29 December 2010

Sneak Up On It

Somewhere around October, I sort of stopped running. I’d been doing a pretty good job of staying consistent until Fall Break, when we took a camping trip to Zion which ended with the whole family getting sick. It took us a while to recover. Also during that time I decided that I ran too slowly, and I told myself I needed to go faster. And so, when I was healthy enough to run again, I took it up a few notches on the treadmill. And I hated it. It was too hard. It wasn’t fun. I wasn’t getting out of my warm cozy bed in the morning, hitting snooze a million times (Forgive me, Dan, for my optimism and for believing each night that yes! Tomorrow, I will run. I will!). And then I somehow stopped going to yoga class too, not finding time due to some other obligations, but still finding time for the next episode of Deadwood and a Manhattan.

And so, by mid-December I had quit running completely. And a few more pounds snuck on, and the Christmas goodies began arriving en masse, and I didn’t like how my pants fit and, even more important, I didn’t like how I felt: soft and sluggish in mind and body, and so very weak the few times I managed to make it to yoga.

I hate feeling weak. Not that I’ve ever been incredibly strong physically, but at some point over the summer I was able to do chatarunga. And for a girl who used to struggle to do “girl push-ups” that was a true accomplishment.

Christmas Eve was a beautiful, sunny day. Short-sleeve weather, finally, after about a week of rainy, grey days that ended with an exclamation point of snow. And so, that afternoon, after the cooking was mostly done and before the festivities were to begin, I set out for a walk. Except I didn’t walk. I ran. And I ran slowly. And it didn’t feel quite right, my stride wasn’t there. It was a slog, but I kept going, stopping only a few times to catch my breath, and I did manage to run all the way up the Big Hill (capital letters intended – if you saw the Big Hill you’d agree). And while running didn’t feel quite like I remembered, it did feel kind of good. Good enough to make me run again the day after Christmas. And then, again today. I’ve managed to log only six miles so far, but that’s more than I ran in October or November.

While I run, I think. I think about the people in my life, writing, my to-do lists, future trips I want to take. Running clears my head like nothing else I’d ever done, even more so than yoga. Today while I ran, I thought of my friend Roberta, who is a runner, too. She’s also a sage, although her humility would require her to deny it.

Once I asked her how she was able to run longer and longer distances. And her advice was so simple it floored me: sneak up on it. And that’s become my new mantra, not just for running, but for writing, and for all those other goals in life that seem unattainable, unreachable: sneak up on it.

I told her a few weeks ago that I thought I should run faster, and I was really surprised when she raised her eyebrows and asked why. I didn’t really have an answer, other than a sheepish, “But I run so very, very slow.” And so – finally – I gave myself permission to just run. At my pace. And guess what? Today, as I ran, I saw it. I felt it. I snuck up on it, and I found it. My stride.

23 December 2010

On the Duties of Insects and Parents

I’ve been reading Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, which explains in much detail how this generation’s children has lost touch – through no fault of their own – with nature. And while at times Louv can be preachy and tends to over-generalize, he does have a point. Kids need time to just be. Time without beeping electronics, canned laughter from the TV, scheduled activities, and above all, without hovering parents.

We take our kids camping and hiking. They’ve explored creeks barefoot and paddled with us on lakes and rivers. Together we’ve visited more than a half-dozen national parks and many state and regional parks, and they’ve found easily more several hundred geocaches. They backpacked with us to the bottom of the Grand Canyon via a non-corridor trail before the age of ten. And they’ve even seen deer from their bedroom window, so I think that they – and we parents – are doing pretty darn well in the nature department.

But I have to confess something here. My name is Cathleen, and I hover over my children.

I think one of the most difficult decisions a parent has to make – and often on a daily (hourly?) basis – is when to step back. Way back. When to let your kids do whatever all by themselves and without parental supervision.

Now that my kids are a little older, it’s easier to let them go play outside. The potential neighborhood dangers are still there: cactus, rattlesnakes, rabid foxes, even a mountain lion. These are not things most parents worry about, I’m sure. Most parents probably worry more about dangers like child predators or access to drugs when their children play outdoors. In and near our neighborhood there really have been encounters with actual carnivores and poisonous reptiles. But those are few and far between, just like encounters with child predators and drug dealers – although the media would rather you believe that one or another lurks within every shadow.

In Last Child in the Woods, Louv gives accounts of how various creative people, including scientists, artists and writers of previous generations all convey stories of how they were allowed to play outdoors alone. In these moments when they were allowed to become absorbed in nature, they found stillness, excitement, inspiration, and a sense of connectedness to the world. He relays one anecdote about author Beatrix Potter, and how she and her brother would find dead animals in the woods near their home. They’d bring them home and boil the carcasses to release them from their bones, and then they’d reassemble the skeletons. I’m not sure Peter Rabbit would approve, and I couldn’t help but wonder if their mother did. I thought about what my reaction might be upon discovering that in my cookware. But ultimately, I decided that she must have encouraged their behavior – although a child who did that in today’s world would certainly be branded something much worse than creative.

And so, in spite of the current attitude towards children’s activities with dead animals, and thanks to Mr. Louv, I did not freak out when my daughters told me that they’d found a dead pack rat in the yard. They wanted to show it to me. They had a shovel and a rake from the garage – they’d been mucking out their imaginary horse stables – and they wanted to bury the rat.

But first, they wanted me to see its long yellow teeth. They wanted me to see how it didn’t have eyes anymore. They wanted me to smell the unmistakable odor of death that perfumed the air around this creature. And most of all, they wanted me to see how, beneath the fur, its stomach writhed and bubbled – this, above all, attracted and repulsed them simultaneously. What on earth, they wondered aloud, would make the stomach of a dead rat do that?

At that moment, a few bright white maggots emerged from the poor rat, the result of my daughters’ poking and lifting the creature. And as such, with a few explanations, their understanding of the finer points of the end (or is it the beginning?) of the life cycle became more complete, and they developed a new appreciation for the duties of insects. They buried the rat in the yard, a couple hundred yards from the house, with the intention of digging it up again in a few months to see what changes took place. I’m not sure if any of that would have happened without Louv’s message in my mind, reminding me that children have a natural curiosity about the natural world.

And, while I feel like I can pat myself on the back for not chastising them about messing around with dead critters, they did come and get me when they found it, something I’m not sure Louv would approve of, really. Honestly, I’m trying to shake my hovering habits. But I’m tempted to remind my girls that the rat’s probably still out there in the yard, and maybe, just maybe, it’s time to dig it up.

20 December 2010

Beginnings and Endings

Is it the end?
Or the beginning?

What is it that we celebrate?

The end of this?
Or the beginning of that?

One is mythical.
It looms,
hazy, mirage-like.

The other concrete.
It marches closer

But which is which?
you cleverly ask.

Ah, that depends.

The end is a sigh, an exhale;
the beginning, an intake of breath.

05 December 2010

Ghosts of Christmas Past

As I work on the Christmas tree, assembling the parts and fluffing the branches, my daughters open the box containing the ornaments. I think it was last year that I deemed them responsible enough for this task: unwrapping each ornament from its tissue-paper protection and laying it on a tray. When all the ornaments are ready to hang, the tree will be ready for them, too.

I listen as my daughters talk, delighting in the memories they uncover.

“This is the ornament I made in first grade.”

“Look, on the back of this one I wrote my name backwards.”

“We’d better hang this one high – it’s so very fragile.”

“Another bell. Let’s hang those low so that when Lucie runs under the tree, she’ll make the bells jingle.”

The girls continue to talk as Lucie, our cat, darts under the tree branches and then back out, again and again. The tree renews her joy, too. The pile of tissue paper grows with each ornament unwrapped. More and more ornaments line up on the trays, waiting to be hung on the tree.

Dan comes over to help with the branches, and silently we work together. I’m not sure if he’s listening, too, or if he can sense the ghosts of Christmas past entering the house and my thoughts, layered like the discarded tissue paper on the floor.

I think, astonished, at how these girls have grown, and how we share these memories now and forever. At what point did they, too, become stewards of our memories?

I think of last December, when I was fretting through multiple mammograms and ultrasounds, and then a biopsy, until just days before Christmas, I received the news that I did not have breast cancer.

I think of the Christmas when Madeleine was nine months old and how I was determined, beyond reason, that everything be just perfect. I think of Arden’s first Christmas and how I’d completely forgotten that she’d be needing a stocking to hang, too, only remembering after hanging just three on the mantle. I think of the dichotomy of my expectations between those two years.

I think of the years before Dan and I had children, when we celebrated both in Prescott and in the Valley, having two Christmas meals in the same day with each of our extended families. I think of how both of my maternal grandparents, the only grandparents I ever knew, died in December. I think of the first Christmas when my brother Colin was away, and how my mother cried after talking with him on the phone and learning that he was spending the day alone. I think of the challenges of balancing extended family expectations with new traditions, and the joys of family gatherings from my childhood and now.

And always, always in December, I think of the baby I lost, a mere week before Christmas, and how through that loss I eventually gained the two gems of daughters I am now blessed with, and how, if things would have turned out differently with that pregnancy, Madeleine and Arden would not be. And I cannot imagine how my life could be without the two of them, and how they help to shape me as much as I help to shape them. The gratitude I feel to the forces that brought the four of us together and bound us as a family is without measure. And while there were moments when I wasn’t sure I would – or even wanted to – survive the sorrow I felt during that distant Christmas, I know now that it was a part of the journey, and if I hadn’t endured that, I wouldn’t be here, listening to these girls, now.

Another ornament is unwrapped, a silly reindeer with googly eyes and a sequin placed on the side of its red nose. Arden says she loves the “twinkle” on its nose, and Madeleine points out that Great Grandma Bair made that ornament. I think of all who aren’t here this Christmas, those we won’t see, but whose presence will be felt around this tree where we gather as a family.

And all the while, I am listening, watching. Watching, and trying not to worry about the ghosts of Christmas future even as I count silently on my fingers how many more years we’ll hopefully all be together in early December, before my girls leave home and create new traditions of their own. Watching, and feeling nostalgic – already – for this holiday season. Watching, and marveling at the comfort of these ghosts of Christmas past. With each new memory, these ghosts rise up, like a mist that conceals the ordinary as it reveals the constant unpredictability that is life. And I can see that these ghosts are not burdened with chains, but are light as snowflakes, and that they alight everywhere, especially on our hearts.

28 November 2010

The Big and the Small

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. There’s none of the guilt and commercialization that plague most other American holidays (well, maybe some of the guilt about that second helping…). It’s about family, togetherness, good food, and gratitude. All of these are high on my list of the Big Things in Life.

It’s been about ten months now since I started this blog, and I think I’ve been mostly faithful to my goal of posting once a week. I wanted to thank you, my readers, for being faithful to me. It’s through your attention and comments that I’ve continued and found new sources of inspiration and reasons to write. I am honored to share my insights with you, and I hope that you continue to find them worth reading.

What I’ve noticed, since starting to write in earnest a few years ago, is that the Small Things are what support the Big Things. The Small Things are what we each contribute, what personalizes the Big Things, and what makes the Big Things special, unique, and essential.

I thought it might be fun to share some of those Small Things with one another. You can leave yours as a comment here (if you have a Google account. If you don’t have a Google account, it is free to sign up, although Google may gain rights to your first-born child and/or pet and probably your soul, too, – I’m not 100% sure.). Or you can email them to me and I’ll post them for you. I’ll start:

• Arden’s favorite name right now is Augusta and her favorite color is white- examples of her unusual sense of cool.
• Madeleine’s goal lately is to read all the Newbery Award books – I love that she is a reader.
• Dan makes the most delicious French press coffee every morning with chicory – he keeps me warm and makes my day worth waking up for – literally and figuratively.
• I have to credit Dan, too, for suggesting that I start this blog in the first place.

21 November 2010

Greater than the Sum

I’m no mathematician. In fact, I consider it a great accomplishment if I find it possible to balance the checkbook without gnashing of teeth and help from my mathematically-inclined husband. But I do believe in this: it is possible for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts.

Earlier this month, a talented and gracious woman named Susie Stover died. I had the good fortune to call her my aunt, and she was the mother of four of my favorite people in this world. As a child, I thought that all people had extended families like ours – aunts and uncles and cousins who genuinely loved one another and enjoyed spending time together. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized the value and rarity of this special and loving group of people.

Aunt Susie had a beautiful alto voice. I like to sing, but I happen to sing exactly like those singing around me – if they sing well, I sound pretty good, too, and if they’re awful, I’m right there with them. I loved to sing next to her, even if it was just an informal family rendition of “Happy Birthday.” With her lovely alto, she could turn any song into a blend of harmony that better helped me understand the capacity of music to transcend the ordinary, far more than years of piano lessons and band practice. She made it possible for me to participate so that it felt like my voice belonged.

And of course, this conglomeration of memories is actually a musical metaphor. My aunt had the grace and graciousness of encouraging others to find their unique voices simply by being present and attentive in her effortless, unforced way. She had a gift for making others feel like they belonged, and it never felt strained. She was the ultimate hostess, regardless of the formality of the event. The time spent with my cousins, siblings, parents, aunts, and uncles in the past weeks has reminded me that in being together, through the hugs and tears and laughter we’ve shared, that family is greater than the sum of its parts, and I am grateful and honored to share a seat at the table and to add my voice to the din.

30 October 2010

Downcanyon in Zion

We ride downcanyon
sandstone Patriarchs towering above us
the murmuring, tumbling Virgin constant,
before, behind, and beside us.
The cool, breezy air carries
the scent of decaying leaves: fall.

It is nearly dusk,
the sun sank beyond the canyon walls
a while ago

A still buck
watches me watch him
curious and unafraid
he chews and contemplates
from his patch of roadside grass

Further on,
a yellow and brown scorpion
contrasts with the red asphalt
and we all stop to gush over
the venomous power
in his tiny tail
like we might sweet talk
a small puppy with a large growl

By increments
the cold permeates
the darkness settles
and on we ride
wheels spinning
the girls’ hair floats effortlessly
trying to rise above their helmets
and on we ride ride ride
past other deer
massive cottonwoods
low stone walls
and the river,
always the river,
as we fly
in Zion.

11 September 2010


miniature flags sprouted from the ground again,
around the flagpole at school
patriotic flowers of those days that bear the beginning of fall
nearly three thousand of them
poking up through the soil
a little too close to the dirt, I think,
for flag protocol.

Lately, I hadn’t thought about them much,
hadn’t paused and reflected
until talk of burning books made us
-all of us –
appear more like Hitler than Christ.

It was then I remembered
those left behind
without a hand to hold
without even a body to bury.
Those left behind
and the fact that
their loved ones are too close to the dirt,
or reduced to ash even.
Are they angry still?
Do they just feel sick again
when the flags reappear?
Or do they always feel that way,
seeing the empty chair at the table?

It’s chronic, that loss.

And is that luck I feel
that I am not missing them every day,
that my seasons fade
one into the next
pretty much the same as
before the dust billowed up
and clouded everything?

02 August 2010

Audience Participation

For this week’s blog, I thought I’d give you a couple teasers – opening sentences to a story – and have you vote on them. I’ll write a story that continues the winning opener for a future blog. See the poll at right and vote. Vote early, vote often (as many times as you want), and thanks for your participation! The poll closes at 11:59 on Sunday 8/8.

25 July 2010

Nothing to the Mountain

I recently watched a movie called Blindsight about blind American climber and athlete Erik Weihenmayer and an expedition he leads, taking six blind Tibetan teenagers into the Himalaya. I thought it would be an uplifting story, and it was, ultimately – I think I can say that without spoiling the ending. First, though, I had to stomach the Western expedition guides’ (including Weihenmayer’s) testosterone and desire to summit at any cost. They seemed so caught up in the ego of how they would look as humanitarians by taking these blind kids high into the mountains that they seemed to forget the risks they were taking by leading these girls and boys – who had never held ice axes or rappelled before – above 20,000 feet.
The kids were all incredibly endearing in their own ways, and the filmmaker took care to share aspects about each of them and their families. However, it was tough not to look away from the one whose eyeballs lolled about uselessly in sockets, or the one whose eyelids appeared permanently closed, or the one who seemed to be missing an eyeball. It made me uncomfortable on multiple levels.
We Americans don’t often see kids like these. We easily ignore issues that are not broadcast directly into our living rooms – and we also easily ignore some that are. Because we do have so many doctors in America, even kids without insurance typically do not have to endure facial deformities and extreme eye issues. Some benefactor or foundation would feel sorry for American kids with these issues and pay for the corrective surgery. And indeed, kids from other nations are often flown to the U.S. to have surgeries as well, or doctors travel to perform operations for humanitarian organizations. And while I understand that this is a huge gift, I wonder if it is as much for “uncomfortable us” as it is for the kids. We live geographically isolated and geographically insulated, and that affords us many comforts.
It especially wasn’t easy for me to watch this film as the parent of a child who is under the care of a pediatric eye specialist. I wondered if the kids in the movie had ever even seen an eye doctor, much less a pediatric eye specialist. If my child had been born in Tibet, like these kids, she would undoubtedly be blind in one eye at the least, without the benefit of the treatment she’s been working through over the past several years. It isn’t easy to reconcile the guilt of geography or the happenstance of birth.

In Tibet, blindness is seen as a punishment or a jinx. Tiny ancient women passed these blind children in the street and yelled at them, “You deserve to eat your father’s corpse!” One woman claimed that her son was blinded when a serpent cursed him. Another blind boy lamented that he must have done something awful in his past life to deserve being blind in this one, but, he said, “I don’t think I killed anyone.”
I reveal this not because I want you to think that Tibet is a backwards medieval land, but because it shows the limitations placed on these kids in addition to being blind. Being blind in America is a disability, to be sure, but to be blind in an undeveloped country is an ostracizing karmic punishment. These kids are fortunate to attend a school for the blind, but it is the only one of its kind in all of Tibet. It was founded and is run by a blind German woman, Sabriye Tenberken, who created a Braille system in the Tibetan language and ultimately was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her work.

All of her accomplishments and what these kids did in the mountains and with their lives afterwards really got me thinking. It got me thinking about limitations, especially. How we limit others. How we limit our own potential because of our own belief systems. How society’s perspective of what is possible – or not - defines each of us. And how we can transcend all of this and have the potential to do – and actually succeed in doing – great things.
What does it mean to climb a mountain? Not a thing to the mountain. We look up to mountaineers like Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay because they had the courage to try something that hadn’t been done before, and they succeeded. But as a lot of tragic mountain stories prove, a good many climbers become so obsessed with summiting that they ignore reason, warning signs, and true danger to themselves and others. A lot of them are reckless and take stupid risks.
So why do we admire them, in spite of their shortcomings? Why would I want to watch a documentary about something as improbable as six blind Tibetan teenagers attempting to climb above 20,000 feet?
It’s the lesson we learn from continuing the journey, even when it becomes difficult, even when we reach what we thought were our own limitations. It’s the sense that even a failed attempt can bring about a renewed sense of purpose, a fresh perception of self-awareness – or even an epiphany that is bigger than the mountain itself. In the end, what it takes to climb a mountain is tenacity. It’s putting one foot in front of the other, again and again, and again. And that’s it. Again and again, over and over. And that was what these six kids and their amazing teacher brought to my mind.
And really, isn’t that how we achieve each of our goals? Isn’t that how we soar beyond our own personal limitations? One step at a time. Again and again and again. Climbing a mountain is just like any other task. One word after another. One Braille character after another. One brushstroke after another. One brick, one stitch, one breath at a time.

17 July 2010


She writes the name of her horse, Florida, on a piece of shingle she found in the wood pile. Then she asks if I can hang the shingle and she shows me two roofing nails she uncovered in the backyard. I retrieve the hammer and follow her to her stable, Horseland.
Horseland is better known as Juniper Park. It stands at the far west end of our driveway. Four behemoth juniper trees anchor four corners and shade an area large enough and open enough to park a car. Branches layered to the ground conceal this haven where, long ago, we placed a sandbox that’s seen little use lately. North of the sandbox, a pile of long yellow grasses awaits Florida. I’d noticed Arden pulling up the grass an hour earlier, after she’d asked if we had any hay. I’d pointed at the yellow grasses bending in the wind on the hillside below the driveway.
She touches a branch that stretches out over the grass. That’s where she wants Florida’s nameplate to hang. Rake and shovel are propped against the trunk of one of the trees, ready to muck out the stable.
A moment later, the shingle hung, she beams.
“Mom, do we have any oats?”
By the end of the week, there are nine more nameplates: Fire, Sage, Rapunzel, Star, Sunflower, Tropical, Jewel, Flora, and Bluebell. As she decides the location of each stall in her stable, she weighs which horse will fit in the space allotted as well as each individual horse’s personality. Fire needs to be separate, as he can be a bit unpredictable – after all, he is part dragon and can breathe fire. Star is tiny and fits under the low branches defining her stall. I stifle a laugh as Arden sighs and mutters, “I guess I can pretend that Bluebell will fit there,” in a tangle of branches that is that only remaining unoccupied space.

I love that my work schedule and my daughters’ school schedule coincide and that we get more than two months together every summer. Two months to do a lot of nothing if we choose. When I chose teaching as my career, I never really considered the riches it would offer me as a parent. We have the luxury of time, which means that I get to sit in the shade of Juniper Park sharing lemonade with my daughters after spending the morning clearing low branches and nailing nameplates. I get to do this without my brain telling me I should be doing something more productive – and I realize the irony, for what could be more productive than encouraging imagination?
The obsession with horses began a while ago, coinciding with the waning of the obsession with unicorns. While Dan and I were in Maui a few weeks ago, the girls stayed with their grandparents. Grandma took them for walks each evening, carrots in hand to feed the neighborhood horses. And so Arden is now determined to own her very own horse. I don’t dare tell her that her chances of having her own horse right now are about as slim as her having her own unicorn.

When I was a child, my family spent a lot of time on the Crown C Ranch in southern Arizona, where we visited people we loved as family and rode horses. We also learned high etiquette for the dinner table (Encarna, the servant, will always serve you from the right – don’t serve yourself while she’s attending to your brother), some of it the hard way (don’t swing your still-too-short legs at the table, or Lhasa, the dog, will bite your toes). It was a magical place to be a child, and we were allowed to roam freely and explore. I shared a cozy, four-poster feather bed with my sister, and read The Wizard of Oz in bed below the light that was attached to the headboard.
But most of my memories there involve a fort my siblings and I created in a dry creek bed in front of the huge ranch house. While I don’t really recall the games we played in the fort, I do remember collecting acorns from the massive oaks that shaded our fort and separating their beret-like caps from the nuts. I remember my brothers kicking me and my sister out of the fort from time to time because we were girls. And I remember when the runoff from a huge thunderstorm raced down the wash and completely cleared away our fort and the toys we’d stashed and buried there.

I have a lot of childhood memories of unstructured time to play, to read, to imagine. I stopped reading only once in my life – after graduating with a degree in English literature I was too burned out to find any pleasure in it. I’d been reading three or four novels a week for my classes – and intensely, mind you, but after a six months hiatus, I began devouring books again. And at some point I stopped playing, thinking I was too cool for childish games. Somewhere, I fear I stopped using my imagination. Or did I?

09 July 2010

Independence Day

you sit on my lap
in a lawn chair that creaks slightly
your long brown hair lifts
with the breeze
tickling my cheek

the last light extinguished
you whisper to me
I’m scared
Why? I ask
you shake your head
it’s not really fear
perhaps anticipation
this unsettling
that you can’t name

sparkling tentacles of light
punctuate the darkness
streak toward us
the crowd gasps
as tracers burn the sky

boom ricochet boom

under our blanket
an echo to that thunder
your heart thumps
and I recall first hearing it
in a sterile room
seven years ago

again you turn and whisper
I’m scared
a little tighter I hold you
I smooth your hair

you curl
burrowing into me
and we breathe together
as veins of light pinprick the dusk

I inhale your dependence
the sweet scent to be carried away
on the breeze so soon

05 July 2010



Home. Love the word. The long ‘o’ stretches itself out, and the ‘m’ lingers a while. It’s that very definable, and yet somehow indefinable, space that is mine, ours. Poets have waxed about home for millennia. Home is where Odysseus fought to arrive, obstacle after obstacle – and after all, there’s no place like home. Just ask Dorothy.

How we each define home is also somewhat dependent on how far from home we travel. And it depends on who asks where home is. If I’m out of the country and asked by a native, home might be defined as something as immense as the United States – an area over three and a half million square miles. A trip out of state, and my home is Arizona, or a city, depending, again, on how much the person asking knows. Familiarity of one another’s space allows us to draw our circle of home as a smaller, more intimate area.

Home is what I miss – and who I miss – while I’m gone. There’s nothing quite like coming back to my own deliciously comfortable bed and my own shower. My neighborhood’s nighttime silence punctuated by yipping coyotes. It’s the familiarity of the route, of knowing where I’m headed. Of hills and horizons recognized. The rhythms and patterns of the day. The routines and rituals of life. The drawing together of hearts whose cadences complement one another. My heart aches a little less with each step retraced toward home.

The colors of home dull with contact. Yet, after a while even the vibrant tropical greens and sapphire blues of Maui made me yearn for the pine greens and granite pinks of home. At the age of twenty, I spent the summer in Paris, living with a French family. I was too enchanted with the city to notice more than a mute ache of homesickness. The lackluster greys and slate blues of Paris are monotonous but unifying – and were so different from my usual world. But after traveling south to Marseille, the scrubby hills surrounding the ancient port astonished me more than the Mediterranean, reminding me of similar colors in the Sonoran Desert.

The times in our lives which are the most difficult are those when the concept of home is not distinct. We float, anchorless, scanning the horizon for a beacon to guide us. These transitions are unsettling because we are literally unsettled. When we are unsure of where home is, little else in our lives is well-defined either.

At some point in our lives, we get to choose our home. To be where we love and with those we love. And while we leave home periodically, by choice or by duty, returning comforts us like nothing else. We navigate our own obstacles on our return: screaming babies in place of Odysseus’s sirens, indifferent baggage handlers rather than the Cyclops, the parking shuttle and traffic instead of the Scylla and Charybdis. For me, the anticipation of returning home at the end of a trip is often more intense than the pre-trip eagerness. As Ludwig Bemelmans put it, the best part of a journey is when the trip is over, and you are home again.

19 June 2010


I lay under the car, next to my dad. He’s teaching me how to change the oil in the car – my first car. I line up the oil pan below the drain, as instructed, and pull the plug.
The black oil runs down my arm, and drips from my elbow onto the floor of the carport.
He laughs as I protest, “You never told me to move my hand out of there!” I tilt my elbow up to reverse the flow.
He scoots out from under the car to get me a rag to clean up the mess.
An hour or so later, I’ve installed a new oil filter, replaced the plug, and topped the car off with clean, golden motor oil. And I have a new sense of self-worth: I am a young woman who has entered the domain of men.

Dads are mysterious creatures. They know stuff. How to do things, how to fix things, what things are called, what to do. You have to admit, they know things that moms and wives and kids don’t – and things the non-dads don’t. And the cool thing is, they share all of this with us. With their own kids. With other people’s kids.

My dad instilled in me a love of the great outdoors. I don’t hunt or fish, but I do camp, backpack, and recently took up kayaking. I love to spend time outside. When I was a kid, I always wanted to grow up to be a mountain climber. I don’t climb a lot of mountains, but I do climb into the Canyon on a pretty regular basis. Spending time outdoors as a family is one of his legacies that I am passing on to my own children.
A few summers ago, we had the opportunity to share our home with Pavla, an amazing young woman from Hradec Kralove, Czech Republic. She was an exchange student spending the summer in Arizona and the school year in Michigan. One of the cool things we got to do was take her camping with some of our extended family. She’d never been on a camping trip before. My dad showed her how to make a good campfire and taught her about dutch oven cooking, one of his specialties. The peach dump cake they made that evening remains one of my favorite desserts of all time.

Mike, my father-in-law, is the kind of guy who can fix anything. But one of my favorite memories of him is of the advice he gave me prior to my first Grand Canyon hike, a year before I became part of his family. My sister Susie, and two of my cousins, Kelley and Laura, had made plans to hike to Supai Village in July. It would be our first backpacking trip – ever – for any of us. And while I think that all four of us knew that it would be difficult, I’m not sure it occurred to my twenty-something self that it could be dangerous. In a way that demonstrated concern and was far from patronizing, Mike opened my eyes to the fact that if we four got into trouble down there – from the heat, from the exertion, from a poorly placed step, or a case of bad judgment – that we would be in real trouble. I thought of his advice many times on that trip, and I’ve thought of it many times since. It reminds me to be smart, to use my resources wisely, and to look – and think – before I leap into a new endeavor.

The third dad in my life isn’t a father figure to me, but is the father of two amazing girls, my daughters. Since Dan and I started this parenting gig ten years ago, we’ve watched one another grow into our roles. Even a decade later, I’m still surprised at how different our roles can be, how they balance and complement one another, how one of us can pick up the slack when the other is tired or overwhelmed – and how this constantly shifts.
This fall, we took our first family trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We slogged through sand, and then over, under and across the stones larger than houses strewn about Soap Creek Canyon, which meets up with the Colorado at about river mile 11. Our girls were troupers, carrying a few things in their own packs, and mustering courage and determination when necessary.
At the river, Dan taught them to fish. Patiently, they sat; patiently, he instructed. They cast and waited, watching the river and the cliffs from their sandstone perch while I observed from the shade beneath the overhang, book in hand. And when each fish took the bait – oh, the joy, the pride on all of their faces as each girl reeled in her prize.
A skill shared, lessons taught and remembered, advice and knowledge passed to a new generation. All that and more, contained in smiles on the bank of an ancient river. I wonder how many first fish have been caught on these banks over the centuries. And how many fathers instructed sons and daughters here, granting access to the wisdom of ancestors and letting it course along through the generations, like a river through a canyon.

13 June 2010

Cultivating Hope

I water the pots on the deck, one by one. I smile, noticing the incremental changes from the day before, from last week. The lettuce leaves are bigger, darker, curlier. The scallops on the edges of the sprouts of parsley are just that much more pronounced. The horseradish seems to shadow half of the container. The spindly soybean vine reaches another rung on its bamboo and twine ladder. And just peeking out, a shy barely-pink strawberry.

I’m new at gardening. It’s a grand experiment, really. I don’t know if anything I grow will actually be worth eating. I hope it will be. I have faith that these little plants will know what they are supposed to do, because I certainly don’t know what I’m supposed to do, besides providing a little water and some food.

If this summer’s experiment goes well, I’m considering fencing in a portion of our yard to do a “real” garden. Time will tell. Northern Arizona is not a very easy place to garden. At a mile high, we have cold winters and hot summers. And the gusty wind is dry and brutal. In the spring, the temperatures fluctuate wildly, luring the trees into bloom just to freeze again the following week. And here in our neighborhood the deer, bunnies, and javelinas truly believe that much of my flower bed is for their benefit.

The gardening process seems a lot like parenting. I give these plants a little space to grow, a little nourishment, a dose of sun, and I cross my fingers. I haven’t had to instill much discipline yet, but the plants are all so small still. I am proud of their progress although I feel it has little to do with me. Maybe the wind won’t blow too much. Maybe this year we won’t be visited by the grasshoppers that leap from the ground like popping corn. Maybe it will rain – but not too much, not too hard. I hope there is just enough adversity to make them strong. I hope and I hope and I hope.

06 June 2010


Mitzvah: 1a. a commandment of Jewish law. 1b. the fulfillment of such a commandment. 2. a worthy deed. (plural: mitzvot)

My first year teaching was at a private Hebrew school in Tucson. I was hired mainly to teach English to a small group of Russian-speaking immigrants from many different parts of the former Soviet Union. My teaching duties there were varied and demanding. I learned a great deal about my students and myself, about Judaism and Israel, and the many assumptions I had about the Jewish faith and Jews in general. There were times at that school when I felt more like a fish out of water than I did during an entire summer spent in non-English speaking European countries.

How was it that in all my multi-cultural experiences and in all those classes preparing me to teach English to non-English speakers, that I actually knew so little about this culture that thrived right here, just six miles from my home?

Most of my students there were too young to be preparing for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, but it was certainly an event looming in their future. As a young gentile teacher, I had only heard the term ‘mitzvah’ as it related to this rite of passage which confers upon young Jews the responsibilities of adulthood. There are actually over 600 mitzvot, or commandments of Jewish law, outlined in the Torah. And while most of them detail religious duties (like preparing lights in advance of Shabbat), the word ‘mitzvah’ came to have a broader meaning for me.

Mitzvah can also mean “any worthy deed” and in modern times has come to express an act of human kindness as well. These are duties as well. What can we do to make someone else’s load a little lighter? What power is there in choosing, deliberately, something worthy of doing?

I do try to incorporate a mitzvah or two into my daily life, even now, seventeen years after that first exposure to the term. For me, it’s kind of a Golden Rule thing – which, I’ve learned, exists in some form in every major religion. But a commitment to actually making mitzvot a daily ritual – well, that is a worthy deed in and of itself.

30 May 2010

The Owl

It was one of those calm early summer evenings when the daylight seemed to stretch impossibly late. And so, after dinner, we all sat looking across the table at one another asking, “What next?”

The girls both wanted to go out for ice cream, and so Dan dusted off Cliff, the 1965 Corvair that has been sitting patiently, forlornly, in the driveway for months (or has it been a year?), waiting to be driven once again. We piled into the car, windows down, and took off for downtown. The cool summer air rushed in, mixed with the peculiar ‘eau de Corvair’ scent: something like exhaust and burning motor oil. We drove down Williamson Valley Road, through the construction where the road is being widened. Where the road dipped the air was noticeably cooler. It finally felt like summer in Prescott, and I was glad.

We parked at the courthouse square. Anyone who comes to Prescott, to live or to visit, feels an instant affinity for the courthouse square. The stone courthouse rises from the center of the block, flanked on all sides by tall elm trees, inviting grassy lawns, and a brick sidewalk. It is an idyllic and charming place, and makes Prescott seem like the small town that it used to be.

As we walked to the ice cream shop, we admired several old cars parked nearby, including an adorable 1959 Metropolitan. Once inside the ice cream shop, Dan chatted with the server about the NBA playoff game on tv there, and then we made our way back to the square. The sun was sinking behind Whiskey Row, but it was not yet dark. We sat on a bench and watched teenagers playing hacky sack. A young couple was hugging near the fountain. People with dogs of many sizes and breeds were all making their way around the square, each at their own pace. A determined old woman with a walker shuffled alone. Security guards were patrolling the shuttered booths for the weekend art fair that was taking place during the daylight.

The temperature was dropping slightly, and I was beginning to feel cold. I suggested that we walk around the courthouse so I could warm up a little. On the west side, one of the security guards was pointing almost straight overhead. I looked up and spied a huge bird in an elm tree.

I knelt to point the bird out to Arden. The security guard said it was a great horned owl fledgling, and that the parents were nearby. We watched as the owl, so high above us, fluffed up its feathers, raised its tail, then called, hoo, hoo, hoo. He did this again and again, looking around, and down at us.

A scruffy man on a bike stopped and told us that earlier an owl had crashed into the window of one of the judge’s offices, breaking its beak. He said that one of the women in the office had taken a co-worker’s suit jacket to retrieve the injured owl, and, “Boy, did that bird make a mess of the jacket.” Then he described how the art show booths below the owls’ nest had been moved to protect people from a potential owl attack. The man rode off, and I wasn’t sure I believed all his stories.

Arden and I walked up the steps nearby to join Dan and Madeleine and gain a better vantage point. It was growing darker, and although we could no longer see the owl’s feathers, its silhouette stood out against the cloudless sky. Its horns appeared and disappeared depending on the angle of its head. Hoo, hoo, hoo. Every time it hooted it would raise its tail and puff up, like it was mustering all of its energy and concentration. We watched, awed by this great bird in the very heart of our little city.

Hoo, hoo, hoo. And then, it stretched itself tall, held the pose for a moment, and took off, flying south and then banked to the east, around the courthouse. Its huge wings were stealthy silent and smoothly beating, and then the owl was gone. We smiled at one another and walked back to the car in the dark silence of the bird’s wake.

23 May 2010

Homecoming Dance

brand new shoes heaped on the gym floor

caught in the blinking lights
a lucky pair clings to one another
creating a single being
the envy of the crowd

mingling scents of
body odor and bandaids

a shy guy with shrugged shoulders
wider than his self-confidence
shuffles alone
fists stuffed into the pockets
of his nicest pair of jeans

she waits on the bleachers
chin propped on fist
wishing she didn’t know
that Prince Charming is a myth

girls in groups
glide in and out of the restroom
shod in new pantyhose
whispering and giggling
comfortable only in the herd

guys push and shove each other
frustration and testosterone
uncomfortable in their new collared shirts

mumbled words exchanged
onto the floor they walk
she turns, shoots a wild smile at the herd

her arms slung awkwardly over shoulders
hands suspended in the tense air
should she touch his too-long neck
while his fingertips dampen
watering the flowers on her dress

16 May 2010

Lay It Down

Roy sat in a creaky chair next to the bed. The old man unwrapped a flannel cloth to reveal his Smith & Wesson revolver. He glanced at Alma to check that she still slept, then reached into the box on the nightstand, retrieving a single cartridge. His gnarled hands shook as he loaded it into the cylinder of the gun. He sat for a moment, and then thought better of his failing eyesight and filled the cylinder, dropping two cartridges to the floor. They rolled under the bed. He muttered a curse and then pulled Alma’s wheelchair closer. Roy placed the weapon on the seat, set the brake, and grimaced as he leaned his full weight on the chair. He haltingly pulled himself to his feet. He grumbled at the ache in his knees and hips, wishing he hadn’t left his flask of bourbon in the truck. His hands began to shake again as he reached for the gun.
Tucking the revolver into his belt and grabbing his cane, Roy shuffled toward the door. His pants sagged, the result of few meals over the past weeks. The worn soles of his cowboy boots slid and scraped over the wooden floorboards. His dog, Hank, lay on the floor with his chin resting on his front feet. He looked up at Roy and wagged his whip-like tail, thumping the floor.
“Yeah, Hank. It’s time.”
But the dog waited, letting Roy pass through the door first, then hopped up with the exuberance of his youth. He trotted after his master.
Six weeks before, Alma’s doctor had given them the news. The bruising, shortness of breath, and fatigue were classic symptoms. They were confirmed by a blood test which left a blue-black mark that eventually wrapped itself around her elbow. At her age, there was really no treatment. Not that she’d want any. She wanted to live, sure, but on her own terms, in their own house, on their land. When Roy had picked up the phone to call Luellen after the initial shock and surge of tears had receded, Alma shook her head. She didn’t want anyone to know, even their own daughter. She didn’t want a fuss made over her. And so they’d carried on by themselves. The idea of dignity was paramount for Alma, but Roy soon realized that there was no dignity in growing old, no dignity in trying to lift his wife’s body so she could use the bathroom, no dignity in wrestling with her feeble body in order to change her clothing or the bed sheets. There was no dignity in trying, in his own pathetic condition, to avoid hurting her as he performed these tasks, even with his best intentions. But these things he would do for her. There was no need to involve anyone else.
Roy made his way down the porch steps, gripping his cane and picking up the shovel that he’d propped up against the house. Hank followed, a dutiful attendant. The wind blew from the northwest and the first cirrus clouds skitted high, warning of a storm on the way. Roy stopped and adjusted the revolver and zipped his black down vest up to the neck, then continued his slow trek toward the cottonwoods that separated the upper field from the creek’s edge. He squinted into the cold wind, his eyes watering. Stopping again to find his handkerchief to wipe his eyes and blow his nose, he balanced himself with one hand holding the cane and the shovel. Hank gently nudged his hand, sniffed the revolver, and sat, patient. Roy ignored him. Hank nudged again, eager for affection and reassurance.
“Stop it, Hank,” Roy whispered, his voice gruff.
Pocketing the handkerchief, Roy trudged on. The week before, he had finalized his plan. While Alma slept, he’d boxed up their Limoges wedding china. Before carefully wrapping the first dish in newspaper, he’d traced with his crooked finger the diminutive pink roses that twined along the edge of the plate. He’d stacked them, the dinner plates, salad plates, cups, saucers, each wrapped separately, into boxes lined up just inside the front door.
After stoking the fire, and checking on Alma, he’d eased himself into a chair at the kitchen table to write. When he had finished, Roy addressed the letter to Luellen in his shaky school-book script. Then, he had retrieved the gold watch from his jeans pocket. Pulling out the winding button, he’d wrapped the watch in flannel and placed it and the letter inside the last box with the china. There were no apologies, no explanations. There was nothing left to say.
Hank looked up at Roy again, prodded his hand with a cold, wet nose, and whimpered. Roy cleared his throat and carried on. Roy glanced toward the cottonwoods, their skeletal branches reaching toward the clouds. There, two metal garden chairs awaited, and Roy could rest.
Alma blinked, her breathing alternating between shallow and deep. Roy tried to look only at her face and away from her hands, which had turned a bluish hue. Earlier, when he adjusted the blankets, he noticed her feet were blue, the toenails a yellow contrast. He knew, then, that it would be soon.
“I’m cold,” Alma whispered, her voice broken and hushed.
“I just put another log in the stove,” Roy said, his voice quavering. He fidgeted with the goose down comforter that had warmed them many winters. “Remember when we made this? Raising those damn geese? Never seen a creature mean as them. Was a pleasure to wring their necks and pluck ‘em.” He smiled.
Alma nodded and closed her eyes.
“And you. I had no idea you were stitching away at this.” He fingered the patchwork, made of plaid shirts, flannels, Luellen’s little girl dresses, a tapestry of their lives together.
Her breathing was slowing. Grasping her hand, he was amazed at the way its cool smoothness still complemented his own rough hands.
Fifty-seven years I’ve held these hands, the old man thought. Fifty-seven years.
“Roy.” Her eyes were open again. “Roy.”
He nodded.
“Call Luellen. When I’m gone.” She licked her parched lips, her voice crackling with dryness. “Promise me you’ll go to her.”
He nodded, but knew it was a lie. He would be here, die here. There was no reason to go live in a California suburb with their daughter. Luellen had created her own opportunities, and Roy was proud of her, lawyering for that big firm in San Jose. She worked too many hours. He was pleased with all she’d done, and all on her own. They shared a stubbornness that often made them clash, but Roy saw much of himself in her and knew he didn’t have to explain his choices, just as she didn’t have to explain hers.
He helped his wife sip some water, kissed her, and then rose and climbed into the bed next to her, panting with exertion. Her eyes were closed again and he took her hand and held it near her heart. The last of the sun’s rays slipped beyond the hill, bathing the room in winter’s last grey light. He wept.
Hank bounded, racing in and out of the creek below the cottonwoods as Roy took the flask from the pocket of his black down vest. He took a mouthful of bourbon and then tucked the flask back into the pocket. He trudged forward, dragging the shovel, and tossed his cane toward the metal chairs, then removed his vest, and placed the gun on it. There, where the dirt was softer, where he’d made love to Alma many, many springtimes as the cotton from the trees had swayed like dancing snowflakes around them, he began to dig.
As he dug, he saw her smooth tan skin, her coffee-colored hair not yet streaked with grey, the blue of her eyes matching the sky behind her as she straddled him, laughing. He stopped to rest, stopped to swig from the flask. How many seasons had they been together under these cottonwood trees? With each memory, the digging became easier, the dirt he scooped became lighter, until finally, faint from the recollections and the labor, he was done. At last, the task finished, he released the shovel from the grip of his stiff fingers. Sweating, panting, he shuffled to the metal chairs. He’d teased Alma about how she had insisted on picking the cotton out of her hair, about how pointless it was since before she’d finish more catkins would have landed. But he wasn’t smiling when he picked up his cane and gun, and plodded out from the weak shade the leafless cottonwood branches afforded.
Roy whistled to call Hank and struggled to pick up a stick. His back ached from the digging. Hank whined and pranced, hoping for a game of fetch. With immeasurable effort, Roy flung the stick into the fallow field. Hank tore after it, delighted in the game. Roy grasped the revolver and pulled it from his belt. He walked on, leaning on the cane, the gun a heavy comfort. Hank returned with the stick in his mouth, holding it up for Roy, pawing at the ground. Roy patted the dog gently on its head, grabbed the stick, and flung it again out into the field.
Bringing the gun up to level, Roy struggled to balance with the cane propped up against his leg. With both hands strangely steady on the grip, he raised the weapon, cocked, and aimed, only to realize he was too slow. Hank was already returning, holding the stick lopsided in his smiling jaw and dragging it on the ground. Roy grabbed the stick again, throwing it as far as he could to give himself the advantage, wincing at the pain in his shoulder.
The gun, already cocked and ready to fire, felt lighter in his hands as he brought it level and aimed. He searched for Hank through the sight, and then saw the dog’s dim shadow playfully bounding into a crouch and barking. Then, as if the dog’s instincts suddenly took hold, Hank stood on point at something Roy could not see. Roy blinked, then fired. The roar of the gun filled his ears and he momentarily lost balance. Stabbing at the ground with his cane which had been propped up against his hip, he righted himself, breathing heavily. Wiping his mouth with the hand that held the gun, Roy squinted at the field, scanning it for Hank. The dog lay on its side, motionless.
Roy awoke in the night, his hips in searing pain from being motionless for so long. He inhaled deeply, pulled his hand from Alma’s and rolled, pushing himself to a sitting position with his legs hanging over the side of the bed. The room was cold, the air still and heavy. Reaching for the bedside light, he pulled the chain to turn it on, then gripped his cane, and slowly rose to fill the woodstove. The pain in his hips seeped downward as he shuffled. He stood by the fire after feeding the coals that patiently glowed, leaving the door of the stove ajar to allow the oxygen to nourish the flames. Convinced that the fire would take, Roy closed and latched the door, then hobbled back into the bedroom, impatient to return to the warmth under the down comforter.
From the dim light beside the bed, he knew. Alma was bluish, her jaw slack. He’d seen others dead, and animals too, of course. He’d always snorted with derision when someone said the dead looked like they were sleeping. It wasn’t true, of course. There was no mistaking sleep for death.
The hardest part, he thought, would be how to get her there, under the cottonwood trees. He brought the wheelchair alongside the bed, and leaned over his wife’s body. Tenderly, he brushed her grey hair back behind her ear with his crooked, shaky fingers. Leaning in and wrapping his arms around her torso, he held her tight and struggled to straighten himself. He lugged her toward the chair, lurching inch by inch, embracing her. Finally, he had her over the chair, her legs still reaching the bed. He had wanted to lay her down with grace, but collapsed and let her go. She landed on the seat, a little on her side, head wobbling, but she was there.
Roy crumpled onto the bed, the tremor in his hands amplified by his exhaustion and agitation, by the fact that he hadn’t eaten. He slept, briefly, fitfully.
When he awoke, he avoided looking at Alma. As quickly as he could, he left the suffocating air of the bedroom. He hobbled outside. The day’s first sunlight was just breaking across the oak-studded hills, alighting the frost-coated grasses like a silhouette of flame. A bank of clouds hung in the west, brewing with gloom. A cold front was on its way, and the trees and grasses shivered in anticipation. Roy stood, leaning on the porch rail and watched the clouds move in. The energy of the storm was still distant but he felt it and was grateful.
Roy covered Alma with the comforter and tucked it into the sides of the wheelchair. It was easy enough to move the wheelchair through the house. Out on the porch, Roy turned the chair so that Alma faced the door. He set the brakes thinking – hoping – he’d have more control, and then carefully eased himself to the lower of the two steps. He tried to shut out the images of the wheelchair crushing him as it fell, out of control, his bones breaking, and him lying pinned and helpless beneath it.
“Damn it.” Who was he kidding? He could barely move Alma when she was alive and able to help. How would he get her down these two steps? He sat down to think, startled that he hadn’t thought it through like he’d intended.
An hour later he had a plan. With all the strength he could manage, he dragged her from the chair until she was right at the edge of the top step. Then he worked his way down to the bottom step, released the chair brake, and pulled it down the steps, moving back. It bounced and flipped on its side, coming to a stop right in front of Roy. He managed to right it, and reset the brake. Then he mounted the steps again, and dragged Alma, wrapped in the comforter, down the steps, a slow one-two shuffle with Alma’s feet thudding as they dropped from each step. With great care, he set her back in the chair, and rested again.
Later, the cold wind picked up and Roy fought to push the chair into the wind. They were nearly to the cottonwood trees. With each step, the metal chairs beckoned, and Roy quickened his pace, impatient to sit and share a bourbon again. Steam rose from him, evaporating into the chill. He wheeled Alma near the chairs that waited. Collapsing in a cold chair, Roy pulled his flask from his belt and breathed. He sipped, the heat of the whisky invigorating and calming. When he recovered, he wheeled the chair near the hole he’d dug. He unwrapped Alma, and with a tenderness that belied his age, lay her down. He adjusted her limbs until he was satisfied she looked comfortable, and then gently combed through her hair with his fingers. Her eyes were closed. He covered her with the comforter, then climbed out and rested again.
The flask empty and the clouds low and nearly white, Roy pushed the wheelchair out into the field to retrieve Hank. He stumbled over the furrows, relying on the chair to keep him upright. Squinting into the field, he searched for the dog. And then he noticed a raven. He approached, yelling at the raven atop the dog. His voice, raspy and hoarse, had no effect on the bird. He staggered, struggling to maintain his balance and still push the chair. When Roy was within fifteen feet, the raven flew, accusing Roy with its caw, caw, caw. He removed his vest and threw it over the dog, not wanting to see his face. He knelt to lift this load.
Finally, the sky a velvet purple above the mountains to the west, Roy lay back in the hole he’d dug under the cottonwood trees, Hank at his feet, Alma at his side. He covered the three of them with the comforter that had warmed them so many nights before. The memories of their lives together were spinning, twirling into an eddy around him. In the fading light snowflakes began to fall and swirl, dancing like the cotton catkins many springs before. Falling and rising, the memories carried him, relieved of all burden.

09 May 2010

How to Make a Civilization Flourish

A civilization flourishes when people plant trees under which they will never sit.
-Greek Proverb

Usually, people do the best they can with what they’ve got. I try to believe this. As a teacher, I believe my students usually do the best they can with the skills they’ve got. I believe that their parents usually do the best they can to raise their kids. And I believe that the voters of Arizona will do the best they can with the choices they have.

Prop 100 isn’t perfect. It does have flaws and it may not be the best solution to the issues facing the state. But right now, it’s the best choice we have. In my school district, Prescott Unified, serious cuts are being considered to programs that have enormous impact on students. All teachers involved in visual, musical, and performing arts have been notified that their programs are in jeopardy. All physical education programs have been cut. Library services and geography classes have been axed.

Students will lose out on opportunities that could impact their futures. They will miss out on the arts, which researchers have shown to improve learning in language (See Bramberge’s work at MIT and Gardiner’s at Brown University). Strong correlations can be made between music education and language skills. Without exposure to music, students’ reading and language test scores could be predicted to fall.

Athletics are also an integral part of well-rounded education. Through sports, students learn teamwork and sportsmanship. Already students at Prescott High School are required to do fundraising to help pay for transportation and other costs associated with their sport. Pay-to-Play seems fair, but the cost is becoming prohibitive. If Prop 100 fails, many students won’t be able to afford the fees, and athletics would become an activity that only the wealthiest, most advantaged students could participate in.

In addition, exposure to sports and the arts opens many avenues for students. Through diligence and practice they will have opportunities to earn scholarships and awards that can enable them to continue to play, and perhaps even help pay for higher education. The arts and sports help us to become more well-rounded individuals. They help us to connect with one another in ways that transcend class, culture, and other barriers.

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the PHS Showcase for Haiti. This program was put on by the students and faculty sponsors of the National Honor Society. It was a real treat to witness the many and diverse musical, dance, and entertainment numbers by students and faculty. Through ticket sales and t-shirt sales funds were raised for victims of the Haiti earthquake. In the lobby of the theater, hundreds of pieces of art were on display by the visual arts students at PHS. Their works were inspiring. I felt honored to be in the audience at this event. The arts matter, and without them, we will be left to wonder about the lost potential of beauty, joy, and inspiration. What about the loss of potential job opportunities related to these fields, or the loss of creativity that often leads to new solutions to old problems?

I won’t let all the naysayers of Prop 100 change how I feel about my job. They won’t make me love it any less. They won’t make me love my students any less. In addition to teaching my students a foreign language, I do have another agenda. I hope to impart in my students a love of learning and a vision of how the US is part of the world and not the world entire. I teach them to try to envision the fact that the rest of the world doesn’t see things the same as we Americans do, and that not understanding this leads to fundamental cross-cultural problems with far-reaching effects, like terrorism. I hope to instill a work ethic, responsibility, a respect for one another, and punctuality in attending class and turning in assignments; none of this will change either, because these are essential life skills.

I still won’t let the negativity of the anti-education folk permeate my classroom. However, I would love to invite all of you who don’t believe in what we educators do, to come to my classroom and to those of my colleagues. We could use your help! What great ideas do you have about how we can make education work better? There is always room for improvement. What talents do you have that the younger generation could benefit from? Come and see the great things kids are doing already, and help us make their futures even brighter. Sometimes another perspective is exactly what may be needed to breakthrough and facilitate real change.

I hear comments that kids today don’t care about anything beyond their cell phones. Students at Prescott High School are incredibly active in the community and beyond. Students here have introduced me to the phenomenon of micro-economics and Kiva. People all over the world, including PHS students, are loaning money to small businesses that allow the borrowers to walk down the road to self-reliance and away from ineffective governmental aid projects.

Students at PHS raised nearly $1000 from their peers to benefit refugees in Darfur. They were able to accomplish this even though many adults questioned them, asking, “What’s Darfur?”

Along with the greater community, students at PHS have contributed their time and energies to Big Brothers, Big Sisters. They have raised money for the earthquake victims in Haiti and Chile. They have held drives for the Yavapai Humane Society.

These kids are aware, informed, and involved, and I can only assume that the students at PHS mirror the state and the nation. Why have they done all this for animals? For people half a world away? Because they care. Because they were moved by the need of others. Because they felt they could do something, and they felt themselves to be an active, responsible part of the greater world.

So, you ask, why aren’t they raising money for their own education? Well, they are. They do. And that isn’t their responsibility. It’s ours. My education, from kindergarten through 12th grade, was funded by the taxpayers of the State of Arizona. I am still very grateful for their faith in my potential, and I hope that I have lived up to their expectations. I am fully prepared and committed to the education of the next generations because they are my responsibility – our responsibility.

I hear a lot of talk lately about individual rights, but not much about personal responsibility. As a citizen, I have responsibilities in addition to rights. I have the right to vote, which comes with the responsibility to be informed. I have the right to freedom of speech, which comes with the responsibility to be accurate and articulate. I have the right to an education, which comes with the responsibility to work hard and to do my best.

The responsibilities of today’s students are to work hard, study, and learn the skills and information that will enable them to become successful, contributing members of society. It is their teachers’ responsibility to impart the knowledge and information that their students need. It is their parents’ responsibility to ensure that their children attend school, are on time, arrive ready to learn, do their homework, and prepare for tests. It is the responsibility of the community to support its children and allow them to focus on the tasks they need to accomplish great things.

Whether or not you support Prop 100, and whether or not you have children of your own, you are responsible for the next generation. Complaining and posting negative comments on websites do little to affect and make positive contributions toward change.

If Prop 100 passes, the average tax-paying household will pay approximately $400 a year, according to the Goldwater Institute. Other sources say this figure is high. If you don’t trust the schools, if you don’t trust the legislature, would you consider taking that $400 and contributing directly to a child’s development? How about a contribution to the scholarship fund at your local YMCA? Sponsor a kid to play soccer through AYSO. Find a private music or visual arts teacher who would accept a scholarship donation on behalf of a needy student. Make a gift (which may be tax-deductible) to your local children’s theater group.

If you can’t donate money, how about time? Mentor a child. Volunteer for Big Brothers, Big Sisters. Visit your local schools and get involved. Your local elementary school would welcome volunteers to help with reading groups and other small group activities (you may need a background check, including fingerprints). Your local high school requires parent and community volunteers to serve on committees to assist with the accreditation process through North Central Association, among other things.

Get to know a kid. Get to know a teacher. We’re all in this together, and we can all surely do just a little more to help one another out.

02 May 2010

In the Shade of the Oleanders

I sat between my grandparents in the same aluminum folding chairs we’d sat in countless times before. The shade from the wall of oleanders on the west side of their yard now stretched nearly to the garden on the far end. The tall stalks of the delphiniums still cast their own shadows, but the shadow from the oleanders would soon outreach them.
The scotch on the rocks in my glass was getting easier to drink as the ice melted, but I still didn’t like the taste of it. It was fiery and cool at the same time, like my grandfather. He held his glass of straight scotch from the top, his pinky and ring finger stretching down the length of the glass while the stubs of the other three fingers barely curled over the top. He’d lost those fingers as a teenager, playing with blasting caps. He’d never told us the story, but my mother had whispered to me a long time ago what she knew, which wasn’t much. His silence about the incident was to be taken as a warning.
Gram sat with her bourbon and water, clinking her ice cubes and looking toward the garden. We were all surprisingly quiet and I understood that we wouldn’t have many more summers like this. Looking at my grandparents, I understood that, and I wondered if they did, too.
We talked about the drought and how the mine was going to reclaim the copper in the tailings that stretched alongside the main drag in town. We talked about things that didn’t really matter much, and I wished we could talk about how we loved to sit here outside together in the heat of the summer, our bare feet in the cool green grass. I wished there was a way to stop and sit here, listening until I knew all their stories in my heart, beating the cadence of their lives in measured time.
Much later, when the time came to divide the treasures they had gathered over a lifetime, I found the scope and breadth to be too much. The photos were too moving to look at, being only moments captured while the sequence was sometimes lost. There were letters, some even written in my own hand – a childish hand – that drew me in until I found myself enveloped in the memories they described. They spoke of triumphs and births and news. And while they left me with cool tears of remembrance and love, none mentioned the summer afternoons in the shade of the oleanders.

25 April 2010

Sweet Returns

Madeleine sleeps quietly now, nearly buried under a down comforter on the couch. I tiptoe through the house, trying to stay quiet and allow her the sleep she deeply needs now to recover from her fever. She’s such a good patient, a patient patient. She rarely asks for anything when she’s sick. I have to remind myself to offer her water, snacks, otter pops, a book, another blanket. Otherwise she’ll quietly suffer, keeping to herself.

It’s not easy for me to sit still with her while she’s sick. I’ve got my gram’s jump-up-and-do-one-more-thing-before-I-sit-down genes. The to-do list in my head adds to itself while I sit, frustrated, and I don’t get to cross anything off of it. The plants need watering, the laundry in the dryer is just about done, and I should really take out the recycling and empty the compost bin. And then I should put a few toys away and straighten up the kitchen counter where everything without a home seems to land. And look at that dust! I just don’t feel useful if I’m not crossing things off that list.
But it’s a blessing, too, when I have to slow down. If Madeleine hadn’t gotten sick yesterday, I would be working today. It’s nice to have a quiet day at home with her even if she is sick, and it was nice to have the opportunity to take Arden to the bus stop this morning. There is a feeling I get, I’m not quite sure how to describe it, but it’s something like pride mixed with wistfulness that envelops me when I see my daughters take that big, giant step up onto the school bus.
Arden, at six, is independent enough to navigate this mode of transportation on her own, to know which bus to board, to remember at which stop she should step off. She looks so small, there, next to that big yellow bus. And yet she looks so big too.
And I wonder if this wistful pride is what I will feel when my daughters board an airplane without me, or drive off for the evening in a car filled with friends, or turn away from me as they embrace many milestones that lie ahead. Places that I cannot go to with them, for if I did, it would defeat the very purpose of their going.
Madeleine turned ten this spring, and that number astounds me. Eight more summers remain until she takes that very big step towards college and true independence. She has less time left as a child than she has spent so far on this earth. Just ten quick years ago, she was dependent on me and her dad for everything. And somehow, and oh, so soon, she has learned so many things, and can do so much for herself. And this certainly is the goal: independence.
I am learning to let go, and learning to let her be, and let her do. But it’s not always easy, because it often seems that when she wants independence, I want her dependent because I can see a better way than the route she’s choosing. And when she wants dependence, I wish she would stand on her own. This balancing act, this push and pull, this tightrope walk that is parenting. How do we negotiate these acts? How do we know when to say when? When to trust and when to protect?
My sister-in-law has been in the midst of potty-training her son these past few months. Another of my sisters-in-law delivered her son to a university campus on the far coast this past fall. At times I feel so far from either of these two milestones – like I can barely remember the former and can’t imagine the latter. But I know the clock is ticking, and that our time together, like this, is limited.
And so, after she awoke from her nap sweaty from the fever breaking, I agreed to give her a bath instead of sending her off to the shower. And I wondered how long it has it been since I’ve bathed her? Since I’ve rinsed the shampoo from her hair? This intimate, stolen day that we spent together, just the two of us. How many more days do I get to spend with her before she’d rather be with friends? Or with boys?
It seems that children are always in the process of separating from the parents, and that initial closeness isn’t ever truly regained. After they’re born, nothing feels quite as close as those kicks and nudges from within. And after they’ve weaned, there’s no other closeness quite like that skin-on-skin contact. Yet, there is such a sweetness in the return, in holding hands as we walk together, snuggling on the couch, the smile and hug after school. And I can imagine the sweetness in a peck on the cheek as she leaves to go out with her friends or the joy when she visits home from college. The letting go isn’t always easy, but I can always anticipate the sweet returns.

18 April 2010

I'm not Thoreau

I’ve never gone into the wilderness seeking solitude, à la Thoreau. And if I were seeking solitude, I certainly wouldn’t hike the Bright Angel trail in the Grand Canyon. But when the opportunity arose to invite myself on a hike, I jumped at the chance. I felt fortunate that my invitation was accepted. There would be six of us total, my in-laws, three of their friends, and me. I’d only be joining the group for two of the six nights – a long weekend instead of a full week in the Canyon – which meant I’d hike out solo on the third day while the rest of the party continued on to Cottonwood Camp. At some point in the past, before having children clouded the memories of before I had children, I’d hiked the Bright Angel. I couldn’t tell you what year, or even what season.
The Bright Angel is, without doubt, the Canyon’s most-traveled trail. The trailhead is right there at Grand Canyon Village and so the first mile or so below the rim is crammed with tourists: families with young kids, older folks, and Europeans and Asians speaking lovely and sometimes unidentifiable tongues – and of course, the mules. Because it was so crowded, I had to remind myself not to be righteous. These people were looking for an experience similar to what I was seeking. They deserved to be there as much as I did. And really, they all were friendly, cheerful, and rightly awed.
Our first night would be spent at Indian Garden, a campground four and a half miles from the rim. Because the first three miles consist of switchbacks, the trail cuts back and forth, back and forth, inside a side canyon. Before we even traveled a mile on the trail we can see Indian Garden, its vibrant green cottonwood leafing out, punctuated by dozens of fuchsia-bloomed redbuds. And as the crow flies, it appears close. But all those switchbacks make for slow, deliberate travel, and Indian Garden doesn’t get much closer the farther we hike.
Kirk and I hike together, having one other Canyon hike in common. The conversation is easy, as we joke and get to know one another a little better. We stop, here and there, for M&Ms, jerky, and water; to stretch and catch our breath. We look below, to see if we can spot Judy, my mother-in-law; we search the trail above for Bill, Barb, and Mike, my father-in-law. Mike’s knee has been temperamental as of late, and we know he will be slow.
Again and again we turn at the end of a switchback, and Indian Garden hovers, mirage-like, still the same distance away. We arrive at the Three Mile Resthouse, and the switchbacks finally peter out. With Judy we hike the last mile and a half out over a plateau until we reach Indian Garden.
The redbuds buzz, not so much with bees but with color. Fuchsia is not a color common to the Canyon. Reds, browns, oranges, and yellows dominate, interspersed with dark juniper green on the rim and sage green of prickly pear lower in the Canyon. But this purple-pink is so garish, so beautiful, and so fleeting. Within a week or two it will be gone and even memory will question its existence when the heat of summer rises up. Was it a dream, those fuchsia redbuds vibrating against the almost-lime-green of the new cottonwood leaves?
We select our campsite and set up. Bill and Barb arrive, followed by Mike, who is hurting and tired. We murmur our concerns to one another, and he rests and readies himself for tomorrow’s descent to the Colorado River. Afternoon falls quietly, the sun’s light subtly changing the colors of the canyon walls. Kirk and I decide to hike out to Plateau Point, a three-mile roundtrip to an overlook down sheer walls to the river. Without our packs we move quickly and effortlessly, noticing small seas of prickly pear just weeks from bloom, and sprinkled with yellow and pale pink wildflowers. We reach the overlook as a group of tiny rafts navigate the rapids 400 yards below.
Back at camp, preparations begin for dinner and cocktail hour opens. Kirk, Bill, and I each have brought bourbon; Mike has pre-mixed bourbon and sweet vermouth for Manhattans and has even packed a small bottle of maraschino cherry juice to flavor this drink. We taunt him about how uncouth this is, but Mike does things his own way and is proud to stand out from the crowd. He shares a bit with me, and I have to admit, it tastes pretty damn good even if it is a little too warm, and I decide that I might have to stop teasing him about this uncultured way to imbibe. And this is why I hike: the camaraderie of the meal, the jokes that we share (again and again), the stories exchanged, the solving of the world’s problems. Night descends accompanied by laughter and the tightening of muscles. One by one we creep off to our tents, the stars shimmering in numbers we don’t see above the rim.
We repeat the drill the next day, setting up camp at Bright Angel Campground after descending the Devil’s Corkscrew (much less ominous on a cool spring morning than the name implies) and crossing the Silver Bridge over the silt-laden Colorado.
And so, on Day 3, when I begin my solo hike out, I think I am well-prepared and ready for a solitary experience on this trail. I start early enough, cross the bridge, and follow the river for a while. I meet up with three young men who are friendly enough at first. I point out a pair of deer I see at the mouth of Pipe Creek, just ahead. But as I hike ahead of them, and they talk amongst themselves, I begin to feel uneasy.
They joke about women, within earshot of me. They engage me in conversation and veil their stories in obvious, transparent lies. I pick up my pace and don’t look back. They meet up with me again at the River Resthouse, and again, I charge ahead, ready to climb up the Devil’s Corkscrew before them, wanting to leave them in my dust. I wouldn’t say that I was actually afraid. But I definitely felt vulnerable. And it bothered me, that here, in this vast wilderness, I didn’t feel safe walking alone. Isn’t that how I’m supposed to feel in the city?
I made it up to Indian Garden, and then up those interminable switchbacks without seeing those three again. And the drive home, while long and boring and lonely, was ok. It took me nine and a half miles of hiking and more than two hours of driving to pinpoint exactly what Day 3 lacked. The reason I go hiking: the camaraderie.
Next time, I just might bring enough of my own Manhattan (pre-mixed, of course) to share with Mike.

09 April 2010

Dear Michael

Dear Michael –

You’ll probably be getting a lot of mail that starts this way: You don’t know me but…

Well, you don’t know me, but I am writing to you because I heard about your injury and I wanted to help. In the grand scheme of things, I’m sure this letter won’t mean a lot in terms of helping you. I’m probably doing it more for myself because I’ve been here where it’s been safe. I don’t feel like I’ve contributed much or sacrificed much to protect freedom. I’ve been thinking about you and your family a lot since I heard about your injury, and about what I wanted to say to you.

I’ve heard that you don’t want to be called a hero, and that you were just doing your job when your life changed irrevocably. I won’t call you a hero. But that doesn’t change how I feel about you. You were aware of the dangers when you signed up – and you did it anyway.

I understand that hero is something we non-heroes invent. We admire courage and fearlessness in the face of danger, and there’s a part of us that wonders what we would do in a dangerous situation. Would we carry on? Would we rally our strength to get the job done? Would we be able to walk out that door knowing there was a very good possibility that we might not be able to walk back through it?

I’m not sure. I have a pretty strong sense of self-preservation, which is a fancy way of saying that I’m chicken-shit. Hearing your story, and learning a little bit about you from my current Prescott High School students who know you has been inspiring. I imagine that you must be hurting so much. I imagine that you must be so angry. I imagine that you must be so scared. But what I’m hearing is that you are staying strong, you are keeping a positive attitude, and you remain courageous in the face of an arduous recovery. And that makes me want to be stronger. You make me want to try harder to keep my own attitude in check. You make me dig deep for my own source of courage when I need it to face the small obstacles that come my way.

I am so sorry that this happened to you, and I wish you the smoothest recovery possible. Please know that there are hundreds of people here in Prescott, and elsewhere, who admire and respect you, and who did so even before your injury. And now, even while you don’t want to be a hero, you are a source of great strength for us. And because your story has strengthened us, we can hope to shoulder some of this burden for you and your family. Let us.

Bon courage,

Cathleen Cherry
French teacher
Prescott High School

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Corporal Michael Martinez was wounded March 11, 2010, when an IED exploded during a mission in Afghanistan. He is a 2008 graduate of Prescott High School in Prescott, Arizona. You may send well wishes to him and other wounded soldiers at:
Bethesda Naval Hospital, 8901 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20889

04 April 2010

The Empty Coffin

we stand beside the empty coffin
the thumpthumpthump of my hollow heart
echoes echoes echoes

I never saw him
but I loved him
the memories are not mine

black and white photographs
a grin as wide as the gash in the earth
do I really look like him?

his buddy takes me aside
telling me stories from the jungle

he forgets I am only a boy
that my mother doesn’t want me to know
that he already said goodbye

but I never had the chance
and even today the heavy emptiness
stretches like a balloon inside me

the sketchiness of the facts
targeting rail lines north of Hanoi
the plane down in a paddy

villagers running to pull them out
to save them or maybe themselves
it was a war for chrissakes

he escaped
but the other…
what if what if whatif