30 December 2012

Muzo's Chimney

Smoke rose from the chimney, but the trees surrounding the little cottage obscured nearly all of the building.  Only the top of the white-washed chimney was visible from the winding path, and only when the cold wind blew just so, blowing the tips of the trees in such a way.  With her free hand, Tansa adjusted her scarf as best she could so that it completely covered her blonde hair.  The basket hanging on her other arm was growing heavy, laden as it was, but she continued down the path.  She was nearly there, to the cottage, and it was nearly Christmas.  She wanted her trip to end and to share her surprise and warm herself by the fire.

She thought of the last time she’d been here - nearly two years ago, when she was only fourteen years old.  Now she was nearly sixteen, practically an adult, she felt, and this trip was necessary because of that.  Now, for many reasons, she could - and had to - make her own decisions.  That much was a necessity.  Her life had changed irrevocably since then.  Perhaps by returning to this cottage, to Muzo’s cottage, she could begin again.

On her previous journey, she’d set out to gather gura nuts that fell from the trees in late fall.  She hadn’t ventured that far from home, just over the mountain and into the next valley.  Without warning, the sky had filled with low, white clouds.  Before long, snow was densely falling, and what had once seemed familiar no longer was.  She’d become cold and disoriented in the snow, and found herself drawn to the sound of an axe chopping wood.  She’d nearly stumbled into the bentwood fence, startling a large man who was chopping kindling inside a nearby shed. 

Approaching the gate of the cottage now, she thought of that man, Muzo, and how he’d noticed her, mid-swing.  He had brought his axe down gracefully, skillfully, and hurried to this very gate.  As she unlatched it and continued to the tiny cottage, she thought of his grey eyes, his handsome face surrounded by dark curls of hair.  He’d led her into the house, stoking the small fire and making tea from dried roots that he powdered in a small ceramic bowl.  The tea had warmed her, and then made her so sleepy that she hadn’t been able to stay awake.  The last image she could recall before her slumber was his eyes as he carried her to the small bed in the corner of the cottage.

The dreams she’d had!  They’d been so vivid, so colorful, so bright!  That was why she had returned.  In the dream, she’d watched herself, as if from above.  She went about the cottage, through the forest, as she always had, but rather than the drab greens and greys of the woods, everything was garish and multi-colored.  Muzo was there, too, and he wore not the tan tunic he’d worn chopping wood, but instead one of a lively violet and green that shimmered in the light.  In the dream, he’d kissed her.  His mouth was warm and sweet, melting into hers.

Tansa’s hand trembled as it rose to jingle the string of small bells that hung near the door of the cottage.  First, though, from under a blanket that covered the basket, a whimper arose and then settled.  She peered beneath the blanket, and a child smiled at her, his grey eyes twinkling.  She gently pushed back the bonnet that covered most of his fine black curls and gave his tiny nose a tender tap.  He giggled and grabbed her finger in his chubby hand.  The wind whipped up and rang the string of bells violently, and Tansa could hear someone approaching from inside.

The door opened, and Muzo stood in the doorway, his curls brushing the top of the frame.  His eyes widened at Tansa, but he said nothing.  Tansa wasn’t deterred.  She held the basket up, to show Muzo the baby within, just over a year old.  The child blinked his grey eyes expectantly at Muzo, who stepped back to permit the pair entrance.

A small fire crackled within the hearth.  In the back of the one room cottage, a shivering girl gripped a steaming mug at the table.  She looked exactly like Tansa, right down to her apron, a small tear separating the strap from the bib.  Tansa looked at apron she herself wore - and yes, there was the same rip, the one she’d repaired with fine stitches after she’d returned home from Muzo’s house.

Tansa and the girl at the table looked at one another, blinking, trying to make sense of who was whom and what was happening.  No one said a word.  Tansa set the heavy basket on the floor.

After a few moments, the girl at the table put her mug down, hard, on the table.  Her eyes closed, and then her head nodded once, twice, and fell forward into her arms.  Muzo held up a finger, signaling to Tansa that she should wait.  Then, he went to the table and took the girl into his arms and carried her to the small bed in the corner.  Easily, he arranged her on it and removed her shoes.  Then he covered her with a multi-colored quilt, only item with color in the drab cottage, and kissed her on the lips.

Tansa watched the scene, all the while remembering her multi-colored dream.  She felt as if she were watching herself, the girl on the bed.  It was all so familiar.  The baby squirmed in its basket and then babbled happily.

Muzo turned to Tansa, shaking his hair from his eyes.  He smiled.  Muzo took the baby from the basket and they looked at one another intently.  The baby grabbed a lock of Muzo’s hair and laughed as Muzo danced with him.  He set the baby on the floor, and the baby took a tentative first step, and then another.  And as it walked toward Tansa, it grew.  With each step he grew taller and older, his clothes stretching to fit his body.  He was now nearly as tall as Tansa.    

Tansa rubbed her eyes and pinched her arm.  This was all so strange.  She looked again, and the baby was now as tall as Muzo.  They stood with arms folded, huge, identical grins revealing their perfect teeth.  Tansa took a step backward, toward the door.  Muzo stepped forward so that he was even with this creature that resembled himself exactly; this creature that moments ago was a baby in a basket, one that Tansa had carried in her arms over the mountain just this morning.

Both of their eyes locked on Tansa’s and she found that she couldn’t move.  Her feet seemed attached to the floor.

“Tea?” they asked, and Tansa nodded helplessly, even as she felt herself swirling into a colorful dream.

16 December 2012

Home's Hearth

On Friday morning, we were all just learning of the horrors in Connecticut that were eclipsing the similar horrors reported earlier this week from Oregon.  I was at school, of course, and found out about Sandy Hook when I checked the news at lunch.  A few hours later, my own school was in lockdown due to a threat.  This threat turned out to be a hoax, but that can’t be known until there’s an investigation.  Reactions must be immediate and they were.  It was eerie, knowing what had happened earlier in the day.  It was stressful because the energy level of the students had been high all day due to the coming weekend and the impending storm.  They didn’t want to be cooped up any longer than necessary. 

During a lockdown, the police essentially take over the school.  There are procedures we follow to ensure safety and order.  There are regular drills so we all know what to do.  But still, even when it’s a drill, it’s a huge inconvenience for everyone.  Students miss appointments; those with after-school jobs are late to work, and of course, the lessons of the day are interrupted.  Parents coming to school to pick up their kids are turned away by members of the SWAT team armed with assault weapons.  No one leaves or enters the school for the time being.  It’s incredibly inconvenient and disruptive.  Every threat has to be taken seriously.  Every procedure has to be followed.  There is far too much precedence for horror to do otherwise.

After we were released, I managed to make some preparations for the coming week’s final exams before I left school.  I raced home and we had a quick dinner before taking off for my younger daughter’s performance in a play with her classmates.  The play was adorable and silly, as only an elementary school play can be.  And as I chuckled and applauded, I choked down guilt that such joy was mine.

Later that night we were in Sedona, a trip that had been planned ahead of the winter storm and long before any of us had ever heard of Newtown, Connecticut.  The sandstone rock formations were dusted with snow and shrouded in clouds and fog.  In the morning, I hiked with my family in the cold drizzle and sleet, seeking solace and beauty.  I implored those red rocks and ominous clouds to allow me to find some peace.  I was in a place of unparalleled beauty, but my thoughts kept returning to unspeakable horrors.  I noticed that the rain had a magical capacity to draw out colorful patterns on the normally dull, matte wood of the juniper. Beauty was all around me, in the grandeur of the vistas and the rivulets of water racing down the rocks. 

The rain and sleet were constant, never letting up.  The wind whipped and became still, then rose again.  The trail wound through trees and red muck and onto the sandstone and back again.  It was cold and miserable and lovely, hiking just below the elevation where the snow was sticking.  As I comforted my shivering children after we’d returned to the car, I could only think of their counterparts at Sandy Hook, and wonder what words adults might be whispering to them.  And while I know I am feeling only a fraction of the grief they must be enduring, I was overwhelmed by the sadness and pointlessness of it all.

Chilled by the rain and my thoughts, I could not get warm again, even after I was in dry clothes.  I spent the rest of the day sipping coffee and reading and writing as close to the gas fireplace as I dared in the condominium where we were staying.  Still, I was cold.  To my very core, I was cold and no amount of heat brought comfort.

This afternoon, at home again, as I rinsed red mud from boots and pant legs, I was grateful.  As I folded my family’s laundry, I found comfort in routine.  I stoked the fire, adding wood my family had cut and carried, and finally felt the warmth that only rises from home’s hearth.  We are all finding comfort in the routine of a typical Sunday evening.  We are the lucky ones.  The lucky ones who still have routine to cling to.  The lucky ones whose lives haven’t been inexplicably, irrevocably wrenched into unspeakable darkness. 

This evening, though, I asked my daughters if they had any questions about what happened in Connecticut. I found that my voice caught and it was a long moment before I admitted to them that I couldn’t answer the only question they asked:  Why?


Strong Roots

For SB

To grow strong roots:
water deeply but not too often.
Plant in full sun but shelter from wind.
Stake yourself to something stable
so you will grow strong and true.
When the time is right, do not be afraid
to remove the stakes,
otherwise you will not learn to bend in the storm
without breaking.
Feed regularly with sunshine, sky, and love.
Know that when the storms come -
and they will come -
you can weather them.
You are not in the same soil as your forebears,
but a soil enriched with your own castings,
your own leaves. 
This rich loam is of you, for you.
It is up to you to shelter yourself
from that which burns or blows too strongly.
All the while, unseen, your roots are growing.
You don’t even know and won’t believe
how strong you’ve become.
And as the storm blows itself out, fades,
and its last drops finally fall, remember that these, too, will
nourish your soil.
And you will open your eyes again
and recognize that although you’ve been battered,
you are still standing,
strong and tall and steady.
And you will know that you are still here,
that your shade exists in contrast with your light;
that the unfurling of the new leaf and the crackle of the golden one
in the wind, these too are of you and for you.
One cannot exist without the other.
Spring will come, but winter first,
and your deep roots will sustain.


02 December 2012


Is it enough to watch a
sunset, to mark the passing of
yet another ordinary day?
The manifestation of the good,
constant god that indeed
provides, around whom we
most certainly orbit - is it
enough to witness this disc
sliding beyond the hills?  The
potency of its strength
evident once it has disappeared: 
the rosy glow of the earth
behind me after its vanishing, the
mounting darkness a contrast
to our beacon’s warmth.
Is it enough to coax a
seed into life?  To prepare a
space for its stored energy to
inhabit, a loamy soft bed
where it can stretch - roots and
stalk - and turn its face,
eventually, to the light. 

Is it enough to love as best we
can, which is to say, often
inadequately, now and again
without seams that pucker and
bind.  There are moments
fleeting as the exclamation
of color that builds at day’s end -
moments of weightlessness,
compassion, when we fold
into one another, purely,
simply, without terms. 

Is it enough to write a
poem?  To fill the page with
words that lack precision,
and surge and ebb,
stilted in their development. 
Words are just the tools I use. 
The same words that I struggle
with, these are the ones
that Shakespeare and Tennyson
shepherded, now entrusted to us. 

If all we have is each other,
this space the only comfort, our
solace, a soft carpet upon
which we soothe our weary
soles and souls, let us find
wonder in this just as we might
greet the sun’s return tomorrow: 
a miracle of gratitude, the lost
traveler, at last, journeyed home.



25 November 2012

Faith, Truth & Pi

            Life of Pi by Yann Martel is one of those books that I can’t stop thinking about, can’t stop talking about, can’t stop wanting to re-read.  It’s billed as a story that will make you believe in God, but really, it will make you revere the power of words and their unbelievable strength when woven into a story.  And when I heard that this novel would be made into a movie, I was skeptical and even a bit fearful that no filmmaker’s vision would be able to do justice to the story.  I shouldn’t have worried; Ang Lee does an amazing job.  The film is very true to the book and, if it’s even possible, adds much color and dimension.  When I go to re-read it (again), I know I’ll hear the lovely sing-song Indian accent of the actors.  {Insert ‘spoiler alert’ here.  If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie and would like to remain surprised by the twist at the end, stop here.}  As much as I enjoyed the book and the movie, I think that I enjoyed the wonderful conversation Dan and I had about faith and truth and religion afterwards. 
                The story begins in India, at a family-run zoo.  The boy narrator, Pi, grows up experiencing many lessons on animal behavior at the zoo.  He also cultivates his spiritual self by following tenets of Hinduism, Catholicism, and Islam, much to the consternation of his intellectual family, who can’t really fathom why he would be attracted not only to one faith but three.  These two aspects of his personality set the stage for the second part of the book, which begins as his family leaves India to seek a new life in Canada.  Along with many of the zoo animals, the family boards a cargo ship, which sinks in a storm.  Pi reaches a lifeboat and survives.
            The story proceeds with an unbelievable thread:  Pi is not alone on the lifeboat.  An injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker are also on board.  Soon, only Pi and the tiger remain, and through Pi’s knowledge of animals and his deep, multi-faceted faith, they both survive, not only life at sea, but also an encounter with a floating carnivorous island.  Many months later, their boat washes ashore on the west coast of Mexico.  Richard Parker disappears into the jungle and Pi is discovered and taken to a hospital where he recovers.  Japanese officials investigating the sinking of the ship visit him hoping to learn what caused the ship to go down. 
            They do not believe his story - and neither do you, right?  Because it is difficult to believe.  It is difficult to believe that a teenage boy could survive more than two hundred days lost at sea.  It is even more difficult to fathom that he could survive with a Bengal tiger, right?  It is improbable, impossible, an absolute fiction.
            And so Pi tells another story to the agents.  In this story, Pi and his mother make it to the lifeboat along with two crew members from the ship.  After one of the crew members kills the other, and then Pi’s mother, presumably to use their flesh for bait to fish, Pi kills the other survivor.  The Japanese officials draw parallels between this story and the first, claiming that the zebra is the injured crew member, the hyena the murderous one, the orangutan is Pi’s mother, and Pi is Richard Parker.  Logically, they cannot believe the first story because it is filled with too many strange happenings.  When pressed by Pi, though, they say that they prefer the version with Richard Parker.  And that is the version of the story which goes into their official report.
            Of course, the second story is far more believable than the first.  But it is a horrible story, filled with the darkest horrors of the inhumanity man is capable of; and yet there are many instances of our inhumanity to one another in the real world.  Read the papers and you’ll find them on a daily basis.  There are documented instances of desperate people who resort to murder and cannibalism to survive.  The Donner Party and the rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes are two well-documented instances.  Rare as it is, murdering someone else to ensure one’s own survival does happen, but it is so taboo that no one wants to even consider it as a possibility even in a fictional setting.
            I say this because I know in my heart that there was no tiger.  Richard Parker was a figment of Pi’s imagination.  It was an aspect of his dark self that he had to allow to take control, and then had to tame, in order to survive.  I know this.  But if you were to ask me what this book is about, I would reply, without any hesitation, that it is a story of survival, of a boy and a tiger adrift at sea together.  And even though I know the truth, I choose to believe in the fanciful fairy tale that comprises the majority of the book.
            And of course, isn’t that what faith is?  Believing in something that is unbelievable, something that isn’t supported by facts or truth.  Believing in something in spite of knowing that another story exists that is much more plausible, much more probable, much more likely.  It’s human nature, I think, to want to turn away from the darkness of the truth:  that man is often inherently evil.  Pi is nearly saint-like, in his uncomplaining suffering due to his strange name, his unwavering faith during his many great trials.  He is so good, so much better by far than any of us.  And, if someone as pious as Pi obviously is, having a capacity as a child to accept more than one faith, to see that what it is that unites us is more beautifully powerful than that which divides us - if he can resort to murder, what of the rest of us?  And if he could succumb to the darkest depths of inhumanity, what of the rest of us?
            We just simply cannot believe that Pi could stoop to murder, even if it is to avenge his dear mother.  We would rather see the truth cloaked in tiger’s hide than accept this truth, regardless of how unrecognizable it becomes.  The actual story is just too awful to fathom.
            When Pi and Richard Parker arrive at the carnivorous island, they are in the most desperate of straits.  They are literally dying and this strange island, populated by meerkats appears to be their salvation.  They are able to nurse themselves back to a reasonable state of health, but Pi begins to identify strange and disturbing incidents that eventually cause them to flee back to the lifeboat and continue their journey.  The island is, essentially, a mirage of salvation and not true deliverance from their suffering.  Once they realize what the island is capable of, they escape.  And so what are we to make of this?  The actual path you are to walk is fraught with dangers and storms; you must learn to weather these in order to survive to find your true purpose.  Something that is too easy, too simple, that offers too much, is a dangerous diversion along your way.  Humans have a way of seeking out the easiest way of doing something rather than the best way.  The island represents shortcuts, a way of trying to get out of doing the hard work that is required.  The lesson is to beware of the easy way out; something too good to be true usually is.  Pi recognizes this and knows that to stay would ultimately risk everything, in spite of what little he has left to lose.
            And so Pi and Richard Parker do persevere, and upon reaching Mexico, Richard Parker disappears without a backward glance, without any meaningful gesture, nothing.  Pi is devastated by this, but ultimately realizes that sometimes our most defining moments in life are quiet and unceremonious; that sometimes we have to continue on alone to discover the beauty within us; that from great loneliness we can find a means to comfort ourselves.
            Life of Pi proves to us that faith requires a suspension of belief (or is it a suspension of disbelief?), a willingness to believe in that which is impossible even when we consciously know it to be impossible.  Pi’s survival, his taming of the beast - this is what we’d all like to believe ourselves capable of, especially in our bleakest moments.  And like the Japanese officials, I choose to believe in the power of a good story over the darkness of the human condition.


21 November 2012

Present Blessings

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday.  I like it because of what it isn’t as much as for what it is.  Thanksgiving lacks the consumerism and commercialism that plague most other holidays.  There is no gift-giving and gift-receiving angst (is this what he or she wants / needs?  is it the right size?  color?  am I spending enough?  too much?  Or:  I didn’t get you / your kids anything and I’m not prepared to reciprocate.).  Thanksgiving is the least awkward of the holidays and is blind to religious divides and cultural gaps. 

This holiday is uniquely North American, born of gratitude for better-than-expected results from a work ethic that we cannot even imagine today.  It celebrates a time in our nation’s history when our potential was yet to be achieved, yet to even be outlined.  Our nation’s greatest achievement, the Constitution, was a mere dream, still too abstract even to foment an idea.  And this holiday grew from a call for help that was heeded and granted, from hands reaching across cultures to prevent failure.  Lately, reaching across divides to help accomplish what is best for all has been vilified.  But this concept of helping one another for the greater good is one of the strongest, best foundations of our nation.

As you gather around the table with family and friends, reflect on those less fortunate than you.  No matter how dark your days may be, there are many worse off than you.  Draw strength from the words of Charles Dickens, who saw more abject poverty in his lifetime than most of us can fathom:   Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has plenty; not on your past misfortunes of which all men have some.

Thanksgiving is a time to consider all that is good and pure and right, which is often more than we realize.  Whatever feast is piled upon your table, I hope that your elbows are crowded between those you love, that your glass is never empty.  May your heart be filled with love and gratitude for all that has been, and all that is: here, now. 

13 November 2012

Dappled Markers

That Sunday was one of those glorious November days,
leaves gold and gentle flame,
like the sun’s warmth against my skin. 
Rumors of the storm on the way still implausible, improbable,
and yet,
knowing that Indian summers never last in spite of their popularity among us,
the forecast made that Sunday more ephemeral than most.
And so, I pushed aside the weight of work’s dreaded week
and pulled on my gloves.  Outside,
in the mottled shade of the trees,
high clouds skittering far above,
I heard the whisper of my old English professor,
surely gone by now: 
Glory be to God for dappled things - for skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow
and into the garden I strode, the tasks in mind: 
shaking the delicate cosmos stalks to
release their black needle-like seeds, raking
the expired vines, and finally,
drawing a thick black blanket of mulch
up to the chin of this small plot of mine,
tucking it in, cozy and ready to sleep until spring.
With each seed that fell, each leaf that crackled, I thought again
on Pied Beauty and how these days of fall
are as intense in their loveliness as the blooms of spring. 
This dying, this swansong of color
a reminder of the beauty and serenity of surrender,
of these markers of the passage of time,
of our basic need for the rest and respite winter months provide,
a reminder of all that we’ve borrowed and will never repay.

30 October 2012

Why You are Here

Dear Madeleine,

Over the weekend, you were working intently on science homework,  related to the formation of stars.  At one point, you looked up from your work and said, “This makes me feel small and wonder why I am here.”  At the time, I think my response to you was just one of agreement, but now that I’ve had some time to consider the question and reflect upon it, I’d like to change my answer.

I have a similar reaction of wonder and a sense of my own insignificance, as I gaze up at the stars, or watch our sun set beyond the immense ocean, or hike through some place as majestic as the Grand Canyon.  I’ve also been acutely aware of man’s irrelevance while walking among the giant sequoias or searching for the last glimmers of alpenglow on snowy peaks.  As I’ve aged, I find that I seek out this atmosphere, and I’ve gained a sensation of great peace and contentment from it.  Somehow, the realization that my own trials and triumphs, while enormous on my scale, are nothing in the face of geologic or astronomical time, provides me with a perspective that gives me space to breathe.    

I hope you never lose your sense of wonder and enchantment at the breadth and depth of time and space.  We humans are a mere blip in the grand scheme of the universe, though we fancy ourselves greatly important.  This is not to say that what you do with your time here is without value.  On the contrary, your life’s work is of significance that I cannot begin to explain.  It is critical that you do your best and strive all your life to do good.

As you read about the birth of stars in their nursery nebulae, I could see you recalling chilly evenings when you peered through your dad’s telescope at the Great Nebula of Orion.  The dust and gasses in that cloud wait, biding their time as you watched from light years’ distance, for enough critical mass to materialize into a new star.  And despite that great distance, those potential stars had influence on you, though today you might not understand their impact.

The shortest answer I can give you to your question Why am I here? is that you are here to love and to be loved.

But that is probably not an adequate answer to express the truth as I know it. 

You are here to help me understand love.  Before your arrival, I believed that love had capacity.  Now I understand that it does not.  Love is limitless; it is bound only by fear, even though love is stronger than fear.  I know now that love is not a pouring in, but a flowing out, ever expanding, like the red giant stars you told me about.

You are here, not only to learn and wonder about the mysteries of the universe, but also to teach us all, because you, too, are one of its marvels.  You are here because the sun and the moon conspired to create a bright, snow-dusted spring day lovely enough for your arrival. 

You are here because I am here, your father is here, and your grandparents are here.  Your ancestors - all of them - collaborated on a centuries-long project, the current iteration of which is you.

You are here to find something, although you don’t yet know what form this treasure will take, what questions of yours it will answer, or what paths it will lead you to explore.

You are here to be kinder than you need to be, to ask questions that are difficult to answer, to create something with the tools that you will find.  You are here to take care of others, to make soft, cozy dens that will shelter us from the harsher elements of life.  You are here to help others be less afraid.

You are here because it was time.  And watching you, I think of what felt like an eternity as I waited for the critical mass required for you to materialize.  The universe needed you and had prepared this space and time for you to bloom.

With much love,


21 October 2012

Kismet and the Bucket List

I keep thinking about a bucket list, specifically my bucket list.  And while I’ve done a few things in the past year (i.e., dancing badly in a flash mob) that could be considered bucket-able, I’ve resisted for a while creating my own bucket list.

I am a firm believer in free will: our autonomy to make our own choices.  It’s a wonder that man ever believed in a preconceived destiny, don’t you think?  I suppose that in today’s era, where we control our world - to an extent - and where we live in a world so ordered, it seems obvious that we have ownership of our individual fates.

But there’s that word:  fate.  The concept of fate is an obsolete one, one that implies our powerlessness in this world.  The world can often appear so random or chaotic, and so much more so in generations past.    If we think back on the lives of the Ancients, those with no concept of, say, the germ theory of disease, perhaps the most comforting way to make sense of the world was to absolve oneself of all responsibility and lay the onus on something other, some higher power, perhaps. 

I suppose, ultimately, we all share the same fate, although none of us knows the details, like how, or when, or where.  As Flogging Molly sing, we all go the same way home.  And so, when I begin to think of this ultimate fate, I always feel simultaneously attracted to and repelled from the concept of the bucket list.  I’ve always been a list maker.  If you know my mother, you’ll understand that this behavior trait of creating lists can only be both nature and nurture.  I love the idea of a bucket list.  The planning, the dreaming, the creativity involved in creating one is very appealing.  I have so many interests that I expect I could easily fill an entire notebook with my hopes and wishes.  But I’ve consciously resisted creating an actual, tangible one for myself (which is somewhat ridiculous because it certainly exists in my head).  And I think my resistance can be traced to my feelings regarding the concepts of kismet and serendipity.

I often find myself confusing these two terms and I can’t really pinpoint why.  Kismet is fate; serendipity is the magical phenomenon of finding valuable things not sought for:  a windfall.  And even if fate is fixed, would we know?  If our lives were all planned, wouldn’t all the positive aspects appear as serendipity and the negative as bad karma?  And while, as I already mentioned, I don’t believe in a pre-determined fate, there have been instances in my life that have played out in ways that have made me question my denial or acceptance of fate or serendipity, or both, or maybe neither.

For example, when I made the decision to return to Tucson and the university to pursue the teacher certification program after bumbling about for a year post-baccalaureate, the very first person I ran into on campus was Dan.  We’d known each other previously because he was good friends with my neighbors a couple years prior.  And a year or so later after that chance re-acquaintance, Dan and I were engaged.  How strange that serendipity caused our paths to cross that day.  Or was it serendipity?  Were we destined to meet up there that day, to begin walking this path that we are still following together, more than twenty years later?  I can’t decide.  If I asked Dan, he’d probably attribute our meeting in front of the campus bookstore to the fact that it was near lunch time, he was hungry, and he was on his way to the Student Union to eat. 

Of course, I prefer the romance of mystery, or is it the mystery of romance?  I can’t decide on that one either.  But regardless of all these questions, my resistance to the bucket list has to do with this delicate balancing in my mind of kismet and serendipity.  While I feel responsible for my own fate and I’m more than willing to accept the ramifications of the choices I make, I also do not want to plan my life out to the degree that I leave little room for serendipity to flourish where it may. 

I suppose my ultimate fear of the bucket list would be facing, on my proverbial death bed, all those items left unachieved.  How would that feel?  Ugh.  I didn’t want that kind of pressure:  a to-do list before you die, coupled with the unknown but looming and literal deadline?  But then I realized that creating my bucket list required a huge shift in this list maker’s paradigm.  First of all, the list is far more than its items:  it’s a source of dreams, an exploration of desire, a guide for living.  It’s most definitely not a checklist.  And so yesterday, I ventured downtown and found the perfect journal for my bucket list.  And today, with my favorite fountain pen in hand, I’ll begin to shape and sculpt my endless numbered days. 

Three items from my bucket list:

1.  Finish my first novel.

2.  Be able to speak Spanish with some degree of proficiency.

3.  Hike the Appalachian Trail.

What about you?  Share three items from your bucket list, if you’re so inclined.

15 October 2012

Wreaking Wreckage

On a recent family trip to Northern California, one of our purchases was a paperback book by Keri Smith called Wreck This Journal that we found at a stationery shop on Chestnut Street in San Francisco.  It was an impulsive choice, one I thought my daughters would enjoy during the rest of the summer.  It seemed like just the thing for a couple of creative girls with a quirky sense of humor.  But to be honest, I am surprised how much fun all four of us, adults included, have had wrecking it.  Each page offers some exercise in creativity to be achieved through destruction or silliness, or some combination thereof.

 Some examples:


At first, we started with a rule:  if it’s your turn, do one page and one page only.  Each of us had discovered several pages that we wanted to have all to ourselves, that we didn’t want anyone else to mess up before we had the chance to do them.  We each had to prioritize when it came to be our respective turn:  which page was mine to wreck?  But now it seems we no longer need any rules; we’ve all come to the understanding that we can each add to the destruction in our own unique ways.  We've come to look at the whole book as an ongoing project rather than a work of art.

It’s been incredibly fun to treat a book in such a manner, probably because of the fact that books are generally sacred in our house.  In fact, I’m often surprised at what a nice release it is to flip to a random page in the journal and carry out the action it suggests.  I don't usually promote products here on Chez Cerise, but I definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for something fun or silly to do, bit by bit.  It's funny, too, how handing the book over to a kid who says, "I'm bored," can completely change her outlook for the next several hours.

If this book survives the current generation, I hope it will become a relic for a future set of children to add to and pore over.

01 October 2012

Backpacking in the Grand Canyon: a Guide to Preparation in 41 Obsessive Steps

1.  Apply for permit four months ahead, cross fingers, request guidance from multiple gods of the canyon for patience and success with the process.

2.  Wait.

3.  If rejected, return to step one.  If accepted, rejoice and begin planning.

4.  Wait, dream, train, anticipate over the next three months.

5.  With one month left before departure, begin to check weather forecast for permit area, generally on a weekly basis at this point.

6.  Check moon cycle and breathe a sigh of relief if the timing isn’t right for a blindingly bright full moon during the trip.

7.  Create a multi-stop shopping list which includes staples like high protein foods, hooch, chocolate, and at least one new luxury backpacking item.

8.  Wonder how much TP is enough for the length of the trip.

9.  Worry Goldilocks-style if your boots are too new, too old, or just right.

10.  Commence shopping, knowing that you will forget something vital and will have to return more than once to at least one of the stores.

11.  Begin to pile necessary items into large stacks according to their general categories, like food, clothes, sleeping gear, etc.

12.  Check weather forecast.

13.  Divvy up stacked items into useful, useable amounts encased in ziploc bags of varying size.

14.  Wonder how Sir Edmund Hillary packed in the pre-ziploc, pre-plastic, pre-technical fabric era.

15.  Feel confident in the amount of food packed.

16.  Question how much coffee, hooch, and chocolate is enough.

17.  Redistribute stacks of items from general categories to personal stashes of who is carrying what.

18.  Restock first aid kit, and offer up a request to the canyon gods that nothing more than bandaids and ibuprofen will be necessary, but pledge your intention to carry the full one-pound-plus of the entire kit as an insurance policy against disaster.

19.  Check weather report from alternative sources and compare.

20.  Confer in person (if possible) and via phone with trip companions regarding necessities like stoves, water filters, fuel, rat sacks, liters of water per person.  How much is the absolute minimum?  How much is smart?

21.  Check weather report and river levels; appraise fishing potential.

22.  Carefully evaluate potential book(s) to bring.  Considerations:  too long?  too short?  too heavy?  appropriate subject matter?  is there another bibliophile on board with whom you can swap books?

23.  Lay out clothing with careful attention to socks. 

24.  Recheck weather forecast prior to completing clothing selection.

25.  Begin putting items in backpack, carefully noting items from the list as they are deposited (tricky to do with a family of four all working from the same list).

26.  Try on pack, adjust straps and reconfigure as necessary.

27.  Weigh pack with one eye closed, the other squinting at the scale.

28.  Sigh heavily and consider replacing heavier items with more hooch and ibuprofen.

29.  Actually weigh potential books using scale with grams; select lightest.

30.  Highlight items on list not yet in pack:  sun hat, trekking poles, food items in fridge, the currently recharging camera batteries, etc.

31.  Check weather report.

32.  The night prior to departure:  Check in with other trip members and confirm or deny questionable items; discuss weather forecast; determine departure time.

33.  Check packing list again; do not forget permit and national park pass.

34.  Check forecast from multiple sources to dispel rumors from trip companions.

35.  Haul packs from inside the house to the car and either A) believe devoutly and completely in your capacity to haul said pack the entire length of the hike without problem, or B) question the rational self and the philosophy of torture.

36.  Go to bed early, but stay awake late doused in a restless mixture of anticipation and apprehension.

37.  Drift off to sleep only to be awakened by a supremely significant something you’ve forgotten whose identity and purpose will vanish by morning, leaving a sense of anxiety.

38.  Wake up and make coffee; check and recheck forecast and packing list; take one last shower.

39.  Realize you forgot to make arrangements for the pet(s); argue with spouse over whose responsibility that was.

39.  Finish packing; leave house, hopefully remembering coffee; if not, it’s important enough to merit a return to house; stop at McDonald’s for a greasy, protein-heavy Egg McMuffin.

40.  Arrive at the canyon and search for a parking space; regroup at the trailhead, by which time, ideally,  all members of the group are happily caffeinated and ready for the adventure of hitting the trail. 

41.  Hike.

23 September 2012

Prodigal Journey

It’s not until sometime later that I realize what this silty emptiness is, why I’m still waiting here, on top of this slag heap, sweating and feeling my skin burn under a bright white sun.  I’m waiting for my grandparents.  For them to come and greet me, the prodigal granddaughter returned.

Last night, on the long, lonely trip here, I drove through Queen Creek Canyon, the anticipation building as I crossed the first high bridge.  I held my breath as I passed through the tunnel carved into the canyon wall.  And though I was alone, I could sense my brothers and sister in the car with me, and I wondered if they were cheating, too, like I almost always was, to make it through the tunnel without taking a breath.

At my grandparents' house, I search for tendrils of smoke from crackling fires stoked by my grandfather in the stone hearth he had built, heat radiating through the living room as my cousins and I whispered secrets across the lumps of sleeping bags and pillows strewn about the floor.  But now the sky is blue, and the sun emits a heat that burns so efficiently there is no smoke.

 I listen for a loud family gathering, glass and silver clinking, feasts with far too much to eat, followed inevitably by pies.  All of this is accompanied by laughter and stories and jugs of wine that my underage brothers sneak sips from.  They know the adults will not miss a glass or two, imbibing in the happy tales regaled around the table while the dogs wait, patiently, to be fed.  And I wait for my grandfather’s toast:  I wonder what the poor people are doing.  I never understood it as a child, but now as an adult, I see its irony:  a joke born during the Depression, told during joyously rich family moments.  But the only sound I hear is the hum of the highway, cars just passing through on their way elsewhere.

I seek the shadows of the oleanders stretching long across the backyard, the adults chatting within a circle of webbed folding chairs, drinks in hand, as we cousins wander back, parched from our adventures down in the valley behind the house.  But today the noon sun affords no shade.

I think of phone calls with her.  How she would ask how I was, listening to my news.  I wasn’t the smartest grandchild, nor the most beautiful, and also not the most athletic nor the most musical, but she would listen as if I were her favorite:  the one she loved best.  I think of how when she deemed the phone call was over, she’d just say okay and hang up, and I was surprised, every single time, to hear the click instead of goodbye.

In front of the house, I see where my grandfather kept his boat, and I reminisce about picnics and fishing trips to the lake, us kids stuffed into the leftover spaces in the back of the truck, bumping along and wondering if Grampa meant to hit every pot hole in the road.

But then I see her, my Gram.  She’s hurrying down the driveway in her button-down shirt, polyester pants and Keds, waving.  She greets us as we tumble from the car, the warmth and softness of her hug, her squeaky greeting breathless.  I blink and the driveway is empty.  The shadow of a bird crosses the yard and is gone, and I know that fleeting apparition is as close as I’ll get to hugging my grandmother again.

I drive away, toward what is now home, feeling like there’s a rock or two in my belly.  I wonder if I’ll always miss them.  I think about those who have lost more than I have, and how it is that we go on, move on, without them.  As much as we want to, as much as we think we need to, we can't go back.  And somehow, later, I finally come to realize, that we carry them with us, safely ensconced within, glowing embers of memory.  And that, I suppose, might be enough.

10 September 2012

Good for Two Months

I can live for two months on a good compliment. - Mark Twain

This morning I received a huge compliment, one that might get me more than two months' worth.  Chez Cerise has been nominated for a Liebster!  (Yay!  Woot woot!  Wait.... what?  Did she say 'lobster'?) 

A Liebster is an award bestowed upon a small blog (read: fewer than 200 followers) by a fellow blogger.  And my friend and former student, Savannah, who is an all-around good egg, smarter than the dickens, incredibly talented, and one of the most sincere and genuine people I have had the good privilege to know, chose this space and place as one of her faves.  (Be sure to check out her blog, Untethered as a Cloud, which now includes dispatches from Paris.)  And before I begin gushing like Ms. Fields, I am delighted to share with you Chez Cerise's very first interview:

1.       If you could be any music album, which album would you be?

The Creek Drank the Cradle, Iron & Wine or Lay It Down, Cowboy Junkies

2.      What is the first thing you do every morning? (After you pee.)

Check to see if my daughters’ covers have fallen off their beds, and if needed, tuck them back in so they can snuggle until it’s time to get up.

3.      Which book has impacted your life the most?

Too many to mention without leaving out something significant, but James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” saved my life in a way during a very dark time and helped me remember what a good story does.  If I had to choose a novel, it would be Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver, which redefines home and family in a beautiful way.

4.      Which cartoons/comics did you watch/read as a child?

I’ve never been a comics reader, but as a young adult I appreciated the Far Side.  I watched        probably way too much Tom & Jerry as a kid.

5.       What is your favorite day of the week, and why?

Definitely Saturday.  The perfect Saturday includes much of the following:  la grasse matinée, no work, much play, time outdoors, reading a good book and/or watching a good movie, some good food with a choice of adult beverage(s), and staying up past bedtime.  And knowing there’s still the half a weekend of potential when I go to bed.

6.      If you could be a city, which city would you be?

If I could be a city, I would want to be San Francisco:  sophisticated, multilingual, and a little out there.

7.       Who is your favorite fictional protagonist?

This is probably the toughest question I’ve ever been asked, to only choose one, but I’d have to go with the classic answer of Atticus Finch:  a rare man who does the right thing, even though it’s the hardest thing in the world to do. 

8.      White, red or rosé?

Red:  Petite Sirah, Lava Cap Winery

9.      Why did you start blogging?

I suppose I thought I had something to say, but I couldn’t seem to find the time to write (full-    time job, full-time family, hmmm, why no time?), so it was a way for me to impose arbitrary deadlines upon myself.  I seem to have a few fans, and every now and then I even actually piss someone off with my ideas.  The most gratifying thing about writing a blog is when, in the midst of writing something, I finally figure out what the hell it is I have been trying to say.

10.   What are your goals as a blogger?

 Write, create, document.

11.    How did you spend your last birthday?

My last birthday was spent among friends from a previous lifetime, at my 25th high school reunion.  Make the most of your time here - it goes by more quickly than you think.