I am confident two weeks ago was my last tomato sandwich, so I savored it appropriately by letting it drip down the front of my overalls and placed it to rest on the plate between bites, soaking up pickle juice and seeds before the next bite. I sighed when it was finished and said, “You never know when a tomato sandwich will be your last of the summer.” Then I rinsed my plate and waited for the leaves to turn colors while it was still 90 degrees and full summer in the thumb of Michigan.
I’m not in a rush for the new season. Of course I love fall, but this year isn’t the slow drag of praying for a breeze. This year, I only want to make sure that I have appropriately noted the change rather than waking up on a cold September morning and sleepily realizing summer is gone. I am hungry not only for tomato sandwiches, but to know that this is my last tomato sandwich. And if it isn’t, then I will treat the next one as my last.
That is to say, my richest grief these days is inextricably woven with my deepest joy, and I am comfortable in the strain.
My Someone and I are in the studio this week for a new record. Nashville in September is a favorite. It’s not a roll of colors and smells, yet, but it is the small gasp that escapes from a city that’s been entrenched in a suffocating heat for months. The relief is visceral, almost audible, in spite of the nearly unchanging landscape. The thermometer will still hit 90, but the sentiment has changed– this isn’t forever.
I am in a city I called home for five years, running the risk of running into who I used to be, which I am afraid will be who I still am. It’s impossible, of course. The less afraid I am, the less likely I am to run into old me. Old me is just an amalgamation of fear– fear of who I was, fear of who everyone thought I was. A ghost of shuttered windows, hiding indoors. I, too, am gasping in the relief from the stifling heat of fear and walking comfortably– that wasn’t forever. This isn’t either. I am appropriately savoring the last bites of who I was, letting the seeds drip down the front of my memory, and rinsing my plate to prepare for the next season.
Yes, but really. I say the last bites, but this season isn’t shook yet. A pleasant surprise and a burden to savor at once, on comes another last perfect tomato of the season.
Metaphorically, at least.
Our new record is one of noting the time without rushing to meet it. These are songs from a glorious and shit year. A little more than a year ago, I lost my Aunt– suddenly, without the option to savor last moments. And so, I have been savoring my grief. My songs for her didn’t come until months after her passing. Now, I paste them to time– to a click track, no less– and I am surprised to find a new wave of grief appearing at the back of the refrigerator. I am honoring it by carefully slicing it into an arrangement of verse and chorus, letting the instruments sop up the possibility of this being the last time to feel the loss in this way. This isn’t forever. It is painfully joyful work. You never know when a wave of grief will be your very last, when you might wake up on a cold September morning and have missed the opportunity to miss someone with the perspective of time moving abundantly beneath you.
As we began to wrap our first week of recording, I found another last tomato in the bottom of the fruit bowl. Not at all metaphorically. It had miraculously made the journey from Michigan to Tennessee, nearly unbruised, and warmly fragrant. I considered making another last sandwich, but the temperature dropped earlier in the evening. It was sunny all day, but the season has changed, and I was unable to capture its precise moment. That’s the way of tomato sandwiches. Even when you are sure it is your last, you won’t know until it has passed. I refrained from reaching for the bread and mayo, and began, instead, to boil a pot of water. I cut basil, minced half a bulb of garlic, pulled the capers from the cupboard. Then, I pulled what is likely the last good tomato of the season, and I chopped it roughly into juicy cubes. When we sat down to dinner, our ears still ringing from the work of listening all day, the pasta pomodoro steamed from our bowls.
“This is the last good tomato of the season,” I told my Someone.
Yesterday, my accordion repairman in Montpelier told me–
“Everything in your dreams, even and maybe especially the nightmares, is your ally. You may not know how, yet, but they are there waiting to help you.”
I’ve been thinking about it, though, and what is within makes what is without, as my accordion repairman also quoted that reality is 90% perception, maybe more. If we believed this about ourselves, if we believed that all that is within is for us, then all that is without is for us, too. Including the man who blared his horn yelling “FUCK YOU” while he passed us on a two-lane road in Maine. Including the acquaintances with whom I have to swallow my unexpected annoyance, despite them being perfectly lovely people. Including my Someone when we are mid fight. Including my mother, which these days is less difficult to imagine. Including my father, who I can hardly imagine, even with every ounce of my creative thinking.
When my Someone and I hit the road almost 8 years ago, we were in a blur of grief, of break downs, of bad breaks. But sometimes, when the coffee was the right brew and the camper was not too hot to sleep in til almost 9:30, or when our morning walk wound us into a remarkably and unexpected place of beauty, or even when the last tow truck driver on the State Line of South Dakota and Nebraska agreed to help us after hours of waiting, stranded, we would raise our hands above our heads and declare–
“The Universe and all within it is for us! It is for us! The Universe is for us!”
It was a clunky chant, but it got the point across, and we were able to stitch these tattered quilt squares of hope together and make a small place of comfort on the edge of the cliff we were looking down. It echoed out and back to us again, a sonic wave that pushed us ever forward, to where things were less hard. Though when we got there, to the less hard place, we chanted it less, but maybe felt it more. Using that old quilt every day made it commonplace, but no less of a comfort.
It’s easy to find signs outside. I can believe almost anything if I’m looking for it. Turning that gaze within– when my heart is beating slower from the slog of sticky black nightmares that sit like tar on my mind the next morning; or feeling the quickened heartbeat of my Someone when he rolls over in the morning, squeezing me and saying “I thought I lost you” as he shakes off his own dark timeline dream world– those are signs more difficult to reconcile. But there it is, my childhood nightmares of losing my parents to a fire, only to lose them in my adulthood by fire of fear and estrangement. Then, there was the relief as a kid of running down my bedroom stairs to find my mother in her chair, half a cup of milky black tea and a book propped in her lap, still in her nightgown in the predawn quiet. She’d move to make me a breakfast of buttered cinnamon toast and an identical cup of milky black tea– two teaspoons of sugar– still reading as she stood. It was not so different from the relief of seeing her one month back, picking at her salad across the table, then hugging me twice when we parted, hesitating to let go. My dreams had prepared me for this– to help me know for certain when I am safe again.
My accordion repairman told me also to keep my accordion out of the car when it was this hot. The wax could melt and I’ll regret it when my reeds start to slip. Of course, I’ll listen to him. If my fixed B flat button is any indication, I can trust him on all accounts.
My father doesn’t like Father’s Day, anyway. So I’m happy to comply in not acknowledging it, letting that silence fill in what we wouldn’t know what to talk about, letting it all go except that hereditary vibrating tendon of meanness that runs the space between and within us, no matter how much Brene Brown I read. I see him there in me, and I’ve stopped denying or outrunning it.
In later years, we’d skip church on Father’s Day Sunday. Dad hated the lectures, the railing against all the bad dads out there, the ones who were slackers, who didn’t provide, who didn’t show up for their family. He was sick of getting beat down when he was being one of the good ones. From the vantage point of 36, it looks more like a self-fulfilled prophecy. A man who hated to show up for Father’s Day because he hated to show up in a special way. He was surpassing the societal low bar we have for dads, and he wanted to keep it that way. He spoke against the dads who weren’t trying hard enough, was more vocal than anyone about how he did the hard work of being a good dad, and didn’t show up for the annual church lecture because he was the one who didn’t need it.
Then, he stopped showing up for me, too. All we oppose with ferocity, we likely already are, or will become. And as I opposed him, I stopped showing up, too.
I don’t say this with self pity, with anger, or even with regret. It’s with plain-speak, fact, and maybe a little curiosity. That’s to say, I’m in a good place with it– often, no place at all. Which is why, when my good-hearted Annie reached out Father’s Day night last Sunday and asked,
“How are you doing with all of this? With this day?”
I said, with complete honesty, “I kept forgetting it was Father’s Day! It seemed so unnotable in every way.”
We did a tiny rejoice for the mercy of forgetfulness, but something caught me after that.
I might not believe fathers exist, anymore.
Last month I finished reading my first cozy mystery, relishing the ease of being led along in the barely twists of the plot. Hardly to the first plot turn, the protagonist is hanging out with her best friend, when her friend confesses to her that her mother is worried that the two are dating. The protagonist begins to say that they are just friends, but stops. In exposition, she tells us that her friend doesn’t believe in the word “just” in “just friends,” because it implies a hierarchy of relationship, as if friendship is in some way a lower wrung than dating or marriage or even committed sexual relationship.
My throat caught, and I began to cry.
This, this, this.
As if who we choose to love in the way we choose to love them is diminished by the way our bodies touch, or the variance of blood in our little heart pumps.
I put down the book and thought of my friends. I thought of the dog pile we made in our early twenties, believing this was it— this was how we would love all of our lives. And then, we got married, and somehow were tricked into believing our Someones were more important, a higher wrung, a higher priority/calling/fulfillment than the nearly visceral space we shared within ourselves for each other.
It was an outrage. So I nixed it. Of course, I love my Someone. Of course, our responsibilities are more entangled. But all this space in here is not for a one-and-only. It’s a regular communist society of love, of sharing, of making sure that everyone gets enough.
Which is what brought me back to fathers. And mothers, for that matter.
Throughout my life, I’ve had stand-in grandparents after I lost all of mine by age ten; I’ve had stand in parents when mine were indifferent or downright mean; I’ve had stand-in sisters, brothers– you name it, I’ve replaced nearly every member of my family with the working title on someone else.
It felt like an honor to call Tom my “other dad,” when he’d help me fix things and sit and have coffee with me in the morning. He made special trips to visit me in Nashville, and he still makes sure to call me on my birthday. All those things I thought dads should do. And Ann, my stand-in mom and sister. I’d call her every Mother’s Day, celebrating the ways she filled in when my mother couldn’t or wouldn’t.
These are two examples, but I’ve been lucky to have more. There has never been a time when I have felt the despair of being emotionally orphaned that one of my Stand-ins was not on the ready to console me.
I realize now, I have done them a disservice. Half of my social media feed last Sunday was of people missing their dad, or calling him their best friend. The other half was expressing their difficult relationship with a day that celebrates someone they can’t stand.
There is no mold of what a Dad or Mom should be– there’s no pattern or structure to it. It’s not a higher calling to be in those roles. And with all things equal, I don’t need to fill in a space left void by my own. That’s compare-and-despair mentality. Rather, I remain more astounded that these friends of mine, who have no blood relation, no skin in the game, have chosen to love me in the way they saw that I needed. I’m not talking about “chosen family,” though that’s the colloquial that gets us closest.
I’m talking about my friends.
It’s an incredible honor to be loved by someone that way. Not as a father loves a child– because nobody really knows what that means. It’s different for everyone. And for some, not existent at all. But to be loved as a friend. I don’t need to extend them an honorific to distinguish that “sort of” love. Without the hierarchy, I can release expectations. I’ve stopped calling my friends on Mother’s and Father’s Day, because I am not stuffing them into that prefabricated box, anymore. I am not burdening my friends’ gift of love with a title that no one can define. In slow time, I am also letting my parents off the hook from what I thought they should be.
And in this way, love is love. I am becoming more open to it by the day.
My Someone and I were on our way to sit still in hot mineral baths in a dreamy, remote mountain town outside of Santa Fe for our anniversary at the end of February.
Which meant, of course, that I was taking the classic strategy of overthinking it by a long shot.
The pools varied in temperature and substance– lithia, arsenic, iron, soda, and mud. They officially touted a relaxing day. They unofficially promised healing properties. Which made me officially stressed out.
The day was a wash. We parked our janky camper in their beautiful woods rear of the resort. We used their fluffy towels and sat in the fizz of the soda pool, then the overwhelming heat of arsenic. We took a break to sip seltzer water with lime and eat tiny tacos. Then we returned to scrub on mud, let it dry, and wash it off. We tried our lot in lithia, iron, and arsenic again. I attempted to busy myself with a good book as we soaked in the company of other patrons, a monologue running in my mind wondering if I was relaxing, yet. Asking if I was doing it right. I only got one chapter through in the day on account of the foghorn of my own thoughts. How about now, am I relaxing now? IS THIS ENOUGH?AM I GETTING ALL OF THE BENEFITS NOW?
I wanted to hide. After dinner, I told my Someone to go on without me. I was incapable of being a normal person. He pushed a little more, and I relented for fear of being a monster person who refuses to soak in a tub with strangers on our anniversary. We picked the cliffside, and ended with the hottest soak on the property before calling it. We went back to our camper, picked up where we left off in Modern Family and fell asleep by 10PM.
When I woke up the next morning, you could’ve applied mascara in the still, serene reflection of my disposition.
The Tao te Ching speaks of water as being the most powerful force in nature. Tsunamis come to mind, of course; but tsunamis aren’t the source. It’s the quiet pools. Or, in my case, dirty dishwater.
Since last October, we’ve been without water in our camper. This is partially to travel as light as we can, but in winter, we run the worry of freezing temperatures coming to bust our pipes. So for the last seven years, for one half of the year, we live without a running sink. The solution to this is three big gallon water jugs and something we call Dishes Bag. After meals, we clean up and toss all of our dishes into Dishes Bag, and throw Dishes Bag into the shower (which has now become Closet for Dishes Bag and also for Shoe Bin). At the next host home or campsite, we take Dishes Bag to the nearest spigot and wash our dishes. While we try to wipe down the dishes before Dishes Bag, it’s not always the habit, and I found myself the day after our anniversary with a full Dishes Bag of dishes that were caked and crudded beyond the scrub of a sponge.
And then I remembered my power.
Alongside our camper in the cool of a New Mexico morning, I filled each dish with water and sat it on the ground. Then, I waited. I took my dogs for a hike in the sagebrush speckled mountains, alongside the shadowside of cliffs still spotted with snow. I stretched my limbs, more nimble now from the previous day of soaking myself. I showered. Then, I returned to my impossible dishes and found that they were powerfully disarmed– by being completely still in the water.
The power of water is not in its giant waves. Jesus (who I am convinced was a Taoist) didn’t walk on the storm of the sea and try to make it bigger– he calmed the waters down. The power is the stillness, not the show. The miracle is the quick swash of a sponge cutting across a curry-crusted pot, with no effort of my own.
Water is the most powerful force because it can do nothing at all, and its sustain can still move mountains.
While I am convinced of the power of the sustain, my practice of being water is fluid, changing with each vessel. Sometimes that looks like damming up to hold a boundary, as I did with my family. The power of the boundary let the dam break recently, but the sustain is the same, and I am more powerfully myself in the slow negotiations of reconciliation.
Sometimes the practice looks like consistently voting for good, even when evil abounds.
Sometimes the practice looks like silence, like listening, when I want to give a tsunami of perfect advice to my friends that will definitely for sure fix them… or drown them.
Recently, it looks like my friend Sheralyn, who has decided she is a mud puddle. As the world has been reopening, she herself has been staying much the same, puddling up from the last two years of isolation as she tries to figure out what is next. She’s not yet ready to be a river, or even to join the river. As I visited with her last week, I traced my mind for excellent ideas to help her (I have only excellent ideas for other peoples’ problems, and very few for my own). Instead, in her stillness, I could only think of my dirty dishes. So, I told her about my dishes.
She was delighted.
“Yes! I am a mud puddle!” she exclaimed in response, “And I know other people see me as an inconvenience, that they hardly notice me except to step around me, but I am going to remain a mud puddle right now. Right here in the middle of the path, looking up at the sky.”
A mud puddle sounded very powerful to me. In its stillness, it can change the path of hundreds of people, even slightly. But for those who choose to look into it, they will see the sky. And, they will see themselves. The importance of mud puddles is that they reveal who we are, too.
As I looked at my mud puddle friend Sheralyn, I saw me, too. I stopped trying to fix her stillness problem and instead fixed my not-still-enough problem. That’s the power of water– of mud puddles. Soak them in long enough, and without realizing it, you’ve changed.
The less I want to sound sanctimonious, the more sanctimonious my life becomes.
I’m 36 today. This morning, as is my tradition, I took my dog for a walk, alone, in the place I woke up. This year happens to be Flagstaff, AZ, tucked in a juxtaposition of two busy roads– one Route 66– and fragrant pines. I fought off my usual approach to birthdays, which is to guard it rigidly and have a perfect plan. Instead, I signed us up for a morning yoga class and cried in it for the last 15 minutes. I didn’t try and figure out why I was crying. The source could be anywhere from gratitude to my mother calling me for the first time in years on my birthday morning to the release of a stressful couple of weeks. Instead, I tried to enjoy it. I don’t cry as much as I used to, and I frankly miss the feeling of erratic catharsis.
Then, I walked with my Someone to a teahouse and slurped two pots of Milk Oolong alongside a blueberry muffin. I splurged on multiple readings from the Tao instead of the usual single daily allotment. We bought two kinds of tea to go, walked to an independent bookstore and purchased two books from one of my favorite authors. Then, we got to-go from a vegan curry place, came back to our camper, and ate with the smell of pine on our nostrils and the spice of chili on our tongues.
That is to say, I am having the perfect day.
It’s not because I planned it. It’s not because I laid down a cacophony of hints to my Someone leading up– a sordid map of how to make me happy.
I think it may be because I have stopped desperately grabbing at my life. I’ve stopped hovering over my small plate of time on Earth and have instead leaned back in my chair, examined it, smelled it, and am taking one bite at a time. Or, at least I’ve succeeded in doing so for this one day.
My Someone seems a little confused about it. Previous birthdays have been wrought with disappointment. Plans go bad, or expectations aren’t met. Or what I thought I wanted didn’t leave me feeling like I had “done” birthday right. It was a wild, flailing check list of what-I-should-want-and-should-do within a person who wasn’t really sure those things were what she wanted. By the end of the day, I’d concede that it was “Fine, really! I had a nice time,” in a voice that indicated that next year would be better. A real martyr’s move.
This year, he’s off the hook because I let myself off the hook. I know what I want. And what I want is to be quiet most of the day. What I want is to cry in yoga class and slurp tea and maybe sketch or just breathe all afternoon. And the reason this:
My birthday, this celebration of the day I arrived, is not anyone else’s responsibility. This is not a lesson in controlling my own narrative, or making the life I want to live. It’s about no longer trying to control everyone else’s narrative as it pertains to me. Including my own. It is not a day where I wait for others to appreciate me. It is a day where I appreciate being here. I got another helping on my plate, and I get to sit quietly and eat it at a table with others who have also been given a plate at the same time table as me. That is far from a disappointment. My expectations have already been exceeded. And I am no longer ravenous for it– I’ve already been given so much. But more is always appreciated.
Now. If only I could extend this birthday wish to the rest of my days.
My first name, Mallory, means Dark Knight, darkly armored, or in later translations, Dark Night or the Darkest of the Night. At least that’s what a little card my first boyfriend bought me from a gift shop in Eastern Ohio said. It sat on my Western Pennsylvania bedroom shelf for most of high school along with a smattering of pink trinkets that matched my pink walls. Pink wasn’t my favorite color, but it was the color that seemed to make everyone else happy to be my favorite, particularly after my Junior High goth phase. So I sank into it, even though I still preferred black. I was happier to make everyone happier, or at least less worried about me. My middle name, Gayle, I asked Jeeves about after the dial-up connected.
A strong and forceful wind.
I asked my mother, “Did you name me ‘A Dark Night, Strong and Forceful Wind?'”
She shrugged, “I named you after the ditz on Family Ties. And, yeah, probably.”
This, I thought, explains why my favorite color is black.
Earlier this month, we made it to Westcliffe, Colorado a couple of hours before the snowfall. By the following morning, the entire town was covered in 6 inches and counting. Our show that night went on as planned, folks trudging in wearing warm boots and heavy jackets. It was an open evening of full belly laughs and generous spirits. My Someone and I mingled afterwards by the merchandise table, keeping the cold at bay for a little longer. I fell into conversation with a bright light of a woman when I noticed her name tag.
“Gayle!” I said, “That’s my middle name, too. I don’t find many that spell it that way.”
“Oh, but you know what it means?” she asked.
“A strong wind!” I laughed, “A force, really.”
She looked troubled, shook her head.
“No… well, maybe. With a different spelling, I suppose. But this is from Abigail. The Hebrew name meaning ‘Father’s Joy.’ But without the father, Abba, part. Gayle just means Joy.”
I felt the strong wind fall out of my sails.
“Joy,” I said aloud, stupidly.
Gayle thanked me again and bounded off into the bright white snowy Colorado night.
This was a force with which I was not prepared to reckon.
I was still fighting my own Joy by the time we made it to California two weeks later. We were back at my Someone’s parents’ place, nestled sight distance from the Sierra Nevada mountains with orange groves and grapevines in every direction. We spent the early pandemic days here, and I was grateful to return on less tumultuous terms. I took the road reprieve to connect again, and rode a bicycle with my littlest big dog to the water ditch past the first orange grove. Dangling my feet above where the water should be, I called my friend Ann. Ann, from the Hebrew name Hannah, means “favor” or “grace.” Both of which she extended to me as I watched the sun get low on Pacific time, imagining the cold darkness of her Ohio Eastern time.
We talked about our mothers and our jobs and our Someones and landed squarely on God. In Christian culture, we refer to God as “Father.” Names like this are important inasmuch as they give a jumping point for what we cannot know. It’s problematic. For those of us growing up under the name of Father, we are often doomed to fashion God under the same pretenses. If our father was loving, our God was loving. If he was an asshole, then God is an asshole. It’s a simplification, but an important one.
Names are important. What we believe a name means can change who we are.
“I wonder,” said Ann, full of grace, “if you could find another person to fashion God after, if that would change your view of God.”
I thought of my failed attempts as a 20-something to call God a “She” or “Mother,” borrowed from edgy religious authors like Anne Lamott. It was unsuccessful.
I named you after the ditz on Family Ties.
I looked at my littlest big dog.
“I wish I could fashion God after my dog,” I said, laughing.
“Well, you can,” Ann said. “Or just after yourself. Think of how you take care of your dogs. Then make it God, the great loving dog owner, and you, the one she cares for.”
Like taking the Father out of “Father’s Joy,” I could take the Father out of “Father’s Love.”
This sounded like blasphemy from Ann.
I liked it very much.
Names that can be Named Are not true Names. The Origin of Heaven and Earth Has no name. Free from Desire, Contemplate the Inner Marvel; With Desire, Observe the Outer Radiance. These issue from One Source, But have different Names. –Lao Tzu
Which brought me to the ocean. I was not going to have a beach moment, where the waves lap on shore and I look over them into the horizon and suddenly have a strong feeling of culmination and conclusion. But, goddammit, if my feet didn’t sink into the sand and trap me in the end of a movie.
Last week, we spent our time ocean side in Morro Bay, California, where my Someone’s family gathered for a long overdue post pandemic reunion. Family time is historically nerve wracking for me. In this family, in particular, I am prone to feeling my name– a Dark Night and a Forceful Wind in the plucky make-nice of their ecosystem. This trip, I was adopted by a four-year-old niece named Amelia (meaning “industrious” or “striving”), who became my barnacle for the duration of the week. It was good to have a wild buddy to make faces and talk about colors and watch elephant seals with. She industriously turned my forceful wind into a bubbling joy.
And there, on a beautiful beach next to my littlest big dog, I watched the waves and stopped resisting my Joy.
Maybe it goes like this– that the miracle is not to be loved by a giant know-it-all God. The God I grew up with knew me down to the core– all of my failings, all of my secrets. This was presented as evidence of his love, that he could know all of that and still love me. This is no evidence of love at all. If I could know the every in-and-out of another human, it could only further create empathy, which creates love. To create an all knowing God is to create and all Loving one. That is not miraculous. That’s fantasy.
The miracle, I realized, is that I am a small person on the Pacific coast. And stretching beside and behind me are these other tiny specks of people, scattered by a forceful wind in random directions beneath a potentially infinite universe. And those random floating specks have found me. And from what little they know of me– from what little I know of myself– they love me.
The force inside of me is one of joy. Not a Father’s Joy, but my own. That is a more powerful wind than one that blows from Heaven Above. Soon, I will fall into the waves and be another speck floating in the foam. But for this time, in the Darkest Night in the Biggest Storm, there is a four-year-old and a fifty-four-year-old and a multitude of other varying aged specks who have found me, and I don’t need to be orchestrated by a Father’s hand, or even be named, to feel the full force of it.
I am cross legged in meditation– or worse, I am in Child’s Pose, forehead to the ground, arms stretched wide in front of me, haunches curled and relaxed. The door clicks, but I wasn’t vigilant enough, and when I finally raise my head to the loud heavy boot footsteps, it’s too late. I imagine myself running to the side door, but then the shots ring, a searing in my ears, and bang! My mind explodes into a white puff of fear. The sensation trickles through my throat, my chest, down to my legs. My eyes flash open at the sickness that follows, and I steady myself again on my yoga mat.
I am safe. I shake my head and try to push the fear down again. And again.
Since 7th grade, post Columbine, this is the mental reel with which I coexist. At movie theaters, amusement parks, yoga studios, restaurants. My instinct in every new situation is to assess entrances and exits, keep my back against the wall, and forcefully push away the onslaught of involuntary thoughts of becoming the next victim of a mass shooting. It’s not dissipating with age– it’s compounding. A few factors are involved there, not all of them in my head– like the increase of mass shootings, for instance. Now, I avoid movie theaters on opening night. I’ve become disinterested in large outdoor festivals and concerts in big cities. I’ve given up on returning to formal higher education of any variety.
It’s not working. The more I insulate, the more I am afraid. In late December, I fought back in the manner of a warrior. Or, rather, in Warrior I, II & III pose.
I signed up impulsively, before I could google it, before I could change my mind– one month of unlimited yoga classes. I continued to ignore the nagging in the deepest rut of my fear-addled brain as I parked, walked up the steps, and signed in for the first time. Then, I unraveled my mat and sat down in heart of my fear– the site of the 2018 yoga studio shooting in Tallahassee. Automatically, my reel began. The click of the door. The heavy boots. The searing in my ears. Bang. The white puff of fear explodes and trickles down my body. The sickness. Eyes open. Eyes close. Then the reel begins again.
My teacher enters mid reel, welcoming the room and instructing us into Child’s Pose. I obey, forcing my reel to a halt. After several deep breaths, the reel slows, but then something new happens.
“Please continue to breathe,” she instructs. “Our final student has arrived. I will now go and lock the door.”
The room breathes a sigh of relief. A tangible calm blankets the room at the sound of the lock turning. My reel stops for the remainder of the class.
In savasana, or Corpse Pose, at the end of class, I recognize a room full of women and men with their eyes closed, bodies open, doing nothing to lift a finger and defend themselves as a wild act of bravery. On the other side of that door could be the death of us. Another angry white man armed with a weapon built for war won’t be stopped by a locked door. My reel tries to begin again, but I stop it short. The noxious fear of what could be on the other side of that door could kill me here, within. Or rather, it has already been killing me. My life has been stopped short thousands of times since April 20th of my 7th grade year by this fear. As we rose from Corpse Pose, from the dead, to the breath cycle of conscious living, I looked my reel dead in the eye.
I’m coming for you, I whispered as the room, in unison, said “Namaste.”
Do away with Learning, And There is an end to Sorrow. “How different is Yes from No! How Good differs from Bad! What others fear must surely be feared.” Such propositions Confuse, And there is no end to them! — Tao te Ching, #20 An Infant Yet to Smile
I’m not alone in my fear. Studies show that more than 40% of the United States population hold gun violence and mass shooting in the top three of their utmost, raging fear. Many of us are living in a constant state of vicarious Post Traumatic Stress. This is learned behavior, of course. We are conditioned by the onslaught of news reports, death tolls, and unruly politics that favor illusioned and ill-defined rights more than lives. The learned behavior continues with security checkpoints at airports and elementary schools, and even incorporating the locking of the door at a hot yoga class. The latter was a comfort to me. Here is a community who, since 2018, had to unlearn their sense of safety, and relearn it again. Instead of ignoring the fear, denying the problem, or even quitting the scene altogether, they allowed the massacre to become an honored part of their practice. When the door locks, the ritual nods to the lives senselessly lost, and acknowledges that we, too, could be senselessly lost in a moment. But that we are trying, with ritual, to stave off the possibility a little longer. And we are still showing up.
This was an unlearning of fear that allows the learning of living.
I took note of this darkly hopeful act, and began my own unlearning during my second class. I walked up the steps, checked in, unrolled my mat, and sat in meditation. Come at me, I whispered to my reel. Fear is a desperate dog, ready to take any opening it’s given. The door click. The loud heavy boots. But this time, before the white puff of fear, I watch myself stand. I am running toward the darkly dressed white man, I am arms wide open and screaming forward. It’s a direct tackle. I may be shot, or I am not, but the imagination has frightened my fear instead of me. I wait for the reel to begin again. It does not. I open my eyes. Class is beginning. The door was already locked.
My philosophy is that worrying means you suffer twice. -Newt Scamander, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
I have been bolstering myself from What Has Not Yet Come to Pass for as long as I’ve been conditioned to do so. Which is to say, as long as I can remember. As a kindergartner, my reel was that of my house burning down with only me inside, spurred by the emergency window ladder that remained securely by my second-story window. Or of becoming suddenly an orphan. Or of the innumerable ways I could become unlovable.
Early last year, one year into the pandemic, I was heavy– physically and emotionally. My body just couldn’t move. I began, for the first time in my life, a more rigorous workout plan. It was hard. Not just because I hadn’t moved that way before, but because I was mentally strained following each workout. Why wasn’t I getting the post workout stress drain everyone raved about? It took a week of feeling not much better when I realized the problem.
I wasn’t allowing myself to sweat.
This seems basic. You exercise, your body sweats. But it isn’t basic for someone who has been conditioned to fear sweating, which might make you unattractive to someone, thereby rendering you unlovable. I reviewed the previous week’s workouts in my mind. I was moving in a way that would cause the least amount of sweat possible. I was stilted, strained, and suffering. For who? I was outraged.
I began looking at myself each morning in the mirror, fully naked, and saying “You see no progress because there is no such thing as progress. There is only now.” Then, before workouts, I audibly confirmed, “You are permitted to sweat, now. I give you full allowance to use your body in any way you would like.”
In this way, I unlearned my unknown fear of sweating. In this way, I found that being a human being is enough.
And also, by goddess, what a high a Barre workout can give you.
Claykneaded Forms a Pot. The Emptiness within, The Non-Being, Makes the Pot Useful. — Tao te Ching, #11 Non-Being
My Someone and I were soon hitting the road again, coinciding with my month of unlimited yoga ending. I’d worked myself into a sweat almost daily, returning home drenched and happy. My arms were tired, and I was keen to let my body rest. So I cancelled my Power Yoga class that night, signed up for a restful Yin Yoga, instead, and opened my supplies on the kitchen island for an afternoon of bookbinding. I was rebinding a salvaged cover, employing a technique in which I cut a new spine for the book, and fold it with the covers into a sturdy-but-thin book cloth. I had intent to send this to my creative potter friend– so I needed it to be strong enough to endure quick openings for sudden ideas. I cut the spine from the thickest book board I had, glued in the covers, and folded it. It wasn’t until I placed the handstitched text block into the cover that I realized my mistake.
In order for a book to work properly, in order for it to open wide for the give-and-take of ideas, it cannot be bolstered against the possible damages– man made and nature born– that could possibly come its way. In fact, the “stronger” the spine, the more weary the book becomes, strained against itself every time it tries to complete the simple task it was made for– to open. By worrying over the strength of my book to survive, I had made it inflexible. I’d made it easily broken. I finished the book, but included a note to Bryan–
This will be the last book I make this way.
This would be the last book I timidly tried to arm against the fear of What Has Not Yet Come to Pass. And in that way, I would make stronger, more flexible books, open to the world.
That night, during Yin Yoga, in the studio location where the 2018 shooting happened, my instructor informed me that Yin was not a form of relaxation, it’s a form of strength. By taking the muscles we use and abuse and lean into them in rest, they are becoming resilient. They are becoming flexible. Unexpectedly, my reel began. I practiced the new scenario, the tackle, but my mind took its own unexpected path. I didn’t reach the mysterious shooter in time. Instead, I spread my arms wide on my mat and fell back. I was bleeding. I wouldn’t make it. And I was completely calm. No white puff of fear. No sickness. I rested knowing that I did everything I could to remain safe, while also remaining open to the world. The reel didn’t begin again. My thoughts faded to black.
When I left that night, involuntarily carrying my keys between my fingers as I’d been taught to do in dark parking lots, I felt grateful.
I was sorted as a Ravenclaw, according to a very reliable internet test that had an immense chum bucket at the bottom of the screen. And so, that evening, my sister pulled the Santa hat from the tree and had each of us sit in a chair, placed the hat on each person’s head, and announced to the room what the Sort-of Hat had decided. My Someone ended up in Gryffindor, even though everyone knows that he’s a Hufflepuff. My niece was a Hufflepuff and my nephew a Slytherin, and that seemed reliable enough, so we went with the infallibility of the internet quiz and took our Hogwarts Houses to heart, and watched the 6th movie with this new information in mind.
I was happy enough with my sort– one of my best friends is a Ravenclaw. But I felt unnaturally enraged that my Someone was cast in the same house as Harry Potter when he clearly belonged elsewhere. I started making backhanded compliments about Gryffindor, which turned into questioning of the validity of the Sorting Hat, which turned into me feeling a little out of place. A real Slytherin move. So I backed off. My Someone sort of shrugged. He was happy to be wherever. Which everyone knows is Hufflepuff through and through.
My sister and brother-in-law surprised us Christmas morning with tickets to a family vacation to Universal. The previous week’s sorting would come full circle. My sister had sewn Harry Potter masks with beads that match our house colors. I looked enviously at my Someone’s yellow and red beads, then tried on my Ravenclaw mask and tried to fit in. The test said what it said, it must be true.
In line for Gringott’s, I made my confession to my sister and Someone.
“I just don’t know if I feel like a Ravenclaw here,” I said, giving the side eye to a robed figure in front of us. “Here, I feel more like a Gryffindor.” I felt ashamed. I felt like I was calling out the injustice of a system that wasn’t unjust at all. I felt like a sore loser. Then my sister perked up.
“Actually, I feel more like a Slytherin here.” We both faced my Someone.
“I feel more like a Hufflepuff,” he admitted, “Or, at least I like their stuff more.”
We made a pact before going inside to defeat the Dark Lord to tell the Sorting Hat our true hearts. Afterward, I walked down Diagon Alley and rode the train at 9 3/4 with the pride of a Gryffindor. This place was magical. But somewhere between the Butterbeer and lunch, I started to have my doubts again. I envied the cute little badger and mustard yellow robes of Hufflepuff. Maybe I wasn’t a Gryffindor, either.
My Someone gets all the luck.
When we got home, I talked to my favorite Ravenclaw about my situation. I was so turned around by the time the trip was over, I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to be if I had a choice. I ventured into a more fantastic solution.
“Maybe,” I said, “I don’t feel part of any House because I’m outside of the Houses. Maybe I’m actually a magical creature? Like, maybe I’m a mermaid or a Hippogryph or something?” I did not tell her my tendency to request being the dog when I played house with my friends as a kid. I hoped to have a more unbiased opinion on the matter. One in my favor.
“Maybe,” she said, “you don’t feel like you’re a part of any of the Hogwarts Houses because you’re actually part of Ilvermorny? The American School of Magic?”
The thought had occurred to me. But not fitting in felt better as a magical creature than as another stupid American.
For the last two months, I have lived and breathed Harry Potter. I’ve watched all of the movies with my niece and nephew. I’ve gone to Harry Potter World. Even my dreams have become iterations of Potions class mixed with defeating Lord Voldemort. Maybe I needed to take a step back, take a breather. Truthfully, the whole experience at Universal, while very fun, had been a bit of a let down. Not because the Butterbeer wasn’t on point, or the magic wands were malfunctioning, but because it wasn’t real. When I said this to my Someone, he commiserated,
“Nothing can quite compare to the imagination,” he said.
But that wasn’t it, I complained. “It’s not because this isn’t what I imagined, it’s because it isn’t real. Even if every storefront wasn’t a facade, even if the wizards wandering around didn’t have nametags, even if there wasn’t a back door for staff only, the problem is, this makes me long for the real thing, and it doesn’t exist.”
It was petulent, but he nodded. It wasn’t the first time I’d attached myself instrinsically to a fiction. He was often the one pulling me out, kicking and screaming and despondent to the real world around me. Naturally, instead of confronting what was really bothering me, I put on my headphones, hopped on the treadmill, and fell head first into another fictional book to take my mind off my out-of-sorts House dilemma. I nearly fell off halfway through the first mile when the author said–
Here’s a thing I believe about people my age: we are the children of Hogwarts, and more than anything, we just want to be sorted. —Sourdough by Robin Sloan
I paused the book and turned up the speed. I tried to outrun what I heard. Panting, I hopped off.
It wasn’t about style or feeling or character traits. I wanted someone other than a crappy internet site– someone with real authority– to look at me squarely and say,
“You belong here. With us. Together. Definitely.”
And I needed it to be realer than real.
Being post religion, or at least trying to shed myself of the baggage of Only One Way and Absolute Truth, the world gets wider, richer, with far more possibilities and people to explore. But it also gets murkier. Especially when I’m looking for the One True Person to tell me I’m In. It’s a trade off, really. Security for Uncertainty, and it all seems like personal preference.
Or, maybe with a little more noticing, I can have both. Like bouncing along in a late evening shuttle bus from a hotel to an amusement park, florescent lights flickering, show tunes punching through small crappy speakers. And I look up, and I see the family who, against outside odds of fighting and manipulation and rivalry, have chosen each other. Who decided to drive 3 1/2 hours in a minivan together to do weird, fantasy family stuff. Who made sure that I had vegan and gluten free food. Who said, “You are invited, you belong here.” Who made Hogwarts print masks so that we all matched. I remember the inside of these sort of shuttles as a kid– I remember early morning shuffles to airports. Then, as an 8-year-old, it didn’t feel like this– like belonging. I was scared of being out of line, of making someone angry, of getting made fun of. Here, on the chosen side, it seems so long as we are all choosing the same bus, everything else sorts itself out.
For months I’ve been in a state of August. It’s the same way every year, a rolling boil of positivity and doing-better in January, running over the line of summer in hopes that what came before won’t catch up to me again. But it does. And it happens in August. August is when my New Year’s Resolutions seem like a futile mask of the deep dark in me. The heat, no matter how far north we travel, pushes it right out of my pores, and I am left with risidual discomfort and the sweltering belief that there will never be a break– there will be no more chill in the air, no breeze, no joy to pull me from eternal August.
Then in September, though later and later each year, it breaks. I laugh it off as the cooler air. I roll my eyes at pumpkin spice lattes and order them anyway, smothering my secret wants with irony. But August will linger until October in some cases. Around the time that I am unable to attribute my depression to the weather, something breaks again, and I’ll be in the clear until the Christmas Sadness takes its turn on December 22nd. That stretches through the New Year, and then I make a running start toward summer in hopes to beat out August again.
Last August was worse than most. We were in Rock Springs, Wyoming when my body came to a halt. The depression settled on me thicker than the wildfire smoke that hovered above. I coughed sporadically, my voice burning when we sang, my ribs aching when I breathed. I pushed harder, I worked out more, I scrolled on my phone more, I ignored the urgent and obvious signs that August was here. Until I collapsed, unmoving, unfeeling in our little camper.
“I can’t, anymore,” I said.
“It’s August,” my Someone said.
“But we quit drinking, it’s supposed to be different,” I said, arguing with the unreasonable void. My Someone shrugged.
I let myself go, then, into the red and white Wyoming sands of sinking sadness. I fought to eat breakfast. I fought to feel hunger. I fought to lift myself out of bed and answer texts. I fought to remain normal. I fought with mantras from Eckhart Tolle and Rilke and the Bible and some drunk lady I met in a bar once. It’s only right now. No feeling is forever. It’ll pass. Just take a deep breath, honey.
“Well, maybe you should just embrace it then?” Rupert said the following night. In a rare episode, our fellow road dog folk singer had a route that intersected with our own. He called the night before, and we shielded ourselves from the hard, sand spitting wind of Rock Springs, WY crowded in our tiny camper at a KOA. In spite of the high price and the looming silos across the street that locals joked “could blow at any minute,” we took a chance to console me with electricity, hot showers, and the sanity of stillness. And now, with a friend. In my typically August way, my sorrow bubbled at the sight of a familiar face, and I was framing my depression in terms of “the artist types” with Rupert. It was a magnificently awful ploy he swatted aside in favor of forthrightness. So we skipped the hypotheticals of medication and therapy and he landed squarely on the obvious.
“The way I see it,” he continued, “it’s part of the same thing. It’s only the downside of your creativity. You’re just looking at it from the other side. You can’t write and make as much as you do and not expect this part. I say, embrace the damn thing.”
I nodded. I felt silly. I felt seen. I felt too seen. I felt relieved.
The next morning, I started talking to myself. Or rather, to my Depression.
“Good morning,” I said. “I’m glad you are here. What would you like to do today?”
This is how I found out that my Depression wanted more than anything to stare out the window vacantly with a cup of coffee. Instead of arguing with him– “No! That’s what you wanted to do yesterday, too!” I told him okay.
We watched the too-close fifth wheel RV next to us dump the shit from their tanks, pack up their hoses, and roll out, leaving only the arid brown hills behind. I let my Depression finish a second cup of coffee, careful not to rush him. When I felt stuck, completely glued to the couch, I remembered my guest again.
“Um, Depression? Is there anything else you would like to do today?”
This is how I found out that my Depression wished to take a walk in the arid brown hills. With dogs. And my Someone.
“That’s a very good idea,” I complimented. The Depression seemed surprised, and maybe a little pleased, so I added “Very smart of you to think of that.” That gave us just the right amount of energy to put on our socks and shoes and step outside.
And so it went this way for the following week. By the end of the second week, I realized I’d forgotten to ask Depression what he wanted for dinner. I searched around, carrying a menu of ideas and options, but there was no answer. He was gone, without ceremony. He was missed, but my dinner tasted better. We were in the South Dakota prairie, and I pretended to blame his visit on Wyoming, until an inexplicable urge to unpack my bookbinding supplies overcame me, and I was busy the rest of the evening making tiny books.
“Hello, you,” I said to Creativity. I didn’t ask her any questions. She always knows what she wants.
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
My Someone laughed. When I memorized this Rumi poem a few years ago, in my difficulty reciting, I nailed the landing with that last line, extending my arms and almost shouting with a brightness that is incongruous with the remainder of the text. Now, I was incongruous with my circumstances. My favorite aunt was dead, and I was planning a memorial service in a state of shock from the state of Missouri in my state of late August. In a week, I would fly to the state of California to collect her remains and bring her home to the state of Pennsylvania, where I would shatter the blessed state of silence between my mother and I and spread ashes under the still green trees in a State Park.
I didn’t have time to ask if my Depression wanted to go for a walk, or if he wanted breakfast for dinner, or if he needed a deep breath. Instead, I typed out an overused poem for my under visited aunt’s funeral program. I let August vibrate within me. I stopped sleeping. I made phone calls, instead. I organized. I booked a flight. I checked calendar dates. I ignored August all the way through September, through October, into November.
“You’re circumstantial,” I’d told him in September.
“You’re going to take care of yourself,” I’d told him in October.
In November, he cornered me. This is the nature of leaving a guest unattended. It gets crowded, he throws his things around, and then, tiring of the inattention, he begins to throw your things out your own window in a tantrum. For the first time since August, I cried. Really cried. I had nowhere within me to sit– the furniture was gone. The shelves were empty. And I had nothing to fill them with. I hadn’t written a word since late July.
“Fine,” I said to the Depression, “take it! It’s yours! Have all of it!”
And he did.
I’ve been busying myself outside of myself since. Like a spouse kicked out of the house without a key, pretending to do yardwork so the neighbors don’t know I can’t get back in.
“Look at these roses, blooming in November, no less!” I pattered, sneaking a peak in the windows at the unrecongnizable space of my home.
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
On December 23rd, I waited on the front step of myself for her. The Christmas Sadness was late, and I was concerned. I looked inside– maybe she’d already found a way in without me. But it was only August in there, stomping around and burning the toast until the smoke detector went off. I had just finished reading Wabi Sabi by Beth Kempton, wherein she describes the movement of our emotions in seasons. Just as Rupert had hinted months earlier, she confirmed– instead of fighting the damn things, welcome them. If you get sad at Christmas every year, acknowledge it as part of the season. Emotions, just like winter, are a season themselves. Be glad for their coming and their going. Because fighting their going will only fight the next one’s coming, and you’ll never find yourself in the living.
So I waited for the Christmas Sadness with a welcome banner of illustrious Italian novels, and a stack of snacks I like but won’t push August’s buttons, and comfy sweatpants freshly washed and still a little warm from the dryer. She didn’t come. I was disappointed. Then, a thought–
Maybe I’m healed!
The idea put me to my feet, spun me on my heels and nearly cured my disappointment. Until I tried the front door of my self’s home and found it still locked from August.
Of course she isn’t coming. There’s no room.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice. Meet them at the door laughing and Invite them in.
It’s almost January, now, but August has had a lot of time to make a mess of things. So, I’m taking extraordinary measures. I’ve slipped him notes under the door, putting my writing in writing back inside. I coax him without force. I signed him up for a month of unlimited yoga, which he seemed willing enough to open the door for. But what he really seemed to appreciate was the gesture of time– of sitting with him in front of this computer screen and tending to our history. It’s a lot to unpack, August to December. But he’s at least let back me in as far as the foyer.
This morning, when I woke up, he asked for more time. So I brought him to a coffeeshop and bought him a soy cappuccino and let him stare at the leftover Nutcracker soldiers outside the window. I thought we saw the Christmas Sadness peeking from behind the fat concrete columns. l invited her to join us, but she was feeling shy. August still took up too much space, anyway. How polite they all can be when attended to.
Be grateful for whatever comes. Because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
If I had to live in Indiana, it would be in Plymouth. If I had to live in Plymouth, Indiana, it would be most specifically on Dan & Vera’s 25 acres– and nowhere else. The plot sits at the curve of a county road, five minutes from downtown. It rises up to thwart the dichotomy of cornfields and marsh as a canopy– an organically shady Midwestern oasis, green against the brown and tan around it, making the crop rows feel militaristic in comparison.
We spent our second weekend back on the road at Dan & Vera’s, parking between the big red barn and the canopy of trees, adjacent to the garden where the sunflowers have taken over the back left corner. They decided 30 years ago to forego another year of crops and pesticides– Vera couldn’t take it, anymore– and it was Dan’s land inherited from his father to do with as he wished. And they wished to plant 26 varieties of trees on 25 acres of Northern Indiana land. A beekeeper visited twice in our short three days, checking his new Italian variety of bees that were tucked behind where the new pond will go– just through the open path that leads past the pines. The pines were planted on the outside, the hardwoods on the inside. Dan maintains the circular, winding paths inside, where we walked our two dogs twice a day minimum, startling up young bucks with velvet antlers and large doe. We’d return, shaded, breathing easier, and wishing we’d come a little later when the two pear trees by our camper had a bit more to offer than the small buds of early fruit.
Dan’s son, Cain, spent the afternoon working on his car while his collie, Eva, stole a few sniffs of our dog. He told us that it’s only been in the last three years or so that the conglomeration of trees became a true canopy. An old story of nature succeeding by way of a young forest– and it took under 30 years. That’s what nature does– it fights farm and fire, as we vigilantly cut it back to make way for ourselves. Except Dan & Vera didn’t want to make way for only themselves, anymore. So they made way for a tiny forest to wild up the place– give the land a shake out from its clean shave. They spent all their money and time on the saplings, careful to choose a variety so that it could withstand plagues– like the ash borer.
After they’d planted, they brought in The Expert to help them assess the move forward. The Expert said they’d need to spray down the plants with pesticides. The way Vera tells it, Dan was hesitant but understanding. Vera was neither. She said no. The Expert scoffed and said it again, adding that they’d lose the whole lot if they didn’t spray.
“Everyone sprays,” he said, “you don’t have a choice if you want them to survive.”
Vera decided she did have a choice, and refused. The Expert talked to Dan again later, until Dan went to Vera and said he was sorry, but they’d have to spray.
“So I stopped talking,” she told me. “It must of been three or four days. But he heard me. He listened to my silence.”
Dan told the expert, for the sake of his marriage, that he would not be spraying.
Three years in and some of the hottest weather they’d seen in Indiana collapsed on the trees. The saplings were struggling, but the ragweed was not. It towered over the young trees and sometimes Vera’s head. She worried over the land, watching and wringing her hands even as she retold it to me. What had she done? She thought of her decision not to spray, wondered if they’d lose everything because of her stubbornness. She turned to an herbalist at the agriculture class she took that summer. She confessed that she’d gone against The Expert’s advice, that their dream of a green canopy would yield a field of ragweed– that the whole thing may be beyond her managing.
“Ah!” the herbalist said, delighted, “Ragweed! Wonderful! Ragweed is a Warrior Weed. Your trees are in good hands.”
As Vera retells it, her eyes get wide and she goes somewhere just past my shoulder admiringly, as if watching the ragweed still swaying. Ragweed, she explained, comes just in time to make way. It’s spiny to keep away most bugs and animals from stomping around it. It can grow intimidatingly tall, but its leaves are wide, and in hot Indiana summers like 27 years ago, those tall wide leaves create a precursory canopy of their own, taking the brunt of the sun and shading the plants below. Its roots, too, have been known to absorb harmful chemicals in the soil, say, from years of crop sprays wafting from field to field. Its roots, too, will clang around the dirt, loosening more compact places so that the more tender roots of young plants can grow deeper and more freely. And for all of its effort, all of its brute, how does it get thanked? It doesn’t. Soon, the young plants will become grown, casting their own shade down on the ragweed. Its terse, unquenchable need for the harsh sun will be unsatisfied, and it will simply curl up and go away. All on its own.
Ragweed is not a war monger, lashing out where it isn’t needed. It’s a true-heart warrior that knows when it’s time to lay down and be ready for peace.
That is exactly what happened on Dan & Vera’s 25 acres full of 26 varieties of trees. Suddenly, there was no more ragweed. The trick, said Vera, was waiting.
When we left, I sent messages to Ann, telling her the whole story. I was electrified by it.
“The Warrior Weed,” I said, again and again, “I just can’t stop thinking– who has been a Warrior Weed for me?”
On our new record, there’s a line in the opening song–
I read your Bible, You reap what you sow. And I’m the only– Am I the only?– Weed you’ve grown?
When I’d written it, my head was jammed with biblical metaphors, and my heart was wracked fresh with an angry, mean-spirited note from my parents.
I was a weed. I needed uprooted. I was shaking my little pollinating head all over the precious family garden and I was ruining it with my spindly stems and shaggy leaves.
I used to go into the yard and pick dandelions in early summer. I’d bunch them up and put them, sparse, in a couple of Dixie cups and set them on the table for my mother to find. She’d keep them for a day before they wilted, and then toss them into the trash. I overheard her once, when I was in my early 20’s, tell a friend about it. She said it with delight, pausing in the memory, and then said, “That’s our little Mallory. Picking weeds out of the yard for me like they’re flowers.”
It makes sense, now. I’d always had a hard time distinguishing flowers from weeds. That may be why I couldn’t see the difference between me and the rest of the family. It wasn’t until the verbal classification that I was pulled and tossed over the fence.
“Maybe my parents are my Warrior Weed?”
I was obsessed with figuring it out. The universe had handed me a perfect metaphor, and I wanted to fit it in.
“You know, because they were really harsh with me, but then I grew so much in spite of it?”
“In spite of it. And only after they were gone,” my Someone said.
“Dammit,” I said. “Then who is it?”
My Someone shrugged. He was more interested in eating his vegetables than worrying about my weeds.
Two weeks ago, we were in Northern Michigan. It was our week of lighthouses, playing a different one every night. It was the same spot we’d met our friends, Bill & Audrey, from Indiana. They were on vacation to Michigan two years ago when they heard us play, and stuck to us ever since. They’ve followed us as far north as Ludington, MI and as far south as Tallahassee, FL. They decided to recreate our meeting with a reunion and spend their vacation on another trip back to Ludington.
It was perfect weather, as far as Michigan goes, and the shows were a mix of post-pandemic enthusiasm and wonderfully understated normalcy. It was a blast. And Bill & Audrey showed for each one, front row, big smiles. They are careful listeners, compassionate speakers, and helpful gear carriers. The kind of people we love to keep around. On the last evening, Bill handed my Someone and I each an envelope.
“It’s about time you get some fan mail,” he said.
I set it on my bedside, keeping it for later, when we’d driven a couple of hours and had time to focus without the hum of the road. We landed in a rest area outside of Lansing, and while my Someone walked the dogs once more before bed, I opened it.
Bill told me a slew of kindnesses, and I was lifted. And then, I was shocked. He mentioned the weed lyrics, and he mentioned his trouble with it. But then, he said this–
First, weeds are strong and resilient. They thrive where weaker plants wither. You have emerged… thriving. Secondly, there are many weeds that are beneficial. Some weeds drive away predatory insects from gardens, while others have uses for everything from seasoning to medicine. The weeds are useful because, at some point, someone recognized their value…
My Someone walked in.
“Holy shit!” I said.
“What?” he said.
“I AM MY OWN WARRIOR WEED.”
“Cool,” he said.
I couldn’t believe it. I was searching outside of myself for the person who made it possible to grow, for the person who had rescued me. And while I do owe a significant portion to the weeds around me, it was my roots that dug in deeper. I absorbed the toxins from the soil. I stretched out my spiky uncomfortable leaves. I grew from an earth that had been scorched and poisoned and raked over too many times.
Then, there was relief. Two years of taking the heat of the beating sun, of standing defiantly tall, and I could take my leave. I served my purpose, and now it was time to let those tender other roots grow. I kept reading–
But even after all of that, I still would not think of you as a weed. You are so much more than that.