Author: cosmicdriftwood

April 18, 2021

Still here.

That’s what we’re all waiting to hear from those we rarely speak to, isn’t it? That acquaintance we’ve shared a few transcendent or dull as hell moments with, enough that at some point during this hard hard hard year we thought of them and wondered: are they still here? Have they survived the storm? Have the people they care about survived? Have they been irreparably changed?

Shouldn’t the question be this: how have we been irreparably changed?

That’s part of the venture back into what once was and never will be again. Who are we now? It is not possible to wander untouched through a country in which over half a million people have died of a single communicable disease in a single year. Imagine that for a moment, if imagination is needed because death has passed your personal world by. Imagine those losses you have experienced in life: parent, friend, lover, spouse, coworker, sibling, auntie, cousin, child. Hold that pain for a moment. Just yours, just for a moment. Now spread it to ten people. Ten losses. Ten stories suddenly without a teller, ten jokes without a laugh, ten meals with an empty space that cannot be filled no matter how much food there is.

Now one hundred.

Now ten thousand.

Clothes boxed to give away; rooms emptied, or houses; lifetimes of I love yous folded up onto ipad screens in front of ventilators; grief cornered and spitting, kept indoors and alone with so much nourishment and so little outlet.

Ten thousand. Can you stretch that far? Often, almost always, we can’t. At some point we trip the breaker and shut down the empathy. We are, by and large, not equipped to handle our own grief, let alone that of others.

To design permaculture, we must sit with a site long enough to understand it: the shape of the land, the sweep of the sun, the pulse of water, the lives already there. It’s not about imposing  a predetermined form and function on an inert surface, but about learning to love and honor and work with the structure already there. To design a life one must love and honor and work with its materials. Even grief. Even when it insists on running through the tidy structures you’ve built on the places you insist they should be.

One hundred thousand. Empty chairs. Unwatered gardens. Unaddressable regrets. Fear that cannot be unseen. Air that can no longer be breathed.

Reach further. Open your imaginative heart, share mine if you need. Feel outstretched fingertips of hands reaching to you. Reach back. Squeeze once, like a child sending the signal along a chain of hands in the interstice between campfire and darkness. Feel it return to you, amplified by the grips of one hundred thousand grieving hands. Open open open.

Situations do exist where anxiety is a superpower. A global pandemic is one such event. By the end of February of 2020, I’d already quietly, unobtrusively stockpiled a closet full of necessities. The overactive immune system of my brain honed in on this actual foe with relief. I’ve always lived here, I wanted to say to everyone entering the metropolis of true anxiety for the first time. I can tell you where everything is. 

Sometime in March I made my last supermarket trip. The bagger kept his face tilted away from me the whole time, whispering his questions over his shoulder. He was afraid of me, I was afraid for him.

We were all sick late February into mid March. One at a time, our symptoms varied. Big Kid in a flu-like haze. A trip to the ER with Small One when she passed out in the bathroom at midnight. Severe fatigue and a hacking cough that same on suddenly and clung tight for my dear biologist. Dizziness and coughing for me. Every day Massachusetts told us we were all completely safe as long as we hadn’t been to China recently, while in truth COVID was already circulating. Maybe we had it, maybe we had flu–we will never know. Maybe we spread it further, during that time when we were told not to wear masks and to wash our hands and groceries and when testing was unobtainable. Maybe not. We will never know

Two hundred thousand. Take a piece of lined paper. Write the numbers out by hand in pen. No pencil, no erasing. See the math problem: if a train leaves Chicago full of essential workers, and another leaves L.A. carrying medical personal, how many are gone by the time the locomotives pass one another on neighboring tracks? How many empty cars reach their destinations? Show your work. No calculators. Write in someone else’s blood.

But it was not just COVID, was it? It was the swelling abscess beneath the skin of the country, pus weeping at the entry point while we fevered and screamed and wept. The fire that burned away everything around us until only bones remained. A spine fused since birth, incapable of motion in life or death. Ribs fashioned to keep the enlarged heart of supremacy safe and beating. A skull, its mouth opened to howl the truth of hunger and fear and living in cars and tents and benches and militarized hate patrolling streets that belong to the people in order to beat them down every time they rise like a wave again and again and again and despair and despair and despair, but instead its voice is stoppered by its own hands around its own throat.

How? How? How? How do you get up every morning? How do you not drown? How do you not long to drown? How do you watch Black men and women and children murdered in video after video and still believe in the possibility of justice? How do you watch the Capitol stormed and the political ringleaders unpunished and unrepentant and still believe in the possibility of democracy? How do you see  your fellow citizens spit and beat and shoot and choose hate again and again and again and still believe in the possibility of humanity?


Three hundred thousand. Imagine the lives saved by fabric and filters and separation. Imagine the lives not saved. Imagine a network of small towns, Americana, one thousand people each. Maybe a general store, hopefully a post office, a postal carrier arriving Monday to dip from mailbox to mailbox like a bumblebee to flowers. On Tuesday they find mail left uncollected in a smattering of boxes. On Wednesday still more. On Friday, all mailboxes left untouched. The entire town gone.

Now imagine three hundred towns, three hundred thousand unemptied mailboxes. Letters, cards, birthday gifts, Etsy splurges, essential prescriptions–every single one suddenly without a recipient.

My in-laws are in their nineties. My dad has stage four cancer. We built a moat between ourselves and the world last spring so we could protect ourselves, so we could protect the fragile people we love. It meant suffering friends left unhugged. Holidays spent alone. Birthdays uncelebrated. The sheer rage I’ve felt, the struggle I’ve had to find compassion for those enraptured by the cult of the individual…these things haunt my sense of who I am.

Four hundred thousand. If you listen closely, you can hear the river of voices moving past your window at night, in the breeze, in the falling snow, in the flowing river. Do you remember, do you, do… Snippets of recipes and the intake of breath at a bit of gossip; it will be okayand then I said; hush it’s time to sleep; you have your father’s eyes; when you were six; I never thought I could do it; the proudest day of my life; the worst day of my life; don’t leave me alone; I love you I love you I love you always. It will take the rest of your life to hear them all. They are there whether you plug your ears or not.

This is also a truth: this past year has included some of the most beautiful times in my life. Sitting in the garden and watching the bees in the flowers. Examining every plant twice a day, stroking their leaves and measuring their growth between my fingers. Walking the trail across the road, round and round, praying to a rosary of trees and stone. Being drunk on the presence of my children in an unexpected gift of time before they head out into the world.  How much I’ve finally wanted to be here–awake and aware for every single minute of this life.

One night: sleeping bags to keep the mosquitoes away, laying together and watching the meteored sky. Fireflies join us, bats as well. Life gives us times–a day, an afternoon, an hour, a minute or two–that will not fade, that, when we reach the place we all must step into eventually, will be waiting to step with us. This, they will say, is what you were here for. This night is one of them. This motherhood is so much of it. This gratitude that I’ve gained for being here, with these people, in this time–even in this time, even in this raw and festering country.

Five hundred thousand. Five hundred and sixty thousand. Reach into the world. Two million nine hundred ninety two thousand one hundred ninety three. Triaging a mass casualty event night after night after night. Witness. This is your job now, for the remainder of your life, whether you chose it or not. Witness the faces in a yearbook so vast that you cannot lift it.

Faces of those who ran into the fire of COVID over and over to save who they could and were finally lost in the flames;

of those who could not run anywhere, in group homes, nursing homes, prisons, every person walking into an unprotected job so they could feed and house their families while knowing no one would come to their rescue because no one ever had;

those who lived life trapped between the rails of racism and classism, homophobia and xenophobia, who survived and survived and survived and then didn’t;

those who died furious and insistent that this illness was a myth even as it rose in their lungs and clotted their blood;

those who weren’t supposed to get sick because children don’t, weren’t supposed to end up in the hospital because children don’t, weren’t supposed to fall still as the machines were turned off because children don’t;

those dreamed as passionately as you, sang in the shower as loudly as you (louder even), enjoyed the sound of laughter as much as you; hoped for something truer and better as much as you, walked through the kaleidoscopic landscape of life with as much fear and need and wonder and love as you, and now you are here and they are not.


Who do we become now? This is the place, this is the moment, this is the painful hover between known and unknown. Justice or not? Compassion or not? Community or not? Connection or not? Here we sit, on this piece of land that we love or can learn to love, and it is up to us to understand it. Here is where the trees bring shelter in the midst of summer. There is where ledge breaks through the ground like a whale surfacing for air. This thicket isn’t for clearing, it is where joy takes shelter when the weather turns to storm and birds raise their fledglings to fly.

And this place? This is where the grass parts and the water rises from the spring of our grief. This is the aquifer we all share. We must touch our hands to it, feel the damp, touch our soiled fingers to our face, and say yes, I understand. You are part of this land, you are part of me, you will run through all of us, always. Let me remember that this is consecrated land. 

I found this song last year. In a time of distance and stories of constant loss, its eight minutes of intimacy between lovers across the planet was a balm, a reminder of the joy and potential of love.

(Don’t watch if you disapprove of kissing.

Really. It’s lots of people kissing.)

From my heart to yours, dear ones.

January 4, 2020


A quick and important note: if you are the person who sent me an email through my website on New Year’s Eve, I would love to answer your questions, but your email doesn’t work. Can you resend, this time doublechecking your address? Thanks!

Welcome to the new year. We entered it here with trepidation and ice. The ice, at least, was lovely and far less destructive than we feared. After the Night Of Breaking Trees in 2008, my house has been ice-shy, and it showed in our storm prep. We had a waiting generator; plenty of crackers, bread, peanut butter, and sardines (okay, so we don’t plan the food well); fully charged headlamps, phones, and computers; and the awesome little solar/handcrank radio that my husband gave me. The radio can also be used to charge phones, and I’m tempted to only charge my phone by cranking it from now on. I’m sure that will help my computer-challenged wrists tremendously.

In any case, no trees came down and the ice was pretty. It lasted until yesterday, at which point it was warm enough to allow the trees to shake free. I know this because they shook much of the ice free onto our heads as we walked.

Picture of a branch with red berries encased in ice.

This wasn’t the first storm of the season. That honor goes to another two-day event that happened prior to the solstice and left us with two feet of snow. This volume of snow has happened often enough in the last twenty years that I was prepared for a blocked vent pipe. For future reference: pint Mason jar + duct tape + roof rake + thermos of hot water = everything you need to clear a roof pipe packed with snow without actually getting up on the roof.

There is a car under this snow! (Also lots of forsythia run amok, but ignore that.)

This was the first holiday season in years that I threw caution to the wind and baked dozens and dozens (and dozens) of cookies, which we then gave to anyone who would have them. My plan was to make dinner for my in-laws on Christmas, but plans are such fragile things. I went to the ER with gallbladder pain instead, which is less fun than you might imagine. The ER was empty though, and I did get a pass through the CT tube, so I suppose I should count it as a win.

I’ve been working on writing as well. I’m in need of a new track at the moment. I have two options. One entertains me–it’s easy to work on, has characters I enjoy, and takes place somewhere I know well. It’s also a something of a fun dare, and I need the push to try new things.

The other is something I was born to write, but requires research that I don’t want to do. Even the temptation of writing vampires cannot fully override my reluctance. The trouble with apocalyptic/post apocalyptic fiction is that you must look into the abyss to write it. Redemptive or not, loss and pain are central to it.

Writing is a conversation with the world. Sometimes that conversation is why or don’t do that, and sometimes it is I love you and I see what is beautiful in you, and often it’s complicated in the way of those found in long term relationships. The kind that even when you know it must occur, you still find it very difficult to wish to begin.

The truth is that the best relationships are never one note, and that without challenge we atrophy. We must never lose sight of the fact that sometimes we need shelter, and sometimes we provide it, and sometimes we must create shelter together and use companionship to stay warm. A solid relationship, with anything from ourselves on up to the universe itself, sits upon that bedrock. Whatever the form their work takes, writers have stories they’re meant to tell in order to hold up their end of life’s bargain.

Another truth, though, is that the world really is beautiful, and sometimes humans do get it right. I spent a morning watching flash mob videos last month. This one sticks with me, both for the music and because it reminds me that we really do all have our parts to play.

Be well and wild, dear ones.

How the light gets in

Shall I tell the story in reverse for once? Not bury the lede to draw out a bit of suspense? The news looks something like this:

Susan Van Metre at Walker Books US has bought The Space Between Loneliness and Fear by Jennifer Mason-Black(Devil and the Bluebird), a YA literary thriller about a home-bound girl who unravels the mystery of a missing local boy, while someone online is determined to keep the truth buried at any cost. Publication is set for fall 2021; Alice Speilburg at the Speilburg Agency handled the deal for world rights.

That’s it. That’s the news. Assume the rest of this post consists entirely of details. Feed the birds, if you prefer, or plot the garden for next year, or open that book you haven’t had time to read and make some time to read it.

Or, hang out here and learn a bit more about how this news came to be.

After Devil And The Bluebird came out in 2016, things were fine. Better than fine, really. I had set myself some simple targets that would define success for me. I met every one, plus some that I couldn’t have imagined. I took a bit of time from writing so I could be one with life for a bit. Things went well right up until we hit the election.

Before I continue, I need to say something about the election. The way this country is at the moment – and I choose to believe it’s a moment we can make it past if we care to try – if I say election, something toxic occurs. Conversation shatters. So let me take this outside of personalities and parties. I care passionately about the environment and about wilderness spaces. I care passionately about my fellow humans and the rights of everyone, across the board, to be safe from violence and from fear, to be fed and housed and tended to when they are sick, and to be respected on the basis of their humanity. Those are broad categories, intentionally. They include a great many things, but, as someone pointed out to me long ago, I tend to dream on a big picture screen.

Knowing that, when I say that the election broke me, it is because of exactly what we see now: destruction of the protections of land and people on a immense scale and the funneling of resources to an undeserving few. Politics, on its most basic level, is about how and why we choose to treat this world and everyone on it the way we do. It is part of the lives of every single one of us, part of every decision every day. Right now, the gulf between the principles I strive to honor and the route my country has chosen feels too close to unspannable.

The election broke me. I became more or less housebound because I lost my faith in other people. I no longer believed, for example, that if I broke down on the side of the road someone would stop to help me. Writing is a conversation with the world, and I no longer knew how to begin it, so I stopped writing as well.

At some point that changed. At least, I felt like I should write. Not that I really knew what story to tell, or how, and certainly not why. I started with a few chapters about a boy who walked out of a house one day and vanished into a snowstorm, and a girl who was afraid to connect with the world even though she desperately wanted to be a part of it. I started, and then I stopped. Writing really is a muscle, and mine was spongy with disuse. More than that, the why of writing still eluded me.

Then I gave those few chapters to my kids to read. Sharing it was a reflex, a reminder that writing is communication. They gave me a bit of feedback, and I tucked the story into bed, most likely for good. Only then my daughter said this to me: hey, you need to keep writing that story because I want to know what happens.

Writing is a reflex; parenting is a much bigger one. Had anyone else asked me, it might not have mattered, but this was my child. I had my why. The story emerged as a cicada from its nymphal skin, the fluid slowly beginning to circulate to expand the wings. Gaelen vanished without a trace, his reputation as a troubled loner making it all too easy for the world to forget him. Seven years later, Sarah retreats from the world after cyberbullying by her friends leaves her unstable and alone. The characters awaited. But, what was the story?

Life bends toward life. The lonely long for community. Gaelen and Sarah, in their own ways, were grappling with the world around them. So was I. We kept each other company, learning the lessons we shared in common and the ones we didn’t. Sarah was taken in by a group of homeschoolers and began to trust friendship again. Gaelen worked to become more than what everyone believed him to be. Blue Riley stopped by for a song or two and to remind everyone about being a hero and the moments in which we can each be just that. Two separate stories – Gaelen’s and Sarah’s – wove together more and more as past and present worked toward one another.

And then we reached the end. I knew where Gaelen and Sarah would end up from the beginning, but not the depth of the journey. I hadn’t known where it would take me either, even though the restorative power of fiction is something I’ve understood my entire life. At last I gave the book to my daughter and she told me it was everything it should be. I believed her because she doesn’t pull punches and is a devil with a red pen. I wrote it as a gift to her, and it’s been a gift to me as well, and ultimately that is more than enough.

But it will also be a book, with a great editor and a great home. It will be a bit of a wait. My daughter may very well be living somewhere other than home by the publication date, but that’s okay. It will still be ours.

That’s what I’ve been doing in life. Well, no, that’s part of what I’ve been doing. Life has so many cycles of tear down and rebuild to it. It’s part of being human, part of being alive enough to evolve. It’s what I always wish for all of you: a life in which you are fully, completely alive and growing up until it’s time to go.


July 31, 2019

Where am I these days? Somewhere, somewhere is all I can say. Sometimes life cuts the guy wires you’ve raised to hold yourself in place, and that untethered space–the one where evolution comes calling with fingertips or claws–is hard to sit with and easy to want to fight. We grow like trees though, around the rocks, toward the sky. We are made to exist this way. We too are made to grow.

I’ll have more to say before long, including some cheerful news. In the meantime, this is the piece I wish I had written. Anger can’t build. Neither can fear. Love, though, love can give us the materials of which mountains are made and then teach us how to use them.

Hold tight to your people, dear ones, and hold tight to crickets and katydids, hummingbirds and owls, foxes and rabbits, asters and trees. Watch the moon rise, slip underwater and open your eyes, lay close enough to the ground that you can smell the soil and feel the life within it. Be small in the greatness around you, be thankful for the beating hearts of the wild and the tamed. Be loving and loved, be watchful for the moments when extra hands are needed, be prepared to witness pain and grief and joy.

Be more.

With great love,

Sunday thoughts, 11/4/18

I have a sock problem. It’s not a very interesting one. I lose my socks, then I steal socks from everyone else in the house, and then I lose their socks. My husband bought me sixteen pairs of plain white sports socks over the summer. I currently have exactly none in my sock drawer.

As someone generally unable to do the fashion thing, more often than not I’ll simply find two socks of similar length and wear them as a pair. Both have stripes? Totally go together! After all, socks exist merely to keep my feet warm and happy, right?

I have a harder time with other things not matching. The big things. I want to believe that on a basic level, we long not just to be loved, but to be able to feel love, to care with passion and courage in a way that makes us open to hurt and still full of strength. I want to believe that that love brings us beyond self and into the realm of community. I want to believe that compassion can be learned by anyone, at any point in life, because no matter how much I want to believe we’ve all been given the support we need to grow into compassionate people, I know many of us haven’t yet.

I believe in science and statistics and the need to understand trends and demographics and history. But, and I know I’m repeating myself here, I think stories teach us in ways that are essential to being human. Sometimes because they expose the points we all share, but sometimes because they don’t. Because they ask us to step past the edges of our safe zones of identity and comfort. Reading is one way to do so, but voice…hearing those stories told to us…that lights the fire for our campfire selves to gather around.

I think about stories fairly often, unsurprisingly. I recently went to see First Man, largely because the part of me that still wants to be an astronaut cannot pass by anything with rockets. I have a lot of thoughts about it. It’s a beautiful, rather haunting film. One of the things that struck me, though, is the infinite number of narratives available around the Apollo missions. The Right Stuff, Hidden Figures, First Man…let’s throw Apollo Thirteen in there too–each shifts our vision, sometimes slightly, sometimes in major ways.

That’s the same with every event. That’s the same if you and I chat about childhood memories, or if world leaders meet. When we speak, we are telling our own stories, whether we realize it or not. They have shaped the lens through which we view everything. We may learn something by sharing them, or the act may simply be a shield to protect our view from anything that threatens it. When we listen, though, truly listen…that is something altogether different.

A few weeks ago I went to a local story slam, where the area finalists told their stories to compete for an annual Best Of trophy. The winner, using every part of himself, shared watching his father try to recover after sinking into a depression and losing his physical health. It moved me deeply, and has become one of those bits of life that I carry in a bundle with me, everywhere I go.

It also reminded me to listen to The Moth more. This weekend, while scrubbing all things kitchen, I listened to these two stories, which have also joined my bundle. Neither are easy. In fact, both are brutal in their own ways. I think both rest in that liminal space, at least for me; the space where our choice is to close our hearts or open them further to the world. So, I’m sharing the links here, with the reminder that they are quite painful in different ways.


Loving Grace (Warning: while War is fairly upfront about its content, Loving Grace is about experiencing an unbearable choice, not simply pregnancy and love.)

One last thing. Dear ones, at least those of you in the U.S., we have an election on Tuesday. There are a thousand things I would like to say to you, including, of course, a plea to vote how I would have you vote. I won’t. We don’t know each other in that way. I’m happy to share my campfire with you. I’d love for us learn in its circle. I’d like to do that through shared voices, though, and not in a way that that alienates any of us.

Instead, let me say this. I believe we all must vote. More than that, we all must vote for the following reason: I believe that, despite everything, our votes hold the power to create a better future for everyone. All of us. No one, anywhere, left behind. Dream big, and I’ll dream with you.

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.


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.