Mud Season & Maple Syrup

“Good afternoon,” I called to Donna, sloshing on my side of Cemetery Road. She pulled her earbuds from her head and smiled, nodding to my muck boots.

“Mud Season has begun,” she called back, rolling her eyes and smiling.

“So it has,” I said, letting my dogs pull me on and waving goodbye. It was an unwelcome holy moment, like a preacher breaking in with an Amen to silent prayers still spinning in the congregation’s head. My neighbor’s nod to the mud soaked dog paws, the ruts rising up from our dirt road, the thick wet seeping from the earth was nothing I couldn’t see, but I wasn’t ready to say it.

Mud Season be with you.

And also with you.


Winter is over. The cool, thick blanket of endless bright and dreary days is melting down, and the close comfort of death is rotating its face over to someone else’s falling leaves.

In the last few days, I’ve felt the brush of Death– nothing harrowing or sudden. More the slow passing of someone on their way to a different meeting. I don’t know how to describe it other than this– a shoulder brush with a mumbled “Excuse me,” as she moves onward. I don’t get a chill up the spine, or a panic in my stomach. I feel quiet. Accepting. Grateful. And, understandably, a little overwhelmed. I tried to explain it to my Someone.

“But you don’t know it’s death,” he said.

“But I do,” I said, plainly.

He waited a beat, then conceded.

“I know you do,” he says.

It scares him only a little, he admits. He’s grown accustomed to my strange emotional sorcery, though he and I are both a bit unsettled by my lack of fear. I have always been afraid of Death. Though maybe it is knowing that she is not coming for me– at least not this minute– that keeps me from the usual unraveling. These last few days, I have wrapped myself in Death, like a snowy blanket, luring her in to sit comfortably between myself and living. Between myself and Mud Season. But Mud Season is upon us. The death of Death itself. I find no comfort in the petulant reemergence of life. Not this season.

photo by Aaron Doenges

In January I had the honor of visiting a friend to assist in their recovery from a brutal procedure. I accompanied them to the hospital, sitting for their appointments as they made the slow trek back from the deep whirlpool of cancer. On one visit, they told the doctor of their pain. Not the pain of the cancer, but the chronic, unruly pains that followed them. The doctor blinked once as if computing, leaned forward, and delivered frankly–

“But you have old bones. You will always have pain. Old bones have pain. It does not get better from here.”

I must have misunderstood her. Then she followed up.

“You must find a way to deal with this fact.”

I will always have pain. Each day I am ever nearer to my end, as near to it as I have ever been. The murky, slothful propulsion is inevitable, and this winter, it has worn me down. Fact: I will die. Fact: I can do nothing for it. Question: How will I deal with it? The answer these days is to settle in and wait for its consummation. To endure its passing me by another day with gratitude, with watchfulness, with a big sigh of relief and a rattle of feelings.

This is new for me. So far, I’ve dealt with Death by denying it, by fighting it, by negotiating with God or the Unconscious, praying myself to be the anomaly, the only one who will never need to confront their Old Bones. This new method of wrapping myself in its snowy blanket, cooling my heart beat to a shiver: it’s refreshing.

But it is also a distraction. Because even Death has a season. I cannot stay there forever, or my acceptance transforms from a healthy seasonal reckoning to a moping over Old Bones. So the ugliness of reemergence into the land of the living. So, Mud Season.

And with Mud Season comes a healthy fear of Death.

And so with the fear of Death comes the sap of life.

photo by Aaron Doenges

Laurie called on Monday, bubbling with the news.

The sap was running up the maples– I should bring my friends. We crossed the Connecticut River to the fertile side of Vermont and climbed our car up the mountain to Rowe & Laurie’s place. Their house shines as a bright barn red on top of a hillside they’ve cultivated to include the perfect sledding hill in the winter, and an illustrious garden in the summer. Behind the patch of birches, a row of maples stood in a line with galvanized steel buckets attached, popping a silver light against the mud. We visited each tree with a large white five gallon bucket, collecting the watery offering.

photo by Bryan Currie

But before we’d move on, Laurie would hush us and lean close to the sap bucket. The small plink of the first new drop hitting the now empty vessel was our signal to continue. A small celebration.

Laurie loves her maple syrup in a way that practically makes her radiate. Rowe jokes that her epitaph will read “Did you put maple syrup on that?” As we continued through the process of separating the sap from the water, straining the bugs and leaves, and watching it boil in the small alter they’d build in their barn, I understood the spirit of it. We were gleaning first life, first nutrients of the season, boiling it down and letting its steam waft over us, revitalizing our chapped faces after the long season of Death.

Rowe continued to keep watch over the sap-and-future-syrup Monday night and all day Tuesday, and Laurie promised to call us when it was ready for finishing. Like awaiting a child from labor, we kept our boots lined up and our ears to the ground. We got the call Tuesday evening, and scurried over with snacks and local cider and the thrill of watching the blood of a tree turn into a small taste of sugar. This was a party. We crowded into a steamy kitchen that had notes of marshmallow and graham cracker and vanilla and watched as Laurie dipped the hydrometer in again and again until– so soon and so long at once– it was time. Rowe & Laurie scrambled to turn off the heat and strain the syrup for one last filter. As we watched, spoons in hand, Laurie waved us over to the sink.

“Go ahead!” she said, “Get your spoons under there.”

photo by Aaron Doenges

And that was my first taste of new life. Oh, Death, where is your sting? I can endure anything. Even Mud Season.

The syrup was placed in four jars, two large and two small, screwed tight, and turned upside down. We retired to the living room where the woodstove burned so warm Laurie had to crack a window, and we pattered conversationally while snow glittered on the windows outside. Just as we waited for the plink of the first sap drop, we waited now for the plink of the jars, indicating that they are sealed and ready. The ding of the metal announced itself in a stagger, and Laurie delivered a small jar to me, still warm. This is what the living do, I thought.

photo by Aaron Doenges

But also, this. The previous day, when we’d first carried our large bucket to collect the sap, we passed several large maples in the front of the house. Rowe had noted that, no, they don’t tap those trees anymore. Laurie smiled sheepishly and said,

“I like to let my trees retire,” she patted one on its trunk as we passed. “I just think at a certain point they should get to rest.”

There near where she patted was a small scar from an old tap. They certainly could produce an abundance of maple syrup, but Laurie wouldn’t have it. She listened, and when she sensed a tree was done, she let it go. They had old bones. Let old bones do what old bones do. These trees, the retired lot, were the ones who shaded the front of the house all summer and speckled the lawn with brilliant fall colors. A stunning way of coping with old bones, of reckoning with the closeness of death– simply: living.

I am ready for Mud Season, now. Though, truthfully, we are missing it this year. We’re skipping right into spring, packing our camper this week and launching it to Florida, where spring is already underway without a road rut in sight.

But before we could set sail, I had another brush with Death. A snow storm blew in on Wednesday night, and I awoke to another thick cold coat of white. The trees are weighed down heavy with the stuff, and I can hear it sliding in clumps from my metal roof. So my Someone and I did what we always do on snow days. We ate pancakes.

And we topped them with a rationed pour of our new maple syrup.

I begrudge the snow a little, at the taste of the sweet candied syrup while I squint at the brightness through my window. But the Death outside, I remember, is a great mercy to my life. Sure enough, it has come in to save the day, freezing the ground well enough that we can safely pull out our old rig and begin moving again without sliding or getting stuck on the way.

It’s the only way to really appreciate the two– life and death– as they press toward each other on to our old bones: together. Like the taste of two day old maple syrup on a bleak, snowy winter morning.

A Little Lighter on the Path

For Christmas, my mother sent me the photograph, professionally framed. It took me a second– no more– to realize the effort of it, the sweetness, the singular ray that stretched from my path to hers. There is a light I’ve been awkwardly dismissing between us– I was too skittish. On Christmas morning, I gave in.

It began with my Aunt Tammy’s death. After over two years of silence, my mother called me. But it wasn’t complete. I was grateful, of course– it was my only request since I’d pulled the plug in her kitchen, crying in a huddled mess, begging her and my father to see me– to just call me every once and while. They declined. Until August of 2021, when bad news opened the line. I was suspicious of the circumstances, and asked to work slowly. I thanked her for the call. I agreed to move forward. She agreed, too.

Since then, it’s been a delicate walk– a smattering of phone calls, but mostly we text. Or we email. Or, occasionally, we send a note in the mail. I don’t dread seeing her name pop up on my phone, anymore, and I count it as a win.

The thing about it is, I became my own mother in the last few years. So what I thought I needed from her, I no longer need. What I thought I needed was for her to be someone she isn’t– someone more like me. But she’s not that. Except.

Except sometimes, I think, in her quieter moments.

Like last summer, when she sent me a photo she captured in the woods. She had lately taken up morning hikes in the thick hills of Western Pennsylvania, walking the trails on the family’s 80 acres of blackberry brambles and huckleberry shrubs, messy pines and straightbacked beeches, of fox dens hidden at the edge of the clearing and a bear cave piled high with heavy, mossy rocks on the top of the hill. These are the woods where my childhood imagination conjured evil spirits by the old oil well that still popped in the evenings and ancient secrets whispered from the stream where I built my fort. I clomped and ran and hid most weekends in those mountains, chewing on birch bark and squeezing teaberries between my fingers and teeth for the radiating warmth and mild sweetness.

The photo she sent, taken herself on that morning, flooded me with home.

I imagined her walking alone in those woods, duck boots crashing through the light leafy debris of the path, and looking up to see the sunlight coming through the trees in honest-to-god rays. Rays like in cartoons or those funny, primitive pictures a kid would draw, with triangles long and thin casting out from the light white circle of the sun, the trees achingly still sides of a prism shaping those strange, geometric light swatches to the ground. I imagine her to stop then, taking a breath before grabbing her phone, slowly at first, as though a movement could knock the light right out of the sky, but then more quickly as she remembers the inevitability of the Western PA skies clouding this perfect moment in mere seconds. When she snaps that picture of her solitude, I imagine her feeling close to someone– to god, to her dad– not recognizing the beacon is herself, shining back.

But whoever she was thinking of, she sent it to me. Maybe she shared it with everyone in her church group, and maybe that doesn’t matter. Because she did share it with me, too. I wrote back with enthusiasm. It wasn’t feigned– it’s such a lovely photo. I thought, we are the same, Mom. We are so alone and together and the same.

Since then, our phone calls have dwindled, but our connection has not. Maybe I’m a fool to see it that way. Broken down to its specifics, this relationship looks not so different than before our split. Texts, emails, and empty invites to see one another someday, down the road, when things calm down a bit.

This December, leading up to Christmas, I chose to see the light on the path. My first real home, and I was ready to shed the heartache of the homes I’d been captured in before. But I could not deny the direct line of cookies from my mother’s oven to my heart. I asked her for her recipes– all of them, every Christmas cookie I could remember from my childhood.

Western Pennsylvania is known for its cookies, and not just at Christmas time. At weddings, in addition to cake, there is an entire cookie table set up for friends and family members to bring their best recipe and drop a platter. At the end of the reception, boxes are handed out to every guest, and they take a haul home of their favorites– lady locks, filled Pizzelles, Peanut Butter Blossoms, Thumbprints, Snickerdoodles, Oatmeal Raisin, Chocolate Chip, Italian Peach Cookies, Cannoli. But at Christmas, it was a full time job. My mother would designate two weeks ahead of Christmas to bake, nearly 9-5, inviting friends over to make batches of their favorites, swapping by the dozen at the end of the day. Pizzelles, Russian Tea Cakes, Caramel Tassies, Gingerbread, Peanut Butter, Ginger Snaps, Sugar Cookies, White Chocolate Macadamia, Buckeyes. The recipes would be doubled, tripled, quadrupled, and then cooled down the center of our small kitchen table, occasionally overflowing to the table in the dining room, too. Then, the frumpy old tupperware would be brought up from the basement and, after they cooled, the cookies would be lidded with their respective kind and placed on the back porch. Winter in Western PA was cold enough then to sustain them– should they not get eaten sooner– til almost February. When we had guests, one of the kids was instructed with a large plate to go on to the porch and make a full sampler platter of cookies, bringing them in an hour before so they had time to thaw by the time the guests arrived.

They tasted just as good cold, before they ever hit the plate.

Since the photo my mother had sent me early in the year had split open my home reservations, I wanted to welcome a piece of it into my own home. She sent the recipes in batches, and I baked as I received them.

“I am bonding with my mom,” I told my Someone. “But she doesn’t know it.”

“Sounds good to me,” he said, sneaking his fourth Caramel Tassie from the plate.

And I was. I was welcoming her into my kitchen, into my home, each time I pulled a new sheet from the oven. I texted her photos, or emailed her with questions like “But how much sugar in the Pizzelles? It doesn’t say,” or “Are you sure it’s regular sugar and not powdered sugar for that icing?” I navigated her vague recipes, crawling inside her head to figure out proper measurements.

I told my Someone that maybe it was unfair to do it this way– to create a connection with someone through cookies, not letting her interject the reality of herself into my attempts at becoming closer. I was, clearly, sugarcoating our relationship.

But I have a hard time believing that’s true. Maybe the elements are the same, I cannot deny the way our efforts cut through– the geometric rays that are nearly tangible in their light. Maybe it’s a trick of the mind– a trick of the light– but the path this way is much easier because of it. It’s hard won. I haven’t thoughtlessly foregone my boundaries or changed my mind or given up. It’s quite the opposite. I’ve opened wide to a new friend who, somehow, while we seem nothing alike, are deeply connected by a sharp shard of light that casts its way on both of our paths. Maybe that’s what forgiveness looks like. Or love. Or acceptance. I only know it, now, as lightness.

On Christmas morning, with the taste of my mother’s Gingersnaps and coffee still on my tongue, I opened the photograph, professionally framed. Yes, I knew for certain. Things have definitely changed. I can see it. I can taste it.

Brownie is Dead.

My niece went to school yesterday, in spite of the bad news.

Her guinea pig is dead.

She took it well enough, and vowed to turn her sorrow into art–
Taking the corpse’s paws into her pink fingers,
Squishing ink from paw to page.
One didn’t turn out so well.
He was already in rigor mortis.

My grief is less purely exorcised.

I bought a String of Tears hanging plant
This morning from the Hannaford’s.

“For Brownie,” I say.

I throw my plastic card at the automatic machine.
Money covers bases.

It occurs to me on the drive home that
I have imprisoned myself to the day of the guinea pig’s death
So long as the plant lives.

“For Brownie,” I say again.
One pustule pod is rattled by the truck
On a back road to home in New Hampshire,
And it falls onto the floor.

Later in the afternoon
On my walk,
the thick stench of sweet apples,
The smell is red & fermented.

“For Brownie,” I think.
I know it is a farce.
Brownie is also dead.

So the dead are only for me.

I pick up a piece of birch bark in the cemetery,
But I don’t offer it.

“Redundant,” I think.
Dead trees for dead beings,
And I am the only one living between.

In the woods before home,
I consider a poem.
I consider a 10-year-old girl
Drawing tiny pawprints
On her notebook in school.

I curl in my chair upstairs,
Under the skylight
Where a String of Tears
Dangles above me.

It’s still alive since the morning
(nothing is a guarantee).

Lucky, because the dead are not for themselves, anymore.
The dead are for the living.

I think, “For her.”

And then I think,

“For me.”

New, Knew, New

My first step in most places is to figure out all of the ways I don’t belong. Not the common ground, but the way in which I stick out, how I’m unsettled, how I’m the other. I can vouch that this is, in fact, the worst way to enter almost any situation. It is an inhibitor to any meaningful contact, and will make one look desperate because one becomes desperate.

Suddenly I’m backpedaling who I am with a plateful of mashed potatoes in a line at Friendsgiving dinner, attempting to explain myself and why I am this way, and the face of the brand new person I’ve encountered goes from average-first-meeting-face to curiosity to alarm as I flail my free arm and hit the fast forward button on my mouth to try and get their face to go back to the average-first-meeting-face before I hit the end of my now-five-page-single-run-on-sentence, which usually ends in “I’m so sorry!”

For the last almost 8 years, I’ve been a traveler, which means that I was entering new places almost daily, and was secure in the knowledge that I don’t belong because, quite decidedly, I didn’t belong. I was leaving, if not this day then the next, and there was no real reason to explain myself or try and fool anyone into thinking otherwise. I belonged everywhere because I belonged nowhere. It’s an excellent bit. But I’ve ruined that self-actualized constant. I’ve ruined it because I belong somewhere, now. And I’m freaking out.

On October 31, my Someone and I closed on a house in Haverhill, NH, a little corner of New England wherein the trees offer a welcome shroud between me and the grey sky, where the Connecticut River narrows and widens between my home and the rolling green of Vermont, where there’s an apple stand just up the street that offers at least eight different varieties at any given visit, and the varieties change by the next week. I’ve yet to encounter it in its fullness, but there will be snow, likely through March and maybe to April, and if I drive East for a few short hours I will hit the rocky Atlantic coast. I’m 79 miles from Canada, the fun French part, and most days I’ve been here are the kind of dreary that makes me light candles and turn on low lights and stack good novels next to my reading chair. That’s to say, I have a reading chair. And a kitchen where I’ve made an apple pie with apples from the apple market up the street. I have a living room where we sit close to the heater at night, and a separate bedroom where I read before sleeping, where my hamster runs on her wheel and my dog snores next to me. I have house plants who I’ve named Jones, Marge, Rippy, and Scuttlebutt.

By all accounts, I have a home. I live here. I belong. From the moment we saw the place to the closing, there have been zero barriers, no hang ups. It was fluid, like it was meant to be. Which means that I have been freaking out because I have nothing to freak out about. Where is the anxiety of decision? When is the part where a major wrench appears and I get to question my choices? In what way don’t I belong?

We’ve even lucked out in community. We were swiftly welcomed by friends of friends, and found ourselves squarely in a room full of warm and open people– poets, painters, priests, potters, play actors– over Friendsgiving in the town hall across the river. Again and again we introduced ourselves, “Hello, we’re new here,” and in return were given a tour of people, what they do, where they live, and how they love this place. A couple nights later we entered another room of strangers and left with new friends. By the end of the night, I was tired.

“I should be happy,” I said to my Someone. “We’re lucky.”

We were. New Englanders are notorious for keeping to themselves– so we’re told.

“It’s hard to meet people,” a few friends warned us.

“Don’t expect a casserole from anyone around here,” one neighbor said.

And in a way, they are right. We still haven’t met our immediate neighbors, though we’ve knocked on the door during a minor fiasco wherein my little dog went missing. We were met with silence, but eventually found our little dog, fat and sick from a turkey carcass she found in the woods. The next day another neighbor, one who looks out for us, let us know that my Someone’s face was all over Facebook as a “suspicious character” caught on a surveillance camera for “lurking around.” She helped us make it right, and we are keeping a look out our window to try and better introduce ourselves.

It’s the small drop in the bucket of not belonging in an otherwise full bucket of getting more invitations to dinner than we have stomachs for.

So the deep ache, the lowness of spirit that compounded after yet another perfect night of being welcomed “home,” I couldn’t figure it. I tried to reason it out.

“Maybe it’s because we know we’re not leaving,” I said.

“Maybe,” said my Someone.

“Maybe it’s because we don’t know our neighbors well enough,” I said.

“Maybe,” said my Someone.

“Maybe we miss being on the road?” I asked.

“Nope,” said my Someone.

He was right. Not once since we moved in have we looked out at our old, beat up home-of-the-road and wished for another night in it. Sure, there are days ahead still where we’ll pack it up and carry it across this country and back. But now we have a place to be back to. No matter where we go, now, we belong somewhere else.

We pulled into our driveway and walked toward our front door. I made sure to touch the spot on the third step up, about a third of the way from the right. Since moving in, it’s the one spot I’ve found that accidentally felt like home. Our second week here, I’d been running back from the camper with an armful of our things when I stepped on that spot and had the sensation of doing it a thousand times already and a million times in the future. That little piece of the step would know my tread, and it warmed my leg up to the top of my head in a feeling of knowing that I couldn’t deny. I’ve since pressed it for its magic each time I walk up to my porch, hoping if I stamp it enough, it’ll pool outward under the house and float upward to the loft until the house in drenched in the stuff of home. I believe it’s working, as last week I felt that wobbling magic under the skylight in my kitchen as I chopped celery on Thanksgiving eve.

We entered our house, dog tails wagging. These two animals have taken to still life easily with no identity crisis at all. I breathed in the faint smell of a local peppermint mocha candle I bought. I dropped my things in their correct places. I wandered into each room while my Someone began to chop lettuce for dinner. He yelled from the kitchen, asking if I’d like to watch a new movie. I said yes, but kept roaming from room to room. When dinner was ready, I sat down in the living room with the low patio lights and a few candles burning and looked blankly at the computer screen we prop up on the desk chair in front of the couch. My Someone hit play and I felt myself relax.

“This isn’t that new movie,” I said.

“It isn’t,” said my Someone.

The screen played a familiar opening sequence, one I’ve seen at least three times before. I don’t re-watch things much, if at all, unless it is in the spirit of sharing it with someone who is watching for the first time. I don’t like watching the same movie every year at Christmas. I don’t like reliving childhood memories around The Land Before Time, I don’t like playing Magnolia again for the director’s cut. But my Someone and I have already watched this before. The whole series. From beginning to end.

“But, you’ve already watched this,” I said.

“Yes,” said my Someone, “but it seemed like maybe you needed an old friend.”

There it was. I was homesick. I was new, new, new, in a new house with new people with new neighbors and a new peppermint mocha candle. And all I really wanted was for someone who knew, knew, knew me, longer than a day, longer than a year, longer than a decade.

And somehow, Lorelai Gilmore knew me then. Or rather, my Someone knew me well enough to know that rewatching The Gilmore Girls would be just the ticket to put my old self in its new order. We finished the episode and started another, making a bowl of popcorn and piling another blanket on, one my mother had made me the first time I got married. I was getting tired, as my ages were coming together again, presenting themselves in my one body in a new place. I picked up my phone and texted Ann, then Annie, then Jessica and Holly, too. Because to know someone a long time is to belong somewhere, no matter where your body with all of its ages is sitting.

Then, a text popped up from a new friend. We’d declined dinner for the sake of coming home to our sick, turkey filled dog. When I opened the screen, it was to a photo of a table full of new people, ones we’ve met since arriving here, ones who have made such an intention to fold us in. They were waving at us from the dinner we declined, and they were telling us that they were happy to have our new selves in their community.

The feeling, at first, was itchy. I tried to find the way that I could protest– the way to tell them I don’t belong. But it was impossible. Because belonging is one part showing up and one part acceptance and a few parts that are a mystery that I will likely be figuring out as I spend my years here. Sometimes, it is you yourself accepting your belonging. But sometimes, when you’re really lucky like I am, it is the persistent invitation to be accepted, in spite of yourself. All this agonizing over a story I’ve already watched before– I know how it goes. It’s no Stars Hollow, but it’s pretty damn close, and soon I will be replaying these early episodes in that familiar way that only someone who belongs can appreciate.

The Last Good Tomato

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.

“Do you think so?” he said.

“Maybe,” I said. And we ate as if it really was.

What My Accordion Repairman Told Me

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.

Happy Father’s Day, whatever that means.

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.

Mud Puddles & Dirty Dishes

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.

I will start that practice tomorrow.

Known by Name

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.