Author: cosmicdriftwood


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.

January 24, 2017: Resistance

For the scientists and others at the EPA and USDA who are being gagged by brutal and ignorant ideologues;

For the brilliant tweeter at Badlands National Park and their defiant tweets of climate change information which have since been deleted;

For all the scientists who know what is right, what is true, who have devoted their lives to mapping out the damage we are doing to Earth and trying to find ways to right it, and who now find themselves trying to preserve their careful, thorough work;

For every woman who is facing the loss of her reproductive rights under this misogynistic regime, and for every woman who is working to save those rights, and every man as well;

For every woman, child, man, human who are afraid today, tonight, every day, who feel powerless and unheard and unsafe as their rights are stripped and this country pushes toward timid compliance;

For this Earth and her inhabitants, who are being sold for cheap oil and cheap goods, sold to fill the pockets of those whose pockets are already overflowing;

For all of you, let us say now that we will not go gentle into this or any night. Know that history will remember your bravery, your resilience, with love, just as it will remember the vicious politicians and their hatred and rapacious hunger for destruction in the way all bullies are remembered: with despise.

Know that we will speak, sing, write, paint, march, shout, sit, stand, dream, and show up as hard as we can, for as long as it takes. Know that you are not alone. Know that we are We The People. The Valiant Beautiful Imperfect Impossible Eternal Loving People.

We are made of stars. We have danced in the fires of suns. We have known despair, but we have also known brilliance. Now is the time for us to remember our origins. Now is the time we link together, atoms joining to molecules, as we were made to do. Now is the time we say no to the lies of supremacists, of bankers, of the wealthy few who see we the many as currency, not humanity.

But even more important, now is the time we say yes to each other, to our world, to the essence of our stellar hearts.

We will resist, and we will win.

This old house

Dear Country, we are broken.

Do you feel that? Has the pain managed to travel all the pathways, however small, or are there still pockets that it hasn’t reached yet? For some of us, the nerve impulse hit in early in 2016, for some in November, for some it is cutting through now. For others it may take time yet for the depth of the damage to sink in.

The truth is that we have been this way for a long time, perhaps forever, but we’ve ignored the signals. We never fully saw through the things that we should have. We never worked to truly teach each other that without rights for all, all our rights can be lost. We allowed ourselves to be pulled apart, to become birds without flocks, fish without schools, and then accepted hate as something to hold us together, when the truth is that hate simply feeds on us and destroys everything.

Let me tell you a little something about being broken. It’s possible to pretend. It’s possible to live in a house whose supports have been cracked, whose foundation looks like Swiss cheese, and to hide it all, to leave every morning pretending your house is sound and you are fine. Nothing to see here, folks, just another normal, sturdy house. You can get used to it. You can act like nothing is wrong.

But every day you will wonder whether your house will still be standing when you reach home. And every night you will lie awake, listening to each creak, the fear eating away inside you until it devours your memories, your visions of the future, your dreams for everyone you care about. You can try to outpretend that fear, but your entire life will become the pretending. There will be nothing else left of you.

Dear Country, we’ve been pretending for far too long. We need to open up the doors, and the walls, and shine lights in all the corners, and then we need to work. Together. Because this is our house, and it was built for us so long ago, and every old house needs work. Some of this old house was built with love, but much was built with hate, and we need to pull out all of those pieces or the whole thing will collapse. No amount of pretending will stop that. It’s already happening.

I actually believe in you, Dear Country. My cynical, untrusting, anxious self actually has within it a perpetual engine of belief in you. In We The People. I wrote Devil And The Bluebird because I believe in you. In fact, the very act of writing at all, for me, comes from a place of belief in you.

I need to be more clear, though. I don’t believe in your acts of genocide. I don’t believe in racism, or sexism, or xenophobia, or environmental destruction, or the economic warfare that consolidates power in the hands of fewer and fewer people. I do not believe in white supremacy. I don’t believe in leaving children, the elderly, anyone, to suffer and die because they can’t afford healthcare.

I reject those materials as part of this house, and I will continue to do so for the rest of my life. They need to come out.

So when I say I believe in you, Dear Country, what do I mean? Just this: I believe in the continuing potential within all of us. I believe in the capacity of each of us to love, to make choices out of compassion, to begin to see ourselves as tenants of this house together, this house of and by and for the people. I believe that we can all learn the carpentry needed to fix the structural issues, even the really challenging stuff. I believe that some of us may be good with hammers, and some with blueprints, and some with painting murals on the walls, and that that is the way we’ll get the work done.

I’ve started learning embroidery with a friend. This is my first project.
It is a bird, of course. Not because I want to fly away, which I do—don’t ever imagine that the current state of our existence, Dear Country, hasn’t filled me with dread—but because “Hope” is the thing with feathers –. I’m working on it for both of us, Dear Country. And I’ll be with you in Washington D.C. this Saturday, where I’ll march because of my belief in you. And after that I’ll be pointing out the holes, and marking the cracked beams, and learning to use all the tools in my toolbox, and making coffee and cake for the people who can teach me, and I’ll be doing it because I believe in you. I believe We The People can turn this house into a home worthy of all our hopes.

Dear Country, I believe in the potential of you.