. Joseph surprised himself by not becoming impatient, or bored. He was content to watch the ferns bob as water fell on them, and to listen to the chatter of the busy little creek. Color drained from his feet. He remembered pieces of his life. He understood that it was over, and was grateful. The last weeks he had suffered alone, pain amplified and echoing in his solitude. The creek, the bridge, the laughter of the child, were soothing. He wanted nothing else.

Joseph closed his eyes and kicked his feet like the girl had done. The feeling was so delightful he laughed; that was so surprising he laughed again. He hadn’t laughed with joy in years. He kicked his feet again and the water caught rainbows in the sunlight. Joseph stared, realizing that the rainbows were coming from him. Like the girl, he had whorls of yellows and reds and bright blues swirling from his feet, upstream and down, spreading across the width of the stream in sheets of brilliant color. He stilled, mesmerized, and stared until the colors tapered away and all that was left was clear water. 

It was time. He was hungry for spaghetti with meatballs and buttered garlic bread and a huge salad. He wanted to see the girl enjoying her chicken piccata. “PICCATA!” he shouted, and laughed at his own silliness. Joseph turned to rise, bracing himself for the betrayal of age ravaged joints, but he stood easily, more graceful than ever in life. He hopped, twice, then sprinted up the left-hand path. The grotto echoed with his laughter for a long time.

The inn shivered and blurred at the edges of his vision as Joseph approached. The door was open and he could hear laughter and silverware clinking and a wall clock chiming the hour. He counted, but lost track when the little girl flung herself out the door. “Finally! I was waiting and waiting for you! Come on!” she tugged him past the lounge into the dining room, shoving him toward an empty chair as she thumped into the one next to it. “Oh, I almost forgot!” She lowered her head and mumbled some sort of a prayer over her meal, then tucked in even before Joseph could get his napkin spread. Joseph looked for guidance from his fellow diners, but they were all engaged elsewhere. His plate was full of noodles in fragrant red sauce, topped with five or six perfect meatballs. He didn’t hesitate.

Half a plate later, Joseph slowed enough to look up. The girl was bright and shiny next to him, loudly telling a story about riding her scooter to the park and getting a cupcake at the bakery. Across the table an elderly couple were sitting back and holding hands, plates still nearly full. They smiled at him and for a moment they – and the inn behind them -- multiplied into the distance like a reflection of mirrors.  His young friend grabbed his chin and yanked his head around. “Are you even listening to me?!” she exclaimed, and then rushed onward with her story. He smiled and patted her shoulder in time to the ticking of the clock.

“You finished, kiddo?” A woman leaned in from the right, reaching for his empty plate. 

“Me? Yes, ma’am, I am. It was very good. Thank you,” he replied, staring. She looked just like the operator at the Ferris wheel.

“Good. Let’s get this cleared away, and then we can have some tea and catch up. It’s been a long while since I saw you.” She stacked his dishes on her arm, deftly balancing everything as she turned. “I’ll meet you in the lounge. Won’t be long. I’ll make the kids do the washing up for once.”

Joseph rose. The girl was telling another story, this time to the woman on her right. She grabbed his wrist, holding him while she finished saying, “car was spinning – hold on a second, I have to tell my friend something.” She stood on her chair so her dark eyes were level with his. “I’ll see you again. I know it. We’re friends now.” Then her thin arms were around his neck, squeezing uncomfortably tight. He’d forgotten how children hugged with their whole bodies, generous with affection. He lightly patted her back. She leaned away, arms still around his neck, and gave him an impatient look. “Really? What was that? Gimme a real hug. We’re friends.” This time he gave in, holding her with desperation and gratitude until something eased inside. “Now that’s what I’m talking about. See ya!” The girl dropped abruptly back into her chair and continued telling the exciting, catastrophic, story of her death.

Joseph wiped a tear from his cheek as he sought the lounge. Big comfortable leather chairs were pulled close to the fireplace, the occupants resting their feet on the fender. In the corner a man curled in the corner of a couch, a book resting on a pillow in his lap. A pool of light from a table lamp encircled the man, his book, and a cup of tea steaming on the table. Joseph stood quietly, watching the man, watching the feet, waiting.

“Here you are!” the woman rolled a tea cart between them as she collapsed dramatically onto the other end of the couch. “Sit! Sit.” Joseph took the armchair opposite her. “Sorry that took so long. I spoil the kids so much, doing the dishes myself. Then when I need them to help out, I have to show them what to do.” She poured tea into a mug and handed it to him, then grabbed a cookie for herself. “Chocolate chip. So many kinds of cookie and I always choose chocolate chip. They’re just the best.” She took a bite and smiled as she chewed. “So. How are you? It’s been a good long while this Turn.”

Joseph blew on his tea and reached for a cookie. “I’m not sure. I really don’t know what’s going on.” He took a big bite and chewed for a moment. “I’m glad not to hurt anymore.” Joseph stared as he took a sip. “I have to ask, though. Where am I? What’s going on?” He bit again.

“Oh, my. You had a very difficult Turn, didn’t you!?” She sat forward. “I’ll give you the short version. I think that will be enough to remind you.” She sipped her tea. The whirring of a clock was loud in Joseph’s mind. “You hear the ticking?” He nodded. “That’s the music of the spheres. Have you ever seen one of those models that moves the planets around the sun, and the moons around the planets?”

“An orrery. Yes. I had one as a child.” She grimaced without comment. “I was fascinated by it.”

“That’s the one. I can never remember the word. I’m sure you were drawn to it because some part of it resonated in your memory. So.” She took a deep breath. “We are, right now, in the middle of the Universal Orrery. The mechanism that makes the universe spin.”

Joseph raised an eyebrow. “That’s not possible.”

The woman laughed. “Why not?”

“Because it’s impossible. The universe can’t run on clockwork. It would run down eventually.”

“Oh, Joseph. We do this every single time you come back.” She sighed. “Let’s see,” she stared down into her mug. “Ah, yes. Entropy! That helped you understand last time. Of course it will run down eventually – that’s entropy. In the meantime, we wind it back up the best we can.”

He stood, suddenly impatient. “Wind it up? With what? A giant key? And who turns the key? This is nonsense.”

She nibbled her cookie. A glob of chocolate was stuck in the corner of her mouth. Joseph relished how foolish she looked. “Sit down, please.” More tea, more cookie. “Humans are not the only beings, you know. What you see now? You’re constructing your own reality. You can see it. The shivering of things? The blurring around the edges? That’s other people’s reality brushing up against yours. Each of you is applying your perceptions because you’re unable to accept the greater reality around you.” She waved her arm in a wide circle. “At the Ferris wheel? When you got dizzy? What did you see?”

“I saw the Ferris wheel. It was very tall. And there were clouds. Well, mist. And,” his brow furrowed in remembrance, “mechanisms of some sort. I thought I saw the workings of a giant clock.” He stared accusingly at her. “How did you know that? What I saw?” He rocked impatiently on his feet. The tea cart blocked his urge to pace.

“My sibling shared the moment with me.” She put her mug on the tea cart and stood to face him. To look down on him. She was taller. He hadn’t noticed. “We are . . . connected.” She gestured at him to sit again. “We are all parts of the machine in one way or another.”

Joseph shoved the tea cart aside. “That’s your answer? That we’re part of a toy? And how does everything else fit in? Why were my feet leaking rainbows in a stream, and why did that little girl give me a hug and why did I have to spend the last five weeks dying in a hospital bed? Why have I been so damned lonely all these years? What does ANY of that have to do with a fucking children’s TOY?!” He wanted to storm off, but the man on the couch was staring. Joseph collapsed back into his chair in embarrassment. 

“Oh, sweetie. Damn. I hate this part!” The woman shrank back into her seat. “You saw it. Looking up you saw that there are millions of wheels. You’re right. It’s a giant clockwork mechanism. And all the Wheels must Turn for the Orrery to work.” She stood and spun around, arms wide. “We, I mean every soul in the universe, souls from all the systems and all the planets and every void between, are needed for that work. It’s the weight of the souls that makes the wheels Turn. Fresh souls get on, grow heavier with experience, and gravity pulls them down. Their Wheel Turns. That’s why you had to Wash. You were Washing away that weight. Don’t you feel better?”

Joseph stared between his knees and clenched his hands over and over again, marveling at how easy it was. They were cool, but his knuckles moved easily. He remembered trying to grasp a pencil only to have it drop from stiff fingers that wouldn’t close. He remembered the grinding ache of arthritis pulsing down his bones until he was afraid to move, knowing that every step until eternity would flare with pain. That nothing he did would ever not hurt. He clenched his fists and looked at her.

“Yes.” He glanced at his knees, no longer swollen straight. “Yes, I feel better. But I am not a cog in a machine!”

She sighed. “We all are.” She reached for yet another cookie. “Joseph, you are an old soul. You’ve made many Turns on many Wheels.” The chocolate crumb fell from her face to her lap. Joseph was relieved. “Sorrow is the burden of an old soul,” she said. “It sticks to you, somehow. We can Wash you clean a dozen times, but the next trip around the Wheel is just as bad, if not worse. You,” she glanced up, “are a very, very old soul.”

They filled the silence with sips of tea, and more cookies. The man reading a book turned the pages. Joseph closed his eyes and listened to the rasp of paper on paper. The fire crackled and a log fell. 

“Do you know why?” He stared at the fire, afraid to look at the woman.

“No. Everyone asks that. You’d be surprised how universal the theories are. Ancient Earth philosophers had the same answers as the Jovians, and they said the same thing as the beings of the Horsehead Nebula.” She laughed. “Not at the same time, of course. So many beings have come and gone.” Her voice faltered. “I sometimes wonder if you,” she looked straight at him, holding his gaze, “came from an even earlier time and place.” She took a deep, wobbly breath. “You are a very old soul.”

He felt it, then. The weight of billions of years. The sorrow he had collected and Washed away, and collected again. He was crushed under the memory of untold Turns. The papery softness of her hand sliding into his brought him back.

“I’m sorry.” She leaned her head on his shoulder. He felt a tear splat on his shoulder and dampen his shirt.

“Does anyone ever escape?” he rasped.

“No. But, if they’re lucky, they have you.” She nodded toward the dining room. “She has you. Your young friend.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Sorrow is drawn to old souls. The pain, the loneliness. It’s awful for you. But she’ll be on the Wheel next to you, and it will miss her. She will live a long and charmed life. Good things will come to her.”

The reading man watched Joseph for a moment, face full of pity. He closed his book and left the room. 

“I have to go back, don’t I?” his whisper was just louder than the flames in the fire.

“You can rest. I have a room for you, special. I have your favorite meals, and good books and all the movies you missed. You don’t have to go right away. You can rest.” She squeezed his hand.

“But I can’t stay, can I?” He took a deep breath. “That girl, if I don’t go. What happens to her?” he stared at the empty dining room, listening for an echo of her laughter.

“It falls on her. And others. The longer you wait, the more they collect.” She rifled through her pocket and brought out a wrinkled kerchief. She fussed at it, folding it just so before wiping her eyes. “It’s not all bad. You have great joy as a child, and deep love later. You saw that, in the stream. That is part of why you hurt so very, very much.”

Joseph closed his eyes and remembered iridescent rainbows on top of the oily darkness in the stream. He saw again the brilliance of the last few moments as they Washed away. The woman stood. She leaned over, smoothed his hair back from his forehead and gently kissed him there. “I’m sorry.” Her shoulders slumped as she moved to the doorway and, with a glance over her shoulder, left the room.

Joseph sat until the fire died. He watched each ember fade. He remembered losing everyone he loved. He remembered being beaten on the playground and crying into the gravel. He remembered all the awful things that had weighed him down senselessly, and hating others for their effortless joy. And he remembered the girl on the bridge, laughing as her rainbow slipped into the stream. 

“Chicken piccata!” he said, softly, to himself. Then he walked slowly away from the cottage, headed for the right-hand path. The one that led back to the Wheel.

Monday, March 2, 2015


Hallowed chapel glimmering
gold in the light of a hundred
candles shining on a thousand
years of coded messages
Chi Ro anchored frescoes
of incorruptible peacocks
bright symbols of resurrection
as the flesh of faithful
decayed, despite the lime

Deeper in ash
grey dormitorios where
corpses slept on laddered
shelves carved to exact size
as if faith were a winding cloth
that clung to the dead
and needed no extra room

hale bodies shrunken
in death pressed
flat enough to slot
into custom beds

babies tucked lengthwise
into corners and edges

some few niches scraped
just wide enough for two
and sealed with terra cotta tiles

until the breath of Jesus
could inflate their shells
like balloons rising to the sky

The graves are empty
now. Selected martyrs
were carted to sanctified ground
when Rome converted

Barbarians sacked
the rest, found marble-boxed treasure
leaving shelves as empty
as their heathen hearts