An Open Letter to Fear

Dear Fear,

 Cute how that rhymes, isn’t it?

 I know we’ve been together for a long time (see Marvle Valley Drive, circa 1977, babysitting, running home at night while Mr. Pierson looked on to make sure I wasn’t kidnapped and buried alive on our quiet suburban street), but there are some things I just have to say to you. This morning I was the pianist in my “Loose at Nine” ensemble at St. Michaels. I was the pianist because we are “loose” at the nine o’clock service, so this cool group of really good musicians is willing to let me learn how to play with them, as if I were a real musician.

That’s you right there, isn’t it? That little voice telling me I’m not really one of them, that I’m not capable of doing this thing I work hard at and love to do?

My sister tells me that I had a stomach ache every morning before kindergarten, and that she always had to walk me places. (“Walk Heather to the birthday party;” “Walk Heather to the bus stop,” she remembers.) That was you, too, wasn’t it?

We’ve known each other a long time, Fear, so I feel like I can be honest. There was that time when my sister died. My parents were sobbing in the parking lot of the funeral home, and my mother’s hair was orange, and I realized I could never let myself love someone as much as they loved my sister. You were good, Fear. That decision not to have kids stuck. I learned to keep some distance in my relationships, curling you up like bubble wrap around my heart.

That is, until I became a teacher. Then I started loving kids with abandon. I thought I had kept myself safe—they weren’t my kids; I was just loving them from afar. Disinterestedly, you might say. I thought you’d done me a favor.

You know what happened next. One of them died, and it was terrifying. Everything in me screamed “Retreat!” It took many good friends, a few priests, and an awesome therapist to tempt me to stand up to you again. You were pissed off about that, weren’t you?

And of course you came back; you’re a seducer. You make people think they are being responsible when they listen to you. It’s good to be afraid, you whisper. You hide behind virtues like “caution” and “responsibility.” Fear is the grown up thing, you tease us. You keep us from driving recklessly down a snowy highway, from opening our doors to strangers.

I’ve been watching you, though, and I think I’m finally on to you. Let me tell you what it’s like to play the piano. When I sit on the bench behind the other musicians and in front of the whole congregation, sometimes my heart starts pounding. Sometimes my hands get sweaty, and sometimes they even shake. Then my mind leaps in, taunting me. It says things like, “Really, you think you can do this? Shouldn’t you let someone who actually knows what they’re doing play?” Those are the nice things. I don’t know why I haven’t broken up with you before now.

Here’s what I’ve noticed. When you show up, my body gets small. My arms don’t want to stretch across the keyboard. I don’t want to move my whole hand from a C chord to a G minor seventh. I try to press the keys quietly, to speak without actually speaking, to sing without making the air move. It’s a disaster every time. I crash and bang and clang and make sounds that are simultaneously timid and clashing and ugly.  

It doesn’t work. The only way to make music, I’m learning, is to be bold. To wave my arms wildly. To press down on the keys with everything I’ve got pent up in my heart. To be open to every odd sound that might come out of me and to recognize all of it as praise.

Because here’s the thing, Fear. You know we’re not really talking about playing the piano. Let me cut to the quick.  You are killing people. Everyone is closing their arms and closing their hearts and wrapping themselves in bubble wrap—no, in body armor—because you keep telling us we’re in danger. You keep telling us that the cautious thing, the moral thing, the just thing, is to buy more guns, to thicken our armor, to shoot first. And the thing is, people keep dying.

One of my old students posted on Facebook that he’s terrified. He’s a young black man and he’s right to fear that the world tilts toward hurting him and the people he loves. Everyone’s hurting everyone, and, Fear, let’s get serious, it’s your fault.

You’ve got so many people working for you, and they’ve got the microphone. Immigrants are scary! Black people are scary! Muslims are scary! Hillary Clinton is scary! This is what they keep yelling, and they are so loud that people are listening. Another of my old students, who used to mimic shooting geese while I read Wordsworth outside under a post-9/11 sky, recently wrote a serious, evenhanded explanation of why he needs to carry a gun. He will be there, he wrote, to protect me and the other shoppers at Walmart or Costco when someone else pulls out their AK47. We should be afraid, was his subtext, of all those other people buying bologna and tampons and popsicles and of those politicians (you know which one I really mean) who want to take our guns away. Reading his words made me feel sadder, not safer.

And what about this, Fear? Not long ago I realized that every single time I’ve gotten in a car as an adult I’ve locked the doors. Sometimes I’ve done it hurriedly, even frantically. I know that there are carjackings in the world and I don’t mean to make light of them, but I realized that I’ve never ever ever had a person rush to my car and try to get in. It’s never mattered (“yet” I can hear you whispering) whether or not my doors were locked, but I lock them every time.

You’re an abuser, Fear, and I’m done with you. Until you stop pointing fingers, nothing is going to get better. People who have no business dying are going to keep dying.

I know we’ve been down this road together before, and I can hear you laughing at me again. But I am stronger than I used to be, and I know some things I didn’t used to know. I know that when my old student said he was terrified, he said it out loud. He said it to anyone who was listening. He opened his arms wide over the whole keyboard and spit it in your face. The people who responded to him didn’t say, “You are brave,” or “You are courageous” or “You are strong.” That would be playing your game.

What they said was “I love you.” What they did was open their arms instead of closing them. What they did was take off their body armor and stand vulnerable with this young man before the powers of hate.

In her poem “For Black Women Who Are Afraid,” Toi Derrecotte tells the woman “who has to be so careful” to “write the poem about being afraid to write.” 

What I’m really trying to say is fuck you, Fear. You’ve overplayed your hand. Any day now, we’re all going to bare our vulnerable hearts. We’re going to open our arms wide and make bold music. Listen closely to the back beat. I want you to hear us laughing.


Bumper Cars

When you teach eleventh grade English, you end up reading Thoreau. “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” he tells us. He tugs at me every time I read him, just as Rilke does when he says, “You must change your life.” If I remember my Rilke right, there is a line break between change and your, so in that tiny breath between lines, while your eyes scan down the page, you rest. You don’t see Rilke’s imperative coming at you until it’s too late to hit the brakes.  The oracle has spoken.

It’s July, 2016, and everything is hard. I’m here and not here. I’m thinking about Thoreau and Rilke and one great day at an amusement park in the summer of 2014.

Cliff’s Amusement Park in Albuquerque, which used to be called Uncle Cliff’s before it grew up, defines a responsible person (an RP if you will) as anyone who is “over 54 inches.”

That simplifies things nicely, don’t you think? If the top of your head stretches four and one half feet above the planet, you have reached the age of reason. (It turns out that this is precisely the same methodology the New Mexico DMV uses to issue drivers licenses, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

54 inches is an important number at Cliff’s. If you are 54 inches tall, not only are you responsible, but you can also ride The Cliff-Hanger, the Rattler, the Sidewinder, and every other ride in the park, all by your sensible self.

48 inches is another important milestone in the amusement park business. If you are 48 inches tall, you are what I might call an FP, or a Forgetful Person. At four feet even, you might remember to hold your little brother’s hand in line, but forget to wait for him as you get off the Galaxy, leaving him behind like just another lost lunchbox or library book or jacket or jump rope or another jacket on the playground. If you were just six inches taller, you would never make that mistake.

42 inches matters at Cliff’s, too. If the distance between the bottom of your feet and the top of your hair is three feet and a half, and you were just responsible enough to bring an RP with you to the park, together you can ride a few of the rides otherwise reserved for the more elevated, like the Mega Water Monkeys and the Rocky Mountain Rapids. If you did not bring one of those RPs, or if the RP you brought would rather ride with an FP, you are out of luck. (Sorry, Dude.) Hence your designation as a YP, or Yearning Person. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll lump everyone else into a final category. We’ll call them SPs, for Short People, or Sad People, as the case may be.

As the summer of 2014 rollercoastered to an end, my husband and I, 132 inches (or a total of 2.444 RPs), took 1 RP, 1 FP, and 1 YP to Cliff’s.  When we’re not at Cliff’s, height measurements become less critical, and we tend to call these children Cali, Aurora, and Luke (from tallest to shortest).

Years ago, when Luke was still an SP, we took the kids and their parents to Six Flags in Dallas. The main thing I remember about that day is driving with Luke in one of those real-ish cars on real-ish roads with real-ish signs and traffic signals. I remember this moment because the tiny, meek, reserved little boy who couldn’t reach the pedals grabbed the steering wheel from my hands and started yelling “Wahoo!” as soon as I stepped on the gas. I’m pretty sure this is exactly what Walt Whitman meant when he said, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” Luke yawped and wahooed until we got out of the car.

I remembered Luke’s wild wahoo that August when the two of us finally ditched the RP and the FP and headed toward Kiddieland. Luke spotted the bumper cars and accelerated toward them like an Albuquerque driver at a yellow.

It was a quiet morning in the park, so Luke was able to ride, exit, run to the end of the line, and get right back on. All of the SPs and YPs were doing it, going round and round on the bumper cars like one of those bands of rubber ducks rotating around a wheel in a shooting gallery.

This morning, there isn’t a whole lot of driving going on in the bumper car arena, unless you count the parents. They are going wild on the side of the road. “Gun it, Priscilla!” one woman (I am certain she is a Girl Scout troop leader) yells at her daughter, who looks at her mother and waves as she drives into the wall. “Drive, ‘jito, drive!” another man hollers to his son in the bright red car.  Soon so many shouts of drive, turn, use the gas, watch where you are going, look out are filling the air like a traffic jam that I’m beginning to feel that I’m trapped in the square of a comic strip bursting with word bubbles. I decide to move away from the scout leader.

To be fair to the parents, these children are terrible drivers. Little YP1 in the Grateful Dead t-shirt can’t tell the brake from the gas. Redhead YP2 lurches into the wall the moment the ride begins and never gets free.  SP1 in the Dodgers cap crashes into SPs 3, 4, and 5. SP5 starts crying, at which point his mother (not the Girl Scout leader) starts trying to convince the RP in charge to stop the ride. She’s a bored fourteen-year-old (1.4 RPs, I’d estimate) listening to invisible earbuds and pretending she can’t hear the parent. YP3 in the princess t-shirt is stuck alone in the corner, waiting to be rammed back into action by another uncoordinated child who might accidentally bump her free. I am watching Luke with no intent whatsoever of coaching him on an amusement park ride. (Really, I’m the outlier here?) He is sitting in his car, all forty or fifty pounds of him, leaning gently against the driver’s side door. His left arm rests on the open window while he steers with one hand. James Dean cool.

I can’t tell what he’s doing at first. He’s not driving into the piles of cars hung up all over the arena, and he’s not taking aim and deliberately ramming into people, which, to be fair to these future bad drivers of Albuquerque, is actually the point of bumper cars.

No, Luke is following one of those old driver’s ed mantras that still pops into my head from time to time: “Aim high in steering.” He’s looking down the road, picking his path, maneuvering between cars. He is making decisions on the fly—can I get between that clump of cars ahead left before that nearsighted boy in the green car breaks free and hits me? Can I pass this girl who keeps forgetting to press on the pedal before she closes the gap on my right? Can I do it without taking my foot off the gas? Can I do it with one hand? This little boy is teaching himself how to drive. His whole body yawps wahoo!

Luke gets off and gets back on, still beaming, and I’m watching him and thinking about Albuquerque drivers. When I moved here from Chicago in 1988, my car insurance skyrocketed.  People here don’t slow down at stop signs and accelerate through red lights. The only time you can count on Albuquerque drivers to stop is right after they have entered a roundabout. A few years ago a man who was eating a bowl of cereal rear-ended me after I’d been stopped for almost a full cycle at a red light. I can still see the bowl on the dashboard and the cheerios splattered inside his windshield. I’m reminded of Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby. When Nick Carraway tells her she’s a bad driver, she says that’s ok, other people are careful. She wouldn’t last a day in Albuquerque.

Luke waves as he makes another loop off the ride and back onto the ride. I wave back, and pretend I don’t see the Girl Scout leader, who thinks I was waving at her.

I know some of you probably think your city has the worst drivers, but trust me, you are wrong. Put on a helmet and come visit. KRQE, one of our local news channels, reported that “According to, New Mexico is ranked dead last in the nation when it comes to driving safety.” I have no idea who is, but I know they are right.  “All State,” my husband says when I tell him what I’m writing about. “It was All State who called us the worst drivers in the country.” There. How’s that for evidence? All State knows crashes.

Around and around Luke goes, never so much as brushing another car. I’m slipping into his rhythm, giving myself to the railing I’m leaning on, to the sun in my eyes, to the feel of my damp shorts still drying from the water slide. I’m trying to figure out, RP and then some that I am, why this moment matters.

I remember one night at Kennywood. I was riding on the Umbrellas. I was swooping up into the air alone, looking out over the Caterpillar and the paddleboats, listening to the wooden roar of the Racers. It was dark and something happened. I realized that I wasn’t just experiencing the moment; I was writing it. I was talking it through in my head, recording it in words as the stars swung around each time. I was living it and watching myself live it.

Luke doesn’t look like he’s watching anything as he slides between two cars. Joy shoots off him like a sparkler. He’s closing the circuit, powering his own car.  He’s a waxing moon scooting around on a magnetic floor, sculpting his own orbit.

Sometimes I write and write and have no idea why these particular words are in such a hurry, elbowing their way up into my throat, only to mill around while I try to figure out why I want to say them.  Then something happens in my life, and I realize I’ve been writing about it for weeks.

That didn’t happen with this essay. I left it buried in my “essays” file and moved on to some other idea. I tried tacking on a quote from a Ruth Stone poem I like (“In the next galaxy” she writes, “things will be different”), and brought Thoreau (“eternity remains”) back in, but all the strands kept hanging there separately, try as I might to weave them together.

Then today I remembered that one time I wrote a poem that won a prize. “The word is Americana” I said in the poem. I was thinking about sticky cotton candy on a boardwalk, holding hands in the mall, my brother working on an old Pontiac in the driveway, a man running his fingers across a name at the Vietnam Memorial in DC.

I wasn’t thinking about all those people who died in that war. I wasn’t thinking about the people who weren’t allowed to walk on that boardwalk. I was thinking about those moments of presumed innocence; those moments when a baby cries or a person falls in love and that awful human hope propels us into believing that we’re all living out some beautiful, tragic mystery together.

Back in 2014 the bumper cars go silent again, and Luke waves at me tentatively. The sun is still in my eyes and I’m wondering what the hell I could have meant by Americana. All Luke wants to know is “Can I go again?” I nod.  I could watch him drive all day.



Saturday morning around 11:00 Fred looked at me calmly and said, “We need to go to the emergency room.” Then he said, “You should probably walk the dog before we go.” Come again? “We’ll be there a long time,” he reasoned, “he’ll need to go.” It seemed quicker to take the dog out than to have a conversation about why walking the dog and going to the emergency room shouldn’t happen in the same sentence, so I gave Fred an aspirin, dashed Rusty up the street to the corner and back, and then headed off to Rust Medical Center, way out on the west side, to start our Memorial Day weekend. Fred was short of breath and having pain in his left lung that was spreading into his back, neck, and shoulder. Apparently it had started the night before and he hadn’t wanted to say anything. “I thought I could get to Tuesday,” he explained. He was trying to “get to Tuesday” so I wouldn’t miss the trip I had planned; I was heading to Chicago to visit my best old friend and go to my 30th college reunion at Notre Dame.

Two women hooked Fred up while, just behind a curtain, another woman was nursing a crying baby. There was nothing HIPAA-friendly about this set-up. I could hear everything the woman and her doctors talked about, as she could listen to everything the women who were sticking little polka dot monitors all over Fred’s chest and on his arms and legs were telling him.

In short order, Fred was plugged in, pricked for blood, and x-rayed. The nurse wound us through hallways cutely named things like “X-ray Avenue” and “Radiation Road” and finally ended up in a decent size room with all sorts of random equipment lying around. It felt a little more like being in a garage full of your dad’s old tools than in a hospital room.

We settled in, and Paul, our nurse (nice touch, Universe!) was in and out with questions, information, and an empathetic ear. Things went on like this for a good while, and then, out of nowhere, Fred got dramatically worse.

Fred and I have been married for nearly twenty-four years, and I’ve seen him in pain a few times. Fred in pain looks a lot like most people when they are not in pain. When the lawnmower jammed some twenty years ago and Fred reached under to remove whatever was blocking it, he walked calmly to the back door hiding his bloody hand, and said, just like he did today, “We need to go to the emergency room.” The emergency room doctor that time sent us directly to a plastic surgeon, who let me stay to watch him do the skin graft. We left his office with painkillers that Fred wouldn’t take because we had tickets to see Paul McCartney in Las Cruces that night. It was a great concert. The only nod Fred made to his pain was sleeping in the back seat on the long drive home. He never did take the Percocet.

A little more than a year ago Fred slipped on some ice and broke his ankle. Of course, we would never have known he had broken his ankle unless I had insisted, after a few days of watching him walk around almost normally while his ankle kept swelling, that he get an x-ray. He never even filled the prescription that time. He just doesn’t really acknowledge pain. (For the record, I am not that way. I am perfectly happy to be medicated and sleep through the worst of it.)

So, in the middle of the day when Fred’s pain spiked to the point that he was crying out and writhing, I was terrified. His blood pressure was spiking and his blood oxygen, flashing on the monitor above his head, kept dipping below 90% and causing the machine to ping. I felt like people in hospital garb should be running into the room and doing something, anything, to relieve the pain and fix whatever was broken. Unexpended adrenaline was humming in me, gathering my attention to one focal point, Fred’s ragged breathing. Painfully in and painfully out, for what seemed like forever.

Meanwhile Paul the nurse was checking in with the doctor and had gotten an order for morphine. He pumped the syringe into Fred’s IV port. After fifteen minutes (enough time, apparently, for intravenous morphine to take affect), Fred’s pain hadn’t subsided at all. Paul gave him another shot, and then wheeled him off for a CT angiogram. I paced around the room waiting for them to come back. Eventually they rolled in, Fred’s pain still untouched by the morphine. Paul went off to ask the doctor to order another round, and this time Fred’s breathing eased a little, but a half hour later, the pain roared back. The fourth shot seemed to be the charm. Fred finally drifted off, and I waited for the test results while I watched him breathe.

Somewhere lost in a box in a closet I have a picture of my father. He is leaning on a jackhammer, wearing goggles, kneepads, and a sweatshirt, and he is smiling. He had rented the jackhammer when hairline cracks appeared in the garage floor in the house on Marvle Valley. Being my father, he didn’t reach for the yellow pages. He went to the library, did some research, and decided to fix the floor himself.

Apparently, the first step is to make the cracks bigger. My father rented the jackhammer and went to town. He turned all those hairline cracks into little gullies, which grew into empty riverbeds. By the time he stopped, the garage looked like the desert mesa behind my house in Albuquerque, cracked with deep arroyos after a long summer without rain.

It turned out my father got a kick out of jackhammering. “Everyone should try this,” he kept saying. I pictured him riding his jackhammer like a revved up pogo stick while my mother laughed and, at his urging, took a turn.

Fred is resting easier while we wait for the test results. Last night, I was writing a different essay. It was about the end of the school year. We graduated the seniors Friday morning, and I was thinking about how cool it is that as a teacher, I get two New Years reckonings every year. The year ends on December 31 just like it does for my non-teacher friends, but then it ends again in late May. And the thing I really like about the late May ending is that New Years Eve falls on May 27 when the seniors graduate, but New Year’s Day won’t happen until August 17 when the kids come back to school. Instead of a few hours of champagne-tinted reflection about the troubles and glories of the past year, I have months to examine my life, my craft, the state of my relationship with the world.

I wrote that whole essay Friday night, but I decided to let it sit. I was worried that it was too sappy, too self-indulgent. I had started writing it after watching a video of two little girls and a horse dancing in a field. An old friend had posted it on Facebook, and in one of those sappy, sentimental moments that I’m sometimes prone to, I felt like that video held everything I needed to know about the world. (If you’ve ever cried during a Subaru commercial, you know exactly what sort of mood I was in.)

In that essay I told a story about one Friday afternoon when the middle school kids were celebrating Spirit Day. My friend Jinni told me she was going to be singing karaoke with the kids that afternoon in our black box theater. She was going to be singing with a girl I’ll call Hope, although her real name suits her better, and she wanted to know if I wanted to come sing with them.

I met Hope on the day my brother died. I had gone into school that morning feeling sad, of course, and more than a little lost. I found Jinni to tell her what had happened, and Hope was nearby and saw us both begin to cry. She put her hand on my arm, tumbling out of herself into compassion. This little girl exploded into my life that day like the first bird singing in the morning. All day, she kept reaching out to me. The next day she brought me a card. Now when we see each other on campus we run toward each other and exchange hugs.

On this Friday afternoon I’m remembering, I headed into the theater. The middle school kids are bouncing around like popcorn kernels in hot oil. Jinni, Hope, and I are standing at the microphone in front of a friendly crowd. We’re singing “Let it Be,” hamming it up, swaying back and forth. The kids in the risers start swaying, too, and then they take out their cell phones, waving their lights back and forth and singing with us. When the night is cloudy there is still a light that shines on me. It’s a horse dancing with two little girls in a field. It’s a hokey and beautiful moment.

Sometime after Fred’s fourth shot of morphine, Dr. Emmel, a tiny, soft-spoken man, came in with the test results. “Good news,” he said. He’d ruled out a heart attack, blood clots, and a host of other scary sounding problems. “It looks like pleurisy,” he said, which sounded like a disease out of Little House on the Prairie, or something someone’s great Aunt Rose came down with in 1917. It turns out its an inflammation in the lining of the lungs that hurts like hell and just has to run its course. They gave us a prescription for more painkillers, pointed us toward Departure Drive, and sent us out into the late afternoon. The sun was shining and the world had no idea that we’d been there and back again today.

After my father created his desert moonscape in the garage, he swept out the debris and made the furrows clean. Then he mixed up some concrete patch, troweled it in, and smoothed it over. Fred felt well enough by Tuesday morning for me to get on a plane and head to my 30th college reunion at Notre Dame. On Saturday afternoon, I run into a few old friends whose daughter has spent the last week in the hospital. I recognize their cracked open look, that bewildered way you feel when one foot is standing firmly in the grass in the world you know and the other is resting on nothing more solid than prayer.

I’m just about a week into my second new years eve of the year, and I’m thinking again about how these funny things we call ourselves are bodies, sets of complex interlocking moving parts, mysterious in both their fragility and their resilience. I’m thinking about how love is both the thing that jackhammers you open and the thing that fills the furrows. I’m sitting in my friend Kathy’s kitchen, typing. In a few minutes I’ll head to the airport, start my journey home. Fred will pick me up at the airport in Albuquerque, both of us for the time being standing on solid ground. I’ll walk into his arms, grateful, one more time, that I’ve reached home.



When I got home from my unexpected trip to Pittsburgh a few weeks ago the ornamental plum outside my upstairs window was blooming. Spring happened in Albuquerque while I was gone, but I’m not ready for it. It’s still lent and my joints are hurting. I’m coughing again. My voice this morning was too hoarse even to sing.

Honestly, I’m not feeling much like writing.

Years ago my husband and I were driving west across Oklahoma. “From there to here we called it coming home,” I wrote in a poem once, and I’ve always liked that line. On this particular trip the sky was tilted all off kilter; clouds and earth and sky jangled at crazy angles to each other. We listened to emergency reports on the radio, wishing we knew the city names as we tried to outrun the tornado swirling somewhere behind us.

I thought of that sky Monday night when I couldn’t sleep. The world feels all helter-skelter again. A good friend is the first to use the “t word”—the call in the middle of the night, the shock of deeply bad news. Trauma, she says, gently.

Every time someone dies, it’s hard in a new way. It’s not just that it opens the well of all the losses that have gone before, although that’s part of it. This time it’s that it feels so much like it shouldn’t have happened. Three weeks before he died, my brother Paul bought a new Subaru. This past Christmas, he bought a tree, a nativity set, a bunch of ornaments. Last summer he bought new furniture.

It isn’t that we didn’t know he was sick. For at least a year we’ve been worried. This summer we weren’t sure he would survive surgery to put a stent in his heart, but he did. When it became clear that his best hope was to get to Cleveland Clinic where the doctors might be willing to do bypass surgery, we worried that he’d die before he got there. It seemed to take forever to get the appointment arranged, while Paul’s voice on the phone kept getting weaker.

The thing is, my brother made it to Cleveland Clinic. A few Sunday mornings ago he and my brother Pat got in Paul’s new CrossTrek with Paul behind the wheel and Pat riding shotgun. They drove to Cleveland Clinic. Monday morning Paul was admitted, and Monday afternoon we all got the cautiously optimistic report that they thought they’d be able to help him. Monday night I was sleeping well when the phone rang a little after midnight Albuquerque time. I saw my sister’s name and the time and knew before I answered the phone what she was calling to tell me. Actually, I didn’t manage to answer the phone. I fumbled it and dropped it on the floor, and Fred answered on his side of the bed when she called back a moment later. Paul had had a heart attack and died.

Any editor would tell you this is a terrible story. It’s too abrupt; the irony too O. Henry. It doesn’t give you any room for resolution; there’s no denouement. Nevertheless, it’s the story I’m in.

When I walked into the funeral home Saturday morning my Uncle Larry asked me to say a few words. He’s done this before; I’ve spoken at my sister’s funeral, and at my father’s. By the time my mother died last spring the Catholic church had decided that lay people shouldn’t give eulogies at funerals, so the notes I jotted on the plane went unsaid. I didn’t think about the fact that Paul’s service wasn’t happening in a church, just a small chapel at the funeral home, so I was surprised when I walked in and my uncle said, “You’re going to say a few things, right?” There is only one answer to that question, and fortunately I’ve carried a tiny notebook around ever since I read Harriet the Spy three thousand times in middle school. I pulled it out and used the hour before the service, when relatives and old friends were gathering in the same room we all gathered in just last May, to try to figure out what to say about my brother.

Here’s a story I’ve never told. One night my sister Meg came home and something was wrong. I was little and watching the commotion in the street from an upstairs window. Someone, I think, had hurt her. My brother, nine years older than I, two years older than Meg, was losing it. “I’m going to kill him,” are the words that still remain, along with a flurry of efforts to hold him back, and some unremembered resolution of the night back into calm. By which I mean at some point I got in bed and proceeded not to think about the events of the night ever again. I wouldn’t have sought comfort or understanding. If my mother had stuck her head in to check on me, I would have pretended to be (and to have been) asleep. I do not know why this was so.

Here’s another story I’m trying to figure out. When we moved into the house on Marvle Valley I was three and my mother wasn’t with us. She was in the hospital losing a baby, and, I think, fighting for her life. My sisters are trying to piece that time together. They were in school, and Judy thinks they might have stayed with our grandmother whose house was close enough to St. Albert’s for them to walk. Where was I? I keep asking them, and they can’t tell me. They don’t think I was with them. How could you have left me? I keep asking them, all weekend, until it becomes its own story. Remember that time when I was three and we moved out of the house in Baldwin and you all went to stay with someone else and forgot me? What did that three year old know? What was she afraid of? In April 1967, did she believe her mother was never coming back? Had she been anticipating the baby that would have released her from her role as youngest? How did you all move out and leave me, I keep asking all weekend, as though that’s a story that actually happened.

Paul, I think, would have remembered. He would have known where I’d been left. What remained for me from the night he wanted to kill someone was the knowledge that my brother would always have my back. That’s what I say at the funeral. I don’t tell the story about how I knew.

Having an uncle who is a priest is never more of a gift than when he is leading the prayers at a funeral. Uncle Larry is standing behind the podium at the front of the chapel. He says, “When I say Lord have mercy, will you say, Lord have mercy.” I love the repetition of “When I say…Will you say…” That’s the litany my uncle’s prayers repeat and I fall into it. You do not have to have anything of your own to offer. You do not have to believe what you are saying. Your voice does not have to be strong. All you have to do is say the words out loud.

It takes a toll on him, officiating at family funerals. My uncle looks tired today, and older than I’ve seen him before. There were twenty-two of you, he tells me, meaning the children of his brothers and sisters. Five have died.

Yesterday afternoon I was on the phone with one of my students’ parents, a woman I’ve spoken to many times over the years. She asked how I was doing, and thinking she had heard about my loss, I told her I was muddling through. She hadn’t heard, so I told her, and she said something like, “Oh– you are still walking with God.” I am not sure that I heard her right, but I love that expression. I’m in those days of walking through the in-between space.

Here’s an image I don’t understand. The other night I walked outside and imagined that all the planets and constellations and blinking satellites had been lined up like icons on a computer screen. Gone was the spray of star I’m used to seeing. Someone had clicked on “align to grid” and they were all there, arranged neatly in two dimensions. I don’t know why I had that thought.

And here’s another. Years ago on the beach in North Carolina we flew a kite so high it disappeared; the string was wet and the only sign that the kite was still there was a certain tension, a vibration, a tugging on the string.

The last day Paul was alive was the last day I saw the three cranes I’ve been driving by all winter at the church on the corner of Taylor Ranch and Montano. They flew off to wherever they go when spring comes.

According to the American Psychological Association, “Writing about difficult, even traumatic, experiences appears to be good for health on several levels – raising immunity and other health measures and improving life functioning.”

Since Paul died I’ve been achy and exhausted and ill. I resent the early and longer light. I miss the cranes.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that I’m wallowing. I know that my little troubles pale against the world’s pain. I know that I can’t stay here, hunkered down, curled up, closed. I know that the stars are infinite and deep and that the ground in spring is eager to bloom. The inverse of grief is gratitude, and it soars like a kite into the sun. I’d be lying if I said I can feel it tugging at me, but there’s a faint vibration humming on the string.




I think the grandchildren are playing a survival game. Things have gotten quieter than they were a few hours ago, when stuffed animals were flying from the loft into the family room, and ten legs were running up the stairs and down the stairs in random, urgent patterns. The cousins (five of them, aged nine through eleven) are together for a few days, and imaginations are flying. I’m cooking a pot roast and pouring a glass of wine.

I never know quite what the kids are playing. One year, all their games involved paper airplanes. They made hundreds of them. They taped long strings to the fuselage and launched their planes from the top of the stairs into the family room, over and over and over again. Like tiny fishermen, they would reel each plane back in, only to launch it again. For months we were finding airplanes all over the house: behind the piano, under the washing machine, slipped between a picture frame and the wall.

Now the movement up and down the stairs has gotten quieter. They tiptoe and hug the walls. The dogs, who failed to dial back their exuberance on the kids’ schedule, have been banished from play land. Circuit, my stepdaughter’s lab, has the good sense to fall asleep across the bottom of the stairs where the kids have to climb over him every time they go by. Rusty, never one to take no for an answer, still wants to play. He wanders from adult to adult, tapping us with his paw, nudging us with his nose, trying to get us to behave more like the children. We let him down. Eventually he gives up, falling asleep with his head on my feet, his body angled into the middle of the room like a minute hand. Many hours from now the last cousin will follow his example; the public imaginings of the day will give way to the private play of the night.

After the Texas cousins have gone home and the locals have headed across town, I find artifacts. Once I pulled a crayoned short story called “Spy Dogs and the Cats Jewel” from the trash. I kept it because the curly-haired seven-year-old author ended her story by throwing a cat into a boiling cauldron. Not to worry, though! It turned into a diamond! Judging by the exclamation points, the author thought this was a happy ending.

This afternoon, cleaning up after the maelstrom has blown through, I find three little scraps of loose-leaf paper. One says “Food” and includes a picture of a pizza. Another scrap says “Water,” illustrated by a half-full glass. I’m thinking about how easy it is to fill your needs when you’re living in single digits. I toy with the idea of making my own paper slips. “More retirement savings” I might write on one, next to a pile of money, or “more hours in the day,” drawing a clock with extra numbers. Mine lack the kids’ simplicity. Water, food. They know how to cut to the chase. “Dark chocolate,” I think. That’s better.

Snow falls in Albuquerque all day and I’m still thinking about those scraps of paper as I head out into the cold evening with Rusty. I like to pretend Rusty is checking on the neighborhood, locking the doors before we all call it a night. I don’t mean to suggest he’d make a good guard dog. If anything were amiss, Rusty would be the guy in sunglasses angling away from it, talking into the side of his paw. “Chief, I’m picking up something suspicious by the hydrant. Could be that coyote again. You might want to send Coconut to check it out.” Then he’d plant his feet, point dramatically with his nose, and refuse to take another step until I agreed to cross the street, putting some distance between us and whatever danger might be lurking.

Tonight there isn’t much to see. The clouds have cleared off to make way for a dim spray of stars. Outside the Griswold’s, giant blow-up Rudolph is having a tough time. His little engine is whirring away, but his front legs, which have looked a little wobbly all winter, have buckled beneath him, and his nose has become a red smudge glow on the snow. I feel like I should prop him up, or ring the doorbell until someone comes to see what’s wrong, or shoot him to put him out of his misery. Up the hill, green and red lights on a huge wall flash an aggressive “Jesus is the reason for the season.”

We’re meandering, here, Rusty and I. I’m thinking about how many times we have walked this circle around our neighborhood. 2015 was one of those years that you get to the end of, take a deep breath, and say, ok, off you go, year. Bring on a new one. It wasn’t that it was terrible, it was just one of those years that wouldn’t let you get complacent. I’m not even talking about the way the problems of the world kept clamoring to be seen and heard and acted upon. I’m taking 2015 personally. I mean Fred’s fall on the ice in February, his broken ankle, my mother’s death, my brother’s heart and liver problems, and the way my own body started trying to get my attention, way back in June, hinting that something new was underway.

I was standing up to my chest in the ocean outside my good friend’s condo in Cocoa Beach. I was laughing as the waves knocked me around. For just a moment I forgot to keep an eye out for sharks or tsunamis or rogue lightning from a storm ginning up ten miles out to sea. I was casually eyeing a big swell moving in on me. Should I swim out to meet it and dive under? Turn my back and let it surf me in toward shore? Where’s it going to break?

In that moment, one of those sentences that demands my attention, as if it were written in contrails on the horizon, came to me. Trouble will come, the Atlantic sky said. Pelicans were diving for fish and kids were playing with sand pails on the beach behind me. Fred was a few yards down the shore, walking in the shallow surf. Trouble will come, the world said to me again, and I found myself oddly flooded with peace. It wasn’t a warning; it was permission to let down my guard. Of course trouble will come. No need to keep an eye out for it. Worry disappeared like a bubble of salt air and everything made sense. For one eternal minute, bobbing in the swells, I was Buddha. I was at home in a perfect, broken, glorious world.

In the next instant, I realized why Sidhartha waited for enlightenment resting under a banyan tree instead of bouncing in the Indian Ocean. A huge wave I didn’t see coming somersaulted me into the sand. I surfaced with scraped knees, sputtering saltwater, hearing Fred laughing behind me on the shore.

And then the summer wore on and trouble came. The more yoga I did, the tighter my body tensed. The more walking I did, the more I found myself out of breath as I crested a tiny hill I’ve been walking and running up for years. The more sleep I got, the more midday naps I needed. As fall came and school started, I pulled a muscle in my back. Then my hands started swelling. Then my feet and legs swelled to where I couldn’t always get my shoes on. Pain became as normal as lack of pain has always been. In June I was kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding in the Banana River. In October, I couldn’t open the blinds in my classroom without asking a friend for help. Fred and I joked that I had closed the decade gap between our ages and then some; all of a sudden I was fifty-one going on eighty-four.

When I go to a new doctor, it always takes forever to fill out the family history paperwork. I need a box that says “all of the above.” Heart disease, check. Liver cancer, check. Diabetes, check. Alzheimers, check. When I was younger, I used to think that if I could just get out of my twenties without contracting a chronic illness, I would be home free. One day this fall while I was still trying to convince my doctor that something wasn’t right, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. It was the way I was holding my arms—the line from my elbow through my wrists to my fingers was a line I’d seen before. These weren’t my arms, they were my brother’s, who has been living with psoriatic arthritis for most of his life. They were my nephew’s arms; he was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis when he was three.

It turns out my autoimmune system is just like the rest of me, good at imagining trouble where there isn’t any. The story of my last six months is the story of losing my pass in the “Gets to Take her Health for Granted” club. It’s the story of watching my body surprise me, not with its ability to run another mile or balance in tree pose, but with my inability to close my fingers together into a fist, or to put on a shoe over a swollen foot. It’s the story of heating pads and fingers that turn white in the cold and joints that swell and drugs that work or don’t as they swim mysteriously through my blood. It’s a story of uncertainty, of learning to say “I can’t,” and of learning, for the millionth or so time, that I am not in control.

So I’m ok with sending 2015 on its way. I’m back in the house, tucked under my Steelers’ snuggy. I’m sitting on the couch with my laptop on my lap and Rusty’s head on my hip, my elbow resting just behind his ears. I’m thinking about Robert Hass’s poem “Faint Music” that begins with the line, “Maybe you need to write a poem about grace.”

Trouble, I’m starting to understand, is the guest you aren’t supposed to prepare for. He’s the guest that just shows up, and you either let him in gracefully or try to pretend you aren’t home. I’m trying to be a decent host to this idea that my body has a plan of its own. I’m trying to be grateful that my immune system did its job well for my first fifty-one years. I am grateful that chronic means something I’m going to live with for a long time, not something that is trying to kill me any time soon.

I couldn’t bring myself to throw the grandkids’ scraps of paper away. I left them on the kitchen counter for a few days, and then I brought them upstairs and set them on my desk. I fanned them out this morning, set them by my coffee cup when I sat down to write.

The third scrap of paper has a picture of a test tube. Inside, a blue ink liquid boils while bubbles float above. The word on this one says “Cure.”

Leave it to the kids to provide perspective. Water, food, and a cure. Bring on 2016. It looks like I have everything I need.



Guns, Redux

I’m in the middle of writing an essay that begins in a room with an x-ray machine and a man asking me to hold a heavy sandbag in each hand. My plan was to lighten up on the “leave” in “live love leave” and write something this time that would make you laugh. But that essay isn’t finished, and today’s shooting hit double digits (which, ridiculously, seems to matter), and maybe some people who read my blog now weren’t reading it the first time I posted this essay.

I have a t-shirt and a rug that tell me that “Love is all you need.” For the most part, I think Jesus and the Beatles got that one right. The world is glorious and the world is hard, and love does what it can to staunch the bleeding.

But maybe it isn’t actually all we need. Maybe we could do better.

So–to old friends, my apologies for posting a repeat. If you hated it the first time, stop reading now. It’s the same essay.  If you liked it, please share it. All most of us have as tools to change our world are words.  I posted the essay below in 2013, when the Senate decided not to expand background checks.


Yesterday’s Senate action to make sure we don’t expand background checks on gun sales reminded me that maintaining the (deeply flawed) status quo is grueling work. I thought I’d take it upon myself to help our hardworking Senators by drafting a form letter they can use in the future. 

Dear Grieving Parents of [insert child’s name],

The United States Senate wants you to know that we will stand beside you in this time of deep sadness. We will light candles, send cards and teddy bears, and go to our churches and pray. We will also watch a great deal more twenty-four news than usual. Some of us may even commit selfless acts of genuine kindness on TV.

However, we think it is important to let you know what we will not do. (You might want to share this information with your surviving children so that they can better understand the illusive nature of their safety.)

1. We will not pass any laws that criminals are going to break, because that would just be stupid.

2. We will not pass any laws until we are sure that they will be 100% effective at ending all crime. Incremental steps that don’t instantly solve the entire problem are also stupid.

3. We will not give up or in any way limit our right to own military assault weapons, because military assault weapons don’t kill people, people kill people.

4. We will not give up our right to shoot dozens of rounds of bullets with a single pull of the trigger. If you were a hunter, you would understand. Game animals travel in herds.

5. We will not take any action to try to keep guns away from criminals and the mentally ill, because they will just get them anyway (see #1 above).

6. We will not place any limits on who can buy a gun, sell a gun, or shoot a gun. Any step in that direction makes it more likely that the government, which is secretly planning to invade your home, will write your name down and come take your guns.  Just like they took your car and your cat and your dog when you registered them.

In short, we will not take any difficult action to enhance your child’s chances of survival. We have decided that the murder of children (and adults, for that matter), while highly unfortunate, is a cost we are willing to bear.

We hope you understand how deeply saddened we are by your loss.  The teddy bears and balloons should be arriving shortly.


Your U.S. Senate


Just before the funeral director closed the lid of my mother’s casket, she sent everyone but immediate family out of the room, so my siblings and I and our families would have a final chance to say goodbye alone. Then she stepped in front of the casket, and in the monotone voice funeral directors and customer service hotline operators cultivate for difficult conversations, she held up a little red enamel dove. It was like the little pins you got in high school in the eighties for participating on the forensics team or the school literary magazine.

I didn’t hear everything she said about the pin; the gist of it was that doves represent eternal life and this particularly tacky dove would accompany my mother on her journey.

I’m lost in 2004 while the funeral director keeps talking. When one of your parents is dying and the other is sliding into dementia, ordinary moments are moving chords; they never mean just what they mean. It was probably February. My mother and I were standing by the kitchen window on Marvle Valley Drive, looking out into the barren woods. “They aren’t going to bloom this year,” she told me, her gaze taking in all of the trees in the dense woods behind the house.

“What?” I asked her. “What do you mean they aren’t going to bloom?”

“They are dead,” she told me. “All the trees are dead.”

Growing up in Pennsylvania, Easter always made perfect sense. We buried the “Alleluia” on Ash Wednesday, and the world acted out the Lenten season. Dark came early, stark branches spread like gnarled hands across the back yard, and what little light there was turned the sky a milky gray.

Here in 2015, the funeral director is talking about resurrection, bending over the coffin and pinning the tacky red dove to my mother’s pale blue jacket. She doesn’t place it carefully, in the spot where it would look the most pleasing, as my mother would have done, but sort of randomly, in a spot that was easy for her to reach while she kept one eye on us. I want her to stop, but I don’t know how to make that happen.

Growing up in Pittsburgh during those long gray Lents, there would come a day when I’d run home from the bus stop, and the house would be full of pussy willow branches. My mother always spotted the first buds and filled the house with vases full of this soft promise that winter was ending. Then Easter would come, the forsythia would bloom, and you would believe. Every single year, the whole world acted out the resurrection.

I’m thinking about that year when my mother stopped believing in spring when the funeral director turns back to face all of us, a harmless looking little baggie in her hand. “Here,” she tells us, “are pins just like your mother’s for each of you.” She walks around our awkward semi-circle handing them out. She’s saying something else—(it might as well have been “do this in remembrance of me”) –something about wearing them to be connected to our mother forever—and I want her to stop.

There was a point not long before my father died when neither of my parents were eating much of anything. Cancer was making food unappetizing for my father. My father’s cancer was making life unappetizing for my mother. But somehow, for a while, they could both eat at Olive Garden. I was home for a visit and we were eating minestrone and breadsticks at the Olive Garden just behind the Crowne Plaza where my sisters and I would stay when we came home for my mother’s funeral.

“What if none of it is true?” my mother asks. She is sitting by the window and looks even smaller than usual. The moment is too intimate, too raw. These aren’t the kind of feelings we say out loud to each other in my family. I wanted her to stop.

At some point, the woman in the funeral home stops talking. I drop the little dove in the change purse of my wallet. I don’t notice what my siblings do with theirs. We process in cars with little black flags on their hoods to St. Louise where I went to grade school and where Uncle Larry says the funeral mass. Then we process to the cemetery, and then back to St. Louise where strangers serve us chicken and potato salad and cookies. I wish I could say it was raining, but it is sunny and clear, and there is a tiny woman standing outside the church watching us leave. I do not know who she is, but I can feel that she is blessing us.

Back home in Albuquerque, I don’t know what to do with the dove. For a few weeks, I leave it sitting on the dresser. I’m angry about it. I feel like the funeral director bound us in a sacrament of her own creating. “Really?” I keep asking myself. She thought she could bind us to our mother in her grave with a cheap pin the funeral home probably buys in a pack of a hundred?

I haven’t talked to my siblings about the dove, so I have no idea what they think about it. Perhaps they found it moving, and by writing I am ruining it for them. Maybe we checked yes by some box and asked the funeral home to perform this final service. Maybe my parents requested it in their preplanning. “For an additional $12.95,” the director is saying, back in those easy days before death crept over the horizon. I can even imagine my parents’ conversation. “No, I don’t think we should do that for my funeral,” my dad is saying, “but you might like that, Cathy.” And I can imagine my mother being rather noncommittal, thinking that if my father thought it was a good idea she had no problem going along with it. She was, I imagine, pragmatic about how she’d feel about tacky baubles once she was no longer alive.

I tell the story of the dove to a friend who suggests I throw it away. “It’s nothing to you,” she says. She’s right, of course, except that what she suggests is impossible.

It sat on my dresser for a few weeks, and then I decided to put it back in the little change purse on the side of my wallet. I look at it when I am trying to find a nickel and two dimes and three pennies so I don’t have to break a bill. Maybe someday it will fall out and I will or will not notice. Maybe one day I’ll wonder where it is and get out of bed to search for it in the middle of the night.

The months since my mother’s funeral have been fraught with a series of health emergencies for my siblings. I admit to having a moment when I wondered if the funeral director had cast her spell too literally; perhaps it’s dangerous business to talk about binding people to other people in their graves. For some reason, I can imagine my father finding this hilarious, in an Oscar Wilde sort of way, if we all were reunited too soon on the other side.

The evening of the funeral since we’re all still in town, we throw a surprise birthday party for my sister back at the hotel. We get Danny’s hoagies and Bethel Bakery cake and a bunch of bottles of wine and share them outside on the patio. Later, when the rain finally comes, we fly into the hotel. We’ve been moving as a flock through these last few days, and this final night is no different. The great love between our parents was the central fact of our childhoods. Maybe, as my Uncle Larry is certain, my parents were somewhere else that night in some bodily form, celebrating their long-awaited reunion. It’s hard to wrap your head around. I like to think they were right there with us on the patio, binding us together in the sacrament of birthday cake and wine.

I was having trouble finishing this essay. There’s too much unsaid—how our relationships with our mothers are always fraught. How we miss the mothers we had as well as the mothers we never had. How the person who fed you and taught you to find faces in clouds and mountains is the same person who told you “You have the wrong ideas about everything,” and said, quoting her mother, “What do you want, that the camera should lie?”

Then my friend Mary brought her mother to choir practice last night. We were singing “Take up your cross” when the tears came and kept coming. I came home from practice and still didn’t finish the essay.

Then just now, Fred and I watched last night’s Late Show. Stephen Colbert is interviewing Joe Biden, who sounds a whole lot like my Uncle Don as he talks about his faith and the loss of his son.

We were never a family to say hard things out loud. We weren’t a family who said I love you, or hugged, or shared our problems with each other. But somehow, that didn’t keep us from forming a net, a web with points in Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico. Steven Colbert told Joe Biden that his mother used to say, “What’s the use of being Irish if you don’t know that life is gonna break your heart?”

My family never said that out loud, but we lived it. And we lived a corollary Stephen Colbert didn’t mention. When the heart break comes, all you can do is hold on. And maybe find a reason to throw a party.



There was a moment earlier this summer when I decided I was going to post an essay on my blog every Thursday. That was six or seven Thursdays ago, and if you’re reading this, you know how that worked out for me.

So when I woke up the other morning at 5:00, a good hour and a half before my alarm was planning to go off, it seemed like a sign. Go write an essay, the quiet dark outside seemed to be telling me. So there I was, trying to figure out the world again while Rusty and Fred slept peacefully down the hall. When I don’t write, it’s like not doing the laundry. I find myself staring at a giant pile and trying to remember how to sort it out. That’s where I am now: I’m staring at a summer’s worth of thinking and hoping I end up with all the socks in the same load.

I’ll start here. Sunday morning, my friend Margo said, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” I’m imagining a pain train. It travels around the world whistling sadness according to some undecipherable schedule. When it shows up at your house, you have to get on and go where it takes you. You never know when you’ll get off or what strange country you might find yourself in or who you’ll be travelling with. Some years, it seems like you don’t even get to unpack your bags before you hear that mournful whistle approaching out of the distance.

The essay I was trying to write all summer wasn’t about pain, though. It was about those days when the train seems to be coming right at you, and then veers off. It started like this:

Not long after my mother’s funeral this past May, my brother called me from the ICU. “Well, I passed away,” he said.

You can see why I had a hard time writing the next sentence, right?

Here’s what was strange, though. In those seconds when I was trying to figure out what to say, I felt myself stepping up onto the train. I believed, it turns out, that my brother could actually call me himself to tell me he had died. In addition to grief I felt wonder. Sort of, “So this, too, is how the world is.”

Before that phone call, I’d been trying to write a different essay. That one began with the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage rights, the Confederate flag slipping down the pole, and the President singing Amazing Grace at Clementa Pinckney’s funeral. I was moved by the reactions of the men standing right behind the President. As he started to sing, a few of them seemed almost to laugh. It felt like they, too, might have been having that moment—“This too,” in the midst of all this suffering, “is how the world is.”

Both of those essay beginnings kept rattling around in my head while I tried to figure out what my point was. I stapled them together and read a draft to Fred back in mid-July. “What’s your point?” he said.

“Beats me,” I told him, and went back to not finishing it.

Then a few weeks ago we took the grandkids to see Inside Out. In the movie, where emotions are brought to life as characters inside the main character’s head, Joy is something of a jerk. She’s determined that the little girl they inhabit needs to stay happy.

I have to admit, I was on Joy’s side for most of the movie. It didn’t occur to me to question her self-righteous grasping at happiness. I admit it–I was routing for her even as she drew a tiny chalk circle and told Sadness to stay inside it and stop messing everything up (“Well, that’s kind of mean, but it’s for the best,” I remember thinking.) It took me as long as it took this pushy cartoon character in what is ostensibly a kid’s movie to realize that things wouldn’t stop falling apart until perky little Joy stopped denying Sadness. (For the record if you’ve seen the movie, I also didn’t see Bing Bong’s sacrifice coming. “But you knew he was going to—“ Cali, the seventh grader said. No, actually, No. I didn’t. I believed that Bing Bong and Joy would soar together to the top of the mountain, that “this too, is how the world is.” Even after Joy reached the top alone, I still thought he’d come back in the end somehow. Can you see why sadness throws me for a loop every time? This is why I like mindless romantic comedies and get frustrated if I read too much Ian McEwan.) And if you haven’t seen the movie, I’m sorry that none of that made any sense.

As neither of those essays seemed to be finding its way, I started a bunch of others. One of them had me thinking about a few years I spent not so long ago trying to figure out the world. In my mind then, the world was either a scary wilderness, full of booby-traps waiting to snap and clamp their ragged jaws around my ankle, or a beautiful wonderland, full of love, and mystery, and joy. The answer mattered. Choose A and the right response is to hunker down, close up, keep your heart safe. Choose B and you peel back your skin and let everything in. Neither choice appealed to me. Option A felt like defeat, and Option B felt reckless.

Back then in 2011 when even my priest suggested I should see a therapist, I finally went. As luck would have it, the woman I finally chose from all the little slips of paper friends and colleagues had been handing me (my priest wasn’t the only one who thought I needed someone to talk to) was also a nun.

I think it was Pope Francis who said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” When I learned my therapist was a nun, I relaxed. She’ll pray for me, I thought, and then she’ll guide me through the work. I expected both to help. Over time, Sr. Therapist (she doesn’t know—or perhaps didn’t know until just now–that I call her that in my head), taught me to understand the world in terms of both/and. Yes, it’s scary and terrifying and might jump up and rip your heart out at any moment. And yes, it’s beautiful and wonderful and breathtaking.

I still have to resist the urge to ricochet from joy to sadness. I still want to send sadness to stand in that little chalk circle and leave me alone. But just today, one of my friends who knows me as well as anyone does listened to something I said and commented, “That was so realistic of you!”

Somewhere in the midst of all these half-written essays, my iPad told me that the word of the day was “fogdog: a bright spot that sometimes appears in a fog bank.” The Free Dictionary described it as, “A bright or clear spot that appears in breaking fog,” adding, “it accompanies fog as a dog accompanies its owner.” So, no “sometimes” in that definition. The fog and the fogdog jog along together. The OED adds that “On the banks of Newfoundland… fogdogs are considered precursors of clearer weather.” Cool, isn’t it?

When my brother and I stopped laughing, I thanked him for calling me with the news himself. Most people, I told him, leave that job to someone else. (And just in case you are like me, and find yourself able to believe in the unbelievable, I’ll clarify—my brother is alive and well and wearing a defibrillator vest in Pittsburgh.)

So there’s where the summer went. With each piece of scary news, I kept chanting both/and and trying not to slingshot between extremes. Last week before I messed up my back, I was doing yoga. I was standing in Warrior Two, and the voice on my iPad told me to trust my legs, to lean back farther, to feel my chest open. I did what the voice told me. I felt my legs pushing against the planet, and I felt the planet pushing back, holding me up. I’ve got you, it said. The pose went on and on and on and my quads started shaking. For a minute I felt something like panic, and then I felt something like peace.



When I started this essay in April, I was walking with Rusty, my golden retriever friend. Tiny darting birds were dipping and zigging across the street. A late snow had sugared the Sandias, and I was kicking tumbleweeds off the sidewalk while more tumbleweeds went skipping down the street. Rain clouds were tilting at the sky. I was trying to figure out why the year had seemed so hard. A few weeks earlier in another essay I didn’t finish, I had written that the year was all wax and no wane.

Now it’s half past June already, and the summer keeps racing on. It’s father’s day, but I don’t want to write about that this year. I’m thinking about the “8 words” a CNN anchor noted in a story about Charleston this morning. “The doors of the church are still open.”

When my students get stuck in their writing, I tell them to write the problem into their work. Someone important taught me that. (Ann Lamott? Annie Dillard? Nick Hornby? Anyone want to take credit? ) So here’s the problem, at least as it stood through the end of May. I’m stuck. I haven’t posted a blog in months. I’ve started essays and abandoned them. I’ve stayed in bed instead of getting up to write. I’ve spent hours writing lesson plans that should have taken ten minutes. I’ve stopped exercising, stopped even trying to eat things that are good for me. And all that was before my husband broke his ankle.

And it wasn’t just my writing life that fell apart. My life as a teacher went off-kilter, too. It was one of those years when the things I did poorly loomed so much larger than the things I did well. I kept thinking about the kids I didn’t reach; the project that didn’t teach what it should have; the way the big problems of the world–racism, sexism, anti-Semitism–kept manifesting in my school. I finished May thinking about the weight I’d gained, the writing habit that had fizzled, the fact that I hadn’t ridden my bike or gone for a good run since last September.

The problem with not posting essays frequently is that fear creeps in. I start telling myself things like, “No one wants to hear you complain.” And believe me, I get it. I work in a small, private, independent school. A whole wall of windows in my classroom looks out on a grassy quad where art students wrap tree trunks with bright colored ribbons and yarn. Children and puppies frolic (seriously—I chose that verb deliberately) on the lawn. Sometimes on the seniors’ last day of school someone sets up a barbecue grill or a slip’n slide. On rare snowy days, someone always builds a snowman. I don’t even want to hear myself complain.

Here’s more. Students and teachers enjoy one another at my school. Geese lay eggs on top of Patrick Dougherty land art and their babies float around on our pond, squeaking at the turtles sunning themselves on logs. Sometimes a snake or a pheasant shows up by a window outside the library, or a roadrunner with a lizard squirming in his beak darts by the classroom I used to teach in. Between the pond and the cottonwoods I can pick basil or kale or hot peppers to take home for dinner. One day so many crows were flapping in the trees outside my classroom that a student who had just discovered The Birds was getting a little freaked out.

It’s all a bit too much, isn’t it? I’m trying to tell you that I teach in paradise. We broke ground on the building I teach in just as the recession was getting underway. Every day, as the stock market tumbled and homes were repossessed, I watched a new building rise out of our dusty parking lot and felt like the world was going to be ok. Walking into the lobby of that building every morning now, I’m greeted by a beautiful double-sided fireplace flanked by walls of bookshelves. Vaulted glassy ceilings let in sunlight and amplify the pounding of the rain when it storms. It’s beautiful here.

And yet. I had a really hard year. So hard that I spent a good third of it plotting my (aborted) exit strategy. One day I asked a colleague I ran into outside his classroom how he was doing, and he said, “Oh, you know, another day, another bunch of missed opportunities.” I knew exactly what he meant. Every year as a teacher, you do what you can, and you worry about what you didn’t do.

This was also one of those years when fear kept poking its head out from behind the bulky curtain I use to pretend it isn’t there. It was the kind of year when kids kept reminding me that we’re soft-shelled creatures; that skin is a ridiculously flimsy and porous outer barrier to hold against the world.

This was a year when I stopped going deep.

In late April of this hard year, the parents threw us a Teacher Appreciation dinner where they showered us with gifts. This celebration followed a week of pies, and burrito breakfasts, and chair massages. After this year’s dinner I went home with gift certificates for dinner at The Quarters and a pair of kick ass emerald green cowboy boots. This year, my school undertook a video project where every teacher was asked to record herself teaching. The administrators did it first. We were offered a variety of protocols for reviewing the video, all of them designed to remove fear and create a supportive learning environment. I was allowed to drive the process, to ask for the feedback I wanted from teachers I trust. I am thanked and supported regularly. I do not lose teaching time to state-mandated tests that purport to determine my worth as a teacher or get asked to implement new strategies that may or may not resonate with my own practice every time I turn around. I’m trying to tell you that I teach in paradise.

But here’s the thing. Paradise is a gated community.

It turns out St. Peter really is standing at the gate, checking his list. It costs families more than twenty thousand dollars to send one child to paradise for one year. We offer as much financial aid as we have, but we’re far from being a place any child could attend. This fall I was conducting a tour around campus at our admissions open house when one little girl asked if we ever give full scholarships. We don’t. I dodged the question, and she continued, “Because if it costs more than a few dollars, I won’t be able to come here.” It can be heartbreaking to teach in paradise.

So here’s what I’m wondering about on this Sunday afternoon, now that the school year has ended and I’m trying to re-find my voice. How do you rejoice in paradise when what you really want to do is tear down the walls to let everyone in? What is the nature of the responsibility that someone who teaches in paradise bears toward someone on the other side of the gate? How do you teach kids gratitude without accidentally teaching them superiority? How do you use the freedom to experiment, the gift of teaching in a beautiful facility where all the supplies I need are stocked down the hall by the copier, to do something other than perpetuate the inequity in the world? How do you bear that responsibility justly? Can you?

It’s sweltering in Albuquerque today. The west mesa is oddly green and the Rio Grande is running high. I’ve come to the end of a hard year simultaneously grateful for and embarrassed by the bounty in my job. If we’ve all got #first world problems, I’ve got first world problems in a private school.

I know that teachers, by nature, believe in the world imagined. I finished the year reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man with my 11th graders. As the main character struggles to the end trying to make sense of his grandfather’s deathbed advice, he contemplates leaving his bright basement hole. He affirms, “Nothing, storm or flood, must get in the way of our need for light and ever more and brighter light. The truth is the light and the light is the truth.”

If I could write a plan for schools like mine, the first draft would read something like this: “We live in a country with a deep history of racism, sexism, classism, and anti-Semitism. This history continues to manifest itself in our world in ways that some of us have the luxury not to see. Private schools, positioned as we are inside the gates of privilege, have a unique imperative to make this history visible, to best equip our students to be responsible, big-hearted actors in the world.”

It’s summer after a hard year in paradise and the world continues to lurch from loss to love. This morning people in Charleston, South Carolina, who know more about the weariness of pain and loss than I will learn in ten lifetimes, said “The doors of the church are still open.” It turns out this same flimsy, porous skin lets it all in—loss and pain and horror and sunlight and love. Ralph Ellison says that, too. As the narrator contemplates his return to life beyond his basement hole, he says, “I denounce because though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of it all, I find that I love.”

It’s June, and I’m writing again. Sixteen hundred words and not an answer in sight. I’m still searching for a way to end this essay. I always tell my students not to give their closing words to someone else, but I’m breaking that rule today. In a line that’s always haunted me, Ralph Ellison’s invisible man says, “But we are all human, I thought, wondering what I meant.“


Rilke Meets the Little Red Hen

First, someone had to run down to the basement and get the big, blue-speckled pot from the shelf under the stairs. This person was the Little Red Hen, whose job was simply to say “I will!” any time my father said, “Who will help me get the pot from the basement?” or “Who will get the flour from the pantry?” or “Who will grease the loaf pans?”

The Little Red Hen, if you remember the children’s story, grew her own wheat and baked her own bread while the lamb and the pig and the cat sat around saying “Not I!” every time the hen asked who would help. It was a true story. We had a cat then, and I can’t remember even one time when Fluffy helped bake the bread.

After you got the pot from the basement, you had to get the black scale with the big round dial from the hearth in the family room. You probably had to move a bowl of walnuts out of the way. Then, my father would weigh the big blue pot, set the scale to the new zero, and start pouring clouds of flour. My father made so much bread at one time that it was easier to weigh the ingredients than measure them. In retrospect, it might just be that he thought it would be more fun. He was an engineer.

Let’s leave my father in the kitchen baking bread circa 1970 for a minute.

On New Year’s morning this year, Fred went to the grocery store, and when he came back I was sitting with my laptop at the kitchen table. I had pumpkin bread in the oven and I was writing about this line from Rilke’s “Requiem for a Friend”:

“I have my dead and I have let them go and was amazed to see them so contented, so at home in being dead, so cheerful, so unlike their reputation.”

I’ve always loved that sentence. I was working on this essay and thinking about just how many dead I have. I was making a list, tearing up a little, and when I told Fred what I was working on, he said, “That’s life.”

I knew what he meant. Growing up in a huge Roman Catholic family, if you learn anything (well, anything other than that you shouldn’t have sex) it’s that people die all the time. Out of the blue, a relative I barely knew would die, and normal life would stop to dance around the ritual. My mother would send flowers. We would put on school clothes and go to the funeral home. At some point, we would end up at an aunt’s house eating ham and potato salad that a neighbor had brought by. If we stayed at the funeral home until it was closing, we would kneel in the hall while one of the men led the rosary. (I liked this part. The ritual reciting of the words made me feel ancient and alive.)

Today, though, the Little Red Hen isn’t reciting Our Fathers and Hail Marys in strings of sorrowful mysteries. Today she’s standing ready to say, “I will!” while her father checks the notes in the 1946 Woman’s Home Companion Cook Book. On page 116 in the recipe for WHITE BREAD: Straight-Dough Method, where the cookbook says “6 cups of all-purpose sifted flour,” my mother has penciled in, “5# 10oz flour” and then, maybe as the family grew, “7# 6 oz,” and finally, “8 ½+ # in mixing pot” (which I’m assuming is the blue speckled pot, since I’m the last kid and the recipe stopped growing). Where the Woman’s Home Companion says “milk, scalded, 2 cups” my mother has penciled in “8.” 2 ½ teaspoons of salt has been replaced with “10” and later simplified to “1/4 cup.” My father baked a lot of bread.

Back in my kitchen in 2015, I am taking pumpkin bread out of the oven and thinking about another line from Rilke. I read “Archaic Torso of Apollo” when I was nineteen, not long after I had left Pennsylvania for the first time. I’ve never understood the poem. The speaker is looking at a headless statue of Apollo that bursts with life. After a series of striking descriptions, Rilke says this: “for here there is no place/that does not see you. You must change your/ life.”

What the hell, Rilke? The urgency of the lines, which Mark Doty describes perfectly as “winging out of nowhere,” hit me hard at nineteen and has never left.

Meanwhile, back on Marvle Valley Drive, yeast are swimming to life in a pot of warm sugar water. I’m swimming, too, across ideas, and decades, and time zones. I can’t make this essay stay put. I’m more than seven hundred words in and I still haven’t mentioned that Friday afternoon in November. I was driving a bus full of kids back to Albuquerque from Santa Fe. I was driving straight into the sun, which was leaning hard into the horizon.

I was disoriented. You think of driving from Santa Fe to Albuquerque as heading south. What was the sun doing directly in front of me rather than off to my right? (Off to my right, by the way, I was looking through one of those school bus doors that folds opens with a metal rod. Just being on a school bus makes me think of book bags, and knee socks, and rolling down Irishtown Road to drop off some boy the driver called Buddy right in front of his house. It was kindergarten in Pittsburgh. It was raining.)

I was trying to figure out how I was driving due west on I-25 South when a sentence “winged out of nowhere” into my head. “Things are changing in me, and I do not know where or to what end.” (What the hell, Rilke?) The sentence followed me home. It climbed into bed with me. It stuck around through the holidays.

I would have happily traded it for the Little Red Hen’s eager “I will!” when it was time to knead the dough. She loved that moment when the dough would start to breathe back against her hands; when she’d realize that this pile of flour and salt and water was alive.

It would be dark by the time my father’s bread finally came out of the oven. We cut it hot and slathered melting butter on slice after slice after slice. We were all there then: Pat, Judy, Paul, Meg, Clare, and me, crowded around the kitchen table in our pajamas, breaking bread.

To paraphrase the title of an Ann Patchett book, this is the story of a happy childhood. I am the youngest of six kids. Eight if you count the two babies who didn’t live, one on either side of me. Most of my siblings are alive. Some of them, I think, read these essays. A few years ago, my Uncle Larry, the youngest of my father’s siblings, sent me a Christmas card. “We’re the cabooses,” he said. I love that image: the littlest sibling chugging along behind the big kids, trying to catch up, trying not to get left behind as they round that bend off in the distance before I get there.

In Albuquerque Fred is putting the groceries away and I tell him I have finally figured out how to write an essay about something other than dying. “But those are your best ones,” he says.

So one more thing. I am thinking about Ann Patchett because not that long ago one of my friends sent me an email about her book, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Elizabeth said, “It’s a collection of short stories, basically about becoming/being a writer, and it makes me think of you. Her voice reminds me of your writing, and I love her writing.”

She lent me the book, and I loved it, and I loved that she said it reminded her of me, and then, about a month later, she died. It wasn’t a surprise; she had been outliving pancreatic cancer with matter-of-fact grace and gusto for two years. Lately when we were playing music together in her home, she would say things like, “You should play this at my memorial.” This weekend, we will.

Then about a week ago, my friend Jacqui from first grade sent me an email asking me if I had read Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. “Her voice is so much like yours… that I thought I was proofing a book for you the whole time that I read it,” she said.

Sometimes everything feels like a sign.

January has come and gone. That sentence from the bus is still following me around. I keep meaning to write a letter to Ann Patchett. Those of us who are still here are off on yet another wild loop around the sun.

I want to say that it’s good to be here, and that maybe it’s ok to move on. Something, I don’t know what, is going to happen next. And even though my friend Deena thinks I might have a clue “what this messy life means,” that’s pretty much everything I know.