No Lie: Vultures on the Beach

I’m trying to sort out the birds. It’s not like I’ve never been to the ocean before; it’s that this is the first time I’ve ever been here with the intention of starting a long term relationship. I don’t want to start off with a lie.

A few evenings ago when the little white bird with the black legs (who might be a plover?) yanked a ghost crab (I’m fairly sure about that one) from the swash, he ran up the shore into the wrack and tried to find a nice quiet table for dinner.

No such luck. The brown bird with the long legs and the long beak (perhaps a willet?) started chasing him. Up the beach, down the beach, into the water. Every now and then a few other birds that might also be plovers joined in the chase.

The bird that might be a plover with dinner in its mouth kept dropping the crab and trying to take a bite, but every time, the bird that might be a willet would close in. Nothing for it but to grab your ghost crab and run.

I must have watched this dinner dance for ten minutes. Finally the bird that was the best at fishing gave up and tossed the remains of the crab on the sand. I expected the long-beaked bird to run in and grab the crab, but nobody came. Apparently all that drama was just about the chase.

The other brown bird that looks like an overgrown sparrow on orange stilts (that might be a sandpiper?) played no part in this story.

These things happened as I’ve told them. This is a true story. I was there. I watched it happen, and then I wrote it down.

You might be wondering

what this has to do with Daniel Dale, a journalist from the The Toronto Star. Then again, maybe you weren’t wondering that. Maybe that was just me. Either way, a tweet from NPR popped up while I was writing. In it, Dale was explaining why, when the guy we put in the White House just makes something up, Dale uses the word “lie” in his reporting.

It’s a complex argument but I’ll try to simplify it for you. (Actually, that last sentence is a lie. It’s still as simple as it was when your mom explained it to you in kindergarten.) If you make something up and tell people it is true, you are lying.

Call it a “definitional thing,” if we need to pretend it’s complicated. Dale’s bigger point is that if you are a major newspaper (he’s looking at you, New York Times), and you don’t use the word “lie” to describe a lie, you are, well, how can I say this…you are lying.

On a day when pipe bombs are flying around the country, I would have loved to tell you that the little bird that might be a plover caught a crab and the other birds cheered and they all shared the crab and lived happily ever after. That would have been a nice uplifting story, but it wouldn’t have been true.

Likewise, if I had said that the bird that might be a willet had flown across the border from Honduras planning to kill Americans, that would have been a lie, too. (See how easy?)

You might be wondering

what this has to do with vultures on the beach. This afternoon when Fred and I were walking along the beach, I saw three huge blackish-brown birds gathered on the beach above the scarp. Before a passer-by told me they were vultures (with a gently implied “duh” and a nod to their naked heads), I was planning to tell you that I had seen beach turkeys. Actually, I was trying out both “beach turkeys” and “sea turkeys” in my head.

I wasn’t going to tell you that they were actually called sea turkeys, because that would have been lying. I was going to tell you that I called them that in my head to help me remember what they looked like until I could get back to my friend’s condo and look them up in her helpful beach book.

Most of the time, I find it’s not all that hard not to lie.

Anyway, the vultures are on the beach because Red Tide is here in Brevard County. That means there are dead things on the beach, and vultures eat dead things.  I watched while a vulture dug in the sand and pulled out a dead fish and ate it calmly while his buddy vulture looked on politely.

No lie.

You might be wondering

where I’m going with this little collection of true stories from the beach, and I can assure you that you are not alone. I snapped a few photos of the vultures to prove they were there, then Fred and I continued on toward the pier.

Here in Cocoa Beach, sea turtles nest in the dunes. If you live along the beach, during turtle nesting season you have to turn off your lights or close your blinds at night so the turtles don’t think your light is the moon. The moonlight on the water draws the turtles into to the sea.

I find that fact to be both beautiful and true.

So this afternoon, while pipe bombs were flying around the country, an algae bloom was poisoning fish and gumming up the seafoam, and vultures with good table manners were digging in the sand, Fred and I kept walking toward the pier.

We hadn’t gone far before we saw the turtle, lugging her heavy body toward the sea. She lumbered through wet sand, a small crowd of beachcombers snapping photos and quietly cheering her on.

The “duh” woman  appeared at my side. “There’s so much life here!” she marveled. She was right. That was a true statement.

You might be wondering

how I’m going to tie these true stories from the beach together and draw this essay to a close. Again, let me assure you that you are not alone.

It’s just that I think it matters to learn the names of the birds, to be diligent in calling things what they are.

Yesterday I saw a news clip where the guy who lives in the White House claimed that Democrats are trying to get rid of coverage for pre-existing conditions (one of which I have) and Republicans are trying to protect that coverage.

That is a lie.

It’s driving me crazy. A vulture isn’t a willet isn’t a sea turtle. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.


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Moving to Florida

Photo of lot with sold sign.

When people say, “Why are you moving to Florida?” I don’t have an easy answer. A job? Not really. Retirement? Not that either. An ocean, I want to say, and the color green outside my windows. The weight of the air at sea level. Tall birds. 

A few facts and figures:

Albuquerque, New Mexico sits 35.0844 degrees North of the equator; Vero Beach, Florida: 27.6386. I’m moving closer to the fat middle of the planet, a more direct view of the sun.

I’m also moving closer to Greenwich, England (Albuquerque latitude: 106.6504 West, Vero Beach: 80.3873 W). From oldest to youngest, my siblings live at 79.9959, 70.8606, and 82.5863. In other words, we’ll all be in the same time zone now.

I’m also moving a little further from the sky. Depending on where you measure, Albuquerque, NM sits at an altitude of 5,312 feet. My new town clocks in at 13. Maybe I’m moving to Florida because it has a little more oxygen in the air.

I’m moving to Florida

because living in Albuquerque for thirty years was an accident. I moved here when I was twenty-four because I thought it would be fun to see the Southwest. The woman sitting next to me on the plane said, “If you wear out a pair of shoes, you’ll never leave.”

For thirty years she was right. I don’t have any of those Chicago shoes left in my closet. (Technically speaking, right now I don’t actually have a closet at all, but let’s not get hung up on that.)

When I say spending thirty years in Albuquerque was an accident, you shouldn’t think about a house fire or a car crash. You should think of a wrong turn that leads to the best strawberry shortcake you’ve ever had, or heavy traffic heading west on Montano that puts you in the right place to see the cranes fly in. You should think of a flat tire that strands you by the side of the road so you could see a murmuration of birds at play in thin air. Or the kind of accident where you fall in love and find a family and a new job and a great church and great friends and mountains and roadrunners and  green chile and tumbleweed.

Living in Albuquerque for thirty years has been that kind of accident.

I’m moving to Florida

because goatheads.

Kidding/Not kidding.

I’m moving to Florida

because when we were driving around looking at houses, I kept chanting in my head, “Rivers, Lake, Mountains, Ocean.” I was writing my autobiography, mapping the geography of my life. From Pittsburgh through Chicago to Albuquerque to Vero Beach. From the place the Allegheny and the Monongahela Rivers flow into the Ohio, to the icy rocks along Lake Michigan, to the high desert slopes of the Sandias, to this long stretch of sand flanking the Atlantic.

It’s as though I need to make sure I have all of the words. “Ask what I want, and I will sing: I want everything, everything”–some old Barbra Streisand song that’s been stuck in my head since high school.

There are other reasons.

Some ties had to loosen enough to let me go. Some ties had to grow so strong that I could leave without fear of them ever breaking. Some pieces of this landscape had to lodge themselves so deeply in me that I will always be able to see them, the way I can still see the sunset spreading through the cherry branches from the back window of the house on Marvle Valley.

Only then, it seems to me, when you’ve loved a place and its people so deeply that it hurts like a goathead to say goodbye, only then are you allowed to put on some brand new shoes and walk away.


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Learning to Drive

Photo of rose bush

My oldest granddaughter is learning to drive. She fiddles with the levers under the seat to adjust it just so and backs out of the driveway. Her shoulders are up around her ears, and I have to coax her to relax a little.

Her eyes are glued to the pavement right in front of her. I encourage her to  sweep the road with her eyes, to glance in the rearview mirror. It’s as though she is somehow paralyzed and in motion at the same time.

When I was learning to drive

someone told me to “Aim High in Steering.” It must have been a heading in the Pennsylvania Drivers’ Manual, because it’s been running through my head like a chapter heading ever since Cali first got behind the wheel of my Subaru a few weeks ago.

Today she wants a bigger challenge, so we head down Golf Course and hang a right on Montano. We’re heading for Unser, where the road cuts through the petroglyphs and intersects the far west stretch of Paseo del Norte.

The road opens out as we cruise past the volcanoes and the Double Eagle airport. The city falls away to the east, and if you aim high in steering, all you see is desert road unravelling before you. Cali takes the curves gently and doesn’t panic as impatient drivers zoom by on her left.

I’m usually a nervous passenger,

but for some reason, I channel utter zen cool when someone is learning to drive. My step-daughter still jokes that when I taught her, I would say, in a matter-of-fact tone, things like, “You might want to tap the brakes now before that semi flattens us.”

I can’t explain it, but nothing Cali does really throws me. She’s doing fine, other than the fact that she doesn’t quite get the idea of stopping gradually as you come to an intersection. (“You might want to brake sometime soon,” I say a few times.) I don’t even flinch when  we hang a left and she turns into the oncoming traffic instead of the right lane. “Go to the right,” I say a few times, and she does. We don’t even have to hop the median.

My point is that while she’s cruising the desert, I have time to think about aiming high in steering. If I remember my Drivers’ Ed right, I think the idea is to pay attention to what’s happening up ahead, to lift your gaze beyond what’s right in front of you so you can anticipate problems before they happen.

It might be the advice Cali needs as she stares straight ahead, but for some reason I haven’t passed on this particular nugget yet. (“Ease off the gas when you see brake lights,” and “If there’s a ball rolling into the road, there will be a child”–these are the ones I’ve told her.)

It’s June,

so lizards are skittering up the back wall and the roses need a good dead-heading. Cali pulled uneventfully into the driveway after chalking up another hour and a half in her driving log, and I’m still chewing on”Aim High in Steering.”

Is it the opposite of living in the moment? Usually when I hear kids planning out their whole future, I cringe a little. I know teachers are supposed to be in favor of setting goals, but so much of what teenagers are planning comes from other people’s goals and expectations for them.

Most of them haven’t found that thing that makes them vibrate yet; or, if they have, too often they have to set it aside  to jump through all the other hoops we put in front of them and call school.

Live now, I tell them. You’ll figure it out. Life will ask you questions and you’ll build a life by answering them.

And yet,

come October I won’t live here anymore. I yanked my gaze out of the present, and now I’m learning to drive into a different life. When I first made this decision, a friend told me that “the universe rewards boldness.”

It sounded encouraging, but I didn’t know what she meant until it started happening. Barriers, stress points, uncertainties–all those things are just evaporating. I’m aiming high in steering, and friends keep running out into the road ahead to clear the way.

This afternoon when I was trying to figure out where this post was going, I pulled The Art of Possibility off my shelf. In Chapter 8, “Giving Way to Passion,” the Zanders quote Martha Graham. She says, “There is a vitality, a life force…that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it…it will be lost.”

There’s a lesson there,

I think. Once upon a time, a Buddhist nun asked me to wash some special glasses. They had belonged to her parents, she told me. I washed them carefully, dipping them in the soapy water one at a time. As I placed the last one in the drying rack on the counter, I missed the peg, and it shattered on the tile floor.

I felt terrible, knowing that the glass was important to her. When I told her what had happened, though, she said, “It is the nature of glass to break.”

Back in January before I threw my whole life up into the air, I wrote, “It’s madness not to be who you are.” What I didn’t know then is that when you step deeply into who you are, into your unique nature, you step into energy, into Graham’s “life force.” It turns out, that force has (is?) a momentum all its own.

So that’s what I know as June warms up the lizards on the back wall. Cali is about eight hours into her life as a driver. Next time we go out, I think I’ll tell her to aim high in steering.

Right now, though, the rose bush is shouting for attention, so I’ll stop here. I’ve got to get out the clippers and make way for some new things to bloom.


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Advice for Seniors

Note from the seniors reading "We [heart] you Ms. O'Shea"

“Do you have any advice for us?”

It’s a few days before the last day of classes and the seniors don’t want to spend any more time analyzing the Federal Reserve’s response to the financial crisis.

Who can blame them? My mind is on the future these days, too.

“Write an advice post on your blog,” they say. Then, they get back to work preparing for their debate on the Federal Reserve.

So, if they can power through their senioritis,  I guess I’ll get to work, too. Senior women in B-Block Economics, this one’s for you.

Note to everyone else: one of the perks dangers of teaching is that it’s easy to convince yourself that you are as wise as the students think you are. Let’s agree to pretend that’s true for a few more minutes while I get my hubris on and offer them some advice.

1. Everyone is insecure.

I spent a good deal of college feeling like I wasn’t quite “enough.” I was a great student and I made good and lasting friends, but I always felt a little bit like a misfit.

At my twenty-year college reunion I found myself in conversation with some of those people I’d been intimidated by. They were talking about all the things and people they had been intimidated by. Come again? One of them even mentioned my brains. Huh. 

(Bonus advice: go to reunions. They are funny and they give you an excuse to think about your life. Also, there’s a good chance that the crush who ignored you senior year will have lost his hair. That will feel better than it should.)

2. If you have a terrible job, juggle glasses.

My freshman year I worked in the dining hall. If your dining hall has a conveyor belt, imagine riding on your tray all the way through the little opening in the wall where it disappears. I worked on the other side of that wall.

Worse than that, I worked on the other side of that wall during dinner on Fridays when students were starting to let off steam for the weekend. Young people do terrible, disgusting things to mashed potatoes and patty melts after a few beers.

My job was to scrape the mashed potato castles and ground beef sculptures off those trays. Pete’s job was to take the glasses off the trays, dump out the mashed potatoes and fruit punch, and load the glasses in huge plastic racks.

Pete would grab a glass from a tray, toss it into the air, and catch it behind his back. Then he’d grab another, until he was juggling six at one time while trays kept rushing by. I never saw Pete break a glass.

I was homesick that semester in the dining hall. Pete made me feel like I could be happy.

(Bonus advice: don’t put mashed potatoes in your fruit punch in the dining hall. Extra bonus advice: don’t actually ride your tray on the conveyor belt. That would be weird. Extra super bonus advice: don’t keep that dining hall job for too long, Pete or no Pete. Dorm mail carrier–that was a good job.)

3. Try not to hurt people more than you have to.

You are going to have to hurt people sometimes. Maybe you will tell your freshman roommate that you want to live with someone else next year. Perhaps you will disappoint your parents when you realize the needs of your heart don’t align with the needs of their expectations. Someday you might stop loving someone who still loves you.

Life is complicated and sometimes it’s really hard to figure out how to be good. Don’t waste your karma hurting people when you don’t have to.

(Bonus advice: when you do hurt someone, don’t fake apologize. People hate that shit. Bonus apology to non-teenagers: Sorry about the profanity. Teenagers like that shit. Bonus homework assignment for Econ B: Debate the following proposition: O’Shea just fake apologized. Be prepared to argue either side.)

4. Don’t use the ice bucket in hotel rooms.

Old people soak their teeth in them. Don’t ask me how I know that.

(Bonus advice: If you have a long drive to college, you can always count on O’Reilly Auto Parts.)

5. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”

I’m just kidding. That’s terrible advice. (Trust me–I’m your Econ teacher.)

Did we remember to make you read Hamlet? Laertes, son of Polonius, is heading off to college. Polonius, perhaps fearing that he has forgotten to raise his son, starts spewing random advice. You can watch Bill Murray in this scene if you follow the link. Go ahead, click on it. I’ll wait.

I always thought Polonius was being sort of silly and arrogant in that scene. Then I started writing a blog post full of advice.

(Bonus advice: Make a budget. Live below your means. Be frugal when you have to be and generous always. Extra bonus advice: That thing Polonius said about friendship (did you watch the clip like I asked you to?): “Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel”–that was good advice. Do that.)

6. You don’t get extra credit for being strong.

Be as mature as you can pull off. Try to be decent. Be kind. But strong? Sometimes strong is stupid. Let people help you.

(Bonus advice pop quiz: Fill in the blank with appropriate bonus advice: ___________________________________________________________)

7. Like what you like, not what you think you are supposed to like.

I like Dancing with the Stars. I can tell you the complete plot of a Brady Bunch episode in thirty seconds or less. I’m a halfway decent Texas Hold’em player (I’m not kidding–I won a tournament in Laughlin one time).

People with MBAs and PhDs in English aren’t supposed to like these things. Sue me. I’m happy.

(Bonus advice: Love who you love, not who you think you are supposed to love. You should probably make sure that point ends up in your notes. In the scene before Polonius gives Laertes advice, Laertes gives Ophelia advice. In a nutshell, he says: don’t love that Hamlet guy you love. Things go badly from there. Bonus writing advice: don’t bury your most important point in the parentheses after number 7.)

8. No one is just one thing.

You’ll have to figure out what to do with this advice on your own. Someday you will need it, and I promise that it’s true.

9. See that face in the mirror?

Like that face. Say nice things to it. Treat it as well as you treat your good friends. I think I was in my forties before I figured this out. Skip those twenty years of wishing your face looked like somebody else’s face. There’s absolutely no upside there. Use that extra time to read Hamlet.

You are going to wake up with yourself every single morning of your life. You’ll probably wake up with other people sometimes, too, and that can be nice. But you are the one who will stick around. Make sure that person is someone you enjoy hanging around with.

10. You don’t need my advice.

I was halfway through writing this post on your last day of class. You started giving advice to the juniors. You told them to stand up for themselves and trust their own choices. Then you advised them not to stress out comparing themselves to their friends. Finally, you reminded them that they can get a good college education anywhere–that what you put into it is more important than where you go.

I just sat back and smiled. Class of 2018, relax. You’ve got this.


If you’ve got advice for the class of 2018, feel free to add it in the comments, and don’t hesitate to share this post with your friends.

In Vino Veritas?

When I was in sixth grade, I wrote an essay about an old family story and was asked to read it over the P.A. system. I don’t remember all of the details, but the important part of the story happens when Gracie and Vader (some degree of great-grandparents) hear a knock on their door late one night when they are in bed.

The knock is followed by their daughter’s voice, saying, “Mom, Dad, I’ve come to say good-bye.” She was living far away at the time and couldn’t possibly be there, but they both heard her.

It wasn’t until sometime the next day that they heard a different knock on the door and learned from the police that their daughter had died the night before. They knew then that she had indeed “come to say goodbye.”

I’ve been trying to figure out what it means to know something. My husband will confirm that I’ve never met a button I didn’t push. “What’s this do?” I’ll say, already pushing the button, whether it’s on the dashboard, or the furnace, or his new camera. It’s not enough for me to hear his answer, “it adjusts the zoom,” or “it lights the pilot”—I have to see what that means by trying it out for myself. Once I’ve poked, prodded, and explored, I can relax, confident that I know exactly what that button does.

I found some tangible evidence of things I know while I was looking for a copy of that old essay. I pulled a folder labeled “St. Louise” out of a milk crate in my closet and was astounded to see all the things I know.

Apparently, I have hand-written, illustrated, and gotten good grades on lab reports on such diverse topics as Basic Principles in Electricity; Micro-Organisms (this one includes a drawing of the life cycle of a mold); Chemical, Physical, and Nuclear Change; and lots of reports on phylums, including Chordata, Arthropoda, Echinodermata (those cool spiny-skinned animals), and Molluska.

I have also written broadly  (and in cursive) about diverse topics in the social sciences, including Racial Relations in the North and South During the Gilded Age (which I covered thoroughly in 2 pages), Steamships (which includes a drawing of The Clermont), The US Indian Policy, Eli Whitney, Lillian A. Wald, and The Development of Air Power during World War One.

I also found a scrapbook from the 1976 Presidential campaign that includes my in-depth analysis of the choice between tickets: “Pineapple or peanuts?” Wait for it.

Sadly, I have no memory of knowing anything about any of these things.

Do you know that moment when you are watching Jeopardy! when you find yourself saying words like spirilla or manganese phosphate or cheliped with utter confidence and wondering how you know these things? I learned today that the answer to that question is  “What is seventh grade science?”

So. Here’s another thing I know.

A few years ago my niece was considerate enough to get married at a winery in the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. Glenora Wine Cellars has an inn, a restaurant, and down the hill toward Seneca Lake, a cottage. My sister rented the cottage, and I stayed there with her and her husband; my nephew, his wife, and their baby; and Sarah, until her wedding night. The two families slept in bedrooms upstairs while Sarah and I shared a closed-in porch on the back of the house.

On Sarah’s wedding night, I had the porch to myself.  Sometime around two or three in the morning, I woke up and heard people talking in the front room. My porch was separated from the main house by a sliding glass door that we’d been leaving open. On the other side of the glass door was a small dining room, and directly in front of that was the family room.

The soft voices made me think the baby had woken everyone up, and now that he seemed to have fallen back to sleep, the parents and grandparents were relaxing together before heading back to bed.

I had to go to the bathroom, but I was afraid I’d wake the baby if I went into the front room and joined the conversation, so I tried to stay invisible as I slipped through the open door. I could see shapes in the dark room that matched my assumption of what was going on, and I could hear them all talking softly. As I came out of the bathroom, I saw and heard them again. It was a sweet moment, and I fell peacefully back to sleep.

Sometime in the middle of the next day I turned casually to my nephew’s wife and said, “So, you guys must have had a rough night.”

“What do you mean?” she asked me, genuinely confused.

“Mason had you up for a while, didn’t he?”

“No, he slept great,” she said. She looked at me a little funny when I said, “Seriously?” and reassured me that she and her husband and baby had had a deliciously full night of sleep.

A little later I tried to get a different answer from my sister. “Were you guys up with Mason last night?” I asked Judy, thinking that maybe the thoughtful grandparents had heard the baby crying and decided to let the tired parents sleep.

Again, “No, we slept all night.”

Imagine that you know that you ate a bowl of shredded wheat with blueberries this morning for breakfast. You know it the same way you know everything: you touched it, you saw it, you pushed its buttons. Then imagine that people you love and trust insist that there is no such thing as shredded wheat.  That’s how I felt all day as we hiked the waterfall in Watkins Glen. I kept reliving those nighttime moments, trying to find a way to believe they hadn’t happened.

As we climbed toward the top of the waterfall, I found myself wondering about the Underground Railroad. Now, I am not a person who goes through life spontaneously thinking about historic events. At no other time in my forty-nine years has the Underground Railroad popped into my head as I hiked along a waterfall. But there it was; as the afternoon passed, I became convinced that the family I had seen, heard, and felt emanating peace and love from that room had something to do with the Underground Railroad.

For the record, I know that I sound like a crazy person here. My husband’s cousin used to take pictures in graveyards, and she and my father-in-law would circle the spirits they saw in them, and I thought they were crazy.

By the time we got back to the cottage, I was hungry to press every button I could to learn about  the Finger Lakes’  involvement with the Underground Railroad. I was heading toward the porch to get my iPad when I noticed a book on the bookshelf. I don’t remember the exact title, but I think it was Emerson Klee’s Underground Railroad Tales: With Routes through the Finger Lakes Region. Remember that “They’re here!” moment from Poltergeist?

Here’s what I know for sure: There were people in that room that night. They were at peace, resting, lulling a baby to sleep. My family swears it wasn’t them. The Amazon blurb for Klee’s book notes the existence of “eight routes and 41 stations in the Finger Lakes Region.”

Here’s what my rational brain, and I expect your rational brain, thinks: It wasn’t just a wedding; it was a wedding at a winery. Of course, I had been drinking wine. I must have been dreaming. I must have seen the book on the bookshelves earlier in the week, and it filed in dutifully when my mind was looking for answers.

That’s a perfectly plausible, perfectly rational explanation. It’s not the one I believe, but it’s possible.

Later that summer, still pushing buttons to learn about my ghosts, I did some research. I found this book on Amazon: Ghosts of Genesee Country: From Captain Kidd to the Underground Railroad. The author, Ralph Esposito, leaves it to his readers to decide whether or not they believe his stories, but adds, “As for me, my money is on the ghosts.”  If I’m crazy, at least I’ve got company.

I have tangible proof that I knew a lot about the phylum Echinodermata when I was thirteen, but I didn’t know I knew those things until this afternoon. The list of things I don’t know grows exponentially as I get older. I’m not even sure this whole idea of knowing holds up very well. Emily Dickinson says “Wonder—is not precisely Knowing and not precisely Knowing not.”

I don’t precisely know if there is such a thing as a ghost, or a god, or what exactly happens to that thing we were in the second (or the century) after we take our very last breath. My great (or great-great) grandparents knew their daughter had visited them as she was dying. I know there were people in that room in Dundee.

When Hamlet has to explain his dead father’s appearance to his best friend, he says, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

My husband, though, is more comfortable with the idea of me drinking too much wine than of me seeing ghosts. He points me instead to a quote often misattributed to Shakespeare that says, “The wine-cup is the little silver well, Where truth, if truth there be, doth dwell.”

I know what I think happened that night. You’ll have to decide for yourself.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

 

Marrow

I found the dead robin in the loft in front of the wine cellar a few weeks before my uncle died. I had come upstairs to get a sauvignon blanc, not to contemplate mortality, yet there she lay, still and harmless as a kicked-off shoe. She didn’t have a mark on her, which made me certain that my golden retriever not only hadn’t brought her in to the house, but didn’t even know she was here.

We make up myths to explain the inexplicable, so here’s mine: The bird walked in through the doggy door one quiet morning when no one was home. She might have been dizzy, having flown into a window. She might have seen the dog walk through the wall and been curious. She might have grown tired of a crow pestering her, or maybe she just wanted some shade.

Inside, she wandered around the house for a while, flapping up through open space, gaining altitude. There are thirty-two windows in my house. Seeing sky in so many places, she got confused. At last she decided the only way out was through the glass door at the eastern end of the loft. She soared into air gone strangely solid, staggered back a few feet, and died.

My husband wasn’t home when I found her, so I pulled a baby gate across the doorway to the loft to keep death in and the dog out, and went downstairs, wineless.

I am afraid of dead things.  More precisely, I’m afraid of dead things in my house. Outside, in the world, I’m curious about the oddly tilted neck of the goose in the ditch, the hollowed out beaver on the trail, the fossilized lizard in the fountain. But here, inside my house, I’m totally freaked out.

Most of the time this isn’t a problem, but late last summer, wild things kept coming inside. We have a doggy-door that’s covered by a simple flap of carpet. For fifteen years, other than the time the neighbor’s jack russell terrier sauntered in while we were eating spaghetti (sensing correctly that my father-in-law would share his supper) and the time a squirrel peeked in but ran when I yelled “no,” and the time the beagles threw a party for a big black cat, it has served as a surprisingly sufficient barrier to keep the outside world outside.

Last August when the first mouse came in, I saw him slant-wise. He was there and not there, felt more than seen. I was just about to remind my husband of that time in the old house when a giant centipede skittered across the tile when the mouse made a run for it.

Mouse removal isn’t the sort of thing either of us is good at. Over the next twenty minutes, we managed to chase him out from behind the love-seat, around the room, and into the piano, where none of our ill-chosen tools (broom, dustpan, salad tongs, pancake flipper) proved useful either for catching him or scaring him out of the house. Finally, he escaped into another room where we lost his trail.

The next day, I did what I always do when I’m confronted with wild things I don’t understand. I went to my school to ask a science teacher, and came home on a kill mission. It turns out someone has actually built a better mousetrap, so after almost losing a few fingers to an old wooden one, I went to Home Depot and bought six little white plastic traps. Lined up on the kitchen counter, my weapons looked more like a row of tiny toilets than an arsenal.

Fred was on his way out of town, so after I smeared the traps with peanut butter and set them around the baseboards, he knocked on the neighbor’s door to arrange my disposal crew. Chuck, the neighbor, rolled his eyes. I know this because he rolled his eyes again when I rang his doorbell the next morning to ask him to throw my dead mouse away, and yet again when I recoiled as he tried to hand me the used mousetrap, sans mouse.

Two more mice came in alive and went out dead. While I grew efficient at trap placement, I never was able to throw the dead mouse away or to reuse a trap that had killed a mouse.

I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m afraid to touch these dead things. It isn’t about anything rational, and it’s not a superficial squeamishness. It’s deeper than that, more intractable; it’s monsters in the closet, trolls under the bridge. I know that if I hadn’t had a neighbor willing to throw the mouse away, I would have closed that bedroom door, sealed the opening beneath it with a towel, and left the carcass there until my husband got home. I am terrified to feel the weight of death in my hands.

Like so many other fears, naming it doesn’t make it go away. To understand isn’t necessarily to overcome. I keep tugging on the thread of this fear, trying to unravel the string back to a source. Today it leads me to a photo: a four-year old stands by a rosebush, reaching toward it. In one memory of this picture, an older brother is chasing me around the yard. In another, I’ve just put down the hose, which, I’m told, I would hold for hours, mesmerized by the flow of water.

Something about that little girl’s expression makes me think she was both living in that moment and already writing its story, that she was not just laughing at the water flowing from the hose, but capturing it, wondering about it, and preparing herself to report back to anyone who would listen that water comes out of a hose and turns into a rosebush.

Kafka explains this little girl to me when he says, “I have never understood how it is possible for almost everyone who writes to objectify his sufferings in the very midst of undergoing them.” He might have substituted “joys” or “loves” for “sufferings” if he had lived a happier life. I don’t know when I first realized I had a job in the world, that it would be my place not just to be, but to observe and to tell, to “objectify [my] experience” even as I was busy living it, but when I look at that little girl, I think she knew.

It’s dangerous, though. What if there are things you are afraid to know, like the weight and warmth of a dead bird in your hand? What if you are unwilling to go near the things that disturb you, like small dead animals in your home? What if you are too small, and the world is too big, and you decide to keep your art at a distance? What if you keep objectifying without writing?

Since art is how you were built to live, you end up, without ever planning it, keeping your whole life at a distance. You develop a limp, one foot walking on the path leading you to write, to be who you are built to be, one stepping safely on the same path you think everyone else is on. Your massage therapist confirms it: one leg has grown shorter than the other, one hipbone tilts awry.

It turns out this is an essay about art. We make up myths to explain the inexplicable, to help us tell the truth about the world. I have been trying to explain to myself why for so many years I lived without being claimed by writing. That objectivity that I mastered young lets you zoom out, live at a distance, while writing, if you do it, pulls you back in to the marrow. Kafka called a “non-writing writer” a “monster courting insanity.” Perhaps he meant a woman who might just begin screaming if she has to touch a dead robin by the wine cellar.

I don’t know if I have figured anything out here, or if I have said anything that will help anyone else figure anything out. I’d like to think I have. I do know that when Fred got home, it took him about twenty seconds to don a work glove, pick up the dead robin, and toss her in the trash outside.

Revelation

Am I really the only one who never realized that Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and the ABCs are the same song?

I learned this riveting bit of trivia from Hakim Bellamy, Albuquerque’s first Poet Laureate, at a workshop in January. It was a throwaway line, something like, “You know, the same way Twinkle Twinkle…” He wasn’t expecting to reveal truth with that aside, but for me, it eclipsed everything else he had to say.

It’s not like I haven’t thought about these songs since I was five. Twinkle is contemporary music for me. If that idea seems hard to imagine, you probably never had a child who played a string instrument. My granddaughter decided she wanted to play the violin when she saw Celtic Woman on TV. In retrospect, she was still in her princess phase, so maybe she just wanted to wear the sparkly dress, but we’re enthusiastic grandparents, so off we went to violin lessons.

The Suzuki method leaves nothing to chance. There are games for learning to hold the bow, games for naming the parts of the violin, games for getting to violin lessons on time. (Ok, I made that last one up, but there ought to be.)

The first thing that happens when your granddaughter takes up violin is that Twinkle Twinkle Little Star becomes the music of your life. She’ll play the twinkle theme in quarter notes (the way you are used to hearing it), and then she’ll play it in triplets (think twin-twin-twin-kle-kle-kle), which she will understand as “lavender octopus.” She’ll play Twinkle to the rhythm of “fuzzy yellow caterpillar” and to “I practice each morning.” Just last week she started playing it to “I’m [pause] a monkey.” My point is that she will spend some part of each day for the next two or three years (and counting) playing the song I didn’t know was the ABC song.

The second thing that happens when your granddaughter takes up the violin is that you realize she’s having a lot of fun, and you’re just watching. Hence the third thing: you buy a violin and start playing Twinkle Twinkle every day yourself.

I have to admit that I thought it looked easy. I’ve played the piano on and off for a long time—how hard could it be to learn an instrument when you only have to read one clef?

It turns out, there are at least three reasons it’s harder to learn to play violin than piano.

1. The notes on a piano know who they are. If you put your finger on middle C, the 24th white key from the far left of the keyboard, the tone you hear will be, with a high degree of statistical certainty, middle C.

Not so on the violin. You will put your finger in the same unmarked location where you are certain you put it yesterday to play a D, and you are likely to play a D flat (who plays a D flat on purpose?), or a D#, or if you haven’t been practicing enough, you might actually play a C or an E.

2. Learning to play piano, you might have to practice scales in contrary motion (one hand singing do re mi fa…the other do ti la so…), but both hands are doing roughly the same thing in different directions. You do not have to finger a scale in your left hand while your right hand makes unnatural stroking motions with a stick.

3. You do not have to hoist a piano onto your shoulder and hold it in precisely the right place with your chin to play it.

Finally, if my husband or my dog were writing this list and loved me less than they do, they might add that it never actually causes your family physical pain when you practice piano.

So.  All that is to say that I’m quite familiar with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star; it’s not an abandoned relic of my childhood.

Which brings me to the ABCs. With five older siblings, I’m sure I knew the alphabet well before first grade, but circa 1970, I (and the forty-four other students who would line up in front of and behind me through eighth grade) marched around Sr. Esther’s room, carrying canes with letters on them. Along the way, we jumped in tires and probably even clapped out beats as we sang the alphabet song. I loved those canes.

I remember 1970 as the year we colored everything yellow and circled words that rhymed. At some point, we also learned to say the alphabet backwards, presumably to make looking up words in the dictionary easier. (I can’t say this skill has ever helped me figure out if equanimity comes before or after erotic on the fly, but it does make it easy to impress teenagers on the first day of class. As does writing your name forwards and backwards at the same time with a marker in each hand, which is really no different than playing a scale in contrary motion, but I digress.)

What I’m trying to say is that I’ve had a love affair with the alphabet since I was a little kid. I used to say periwinkle was my favorite color, just because I liked how it sounded. And when I checked the dictionary just now to make sure periwinkle really is just a fancy way to say purple, I learned it is also a sea snail, which is every bit as much fun to say.

So at some point when I was three or four or five, I learned the song that taught me to cast my wonder onto the stars, and I learned the song that gave me twenty-six tools I could use to explore that wonder.

“How I wonder what you are” still pulls me onto the back deck with my sleeping bag each November to watch the Leonids. “How I wonder what you are” still calls me to my keyboard to explore that mystery, the way Rilke does when he explains life in eleven syllables: “it is alternately stone in you and star.”

When Hakim Bellamy said casually, “You know, the way Twinkle Twinkle and the ABCs are the same song,” what I heard was, “in the beginning was the word,” or, in the words of my old teacher, John Dunne, “if it all means the same thing, it means God.”

Back when I was first learning to sing to the stars and to love the world with letters, I had to leave for the bus stop when the trolley came for the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Today, I have to stop writing and get ready for work when I hear my neighbor’s garage door open.

Before I turn off my desk lamp, a little pool of light illuminates my hands, spidering over my laptop. The backs are flat and my fingers curl gently toward the keys. If I were to put pennies on them while I type, an old piano trick for practicing scales, they wouldn’t fall off. If the moonlight caught me just then and you looked in the door, you wouldn’t be able to tell if I were playing at a Bach Invention or playing at salvation.

Click here to read Rilke’s poem Evening  

  Click here to get to know Hakim Bellamy