The place was rustic and comfortable, if buggy. An electric paddle fan stirred the air from the apex of the sloped octagonal ceiling. A large stone fireplace opposite the old maple bed with its cotton comforter printed with meadowlarks and orioles and mocking birds. Decades-old knotty pine paneling. Well-worn armchairs and scuffed tables of hand-me-downs cast for their last days into “the cabin.”

So odd, this familiarity and ease in a place I’d never been and knew no one. The previous resident had left a glass filled with alstromeria and a few remnants of a mixed bouquet that scented the air as I reconnoitered the contents of the cabinets. A jumble of pots and lids and this and that in the disarray of a series of short-term occupants busy with their work. I knew the clutter would annoy me and distract me from my writing. Still, I didn’t tidy and organize. That would be a break when the noise of disorder intruded.

The bathroom was much the same. Dozens of hotel-size bottles of shampoo and lotion, smoothed ends of soap, a clutter of ointments and bug sprays and bandaid boxes, detritus of itinerants. The story of a cabin. I threw open both doors, pulled up the shades and opened the five windows to admit the humid air and exhaust the stuffy, slightly mildewy scent.

I woke at the far edge of dawn to the insistent chirping of a cardinal outside the north window beside the head of my bed. Likely perched in the dead, lichen-covered ancient apple, it flew before I opened the blinds. Fully awake and with the familiar headache of crummy wine the night before, I was not likely to fall back asleep. Even with a fresh cup of coffee, the light diffusing through the woods like a low mist seemed an ill omen. It was the forgotten effect of high humidity that muffled light and sound. Beneath the tampered bird calls and the unwelcome sound of trucks from the highway, there came the tumbled rustle of water. A fall, perhaps, but not a large one or a fast stream rushing through narrow banks over rocks and dashing beneath fallen branches.

The morning damp muted distance and softened edges. Birds were subdued, anticipating full sunrise. Something howled in the distance through the woods. The lingering plaint, somewhere between an owl’s screech and a hungry infant’s cry, colored the air in a faint echo of the grieving mothers of Palestine. I went back there amid the rending keens and overwhelming horror as Susan Sontag’s condemnation of the obscene eroticism of the distant gaze upon the suffering of others hit me. Even there in the Georgia woods, each successive howl from afar became less a visceral stab to the heart and more an external thing observed and noted. Inured. The stuff of comment and commentary.

The howl changed then from one long, sustained low note rising into four staccato yelps. Into the sound of disappearing hope and rising fear and urgency. Do we all always become more frantic as our hope dissolves? Does a sense of rising urgency always carry the taint of hopelessness? If so, is hope so eggshell thing and fragile that a single false word or sharp disclosure leaves it shattered. Or does hope endure, buried deep within us, as a vital, throbbing force both solid and transformative? An ancient tree with deep roots.

Photo by Adarsh Kummur on Unsplash

June 2009

Seeing Red

I remember the house in Mendham where one summer day it poured on one side and did not rain on the other, and my brother Peter picked the crabapples off the tree in the front yard on the rainy side and threw them at me, and they were hard as rocks and they hurt.

I remember when I completed my PhD and my mother said she would buy my cap and gown, though I did not want any regalia, and after she found out the price, she said I needed to pay half even though I was deep in debt and needed the money to move across country for my first job. And she never did pay even half, but she visited at the end of my first year on faculty to watch me in my regalia lead the procession of graduates and to preen at the party at the dean’s home.

I remember my great-Aunt Helen sitting all day long in her office at the top of the stairs in her beautiful old home on the coast of Maine, her chin dropping to her chest as she dozed and her thin, soiled white hair clinging to her scalp. When she startled awake, her pale, liquid eyes fumbled through a film like the translucent lid of a snake’s eye that distanced reality.

I remember a red cape my husband gave me for my birthday a few years after we married. The color of a faded barn flushed in later summer sun glancing across a mown field. Big and sweeping and hooded, lined in plaid that made me think of a Scottish kilt, though it bore no resemblance, it nearly swept the ground. With the hood up and my long hair streaming round my face, everyone called me Red Riding Hood, and I liked it.

I remember my grandparents’ auburn dog and the fading luster of my grandmother’s burnished hair. The color of pomegranates outside my bedroom window in Mytilene. My rubber boots as a child. The winter coat I bought when I went away to college. The clay soil of North Carolina. The biting ants of Florida and the blood spurting from my thirteen-year-old pinkie when I slammed it between the rings in gym class attempting an Iron Cross. The lipstick my mother wore whenever she went out. The cardinal in the snow. The strapless gown I wore to one sister’s wedding and the high-collared sheath I wore to another’s.

I remember the sidewalk cafe a long block from the Seine where we sat in the perfect summer evening, listening to the patter of soft voices as we ate greens in vinaigrette followed by foie gras that melted on the tongue with figs and toast points and a sharp cheese before we walked to the Eiffel Tower to watch the fireworks bloom. And another time, a little restaurant in Boston where we ate the same with a glorious sauterne before our relationship soured.

I remember skinny dipping in the rain in the lake in Maine, drops slapping the water as if I could feel them on my skin though I dove under and watched rings spread around each drop to spread a veil between me and the dark sky. When the storm grew, sound was touch and touch sound or both so confused I could not distinguish. Above water the drops stung my face, and I laughed aloud, alone in the lake in the rain.

I don’t remember how many times my mother attempted suicide, but I do remember the time I laughed and said, “Who gives a shit?” when a classmate told me his mother dispatched an ambulance to rush her to the emergency room that morning and she might not make it. I remember the lies, and the secrets, and all the things I could not say.

I remember the mimosa tree in the alley behind our apartment in Charlotte dripping salmon-magenta blossoms that smelled like honey. I remember gathering acorn caps as a child and painting acorns with little faces. I remember my great-grandmother’s blueberry pancakes, and I will miss them when I die.

Photo by Ed Leszczynskl on Unsplash

July 2009


I fear I’m a dabbler. I look around at all the PhDs I know who all settled long ago into their field, and focus, and research stream. They keep turning that same plot in that same field, digging it deeper and deeper, breaking up clods and clay, adding nutrients and soil amendments, organic matter and compost and manure. Yes, some add a lot of manure turning that same old tired plot and never breaking new ground. Still, they are always unearthing new bits of stone or old paving bricks, maybe a remnant of a pipe, noting how some sections are bone dry while others are moist, and mixing them in search of the perfect composition. Maybe adding sand for drainage or lime, and checking regularly on the status of the field.

Certainly working that same soil year after year gives them a deep rich knowledge. They come to know the ground as one knows the night sighs of a long-time partner or the distant sound of your child’s voice rising from the din of a busy playground. Unmistakable. Familiar. And yet always, somehow, new.

I am not that type of scholar or researcher or person, even. Once the soil is broken and turned and worked well enough at the start, which I do meticulously, I’m ready to move on into designing and planting and establishing a garden. I often overfill that garden with a surabundance of plants, but then I move on. I dig again, always a new space. I call this movement progress and development, which sounds much better than shiftlessness or lack of focus, I think. But while the surface coverage spreads and expands into beautiful landscaping, I do not understand the components of the soil deeply. If a plant dies, I rarely know why or how to avoid similar problems moving forward. I just yank it out with an Ooops! and plant something new.

I rarely worry myself with this ability to shrug away losses and move on. But when passersby stop to admire my gardens and ask questions and are dismayed by my inability to provide even the basic names of most of what now grows here, I wonder. And I wonder whether my tendency toward “mere dabbling,” as my grandmother would say with a concerned shake of her head, extends beyond my garden and my paid work to my own writing. I my writing merely a self-indulgence? No more than the precious conceit of privilege, the effort of a pampered individual to aggrandize her small traumas rather than turn toward the many opportunities that might reap real rewards?

Did I turn away first from journalism and then the law, dissatisfied by their inability to serve fully the needs of equity and justice, not because of their inherent flaws but because of my obdurate need to cling to a child’s dream that the world would become what I want and hopes it is? Is my Disneyfied vision of reality the one thing I do not dabble in or move beyond? If yes, this makes me more my mother’s child than my siblings, I think. Like her, might I have chosen happiness but instead chased a mirage? If so, my inability to be satisfied, happy even, is the product of clinging to a futile and foolish wish.

I suspect there is at least a grain of truth in that, but I doubt that it is that simple. It is too easy to blame myself and overlook the external forces that contribute to my choices and might, might, have made mine the best possible path. I don’t know. I know that it’s another gray, wet, clammy day. The air hangs thick. The world sits entombed in clouds that cling to the ground, leaden and ungainly, and my thoughts are ungenerous. Especially to me.

“Digging in the Garden” by Chiot’s Run is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

September 2009

Illicit Pleasures

Lilies shading from white to deep burnt orange adorn the feet of the cherry trees, whose leaf litter and falling fruit demand daily attention. The cherries hang in dark fistfuls along the lengths of branches weighted to the ground. A lone squirrel stares silently from his perch then grabs a cherry and eats it like a child with an ear of corn. Occasionally he chatters, perhaps to shoo me away.

The songbirds are absent, probably because their baths and feeders ran empty during my time away. The berry and grape vines ran amok, and a seven-foot tomato plant would benefit from some tending. A quick harvest of this city plot brought in three pounds of strawberries, a pint of mixed black and raspberries, and more than twenty pounds of cherries gathered simply to avoid broken branches. The apple trees, too, are in desperate need of attention. Their limbs weep beneath their load of fruit even without sufficient water during this extraordinary summer heat. In a few days, I’ll have fresh squash, tomatoes, and peppers as well.

Amid all this plenty comes the message: it’s back. Not even four weeks after the tests declared it to be in complete remission, she rushes him to the hospital with what seems like a stroke. The cancer has metastisized: lungs, lymph, brain. Several brain bleeds explain the symptoms, they tell her, as she gathers family. They did this only days before, or so it seems, and this time they don’t enjoy the somewhat illicit pleasure of a long-overdue reunion at his bedside or hope for a turn for the better.

Incapable of writing back, I stare out the window blind to the garden and think, “I’m all at sixes and sevens.” I have no clue how that phrase popped into mind or even what it means.

Photo by Ben Griffiths on Unsplash

August 2009


The only connection among the dozen or so of us, the only sinew that ties us in any obvious way, has nothing to do with writing, the purpose for this gathering. It is critters that connect us. Each and every one of us has at least one varmint visitor in the quarters set aside for us but left so often vacant. They range from the common mouse that wakens by swimming in the sink water soaking the night’s dishes to huge carpenter ants that rain from the ceiling onto the bed. The solitary cricket hidden somewhere that chirped only at night and then ceaselessly. A huge palmetto bug, a gigantic cockroach if you are not the host, so large that its scratching against the baseboard draws the writer’s attention and she, for a moment, mistakes it for a baby mouse before she screams.

For me, it is a coven of ringneck milk snakes who waken me from a sound sleep with the crinkling of a plastic bag sliding across the floor. As I snap the light on, they drip from the top of the stone chimney and slither in groups of two, three, more across the floor. Others scale the chimney and puddle on the hearth. Dozens everywhere, though not yet in the bed, which I fear they will seek out as the warmest place in this chilly cabin. Those caught in the bag contort and crumple it as they skin across the wood floor.

I cringe and cower, but there is no one else in this solitary cabin a quarter mile from the main lodge, and I wouldn’t wake the host at 1:41 a.m. There’s nothing for it but to jump up, throw the door wide, and sweep them tumbling off the chimney and hearth, across the floor, bag and all, and out into the darkened beyond. Slam the door. Bolt it, as if that bars their entry.

“Oh my heavens,” one writer says the next morning. “I never could’ve stayed there. I never would’ve …” But the host interjects. “They’re just milk snakes. Harmless. There’s no way to keep them out. Maybe put them in your book?”

“Garter Snakes” by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region is marked with CC PDM 1.0

October 2009


My destination is a twenty-minute walk when you walk briskly, and the trip navigates some unsavory and unattractive areas. So one does walk briskly, which makes it difficult to note carefully the landmarks that will be needed to assure return home, especially when walking at the same brisk pace.

I have been told, repeatedly and by many, that Quito is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, especially for tourists. A two-month stint with UNESCO doesn’t distinguish me from the hordes of American tourists, mostly those taking a gap year, who flock briefly to the language schools here before heading off to hike Patagonia.

I take precautions. I carry no purse, no backpack, nothing of value that isn’t carefully hidden on my person. I do not go out after dark. I walk briskly with purpose. It gives me some comfort until, a week into my job, I arrive to find my supervisor in tears . Her son was stabbed and robbed earlier in broad daylight on the sidewalk in front of the office as she looked on. I continue the daily walk. Public transit, including cabs, is riskier even for the locals.

It is a blessing to escape to the ocean for a long weekend.

Photo by Nathalie Marquis on Unsplash

November 2009

Down-fluff Bundles

Daylight savings time has me sleeping odd hours in these transitions days when we have returned to early dark, with street lights ablaze by 7 p.m. What an odd, disorienting, unnatural feeling to awaken at 7:30 a.m. , to have slept through those lovely, near-still, silent productive hours of the morning before the animals begin to stir or the dew slides off the grass.

There was another frost last night, and the rain in the stone bird bath froze, but as I drove through town yesterday a few folks were out mowing their neon green overfed lawns. This is not at all normal for mid-March in the inland Northwest, but the weather is always erratic and I wouldn’t know what to call normal. Temperatures like to dart wildly and erratically in swings that make it difficult to dress and bring songbirds back early to huddle and shiver in down-fluff bundles deep inside the hedgerows and one particularly hard snap can wipe out most of our stone fruits before they form and wither the new spring flowers.

Today the sun is glorious, with a predicted high in the 60s, and a sky so blue it seems to leach into your eyes and impregnate the world with intensity. Everyone is grilling out and the sidewalks are alive with tricycles.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

March 16, 2010

A Whole Lotta Water

I tried my hand at drawing and then watercolor yesterday in an attempt to capture the sparse beauty of these woods. The thin, almost fragile, trees stand far apart without a lot of scrub or underbrush. The floor as far as the eye can see is carpeted in small twigs, rotting leaves, and a smattering of ivy or other small greenery. Though they look open and walkable, the woods are not truly inviting because the branches begin at roughly shoulder height, with many dead, stiff, contorted limbs at precisely the level to slap your face, scrape or poke an eye. For the most part, the trees look dead, though I’m hoping that they simply have not yet leafed out here at this altitude even as spring progresses. Where there is growth, it is a fresh almost edible chlorophyl-enriched chartreuse yellow green.

This morning a fog hangs close, settling almost to the feet of the trees and reaching toward the cabin steps. Everything is shaded toward gray except in the swath cut for the power poles that stretches to the road. The woods are brighter there but still far from sunny. Perhaps that bit of clearing explains the oddly ricocheted rumble and grind of traffic coming from the highway below. Only the twisted rhododendrons and the snaking branches stripe wet black against the pale light, a natural pen and ink sketch.

The fog retreats, lifting and withdrawing as if running away from the rising noises of day. Now and again, a solitary limb bounces, perhaps in response to a falling drop of water bouncing on or releasing from its length. After four days of hard rain, the woods are sodden, the stream leaping and growling in its new strength and speed, and the roads are starting to flood, according to a neighbor who maintains these properties. He stopped by to make certain the new roof shakes are holding and to let me know “there’s a whole lotta water down ‘ere in town and most of them roads’ll be closed off for a good while.”

June 1, 2010


The act of writing, as opposed to weeks of not writing, is significant even if what I write is worthless. Holding my fountain pen in hand and watching it scratch across line after line, filling the page without my censorship, is interesting even when, as now, it has absolutely nothing to do with ‘saying’ anything. It is the act itself. The act of moving a pen along a line and attending to the experience and maybe, maybe, returning later and attempting to decipher or elicit some meaning. But that isn’t the important part. Watching the pen making marks, that we call writing, holds me in the moment, observing both the markings and the negative spaces between and among them. The patterns themselves matter. The flow, the upstrokes and downstrokes, the gaps and swirls. The marking itself slows time and holds space still and records that I existed at this moment, and I filled a page.

The writing is also a distraction and a camouflage to the ugliness unfolding with my siblings over the lake property in Maine. It is too ugly and eternal and petty and predictable to be worth talking about, but I obsess and it keeps me awake. Any hope of an amicable and fair sale of my share to the others seems doomed. Despite the thirty plus years since we spent time together as teens and young adults, we remain mired in old ways, bickering and picking and fighting because they are our only form of connection. And we are ever, and always, who we are. As Pasie used to say, “You don’t improve with age, you just get more so.”

Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

Sept. 2, 2010

The Cabin

Thinking back on those first explorations of the cabin property, it’s the wildlife–the turkeys and stellar jays, the chickadees and the moose–and the quiet that struck me, the calm restorative rhythm of sunrise to sunset and the constellations moving ’round the cabin like the hands of a clock. That first really cold night, when I stoked the fire but set the thermostat low so the heater wouldn’t click on and startle me from sleep, and I rose to a cold nose and my breath clouding the air and dove into clothes that chilled me until I warmed them. The tempo here slows me and my fingers grow stiff as I write, and I imagine how it must have been two centuries ago without insulation or backup heat or good, warm clothing. I think of those who came before, writing in beautiful hand with quill pen, the writing as much a work of art as the thoughts they expressed. Often, my writing resembles the prints of a headless chicken running across the page.

I hear the wind stirring now hours before dawn. Perhaps it signals a change in the weather, a cold snap maybe in time to bring snow for Christmas.

Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

Dec. 16, 2010

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