the smell of decay

Rain that fell in the night soaks the golden leaves covering my path to work. The moisture lingering in the air reminds me of fall back home. The sweet smell of decay wafts from the trail—a rare treat in the arid West. The air feels heavy against my cheeks. But then again everything feels heavy these days. My growing belly. My tired heart.

I awoke yesterday to news of multiple bombs sent to leaders of the Democratic Party and members of the press. To the nation’s first black president. To verbal targets the president jeers during his rallies and over his Twitter feed. I thought of the journalist decapitated and dismembered just two weeks ago. His fingers purportedly severed. The price of dissent in a place where it is forbidden. We are not there yet I thought. Are we?

I called my senators. I worked. I ran. My mind did not wander though I know every curve of this trail. I know where it climbs and where it dips. I know the spot where you can find wild raspberries in the summer. And yet I feel lost. I feel we are lost.

And I am not sure how we wind our way back. Watching the Red Sox in the World Series last night I couldn’t muster the same joy I felt in years past. “You lose something when you win,” I said.

I’m still figuring out what that means.

gentle

My 19-month old is confronting the realization that sometimes, when we’re not careful, we can break things that cannot be easily fixed. Like seashells. Paper hearts. And crayons.

“Fix,” he said holding up two pieces of an orange crayola.

I knelt down and showed him how the edges fit back together without a scar if you press them together hard enough. He was delighted. But when I let go the split returned and the halves fell away. And Gabe lost it. I tried taping the crayon around its midsection but that only upset him more.

“Broken!” he sobbed.

I know the feeling. These days I’m glad he is still learning to identify colors and shapes and animals he may never see anywhere but on safari. That he’s in the phase where he wants me to cut purple, yellow, and blue paper hearts and scatter them on the floor. Where he doesn’t know that hearts symbolize love. Where he just wants to read and climb and run and laugh.

Because I can’t tell him how heartsick I am. How I worry every day about the cracks growing apparent in our institutions. How I’m not sure how we can put things back together if they fail. Because there are certain words he doesn’t need to know yet.

Gabe crawled over to our cat BB and stroked his fur. Then he closed his fingers around BB’s tail and yanked. BB meowed pitifully.

“That’s not gentle,” I said pulling Gabe into my lap and rocking him. “We have to be gentle with the people we love. We have to be gentle with the things we love.”

everyday conversations. from 2009.

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I have been living in 2009 for the last week. And it’s been awesome.

It may have been prompted by 2017 swiftly approaching and my apprehension about what the year ahead might bring. It may have been triggered because I spent Christmas running in shorts and a tank top in Texas rather than baking nine different types of cookies with my mom in Massachusetts. Either way, I have been revisiting nostalgia. Hard. I’ve had 2009 streaming from my headphones day and night – the adult version of plugging my ears with my fingers and singing fa la la la la la!

And I am okay with that. Because this week I heard my grandmother’s voice for the first time in seven years.

It was a conversation I had recorded in my grandparents’ kitchen in Quincy. It’s 14 and a half minutes of table talk. About a chip in the enamel of their 60-year-old stove. My nana protesting the need to replace its light bulb that had burned out God knows how long ago. Details about the City of Boston’s memorial service for Ted Kennedy scheduled for the next day.

It was soothing to hear the sounds of our spoons clinking against coffee mugs and familiar wooden chairs scraping against the floor. I was transported back to a time when I was still living in San Francisco, still trying to find someone to love me back, and altogether more comfortable with uncertainty.

It was a time when my nana – a lifelong Republican – and my grandfather – a lifelong Democrat – were not above crossing party lines. 

Once Nana needed oxygen to assist her breathing her voice took on a quality that sounded as though she perpetually had a cold. As I listened to the recordings my voice is different, too. It’s lighter. Perkier. And it talks too much. It’s the voice of a person who doesn’t yet know what she will lose in the months ahead. A voice that doesn’t know enough to just listen.

I recorded my grandparents because I knew they wouldn’t always be here to give advice. To put life in perspective. I had no idea what I would do with the recordings. At the time I just felt a pressing need to capture their voices. I knew my grandmother was sick. We all did. And I knew she would never get better – even if she didn’t believe it herself.

Nana died less than three months later. I burned copies of these conversations onto CDs (!) for my mom for Christmas. For a long time afterward I forgot about the recordings. Then a year ago I moved back to Utah and started working at the local public radio station. I learned how to use the equipment and the editing software. It was time to revisit the recordings. By then, my phone with the original recordings was long deceased, but the copies survived long enough to be returned to me via USB drive. I wrote this post because I wanted to make some of them available for my family to listen to whenever they wanted. The warning I recorded seven years ago still holds today.

Our conversations often start with enthusiasm for one topic and almost immediately take a hard left to discuss muffins, diverge to talk about Chappaquiddick, return three minutes later to the original topic, before shooting off in another direction to discuss Josh Beckett and whether or not Nana saw my parents on TV at the Sox game. 

I think what I love and miss most about these conversations is that nothing special ever happens in them. Deep down I always wanted my grandparents to reveal something important in these recordings so I left the recorder on all the time because I was afraid I would miss something crucial that would die with them. Instead, I captured the dog’s tags jingling as she came in from outside, Nana’s difficulty breathing, and asides that showed how deeply my grandfather loved my grandmother – even if he never said the words on tape.

As the final hours of 2016 ticked down I was still wrapping up the last of the recordings. I had to finish listening to them to meet some inexplicable self-imposed deadline before the new year. I listened to my 28-year-old self speak of my unborn children as though they were a certainty. It would be years more before I would learn of my trouble conceiving. Of the doubt and despair that came with it. But mostly I listened and just laughed. Below are some snippets of my favorite talks. J, M, D, Mother Hen, and Dinosaur – these are for you.

For the rest or you, I was asleep for the first minutes of 2017. I awoke to gray sky and 15 degrees. I clipped on my Yaktrax and ran along the shoreline of a prehistoric lake that no longer exists. Drops of bright red blood from deer or dog dotted the snow. It was so cold my phone battery died halfway through the run. On the way back I just listened to the sounds of the magpies scattering to higher ground as I passed and my own steady breath as I churned up and down the hills.

a fire you can’t always see

Last summer I asked family members if anyone cared to join me for a road trip to a post apocalyptic coal town in Pennsylvania called Centralia. My brother was the only taker. We headed west through the rolling hills of New Jersey through the Pocono Mountains. This would be my first visit to coal country.

I had wanted to visit Centralia for years after reading that it was a town condemned because the ground beneath it was on fire. In 1962, a coal seam at a nearby mine accidentally caught fire, and for the last 50 years it has smoldered underneath Centralia, engulfing the town from below. Sink holes have opened and lethal levels of carbon monoxide leaked from the cracked earth, forcing state officials to rule Centralia uninhabitable in 1992. The townspeople were divided: stay or go. Most left. Less than 10 people live there today.

Our route to Centralia wound through small mining towns clustered off the interstate. I don’t know what I was expecting to find when we got there. I thought perhaps there would be a historical exhibit and a few homes waiting for the earth to cave in. I hoped Centralia had become an environmental pilgrimage of sorts – a place where individuals come to reflect on what happens when we are not careful stewards of the land.

M and I actually drove through Centralia without knowing it. We backtracked a few miles and found a small grid of streets, a church that was closed, and two houses still standing. The rest of the town had disappeared under weeds. Abandoned homes were leveled years ago. The only sign that an entire community once existed there was a handful of cement stairs leading to houses that no longer stood their ground. You would never know a fire is burning underneath your feet.

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Less than a mile from the downtown core we came upon truckloads of trash bags, stained sofas, and plastic bottles strewn in ditches off the roadway. It was a place where people tossed their unwanted things out of car windows and from the beds of pickup trucks. The soil at my feet glittered with flecks of coal. I picked up a chunk of anthracite and squeezed it. Tiny pieces rubbed off onto my palm.

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Centralia was never big by population standards. Its heyday was the late 19th century when Census records indicate the population was just under 2,800. The day M and I visited, we saw six other people in Centralia and none of them were residents. We all walked the decommissioned stretch of Route 61 known as Graffiti Highway.

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I peered into the woods lining the highway and saw more bags of trash scattered along the hillside. Empty spray paint canisters littered the median strip.

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M and I studied the graffiti. There were some peace signs, some flowers, some words of kindness decorating the asphalt.

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But a lot of what we saw was angry. A collection of profanity, penis symbols, and a handful of swastikas.  At the time I chalked it up to teenagers acting out in a place where there was no one around to tell them otherwise.

But looking back, I am not so sure.

The election of Donald Trump last week came with some very loud support from some very dark corners of the Internet. I’ve started wondering if the writing was there all along. I just couldn’t see it.

wedding speech. or toast? part 2.

After about 10 years of dating, living with, and learning one another, my brother married his best friend last weekend. And I couldn’t be happier about it. My brother and his wife asked their family members to say a few words at the wedding. This is what I said:

When Matt asked me to say something today I wanted to say something meaningful about marriage. I wanted to recite something that would somehow capture the importance of what is happening today.

Initially I turned to literature and religious texts to find some words of inspiration. But to be honest, those aren’t typically the source material I go to for that sort of thing. And the words that ring truest to me about the nature of love and marriage come from an opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy last year. He says:

“Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.”

Now I realize it’s not the most romantic picture of love; but I think it’s much more powerful than that. For me, the most profound demonstration of love has been a tender moment I witnessed in passing. One evening a few years ago when my dad was undergoing chemotherapy, I walked into the kitchen and saw my mother cradling his head in the sink. She was gently washing his hair. I will never forget the look on my dad’s face: he was entirely at peace.

That was when I realized that marriage really is not about who you choose to start your life with, it’s about who choose to end it with. Who you choose to experience the seemingly intolerable lows with, because the highs come easy. It’s about trying to be your best self every day – even when it’s hard.

And that is why I am so excited for Matt and Shea. You two are closing in on a decade of partnership already. You know the lows and highs and how to endure and celebrate them. You know how to affect the course of each other’s day. And I don’t think there’s anything more valuable than that.

I wanted to take a moment to say how grateful I am to Shea for having faith in my brother. For knowing the man he is capable of being and staying with him until he got there. And I am so grateful to Matt. For seeing a pretty a girl across the room at a party and recognizing that she is so much more than that. You guys are your best selves together.

Justice Kennedy says that “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”

Today that is true. Congratulations Matt and Shea.

Gabriel is dreaming

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Gabriel is dreaming.

His right foot is twitching. He scrunches his nose, frowns, and then his whole body relaxes. A few minutes pass. He stretches, sighs, and makes a chewing motion with his mouth. These days I cannot stop watching my newborn son.

I study his face. I look to his chest and follow its steady rise and fall. At night, I pray to the universe that he will keep breathing after I close my eyes. It is an extension of the same prayer I recited while pregnant and before each ultrasound when I’d zero in on his heartbeat: just keep beating.

I know a man who lost his baby at 38 weeks. We had already thrown him and his wife a baby shower at work. We all tucked paper bills into a card that circulated around our office and wrote generic congratulatory messages. I imagine the contents of the card helped pay for the funeral. The man didn’t come back to work for a long time. And when he did I don’t think I said the right thing. Something like, I’m glad you’re back. I don’t remember if I told him ‘I’m so sorry.’ Because I was.

I’ve lost touch with him over the years, but I thought about him a lot when I was pregnant. Sometimes I would poke my belly to see if I could get the baby to move. To crash into my uterus. To say, don’t worry, I’m still here.

During ultrasounds, it was only after I saw the tiny primordial pump squeeze that I would release the breath I didn’t realize I had been holding. During the 20-week ultrasound the doctor began by measuring the baby’s head. I watched her draw a line across the cranium and click. I watched as my baby seemed to suck his thumb and touch his head as though comforting himself. You’re so smart, I thought.

At some point – around 25 weeks – I stopped trying to make the baby move. Because every night the baby moved me. He would stretch out and kick wildly under my ribs. Sometimes he got the hiccups. I wondered if he ever tired of hearing my heartbeat.

We took long walks together in the woods. Sometimes I would describe the trees and flowers I knew even though the baby couldn’t see them or fathom colors yet. However, most of the time I would just walk and wonder about this little person growing and listening and stretching and swallowing inside me. It was strange knowing that he heard every conversation I had with people. Sometimes I wondered if he knew what I was thinking since he was lashed to my side with blood and veins. I breathe, he breathes.

Towards the end of my pregnancy I thought about the moment we would be separated for the first time and forever. I guess afterward we will spend the rest of our lives wondering and who are you?

And now he’s here. Stretching and breathing on a blanket his grandmother knitted him. This tiny stranger in my house who recognizes my voice if not my words. I’m mum. I’m your mum, I tell him when he looks at my face when nursing. Sometimes just saying that phrase makes me cry.

At two weeks old, he doesn’t regard me any differently than the wall behind me. He’s still learning how to see. Right now he understands contrast. Dark from light. Hungry from full. He is ticklish under his chin.

Gabriel was born on a Sunday morning when it was too late to be considered night and too early to be called morning. My husband cut the umbilical cord. I remember thinking: He is free from me. At last. My son.

For the hundredth time in two weeks I count his toes. I examine his fingers. The first flush of fat is forming across his knuckles. I check his breath. Gabriel is sleeping.

fumbling towards spring

My nana could never say the word forsythia even though she loved that damn yellow shrub. It was a running joke in my family. Whenever we’d walk past one in bloom my mom would turn to her mom and say, “What are these called again?” Nana would oblige and inevitably botch the pronunciation. It made me chuckle every time.

The woman whose house we bought took me on a tour of the garden in mid-January. The ground cover was located about eight inches below a sheet of snow. The bushes were in a deep sleep and didn’t seem to notice the cold biting at their bark. She rattled off the name of the flowers and native grasses she had planted wherever there seemed to be an unclaimed patch of sun. She stopped in front a tall bush and stalled.

“This is, this is, this is, oh come on,” she said snapping her fingers at the shrub.
“It is forsythia I think,” I said smiling.

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It was the only plant I could identify in the yard. (I have always been more of an edibles person when it comes to gardening.) I can check on the bush simply by doing the dishes and looking out the kitchen window. We’ve been in our new house for about a month now and the shrub is just starting to wake up. Tiny buds line the branches. I can almost make out the yellow flowers enclosed in the sepals. They seem to waiting for just the right moment to emerge. Forsythia is nature’s timekeeper. They are among the first to let you know that winter is finally over.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about time and tracking my own growth. When my sister was pregnant I had a garden in full swing and fruit trees that I could use as a point of reference.

“The babies are how big now?” I would ask her as I inspected my produce. “When you say the babies are the size of plums are we talking industrial plums or organic plums?”

I needed that kind of visual to acknowledge what was really happening. Each week my parents would snap a photo of her growing belly and send it to me so I could see how she was changing from 2,000 miles away. One of my favorite pictures is of my sister in her third trimester and grampa standing big belly to big belly laughing. (Even with twins, I still think he had her beat.)

The forsythia in my yard will likely have flowered and faded by the time my own fetus reaches viability. Hopefully by then we will have installed raised garden beds in the backyard and my first crop of rainbow chard and peas will already be popping through the topsoil.

I want to think in terms of the 40-week yard line. But the truth is even with 21 weeks down, I feel scared a lot of the time. Every day I hold my belly and ask the baby to give me a sign that everything is okay in there. It’s one thing to lose a tomato to a rogue squirrel, but to lose something that has kicked in you in the bladder is another thing entirely. Especially something that took years to come into being.

My nana died without ever knowing my spouse. Before she died I recorded our conversations every time I went home for a visit.In those talks she always wanted to know about my love life. Not because she wanted me to get married and settle down, but because she wanted juicy details about dating. In one of the last recordings of us nana is audibly bored when I told her that a guy I liked recently lent me his jacket one crisp summer night. She was not impressed.

My grampa did live to attend me and D’s wedding. Grampa was in a wheelchair that my family hoisted on and off a boat (twice) because they are amazing and watched the ceremony from the front row. But I’m not certain he understood why he was there or who we were. Maybe if we had met a year or two earlier it would be a different story. Then again, maybe if we had met a year or two earlier we never would have got married. Because time is funny like that.

This evening I was feeling particularly nervous about the baby so I went outside to examine the forsythia bush. I find inspecting the buds to be a strange source of comfort. Because I have no idea how to care for any of the other plants in my backyard; I won’t even know what they are until new growth appears. And I guess that’s how I feel about me in general, sort of just fumbling towards spring, waiting for that damn bush to pop.