Crossing the Bridge

I don’t love Ernest Hemingway. I need to start with that. But in his Nobel prize speech, Ernest Hemingway said, “if he is a good enough writer,” (it was always a he), “he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”

For at least twenty-six years of my life, I had no idea what he meant. Hold that thought for a minute.

A small stretch of Montaño Road between Coors and Carlisle runs like a furrow through the middle of my life. I could say it runs like Marvle Valley Drive, or Clifton, or Irishtown Road, because it runs like those streets I spent my first twenty years walking and sled-riding and learning to drive on. Going east Montaño opens into mountain. Driving back home mesa dissolves in sky.

For a number of years now, it has seemed that if I am going anywhere, I am driving across the river on that stretch of Montaño. Thursday nights and Sunday mornings, I head across the bridge to St. Michael and All Angels. Saturday mornings, I turn right on Carlisle for violin lessons with my granddaughter. Sunday afternoons, I turn right on Fourth Street to play mandolin with Ken, Elizabeth, Katie, and Steve. I’ve ridden across this bridge on my bike and run across it training for a half marathon. One sad morning in 2011, I walked to the middle of the bridge with a group of teenagers and dropped flowers in the river. Monday afternoons after that sad morning, I drove across the bridge to a warm office just east of Carlisle to try to regain my footing in the world.

On those Monday afternoons, the bridge was full of breakthroughs. I’d be on my way home from my appointment; crossing the bridge, something would snap into place. I’d find clarity around a question, or a decision, or just a new ability to make sense of what I was feeling. It’s as though these roads we live on wear grooves in us, instead of the other way around.

Somewhere in those years, I decided I needed to write now. I was teaching teenagers, not fighting bulls or going on African safaris, but I was facing, for the first time, eternity, or the lack of it, every day.

In November, when the light grows shy, the cranes come. They stand in the fields on the north side of the road by Los Poblanos. Thanksgiving morning, four of them rise out of the cornfield just beyond the bike path and pedal into the air. I am on my way to meet my friend Martha for a hike. I am listening to Lori True singing “Go Now in Peace.” My heart is going all squinchy, as though those cranes are tugging at it and pulling me up into the air with them.

Thanksgiving morning is warm. When I meet Martha and her pug Saki at Elena Gallegos, I get Rusty on his leash, tug my sweatshirt off over my head in the sun, and head into Pino Canyon. The first part of the trail is relatively flat and exposed, and Rusty and Saki set a good pace. Soon we’re moving deeper into trees and climbing.

Part of my plan for this hike is for Martha to help me fix my life. “I’m not writing,” I had told her earlier in the week. “I’m spending every second working. I have to figure out how to change things.”

Martha is looking for change, too. A health scare in the middle of the night has left her with a sense of urgency. “I’m not waiting,” she told me. “If there is something to do, I need to do it now.” Our plan is to walk up the mountain and figure everything out.

About a mile or so in, a massive bolder flanks the trail. Sun-warmed and statuesque, it’s the sort of rock Tolkien could have turned into a hotel for hobbits. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we walked around the back and found a tiny door. Martha pauses by the rock as she always does, pats it, and says hello. We give the dogs some water and keep climbing.

In a little while, we reach the point on the trail where it feels as though the mountain has rotated; suddenly the highest ridge we can see is to the north rather than the east. I always find this spot disorienting. I’m looking out through the trees to the model train city far below when Martha tells me I should write about friendship. It’s unique, she says. It’s free of the obligations and expectations we get tangled in with every other kind of relationship. It’s profound, she says. Metaphysical. Holy.

I started writing today thinking I might have something to say about gratitude. I wanted to say that at this time of year, the leaves still hanging on the white plum in my front yard are the same color as the cranberries boiling on the stove. In late afternoon, the sun comes rushing through the window and transforms my office into a chapel.

A few weeks ago I thought I was writing a different essay. I was trying to figure out if I live in a body or as a body. Which part is me? Today, hiking up a mountain with a friend, it doesn’t feel like the right question. Something has been changing in me. It’s as though my edges are dissolving: the boulder, the cranes stepping into air, the light in my plum tree, the spots of snow by the side of the trail, lately it’s been feeling like all one thing. There’s not so much here and not here, less wondering about what’s me and what’s not-me.

In I and Thou, one of those books I read in college that bobs up into my consciousness now and then, Martin Buber says, The primary word I-Thou can be spoken only with the whole being. Concentration and fusion into the whole being can never take place through my agency, nor can it ever take place without me. I become through my relation to the Thou; as I become I, I say Thou: All real living is meeting.

So I am thinking about friendship, and the holy way in which we are connected to our friends, and the fact that all real living is meeting. Martha is laughing and remembering another hike where I fell dramatically into cactus when I remember that matter is neither created nor destroyed in this universe. I must have learned that phrase in ninth grade physical science, along with Bernoulli’s Law, “the faster a fluid moves the lesser is its pressure.” I remember those words devoid of any scientific understanding; I just like the way they sound.

Recently, though, I started wondering what it means that matter is neither created nor destroyed. I googled E=mc2 and read about the law of the conservation of mass-energy. I looked at pictures of people on space ships bouncing light off of mirrors and read that mass and energy are different forms of the same thing. I read about Einstein and Newton and Lavoisier and clicked through a web site that claims the First Law of Thermodynamics proves the existence of God. I read Martin Buber, who describes God as “the mystery of the self-evident, nearer to me than my I.”

I don’t understand any of it. It’s Thanksgiving morning and Martha and I have climbed as high as we can for today so we turn around. I’m heading down a mountain with my dear friend, and Rusty is in a hurry. I’m trying not to fall as his energy tugs on my matter and light splashes down on us through branches and leaves. Martha keeps her camera close in case I cartwheel into another cactus.

There were a lot of years when I never thought about dying or loss or even really let myself fully feel the loss of people I loved. And then there were years when loss shook me like an earthquake, and I had to relearn to trust the ground to hold. For a while now, I think I’ve been in this other space: I get it. I face eternity or the lack of it every day. I know loss throws you to the ground like lightning, and at some point, I decided to love anyway.

That’s an empowering choice, maybe even a brave and ordinary one, but it didn’t take away the fear. I hate flying. I won’t ride roller coasters. Sometimes I can’t shake a huge sadness at the thought that someday everything will go on without me. It seems too much, really, to ask of a species: to hold in our minds at one time the knowledge that life is meaningful and that life ends.

Martha and I stop again by the boulder that either rose up or crashed down to this spot millions or billions of years ago. I’m thinking that matter and energy are just different forms of the same thing, and that they are neither created nor destroyed in this universe. Everything, it occurs to me, is transformation.

Maybe all I’m trying to say is that lately I don’t feel quite so temporary. Thanksgiving morning I walked up a mountain and I walked down a mountain and I drove across a bridge. I talked to a friend and I said hello to a boulder. Light kept hurrying to the earth. I am guessing the sun will come up again in the morning and streak gray and blue across this desert sky. Crows and geese and cranes will settle on the pond and the river will keep sidling south. Martin Buber says, “The present is not fugitive and transient, but continually present and enduring.”

Some mornings, I believe.

“Who made the grasshopper?”

I have graded my last papers, taken the posters off my walls, sorted my old files, and gone to bed the past few nights without setting my alarm. If that doesn’t clinch it, I just woke up on the couch from a nap, I’m writing a new blog post at last, and I’m quoting Mary Oliver in the title. It’s summer!

I ended this school year in love with my students, in love with my profession, and thinking about some of the things I learned in high school. When I was a junior at Bethel Park Senior High, I served as the school district’s first (non-voting) “Student on the School Board.” It was something like 1981, and the district had decided to implement “activity fees” for extracurricular activities. All of them—think National Honor Society, Concert Choir, Key Club–no one was exempt, and I was outraged. I led the student revolt against the fees, which culminated in presenting a sixteen-page report at a public board meeting.

It was big news. We filmed a “speak-out” message with the local public television station, and one Saturday morning my mother handed me the phone (you know, those ones that were attached to the wall in the kitchen with a long curly cord) so I could talk to a reporter from the Associated Press.

Heady times. Seventeen is a good age to have a cause, to fight for something with utter certainty that you are right. The board presentation went great.

My political education began the next day.

Every single board member made a point of taking me aside to tell me that they agreed with me. They had been convinced, they said, that the strong extracurricular activities in the district were a selling point for people looking for a new home. They agreed that imposing a fee on a poor student to enable that student to sing in a choir was antithetical to the values of public education. They agreed that the fees collected would be big enough to prohibit a student from participating but too small to make any noticeable impact on anyone’s property taxes. They agreed, in short, that the argument was strong and had convinced them that the fees were not going to do anyone any good.

Then came the punch line, or maybe I should say the punch. Every single board member voted to impose the fees. Every one of them explained, as though it were the most rational position in the world, that they didn’t have a choice. The elderly voters in the district wouldn’t be happy/vote for them again if they didn’t pretend to help them by imposing the fees.

My adult, teacher self wants to say to those people, be careful what you teach a teenager.  The cynicism was too much for me.  I didn’t vote for years.

But wallowing in ancient outrage is not where I planned to go with this essay. I meant to write about grasshoppers. They came out of the earth by the millions a few weeks ago.

As my dog and I walk down the street, they fly up from our feet like little dust clouds (remember Pigpen?).  They part for us, wafting up and settling five or ten feet up the road. It’s as though someone is bedecking our path as we walk. (And yes, I really mean bedecking–it’s just that sort of old-fashioned, ceremonial connotation that I need here.) The grasshoppers are turning our ordinary walks around the neighborhood into processions. We are attended in our walks by leaping clouds of glory.

Rusty didn’t like them at first. He’d swat at them with his paws as they leaped too close to his head or snap at them like travelling snacks, but he’s used to them now. He accepts their homage, confident that he deserves it, trotting smartly, head up and gait stately.

Curiously, unlike the tent-worm summers of my childhood, or the more recent Albuquerque moth infestations, or the Mormon crickets on a fire-closed highway between Reno and Jackpot (where we stopped for hours and watched the blacktop crawl), I like this plague.

A news site out of Philadelphia writes, “People in Albuquerque are on edge as millions of grasshoppers invade the city.” Really? People in Philadelphia are talking about our grasshoppers? List me as one ‘Querque who is not on edge.

I have to say I saw them coming, although I didn’t know the earth well enough to know what I was seeing. A week before the grasshoppers swarmed, I told my husband the sycamore in the backyard was dying. There was a sparseness in the leaves; the yard was a little more sun dappled than seemed right for late spring.

Extra birds were also swooping and diving and chattering around us. We see lots of doves and robins and sparrows and finches, but big birds with yellow bellies were flying back and forth from rooftop to rooftop, something small and deep orange flashed and settled in my neighbor’s mulberry, and big black speckled birds and swallows were arguing and dipping low over the empty house on the corner. All sorts of bird sounds I couldn’t identify were singing me awake each morning.

And now, all the neighborhood birds, hungry these many drought years, are growing fat on grasshoppers. Mary Oliver asks who made them and has a beautiful line about their jaws, and ee cummings wrote a grasshopper poem, too, but it’s too hard to reproduce it here. Keats in his poem “On the Grasshopper and Cricket” gets it right when he says, “he takes the lead in summer luxury,– he has never done with his delights”–

Rusty and I are laughing in that grasshopper delight when we turn into the driveway and see something I’ve never seen before. A robin is picking a fight with a bunny under the piñon tree. The robin flies at the rabbit’s head and startles the rabbit, who hops back and freezes, hops and freezes. I don’t know if I am watching animals at play in the world or if the robin is hoping to eat this bunny.

So here’s where it turns out I’m going with this. Rusty and I stop in the driveway and watch for a few minutes. When the robin notices us, she gets wary, hops back a few steps, and freezes. The rabbit ignores us; she’s holding still, pretending to be invisible. After a few minutes, Rusty gets restless and makes a move toward the front door. The robin flies back about ten yards to perch on a low wall, and the bunny, sensing her chance, takes off across the street.

I can’t help thinking about what we saw. Was that rabbit really prey to a rogue robin, or are these just two creatures who share my front yard and don’t always get along? Is there a nest of baby rabbits under the sage bush and a nest of baby robins up in the white plum? Maybe nothing at all momentous was happening under my piñon.

I can’t shake the feeling, though, that Rusty and I helped shape the world. What if our most casual and unintentional actions helped save a little fuzzy life? Or maybe I’m wrong to be rooting for the rabbit; what if the rabbit were the aggressor? What if our simple action of walking up the driveway determined whose babies lived and whose didn’t that morning?

And here’s my point, at last. There are people in the world who have just that sort of power, people who could make intentional decisions that might just keep someone else’s children alive, who keep finding excuses not to make those decisions.

I’m grateful to Richard Martinez, whose son was killed in the most recent shooting and stabbing rampage, for saying he doesn’t want sympathy from politicians. “I don’t give a shit that you feel sorry for me,” he’s widely reported as saying. “Get to work and do something.”

“Don’t you dare,” is what I want to say to all those school board politicians in the House and Senate who agree that gun laws should be strengthened but rationalize inaction out of fear of political repercussions. Don’t you dare pretend you don’t have a choice, as you cede your actual power to the NRA’s threatened power. Don’t you dare tell a grieving parent that you know they are right but you can’t vote their way.

In Pittsburgh school kids paint little fishes by street sewers to remind people that their actions have consequences. Little kids know you still own the garbage that ends up downstream.

Keats says, “The Poetry of earth is never dead,” and Mary Oliver says “I don’t know exactly what prayer is,” and Richard Martinez says, “I don’t give a shit that you feel sorry for me.”

It’s summer, and the world is frothy with grasshoppers. Robins and rabbits are fighting in my front yard. The earth keeps swelling with grief and glory.

Let’s all be careful what we teach the teenagers.




I suppose my oldest brother has said wise things before, but if he has, I wasn’t listening. Last week when he picked me up at the airport in Charleston, West Virginia, he said two things that struck me at the time as being worthy of remembering.

I can’t remember the first one. The second one was, “You can’t drive someone else’s car.”

Often when my husband and I are going somewhere we have the following conversation.

Heather: That car in front of us has his brake lights on.

Fred: He shouldn’t. The light is green.

Heather: Nevertheless, it will hurt if we drive into him.

Fred: I don’t know why he has his brakes on.

Heather: It doesn’t seem important to me that you know why he has his brakes on. What seems important to me is that you put your brakes on so we don’t crash into him.

Now, a critical reader might note that the fact that I have time to use the word “nevertheless” indicates that the danger I’m imagining is less than imminent. I suspect that’s what Fred would tell you. My ability to imagine danger is both a genetic and cultivated gift, but you’ll have to read some older posts if that’s what you are interested in. Today I’m thinking about driving.

When we were little, my friend Joanne would feel carsick every time my dad drove us somewhere. I always felt safe in the backseat of the Pontiac, but my dad did have a habit of accelerating toward stop signs and then stopping quickly. An engineer, he taught me that you have more traction if you accelerate through the curves, so we’d do that, too. Joanne and I would sway into each other in the backseat as we veered off Clifton onto Dashwood. And then there was that other spot on Dashwood, if you came down the hill from Irishtown, where your stomach would do that jumpy roller coaster thing if you could convince the driver to take the bump without slowing down. I loved being a passenger.

Today as my brother and I take the curves easily and drive across the bridge into southern Ohio, I’m mostly managing not to help him drive. We are on our way to visit our sister and our mother.

When I was learning to drive, my father offered me the choice of learning with him and fighting a lot, or letting my sister teach me. I opted for my sister. She stayed calm even when I drove the car into her boyfriend’s house in Gibsonia. I passed on this calm approach to my step-daughter when she picked me over her father to teach her. She still laughs about me saying things like, “You might want to accelerate now that you are in the middle of the intersection so that truck doesn’t barrel into us.” When I wanted to learn how to drive a stick shift, my husband left town and one of my best friends bunny hopped around parking lots all over Albuquerque with me. I never really thought about driving being this thing passed on between women before, but I like that thought.

My mother never learned to drive. The story I heard is that my dad tried to teach her once and it didn’t go well, so she never tried again. As she got older and the world changed around her, we would often encourage her to learn. I remember once she told me that she couldn’t drive because she could never live with herself if she ran over a child. (See “both genetic and cultivated” above.)

I hardly ever visit my mother. For the past few years she has lived in a nursing home in Kentucky, many years into a lonely ride with Alzheimer’s. The people there are kind to her, my sister visits her all the time, and her roommate, who is also losing track of her memories, expresses herself solely via compliments. “Those are some nice shoes you’re wearing,” she says, as soon as she comes in the room. I can barely say thanks before she says, “That sure is a nice purse.” She has enormous clear blue eyes, and I’m not sure how this game goes.

“You have beautiful eyes,” I compliment her back, and we go several rounds before my sister laughs. “You can’t win,” she says. Eventually my mother’s roommate sits on her bed, tells me to take her shoes off, and falls asleep. I hope that if I lose my mind before my body wears out, my dementia manifests itself in such a gentle way.

It has been years since my mother has spoken at all, or recognized any of us in any conventional way. One time when she was still speaking a little, she recognized me as my sister Meg, who died in 1990. My mother’s eyes are all that speak now, which is either heartwarming or heartbreaking, depending on whether she is happy (my last visit) or suffering (this one). A recent stroke has taken away her ability to walk, so she sits upright in a wheel chair now, held in that position by what looks like one of the aprons she wore in lighter years.

After a few days with my sister I flew off the mountain in Charleston and headed out the next morning to the Taos Shortz Film Festival with a bunch of teenagers. My friend had one carful of kids and I followed her around through the week in my Subaru. The teens in my car laughed as my friend buzzed through yellow lights, leaving us behind to find our way without her. “You can’t drive someone else’s car,” I told them.

We watched one hundred eleven movies in four days. One afternoon, almost all of the movies were either about people in varying stages of living with Alzheimer’s or about children who were being horribly mistreated by the adults in their lives.

At some point that afternoon, crying in a dark theater, I realized just how little love it takes to barrel through pain. I also realized how true my brother’s words are. You can’t drive someone else’s car; you have to love the world as it is.

No one expected my mother to live long after my father died; it was hard to imagine either of them without the other. I like to think it’s possible that my dad has been trying to get my mother to join him for a while. She never moved quickly. Anytime we left the house she went through a series of steps that strike me now as more incantatory than practical. She would check the stove, then the locks on the front windows, then turn on the radio. She’d get halfway to the car only to run back to turn on a few upstairs lights so it looked like we were home, after which she’d have to check the locks again.  Sometimes we’d drive around the block to make sure we hadn’t left a window open. That was the ritual to leave the house for an hour or two. I can only imagine how many things will have to be in order before she leaves for the last time. “Let me just make sure I turned the stove off,” I can hear her saying, as she runs back into the house to check one last thing.

I want to imagine my father growing impatient. He is waiting in the driveway with the engine running, calling, in a sing-song, never actually irritated voice, “Cathy, we’re going to be late.” One of these days she’ll come skipping down the front steps at last and get in the car.  If she wants to check one more thing he’ll convince her that everything is taken care of.  He’ll turn on the radio and pull out of the driveway. If an old song comes on, he’ll turn to her and say, “Do you remember this one?”

She won’t, and he’ll explain where they were when they heard it for the first time. Time and love will grow wide around them. I’ll be standing in the front yard waving until I can’t see them any longer, but they won’t look back. My dad will accelerate into the curve, and they will drive off into the unknown world together.




Craning My Neck

I recently changed my Facebook profile picture to a photo of my house on Christmas Eve, decked out in lights and luminaria. It’s a peaceful picture, but it already feels so last year. Soon I’ll take the tree down and head back to work for another semester. I was trying to imagine a new photo, and I thought I might take a picture of my piano with a novel (currently Everything is Illuminated—finally!), my laptop, my violin and mandolin, and my running shoes sitting on the bench. If I were just starting my blog today, I think, I might call it “Read-Write-Run-Play.” (Or maybe that’s in the small print after “Live”—it doesn’t quite capture Love and Leave. Or maybe it just means I have too many hobbies, or that I still haven’t learned to resist the lure of resolutions. I have long loved Rilke, but I would forget the line “You must change your life” if I could.)

Last night showing a few friends around my house I took them to the deck off the upstairs loft. From where I live on the west mesa, you can see most of Albuquerque stretching below; lights shimmer thickly north and south from downtown to Placitas, east all the way up to Tramway; the tram blinks a solitary light at the crest, and a dark trail runs horizontally through it all, imagining the bosque and the river trickling through the trees.

Vantage points matter. My husband and I have been spending the past few months standing on lots for the second time in our marriage. We are trying to downsize, and we are determined to land on a lot with a view. I don’t know why it matters what I can see from my home, but it does. A number of years ago forest fires across the West hid the city and the mountains from my view. For weeks, looking to the northeast, all I could see was gray. It didn’t matter that I knew that the mountains were there inside the smoke, that I could imagine their outline and the way the clouds move against them; I found it surprisingly hard to be happy. Where you stand changes what you see.

High up in the wall in my family room, three tall windows loom like living landscape paintings in Hogwarts. Some nights, if you look up at the right time, you’ll see a plane fly by. Other times, clouds drift from one window to the next. Sometimes, the moon fills a window like a familiar song or an old memory and grabs my breath as I’m doing the dishes.

IMG_2029About a week ago I woke up one morning needing to see cranes. I dragged my husband to the open space off Montano Road where I knew we’d find them. Late in the afternoon, I felt them tugging at me again. I pulled on my running shoes and headed back to Los Poblanos and spent about forty-five minutes running on dirt roads and ditch banks while cranes meandered through the fields around me. At one point, two cranes crossed the road no more than five feet in front of me. To my back stood the Sandias, framing the city. Straight ahead to the southwest waited the volcanos. And everywhere, like water, blue sky poured itself out and lapped around me.

I’m mapping my coordinates, I think, imagining what’s behind, taking in what’s ahead, aware of my breathing and my feet, each step pressing firmly into easy ground. Some magic days the planet presses back, and every step is easy. A plane flies silently overhead, chalking contrails in the sky.

There is something peaceful about watching cranes walk. Their knees bend backwards while their forelegs stretch forward—it’s as though every step is past, future, and present at the same time. N. Scott Momaday in The Way to Rainy Mountain describes tortoises as “going nowhere in the plenty of time.” I’d like to have written that line. Every spring the cranes fly away from Albuquerque, and late every fall as the light leans away, they come back.

I have no eyes for the small birds when the cranes come. I hear them whistling overhead and notice them thickening the telephone wires, but I don’t crane my head to study them; I don’t wonder what that flash of yellow moving in the cottonwood might be. Later when I look at the photos I took while I ran, I’ll see two cranes edging away from me, one leaning just slightly toward the other, and two girls on horseback in the background. I never knew the girls or the horses were there.

When I drive back over the bridge at dusk, all the water birds are gone from the river. The sky is just starting to turn that dusky mauve pink that will forever be the color of Albuquerque to me. A hot air balloon is deflating in a field to the south just by my school, where so far there isn’t a Walmart. The top is open, so I’m looking through the balloon where silhouettes of people seem stamped on the far side.

Mary Oliver, in Winter Hours, writes, “All narrative is metaphor.” A few weeks ago, my husband and I stood on a lot to judge the quality of the view. Before we could get back in the car, we had to spend ten minutes picking goatheads from our shoes and pant legs. We decided that wasn’t our lot.

The light was something like the light tonight, though, and for some reason I found myself thinking about my neighbor’s dog. One night last March our neighbors were out of town and their dog was alone. Late into the night he barked and howled and called. Finally, on a whim, my husband took our golden retriever Rusty next door, let him in the neighbor’s gate, and left him there to play. Surprised, distracted, no longer alone in the night, Jax stopped barking. Even after Fred brought our dog back home a half hour later, Jax stayed quiet. Now we do this regularly when the neighbors are away. Just that little bit of contact, someone to run with in the night, drives despair away; sleep comes.

It’s the beginning of the year again, and humans are still running laps on a spinning planet. I love that the cranes bend in both directions and hover in the present with each step, but tonight with no moon in the window, I’m thinking more about what happens when they fly. They rise above the world, changing their vantage point. They see the fields fall away, stretch their necks  into clear blue, and watch the world grow small below them. Huge delicate wings agitate the air.

Once in a while, I like to imagine, when the sky is pink and the earth is spinning slowly, they capture a sweet current, lean into it, and soar.




I woke up this morning with a gospel song playing in my head. “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, oh Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer…”

I’ve been in a bad mood this week. My natural state is calibrated well toward the joy end of the dial; happiness usually comes easily. But something has been bothering me all week, some shadow standing between me and the sun, and I haven’t been able either to figure it out or to walk out of its shade.

Sometimes in the morning when I write, I find myself following random trails, bouncing from memory to story to inane prattle about my day. I might do that for a week or two, until one morning I wake up in a bad mood with a gospel song in my head and realize that for the past two weeks I’ve been writing about need.

November 10. I’m writing about how much work and how little time I have. Mid-thought I stop whining long enough to ask, what do I have enough of?

November 20. I’ve been thinking about something that happened at least ten years ago. I was in a public restroom in a mall in Lubbock when a woman in a wheelchair asked me if I could come into the handicapped stall with her to help her.

I had no idea what she needed or how to help, and some part of me that is too well trained in fear wondered for a moment if this were some new kind of scam, and if I were about to be mugged. Fortunately, more developed parts of my brain prevailed, and I smiled and said sure. I followed her in, did what she asked, and in a few minutes we were both washing our hands, exchanging pleasantries, and leaving each other’s lives forever.

It was an unexpected intimacy, and I thought about it for a long time. I wondered what sort of courage it takes to ask a stranger to help you use the bathroom in a shopping mall. I wondered what sort of grace had let me be chosen.

November 22. Thinking about the woman in Lubbock has me thinking about my mother-in-law. In 2007 when Ann was dying in our downstairs bedroom, I grew adept at helping with bathroom details. The hospice worker told me what to do and somehow my mother-in-law and I managed.

Late one morning the doorbell rang. It was Mary, the hospice social worker. I had just made a pot of coffee, so we all sat down at the kitchen table. Fred and Mary talked about how my mother-in-law was doing and what the doctor had said most recently and about the nurse who had been by earlier.

Then, this woman I had never met turned to me, looked into my eyes, right at the spot that was hurting, and said, “And how are you?”

We had moved my mother-in-law back into our house on the day we got home from my father’s funeral in Pittsburgh. We should have done it sooner; that day we drove straight from the airport to her house and brought her home with us. She had stopped bathing some time before, we learned, and for the first few weeks she wouldn’t move out of a chair in the living room. We had taken to opening windows in November and lighting scented candles before it finally occurred to us to call Hospice.

Hospice is an amazing thing. Strangers flooded our house, helped us manage things we couldn’t possibly manage: personal care assistants coaxed Ann into the shower, a doctor diagnosed her illness and dispensed medicine she didn’t want to take and oxygen she refused to use, nurses applied salves and showed me how to help her in the bathroom. There was even a social worker who stopped by from time to just to make sure we were all still keeping it together.

I hadn’t met Mary until that morning when we had coffee. I fled the house early each day, happy to escape to work, a place where everyone showered regularly and no one was dying. If you’d have asked me then, in those months right after my father died while my mother-in-law was dying, how I was doing, I would have told you I was fine.

And then this woman I didn’t know asked me over a casual cup of coffee if I was ok, and I didn’t tell her I was fine, and it felt good, weeping at my kitchen table, to say “I’m not ok,” and to let this stranger help.

November 28. I’m thinking about how long it has been since I’ve posted an essay on my blog and having a quiet Thanksgiving. Family comes Friday evening, so we’re saving the big meal for Saturday.  I made a pot roast today, and I’ll be baking pies tomorrow when everyone else is eating leftovers. I have to say I’m sort of enjoying the extra days of anticipation.

My dad used to tell this story about having enough. One time, he said, he was complaining to his brother. “There’s never any extra,” he told my uncle. “Just when you get the dryer paid off the dishwasher goes on the fritz. When the dishwasher is paid off, the car needs work. There’s always just exactly enough.” My dad would pause here before relating my uncle’s response.  Apparently Uncle Larry looked at my dad for a minute, considering his words. “That’s neat,” he said.

November days are getting shorter, but these aren’t dark days. I still haven’t really figured out why I was in such a bad mood this week, or why this gospel song keeps dogging me.  Walking the dog late in the afternoon I’m thinking about apple pie and my Aunt Ann’s cranberry orange relish; I’m thinking about need and about abundance. I’m thinking about how maybe all of us are broken and glued back together, and about the odd beauty in all those cracks and jagged edges.

As the dog and I turn the corner, the sun darkens.  Two crows are chasing each other across the sky. They swoop and dive and jabber, their bodies turning the sun on and off as they fly in and out of its path.  I look up and watch them dance. I don’t notice that I’m humming, or that my shoulders are softening, or that the glue in my cracks is growing firm again, but the dog does, and he’s not about to stand around and watch while a couple of crows have all the fun.  He’s all wag and bustle; he pants and prances; his whole body is shouting JoyJoyJoy or maybe it’s NeedNeedNeed–it’s all the same big blur of fur, and it’s tugging on the leash right now, pulling hard for home.



Last Thursday, after living the first six years of his life as a largely law-abiding citizen, (I’m not counting the time he ate our rug or mistook my slippers for his; those early crimes were committed before he reached the age of reason), Rusty tossed respectability to the curb like an over chewed bone and embarked on a life of crime.

I’ve never seen him happier.

The incident took place on a drizzly afternoon. We were enjoying our usual walk when I stopped to talk for a moment with a friendly older man washing his car. He must have felt the need to explain to anyone who walked by why he was hosing down his Honda on one of Albuquerque’s rare rainy days, so he shrugged, grinned, and said, “I’m from Portland,” which I took to mean “I know this looks like rain to you, but trust me, it isn’t raining.”

The piece de resistance was an ordinary green tennis ball. Rusty has had lots of them over the years. They sit ignored in the corner in his toy basket until his friend Circuit comes over and carries all the toys outside. Rusty never takes the toys outside, because he doesn’t believe he can fit through his doggy door with anything in his mouth.  He thinks Circuit is pretty cool for having this supernatural ability.

Anyway, Rusty has never cared much about any toy. He’ll play ball with you, if by playing ball you mean Rusty gets the ball, trots around a little, and waits for you to come try to take it from him. He’s never really understood the point of the traditional fetch game; it makes much more sense to him for the human to do the running.

I laughed with the car washing man and Rusty seemed to be in a hurry for once to get going, so we continued up the hill. I kept asking him what the big rush was, if he had big plans for the evening, but he was holding his head kind of funny and not answering me.

I’m not naïve to the fact that my dog can be sneaky. Rusty wasn’t even a year old the first time he faked having a goat head in his paw. We go on a lot of walks and we live in New Mexico, so we encounter a lot of goat heads.  (And if you are not from New Mexico, and you are actually imagining the head of a goat stuck in my golden retriever’s paw, just go with that. It couldn’t be any more painful than what I actually mean.) We have a system, Rusty and I.  He comes to a dead stop, lifts the affected paw as though he’s on point, and I, loyal servant and companion, kneel and remove the diabolical sticker.

Only this one time, there wasn’t a sticker. He just wanted some extra time to sniff out the new dog on the other side of the fence. I’m not making this up. After I fruitlessly searched his paw for a few minutes, he admitted he was faking it. He took his paw back and pointed with his head to the fence, where the now thoroughly sniffed dog was rustling around. “Sorry, I just really wanted to sniff him,” he told me, as clearly as if he had used words. Then he swung his head forward, saying, “We can go now,” so we did. I remember wondering at the time what else my dog was pulling over on me.

As he pulled me up the hill on the day he became a thief, he wouldn’t look at me. He cocked his head to the right when we reached the top to tell me which way he wanted to turn, and that’s when I saw the green felt gleaming between his teeth.

He ignored my half-hearted “drop it,” and kept going, for the first time ever sniffing absolutely nothing for an entire block. Every now and then he’d look over his shoulder at me, as if to be sure I understood that something important was happening. As soon as we got home, he ran into the house, down the hall, through the kitchen, and out his dog door into the backyard, never even slowing down to see if he could still fit.

I think he was showing his new ball his kingdom. He strutted around for a few minutes, and then came back in, ball in mouth, and lay down with it safely tucked between his paws. A little while later, he took a nap with his new ball all nuzzled up beside his nose.

If my life were a sitcom, this would be the part where the responsible parent takes the tearful child back to the candy store, makes him confess his crime, return the half-eaten candy bar, and trade the fleeting pleasure of chocolaty nougat for the presumably more lasting sense of righteousness that comes from having done the right thing.

I can’t do it. My dog is blissfully happy. I couldn’t make this elated dog give this ball back to its rightful owner if she were four years old, wearing pigtails and overalls, and standing in front of me crying.

Saturday afternoon I’m working on this essay and trying to figure out exactly what my thieving dog is teaching me about my commitment to joy and my lack of commitment to property rights when the doorbell rings. The man standing there when Rusty and I open the door is wearing Dockers and a tweed jacket, and he has some of the saddest, kindest eyes I’ve ever seen.

Those eyes, the ninety pounds of fur leaning against my leg, and the knowledge that my husband is upstairs in his office have lowered my usual “strange man at the door” defenses, so I’m actually listening when he says, “Have you ever wondered what happens after we die?”

Before I can say, “You mean, other than every day?” he hands me a pamphlet, says “There is some very comforting information in there,” tells me to have a good day, and walks off down the driveway.

These aren’t my mother’s Jehovah’s Witnesses. Growing up we lived a few blocks away from the Bethel Park Congregation on Irishtown Road, so it was pretty common for an eager believer to ring the doorbell on a summer afternoon and launch into an explanation of how we could be saved. Those Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t hand you a pamphlet and tell you to have a good day. They wanted to convince you, and they had all the time in the world for you to come around.

One day, my mother, devout Catholic, decided she was going to make her case, too. She started explaining Catholicism to the Jehovah’s Witness, and the two went at it for a long time on the front porch.

Because it’s Saturday, I actually read the man’s pamphlet, and it’s full of Old and New Testament quotations about life after death. I’m disappointed that the argument is as circular as it is, so I find myself thinking about the marketing team who came up with the plan to focus on eternity in this year’s doorbell ringing campaign rather than contemplating life and death with capital letters.

It’s the beginning of November, so Sunday morning the banco at my church is covered in photos of the dead and we’re lighting candles. For some reason, ever since I realized I was ok with my dog being a thief since it made him so happy, I’ve had the old liberation theology phrase, “a preferential option for the poor,” in my head. It always strikes me to think how at odds that theology is with today’s politicians who claim to be on God’s side yet work to demonize the poor. “Poor in spirit” is ok; poor in body and material goods is lazy.

Not knowing who Rusty stole this particular tennis ball from, I’m not sure if my dog is Robin Hood or JP Morgan, but it turns out I’m just rooting for joy. I’m thinking that this whole life/death thing might be a spectrum, not an on/off switch, and joy is what pushes at the far right boundary.

It’s been a week now, and Rusty’s new tennis ball is still his most important possession. He brings it to me when I get home from work, and I chase him around for a little while, and then we both flop down to rest, tongues hanging out, feeling like it’s good to be alive.



Clicking In

A few weeks ago I bought clipless pedals for my bike. I had already bought shoes with a space on the bottom where a cleat can screw in, and that hollow spot kept calling me. So, back I went to the sports store to buy the pedals. Then off I went to borrow the right sized wrench from a friend who knows her way around a bike. Then off I went to the bike shop to get help loosening my old pedals, and finally, I cranked on the new pedals on Sunday afternoon. Then it started raining.

It rained Monday. Then it rained Tuesday. Then it rained Wednesday…Then it rained Friday. I live in a desert in drought, so this sort of week doesn’t happen here. I just kept looking at my bike shoes sitting patiently on the piano bench. They looked happy, eager. They looked ready for a ride.

The point of clipless pedals is to lock your feet to the bike, without using any straps or toe cages. When you want to free your foot, a quick twist of your ankle releases the cleat. My pedals are flat on one side, so I figured I could click one foot in while keeping the other free, thus easing in to this learning curve and reducing my chances of falling, which my friend had guaranteed would happen.

Saturday afternoon, while all the usual clouds convene to decide if they will rain on us today, I head out. I want to see what changes all this water has made in the world. I ride east where the bike trail skirts the Piedras Marcadas Dam, not quite a mile from my house.  My first near miss happens just before I get to the dam, before I’ve even gotten my courage up to click one foot in. A jogger stops me for information about where the trail goes, and as I stop to answer her, I push down on the pedal and hear my left foot click in. I panic and yank hard, skinning my knee on my handlebar, while talking casually to the runner. (If you are having trouble picturing the geometry of this moment, it’s not you. I’m certain I couldn’t recreate this move intentionally.) Her question answered, I ride on.

The dam flanks a flood control zone tucked between neighborhoods just west of Eagle Ranch, so if you don’t walk or ride your bike around here, you’ve probably never seen it. Most days, it’s a large dry bowl, a strangely lovely open space where clumps of trees grow bucolically and an abandoned shopping cart announces that someone calls this landscape home.

I’ve always laughed at the hopeful, stucco-colored pillar at the far end painted with the numbers one through twelve, every one of which has been visible every other time I’ve been here. Saturday afternoon when I ride by, though, water has covered one through five and is lapping at the six. Six feet of water has shortened the trees and turned this hollow basin into a lake. As if to emphasize this fact, a group of adventurers in a green rowboat is dipping their oars in last night’s rain.

An hour and a half into my ride, when I’ve looped most of the way back and I’m approaching our new lake from the south, I’m feeling cocky. I’ve had a few other near misses, like when I stopped at a light on Coors and clicked out with just my left foot, leaving my right connected to my bike. This worked fine until I leaned to the right to hit the crosswalk button, but another hard yank of an ankle kept me upright. I’ve got this, I’m telling myself as I slow down at the bottom of the hill to walk my bike through a turnstile.

Seeing all this water pooling in drought land has me thinking about abundance, about how things go empty and are refilled. Recently at a faculty meeting, I watched a Ted Talk. (Note to future anthropologists: This is what private school teachers do at faculty meetings in the early twenty-first century.) Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, was teaching the audience that everyone loves classical music.  Before playing a Chopin prelude, Zander asked us to think of someone we loved and had lost.

I didn’t do that. I was at work, in a room in which I’ve already spent too much time thinking about loss. I didn’t want to begin the new school year weeping with my colleagues. Been there, done that, would rather not this time.

I opted not to engage.

The school year has started out beautifully, though. I’ve felt confident, competent, and joyful. I’ve been getting enough sleep, finding time to write, playing my violin. That’s why I was so surprised last week at another faculty meeting when I found myself paralyzed in the face of a simple decision. Two meetings were happening simultaneously, and I couldn’t decide which one to attend. I asked clarifying questions about information I already knew; I expressed concern about the plan, and then I changed my mind after the meeting I had chosen started, left it abruptly, and spent fifteen minutes roaming around campus trying to find the other meeting, which, it turned out, was happening just across the hall from where I’d begun.

It took me another half of a meeting and a few more moments of panicky indecision to realize that something other than having to choose between two meetings was bothering me. It all came flooding back: the sadness, the fear, the knowledge that to love children is to skip along the edge of a beautiful chasm. Somehow I’d managed to get a good month into the school year without tripping into that old fear.

Saturday afternoon, though, I’m standing astride my bike at the bottom of a hill looking at a lake where a field used to be and thinking about the fact that cool water rains on us from a generous sky. I’m wondering if the drought is over. I’m thinking about everything I know about loss and abundance. My left foot is safely planted on the ground when I turn my head to the right to gaze at the mountains.

This is the moment, as I’m falling into the bushes by the side of the trail, when I remember that my right foot is still clicked in to my pedal. There’s nothing I can do. I ride gravity down to the ground.

On one of his first visits to Albuquerque, my father remarked that everything in the desert looks like it wants to hurt you. (At the time, he might have been picking a goathead from his golf shoe, but I can’t be certain.) Today, an innocuous looking bushy plant with leaves like razor blades slices into my calf to prove him right. As I free my foot and climb out of the weeds, long streaks of blood stream down my leg.  I don’t see the other thing in the desert that wants to hurt me, but I can tell you that it was hard and pointy, and it left a two-inch mark just southeast of my tailbone that looks like one of those pictures of deep space nebulae on NASA’s website.

Weeks before I bought my new pedals, I came home from work and dug through my sheet music.  I found my old book of Chopin preludes and sat down at the piano. Before I started playing, I thought about someone I had loved deeply and lost. I played that prelude over and over and over. I let it hurt me and soothe me; I let it empty me out. I let it refill me.

Saturday afternoon after I laughed and lumbered out of the bushes with my bike, I did what there was to do. I clicked in and pedaled home.

Riding the Brakes

IMG_1313Remember how Wile E. Coyote keeps running straight ahead for a few feet after he’s left the cliff edge behind? That’s how I fell off a horse named Omega in 1994 and got this long scar that runs from my palm, halfway up my left forearm. I could clear the jump until the second that I realized I couldn’t clear the jump; that’s when Omega put his head down and I tumbled over it into the soft dirt of the arena.

That’s how I come down the big human roller coaster hill on the bike trail: certain I can’t do it. My friend Tammy flies ahead, working out her own downhill demons while I lag behind. The bumpy pavement surprises me. Going up, I moved slowly enough not to notice how rough it is. Coming down, though, it jars my head in my helmet, just the encouragement I need to tighten my hands and squeeze the brakes.

This fear of speed is nothing new. When I turned forty, I went skiing for only the second time in my life. My friend took off for the big-girl slopes while I signed up for a lesson. All around me, little kids in parkas bounced and hopped and swerved down the hill like an avalanche of gumballs.  I picked my way through them (by which I mean I went straight and hoped they wouldn’t knock me over), intent on mastering the snowplow.

Even as a kid, I picked the slow route. There were two ways to sled-ride from the top of Marvle Valley Drive to the bottom. The first was to sally through the yards, each one connected to the next by a small hill, a mostly flat front yard, and a driveway. (Some of those driveways, like ours, were red-dog in those days, so they slowed you down nicely!) The second way was to fly right down the steep road and hope there were no cars coming down Dashwood when you reached the bottom and careened across the street into the Buckley’s front yard. I don’t have to tell you which route I took, do I?

Earlier this summer I thought I could think my way out of some of my fears. Here’s one of the things I tried:

(A Partial List of) Things I’m Afraid Of:

Spiders in the shower
Moving (or playing music) fast
Touching dead things
Buildings/Bridges/tunnels collapsing
Car accidents
Talking politics with people I’m related to

Then I made this list.

(A Partial List of) Things I’m Not Afraid Of:

Public speaking
Taking up the violin in my forties
Leaving well-paying jobs that don’t feed my heart
Signing up for a triathlon when I’m out of shape
Getting my shoes dirty
Talking politics with people I’m not related to

I thought maybe I could figure out why I’m not afraid of the things on the second list and apply that logic to talk myself out of being afraid of the things on the first.

Then I watched my grand-daughter ride the Cliff-Hanger at Uncle Cliff’s. The ride lifts you 120 feet into the air and then drops you straight down.  At nine, Aurora is terrified to speak to most people, but she’ll shinny straight to the top of the rope at the gym, and she loves thrill rides. Her tiny feet dangle over the edge and she smiles her own cryptic Mona Lisa smile as she ascends into the sky and plummets down.

Where does fear come from, anyway? How come I got heights, Aurora got speaking, and my husband got water?

Just before school started, I spent a day with teenagers at a ropes course deep in the Manzano Mountains. My group of about two-dozen ninth graders was standing at the base of a tall pole capped by a tiny platform. The two girls who had volunteered to go first were suited up in harnesses and helmets. The first girl climbed straight up the pole and maneuvered easily onto the platform, some thirty feet in the air. The second girl also flew to the top; then she struggled a bit to climb onto the platform with her friend.

As an onlooker, I stand below, halfway hoping they will chicken out before I have to watch them leap from the platform, aiming for the tiny trapeze dangling nearly out of reach in front of them.

Of course they don’t chicken out. As they begin their count to three (one-two-three-jump, is the sequence the course director has drilled them on), I can hear the extra air in the voice of the girl who is afraid. I want to beg them not to jump, but that’s not the point of this morning, so instead I hope their belayers know what they are doing, that they got enough sleep last night, that they didn’t fight with their wives this morning. I hope the ropes hold and that the kids have put their harnesses on right, and by the time I’ve gone through this litany of fears, before I even have time to get to the end of The Memorare, my go-to incantation when I’m afraid, these two beautiful children have leapt into the sky and are dangling high above the ground, swaying and laughing in the cool, piney air.

At this point, as the (attentive) belayers gently lower the (safely harnessed) girls to the ground, a line from Kurt Vonnegut starts following me around.

If you’ve never had a quote follow you around, it’s just as you’d imagine it. Really. A little thought bubble pokes its way out of your shoulder and hovers in the air just beyond your left ear, sometimes for weeks, until you finally take those words into your life and figure out why they are haunting you. This one says, Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.

I realize I’m not going to be able to think my way out of my fears. When I first got married, I remember being a little bit afraid every time my husband left the house; for some reason, he seemed newly fragile. I wanted to follow him into the world each day and see him safely home. At some point, I forgot that fear is something that most people try to overcome; I set a generous place for it at the table. I was grateful to it for keeping my feet on solid ground. I was comfortable with the way it manifested in my stomach, in the shake in my voice, in a coldness in my hands. I even learned to feed it, imagining plane crashes, tunnels caving in, and other disasters on demand. I had decided, as I wrote in a poem, “to try like hell to stay alive.”

For a long time I wasn’t aware that I had donned a life-jacket, but even now it seems a not completely unreasonable reaction to the world.

The quote bubble hanging by my ear is getting annoying, so I finally pull Slaughterhouse Five off the shelf to refresh my memory. I’m not thrilled when I realize my quote is an epitaph Billy Pilgrim imagines for himself. In the book, it’s etched on a picture of a tombstone.

It’s not the quote I’d pick to sum up my life today, although I think it describes the world I spent a long time trying to live in.  It’s not too far off; I could live with, “It was beautiful and it hurt,” or “It was so beautiful that it hurt.” Or maybe if I’m writing my epitaph, I should keep the line I wrote one grade school Halloween: “Here lies Heather, under the weather.”

That still makes me smile.

There’s no rest when the first two girls are safe on the ground. The next pair is already clipped in to their harnesses and starting up the pole.

I’m thinking that maybe you have to let the world toss you around a little. I’m thinking that next time I ride down the bumpy bike trail, I might try to wait a few seconds before I start squeezing the brakes. I’m thinking about that moment just after you run over the edge of the cliff, before you realize you will have to fall. I’m thinking that that’s the space, out there for those few seconds in clear air where everything is beautiful, in which we live our lives.

Recently I got an email from an old friend who has been on her own journey out of loss into love. I’ve known Jacqui since the first day of first grade, and she has been telling me that we should go for a hot air balloon ride when we turn fifty.

I wouldn’t want her to read this essay and think I have decided I want to go for that ride. It’s fair to say, though, that lately I’ve been wondering what’s out there, just over the edge.

Bad Theology?

A few days ago, I was eating a roasted vegetable, pesto, and melted cheese sandwich in the school cafeteria when I overhead just enough of a conversation between my colleagues to become intrigued. “What is the meaning of life?” the historian said. The biologist replied, “What is life?” and then they both laughed.

I’ve been thinking about that second question. I learned this summer that a host of microorganisms calls my body home. I guess I’ve heard that before; I suspect in some long ago science class I looked at  a drop of saliva under a microscope and saw tiny things scurrying around, but this summer when I read an article about the The National Institute of Health’s Human Microbiome Project, I was hooked. The NIH is working “to characterize the microbial communities found at several different sites on the human body, including nasal passages, oral cavities, skin, gastrointestinal tract, and urogenital tract, and to analyze the role of the microbes in human health and disease.” It’s the human genome project all over again, with a vastly expanded notion of “human.”

Some of the things I’ve read suggest we might have several pounds worth of these creatures eating lunch, going to work, sleeping, making love, and raising families, all snug inside the cozy planet previously known as “Me.”

Is it hubris to get excited about the idea that colonies of microorganisms call my body home?

I remember reading an article years ago about the giant sequoias in California. The author had climbed into the uppermost branches with a group of botanists and wrote about the entire ecosystem she encountered. If I’m remembering right, a distinct species of huckleberry flourishes in the canopy. I remember being amazed as I read that a mini-world hides above the world  we know. I imagined how it would feel to be a bush whose roots sway in the California breeze. I like to think that to a root-bound creature it might feel like being part cloud.

I can’t really explain why I find these stories of mini-ecosystems so fascinating. Somehow the idea that bushes grow in trees or that microorganisms in my body are working beyond reach of my consciousness to keep me alive is oddly comforting.

Let’s be clear: I’ve never liked the idea of things crawling on me. When I was eight or nine, I used to tag along with a girl named Betsy as she delivered newspapers on Sunday mornings. I remember standing in her driveway, stuffing ads into the paper, and loading them into a big canvas Pittsburgh Press bag. At one point, while the rest of the neighborhood slept, my legs grew itchy. I looked down and was horrified to see hundreds of tiny aphids crawling out of my sneakers and swarming my legs. I jerked, I danced, and I howled, loud, neighbor-waking howls, until we finally dragged a hose out of Betsy’s garage and flushed the bugs away.

That was the end of letting things crawl on me. So it surprised me when I read about these studies to map the human microbiota and thought, “Cool!” In the pictures, they look like jars of multi-colored gummy bears, or necklaces of green, fuzzy jade, or twisty colored pipe-cleaners. These creatures, I’m reading, are linked to our health in ways that scientists are just beginning to explore.

As a young girl raised Catholic, I had lots of exposure outside of science class to the idea that my body was home to something other than “me”; in addition to being the container for that mysterious thing called soul, my body, I was taught, was also the temple of the equally mysterious Holy Spirit.

Honestly, that vision matches my experience fairly well. I have often felt deeply connected to the world. I’ve lived through solitary times when I have known, with the part of knowing that doesn’t happen in my head, that I was not alone. In her poem, “Some Questions You Might Ask,” Mary Oliver writes, “Is the soul solid, like iron?” and “Who has it, and who doesn’t?” The poem packs fourteen questions into twenty-one lines, including my favorite, “Why should I have it, and not the camel?”

Can you see where I’m going with this? I have just enough knowledge of science to put it to work to do bad theology. I’m not (quite!) saying I have discovered the soul and it is a collection of multicolored eukaryotes, but did you know they have been around for over a billion years? Do you know that they live in you and on you and that you are not, it turns out, ever really alone? It’s not our imaginations: something always pulses in the night.

One night in Pittsburgh I thought it was horses. I was staying with my parents in my childhood home and sleeping fitfully. The window by my bed was wide open, and late in the night I heard a horse whinnying deep in the woods. Longing spread through the trees as the animal called out, waited, called into the silence again. Finally, after what felt like hours, an answer came, and the two voices nickered back and forth. I fell asleep to their singing, bathed in wonder, gifted by this mysterious conversation.

Back home in Albuquerque, knowing there couldn’t be horses in those woods, I described the sound on an internet birding site. Within minutes, I received a link to a sound file identifying my midnight horses as screech owls. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Mated pairs may sing to each other antiphonally, both day and night.”

I want to say, I have heard the screech owls singing, each to each. In Eliot’s poem, after the mermaids sing each to each, “human voices wake us and we drown.” We all know that’s how the story always ends. A while ago, though, when I was still trying to decide if I should keep my guard up or settle in and trust the world, a priest stumped me by asking, “What is death, anyway?”

So here’s the thing I keep Googling. I want to know what happens to all those microorganisms when I die. Am I like those conifers in forest fires who open their pods and fling their seeds madly to the forest floor, shouting “Life Life Life!” into the flames? Do the bacteria in my digestive tract have a chance to flee their dying planet and strike out for a brave new world? Or do these same microbes who have devoted their lives to mine help me, one last time, to shed skin and bone and ease into element?

I like that idea. I’m trying to say that I’d be ok if it turned out that the secret to eternal life, to God, is symbiosis. I like to think that that huckleberry bush doesn’t know her roots never touch the ground, doesn’t know that the whole thing she calls the world is cradled in a net of branches, doesn’t know that she, too, is part huckleberry, part prokaryote, part bacteria, part fuzzy jade and twirly pipe-cleaner, part every other thing that teems and swims and breathes in this abundant world.

Just now, my ten year-old granddaughter asked me what I was writing about. I tried to explain without going in to too much detail that we have these tiny things living in us, and that I think it’s really cool. She got quiet for a minute, then stuck her tongue out. “Ew,” she said.

That’s another way of looking at it.




Little Dog

IMG_1836This morning as I write, a little barrel-shaped white dog is sitting on my desk. Her tail is curled across the edge of my laptop, and she is calmly surveying the scene behind me. In other words, she’s got my back.

Officially, her name is Snow White, which is the same name that her predecessor (a little white cat) had, but we call her Little Dog, because she’s about a tenth of the size of Rusty, who we call Big Dog when Little Dog comes to stay. We’re dog-sitting.


A few weeks ago, I was eating breakfast when I heard a persistent squeaky chirp outside. I listened for a little while, not sure whether it was a bird or something that needed tightening on the porch swing.

When I finally got up to look, I saw a robin hopping around, picking up juniper berries and rose hips from the rocks. The bird would pick up a berry, knock it on the ground a few times, and then hop over to the little spot of shade by the wall. There, the source of the squeaky chirp would open his mouth wide and wait for the big bird to drop the food in.

The funny thing was that the little bird with the wide mouth was almost as big as the big bird. Its breast was more speckley than red, and it was easy to imagine him as a chubby little kid. I am not an expert on how to raise a robin, so I laughed when I found myself thinking, “Isn’t that bird big enough to get his own food?”

I watched them eat breakfast until Big Dog lumbered out his dog-door and scared them away.


In July in Albuquerque the sky does somersaults. If you turn in a slow circle on a wild day you’ll see clear blue over the mesa, towering white cumulous over the south valley, dark gray storm clouds teasing the mountain, rain falling in Placitas, and way off in the distance, virga, that broken promise of rain that evaporates before it hits the ground.

The other night driving to a baseball game, I saw a fully formed sculpture in the sky. I looked up, and it was as though I were standing in a museum. Back-lit against the horizon laughed a white marble cherub, rivaling any you might see in a Renaissance collection. A few nights later, driving west just before sunset across the Montano Bridge, it happened again. This time I saw the carved bust of a beautiful woman.

I’ve been searching for links online that might give a sense of what I saw. This National Gallery of Art image of the work of  Tullio Lombardo comes closest.

My mother delighted in ordinary things, so it wasn’t unusual for us to look for faces and shapes in the clouds. “Look at the sailboat!” she might exclaim as walked onto the front porch, or “Ooh, do you see that old woman?”

These sculptures, though, are different. I wasn’t looking for anything when they appeared; I just glanced up and there they were, solid and luminous in the summer sky.


Last week, we traveled to Cocoa Beach, Florida, to visit one of my dearest friends. While there, I spent two mornings standing in the Banana River, really a salt lagoon, staring at manatees. At least a dozen of these giant sea creatures swam all around me, sometimes mere inches away, for hours. One came right up to me, flipped onto his back, and lay there gently flapping his flippers. Another, whose back was more barnacled than the others, kept swimming by my knees underwater, but wouldn’t surface until he was about ten feet away. Often I didn’t even see him coming; I’d suddenly sense movement in the water, look down, and he’d be there. Another swam up with her baby and nudged him up for air by my knees; I had the distinct sense that she was showing him off.

The next morning when I went back, the manatees were back, too, and we did the whole thing again.


The longer I’ve lived in the desert, the more each trip to the ocean has come to feel like a sacrament. I’m gripped by the urge to see and to name every feature of this watery creation. On our first day, we saw laughing gulls, royal terns, skimmers, American oystercatchers, a white ibis, lots of pelicans, and a strange new bird that looked like what you might get if you crossed a vulture with a flamingo.

From a distance, wood storks are tall and elegant. White wings the birds fold around themselves like robes hunch solemnly atop long, dark legs, giving them the gravitas of old-time dons. This scholarly air is enhanced by their bald, reptilian heads.

My husband and friend head into the restaurant while I stay behind, taking pictures and talking to the birds. Eventually I turn away and join people I love in the known world for happy hour at Fish Lips.


As I’ve been writing, Little Dog has relocated to my lap, so now I’m typing tilted to the right, with my left elbow up in the air and resting on her head.  At the beach, we watched a crow take funny, lurching side-steps into the water, as though he were climbing over things we couldn’t see; that’s how I’m moving now, as I shift and reposition myself around the thick skein of fur trying to get comfortable in my lap.


Reading other people’s writing, I’ve always believed that using asterisks between paragraphs to separate ideas was a cop-out; a shortcut writers use instead of finding and making evident the connections between one idea and another.

Playing with this technique myself, I suspect I’m  right.


When I went to the post office to stop our mail before the trip, the woman in front of me was buying stamps. The postal worker fanned her choices on the counter. “Are those Forever stamps?” she asked. He answered yes each time she picked up a different booklet and repeated the same question.

Finally, he said, “Lady, they’re all Forever stamps now.”

“Oh,” she responded. “And how long are they good for?”

He paused a moment, while she fingered the stamps and the question grew heavy around us.

“As long as forever is,” he told her. “Just as long as it lasts.”


Last night lightening ricocheted around the sky for hours, and thunder chased Little Dog far under the bed. I stayed up watching the sky explode until I couldn’t stay awake any longer. This morning dawned soft, and blue, and humid.

I’m trying to say that I love it here.

I’m trying to say that some days creation flops into view like a fish leaping in the Banana River and laughs at us for trying so hard to understand.

I’m trying to say that some days it is exactly enough to open my eyes in a wet world, to breathe salt air, to bask in a planet at play.