Author: mallorygaylegraham

God Bless America: On Grief Tolerance.

“I swear to baby Jesus, if I hear ‘God Bless America’ one more time I am going to lose my ever loving mind!” I said, lowering my voice to a stern rumble.

“Or ‘Walking After Midnight,’ or ‘Amazing Grace,’ or…” my Someone said crazily.

“I’m off Leann Rimes.  That’s it!  I’m off Leann Rimes and I’m off Patsy Cline and I’m off Perry Como. Forever!  And I love Patsy Cline!  But I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t!”

We’d been parked in my sister’s driveway in Tallahassee for two months, leaving weekends to play shows.  Weekends are usually when Dick plays his music across the street.  We’ve never met Dick, but we know that he built his own alarm system that occasionally sounds off at 11PM, having us duck and cover like a couple of Cold War kids under our desks.  According to our brother-in-law, Dick can fix almost anything.  He fortified his daughter’s Keurig machine to become unbreakable.  And he also found an old stereo system, completely busted, and rebuilt it.  The stereo system is now, according to my brother-in-law, set to play in two main areas of the house– the backyard and the garage– or both at the same time.  It’s complete with a 5 disc CD changer, of which Dick has filled each one and has fixed to go on an endless loop so that he never has to touch the stereo until he turns it off for the day.  And he never changes the CDs.

But we were gone most weekends, so what did it matter?  Except that early on Monday morning two weeks ago, I heard the blare of Leann Rimes wafting into our camper.

“Dick must be taking the day off today?” I said.

“He’s retired,” my Someone said. “Maybe he just needed an extra boost?”

For the rest of the day, we listened to Dick’s 5 discs, looping over and over until after dinner time.  I hummed “She’s Got You” until bedtime.

On Tuesday morning, we walked the dogs, ate our breakfast, and started our day of working in the camper.

Oh, say! Does that Star Spangled Banner yet waaaaaaaaave?

“Why is Leann Rimes singing the National Anthem right now?!  It’s Tuesday!” I said.

“I don’t understand what’s happening…” my Someone murmured.  We worked the rest of the day outside, listening to Dick’s 5 CD’s until just after dinner.  I asked my sister about it.

“He only plays it on weekends– usually for Sunday Funday,” she said.

“But it’s NOT just Sunday, it’s been for three days straight now!” I said.

“Oh dear,” she said. “Maybe it’s the only thing that keeps his wife soothed?  She’s dying, you know.”


Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, just after dinner I hummed “Walking After Midnight.”  It was the least irksome of the lot I listened to all day.

It’s been two weeks.  Yesterday, my Someone cracked.


“What do you mean?” I said, smiling like an insane person.

“We are hostages!  We are living in a permanent Leann Rimes hell!  We’ve got to talk to him!” he yelled, waving his arms like a Muppet.

“You know his wife is dying, right?”


000431630018“I don’t think it’s right,” Elizabeth said, “I don’t think they should be putting those little white crosses on the side of the road.”

I liked Elizabeth.  She’s a native German, but has sweet drawl of a South Carolinian, having been planted there since she was 10.  But Elizabeth has no problem saying whatever it is that’s on her mind, whenever the thought occurs to her.  I had the distinct pleasure of being the recipient of these thoughts for all of November while my Someone and I house sat our Vermont friends’ Air B&B.  Elizabeth had been there since March.  She spent her day as a nurse, traveling to clients in the area, and she spent her nights tucked in her room.  We hardly saw her except when she made coffee in the morning and pasta at night.  But she lingered more and more as I lured her with fresh baked cookies and vegan pot pie.

I took a real delight in Elizabeth– mostly because I never had any idea where the conversation was going.  Lake Monsters could be in the same breath as Chinese Conspiracy in the same paragraph as universal health care.  And always delivered with a cheery, tinkling voice and a smile.  This particular abrupt opinion didn’t shock me nearly as much as her idea of Trump’s Master Plan.

“What’s wrong with the crosses?” I started, a little eager, “aren’t they for people who have died in accidents at that place in the road?”

“Exactly,” said Elizabeth.

I stopped stirring my oatmeal and turned around.  Elizabeth was rustling in the refrigerator, pulling out the organic non-GMO soymilk for her local coffee.

“What’s wrong with that, though?” I pushed, genuinely curious.

“I just don’t think it’s fair,” she said, “when all I am doing is driving down a street– a street that everyone drives on!  I’m sorry they lost someone and everything, but I don’t think it’s right that have to reckon with their grief.  I don’t want to be thinking of that stuff.  I just want to enjoy my drive and get to where I am going without having to think of their dead person and how sad they are.  I don’t put a picture of my dead people in parks and stuff.  It’s public space.  It’s just not right.”

I turned back to my oatmeal and stirred.

“You know,” I said hazily, “I guess I’ve never thought of that before.”

“Okay, well, have a good day!” she chirped.

And then Elizabeth was out the door.

000431620020It’s Day 16 of Dick’s 5 CD changer.  My Someone and I have moved our work to a local coffee shop in the morning, letting the whir of espresso machines and the chipper soundtrack of the Beach Boys and ‘N’Sync drown the sound of Leann Rimes singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” still ringing in our heads.  We try to stay busy indoors in the afternoon, or take the dogs for a walk, or our niece and nephew to the movies to avoid it.

For all we know, Dick has always played his music this loud.  But I can’t help thinking that we are darting our eyes away from the crosses on the side of the road.  Confronting someone else’s grief– or even the potential for someone else’s grief– is awkward business.

But then I think of the Joan Shelley record I played again and again after my dog died two Novembers ago– how my Someone endured it three, four times a day, back-to-back– not even a Patsy Cline song to break the monotony.  Then I think of the other hundreds of little white crosses I’ve put up.  The songs I write.  This blog.  Photographs.  Learning to play the accordion.  A few paintings.  To avoid my grief is to take apart significant parts of who I am now.  To leave our grief in a cemetery may give us fewer roadside crosses, but we may also lose out on too many beautiful living relics.

I’m not sure what that means for the highway crosses, or if Elizabeth is right.  But maybe it would help to think, not of the tragically dead, but of the gratefully alive, stirring their comfort foods and listening to their favorite sad songs, and going out walking after midnight…

Word Games: On Old Tricks for New Dogs.

“How are you feeling since your surgery?” I asked Michael.

Michael and Gloria are two fans-turning-friends around Atlanta, and have popped in on our concerts nearly every time we’ve been in the area.  Usually energetic, Michael sported a cane, fresh out of knee replacement replacement surgery.  A recall had been issued, and his was one of many unlucky caps that broke shortly after his surgery.  He’s spent the last few years with a bum knee replacement.  Though you’d never guess it.  He’s the first one to the stage after our last song, lugging our gear in the rain at 10 o’clock at night to our truck.

“Even better than it’s been!” he said.  Had he not had his cane, I would’ve forgotten entirely.  He’d already attempted to help me carry an accordion.

“He needs to use it,” Gloria said, “And he’s been doing so well.  He doesn’t even feel it anymore– not like before.  Even when he slept, it was bothering him.”

“How painful,” I said.

“No,” said Gloria.  “We don’t use that word.”


“Not painful.  Uncomfortable.  He felt pressure.  Was ill at ease.  But we don’t like to use the word pain.  It colors your thoughts, you know?  To know that you are ‘in pain,’ it debilitates you.  Now a bit of pressure, that’s manageable.”

I smiled.

“But we are in a big case now with the manufacturer of his old knee,” she continued, “and the lawyer doesn’t like it.  If we don’t use the word ‘pain,’ we’re never going to get any money out of it.”

No pain, no gain, I guess.

000431620007My bad dog is turning good.  And it’s not because she’s stopped barking at people.  Or stopped accidentally nipping the ends of my fingers when she takes a treat.  Or even done anything I’ve asked of her in the last two months since we adopted her.  She’s turning into a good dog because it’s all that I call her, anymore.

We were at the end of our leash when we went to our free 30 minute training at the commercial pet store.  My Someone and I swished back and forth between feeling like martyrs and feeling like idiots, adopting this unruly 100 pound animal.

“She’s just so baaaaaaad!” I started crying.  “She’s just so terrible!  She’s never going to learn!”

My Someone listened to me, but he knew better.  This is the way of falling in love for me.  We just needed to figure out how to funnel all of these big bad feelings into loving ones.  And Magpie wasn’t helping.

“Well,” I said to him as we walked in the store, “I guess this is our last chance.”  We met our trainer.  And then I watched as she taught my big dumb animal two important tricks.  It wasn’t the second try that she learned– it was the first.

“You have such a good, smart dog,” she said.

“I have such a good, smart dog,” I repeated.  I felt relieved.  I had done nothing but say no for weeks.  Eight weeks of no, no, no, no, no, no, no.  The sound of yes swung like a broom through my gut, sweeping out the chaotic dust that no had laid down.  I tried again.

“What a good dog I have!” I said.

The trainer looked at me and my Someone, a surprised smile on her face.  My Someone started crying.

“Yes,” she repeated.  “She’s a very good dog.”

“You have given us a tremendous gift today,” I said slowly.

“Okay,” she said.  “Let’s try leash walking, then.”

My Someone and I followed the trainer and my dog happily around the industrially lit store.  Two big dumb animals following helplessly after their patient leaders.

000431620018“What are you going to do?” I asked Gloria, “about the case?”

“We aren’t sure, yet,” she said.  “But if we don’t say painful, what does it matter?  What about his quality of life?  Doesn’t that matter?  His sleepless nights?”

I thought of my good dog.  It had been a month since we’d last seen Gloria and Michael.  One month ago, I was restless, too, waking up to a bad dog growing only more bad.  I dreaded them meeting her then.  I dreaded taking her anywhere at all.  I had scolded her before she met Gloria the first time.  “No, Mags, stay down!” I’d said.  She jumped anyway.  I dug my heels in.

This time, I didn’t have that dread.  I wasn’t nervous as we approached them, knowing she would likely bark her head off anyway.   I didn’t feel the dread I’d felt the month before– the pain of judgment I gave myself and my just-learning dog.  Having a bad dog is painful.  Luckily, now I only have a good one.  Which means it’s only occasionally uncomfortable.

“Hello, dogs!” Gloria called through the window.  I winced a little, waiting for her to snarl.  I heard nothing.

“What good dogs I have!” I said.

“What good dogs you have!” Gloria said back.

I felt the remaining dust of no sweep its way outside of my heart.  We said goodnight to our friends and settled in for a long drive to Florida.

“That was painless,” I said.

“Super easy,” my Someone replied, petting our dog’s head.

“I guess everybody’s a good dog, now.”

“Yep,” he said, “everybody’s a good, good dog.”

Bark Your Head Off: On Being Blue (Together)

“She’s driving me binoculars!” I cried out.  Our new dog, Magpie, was cute, but never stopped barking.  She barked when the truck slowed down to pull into a gas station.  She barked when a new person walked into the room.  She barked randomly in the middle of the night when nothing was happening at all.  It had only been one week, but the sound– a combination of feedback and thunder in my ears– was digging a pit into my patience.

And everyone was watching my depletion.

On our near final trek of the year on I-40 East, we burned up our axle on our camper and found ourselves homeless with our brand new 110 pound dog, borrowing some Western North Carolina friends’ upstairs bedroom.  We attended a Christmas party and went to dinners between calling Billy, our repairman in a town two hours back.  And we waited.  All while our new dog wouldn’t stop barking.

I started with kindness, fancying myself a saintly dog trainer who would cure this minor setback with a few treats and a spirit of goodness.  But as we squeezed ourselves smaller, our Christmas Day deadline to make it to our family in Florida looked weaker by the hour.  “Billy,” I heard my Someone say into the phone, “what we are hoping for here is a Christmas miracle.”  I laughed.  Magpie barked.  I cried.  I yelled at her.

“We’ve made a mistake,” I said.

“It’s only been a week,” my Someone said.  We traded this call and response back and forth over the weekend.  But by Monday morning, I was despondent.  I sat in the kitchen chair of my friends’ home, staring.  We were packing it in, going to play the last show of the year three hours east, and hoping by the time we returned, we would have a home again and be moving.  We were going to get a hotel.  We were going to take some time to breathe.  I hadn’t slept a full night in weeks.  I couldn’t trudge through the thick well of anxiety that my pit of patience had succumbed to be.  I remember my friend entering the room.  I remember crying.  But I can’t remember a word we said.

Magpie barked.  I folded myself into the car and wept.  There was no end.

69860017“It’s a Christmas miracle!” Billy said the next morning.  We were driving back to our temporary stead.  The sun was bright behind us driving West, and it was enough to pull me from the depression.  We decided to get coffee to celebrate.

“We’re gonna be okay!” I said.

The car slowed into the parking lot.  Magpie barked.


000268790002We salvaged our stay with our friends with a big dinner, pouring generously and laughing at our misfortune.  I grew calmer, but still on edge.  I felt embarrassed of my despondency.  I felt judged being so hard on Magpie.  I felt tired.  We kept talking around our lives, dodging in and out of jokes until we finally called it quits.  We were shipping out tomorrow, we hoped.

In the morning we had coffee and tried to fit in a few last words.  I was ill at ease.  I tried to over explain myself, making amends for my out-of-ordinary behavior, and apologizing for my lack of mental health.  I prodded my friend to see if it landed.

“I just can’t be around other people’s anxiety,” my friend said. “I have enough anxiety of my own.  Other people’s stuff is just too much.”

It wasn’t pointed, and it wasn’t intentional, but it landed as a blow.

I’m just too much right now.

I looked down at my barks-her-head-off dog.

She looked at me, a little flinching.  Ah, there’s the empathy I’d been looking for.  She must know exactly how this feels.  I pet her big head, wrinkled up in anxiety.

000431640017Our home was on our back again, and we were heading south.  We tried our new freedom out, turning on the radio and scanning for a celebration.  LeAnn Rimes wailed from the speakers–

Bluuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuue, oh so lonesome for you–

We joined in, turning it up and singing our guts out.  Then behind me, Magpie picked up her head and lifted her chin, making a hound dog oh with her mouth.

Ooowwwww, oooooh, owowowow!

She sang along, with more gusto and less shame than I’d seen her all week.  We laughed and kept singing til the end.

Why can’t you be blue over me?

I turned the radio down and looked at my pitiful pooch.  She had a couple wrinkles fewer on the top of her head.  She sighed.  We weren’t so different.

“You aren’t too much,” I told her, “I can take all of you.”

She barked only twice the rest of the drive to Florida.

New Year, New You: On Baptism & Other Bullshit.

My friend Kristie is keeping her head down to avoid the New Year’s headlines.

New year, new you.

I decided to stick to the trench, too.  I think she might be right.  I’ve had plenty of new me’s, and I’m not convinced I’ve liked any of them.

I’m not against New Year’s goals.  I started my list mid-November, skating my eyes across the imaginary horizon of January 1st hopefully, with the same feeling I get after scrubbing the gross stuff from under the kitchen sink knobs.

I blame Jesus, of course, with all his old-made-new philosophy, scrubbed with blood and impossibly comes out clean.  After I was born, I had to be born again.  I’m afraid I jumped the shark, though.  Baptized at age 12 gave me a lot of time, as in the rest of my life, with no additional scrub downs.  At least not in an official capacity.  You don’t get a celebratory cake in the church basement for crying on your knees on the last night of Christian camp.  And the dirt seemed to keep accumulating, regardless.  And the quick fix to getting clean feels, well, glorious.  Addicting.

One of my sisters was baptized twice– a re-dedication.  She still shriveled into an unhappy woman who has committed near villainous proportions of relational crimes.  Maybe the double baptism had an inverse spiritual reaction.  Either way, I’m glad I didn’t go that route.  Getting two spiritual birthdays might mean twice the cake, but the responsibility for maintaining the clean new you is buckling.  But for that minute after she came up out of the swimming pool baptism– that moment that feels like New Year’s Day– I envied it.

000431620010The trouble with New Year, New You is that it wastes so much time.  The baptism, the diet, the programs, the memberships– they take at least a January’s worth to weed back down to the you that you are.  Which only gives eleven months to figure out why you felt you needed to be a new you.  And eleven months is not nearly enough time to get to the heart of any matter– especially when the heart of the matter is the human heart.  Because the heart doesn’t say “I want to lose 20 pounds.”  That’s what the New You says.  The heart says “I don’t feel good in my body.  I feel worthless at this weight because of social and personal experiences that have sculpted a belief that I need to take up less space, and that even if I meet their impossible standards, I will fail in some other way.  So maybe what I really want is to create better pathways in my brain to food and exercise, and quit disassociating it as the ’cause’ when my real cause is my lack of love for myself, and part of loving myself is taking care of myself and sometimes to eat cake, too.  But first I have to get to know me– oh!  Hello!  How are you feeling?  Are you hungry?  Tired? I want to know everything about you.”

New You doesn’t ask that shit.

Maybe it goes like this: that when Jesus invited us along, he didn’t mean “come as you are so I can fix you,” but rather, “come as you are because everyone else– including some dumbass theologians down the line– is going to try and make a new you, but I actually need us all to continue to be who we are as we are, but even more as we are, because the better we know ourselves, the better we can love ourselves, and the better we can love each other.”  Maybe Jesus is less about a New You, and more about You.  And maybe that doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus at all.

I’m with Kristie.  I like the old her.  Or rather, just her.  Which makes it likely that the old me is pretty good, too.  Clean isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, anyway.  I believe I am falling in love with this mess.

Pot Pies and Snow Days: On Pressing Time.

“We Vermonters, we value a good Snow Day,” David said.  Sarah was curled next to him, feet tucked under, nodding in agreement as she finished another row of knitting.  The birthday party was winding down, the quiet closing in as a few lingered.  Most were pulling on their boots and trudging through the snow to their cars.  It had been raucous and full of music and people we hardly knew, but the good cheer of a warm house on a cold night was unmistakable.

We are coming to our last couple weeks in our Vermont house.  We’ve been craving winter for years, but always avoiding it as our migratory patterns require us to keep to warmer weather.  But here, as we’ve been house sitting for the month, the snow has been generous in its portion.  But it’s nearly time to push the snow from the top of our camper and put our wheels back on the road.  Our November house has been a real success– woodstove fires and new recipes, and now we’d even hosted a party.  A luxury we haven’t had in our 3 1/2 years living in 16′ of space.  My morning journal pages are full of internal tire squeals as I am pumping hard on the brakes of time, gritting my teeth as the end of our stillness is coming too soon.

“Yeah, when it snows,” David continued, “we don’t try and fight it.  We take the day off.  We go out on a hike or do a project indoors, but we don’t waste it.  Snow Days are a gift– the gift of time.”

Sarah smiles.

It jogs the place in my memory I’m not sure ever happened.000431640010“I’m tired of eating burnt food!” I say, running to the stove and pulling the pans from the burner.  Smoke is filling the kitchen.  Again.  I pour a little water to salvage a breakfast scramble, lowering the heat, slurping my coffee, and pacing back to the running water in the sink.  My Someone cowers a bit.  He was in charge of breakfast today.  I soften.

“I just mean,” I say, “that we are always in a hurry to cook it too fast.  It all tastes the same.”

He agrees, but only as someone who hasn’t seen the pattern.  The scramble is saved.  We eat it quickly.  I linger over a radish.  What’s the point of not burning it, if I’m not taking the time to taste it?

It’s more than a pattern.  It’s an alarm.  I have to slow down.  My morning journal entries continue to fill up that week with smoke alarms beeping to get out of this pattern.

The tempeh bacon burns the rest of the week.  My Someone says it makes it taste like real bacon.  I agree, but I keep hearing the alarm ringing.000431640012I’m not unfamiliar with snow days.  In fact, the Snow Day could easily be one of my first confirmations that God exists.  As I watched the 5:30PM weather– a routine kept with ritualistic preservation in my childhood house– I prayed that those blocks of cartoon graphic grey clouds would deliver an abominable snowstorm big enough to keep me out of school.  And in the snowbelt of Western PA, it was an easy wish to grant by even the least competent of deities.

It’s the quiet I liked best, and was often the best predictor.  As I hit snooze on my “It’s A Small World” alarm clock and listened, I could often tell before even pulling the curtains back whether a Snow Day had been granted.  It’s the quiet of holding in a breath– the kind of quiet that illuminates the sound of the blood rushing and the heart thumping.  It’s the quiet of my mother pattering downstairs, less flurried than her usual movement of attempting to get four children out the door on time.  It’s the quiet that, as it snowed here in Vermont last week, I could hear it as I slept, and slept deeper before startling awake to the velocity of silence.

Back then, I could value the Snow Day, too.  Even now, the word Snow Day distinctly time travels me to the Blizzard of ’96, where it snowed enough for my father to push feet of it into a small hill.  We built shallow tunnels into the hillside and I contemplated its collapse as I burrowed further than I should.  It takes me to my fluffy snowsuit and sledding down our hill and Cup’o’Noodles that I drank from a mug that had my name inscribed on one side, and a Keebler Elf on the other.

The Snow Day is a gift of time for a kid, too. Sure.  But time isn’t so hard to come by as a kid.  Time is also evidenced in August with blackberry picking and fort building and wandering around the woods of the Allegheny Mountains, waiting on nothing but my mother’s voice or my rumbling stomach to call me in for dinner.

And then I remember this– in the quiet of the Snow Day morning, before I pulled myself out of my 101 Dalmations sheets, there was the unquiet.  The sound of a man– my father– thwarted by the weather.  Again.  Sidewalks to clear.  Driveway to shovel.  Foremen to call.  Plans to change.  Equipment waiting to be hauled to a different job.  Are the roads cleared yet?  Did the salt trucks come through?  Whether it’s the Curse of Adam of the Curse of Technology, grown ups are always finding a way to fight the land, or the skies, or the miracle of the Snow Day.

Grown ups can’t value a good Snow Day.000431640014“It’s a gluten free blend, so it crumbles more…” I muttered, “I dunno how it’s gonna end up, but…”

I was fighting with flour, the powder snowing off the counter as I pressed in the shortening with a fork.  That morning, it had snowed.  Vermont typically doesn’t get snow until mid December, they’d all said.  But we had narrowly missed the worst of the storm on our drive back from Boston at 1AM.  We had woken up to a few inches, before the plows made it to our road.  I heard it before we even looked out the window.  We hiked first, our dog rolling and pouncing along the path.  We drank tea.  We ate pancakes.  I burned the tempeh bacon.

I declared it a Snow Day, but we waffled into an afternoon in front of our computers, sending off emails and gathering press kits to send out.  I scolded us for not holding our Snow Day pact, so we read books, then floated back to work again.  We shoveled the driveway and cleared the sidewalks.  By early evening, I had neither worked enough nor played enough.  My Someone went to another room to do some recording.

I stared in the kitchen.  If there was going to be any way to rescue our Snow Day, it would be a pot pie.  Of course.  It would be my first attempt since I had to stop using my mother’s perfect gluten-filled pie crust recipe, more than five years ago.  And I was already impatient, muttering at the dough and scattering the vegetables haphazardly on the counter to assess them.  After chilling the dough I’d made, I pulled it from the fridge, skeptical.  I slapped the first ball on the floured counter and pressed in the rolling pin. I pressed in the cracks forming along the edges, and chastised the dough for not being real flour.  But then the motion of the rolling pin began to soften me.  I was suddenly again 22, living in a small apartment with a smaller kitchen, standing over a lump of dough made from my mother’s recipe.  I was making my first pot pie.  I was cursing the cracks forming at the edge of the dough and watching the clock to make sure I had enough time to get it in oven before my friends came over.  I didn’t.  But when they came, they hovered over my experiment as though I was an expert.  And we talked and I pressed the dough, and with every roll, I felt as though I was pressing into time itself.  This pin, these fickle materials, were grounding me to this place with these people in this time.  Then I delicately placed that time into a shoddy Dollar Store pie tin.  An hour later, I fed that time to my friends, who by that point were two drinks in and couldn’t care less about the caved in top of a chicken pot pie.

I came back to my present time.  I assessed the gluten free dough again.  The dough wasn’t the problem.  I had inexplicable pity for it.  And then for myself.  I stopped making excuses for it.  Carefully, in pieces, I placed the dough into the pie pan, filling in the blatant holes with scraps.  I began to list my present time: potatoes, carrots, celery, peas, corn, parsnips.  I finished whisking the gravy.  I listened to the food.  I didn’t check the time, except to set the timer.  I could hear my Someone tinkering on the piano in the next room.  But somehow, a quiet had settled over the kitchen.  Snow quiet.  The din of my computer screen in the next room didn’t call to me.  Instead, a white wine vinaigrette called to be made instead.  I sliced apples and tossed them over greens with roasted pepitas and almonds.  I felt myself syncing with the countdown of the timer.  Not to beat the clock, but to beat with it.  Not slow motion, but present motion.

My Someone emerged from the next room just as I pulled the pie from the oven.  I waited with actual patience, then sliced at the right moment.  A potato tumbled on to the floor.  One for the pup.  There’s enough for everyone.  It was better than I remembered pot pie tasting.  We had seconds.  It was snowing again.

In Vermont, it seems, I may have figured out how to value a good Snow Day.

Cliffsides and Screenshots: On Death Mementos.


I’ve had this screenshot saved in my phone since last year.  Since November 8th at 1:26AM.  I’m not sure why I kept it.  Except for the reason anyone keeps anything from the one they love, when the one they love isn’t going to have anything else left to give.  When the one you love is laid out to rest, and you are still caught believing that you can see their eyes fluttering.  When the one you love is three breaths from death, and you are frantically searching the room for the thing– the thing– that will help you three breaths and all your remaining years later to remember them.  To never let them go.  To keep the memory alive.  To… have something.

It’s a cruel ritual we play on ourselves– the ritual of grabbing mementos from death.  A shoddy replacement for a life we regret missing too much of.  Even when we had all of that life exclusively.  There is still the falling– the clawing at the dirt on the cliffside that we will work tirelessly to believe is a handful of life.  Is an adequate I’m sorry for what we didn’t do right.  But it’s still the dirt that let us down, that has us tumbling into a ravine of life without the one we love.

When we took Butter to the hospital that night, I was sure we were losing her.  My Someone pulled out his phone to snap a photo of her, drugged and scared in the backseat.

“No,” I’d said. “Not like this.”

“You’re right,” he said.

I wasn’t angry, but I concealed my own desire to snap that last photo, too.  To grab the tuft of her neck and bottle the scent of her smelly old dog smell.  Instead, I helped her walk the block– off leash– to the entrance of the place she would soon die.  It takes no effort to recall that walk.  How I had to push her back up from squatting to let her know she was no longer peeing.  I didn’t want to remember it like this.

But then, when they wheeled her into her last surgery– the one that failed– after we spent those two hours petting her on a gurney, singing her favorite songs and telling her we loved her, she popped her head up on the way out the door.  Her non-response for those two hours suddenly culminated in the face I do remember.  And I regretted every photo I never took.000431640015I think I’ll get rid of this screenshot.  Maybe tomorrow.  As I continue to fall down into this pit of life without her, this bit of dirt still left in my hands still gives me a tiny bit of hope.  The unrealistic kind that her head is going to pop up unexpectedly and all will be right again.  And this death memento is the only thing that keeps me sure that it is and is not true, at the same time.

Marko the Magician: On Tender Hearts.

Marko the Magician performs table side every Sunday night at the Italian restaurant– potentially the only restaurant we can eat at– in our little Vermont town.  We are house sitting for the month in the one-coffeeshop-one-stoplight place, and we are determined to feel like locals before we leave.  And the one thing that we knew for sure– from the signs on the door to the insistence of everyone in town– was that we needed to see Marko the Magician.

We anticipated a schmaltzy New England accented forty-something with too much time living in his mother’s basement begging for attention from uninterested patrons.  But Marko is legitimate.  He crashed our table within ten minutes of sitting, our friends laying aside their conversation to engage with their Sunday night celebrity.  We picked a card– any card– and had Marko retrieve it from his mouth.  He pushed our card through tables, sloshing our ciders every where and running to get napkins after we’d been amazed.  We laughed at his inappropriate jokes and felt disappointed as he left our table for the next.  If it didn’t get too busy, he promised to return.

We ordered another round.

When Marko returned, we talked shop.  We told him about our little camper and he told us about a gig he booked in California next week– and the gig he had last week in Toronto opening for the drummer of Styx.  I wondered how he got his equipment through security.  But he’s Marko the Magician.  Making things disappear is his specialty.

But his finest trick was his last– not the one where he made a Sharpie “X” appear on my closed palm without my knowing, but the one right before that– the one where he talked about the human heart.


Harry Houdini, Marko told us, became most famous for debunking mediums.  He didn’t do it because they were edging too close to Houdini’s own show.  In fact, he occasionally employed practices that claimed to make contact with the Great Beyond.  But after Houdini’s mother died, he was so distraught, he sought out famous mediums so that he may speak with his mother one more time.  Time and time again, he left disappointed, recognizing that these spiritualists were not only frauds, but rich frauds.  There was the pivot.  He first apologized for his part in the market.  And then, he tore down the “vultures who prey on the bereaved” nationwide.

“You can fuck with someone’s head, that’s one thing,” Marko concluded, “But–” and he points to his heart here, swallowing a bit of emotion– “don’t fuck with someone’s heart.”

I teared up.  I took a deep breath.

Bravo, Marko.  Bravo.

Now– how the hell did he make that card stick to the ceiling?

Trick or Treat: On Giving Up the Have-Not’s.

My favorite author, Elizabeth Gilbert, told me in her recent book that my fear is the least interesting thing about me.  I’ve taken the mantra to heart, whispering it to myself any time my social anxiety spikes, or saying something truthful feels scary, or taking a drive into New York City to have dinner with friends seems monumentally unsafe with the traffic and the violence and the public transportation I don’t understand, anymore…

I, of course, am weighing this mantra with my true fear– the kind that keeps me from burning my hand or falling off of cliffs.

But I am now tempted to also take it a step further– that my Have-Not’s are the second most least interesting thing about me.  I am incredibly privileged.  I don’t fear for my life when police officers are present.  I am certain that if I was completely down-and-out on my luck, someone could step in to vouch for me or give me a lift until I get on my feet again.  I’m not talking about the Have-Not’s that Have To be talked about.  I’m talking about the Have Not’s that commandeer a conversation to a full plummet before someone more sane takes the controls again.

I am starting tomorrow, when I will wear my homemade Coyote costume and go Trick-or-Treating for the first time.

Sure, I won’t be able to sigh wistfully at the topic of Halloween and claim that I have never had the opportunity to celebrate it.  I won’t be able to publicly mourn my lesser-than Satanic-panic upbringing as a point of interest.

But, I will be able to say something more interesting than “I have never…”

I’ll say, “I went Trick-or-Treating for the first time when I was 32.”

Plus, I’ll have lots of candy.

Kidney Stones: On Yelping in Truth.

“Can you just tell them that…”  I couldn’t figure out what I needed.  We were holed up in our camper in our friend’s driveway just outside of Rochester, NY.  I was looking for an excuse for my behavior, for an apology, for an invisibility cloak.  I was embarrassed, and I couldn’t figure out why.  I sat back and gave up.

“Can you just them that I’m sick?” I said.

“You mean, tell them the truth?” my Someone said.


I laid back in bed and held my gut.  I cried.  Somehow, the pain inside of me was far less difficult than having to admit the pain was there at all.

Big girls don’t cry.  Don’t let them see you cry.  Don’t be so sensitive.  You can’t let them know they got to you.  Just ignore them.  Keep your head down.  Keep a stiff upper lip.  Just smile.

I have been trained to stuff it down.  Every social cue, a few pop songs, and even a Supreme Court Justice have indicated that not only is my pain unwelcome, but it is simply unflattering.  Inconvenient.  Unnecessary.  When I am injured and say nothing, I am rewarded-

She’s tough.  Can’t keep her down.  Don’t mess with her.  ‘Atta Girl!

Vulnerability, our most natural state screaming from the womb, is something that takes practice, now.  Partially out of survival.  But the other bit that I’ve lost– that keeps me quiet when I am bullied, or that keeps me from getting help when I need it– that’s the kind I am practicing to get back.  Occasionally, I am screaming for it.

The pain started at once in Michigan, slowly through Canada, and persisted by the time we got to Rochester two weeks later where we were parked in our friends’ driveway and unsure what my symptoms meant.  I had tried everything from my dog’s antibiotics to IBUProfin to yogurt, cross referencing the internet with home remedy books.  My Someone and I regularly discussed public healthcare.  It didn’t make me feel better.

It wasn’t the pain or the faintness or the nausea that had me as nervous as being found out.  I was running against my choice to be seen as ill, or as rude.  I picked the truth.  Then I told myself a few untruths while I waited for my Someone to return–

You’re faking it.

There’s nothing wrong with you.

No one will believe you.

Just buck up.

It’s all in your head.

They’re going to be mad at you.

They’re going to be mad at you.

They’re going to be mad at you.

My Someone popped back in.

“Are they mad at me?” I asked.

“What? No, of course not,” he said, laying a few things down on the counter, “But they did make you something.”

It didn’t immediately compute.  I ran through the options of what they might have sent out to me.  I could only think of an eviction notice.

“But I’m sick,” I said.  “Do they want me to leave?”

“What? No. They want you to get better.”

My friends had put together some research and a home remedy of essential oils.  And a bowl of curry for dinner.  I burrowed further under the covers.  I fought against my untruths.

And then, I decided to keep telling the truth, instead.

The truth has me on the mend.  Like when I had to truthfully tell my Someone it was time to go to the hospital.  I got a couple of tests and a diagnosis of kidney stones, which was a relief from all the untruths I was imagining while holding the pain in.  I’ve passed three in the last month, as near as I can tell.  In Boonville, NY, parked in the yard of some friends, my Someone had to liaison again with the truth that I was passing another.  He returned with a hot water bottle and a smudge stick that helped clear the air and my head.  I was well enough to play our show that evening.

The truth, it seems, is setting me free.  Even if it is dragging itself painfully through me first.  This pain is acute practice.

And these small gifts of oils and smudges being sent my way are far holier– far more useful– than an “‘Atta Girl.”

Ant Colonies: On Detecting Post Traumatic Death

The moment after I confronted the man who hurt me, I was free.  I couldn’t stop smiling.  I rode this high all the way to an amusement park the next day.  I rode roller coasters with friends, ate cotton candy, and skinned my knee from running too fast to get on the ride that scared me most… again.  I was fifteen and free.  I carried all of my ages, finally complete within me, silly and bleeding through my shredded pant leg.  I am 32 years old.  I am strong enough to carry all of me.

I rode this high all the way down the road to our next stops, retelling my story as I remembered it.  I wrote.  I marked time definitively.  I virtually high fived my friends.  I breathed easily.

And then, I fell asleep.  Typical teenager.  But I have to wake up.  I have to be diligent.  Or I could be carried off to the corpse yard.

It was our third day parked in the driveway of our North Carolina friends, and I was doing yoga in the driveway.  I had three large welts on my arm and leg from laying in savasana the day before.  These ants were biters, and seemed to wage an official war.  I took to sweeping the area before I practiced, but they occasionally wandered on my mat, anyway, and one in particular was swept with such force that it lay still, feet up, from the day before.  The other ants moved around it, occasionally stopping to inspect it, before moving on.  This sent me down an anthole of the internet.

The answer was less romantic than I’d hoped.  What I’d hoped was that these small creatures were mourning their dead.  What I hoped was that even the tiniest creature had a beating heart, and that beating heart couldn’t bear to part with their friend or co-worker or mother or supermarket cashier right away– that they were swiveling around the corpse carefully, nodding their heads and paying their respects until every member of the colony had the opportunity to view the beloved-now-gone member of the community.

I could already feel the easily-tied-up blog post forming.

The truth was, however, that they didn’t know she was dead, yet.  Likely, their pause in movement had more to do with dismay than distress.  “Come on, Janice! Quit being so damn lazy and get back to work!”

In fact, it would take another day– three days total– for the smell of oleic acid to finally be detectable.  This smell would then indicate that Janice was, in fact, not only lazy, but dead.  Once the smelly secretion confirmation comes in, they will finally gather, toss Janice on their backs, and throw her into the graveyard pile of other dead ants.

Three days before anyone even knew she was dead.

I suspect I am an ant colony.

After I confronted the man who hurt me and celebrated and, finally, fell asleep, it took me more than three days to realize I was dead.  It took a couple of weeks.  My laugh was slower.  My irritation was faster.  My Someone was at a loss.

I should be celebrating, I kept thinking. I was so brave. I was stronger than ever.

And then I felt ashamed.  I felt angry that I had done the thing that I was supposed to do in order to have the healing, and I was still so sad.  I was simultaneously lying on my back, riddled with death, while scurrying around asking myself to hustle–

Get up!  Get up!  What’s the matter with you?  There’s work to be done– we are free!

And still, the part of me that had been riding roller coasters was still.

The smell finally wafted into my nostrils when I called Bryan a couple weeks in.

“I knew it wasn’t going to fix everything,” I told him, trying to sound confident that this was all part of the plan. “I knew there would be a spiral down.  I guess I just have to sit in it for a while?”

Bryan agreed.  And then he confirmed the smell in the room.

“You’re mourning,” he said. “That girl who was abused for all those years– the one who was scared and fearful all the time, she’s gone.  And even though that’s not who you want to be, anymore, it doesn’t change that it was who you were.  Of course you are mourning that loss.”

Of course I was.  He was right.  I was dead.

Do you ever feel like you miss being in those moments of emotions from past bad relationships?  Like, I am happy and content and finally in a healthy relationship… but sometimes I hear a song and I remember sickly loving those moments of sadness and dread and not being understood even though I have someone now who understands me.

It was a welcome text my friend sent me.  She was talking to the right partially dead ant colony.  What I responded at the time was that– Yes!  Of course.  That desire to be destructive, to rip something apart for no reason, and to cry out into the boredom of the healthy– it is primitive and real and pressing.  But I am starting to wonder if that part of me is the part that I haven’t yet detected as dead.  If it still sits in me, unproductive and flatlined, but odorless.  And until the stench of it reaches my nose, I am unable to carry it off to the graveyard.  I am more likely to keep moving around it, wondering at its stillness.  Wondering what it’s still doing there.

Or, maybe the problem is that I carried it off to the graveyard too soon.

A final interesting fact straight from a horror movie is this: should you pour upon– or should an ant find itself smothered in– oleic acid while still living, the colony will carry its living thorax to the graveyard, anyway.  Never mind its kicking and screaming.  Never mind its clear indicators that it is, in fact, alive and productive.  The colony will simply hoist the little bugger up and toss it on the pile of corpses.  Dead to them.  Get out of here.  We don’t want you here, anymore.

This is where it gets tricky.

My deep sadness that believed it lost a part of herself, perhaps, was the beginning of an unlikely resurrection.  My entire body has since reacted.  Beyond the emotional despair, my physical body found itself in total disrepair, in spite of my consistent efforts to stay healthy.  My colony threw itself out.  The stench of death was too prominent to be wrong– out you go.  And because I had made such a healthy choice to be brave, to be present, to be eating greens, I mistrusted the judgment that I was no longer permitted to howl out as I tossed myself on a pile of dead.

I’ve learned to howl since then.

My friend Piper told me that humans, along with most creatures, have a primal desire to howl.  That they need to howl– in order to relieve stress and fear.  In order to remind themselves that they are still here and living and heard by another living creature.  Maybe it was true that part of me had died.  But there was plenty of me still left living.  And if any part of me was going to make it out again, I was going to have to cry out– to scream and be destructively loud– so that I might not be thrown out completely.

My Someone and I had started the ritual of howling just before we lost our dog in November– a call out to the Coyote Trickster of the Universe to let whatever happens happen, and to let it happen with a smirk and a trade.  We then howled our way through our grief when she passed.  We howled our way through the winter to remind ourselves that we were still a family.  And now, I am howling to keep death from doing me in, too.

What I would say to my friend, now, is what I am saying to myself– Howl your head off, creature.  Howl your head off so that you don’t get caught at the bottom of the heap.