Tag Archives: essay

My Sweet Lord

I am not a destiny person. Or I wasn’t until now anyway. I’m still wary of signing off on that whole concept. But I dare you not to think of God or the afterlife, when staring at a body you once knew, loved, even relied on, hooked up to a life support machine. Questions of what the soul is, where the soul is, and where that soul will end up are likely to swirl around in your consciousness for weeks, if not forever, if you are like me.

So that is where I am now. As I write this, it is seven days after Dad’s passing. I am reflecting on how in those moments of great challenge with Dad, in those hours that I laid by his bedside in the hospital, I surprised myself by curling up in the presence of Something Greater. It didn’t feel good to pray and to surrender—nothing felt good at that time—but it felt completely necessary. The experience with Dad made me question my own faith, or what little there was left of it. This is all to say, you don’t need spirituality…until you do. And you will.

I usually cringe at statements like “It was meant to happen” or “It was all part of God’s plan.” Now there is a small fissure in the wall of my beliefs, where the narrowest slip of light can come in. I didn’t become a believer overnight. Or rather over those 36 hours between Dad’s accident (a fall from a ladder) and when we took him off life support. But my defenses did soften. Where else was there to turn, but to some idea of God? To some idea of an afterlife? I couldn’t just turn on the television and forget about it all, though they did, perplexingly, have a TV in the ICU.

How could all of this, I questioned, from work to play and everything else in-between be orchestrated? It had all been said by others before but, if it were all orchestrated, why would innocent people be imprisoned and tortured, people who love with all they have become broken hearted, and children be born, and die, on the streets? Why is there no justice on this earth?

If there was such a thing as heaven, I hoped there was justice there.

According to many, the answer to why there is pain and suffering is that the soul has a need for spiritual evolution. That each has their own lessons to learn in this life, on this earth. Without conflict, our spiritual selves cannot grow or evolve. In the days after Dad’s passing, people started saying things like, “His work here was done.”

Dad used to talk a lot about religion and spirituality. And now that he’s not physically here, I feel I owe him the respect of listening, of leaning into his beliefs, of opening my heart and mind to what he’d been saying all along. His teachings have never been more relevant. In the moments by his bedside, I experienced more than one “ah ha.”

The best I can do for Dad now is to breathe more life into those wisdoms and teachings that he’d had. In his obit, which I wrote, I liken him to Christ. It’s a bold statement, I know. But some people don’t realize the well of compassion that Dad carried within him. Just one example, at the time of his death there was, and still is, a man living on Dad’s property. When we approached him and asked where they’d met, the man said he met Dad at the Mission. He’d just been released from prison, and Dad offered him a place to stay. As a child, there was always one person, usually a convicted felon, living on our land. These are people who had been shunned from society, with no place else on earth to go. And Dad was there for them, as hard as that was for me at times.

“Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.” Proverbs 14:31

I didn’t know that scripture, I don’t know any scriptures, really, but thinking about Dad’s ways, I did a quick Google search. It turns out there are a shit ton of scriptures just like that one.

When the doctor came into the room—Dr. Christie—he asked me, with complete respect, why I had laid a hindi blanket across Dad’s body. I fingered the white cloth with the red Sanskrit lettering and depictions of Krishna and Rhada.

“Dad was a Hare Krishna…and a Christian, and a Buddhist,” I told Dr. Christie.  

He took a sidelong glance at the Bible I’d brought and placed on the table next to Dad’s breathing machine. He worshipped any God that was in front of him, I thought. But I can’t remember if I told Dr. Christie that or not.

A few days later, I was reading a book “Embraced by the Light” by Betty J. Eadie and came across this:

“I wanted to know why there were so many churches in the world. Why didn’t God give us one church, one religion? The answer came to me with the purest of understanding. Each of us is at a different level of spiritual development and understanding. Each person is prepared for a different level of spiritual knowledge. All religions on earth are necessary because there are people who need what they teach.”

It turns out that that book “Embraced by the Light” would help me access my spirituality through a side door: near death experiences or NDEs. I couldn’t come to that spiritual place head on, through the Bible or the Baghavad-Gita. I don’t jibe, and never have, with religious stories that read like fiction or with timelines that seem to counter science.

But I could get behind near death experiences themselves, I mean, Dad and I had both had one. His, we all believe, was what made him the way he was. But more on that later. I couldn’t possibly tell this entire story in one sitting. In my journal, where I have been laying down all the letters and words that have been helping me come to some place of understanding at this unimaginable crossroad in my life, my writing now shifts from addressing you, the audience, to addressing Dad himself. This change in style makes it difficult for me to continue the story and round it out in a nice, easy way, so I will share the next segment of what I have written in my journal, before closing this chapter and picking the story up in a different piece. If anything is to render me speechless, or wordless, it is Dad’s passing. So be it. The fact that I cannot finish this essay is a testament to my grief.

My next paragraph is, “I thought of how, since you were a boy, you’d had one foot in this world and one foot in another. You didn’t remember ‘what happened’ when you were in a month-long coma, or what happened to your soul in those moments that you floated lifeless on top of the water, having drowned, but it was clear that you’d met God.”

This is all to say that you don’t need spirituality…until you do. And you will. And also this: some things you just can’t write, or reason, your way out of.

Love and mysterious blessings,

Mama Bird

Breaking the Spell: I’ve Been Logging Off Social Media for the Weekend, But it Still Isn’t Enough

My experiment started innocently enough, and in December I’ll be approaching 40 consecutive social media-free weekends. I know you’re probably wondering how the experiment has been going. In short, it is difficult to imagine a lifestyle where I didn’t set firm boundaries around my screen-use. But…it still isn’t enough. (More on that later.)

I began logging off social media on the weekends on the morning of Saturday, March 6th. I know because I’ve kept track in my planner–“No SM weekends” is scribbled into the top right corner of each square labelled “Saturday” and “Sunday.” Step One of accountability. Step Two was to announce it weekly on my Instagram stories.

“Why do you do that?” A well-intentioned friend asked me early on in my experiment. My answer was for accountability, of course. If I didn’t tell everyone on the platform that I was logging off, what would keep me from logging on and abandoning the experiment? Through my past experiences with addiction, I’d learned that willpower sometimes isn’t enough. For more food for thought on that, just listen to this episode of Radio Lab “You v. You.”

Another (HUGE) thing that inspired this lifestyle experiment was a documentary I watched called The Social Dilemma. In it, a group of former employees of social media companies out the inner evils (i.e. no restrictions on the relentless algorithms) of our most loved platforms: Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and even Google itself. All very cringe-worthy material. If you don’t believe me, just watch it.

After the documentary, I was left feeling like I needed to break the spell of social media and gain control again. I knew I was facing an addiction in the eyes–I’d been there before–and I wondered how many others knew how to recognize the signs and symptoms. Thoughts like, “If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you?” came to mind. I wondered why our society condemns some addictions, and let others slide. Like was the case with tobacco, I think we just don’t know how bad it is yet with screens. All the signs are there. Like, I can see the writing on the wall. And I’m betting that you can, too.

During the experiment, my lowest screen time happened on a Sunday. That day, I logged just 13 minutes of screen time. Alternatively, I clocked five hours on a recent Thursday. So there is a marked reduction in my screen use by eliminating social media alone. I just don’t know if that difference is enough to satisfy my overall need for a better quality-of-life.

The truth is there’s nothing more maddening than feeling powerless. And that is the distinction that I have come to recognize between using social media apps and the Internet in general (other websites like news, online magazines, etc.). When I’m scrolling Instagram, I get to that place where my mind is putting on the breaks (don’t you this, you already saw all you needed to see today, you need to get up and make lunch), but my body/hands have a totally different response (scroll, scroll, scroll. Ding, ding, ding).

Having had some exposure to gambling culture, I always vowed never to get caught up in gambling. And I’ve achieved that goal. But when I find myself on a website, and was driven there by a social media advertisement, and I end up buying this Rosehip Face Oil endorsed by Crissy Teigan, literally a woman I barely know exists, I have to wonder: how is this all any different? The bottom line is profit.

It just feels so similar to other addictive patterns I have experienced–and overcome–in my life. I liberated myself from tobacco and haven’t had a cigarette in years. In my memoir, I write extensively about my experimentation and addiction to street drugs. The similarities are this: I know what I am doing is extremely unhealthy, but I’m going to do it anyway, because I feel powerless to stop. I am here to tell you that education, knowledge and intention can bridge an addiction to anything. It was my curiosity that finally led to my recovery of those other substances. I just hope in the future I can say the same about my scary unhealthy addiction to screens.

What matters most at the end of the day is the example I am setting for my daughter. The recommendation for a person her age is 1 hour of screen time per day. I can tell you that there are days that she far surpasses that recommendation. And that responsibility, of course, falls ultimately on me. So I’m looking for another story to write.

We are at a fork. On the one hand, there are smartglasses on the market now, and on the other hand, some people are participating in screen-free week and some communities are even experimenting with screen free zones. (So cool!) I’m just trying to decide which side of history I want to be on…and how far in any direction I am willing to go.

For the immediate future, social media-free weekends will definitely continue. I am now debating going completely screen-free on either Saturday or Sunday or both. Even as a woman on a farm with seven acres to roam, in a general environment and community that is not at all artificial, I find myself really struggling to find the appropriate balance. It’s kind of crazy. The cool thing is, I know I’m not alone. I know that you are reading this right now and thinking of ways that we can both continue to use the Internet more as a tool and less as a rule. I know that you are thinking of ways that we can preserve our creativity while still having a space to share and connect and relate with a lot of interesting people. I am open to hearing your thoughts, but if you direct message me on Instagram, don’t expect a response until Monday.

Love,

Mama Bird

It’s Official, Official: I’m Not Giving Birth Anymore

“I adore my two little ones and love being their mom, but even with the joy, motherhood can be challenging, exhausting, and frustrating.” -Mary Novaria, Why I Chose To Have My Tubes Tied, Good Housekeeping

Some, not all, have questioned my decision to have “just” one child. I’ve known a number of men who were open about their choice to have vasectomies (before and after becoming fathers), and I wonder how many raised eyebrows they got. I thought it was so righteous when a man I admired made his decision to have no children official, by getting a vasectomy. It was so bold. And it showed me how committed he was to his values.

I know virtually no women, however, who have been open about opting for tubal ligation. But I know there are so many women out there that have probably had the procedure done, or are curious about it. It’s just not talked about very much. So naturally, I’m here to change that.

It wasn’t that I always knew I would someday get my fallopian tubes removed, but what I did know is that I desired to raise only one. I was raised that way. It just feels right. I hadn’t really thought through what it would take to accomplish it until I got to that bridge: More years of birth control? Sterilization? (Surely we can come up with a more positive-sounding terminology than that one.) How about saying, She who desires to run with herself. Or, she who desires to run with one. Or, he who desires to care for four, on the intake paperwork.

I’d relied on various types of birth control for years, and had my share of ups and downs using the different methods. I won’t go into detail, but if you are a female who has too, then you’ve experienced the challenges I’m talking about.

So the day before Election Day 2020, on a bright, clear morning in western Oregon, we arrived at the hospital. The same one I’d delivered our daughter at two-years prior. Red and orange leaves clung to the trees that lined the drive, but I wasn’t thinking of that, I was thinking of how I wished there were an easier way of accomplishing the end result; other than anesthesia, and three incisions on my belly, one of which was in my bellybutton. I was a little apprehensive of the procedure itself. The fact that I was taking control of my body and my future was empowering, however. That’s the word I kept throwing around, “Empowering.”

Maybe I should have been thinking more about being “Prepared.” Because shortly after checking in, when I was getting settled into the hospital bed at the entrance of the operating room, the nurse asked me a series of questions, one of which was “When was the last time you had anything to drink?” and then, “Any cream or sugar?”

“Umm. Let’s see. Coffee at 6:45. A little cream.”

Pause.

“So that’s not a clear liquid,” the nurse said. “We’re going to have to see if Dr. Bock is available to push the procedure back 2 hours.”

I called my fiancé and told him I messed up, and that the whole thing would be delayed. (We live rurally, so it was fortunate that it could be rescheduled for the same day. We had arranged child care and everything.)

With an IV in my arm, I fished Margaret Atwood’s new book The Testament out of my purse, and asked the nurse if we could close the curtain around my bed. I wasn’t sure if I was impatient or relieved. I was having what some desperate parents jokingly call a hospital fantasy. The hospital was okay, but the bright lights and noise gave me a headache, honestly.

Fast forward 3 hours and we were driving back home, stopping by the pharmacy for scripts. The procedure went well. The doctor gave me a full page color print as “proof” that both my fallopian tubes had been removed. Yep, not there. Seared off. Mission accomplished. I was still worried what level of pain I might be in once the narcotic they’d given me wore off. Come to find out, my worst symptom would turn out to be the headache that morphed into a migraine. That first night after my procedure, I experienced the nausea and vomiting that come with intense migraines. I had to force myself to eat more, in order to take the medication (Excedrin migraine) that would soothe and ultimately cure it.

Once that was over, I was fine. If you are reading this and are thinking of getting the procedure done yourself, I have only one major suggestion for recovery (which for me took about 2-3 days): Use a heating pad. I know, it’s simple. But the doctor’s recommendation to place a heating pad constantly on my belly on top of the brace-type thing they give you to wear was a real game changer. It brought a lot of comfort and may have been one of the reasons I had virtually no pain after the procedure.

Children become between you and everything.

That’s one of those lines that came to me recently, nagging, until I wrote it down. I wanted to use it in this piece, but I didn’t know where it fit. So there it is. Awkwardly at the end. Children come between you and everything. With no real rhyme and purpose, except this…

It feels like something I should say because I am currently sitting at my toddler’s desk, in her room, typing this as she takes a nap on my half of the bed in our bedroom. It is noon on a Wednesday. Soon, after I hit “Publish,” I will get up, stretch, and walk to the refrigerator to prepare her a lunch to be ready for her when she wakes up. Then we will start thinking about what to make for dinner, and I will pull it out of the freezer. This evening, after dinner, I will complete the list of things it takes to get her prepared for her big day at day care tomorrow–diapers in diaper bag, extra clothes, sippy cup and bottle, blanket. I will bathe her, and then she will get dirty, and I will bathe her again. I will worry about her picking up COVID at day care. Or worse, being the one that brings it to day care. I will research Montessori schools and Montessori parenting-styles, and then let her watch too much Sesame Street. I will have standards and I will wonder if I am achieving them. I will tell her “no” too loudly, and then get down to get level, eye-to-eye, and tell her that I was wrong to raise my voice. I will try to wean her, she will bite my nipples. But I will always be there. Always. I will be her soft place to land. Every. Single. Day. My career, hobbies, and needs will come last. But they will still need tending to.

I love how I can experience the joys and tribulations of parenting, but that I have active control over to what extent that is. I love that, in our country, we mostly have that freedom. The freedom to pursue birth control, and permanent methods of birth control. I think that it’s a choice for our bodies, minds and souls, that is probably under-used and under-valued, even by those who define themselves as pro-choice. I also think it is equally empowering when a woman choses pregnancy and childbirth. That’s feminism. Her body. Her choice.

Our household is happy with my decision. We’ll probably just grow the farm. I do worry about if something ever happened to Autumn, what would I do? What kind of person would that leave me, mentally? But I am trying to focus on things I can control, not the things I can’t. This is just our current chapter in the story, and there’s no need to read ahead.

Love,

Mama Bird

Why Social Distancing Feels Right For Me

Social distancing restricts gatherings in an attempt to stop or slow the spread of infectious diseases, in this case I’m talking about COVID-19…who isn’t? Social distancing may include canceling events, slowing or stopping business, and requires just staying put. It has a long list of social and economic repercussions that I know nothing about—yet. As of today, I sense that I am taking this COVID-19 thing more seriously than other Oregonians, a fact that probably just boils down to my being able to stay put more than anything. As a freelancer who works from home, I have this luxury amidst a crisis. But I’m beginning to think it’s the most practical step for everyone.

I see social distancing (specifically self-isolation) as temporary. It requires a huge sacrifice upfront. Here in Oregon, we seem to be waiting to get a pass from our employers, school districts, universities and state officials on when to stay home. I’m not exactly waiting for that pass, but rather I’m thinking for myself as I watch the uptick of cases of COVID-19 world and state-wide.

Really, I’m self-isolating because I’m sick. So I am taking public health advice on that: stay home if you don’t feel well. But probably even if my daughter and I didn’t have runny noses and coughs, I wouldn’t be heading out to do shopping or work or anything else. In the past 18 days, we’ve stayed home 13 of them. This seems to be a logical approach to me, given everything that’s been happening with COVID-19 and the fact that we still have these stubborn colds!

Yesterday I left the house to go to the bank. Wearing a pair of large ski mittens, I cashed my check through the drive-in window. There was a shiny slate of glass positioned comfortably between the checker and me. Then I drove home, taking the long way by a winding creek. I didn’t see one soul in sight, and I didn’t have any bumping-into-anyone-guilt.

This week, I’ve had to reschedule three engagements. Even with all the infections happening worldwide and in the state of Oregon, I get a knot of anxiety inside my belly cancelling things. I feel the pressure to perform. Don’t we all? I also feel a glob of snot travelling down the inside of my right nostril. So this is not just precaution and I am not just paranoid. I’m being realistic and considerate. Autumn and I got back-to-back colds this spring with the second one hitting us on February 25th, five days after returning from our trip from Arizona. We flew and had layovers both ways, one in Seattle and one in Salt Lake City. So contraction of COVID-19 was possible, though not necessarily plausible. I am being extra mindful anyway. (Note: a Lane County public health official informed me that only those who had traveled to China, South Korea, Italy or Iran are currently being tested for COVID-19, as of the publication of this blog.)

I am fortunate that I can finagle social distancing, professionally and lifestyle-wise. I get that most people don’t have the option of staying home, and I empathize with them. But maybe they should draw a thicker line, and think about the long-term repercussions of this disease: the impact on our elders and the fact that it’s now a world-wide crisis.

I feel I am making the right choice for me, but the thing is: we’re all in this together. In fact my partner Steve breaks quarantine daily, bringing in and taking out whatever germs, however benign, we are carrying. To his credit, he is limiting his lifestyle too, and doing only the absolutely necessary engagements. As our primary earner, he doesn’t feel like he can just stop going to work.

As of Tuesday afternoon there are 15 positive cases in Oregon, across seven counties. The state of Washington, just north of us, has more than that number in sheer deaths. Some experts believe the numbers are projected to rise thousands, and that the virus has already been circulating regionally for well over six weeks.

As I reach for my handkerchief to blow my nose, I wonder if ingesting as much news as I have—listening to NPR, reading The New York Times and The Washington Post—has literally kept me snotty and coughing for the past two weeks. It can’t be helping.

Despite that, I know we are slowly getting better. I am hoping when we do recover from our colds, the threat of community-spread COVID-19 will be over.

My choice to semi-self-quarantine—to quarantine to the very best of my ability (I can’t make the same decision for Steve)—coincided with a 50% increase in Oregon cases on Sunday, March 8th. That’s double the number of cases overnight. So I am relying on my own judgement on this one, not just heeding the public opinion. If hypothetically we were infected, my conscience couldn’t handle infecting others!

I trust that everyone is doing the same and thinking for themselves. The good news is, we can all share different opinions. The bad news is that we will all be affected equally by the outcome of this disease.

COVID-19 or not, Autumn and I deserve to get better from our colds. So for this week I will be working exclusively from home, staying close to NPR and OPB news coverage, and praying for the health of our state, nation and world. I will also be drinking lots of mint tea, eating chicken soup, and wondering—as I see cars flying by on the highway—what everyone else is doing to stay healthy out there.

 

 

Dear Daughter,

Dear Daughter,

-You will always have more to offer than the shape of your body or the red of your lips. So reach deep within yourself for something substantial to contribute to the world.

-Moments are for living, not for capturing. When you realize that, you hang onto the sacred. The scared is slipping into the darkness of vanity. Don’t let it. Bow, caress, whisper your wishes into the wind. Do things just for the sake of doing them. Not for showing off. For so many centuries, this was how it was done. There is something lacking as we slip into vanity. The sacred is worth hanging onto, I promise.

-There was a time when humans cared about way more than likes and follows. I was there. I remember that time. Laughs were laughed louder then. Breakfasts were enjoyed more fully. When you looked into someone’s eyes, it really meant something. It mattered.  When you looked into the sunset, and really focused, prayers were answered. And if you got to know someone, you really got to know them, not with some device between you.  In junior high, a girlfriend of mine and I sat in a grassy median staring into each others eyes for a full five minutes. Let’s try it sometime. This is called peering in to another’s soul and there’s something to it. Discomfort is a natural part of living. Our addictions try to cover up that discomfort, that natural discord.

-I want you to practice getting up in the morning, making your breakfast, brushing your hair, reading a book, and setting your goals…all without the nagging of your phone and social media. If you watch me, I will show you. I will let my phone get buried in my purse and go dead and I will not worry. I will relish the sound of the natural world buzzing on around me. I will do this for the whole of the weekend until, for work, I must emerge and “connect” with the world again. I will do this and I will fail but I will reset and do it again. Phone dead and buried at the bottom of my purse.

-Take a trip to the sea or mountains or museum…without your device on you. Let’s do it together. Let’s stop and notice what is being offered, what is happening around us. Really noticing this time. Let’s witness some miracle and have it be our little secret.

-Skills like building things and growing things and poetry even and communicating respectfully through eye contact and spontaneous conversation…these things are being lost. I want you to preserve them. I will teach you skills that you will pass down to children, or people older than you or younger than you, it does not matter. Just share them. In real life. Learn to cook. Learn to love to cook.

-If all of your friends jump off bridge, don’t.

-Sparrow recently published a piece in The Sun Magazine stating that meditating is like playing the guitar, except without the guitar. I’d never meditated regularly until I read this, and his bit about meditating four minutes per day, instead of five. Four minutes per day isn’t too torturous in exchange for heightened long-term bliss and contentment, right?

-They call it a feed because it’s taking away our appetite for everything else.

-The people you should be working at impressing are the people around you, through kindness and respect. I vow to do this with you. We will do it together, dear daughter.

Water Signs

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Dad nearly drowned in the mouth of the river in Fort Bragg, California, but that was before I was born. He spent the rest of the summer in the hospital. That didn’t stop him from loving the ocean and water. You can’t trust it, he said. You can’t help but love it either.

Dad was in a coma for most of one month. When he came to he had to learn to talk again. He had to learn to walk again. He was just nine years old at the time. Somehow, though, Dad still knew how to swim. A photo of him and his parents posed alongside the doctor was published in the Fort Bragg newspaper. He was the boy whose life was almost taken by the river at Van Damme State Park. “Miracle Boy” the headline read.

I came thirteen years later. The daughter of Miracle Boy and Moonbeam.

When I was six years old and he was twenty-eight, Dad took us sea-kayaking off the coast of California. If I remember correctly he was trying to impress a woman who wasn’t my mother. We almost got pulled out to sea and I remember being frightened. Or maybe my memory doesn’t serve me right…maybe we did have fun. But the waves, they were so large and I was so little, how could I have? I just remember fearing for my life, I think the girlfriend did too.

I was around one years old when Moonbeam left us (I’m not looking for pity, those are just the facts). Some man I never learned the name of had lured Moonbeam away. I’ll never know the things he promised her. I’ll never know what tempted her. All I know is she took the Ford Pinto when she left. She didn’t go far—just down the road to Eureka. She wasn’t far, no, but she was gone.

Dad took to doing the dishes by hand, very slowly, with hot soapy water. But this wasn’t so strange because Dad did the dishes before she left too. I think he just liked being in the water.

As a toddler, I crawled around on the sticky linoleum floor. I remember looking up at Dad doing my mother’s job. He was in his work clothes and it was after dark. I saw a flash of myself in the kitchen sink before Moonbeam left. I could almost see her standing there washing my body—a dishwater blond with no face, just legs and shoes like the moms in those old cartoons. Comfort just for the fact that they were there. Dish-doers and diaper-changers and dinner-makers and ice-tray-fillers. An essential tool: missing.

Several years later I had my birthday party at the beach. I invited my entire sixth grade class and to my shock everybody showed up. Dad embarrassed me by bannering long streams of white toilet paper from the driftwood poles on the beach, a marker of where the party was. A store-bought stream of purple tissue paper had not been considered.

A couple of the mothers who dropped off their daughters off looked warily around for signs of my mother. But they found none. I just wanted them to go away. I did not even want them to stay because their judgement and misunderstanding was palpable. They finally left, not quite sure what to think. These are the ones who returned first for their daughters.

Dad warmed hot dogs on driftwood sticks over the campfire and we all ran around like we were still kids, which we were, but barely. My peers brought gifts, tons of gifts, each one of them. Dad bought me the expensive black and white Adidas jacket I had wanted so much. The ocean was lapping at the whole scene, father and daughter, fire and friends. The sun went down while we were still out running and playing up and down the beach. And even though I didn’t have a mother…well I thought life was just about perfect.

I had been so excited about my abundance of gifts but was so busy running and playing that I didn’t notice when tide came in and took my birthday booty— piece by piece into the setting sun. It was all gobbled up by the great inhale-exhale of the Pacific Ocean. And there would be no getting any of it back. It wasn’t far, no, but it was gone.

When Dad was a boy that same beach was at least 70 feet under water. The tsunami of 1964 picked up dive bars and fish n’ chip shacks and set them back down, upside down, right on top of Highway 101. To this day Crescent City, California is the only town in the continental United States where a tsunami has killed people. True story. Eleven people died. You can’t trust the ocean, Dad said. You can’t help but love it either.

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Water Signs is an essay from Earthside and Other Everyday Miracles which I am publishing through Groundwaters this spring. I will keep you updated on all the details here on my blog, and also over on my Instagram page! (See sidebar to follow me there.) Thank you, faithful readers!

Nourishment

I didn’t get published in The Sun Magazine’s “Reader’s Write” section as I had hoped, but I will share my reflection from the January 2020 “Nourishment” prompt below.

“The Sun is an independent, ad-free magazine that for more than forty years has used words and photographs to evoke the splendor and heartache of being human.”

NOURISHMENT:

Dad sat me down and told me two things: one, we were now vegetarians and two, we would sing the Mahamantra morning, noon, and night. That was part of being a Hare Krishna. So that’s what we did. No more Kentucky Fried Chicken. No McDonalds. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Rama, Hare Rama. Morning, noon, and night. Every summer we took our epic road trip to the temple in the Bay Area. At the temple we were surrounded by other Hare Krishnas instead of being the only ones in town. At the temple, we rose at four a.m. to shower, which was required. At the temple, brown-skinned women with large, sagging breasts painted red Bindi dots on my forehead and brushed and braided my hair. I felt comforted by the touch of a woman, even though they didn’t speak to me. It was almost like having a mother. Almost. At the temple, I wore my pea-colored sari with little flowers on it every day. I felt so free as I danced with my father in the ballroom before the deities. At the temple, we were sometimes required to fast all day long but come night there was a massive feast with scrumptious vegetarian food—samosas, curried cauliflower, pineapple chutney—all piled high and sufficiently blessed.

Dear Aunt Dorothy,

Dear Aunt Dorothy,

Remember when you lived on that street I can’t remember the name of now—the one way on the outskirts of town, after you moved back to Crescent City for the second time? You were many years sober by then so our conversations happened around mugs of coffee, your second love. 

You had kitschy coffee mugs: Garfield, mugs with quotes about motherhood, one of the lady with the crazy hair, robe, and slippers. You weren’t a grandmother yet, which boggles me now since “Grandma” became your definitive role. Back then your mother-ness extended to me, your niece. 

Remember that night? We were jabbering, catching up. I was visiting from out-of-state and we only had so much time. There were lots of laughs. Cigarettes and ashtrays. If we ever watched television it was just the home videos you’d recorded of our childhood: Your boys reciting Jeff Foxworthy. Me doing cartwheels on the concrete pad outside the trailer on Olive Street. Crystal, who was just a baby then. 

Without having planned it, WHAM, I dropped the bombshell. The bombshell that would blow up your whole world: your present, past, and future. Probably you mentioned his name. My face must have shadowed. And then your openness, your vessel for others pain and suffering, allowed to me tell you—to tell anyone—what had happened to me right there inside our family. It happened in-between recordings, on set, hidden behind the inescapable patriarchy that permeated our culture and society.  

I was seventeen and had never told anyone before. 

I saw the lightbulb go on behind your eyes. This is the moment you that stubbed out your cigarette. Wait, what? 

I saw the quick well of anger and heartbreak rise inside of you. 

Disbelief. 

Guilt. 

Wonder. 

In a dark corner of your mind, I’m sure you were reaching for a gin. 

It was late. Your house was so small. As if turning on my heel, my laughter quickly turned to painful sobs. The burning-apple-in-your-throat-kind of sobs. My racking sobs filled your entire home, probably shook the coffee mugs in your cupboard as you held space for me. 

You didn’t call it that: holding space. Poor, white people don’t have vocabulary for our experiences. But other people do. We live through the tragedies, other people label them. People with food in their bellies and books on their bed stands, free from the everyday challenges we’d faced, free to think things through, I guess. 

Did you know that by now whole fields of study have been dedicated to our resurgence? There are probably university students somewhere right now discussing the phenomenon of the crashing white, rural American class. You would have hated that sentence I know. It made you crawly when I used words like phenomenon because it put you on the spot. You were an Army girl, a farm girl, and to no fault of your own you were never a scholar. We didn’t have the language to get to the bottom of what happened to me–the scary thing that I told you–so we just cussed a lot that night. Fucking sicko. Rot in hell. 

You probably had to go to work at the casino in the morning, but you held space for me. You always did that for others. You always gave more than you had. In the end, I believe, that’s what killed you.  

Cousin John, one year younger than me, must have heard everything that through the thin bedroom wall. In fact I know he did. He told me as much years later. Said he’d pressed his ear up against the wall listening to every word I’d said, welling up with anger, maybe tears. Cousin John is one of those sensitive men—men with single mothers tend to be. Yet another gift that women like you give.

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Do you remember the day you died? What was it like? Was it sunny? Cold? Did you argue with people that day? Hold space? Both? Did you start the day out watching FOX news? Looking at old photographs in your albums? How many cups of coffee did you have? Did you eat breakfast? What did you eat? I want to know. I want to hold space for you. Come back from the dead and tell me.

Years later you admitted that my “telling you” had a hand in your decision (if you can even call it that—the swift, perplexing fall from grace) to drink again. It was a single poke that sent you closer to the edge, eventually to fall from maybe ten years sober. At least over five. (I need to get my facts straight with the family.) 

I myself never felt guilty for that. I can’t take that on. I know there were others things, too. Men, maybe, who drank. You thought you could “be around them.” You couldn’t. No one could. You thought you could walk down the wine isle at the grocery store. You couldn’t. No one could. “And what are we drinking with the steak?” A waiter asked you with a wink, mentioning a wine pairing. You couldn’t. No one could. The billboard with a cold, sweaty beer on a hot, Sacramento day. (You didn’t even look at the billboard but your brain saw it and stored the information.) You couldn’t. No one could. A career waitress at a casino, you served drinks day in and day out. You couldn’t. No one could. 

It was your genes, expressing themselves. You couldn’t. No one could. I myself was never a drinker, but I have my “things.” 

Do you remember the day you died? Was it a pleasant day? Did you catch the sunset? Call your boys? It was springtime, I know that. Cousin John called me, it was two, maybe three, a.m. 

It must have been warm in Oregon because I stepped out on the back porch to take the call, having been alerted from sleep and knowing John wasn’t calling to casually chat.

“She’s gone,” he managed to get out. 

“Hello? John? What?” 

One never says the right things in these moments.

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We spread your ashes up on the hill above the farm. Your baby sister and her husband handled all the arrangements. Rented the town hall down by the river. Sprinkled photographs of you on the tables and designated a childhood friend to make the centerpieces. They managed to serve one hundred people pulled pork, potato salad and fruit. I don’t know if it was pork. I didn’t eat. I was juggling the newborn baby and rubbing John’s back, trying to be a friend to him. Suddenly he was hard to get through to. 

You meant a lot to a lot of people, so a lot of people were there. Later, in photographs taken above the farm on the hill, someone said the plume of your ashes looked just like an angel when the boys blasted it into the air.

It was the kind of thing you anchor to in times like this.

I didn’t know what to believe. I was reeling—angry—from your fall from grace to death at 61. Alcohol poisoning, the coroners report stated. I was thinking: one little sip—one little slip—then blip, you’re done. You were getting sober again. You were always getting sober. News would travel through the family grapevine: Dort hasn’t been drinking, 3 months now. Dort hasn’t been drinking, 1 ½ weeks now. Dort hasn’t been drinking, 5 months now! Honestly I stopped keeping count. There were so many starts and stops. But that, dear one, is what made you beautiful. Most alcoholics I know don’t even try. 

This was not your legacy. Don’t get me wrong. I am using your lessons to guide my voice. There is a point I we are getting at. I promise. Hang tight. 

You were always transparent about your alcoholism. You were almost curious. You talked to me about AA. How they make you have a sponsor. That they wanted you to pray. You struggled with both of those things. You weren’t vulnerable by nature. Not open with those who you weren’t close to. You just wanted it to be done and dealt with but you lived with a drinker, your second husband, and that, I believe was your biggest downfall…not leaving him to save yourself. 

Vodka in the freezer, you told me. You couldn’t. No one could.

You always gave more of yourself than was even there. Leaving ghosts of yourself behind for others to feed off of. Always wanting to give more, more, more. A pleaser, left thirsty.

I am using your lessons to guide me.

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Man. 

I was so distanced from all of this at the memorial. And now that I’ve said that about your second husband everyone’s going to hate me. At the memorial for me it was just this: one foot in front of the other. Don’t slip like she did. Your message to me seemed loud and clear: Keep your head up, don’t look down. But everyone else was crying and carrying on, while I was in some state of blissed out focus. How was I going to explain this? What was going on with me? 

Back in Oregon it took me many months to come around to how I really felt about your death. I saw posts on Facebook, “I think about her every day. I am so sad. It just makes me want to cry every time I think of her.” 

Why didn’t I want to cry? I did think of you. I looked through the scrapbook you sent me, your script written in black Sharpie: Love you always, sweetie niece, it read. 

I thought of how much you had going for you. I thought, don’t slip. I thought, dead at 61. I thought of you, as a girl, going off to Germany with the Army. Your glory days. You went from California to Connecticut to Germany. You made good friends—eased the awkwardness of socializing by drinking. Most of us do. For you it was different.

You had a boyfriend out there in Connecticut. I wonder if he was as different from you as the Connecticut boyfriend I had was from me. We looked the same: white, young, scrawny. We partied together and all of that. They thought we were “pretty.” They could never know the rural swamp from whence we came. We never knew the dollar amount of the steak on our plate. That the cost of that plate amounted to our weekly grocery allowance. 

I remembered that night you held space for me. How when you ran your hand up your forehead—holding the bangs out of your eyes briefly—I saw we had matching widow peaks and dark, thick hair. I saw we had the same oily, pocky skin. I could have been your daughter. 

I did think of you. Fact I walked out on the porch one day and said your name out loud. It was a rough day for me. I was weighing this and that. I was torn between saying “fuck it” and staying on the strait and narrow. I was grappling with my “things” like we all do. 

Exasperated, I asked you for a sign. I toy with spirituality, having given some of it up with I paired up with an atheist. 

“Just, anything,” I told you, in a way I hoped was sincere. 

I held my coffee mug in both hands. The one that reads “Mom is just Wow upside down.” I latched on to the wisdom that you taught me–dare I say telepathically–with your death: Relationships matter. Don’t do what I did. Don’t throw it away for the brief, frequent explosion of addiction and harm. Turn to the light. Every time. Walk away, completely, utterly committed, from the things that threaten you. Physically. Emotionally. Walk away completely. Don’t look back. 

I was open to receiving it. That’s what I was doing at the memorial, when I couldn’t stare down a gin and cry. Actually, I was honoring you. Head up, focused on the future.

It’s what you wanted me–what you want all of us–to do. Perhaps others have experienced this phenomenon. 

Maybe it was because I was looking for a sign so hard that it actually happened, but just then the wind picked up out on the porch. It was a warm wind on an otherwise calm day. I couldn’t fucking believe it, but I wasn’t going to look away as the breeze carried to one single tree out in the yard. Just one tree. Of all of the trees. And it was the tree that was closest to me, a five leaf maple. The wind blew my hair back just a little, and I closed my eyes, gripping my coffee mug in silence. It was late summer, early autumn, and the leaves had turned but were yet to fall from the trees. When I opened my eyes that breeze—your breeze—was whipping around that maple tree like a whirling dervish or Tasmanian devil from the old Looney Tunes cartoon. I mean it was really whipping. 

I even thought to run get my phone to capture the odd, rare event but of course I didn’t. You don’t fuck with something that sacred. You don’t exploit messages from the great beyond.  

I watched as that narrow, focused breeze stripped a previously full tree of most of its orange autumn leaves. It was a clear enough message that I thanked you, looking out to see the one bare tree among the others full of leaves. I breathed in, I breathed out. I felt validated and whole again. 

I didn’t care what anyone thought. I only cared that I was around to see my grandkids, should I have them someday. So I was willing to latch on to anything, even this crystal clear sign from the no-longer-living. I only cared that I was downloading the accurate message that you wanted me to have all along: Do not mourn me outright in the traditional way. Please just walk away completely from the things that threaten your health. Walk away and don’t look back. 

And in-between the lines: Spread the message. Relationships matter. Turn to the light, every time. And this: you are worth it. 

Remember that night? You were many years sober. You lived on the outskirts of town on a street I don’t remember the name of. It was your Demi Moore days: short, cropped dark hair. I was visiting from out-of-state. You were a fulltime mom to two teenage boys. You didn’t want them to come home to an empty house anymore, so you were there waiting with your recipe books and kitschy coffee mugs when they got out of school. Even when drinking though, you were a good mom. Excellent even. Clean sheets on the bed and all of that. You threw Thanksgiving together for the family year after year. I remember the time you had us cousins over to make gingerbread cookies during Christmastime at the house on A Street. You set up your camcorder and had the radio on. Bette Midler sang “Wind Beneath My Wings,” which may have been a new song then:

It must have been cold there in my shadow,
to never have sunlight on your face,
you were content to let me shine, that’s your way,
you always walked a step behind.
Thank you, thank you,
thank god for you the
wind beneath my wings. 

 

Love, 

Your niece,

Terah

 

With Child

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Along the edge of the spilled water, a wavy black line. The length of a hair. It could have been my mothers, mine, my daughters. Indistinguishable, this edge of liquid on the countertop; this long black hair. Was it clean or dirty, the countertop? Should I wipe it or leave it be? Disorder of any kind makes me nervous. A disorder of disorder. That’s me.

Would I make a good mother? Me, who baby talks the dog, hogs all the blankets, possesses a double Scorpio, Aries moon, a combination of eldest-child-and-only-child syndromes, a born and bred rebel, a seeker of balance, the receiver of highs and lows, a giver, a taker, withholder of personal truths, sharer of haphazardly selected anticdotes and flower petals, she who is happy most of the time, plunges into run-and-write-go-panic-go-take-all-my-money-and-hole-up-somewhere-with-chocolate-and-fantasies-in-the-dark-nights, some-beach-that-is-close-enough-to-home-far-enough-to-be-full-of-strangers-days. Me, who waited all this time for for the “right” man to make the “right” baby. Poor guy. Me, with my own apartment at 17, a babys-name list at 22, collecting baby books and sneakers at 23–one-decade ago–me who they told “had a nice stomach” (I never personally loved it til now). Me, afraid of marriage and 2-year contracts of any kind. A sock wearer in summer. A fixer upper. A devotee of solitude, craft, words-on-page, food-on-plate, words-in-brain. A devotee of simplicity.

Do I have it? The patience, the selflessness, the love? If not, where within myself might I find it? The soles of my feet? My stomach? My brain? I’d ask for help if I knew how to receive it. I don’t.

Me. of fierce independence, wild with child.

Me, swollen in summer, begging for rain.

Me, grasping at time for the chunks of it lost, donated to others, these days on the calendar.

Me, the selfish and selfless colliding within me like the earth shifts and tidal waves of impending labor.

Me, melancholy yet smiling in July.

Me, the weight of adult-mother-time anchoring me in bittersweet duty.

Do I have what it takes? Is suddenly irrelevant. The invitation-to-dance has long been RSVP’d within my womb.

My wiser self nudges: do you, with child. Read, write, love. Even if it hurts at first: unearth deep peace. Take baby steps and mine for it. It was yours all along, this peace. It is not in the soles of your feet or the curve of your belly, but down where the spirit meets the bone.

 

Semblance of Ol’

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ISO isolated cabin in the woods, at the sea, or in the desert.

An army cot, wood stove, and a pen (2).

Enough shelter to keep me and my notebook dry.

A brook, frozen or flowing.

Solitude and space, modestly provided.

A closed mouth, open mind.

A select few good books, but not enough to distract me indefinitely.

A miner’s flashlight, for exploring the pitch-black spaces within me.

Backup batteries, matches, and lighters, stored in a single box.

Crackers, chocolates, coffee and water, running or not.

The type of place that won’t take your AAA discount.

Absolutely no mirrors.

Or people.

The type of place that scares me at first (the dark, the wolves).

The type of place that purifies my soul.

I can’t tell if I’m asking a lot or nothing much:

A wise guy, before the term became derogatory.

A location where no one can come asking for me.

The ability to fly and stay grounded all at once.

A toilet to drop my phone into.

A round trip ticket to myself and back.

Real, legitimate time for grounding.

The sound of water

moving

roaring

whispering

dripping

the sound of trees

talking

laughing

and creaking

around the house.

Old friends.

New levels of love.

Stones turned over.

Bread baked and savored.

Old ways of living restored.

Favorite songs and hymns reverberating in my soul.

The quiet and the solitude to

form my thoughts

into gold.

Something,

anything,

that is some

semblance of ol’.