Lost and found

I am, at this point in my life, somewhat agoraphobic. I struggle to walk from one side of town to another if I have two errands to run. I have a difficult time with plans, with finding something that sounds fun to do, with asking someone to join me, and then following through. I am happy in the woods. I’m at peace around running water. I spent a few weeks this summer cutting down saplings of a variety of sizes with a small hand saw, and recreated a path into the woods from our yard. Last week I watched a doe disappear down it.

I am, at this point in my life, scared of my fellow people. At the top of my road, my neighbors have a small, discretely placed Hate Has No Home Here sign. Just down the road, painted on plywood and set up in response to a candidate sign for the coming election, is one that says Honk If You Have Sh*t For Brains. I do not pass by the hatred of the second sign untouched. Instead, I retreat a little more from the world.

I’ve been thinking about a quote from this article lately:

“To look into the eyes of a vulnerable person is to see yourself as you might be. It’s a more harrowing experience than one might readily admit. There is a version of yourself made powerless, status diminished, reliant upon the goodwill of others. One response is empathy: to shore up your reserves of charity and trust, in hopes that others will do the same. Another is denial: If you refuse to believe you could ever be in such a position — perhaps by blaming the frail for their frailty or ascribing their vulnerability to moral failure — then you never have to face such an uncomfortable episode of imagination. You come away disgusted with the weak, but content in the certainty you aren’t among them.

Or they make you feel helpless, just by dint of how little you can do to stop what’s being done to them. The temptation in that case is to look away, let it all be someone else’s problem, or deny that there’s a problem in need of resolution in the first place.” ~Elizabeth Bruenig

There’s a rather frantic desire in this American culture to avoid spaces of death, of suffering. It leads us to do terrible things. As social creatures, we’re wired to bear witness for one another. Instead, we all to often refuse that role as too hard. We make walls out of insistence that we will avoid similar fates by following rigid beliefs. The actual beliefs vary; their importance is in the future they sell.

So here we are. We’ve become an entirely reactive society. We are bluster and fury and fear all too often. Many of us choose not to feel, others of us are left to feel too much to make up the difference. We are not bound to earth, and all too often we are not bound to each other. We turn away and keep turning.

I don’t stay at home. I keep going out. I sometimes cry in parking lots. I sometimes need to call or text someone to talk me through it. I’m a magnet for dying birds, and for lost people, and for women who can’t reach the top shelf in stores. If that is my role in life, I will continue to accept it. I’ll wait for the woman walking with a cane ahead of me, because it is right, because I don’t want her to worry that I might bump her. I’ll thank people for holding the door for me, and remember to hold the door as well. I’ll choose register lanes staffed with actual people in stores, because the only souls associated with machines are those of the people surrounding them. I’ll hang onto the feeling of being a stranger so that I can remember what kindness means when you’re far from home.

We are all vulnerable. If I were to define my utopia, if I were to react less and dream forward more, that would be the one unifying principle. We all love, mourn, experience illness and disaster and joy. We are designed to be both those who strive and those who cheer the strivers on. We don’t have to spend our whole lives on one side or the other.

Witnessing is hard. It’s maybe the hardest of things. It’s looking into the hurt and the fear and the need and saying you are not alone. It’s doing it not just for people exactly like us, but for people as a whole. It’s accepting that the edges of their suffering and ours are not edges, but eddies in a current. It’s learning to receive that back, instead of building desperate fortresses against being human. It’s acknowledging the trust needed to reach that point, and seeing how much we’ve lost the ability to trust.

And then it’s weaving those experiences into your life in a way that asks everyone to join you.

I’m bad at so many things in my life. I’m a terrible housekeeper, and constantly forgetful, and easily startled, and procrastinator extraordinaire. I believe in stories though–in your story, in mine–and potential, and, as toothless as it is treated, in the possibility of love to change that which feels impossible to change. I believe in you and me and how we can find common ground in that space of vulnerability, if only we agree to meet one another there.

Along the way

We’ve just walked away from an injured gannet in the dunes. I can’t stop thinking about it. I know it will die in the night and I cannot save it. I tried to save an injured raven earlier in the week, and it died that night, in a cage in a hospital, far from everything it knew. I am with the gannet and the raven in my mind as we come over a rise in the sand and encounter a couple walking toward us.

“Further on, what is the trail like?” the man asks. His accent tells me that his trip here has been so much longer than mine.

“It curves up there and you continue along the shore,” my husband says.

“Is it like this?”

I break in. “You can go two ways up there. Over the dune and to the beach.” Where the gannet is, I am thinking. “Or along that curve.”

His wife looks at me. “The sand. Is it sand all the way?”

Ah. Now I understand. “Yes,” I say to her. “It is mostly sand, but there are easier parts.”

“Thank you,” she says, and they continue on their way.

#

The woman at the counter asks where we’re from. “Western part of the state,” I say. She asks for a location. I tell her the name of our small town, give her a landmark to center it.

“Oh, yeah,” she says. She names a town about forty minutes away, says that’s where she lives. I mention places I’ve been nearby. We smile at each other.

“This is the first year that the American Bald Eagle has come to live there.” She says it that way, everything capitalized with joy. “We just love watching them together out there.” She smiles even more. I imagine the eagles outside her house.

#

The grocery store is busy. There’s little space in the aisle, and people are jostling each other’s carts as they hurry along. The man is very old, and very frail, and dressed in a seersucker suit. He waits patiently for the people rushing by, holding the handle of his cart with both hands.

We step to the side and let him by. He pauses as he moves past, looks me in the eye and says, “Thank you.” I nod at him. A moment later he is lost in the crowd.

#

The salesperson in the store who’s choosing my son’s clothes for a funeral is a butterfly of a man, with his brilliant vest and tie, tiepin and cufflinks. He talks to me as we wait outside the dressing room, tells me about his wife and his church and his sons.

He is concerned that my son will not know how to tie his tie. This is likely because I have come in as the opposite of a butterfly, in jeans and old lady gray hair, and I’ve forgotten my wedding ring, which I remove when writing or kneading dough and often forget to return. I look like a tired single mother headed to a funeral with a young man who needs instruction.

“I’ve taught so many men to tie ties,” he says. “In the store, at church, on the bus. I have to do it. You see these young men and they’ve got their ties jacked up, and that’s one thing you don’t want. A jacked up tie.”

“You’re right,” I say, no idea what he means.

#

There is a couple on the trail along the mountain. The woman is working on playing Olympic level hockey, she tells us. “Do you know where this trail goes,” she asks. “We’re lost, and I have a game tomorrow.”

“Come with us,” we say. “We’ll show you where to go. Do you need some water?”

#

There is a family carrying jugs of orange soda on a path that goes seven miles along the ocean and through the woods. They are a third of the way. “Do you know how much longer this goes,” asks the mother, the skin on her nose peeling from old sunburn.

“A long way still, if you’re going all the way around,” we say.

#
There is an elderly man walking alone. He’s in the woods still, but not far from where we were just swimming in the ocean. “Do you know how much further it is,” he asks. “I’ve been hearing the sound of the waves again and again, and thinking I must almost be there, but it’s always the wind in the trees instead.”

“Almost there. It’s so close, and all downhill at this point,” we say.

#
Do you see me?

Do you know how much further it is to the trail’s end?

Do you know how hard it will be?

Will I find my way to that place?

Will something of me linger, my footsteps on the stone or sand, the sound of my voice in your ear, long after I have found my way to the end of the path?

If I give you the smallest bit of who I am, stranger, will I remain in the world that much longer?

#

We are traveling. I see you there, along the way. I will share my water. You will share your apple. We will remember each other, in some way, at some stop along the trail, listening to the wind in the trees.

Bonfires

I nearly set my head on fire the other night.

This is not a metaphor for a thrilling creative process or an anger overload. It is fact. I was in bed, as happens at the end of the day, and I was doing a crossword, as I do at the end of the day (overactive minds need something to calm them down), and I was wearing my shiny new headlamp. The shiny new headlamp was purchased by Dear Spouse because the old one had come to a point, after many years of faithful service, of flickering constantly. The only solution to the flicker was to flick it, hard, with my finger. This would work briefly, and then I would have to do it again. Bedtime reading or working crossword puzzles transformed into Jen hitting herself in the head repeatedly. Again, not a metaphor.

So New Headlamp entered the mix. New Headlamp had four settings, and a spotlight and side lights, and a red light, all in a nice compact form. It worked great for a while. Then it needed new batteries. I changed the batteries, turned the headlamp on, settled down with my pencil, and then…? After ten minutes or so I reached up to adjust the light and found it was hotter than the sun.

I ripped it off my head, of course. Quietly, as Dear Spouse was sleeping. I ripped out the batteries, also hotter than the sun. I spent the next twenty minutes touching all the pieces and waiting for them to cool down completely. I have since abandoned New Headlamp for the flickering charms of Old Headlamp. I may have to hit my head repeatedly, but at least there is not threat of flames.

I’ve been experiencing a more metaphorical head on fire lately as well. Somewhere around the end of/beginning of the year, I mostly quit social media. It was necessary, for so many reasons. There are ways in which it is hard, not the least of them that, aside from my family, I am a very solitary person, and social media feels like connection. Stepping away, though, was similar to dumping a bucket of cold water on a head almost in flames: shocking and lifesaving.

Breaking the electronic umbilicus has had an unexpected yet unsurprising effect. For the first time in eighteen months or so, I’ve been writing. Not just writing, but writing a LOT. Roughly two hundred pages, so heading into manuscript length. Not that it’s all been on one thing. I’ve been making a seed vault of beginnings, a sort of rainy day collection of characters I know well enough and stories I’ve spent enough time with that I can return to them at any time.

They are easy, these beginnings. As they stand now, they will be relatively easy to write as well. They are accounts of a few months in a life, at most, plus sprinklings of backstory. They’re daisies–lovely, uncomplicated, happy to pop up in any field. Which makes them, and the writing of them, sound mundane. That’s not the case…I don’t think writing well is ever a mundane experience, and I think there is a cultural disregard for the weeks and months and sometimes years of work writers put into their work, the sheer number of reins they must grasp and control to make a novel work, while using time that, more often than not, must come early in the morning or late at night or on lunch breaks or during toddler naps.

There is a lot of talk in publishing about love. On the business side of the equation, editors and agents frequently mention the need to love a book in order to commit to shepherding it through the wilds of the publication process. On the creative side? I can only speak for myself. Writers (and artists of all stripes) create for their own reasons, and those reasons can change over time. A first book may be written for love, and the following written out of need for a paycheck. Sometimes a story is written for craft reasons–one of my beginnings is something I’m playing with because I want to test my limits when it comes to unreliable narrators–or in response to a prompt or an event or to enter into an ongoing conversation on a current topic. Sometimes it’s work for hire. Sometimes it’s fanfiction.

For me, at this point in my life, it is sometimes intellectual challenge, but only if there’s love as well. I’ve written before about the need to love my characters in order to write them. If they don’t mean something to me, I can’t make them mean something to anyone else. So all these beginnings, I do love them. There is nothing about their daisy selves that I don’t love. If not, I would be hard pressed to spend all those long, lonely, stolen hours with them.

But it’s an uncomplicated love. It’s loving the fresh and the shiny and the lovely. They are the easy children.

I think that there are always the other stories, for all of us. The ones that we need to tell, the ones that stretch us further, that challenge us more, that we cannot leave. They are the ones that light our heads and hearts on fire.

I find no shame in admitting that. We writers are pushed to see everything in business terms. We are told both to write what we love and to accept its rejection for being out of touch with market trends. To expose our inner landscapes and to grow a thicker skin.

I think it’s okay for us to talk about love when we talk about writing. The kind of love that makes me willing to go back to something again and again as the years pass. The kind of love that survives changes in needs and skills and experience. There’s so often shame in the ways writers talk about their work, a need to quantify it in terms of sales or awards garnered or requests for submissions. There’s the sense that we shouldn’t waste our precious time on things that are slow and difficult, that we should toss out the Velveteen Rabbit in favor of something unblemished.

Sometimes, though, it’s as simple and complicated as love. Sometimes it’s that one story we want to tell because it’s built of our lives in ways impossible for us to understand. It’s loving the problem child enough to stick by them through thick and thin, because there is no walking away when you love something that fully. It’s being okay with the beat of our unique writer hearts, whatever their rhythm.

Go ahead. Let the flames rise. Love that story.

The obligatory pet post

A few years ago, my bio said something about living with a menagerie of elderly animals. They left us one at a time, one heartbreaking October after another. Their farewells are here, and here, and here. Each loss felt too huge and too hard, and we all broke a bit, just as we’re made to do when grief settles in.

As is clear in Ripley’s link, we didn’t remain catless for long. I’d never been a cat person. I swore I would never have another cat as ours got older and older. However, with both cats gone, and a rapidly failing dog, and two kids learning to cope with death, I thought that maybe a cat would help us. Had I been honest, I would have said that I thought a cat might help me. I needed a young, healthy companion, one that didn’t need a special diet, or SQ fluids, or constant monitoring.

Enter Coco. She was long, she was sleek, she had giant paws with too many toes, and she’d flop on us and relax to the point that she would simply slip off our laps. She was nothing like our other cats, and it took some time to figure out how to love her. The holes in our hearts weren’t Coco-shaped; we needed to make new space for her.

What we also discovered is that while she was exceptionally friendly and outgoing at the shelter, she was terrified of rapid movements and loud noises and anything that wasn’t a running mouse or a human lying still. No big deal. Old Lady Dog didn’t move much, and Big Kid could learn not to run up and down the hall on his way somewhere, and life worked out.

But then came Baby Dog. I’m embarrassed to discover that Baby Dog did not get a welcome here, and she’s been with us for closing on eighteen months. I guess I should do a picture? All my other ones are of her sleeping on the kids, or her caught in mid wiggle, so here is her Very Still Like I Am Dead pose.

(Coco is on important cat business somewhere in the house, so I can’t offer the same for her.)

Baby Dog is two, but it’s a very shaky two. She’s recently learned to spend the night outside of her crate without causing trouble, but most of the time life is a tussle between being good and doing the sorts of things that look like so much fun/taste so very good. In the category of tastes so very good, be sure to include all things that are edible, as well as a handful of things that are not.

Baby Dog also has this whippet blood in her, and when your impulse control is as poor as hers, being able to run at lightspeed is not always a good thing. As evidence, allow me to present the time she got scared when the leash fell and made noise while she was being walked, and she had to run home as fast as she could, on pavement, which was fast enough to tear the ends of her claws off. Or the time she decided to escape on a walk and see how fast she could run through some old barbed wire. Basically, by the end of her life, Old Lady Dog was a snail. And at the beginning of hers, Baby Dog is a cheetah. That same adjustment we went through with Coco has been multiplied hundredfold with Baby Dog.

She also has no tolerance of pain, or the thought of pain, or anything too scary. She once started yelping because we were playing and one of us peoples jumped out from behind a tree at her. She ran down into the bedroom and jumped on the bed (she’s not allowed in the bedroom/cat end of the house) because the oil delivery man was pouring oil in the tank outside, and even though she woofed once, he didn’t go away, and what if he came in and ate her?

And Baby Dog and Coco? A work in progress. Baby Dog thought cats were for chasing at first. We worked hard to correct that idea. So did Coco. First hurdle overcome. But Baby Dog has been heartbroken for the last year because no matter how she bounces and shows Coco her toys, Coco does not play back. Instead, Coco sits atop the chair next to the narrow channel into the living room and hits Baby Dog when she tries to come or go. The trouble is, of course, that training a cat not to hit is so much harder than teaching a dog not to chase the cat in a small space.

The latest wrinkle is that Coco has decided that if everything else is in flux, she’s going to demand more attention as well. Now she will not eat if I don’t sit with her. She’s gone from despising wet food to requiring it. Baby Dog understands that the cat gets fabulous exciting foods. What she doesn’t understand is how that can be fair, especially when she, good Baby Dog, sits so patiently and so well and asks so politely for fabulous exciting foods as well.

Did I mention Baby Dog also believes she should be a lap dog? That she’ll take a standing leap from across the room to get in my lap? At this point, anywhere I go in the house, there’s a line waiting for the chance to sit on me.

It’s taken a while, but I think we’ve got the spaces for these two in place. Yes, most of them involve laps, but whatever works. Their eccentricities may be significant, but so is their charm.

January 30, 2018

Thirty years ago, I would sit in the university library at a desk close to the top–twenty-six floors up–and look out the window instead of studying. That was who I was, the person who dreamed out over the landscape, saving the studying for the last minute, late at night, squirreled away in some drab place.

Things haven’t changed all that much. I’m sitting at a desk in a college library again, trying to look out a streaked window over the edge of a carrel. I have no studying to ignore though; this time the studying belongs to my son. He’s dual enrolled, in his final year of homeschooling and his first semester of community college. I feel old and out of place here, very conscious of the fact that my last bit of formal education, aside from a couple of classes here and there (anatomy and physiology for a third time? really?), ended twenty-six years ago. I’ve always been plagued by a dream of realizing I’d forgotten to go to calculus for a whole semester, and that I have to ace the final the next day in order to pass the class. This month, for the first time ever, I dreamed that I was the instructor who forgot to teach the class, not the student forgetting to study.

It’s grey here, and we’ve had a roller coaster of up and down temps for weeks now, creating a constant layer of ice on the ground. I creep up and down our walkway, slip and fall in the drive, remember the time that my husband broke his leg on a similarly iced walk over a decade ago. The only broken bone we’ve had since then was a toe, my daughter’s, cracked when she kicked her brother.

If life has seasons, this one is coming to an end. Not the parenting–that is forever–but the times of making pizza on Friday nights and arguing about whether toppings should touch, sneaking out on weekdays to see movies together, climbing on the fallen tree in the sanctuary across the road, catching the roosters abandoned in the woods and bringing them home. It’s meant to be that way. The goal of parenting is to give your children the space and time and energy to become their own people.

But what happens after that?

Lately I’ve also been very conscious of what depression steals when it settles in. Those stretches of time when I’ve provided the things that need providing, but haven’t been able to feel the things that need feeling. The instances of joy I’ve lost, and how much I want those moments back. When you struggle for a long time, that struggle is part of who you are. I cannot separate life into sickness and health. Minds are minds. Mine is this one. I can still resent the hell out of how it’s shaped pieces of my time.

This last eighteen months or so has been a battle between the depression and the knowledge that my kids are actively swimming farther and farther into the world. When the depression was at its worst, the only question was how to be here, now. How to hold it together enough to do the one thing that was essential to me. In a life full of accidental careers and mercurial interest in anything, parenthood has been my one true thing.

And now everything is transition, and I’m working to imagine what lies beyond.

There’s a woman who stands outside the Chinese market where I buy my dried mushrooms and seaweeds and sauces. She’ll ask me for a dollar or five, I’ll give her what’s loose in my bag. She’ll call me darling or dear, say God bless. Sometimes we hold hands for a minute, sometimes we just grip each other’s arm, or pat a shoulder. What I want more than anything is her story. What I’ve always wanted everywhere, from everyone, are stories. Not the stories about who someone thinks they should be, but who they actually are. Who we’re supposed to be is terribly boring. Those stories are mass produced and sold on the newsstand.

But who someone actually is? The little bits of self they give out in slivers of light when they aren’t even aware of their shine? That is what I crave. I’ve been reading Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey for a class I’m teaching. The third sentence of the book is this: “Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.” That is the place I want to see in everyone. I sometimes joke that I’m an emotional vampire; what I mean is that I feed off of these things in other people. And when I’m not? Then I’m populating my imaginary world with the secret bits of my equally imaginary companions.

In The Library Of Souls” is six years old now, give or take some months. I don’t write about things that don’t feel completely possible to me–I’m lazy that way–and I do believe that somewhere, in some corner of space that we’ll never see, we are writing our own books. Not the mundane, the tying of shoes or the cooking of dinners. Instead, the pages hold something essential, the one true place, our one true heart. I don’t know the contents of my children’s books, or my spouse’s, or even mine, but I can hope. It’s a story I’ve written in my head, if not on the page. It is the story I tell myself every day.

A few thoughts: October 21, 2017

(If I were a good blogger, I would hide dates so you wouldn’t know how infrequently I post. We are taught to obscure, if not to lie, at every turn, aren’t we?)

We all have an interior life. Most of us will have hidden things resting on our shoulders and whispering to us while stories flow from our mouths. For me, always, there is the weight of my anxiety, the way it likes to hold its hands to my ears and control what I hear while I stand there, smiling, listening to you. That is how it has mostly been for me. That is how I expect it always will be. It makes it hard to communicate regularly and fully when what I would say, if I were honest, is most likely: I saw a convocation of crows today in the pine trees and ALERT ALERT ALERT THERE ARE MONSTERS AT THE DOOR.

Only this year there are monsters at the door. This year my childhood nightmares of nuclear war sit within arm’s reach, the soul-destroying force of IT from A Wrinkle In Time and King Leck from Graceling have their hands on the helm of my country, and we are being urged to destroy one another as fast as we can. There are so many whispers in my ears that it is very hard to also communicate on a human level. To say in Amsterdam I saw a court of birds called to order next to a drawbridge, pigeons and jackdaws and magpies collecting around a somber gray heron. To talk about the red in the leaves when we came home, or how Baby Dog leaps over the chair, or whether I am likely to find canning lids this late in the season.

In Amsterdam, we went to the Resistance Museum. We studied how ordinary people make their decisions, how we are shaped and how we refuse to accept the shaping, how comfort is drawn, how we become great not by chasing the spotlight but by drawing together. I was acutely aware of my nationality there, and of the answers I sought.

At the Van Gogh Museum, the exhibits also told a story. The work arranged in a roughly chronological path from the bottom exhibit floor to the top, it traces the life of an artist finding their way. Every self portrait is an experiment of technique, every painting a constant reaching out for more. And even with the end near, the color, the passion, the stretch to communicate what rested on his shoulders and whispered in his ears continued, brilliantly. At the Resistance Museum there was a much smaller exhibit of paintings, just an handful, found by a family member who went back to where her brother and father had been hidden before they died during the war. Color, life, an opening to that interior world that is at the heart of each of us, even in the darkness.

It was, to be honest, the first time in a long time that I was able write without all the whispers and the weight.

Until later, dear ones.

October 16, 2017: two things

In the last four weeks, two things of interest have occurred in my personal life. First, a three-foot-long milk snake appeared in my bedroom and vanished into a hole in the wall. No amount of coaxing would bring it back out.

Second, I spent a week in Hamburg, followed by a week in Amsterdam. In Germany we stayed in a posh hotel with a front desk staffed by people who addressed my husband by name when he approached with questions.

In Amsterdam, we stayed on a houseboat.

Still processing all the experiences. I’ll write more in the future. For now, the view from the houseboat window as a boat passed along the canal.

An island, gratitude

This is one of the landscapes I love most in the world.

I was born in Maine, though I only lived the first year of my life there. Not enough time to leave a conscious connection to the land. And I’m far from the only tourist to feel drawn to the waves stroking the granite coast, to wonder if perhaps life would be better there than it is at home, wherever home happens to be.

I love my home too. I love the wood frogs in the vernal pools, and the dead leaves strewn over the forest floor in the fall. I love the texture of the light in late summer, the sound of the insects continuing to call as the birds lose their colors and prepare to fly away. I love the stone walls, and the abandoned apple trees forgotten by all but the deer and the porcupines and the yellowjackets. My heart also belongs here.

Still, there is something in Maine that speaks to me in language I’ve heard nowhere else. It is the sound of the waves, yes, but also the sound of bare feet on stone, of wind through shortened coastal pines. It is the smell of rockweed when you lift it up to look for crabs when the tide is out, and the sound of a porpoise breathing just off the rocks where you sit.

We’ve returned to this island to hike year after year. There is a sense, now, that time has been folded and layered like a pastry for us. That around the corner of the trail, beyond my line of sight, Big Kid and Small One are running along, just six and three years old, while their seventeen and fourteen year old versions stroll beside me. We walk among the roots of the trees, and on the stone that pushes up through the soil everywhere. For someone like me, who makes her way through life with a mind that is never fully quiet, there is something magical in this stone. A kind of respite, an acknowledgment that the constant noise is actually temporary. That this stone will outlast me and everyone I love, that this stone can hear everything within me and simply absorb it into silence.

It is where I find peace.

At the risk of telling the same story twice, this is the island where I found a message in a bottle one year. It was a hard summer, and it was not a message I wanted to find, but one does not ignore those sealed bottles one finds left behind by the tide. It carried the story of a woman who had recently died of cancer after a late diagnosis and a relatively short illness. Please, the writer asked, please always remember that you can’t know what will happen in life and please live fully. For someone like me, someone who struggles constantly with the idea that there is nothing certain or safe in life, it felt like confirmation of my fears. It was very hard to read, and I thought perhaps it was meant for someone else to find.

There is a stone at the entrance to the trail. This is plaque on it:

I know nothing of J.T.’s story, beyond how short it was. I like to imagine that he had family who loved him, or friends, or both, and that they come to walk the island and think of him still, sixteen years later. I imagine that there are spaces between the loss now, where it is possible to walk and feel that love, not only the sorrow. I also think of him while there, of who he might have been. I’m in a different place than when I stopped for the bottle on the shore. I understand much more clearly how those bottles we find are, more often then not, a request for us to be witnesses to the lives of others. Please, the note might have said instead, please know that we did not have enough time, and that I wish more than anything that we could have had more. Please tell me her life will not be forgotten.

This year a dead seal lay at the end of the shoreline. The carcass had been there for days, I would guess, the smell discouraging any close examination. Small One studied it anyway, looking for clues to its demise. I focused on its teeth, large and doglike. We found a dead seal once on the Cape, a much fresher one. It had clearly been attacked by a shark. I touched a patch of its fur, so much softer than I could have imagined. This body, though, I had no desire to approach. It will take time for it to break down, but it will be thoroughly absorbed by the island by the time we visit next. Nothing but a few bones, perhaps. Maybe not even that.

We are here, until we are not. We are laughter and stubbed toes, deep breaths of salt air and skin chilled by cold water. We are starlight on the ocean, sunlight through the leaves. We are memories held by loved ones that will last no longer than those brief human lifespans. We’ve been taught that by grabbing, clutching, crushing, we will somehow extend our lives into something greater. It is a lie. We extend ourselves only the length of love, only the distance our connections can reach.

What we are is here. What we are is now. What we can become depends entirely on how we care for one another.

The things we do for love

This is how it begins: a text from Big Kid’s friend that the previous evening he saw something massive by the guardrail on the highway we live near. Not just something.

“He thinks it was a mountain lion,” Big Kid says.

Once upon a time, mountain lions were part of the New England landscape, just as they still are in the West. But colonists and their descendants did what they did throughout this country: they hunted, they killed. They eradicated. The last identified member of the eastern subspecies was shot in Maine in 1938. U.S. Fish and Wildlife announced them officially extinct in 2011, and removed them from the the endangered species list in 2015.

Definitive, right?

In 1997, DNA from scat found near a beaver kill at Quabbin was tested and proved to be from a mountain lion. In 2011, tracks found in the snow at Quabbin were verified by three independent trackers as being from a mountain lion. A few months later a young male was hit by a car and killed. His DNA revealed that he had begun life in South Dakota, 1,800 miles away. Those are the official reports. Around here, the number of people who claim an unofficial spotting is…not insignificant.

We used to have a game when I was a kid. Or less a game than a prize list for spotting various wildlife. At that time, bear and mountain lions shared the top slots. The reward for spotting either as we hiked with my parents was $50. The price made it clear that our chances were nonexistent. The estimated black bear population in the 1970s was down to roughly 100 members; mountain lions were unheard of.

There are now 4,000 or so bears living in Massachusetts. We see them several times a year. The same holds true with moose. My parents used to drive to upper New Hampshire to watch them. Now we have them living at the end of my street.

With the return of forest to Massachusetts, so too returned the forest dwellers. With protection and assistance, so too have returned the eagles and the loons. A gray wolf, a species that has been extinct in Massachusetts since the 1800s, was shot by a farmer an hour or so from here. DNA results suggested it came from wild stock, not captive.

For my family, there remains just one goal. We’ve seen the rest. Only the mountain lion torments us still. According to Massachusetts officials, our wait to spot one is likely only a half step up from watching the waters of Loch Ness daily in the hopes of sighting a fin. That doesn’t change our minds. We’re dedicated.

When the text came through, Small One already had her list of questions to ask. The first, the most important: was there a long tail? While waiting for the answer, we notified my dad. We found the measuring tape to pack. We debated bringing the casting material. We paced, watching the snow melt in the yard. If we wanted to find tracks, we needed to head out soon.

Finally, the answer came back. Yes, the long tail was the most notable thing, aside from the size. With that we’d knocked bobcat out of the running. While waiting for my dad to arrive, we gathered the few other details about location we could. A guard rail, a possible side road, an approximate distance.

I’m sick with a cold. We’re all sick, but Small One was buzzing with the thrill, so we headed off. I dropped my dad and Small One at one end of the stretch of road. I went back and started walking from the other end. Along a two lane highway. At what passes for rush hour here. I was painfully aware of the narrowness of the shoulder of the road as I examined the snow for tracks. Not just that–I was watching for the appearance of two people I love dearly, who I would willing walk along endless highways for, and who were…not visible at the meeting place.

I walked a bit faster. I hopped the guard rail and slid along the drop in the melting snow, happier with the idea I might fall into a marsh than into the path of a truck. The tracks I saw were few, and definitely not what we wanted. Then I found human tracks leading into the marsh, and heard my loved ones coming back up to the road.

The result of our time walking the highway? Coyote tracks. Bobcat tracks. Otter tracks. And, at the turn off the road and into the woods to head toward home, moose tracks. No mountain lion.

But you know, it really didn’t matter. Unlike Ahab, our (slightly) obsessive quest is built of love, not revenge. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I daydreamed of a female mountain lion lazing in the nearby rocks. I’m a lackadaisical tracker at best, but my child is a fierce one, as is her grandfather. They share a similar disdain for trails, a need to touch their fingers to the depressions made by pads in the mud, in the snow.

For me, though, the potential and the material are almost the same. I’m immensely grateful when I find signs of wild ones: tracks, scat, strands of hair caught on a fallen tree or a den mouth. At the same time, it’s enough for me to believe that maybe the big cats are traveling, that maybe some are already here. That the possibility of their presence was the gun on the mantle introduced in the first act of my life, and I’m promised its return before the end of the final act.

Both Small One and I were awake for long stretches of the night, nursing our colds. When we compared notes in the morning, we looked at one another, grinned. I said, “I know we’re both sick, but do you kind of feel like we should go out looking again today?”

(For a tiny bit more about mountain lions and the possibility of their return east, head here. For a lot more, specific to Massachusetts, contact me.)

How we become more

In a nearby town there was recently a fire. Fires happen far too often in our area in the winter. Many of us burn wood for heat. Many old houses (there are plenty around here) have questionable wiring. And fires these days often burn hot and fast, thanks to the flammability of the synthetic materials used in furnishings.

There were seven members of the family home in this fire. Only two made it out of the building. The mother and four children were lost.

Friends of ours were among the first firefighters to arrive from the small volunteer force in this small rural town. The truck arrived promptly, and there was still nothing they could do to get inside. The fire had moved that quickly.

This is not a post about tragedy, although that is what I think of every day. This is about community. This is about empathy. This is about what we still have, and what we are forgetting, and why it matters so much.

In my husband’s family, two parents have lost children. In my family, two of my aunts lost adult children. On the highway I commute on, I’ve come upon the aftermath of fatal accidents more than once. On a twisty back road I take down to town, I once spent fifteen minutes of a warm sunny day slowing traffic around a still young man and his fallen motorcycle.

This is part of being alive, that death is always there. It is, in fact, the only promise we have, and yet we pretend it isn’t. The woods and fields know better. In the winter, the track of a mouse scurries across the snow to a point where it vanishes, the imprint of owl wings left to either side. The scatterings of bluejay feathers among the leaf litter on the ground, the smell of decay in along the trail on a hot humid day—there is nothing to hide.

We have a beginning and an end, all of us.

In this small town where a father and child escaped from a fire into a future without so many loved ones, this is what has happened. Town members have gathered, in church, at the school, and they have mourned and comforted. The fire department has asked for help and hugs for the volunteers who are grappling with their inability to save a family, and they have received both. Funds are being raised for new clothes, new furnishings, food and housing. A living space has been found for father and child. Children are supported as they try to understand how death comes for the young and the loved, not just the mouse in the snow.

This is the best of us. This is what we are born to be to one another. The volunteers who run into a freezing night to try to save their neighbors, the families who give what they have to help one another. The people who recognize grief—their own, others—and open themselves to feel it, not to turn away. The potential for pain in this world is legion.

So is the potential for grace.

Compassion requires one giant step: to acknowledge that loss waits for us all. We do not protect ourselves by refusing to take it. We simply make it easier to become the people who do not care, who see suffering and step around it, mock it, incite it. To become people for whom community is simply a misspelling of commodity.

Last fall, my husband and I stopped to help a young woman broken down on the side of the highway. She was traveling to visit a friend, and something on the road had punctured her tire and caused a blowout. As is the case in much of our area, there was no cell service. She’d managed to contact her mother via a hotspot she had rigged, and while we changed her tire in the soft ground of the shoulder, I could hear her mother in the background. Are you with good people? Are you sure?

We stopped to help because she was young, and a woman, and alone, and because we wanted to protect her. Because I could hear the fear in her mother’s voice, and because mothers know that when we send our children into the world, we are dependent on good people being there for the times we are not. Because tragedy waits for us all, and because compassion is the truest thing we can offer. I have rescued many birds trapped in buildings. There is always a moment, as you open your hands to release them into the world, that they sit stunned for just a second, weightless in your palm, and then, when they fly, you can feel their freedom like your own. Seeing this woman drive away, I could feel the same.

When I have hope, it is not in things. It is not in political thought. It is in the moments when we recognize our constant vulnerability. When we step into the grief, instead of away. We are made to care for one another. When we do, we become so much more.

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