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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.

The dark, the light, what comes between

The other night, as we were driving home in the early dark, we came upon a dead moose. The action of the flashing police lights contrasted starkly with the stillness of the body. Long legs, glossy coat, motionlessness.

I wept.

That is what I do these days. I wake from dreams of hopelessness and fear, and I cry for a bit, until it is time to walk Rosie Dog. Then I get out of bed, not wanting to move, and we go for our walk, and I pull things together. It has been this way for the last month. It will continue.

This year the drought has pulled the water far back from the shores of the reservoir. It’s left the river that the landlocked salmon travel in the fall as nothing more than a trickle through sand. Bridges of land connect islands in place of moats of water. I can feel the drought in my bones, my flesh and the soil not so very different after a lifetime spent together.

Plenty of rain, and the reservoir will fill again. But damage exists in places we cannot see. Amphibian populations shrink due to missing breeding habitat and diseases their stressed bodies cannot fight off. Likewise, trees struggle silently, suffering in ways that play out over the years to come.

The things we lose do not come back. This world we treat so carelessly is made of finite substances. The cruelties we condone or enact on one another echo forward ceaselessly.

So do the kindnesses.

After the election, I tweeted something about my love for those who were suffering. I was promptly trolled by another writer flush with the victory of her candidate and looking to prove me a hypocrite. I have relatively few tools at my disposal in life. My anxiety is such that I am always battling imaginary monsters. It is an exhausting struggle that I have no confidence in winning. But I do actually love. I do care. Pessimism and optimism are twined so tightly inside me that I can carry endless despair over the horrors we commit toward one another and this world, while also holding the belief that we all have the capacity to be more. More generous, more compassionate, more courageous, more capable of learning, more open, more than fear and hunger and clawing our way through life.

This is the time of year when I comfort myself that the darkness is also finite, that light will come again and balance will be found. This year, the darkness stretches so much farther, and the light feels so much fainter. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps I have always been wrong is all I can think. What we lose now may be lost for good, be it endangered species or clean water or one another.

But if I’m going to err, it will be on the side of loving, of caring, of believing in the sliver of potential for more. Without that, we are nothing.

Farewell, Callie Dog


Callie, you were the very best of dogs. From the moment we met you in a stranger’s kitchen in Springfield, and we sat on the floor as your owner said “she’s afraid of all men,” and you immediately climbed into Jon’s lap, we knew we all belonged together. For almost sixteen years you took your self-appointed job of puppy tender very seriously.

Thank you for all the kisses, all the wearing of hats while the kids took pictures, all the dog laughs, and all the LOVE. I have never met another dog as in love with life as you. Even as arthritis settled into your bad hips, as your kidneys struggled with the arthritis meds, as the heart issues diagnosed six years worsened, you still loved life.

Or maybe you just loved us that much. We certainly loved you. When we gathered around you today and told you that we would be okay, that you didn’t have to hold on for us, that we were so grateful for everything you had given us, none of us really wanted to let you go.

Callie Dog, there was a rainbow as you were making your final trip today, and a heron by the side of the road. We will miss you tonight and tomorrow, and for what feels like forever right now.

Thank you. We love you, now and always.

September 22, 2016

Greetings, dear ones.

Apparently there is a rule that one must never include dates on one’s blog posts, as they might betray inconsistency in one’s blogging. To which my only possible reply is huh. To be honest, this post started out as September 20, 2016 and, well, you can see how well that worked. I’m inconsistent, in so many things. For so many reasons, as well. But in my inconsistent way, I love this space, my little writer’s shack on the vast internet plains, so here I am again.

Shall I tell you a story? Not five months worth of story, just a day or two. Trust me, the five month version would be largely this: I took the back roads to avoid the road work, as I did every morning. At the halfway point I checked my time, then told the kids we’d be late again. They shrugged. I swore softly as traffic settled us on top of the bridge. Again. Yes, that thrilling.

Instead, this story starts with a trip to the Burlington Book Fest. Actually, it starts with an entire summer of almost no rain. We have been in drought conditions. Extreme drought, to be precise. The only worse category is exceptional drought, which is what California has been living through. Imagine day after day of spotless blue skies and sun. Now imagine brown grass and empty streambeds and ripe apples the size of walnuts. That’s how things have been. This is even worse than the year our well dried up (which led to this story). That drought ended the day they came to drill our new well. Literally. We had tons of drilling equipment in the backyard and it poured for days. By the time the new well was hitched up, the old one was bubbling merrily away.

That maybe should have been a clue to how our family long weekend was going to go. The original plan was to take a week and stay in the Lake Champlain area and hike. Then it shrank to a three day weekend. The day of the Book Fest–warm and lovely. The two days after? Rain predicted. The forecast for the coast–our second choice–much much more rain.

What we discovered is that we didn’t know anywhere that we wanted to go that wasn’t outside, but a outdoors day trip in the rain meant being wet all day. So we compromised. We headed west, where there would be less rain, and looked for places that we could be either indoors or out.

We ended up at The Mount. The Mount is the former home of Edith Wharton, and it’s the kind of little writing cottage you might create for yourself if you were drawing from three trust funds in 1902. You know the sort of place: forty-six rooms and garden walkways bordered by square trees a la Alice in Wonderland. (Yes, I’m aware that this is called topiary, but…SQUARE TREES.)


Somehow, despite being there on a possibly rainy Monday in mid-September, we found ourselves in the midst of the largest tour group ever. A group so large that we could not all fit in the palatial rooms of the house together. We scurried away on our own, reading the signs in each room. As we darted ahead of the zombie hoarde…er, tour group, I found myself feeling like something less than a writer. This is not a new problem, but the setting sharpened the focus. After all, I haven’t written enough books to fill a library shelf or two, and may never. I do not have much literary fame. I don’t host frequent (any) salons, and the trees around my house are simply tree-shaped.

Also, my writing never takes place at desks, unlike it appears Edith Wharton’s did. However, my family found an informational panel which said that the photos of Edith Wharton writing at her desk were all staged. In fact, it continued, Edith Wharton wrote in her bed, with her dog under her elbow, and almost never at a desk. Score one point for real writerdom; subtract one for the constant lack of truth around the writing life.

(For the record, I write in bed for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that I do not have a desk. I could write on the couch, but the light coming in through the windows behind makes it challenging to see the screen. That room is the only non-bedroom workspace in the house, aside from the kitchen, of course, which is even less writing-friendly, and the bathroom, which would like nothing more than to steam my computer to death. In my dreams, I have a room with space for a comfortable chair, and some books, and me, computer in tow. It may not be forty-six rooms, with marble fireplaces in most of them, but it would still be bliss.)

After wandering the damp-but-no-longer-rained-on gardens, we left The Mount and headed to Chesterwood. I knew exceptionally little about Daniel Chester French prior to our visit, aside from the fact that he was the sculptor of this. Now I know…more. That he felt the small details were key to the work, for example, and therefore spent a great deal of time trying to get Lincoln’s hands just right.

The gardens at Chesterwood are decidedly simpler than those of The Mount. This year, the grounds are home to an exhibit called The Nature of Glass. As the name suggests, the pieces use glass, some exclusively and some in combination with other materials. I love this fellow, made of glass and granite. I suspect I’m made of much the same.
(Sculpture by Thomas Scoon)

Sculptors use different workspaces than writers. The studio at Chesterwood includes doors several stories tall, with a bit of train track running under the floor and on outside. This could be used to move work in progress into a range of natural light throughout the day. High above the workspace is a bank of windows to let northern light in, and this was the light he typically worked in.

Which again brings me to writing. I’ve written very little this year. Let me clarify: I’ve written very little fiction this year. From a writing-as-a-business standpoint, this is a mistake. From a life-as-a-journey perspective, it’s exactly as it should be. I’ve been feeling as though the stories I want to tell don’t fit through standard household doors, and I’ve been trying so hard to understand how to make them fit. It’s been an embarrassingly long process to realize that maybe the answer is to change the doors.

There’s one last piece to mention. Along the walk in the woods at Chesterwood, there’s a small memorial. It’s a young child, carved in stone, lying beside a bunny. On the plaque below it says: Theresa Cunningham Loved This Place.

Just as I’ve struggled with the shape of what I want to write, I’ve also struggled with the why. This year, this country…they’ve eaten away at my soul, sometimes with a constant gnawing, sometimes in giant gulps. It’s been hard to write because the very act of writing stories can feel so pointless at times.

I took a picture of the memorial. I realized that it goes with the giant doors for me. Writers often tell the same story in many different ways, trying to find the truest way within. It may be a love of opera, or of revolution, or of family. It may not be love at all. This year has tempted me to write from any number of spots that seemed true, all in response to the world, but none of them have been mine. I’ve had to strip it all down, to try to find the spring that feeds my own writing, whether anyone reads it or not. The answer is a single, simple thing: Jennifer Mason-Black Loved This Place.

Be well. Be true.


Bits of news

The really big news around here is that both Phoebe nests are occupied! With any luck, we will have a bumper crop of flycatchers this year. I suspect there will also be a bumper crop of Cooper’s hawks, given the close to constant presence of the adult hawks in our yard.

It’s mid May, and the lilacs are just blooming, and the leaves are finally getting bigger, and it has been COLD. So cold we only turned the heat off this week. The ticks have been fierce, which maybe wouldn’t be so bad if I would just stay on the roads, but it’s so much more fun to wander off trail.

When Coco Cat first came to live with us, the vet gave us strict instructions to only feed her wet food. We tried. We tried so very very hard. I’ve spent hours browsing cat foods in the pet food warehouse, trying to find some wet food she would eat. The answer seems to be that she simply won’t. On the bright side, I’m now familiar with a vast number of cat foods, if you’re ever in need of a recommendation. She spends 96% of the time sleeping, and the remaining 4% attacking anything that moves. Feet under a blanket, for example.

Callie Dog, on the other hand, is so old that her motto seems to be screw it. She doesn’t wait to see if we’re looking before getting on the couch, she just crawls on up. Something looks interesting to eat? Why not eat it? That particular track has been tough on her digestive tract, by the way. Last night we hopped in the car to run a short errand. She pushed her way out of the house to come too. Given that she’s roughly 100 in human years, we just go with it all. Except the eating anything part. We try to keep that to a minimum.

One small bit of book news. There was a really lovely review of it at NPR yesterday. As someone who grew up listening to a LOT of NPR, I have to say that seeing my book come up on their site was something of a thrill.

Enjoy the spring, dear ones.

Red Trilliums

May 17, 2016

You know, I started out writing something much longer and more complicated, but the truth is that those of you reading here, by and large, have been here for the long haul. You were around to read about the start of Blue Riley, and about what happened when her story sold. You may very well have been one of folks who responded to my request for help with details around Wyoming in winter or the wonders of I-90. You’re the people who know about Wren, and about how I vanish into my head every spring, and how much I like turtles.

So I don’t need to tell you all those things again. It’s simpler to say this: once upon a time there was a girl who loved words more than anything, and she made a deal with sadness once and gave up all her words to try to stave off change and loss, and then she realized that didn’t work, and she took her words back again. If there is a piece of me in Blue, it is that piece that puzzles over how the words fit together, and what it means to write something, and to say it out loud, in front of people.

But the thing about books is that once they are out in the world, they become about the readers far more than the writers. If the world of a book being read could be seen from afar, I suspect it would look much like a jigsaw puzzle being fit together. Every individual reader a piece; their own lives, their own stories, shaping the part they create. It becomes so much more than a book, so much more than words on a page made by one person alone somewhere. In reading we are alone, but we are also together in a truly incredible way.

All of which is a long way to get to the point: DEVIL AND THE BLUEBIRD is out in the world today. Thank you for being part of the journey.

Final cover

Busy brain

Apparently this spring will come to be known as The Time In Which Jen Forgot All The Things She Was Supposed To Remember And Many Other Things It Would Have Been Nice To Remember. Yes, it’s that bad. I consider it a monumental accomplishment that our taxes made it in on time. It’s not that I need more calendars or reminders that go beep. I think the underlying issue is that I need time off. I need the chance to flush my brain out completely and start it up again, clean and shiny. There’s something in this getting older business that isn’t kind to brains.

Which also means I’ve forgotten to point out that I’ll be at the West Hartford Public Library in Connecticut tomorrow at 1:00, talking about books and publishing journeys with Carrie Firestone, Karen Fortunati, and Rebecca Podos. This afternoon I really should make some notecards to remember what to talk about. (Sample card: Main character is BLUE RILEY. Looking for her sister, CASS. Carries GUITAR. SPEAK UP JENNIFER.)

Aside from that? The birds are returning. Phoebes first, making it clear that the shed and the power line belong to them. The other day we drove past a deer and a turkey waiting by the side of the road together, most likely for Totoro’s Cat Bus. That same morning a bobcat bounded across the road by the beaver pond. Things are getting busy here.

Adventures in illness

It snowed last Monday. There were thunderstorms last Wednesday night. It was 20 degrees and windy on Saturday night while my son slept in the woods with his outdoors class. Spring is a challenging adolescence in Massachusetts, this year even more than most.

WARNING: hospital stories involving bodily functions follow. Proceed at your own risk.

Things have been equally tempestuous around here. Dear Spouse spent six weeks tangling with pneumonia. Six weeks of a cough that would not end, and not sleeping, and, eventually, codeine and lots of antibiotics. Right about when he returned to good health, and just in time for my daughter’s birthday, I developed a kidney stone looking for a way out.

Glamorous, right? We can add kidney stones to the short list of things I never bothered to worry about before but will now think about regularly. I’m one of those people with very high tolerance to pain, yet somehow I found myself crawling on the floor of the ER public restroom when confronted with the agony my kidney created for me. As luck would have it, the ER was packed the day we went in. I spent my time in the waiting room next to a man with blood trickling from beneath the bandages swaddling his head. Occasionally a nurse would come out and ask if he was feeling dizzy or confused.

You know, the usual ER good times.

As luck would have it, a bed eventually opened up in the hall. After changing into a johnny and lounging for a bit with the other hall dwellers, I was whisked away for my first ever CAT scan. Thanks to House, M.D., I knew that I was very likely to die while being scanned, but at that point it was preferable to surviving. The very cheerful technician who introduced me to the machine explained that I would hear a voice telling me to hold my breath, at which point I should…hold my breath. Or, if I couldn’t hold my breath long enough, I could try small shallow breaths.

After laying there for a bit with my arms over my head, I started to think that perhaps I’d missed the voice. Or maybe the speaker was broken. I started to worry about this to the point that I tried to hold my breath a bit, only that didn’t work. Instead, I took the shallowest breaths I could and hoped for the best. I did that up until the point that a voice came from nowhere and told me to hold my breath. Apparently the speakers did work.

Also, I didn’t die during the scan.

I did, however, have to vomit immediately afterward, for approximately the thousandth time since I’d woken up that morning. The cheerful technician, a middle-aged man with a shaved head, stood beside me and patted my shoulder with tiny birdwing taps, a kindness for which I am eternally grateful. And then he told me I should jump back in my traveling hall bed so that they could find my nurse and give me drugs.

I am not a enthusiastic user of pharmaceuticals. I may have had several cavities filled long ago without Novocain. By choice. It’s simply who I am. However, I also found out that I’m someone who will lie in a hall in a johnny for as long as it takes to be given morphine when passing a kidney stone. Even when it requires four tries to hit a vein sufficient for an IV, thanks to my level of dehydration. I will even almost suggest that we skip the anti-nausea meds and go straight to the morphine when the nurse appears with her multiple syringes full of drugs.

IV in, morphine in, anti-nausea drugs in…at the point it seemed ideal to nap. For hours. At some point I was moved to a room, possibly by flights of tiny winged unicorns. It made no difference to me. It may have made a difference to Dear Spouse, who no longer had to stand by my bed in the hall, but could sit and stare at a wall in the room.

The things about kidney stones is that they just have to come out, and mine was small enough that it would come out on its own, so I was sent home with some drugs. Or rather, I was sent to the pharmacy with some prescriptions and lots of bruises and bandaids from all the IV attempts, only to discover that the doctor had an invalid DEA number. Back to the hospital, joining many of the same people in the waiting room, to wait for a new script from a new doctor.

The rest of the story? Not very exciting. The stone that eventually passed was exceptionally small and unimpressive. It only took 24 hours to escape. And then life was back to normal. As normal as this spring has allowed.

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