the last thimbleberries

The last thimbleberries of the season are ripening. Early September and there is already a chill in the mid-day shadows. My 2-year-old and I plucked the tart, pink caps from the bushes when I noticed a tiny feather floating in the leaves. I peered closer and noticed the nearly invisible strands of a spider web locking the feather in place. A beautiful mistake, suspended by threads so fine, so expertly woven, there was no escape. I thought of Texas. A place I used to live. A place I struggled to really live.

“I think Texas is hostile to my womb,” I would say to my husband when we were trying to get pregnant but couldn’t.

I visited a doctor. She had five children. She said I would be fine. I told her early menopause runs in my family and that we had been trying for years. She told me to come back in another. Then she had me lay back on the crinkle paper for a routine pap smear. Taped to the ceiling was a poster I hadn’t noticed before. A photograph of a sunset with a prayer to a God I wasn’t sure I believed in anymore. Afterward I put my clothes on and never went back.

I found another doctor that specialized in fertility. While waiting for him to arrive I counted three couches in his freezing office—two more than my husband and I could squeeze into our tiny Austin apartment. While fiddling with a magnetic puzzle on the table I read the wooden sign facing outward on his desk: “Babies are a gift from God.” I was enraged but still couldn’t bring myself to leave. I wanted to have a baby. And perhaps this man could help us to conceive.

As he filled out my medical history for his files, I asked him if stress could be a factor. “You’d have to be under extreme stress,” he said flatly looking up from the clipboard. I knew then that he had never personally felt the loss of hope as his partner watched the swirl of red circle the toilet bowl once again. I offered to show him the months of temperature charts of my cycle that I religiously plotted. “That just tells you when you should have had sex,” he said. I felt foolish.

That day he performed a transvaginal ultrasound to examine the follicles in my ovaries. I asked for a tour of the screen. He turned the computer in my direction. My uterus looked a like a formidable black cloud. He pointed out my ovaries. Inside was a universe of stars.  

Eventually, two tiny pinpricks of light inside those sacs became my sons. A third never became anything more than a few weeks of promise. One day I felt a glimmering of pregnancy and then it disappeared. Like a ghost. I knew I’d lost the pregnancy before my doctor told me.

We discussed my options. I had an out of state work trip coming up and my doctor explained that the tissue could easily pass or it may result in heavy bleeding that required a trip to the emergency room. I was supposed to attend a conference with two men. I couldn’t imagine going to dinner and calmly excusing myself to assess the bleeding in a restaurant bathroom. We scheduled a dilation and curettage so I could decide when and how to move on from the loss.

Two days ago Texas deputized and incentivized its citizens to spy on their family members, friends, and neighbors, and report their personal tragedies to the government. At the time I felt a tightening in my chest. It remains there. How can women trust anyone when living in a state of surveillance? How can they thrive?

This afternoon I felt a need to go back to the web. I looked for the spider, hiding somewhere under the leaves. This time it was stationed in the middle of the web, waiting. I fished the feather out with my fingers and cradled it in my palms.

The part of the quill that attaches to the bird is called the inferior umbilicus. It’s how the feather is nourished to grow. I studied the miniscule tube and briefly wondered where the bird was now. If it even knew what it had lost somewhere along the way. And then I opened my palms and let the feather catch the wind.

the end of the pandemic is beige

I wasn’t expecting the end of the pandemic to be beige.

But there I was, sitting in a metal folding chair in an empty department store that once housed a JCPenney’s, staring at my reflection in one of those floor-to-ceiling columns with mirrors on all four sides. My back was straight, my feet were firmly planted on the ground. I have never had such good posture.

Members of the Vermont National Guard strode between the rows of chairs collecting paperwork and directing human traffic. Like cattle. And I was grateful to be joining the herd. I looked around trying to find some familiarity behind all the cloth masks but it was an effort I was doomed to fail at—I barely know anyone here anyway.

So I focused instead on the carpet. It was beige. So were the tiles lining the aisles where shoppers once pushed carts filled with clothing, towels, coffeemakers, and shoes. The movable partitions segmenting the operation into check in, shots administered, and check out, were beige too.

I can’t say it wasn’t what I expected. Because honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But in case you are wondering: There are no hugs at the end of the pandemic — at least not in the beginning.

During the 15 minute waiting period after my shot, I put my cell phone down and watched the scene unfold. I wanted to absorb the moment. I wanted to lock eyes with someone, anyone, seated nearby and smile. I wanted a fellow witness. Someone else to acknowledge how far we come in the last year. And how much we have lost along the way: People. Jobs. Futures.

When the announcement for the JCPenney’s closure came in June 2020, it was unknown what would come next. “Hopefully the replacement will offer new types of merchandise that will enhance their shopping experience,” the property owner said.

I suspect he was not thinking it would become a mass vaccination site.

“From our point of view, change is good,” he said.

He was right about that.

things that need noticing

“Where do humans come from,” my 4-year-old asked while we were out hiking the other morning.

I was carrying a mason jar filled with pond water we scooped from a vernal pond in the woods behind our house. The plan was to watch the debris settle and watch for nematodes and fairy shrimp to swim into view.

“What do you mean,” I asked? “Do you want to know where babies come from or how humans came to be in the world?”

I was prepared—somewhat—for the baby question. He has seen enough babies to understand that they have to come from somewhere. My son was not interested in babies though.

Where to begin? My mind short-circuited.

First thought: Humans are the matter that formed after the universe sneezed and sent shock waves throughout everything that ever was and all there ever will be. Humans are space junk that emerged over time and can problem solve but seem to mostly cause problems.

After launching with the big bang I realized I needed to speed things up a bit or I was going to lose him—and myself—before the next bend in the trail.

Second draft: A long time ago, before dinosaurs, before ferns, before trees, the world was like a soup filled with simple things. Over time, those simple things formed organisms like the stuff in the pond water. And over more time they formed more complex organisms. And after a long, long time, humans came along.

“Why?” he asked.

I think because it’s like reading. You start by learning the letters. Then you put the letters together to form more complex things like words and sentences and stories.

He seemed satisfied with that answer even though I was sure I wasn’t and we walked the rest of the way home plotting what to make for snack.

These are the things I enjoy most about parenting. The big questions children ask between the pressing ones. What is for dinner? Is this a school day? When am I going to die? Is summer far away?

Sometimes I feel like kids give voice to the thoughts we have lurking beneath the surface but that we have learned to keep the loud parts quiet. Because they can be scary. Because we are making dinner while writing an email in our heads and realizing we still need to get to the DMV before our license expires. Kids force you to confront the big questions that get lost in all the mundane to-dos of the day that turn into our lives. Kids turn up the volume and make you notice things that need noticing.

Like rocks in the ditches on the side of the road and the neat bloop sound they make when you toss them down sewer grates. Watching children explore makes us explore. And I think we could all probably use a little more of that.

A professor friend once told me “learning is hard.”

It felt profound at the time. But when learning a new skill or concept, there is often a long period of confusion before understanding. There is self-doubt. Frustration. Occasional tears. And the very real possibility that mastery may never come.

These days I wonder if we adults make it too easy on ourselves to simply stand still. We stop asking the big questions, at least aloud, and never seem to have time to dwell on them. We have devised excellent excuses for this and appear increasingly comfortable staying comfortable. And it’s making me uncomfortable with what that means for my own development and for our planet.

Today I am reading about rewilding efforts from a backlit screen I am increasingly tethered to. Stopping every few hours to study an entire world thriving in three inches of water and some leaf litter is an exercise in preserving my sanity—or at least my humanity.

We are inarguably more complex than the creatures swimming in my jam jar. But that’s just biology. So much of the complexity in our daily lives is our own doing. Perhaps that’s why so many of us feel like we are drowning despite all of this progress.

We have entire industries built to sell aspirational living. But no amount of mid-century modern furniture, boho chic tops, or essential oils can distract from the fact that, collectively, we are failing to address the big—and small—problems of our making. Sometimes it feels like we aren’t even trying.

“The world is going to fall apart if we don’t take care of it,” my 4-year-old observed while walking past a smashed plastic bottle on the edge of a gas station parking lot the other morning.

This was not a question.

bearing witness

I was walking my sons to the library when extremists mobbed the Capitol. As they waved Confederate flags in its hallways, I pulled mittens snugly on my youngest’s hands. When legislators were sheltering in place, I held his arm while descending the snow scraped hillside. When they replaced the American flag with a Trump one, my sons were flipping through an old Tintin, reading about a coup in a country that doesn’t quite exist. Kind of like here.

I am lucky my sons are so young. I have time for longer explanations later. But what should we say to our nation’s children this morning? How do we speak of unspeakable things we witnessed in real time? How do we talk to each other? Where do we begin? Because I can’t find the words. I’m struggling to even read them.

I find myself stuck on the image Reuters photographer Mike Theiler captured yesterday. A white man who stormed the halls of democracy wielding a Confederate flag like he owned the place. This was America yesterday.

Where do we go from here?

Mike Theiler of Reuters was at the Capitol to bear witness of the siege. He captured this shot.

not lost

My eye got snagged on the chat box in the left corner of my email the other day.

A name. Lois Hennessey. No one has joined your call.

I rested my fingers on the keyboard and sighed.

What would you think of all this, I wonder? COVID-19. The election. The bottom that always seems to be on the verge of dropping out.

I wonder if none of this would feel all that different from the last few years of your life. Conversations in doorways. Sending out for groceries. Someone else delivering everything to your door. The circle of your life growing ever smaller. A stack of unused dishes in your cabinets. Conversations over keyboards and screens.

I am content you would say. I never believed you but nodded anyway.

I am lucky. I am too tired at the end of the day from working from home and making lunches and snacks and wiping small people’s mouths and butts between meetings to wallow too long about the absence of others. But the sadness creeps in while I grind coffee in the morning and stare at the frost on grass. Sometimes it catches up with me when I step outside to scrutinize the blank trees on the hillside. We are entering winter again.

We just celebrated our first year in our new town. I have never shaken anyone’s hand here. In some ways it feels like perpetual winter and we are waiting for spring to come and people to emerge. Sometimes I wonder if it will it ever feel warm.            

Gabe met Lois twice before she died. The first visit he was a squirmy baby who didn’t want to be confined to an old lady’s lap for long. The second time was three months later. He was busy then too. It seems there is never a good time to connect.

Her voice was just a whisper. I knew it was the last visit. She was so fragile. All teeth and bones. The moments for big questions had passed. I watched her chest rise and fall under a blanket and struggled to balance my desire to sit with her before I no longer could with my son’s need to pick grass in the sun. A battle between the bookends of life.

I’ve taken to calling 2020 the lost year. Our digital calendars ping with reminders of flights long cancelled and notes about birthdays celebrated in isolation. I have a jar with scraps of paper cataloging what we lost to COVID. Reminders of plans scuttled. But the truth is we accumulated a lot of good days. Family lunches. Mid-day scones just because. Runs on empty country roads.

The last photograph I have of Gabe and Lois is of him sucking his thumb on her lap. He was tired and she held him with a strength I wasn’t sure she had. He saw the picture the other day and asked who Lois was. I told him a little about her. One day I will tell him that sometimes he looks at me and I see her eyes. So I suppose all is not lost.

something like change

For a week this summer, the boys and I watched a black swallowtail caterpillar consume carrot leaves from our garden and poop in a jar. We ceremoniously emptied the tiny round turds in the trash, washed out the glass, placed fresh greens inside, and waited for the caterpillar to transform.

One afternoon we watched the swallowtail squeeze a giant pile of excrement from its fat body before going perfectly still. A change was coming. The next morning, we found the caterpillar’s avocado, yellow, and black skin had split and rolled into a ball at the bottom of the jar. In its place, a horned green armor was fastened to a twig with two barely visible white threads. Over the next week and a half, the boys lost interest in the chrysalis. I haven’t mastered explaining to a 4-year-old that sometimes the most important changes in life you can’t see.

I still studied the chrysalis looking for something that might indicate the rearrangement of DNA had commenced. At one point I thought the cocoon was shrinking and began researching how long it would take to become a butterfly. One butterfly farm said the species can over winter in its shell or climb out after a few weeks. You just have to wait.

The next morning I awoke to the news by my husband that something had happened.

I ran to the jar and saw that the butterfly was not stretching its wings preparing for its first flight. Something had gone wrong. The butterfly was on its back in the bottom of the jar wiggling in a puddle of murky black fluid. I used a pencil to fish it out of the jar as its legs scrambled for something to hold onto. One wing looked like a wet bedsheet twisted in the washing machine. The other wing had holes fringing the bottom edge.

I read it could take hours for the wings to dry so I put the butterfly out on the front porch in a patch of warm sun. I checked on it every hour or so. At one point I found the swallowtail had wandered into the shade of a bush. It didn’t look much closer to flying. One wing was still badly twisted. I may have imagined improvements in the other. The next time I checked the butterfly was gone.

There is a chance it lived. That the damaged to its wings was mostly cosmetic. But I don’t think so. I don’t think it ever flew. I think the butterfly crawled into a corner and died. Or it was eaten by the wasps living underneath our deck.

These days I find my capacity for joy and hope diminished. Sometimes I find myself holding my breath for no reason in particular. I go running just to force myself back into a normal breathing pattern.

Since March, an apartment downtown has draped a handmade sign over its balcony reading We Can Do Hard Things. I used to tear up every time my eyes caught the white sheet on the hillside. I want to believe this sentiment. I used to believe it. But over the months, so many things that are easy we have collectively failed at. Like wearing masks.

And over the last few years, it seems our capacity for kindness has waned, too. Lies travel six times as far as truth. How can the truth ever compete? How does one even muster the effort to try? We are not wired to win against algorithms developed to appeal to our anger and fear. Why would someone go searching for facts when what you want to believe and makes you feel safe arrives at your digital doorstep?

After years inundated with disinformation spouted from the highest levels, I’m exhausted. But I still think truth is worth the effort. Even when it’s hard to hear. Cocoons are to help us change. Not to protect us from it.

Later that afternoon, my 4-year-old eventually remembered the butterfly. Together we searched under the bushes and grass around the deck for evidence.

 “I hope it flew it away, but it most likely died,” I told him. “Butterflies can’t fly with broken wings.”

He nodded.

“Maybe we can find another caterpillar,” he said.

“Maybe,” I agreed.

We headed back to the garden and began flipping over leaves. Hoping.

theoretical garden

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In April, again in May, and once more in late May, I planted a garden. Because that is what I have done every spring since 2011— turned over the topsoil and dug in.

In Utah, the pests were primarily aphids, slugs, and a blight that came for my  apricot trees. The soil either dried to dust or clumps of clay that baked to rock in the hot sun. And yet, I always harvested an abundance of peas, lettuce, chard, kale, onions, apples, and beets. In Texas, the pests were myriad: fire ants, grubs, squirrels, creepy neighbors. I primarily harvested okra and peppers because the squirrels came for my heirloom tomatoes and nothing else seemed to thrive there. Including me.

Vermont has been a different beast.

The snow came through May. My garden rows were soaked mid-day and frozen through the mid-morning. I worried nothing would grow. And for a while, nothing did.

I planted and replanted and forgot what I planted.

Now I have everything everywhere. Too many zucchini plants and not enough pumpkins. A row of perky insect bitten kale. Happy carrots. Midget corn. Confused broccoli. And peas and beans nipped to nubs from deer I am not allowed to shoot.

Gardening here has shown me how much I do not know. There are pests I cannot identify. An army of slugs I cannot defeat. Groundhogs. Rabbits. And well-fed deer I cannot shoot. (Did I mention that?)

The garden has revealed my frustration with uncertainty.

In theory, your garden can be a place of order. In winter, you plot the garden on paper and order seeds. In spring, you plant starts or wait until the last (theoretical) frost to plant. You water. And then you wait. You harvest somewhere between 40 and 100 days afterward. This typically works. Except when it doesn’t.

My garden rows are now teeming with plants in various life stages I will not get to harvest. Our rural experiment on 136 acres is winding to a close. The where next remains unknown. What I do know is I planted seeds somewhere. And some took.

Life goes on.

snow cake

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Another snow day.

Even the flakes seem confused. They blow sideways and in both directions at once. Some snowflakes rush my office window as if seeking the comfort of indoors. I turn my space heater on.

Raisins, apricots, and candied lemon peel are soaking in a bath of brandy and vanilla. I am baking a Christmas cake. It should take all day. When your office and kitchen share a wall, time is marked in new ways: articles read between proves.

Sometimes it feels easier to look back rather than forward. Other nights I dream 100 years into the future. We will have whales. Bicycles. And gondolas.

Some mornings I scan recipes and get stuck on the ones I will cook on hot summer days. When I have fresh fruit and greens straight from the farm rather than my freezer. I bookmark the pages and return to old comfort foods. With brown sugar and cloves. Cheese and pasta. And bread. Always more bread.

And bread takes time. Lately, I have plenty of that.

 

a little thing

I noticed the first taps appear around the first week of March. A single metal spout affixed to an old roadside maple tree. That’s when I began noticing others.

An intricate web of orange tubing threaded around and between a patch of woods I saw while out on a run. It appeared to be holding the whole forest together. I imagined maybe it would collapse if you removed just one tree.

The pandemic arrived around the same time. Likely earlier. Perhaps the first taps arrived earlier, too.

So I wrote a thing. You can find it here.

maybe

IMG_9514I strung white Christmas lights onto our porch Friday—a mere three months after the holiday.

A woman in Montpelier suggested people put them back up. Light in a time of darkness. The idea has resonated with many residents as it appears so many of us are collectively holding our breath. A physician friend did the math: we needed more respirators and masks two months ago.

Time is a funny thing. It is slippery. Stretchy. Undisciplined.

Twelve days ago the world sighed and shook our old house in Utah and rattled my coworkers. What in the world? That felt like last year.

Every morning my three-year-old asks “Am I going to preschool this day?”

He knows that he used to go to school Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Now those days come, and he is still at home with both parents who for some reason don’t have time to play on all the new weekend days. He dumps his Legos onto the kitchen table and builds plastic cities that he destroys moments later. When it’s time for nap he demurs on cleanup.

“It will take a thousand years,” he says.

After nap I take him out for walks along the abandoned logging road behind our house. The creeks are flowing with snowmelt. We fish rocks out of the water with reddened fingers. Some we take home. The rest we toss. There isn’t anything truly special about the ones that make it into his backpack.

“Is it spring yet?” he asks as we stomp through patches of snow.

He waves his walking stick and tells me about his birthday party this summer—all his preschool friends will be there. He wants a chocolate cake with strawberry icing.

I do the math.

“Maybe,” I say.