a momentary reprieve

It’s raining here. It sounds like a rainforest rain. Thick drops on wide green leaves. Pummeling them into a mist. A gentle hissing. It feels like the whole world should be raining. Everywhere, rain to cover the wailing. But that’s not how it works. I know this.

Somewhere, right now, it is the perfect bluebird sky as some local tragedy unfolds. That’s how it always is. Nary a cloud in the atmosphere as some plane comes hurtling towards Earth, the people inside screaming before the great nothing.

That’s how it was in Somerville 20 years ago when the Twin Towers fell. That’s how it was a decade ago when two men bombed the finish line of the Boston Marathon, sending shrapnel into innocent bodies they believed deserved punishing. And that’s how it was on Friday when the ruling about Roe first broke.

I spent the early morning hours eating pastry by the river with my husband. Drinking coffee. Watching fish snatch unseen bugs dancing on the surface. A momentary reprieve from the human world that seems to feast upon the controlling of safe harbors. Of flinging apple cores at wild animals and feeling like some merciful god.

But we are too quick to judge who must suffer to truly fit the part.

I knew it was coming. The news would either be bad or worse. And yet I still yelped before falling silent.

Right now, I hear a bird breaking through the pounding rain. Occasionally puncturing the white noise with a quick chirp. As if she’s checking to see if she’s still here. If anyone is listening. She’s quiet now. Perhaps settling in for the storm.

What do we do with all of this water?

the great unraveling

It was the little girl holding her ears, stumbling as she walked down the sidewalk, who broke me. Skinny ankles. Tiny black boots. Enormous purple backpack. Uncertain where to go. 6, maybe 7.

Her dead classmates had turkey, ham, and cheese sandwiches for lunch.

What are we doing as we do nothing after another school shooting? Sending emails into the abyss. Raging at our spouses and parents and friends because those with power know they just have to wait out another news cycle. This too shall pass.

You can buy a bulletproof backpack for your kid for $119. 95 on the homesecuritysuperstore.com. It has smiley faces and weighs less than three pounds. The design “ensures safety while providing normal utility” the specs read. Limited lifetime warranty. Because of course.

When I was in second grade a backpack was for carrying books. Notes decorated with hearts and swirls from friends. And burying lukewarm cheesesticks in the bottom of. These days I pull yarn balls from the zippered pockets of my son’s backpack. I unravel them each night. Like the world.

In 2021, 73 police officers died in “felonious killings” in the line of duty. For much of the last decade the figure has been significantly lower. Closer to 50.

19 kids died in one classroom on Tuesday. The school year is not over.

the farce of it all

She told me about the rapes during a long run.

Although she didn’t call it that.

She was a nursing student on rotation in the maternity ward. She was shadowing a senior nurse who cautioned her that sometimes the nurses walk in on husbands having sex with their wives after they gave birth.

When a woman is raw and swollen and her tissue is held together by stitches. When the blood is still falling out of her in jellied clumps. Before her milk comes in.

“That is not sex,” I said. “Does anyone stop it? Do they call the police?”

She didn’t know.

My mind flashed to six months earlier when I was at that same hospital at 34 weeks pregnant and experiencing complications. My 2-year-old and husband left the room to visit the vending machines downstairs. That’s when a nurse came in.

“Don’t let him make you have sex,” she said sternly.

I laughed because that is not my life. I stopped when she repeated her warning: “Don’t let him make you.”

I forgot about that conversation until the report about the Supreme Court potentially overturning Roe leaked and I began reading more about some of the trigger laws that would ban all abortions, including those for rape and incest. The cruelty of it all is stunning.

“Don’t let him make you.”

The memory sickens me. At the time I didn’t think to ask: Why didn’t she speak up when my husband was in the room? Why didn’t she talk directly to him about the risks? Why are we STILL punishing women?

Mother’s Day. What a farce.

when we talk of big things with small people

The questions seem to come out of nowhere. Liked a spooked grouse that charges from the bushes. Only it was there all along. Just hiding in the great wide open.

“I don’t like wars around us,” my 3-year-old says before climbing into his car seat.

“I don’t like wars either,” I say.

“Where is the war? Is it far away?” he glances into the woods.

“Yes,” I say.

And it is here, too, I think, but say nothing.

“Do people die in wars,” he asks?

“Yes,” I say, fumbling with the buckle.

And their families suffer even if they don’t.

“What is on your mind?” I ask.

I wonder what he thinks war is and who makes it. I wonder if he thinks about children like him. Just going to school until they no longer can. Who just want to play on the swings and lean back and pretend to be birds flying.

“It’s funny when trees break,” he says.

And then his brother asks about blue sharks and what they eat and we move on. Except I don’t.

things worth noting.

It’s the first small thud that makes my chest supernova. The steady thump as each drop of sap hits the bottom of the bucket. Like a heartbeat. And for a moment I am in a conversation with an old friend whose only common language is how we both feel when the sun warms our skin. Spring is coming. Can you hear it?

One of the first maples I ever tapped wept from the poorly placed spile I jammed into its side. The tree, the largest on the hillside, forked in two early on and the trunk accommodated its need to sprawl ever skyward. My electric drill could not pierce the thick bark. I fought the tree and eventually amber, then almond colored curls fell from the drill bit. After hammering the tap in place I watched sap stain the trunk like tears.

This year is different. I’m better at tapping trees. Faster. Gentler. I place my hand on the trees and search the bark for evidence of past scarring. And then I talk to them. I thank the trees for stealing their sap. I ask if this spot is okay to puncture. And then I wait for something to change.

This year I picked a day it wasn’t so bitter cold. I waited for a morning when the sun made the snow glitter and I could handle metal without gloves and not swear. While setting the taps, I listened to the woodpeckers knocking their brains out somewhere in the woods beyond. My eye wandered to a firefly tucked between the bark. I always thought the adult fireflies died after mating and laying their eggs underground. But here one was. Dormant or dead I am not certain. I noted its location and reached in the bucket for my rubber mallet. Once the spout and bucket were fastened I looked for the firefly but it was gone.

Later I learn there is a species of northeastern firefly that survives the winter by nestling between the hollows of the bark. But they are fireflies in the name only. The beetles don’t flash. Perhaps they gave up their light in exchange for more time. Even if sometimes it’s a little too dark.

Back inside I hang up my coat and stack my boots by the door. I scan the family room and see nothing but children’s toys littering the carpet. My blood pressure surges.

Sometimes I find myself slamming the kitchen drawers out of frustration. There is always a Lego creation stashed in some bowl so a brother won’t find it, a sock stuffed in between the couch cushions and forgotten. Railroad tracks routinely cut off the pathway to my desk and I often find Matchbox cars parked under my pillow. I try to remind myself that one day I will be sad when I reach back and find nothing there.

But it’s the glinting that gives me pause. A red marble stalled in a wooden groove under my bed. I get down on my hands and knees and study it. I ignore the dust bunnies gathered nearby. The balled up black sock that now appears gray it’s so dusty. I focus on this little orb that seems to glow in the room’s lone sun patch. It’s in these rare moments, in the right light, when the mess is all kind of beautiful.

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.