Early fall midnight at ten thousand feet, and a lot is happening. The stars are out. Their glimmers make me sit up and put my glasses on, then stand and look into the night at the half-circle of changing aspen. An owl is also wide awake and who-who-who’ing. I’ve never seen this owl, but my mind’s eye tracks her season after season. I lie down again and listen hard. After all, it’s not as if I can really expect to really sleep, anyway.
A few who-who’s later, I drift off, then wake to a soft mammalian whistle. What animal is making this snurfling sound. Elk? An elusive bobcat? Ah, just the husband’s breath, sighing him in and out of a dream. My favorite animal, this man who, like me, will one day take a last breath, and maybe in this very cabin. A wakeful thought, that.
And a part-time job, this sleeping, and not sleeping.
I move to the couch at 4 and stargaze, waking to the whoosh of moving water. I think, rain, rain, rain! and am dunked in gratitude. Alas, only the coffee maker gurgling, telling me it is 5:30, officially morning. I close my eyes again.
Then. Three women doing dishes in semi-darkness. I pick up a big ceramic bowl and see a hefty toad there—lumpy, wide-eyed, and miraculously ugly. I lift the bowl and walk to the door. I want to set him free, but his container is empty. I understand the toad will be back. All I need to do is keep his water fresh. Later, this writing dream has me christen a fresh black notebook Toad. My pen drops blue ink on page after page. I remember, and deeply, the stillness and clarity of the silent creature and the harmony of the night-time women. Doesn’t a dream sometimes cross over into a prayer?
A month later, flakes fall fast in the city, where I write under a down comforter, struggling to stay awake after a solid night’s sleep. This old house is full. I can almost hear my young people all breathing the hush of their own dreams. All the beautiful ins and outs, all of the dreaming that will go on after me.
Where bold sun once beat down on hard dirt and where fresh lavender stalks pushed purple blooms toward our bright star, here we planted a tree in honor of his birth. I kneel in its dappled shade, hands coated in black soil. The sheltering arms of his skyline honey locust touch our high roofline now. Its long, brown seed pods litter the ground every summer. In the dappled shade of its yellow leaves, I seek patches of sunlit ground for pollinator plants.
This flower bed is supported by a rough line of heavy mountain stones, white and gray-veined chunks with sharp, angled corners. From the crook of one stone’s elbow, I lift a small gray rock and rest it smooth and flat against the palm of my hand. Too small to hold back dirt, too warm and smooth to throw away.
How is any rock much different from the smaller specks that clump together to make dirt? How different from molecules of air, for that matter? We move through gas particles. We inhale and exhale every day.
I need this garden like air. Its beds surround the place where I planted my adulthood, where I pulled toddlers’ jackets tight against the wind. In this yard, we turned rocks upside down to see rollie-poly bugs, to marvel at worms and centipedes. We strolled the block to gather red maple and oak leaves, then we ironed them between sheets of wax paper. Day after bright, shining day.
My hands, so much like my mother’s now, have lifted and turned this soil for thirty-three years. These palms once cradled three infants in turn, held close the start of three lifetimes. One life nearly cut short by despair and a handful of pills.
Still breathing. Still breathing. Still here. Bee balm. Astagache. Butterfly bush. All compete with weed after weed after weed. I will work this flower bed, mixing compost into clay, planting everything bright thing I can. Until the snow flies, until bitter cold casts mist from my mouth, then, when spring lures colors from these tender plants, I will kneel down once more.
Dry means dry, I think to myself, as I watch a big metal cylinder flip my clothes around and around. I’m frowning, arms crossed, in a July-hot laundromat in Chesterton, Indiana. The husband thinks that dry means done, which means he takes clothes out of the dryer when he’s tired of waiting for them, even if the necks of my t-shirts and the toes of my socks are still damp. How wrong he is to not understand that dry means dry! How frustrating when he does things wrong! I watch myself agitate, feel my shoulders and jaw turn to gravel. At that moment, dear reader, the husband is six hundred miles away. His laundry misdemeanor occurred a week earlier.
Cranxiety: the crunchy combination of grumpiness and worry.
Everywhere I go, cranky mixes with anxious into a new kind of miserable. On a hushed mountain morning, the husband walks by as I write, on his way to the kitchen for a cup of tea. His footsteps and the kettle’s hissing jolt me into worry that I can’t write, not now, probably not ever again. Why can’t he just be in the other room until I’m done? And why must I be so ill-tempered?
Crankxiety is what happens in my head when the wifi goes out. Where does the wifi go when it goes out? When will it come back? I ruminate on how wrong I am wrong to focus on what is wrong. I am supposed to be sweet, happy, and productive. I am not supposed to flip out when the husband makes tea or the wifi goes for a walk.
Cranxiety is part of what led me to re-start therapy last spring. A few weeks in, I got into an argument with my therapist. Jenny-Lynn, he said to me, so kindly that you would have thought he was a nice person. Hot tears were streaming down my face. Damp tissues were wadded in my left hand. Jenny-Lynn, he said, it is all right to feel. My objection was immediate and visceral—opposition from my toe joints all the way to the hardest part of my skull. I only wanted know why I was crying so I could stop. But I didn’t know why, and I couldn’t stop, and for some reason, I hated that he told me it was okay.
For me, anxiety is a despairing and physical need for everything to be different, inside and outside myself. It is a belly churning worry over the past and the future, including how much worse the anxiety might get, and how much crankier it might make me.
A few days after my laundromat diatribe, I tell my doctor, Crankxiety is a new circle of hell. She nods sympathetically as she fills my first-ever prescription for an anti-depressant. I’m not depressed, I report, I am just miserably irritable. Eight weeks after starting a low dose anti-depressant, crankxiety still rears its ugly head, but its talons don’t grip my belly for hours or days at a time. I can shrug and go on with my next, more helpful thought. I don’t have to be different, and neither does anyone else. These days, I say to myself, Jenny-Lynn, it’s all right to feel sad. It’s all right to feel anxious. More than anything, I feel more like myself, complaining and sweet in turn, and just exactly good enough.
Mile markers slide past the passenger window on a June morning. Colorado. Nebraska. Nebraska some more. A bit more Nebraska. The husband and I unwind memories of the first time we drove to the Indiana Dunes together. We marvel at the year that a full moon rose over central Illinois as three little boys shared the back seat, a big white poodle spread out across their laps. Thirty-plus years of road trips, of picking rest areas and sharing stories. At dusk, the rolling hills of Iowa glow with summer’s deepest greens and warmest yellows.
Above Lake Michigan’s white sand beach, we sleep in the small downstairs space still called “Nanny’s apartment” decades after her passing. In the 1940’s, she and my Grandpa fell in love with this spot, set back on a small hill above the lake’s southern shore. My grandparents drove from their home in Norwood Park with my father and his seven sisters. Everyone who could helped carry groceries or building supplies a half mile down the beach. Three generations later, their descendants take turns sharing this memory-soaked refuge. We park our air-conditioned cars only two flights of wooden stairs above the back door. On these three longest days of the year, the water is cold and the weather blistering; we lie awake at night until the lake breeze cools us, shushing us to sleep with the murmur of small waves.
We drive on to Washington DC, where I was born and where my adored niece is getting married. At a picnic by the Anacostia River, Icelanders meet Israelis meet Canadians; Coloradans chat with Iowans and hug Marylanders. A band offers up some Stevie Wonder, some Lizzo, and I want never to stop dancing. As the musicians pack up their instruments, I step briefly into Icelandic with my sister-in-law, with my niece and nephew. Soon, sitting at an ice cream shop, we see the groom walk slowly past, shoulder to shoulder with his father. They are speaking quietly in Hebrew, the love between them a near-palpable glow.
On Sunday, I arrange lilies and mums, baby’s breath and daisies into five big vases for the reception. I wind white peonies together into a bouquet. Reader, will I surprise you when I say the bride is beautiful beyond beautiful? That the Rabbi is wise? That we cry and we laugh and we dance?
I hug sisters and nephews and a newly married woman goodbye. Thanks to my own husband’s pandemic-delayed fellowship in Connecticut, I drive back to Indiana alone. At a quiet hotel in Ohio, I stretch out for a long, unbroken sleep. This, almost certainly, is where bloodthirsty battalions of bedbugs conquer wide swaths of territory: my right shoulder, my belly, the tender tip of my big toe. As often happens, only days later, when the bites begin to itch and swell, will I know that anything happened at all.
I stake out three days to write at a BNB near the Dunes cottage, determined to work out my book’s outline–the confounding, dreaded, avoided outline. I sit and sit and I sit. I drive to the grocery store to pick out mauve and teal and yellow sticky notes. I have lunch. I sit down to color code my outline, then give up. The weight of discouragement behind my eyes is too thick for tears.
On the third day, I sit down to work on my outline in the three columns suggested by my teacher: Icelandic, Mamma, The Body. I stare at the columns until they make sense. I stick scenes under the headings, clustering them into sections. I keep going.
I read outside at dusk and marvel at how many mosquito bites I can get without a single buzzing in my ear. Overnight, I am awakened by itching that will not stop until I get home to Denver, where an urgent care doctor will prescribe turbo-charged steroid cream and nuclear-powered antihistamine.
But first, I hear that my baby cousin is at the Dunes cottage. I sit on the shaded deck as a group of relatives settle in on the beach. “Excuse me,” says a voice from on high. My baby cousin looks down at me through a screened window, her girl face stern as she asks who I am. I would know her anywhere, her confidence and brightness, my father’s bright blue eyes. I tell her who I am and add, “You look just like J!” “That’s because I am her daughter” comes the serious reply. I know, of course, that this is the baby of my baby cousin, but I am still startled by the passage of time. I play in the lake with her little sister, tossing back and forth a plastic pony she has named Sunshine.
Sitting on the sand, I contemplate a line of three red bites on my shin. The “breakfast-lunch-dinner” pattern of bed bug bites gives me a sickening jolt that is immediately squashed by stiff denial. Alone, I drive west, trying not to scratch the clump of welts on my shoulder. Five hours later, passing Des Moines, a strip of hives rises on my arm in threes.
Anxious and anxiouser, I call my cousin, my BnB hostess, a bedbug specialist. Sorry and sorrier, I drive on, refusing to stop in another hotel. I fine-tune my strategy to keep the monsters out of our house and to roast any car-lurkers with the heat of a 100-degree day.
Rain lets up with just an hour more to drive. Suddenly, the burnt orange sun breaks free below a bank of turquoise clouds. My heart calms as I breathe in the richness of this Colorado sky like no other. To the east, a massive double rainbow domes the prairie, pulsing higher and wider as the sun sinks below the horizon. And I am gentled. I am welcomed home.
In Isafjordur, the town where my mother was born and where she gave birth to my two older brothers, I pull my biking shoes out of my suitcase. They are heavy, with inflexible soles built to grip wide mountain bike pedals. Still flecked with red Moab dust, I carried them all the way from Denver so I could ride with Haldora Bjork, my cousin who has always felt more like a sister. She loves this village with all her heart. Only her bright spirit makes this visit possible. I feel haunted by this town, and I don’t know why. On a walk earlier in the day, my husband recognized the house where my mother was raised. It is painted a burnt yellow now. He wanted a closer look, but I turned away, frightened of nothing I could name. I can’t reconcile the three-dimensional house with the framed black and white photograph I stared at as a child, hoping for clues to my mother’s girlhood.
Dora leads us on our bikes to the old coast road—now replaced with a tunnel–between Isafjourdur and Bolingarvik. The untended pavement is riddled with deep cracks and slush patches. We ride around huge boulders and dodge small sharp rocks that have rained down from cliffs above. When cars still drove here, so many avalanches and rock slides pummeled the road that concrete shelters were erected. As we pedal under these bunkers, the pavement is smooth and wide, the air hushed.
A mile ahead, at a sharp curve, we pause. A cross and plaque serve as a memorial to the many people whose lives ended here. Salty mist lifts from the water, and the far-off rock faces of Hornstrandir glisten with snow. The cliff just above us holds color after color—black granite slabs sliced through with ochre, a ribbed hillside specked with green moss, the vertical streams of meltwater shining gray in north-facing grooves. Below, smooth round rocks heap at the water’s edge, contrasting with small islands of jagged stone.
Just outside Bolingarvik is a museum–two small black-timbered, turf-roofed buildings alongside an old boat winch and fish-drying rack. Peeking in the window of the little house, we see two pairs of shoes. One looks like it is made of fish skin, the other possibly of seal skin. Both are tiny and flimsy looking. I remember what my brother Finn said a few days earlier: in the old days, a journey was described by how many pairs of shoes would be worn out in the walk.
Dora exclaims, Can you imagine working outside in all kinds of weather in shoes like those?! Then she tells me: I had a friend who died not long ago. He was in his late nineties. I was talking to him once and he told me that of all the new technology in his lifetime, the best was rubber boots. The rubber boots changed his life the most.
As we bike back to her house, and for days after, I think of her friend, of all the changes he saw in one long life, a life lived walking the village streets my mother left behind, first for Reykjavik, then for the US.
On a cold morning, Mamma makes oatmeal while my sister and I wait for the dusty ovals to soak up salty water and turn into food. Only Martha and I are eating this breakfast. Ruth and Kristin have left, Ruth to junior high school and Kristin at the forever-away high school. Martha and I go to Green Valley Elementary, across from and above the curved parkway outside our front yard. We can see our house from the school yard. Looking down through the chain link fence, our red brick house looks tiny. We can’t see school from our house, only the twin lines of cars snaking in different directions, and the steep concrete drain that sometimes gushes muddy rainwater into the low, paved creek bed.
My mother’s back is to us while she stirs the boiling oats. She looks big in her zip-up robe that hangs like a capital A from her shoulders down to her slipppered feet. She has smoothed her brown hair with a comb, and it lands exactly at the collar of her robe. Turning toward us, she has her cooking face on—cheeks pink, lips in a straight line, and concentration tugging her dark eyebrows together.
How do I know she is beautiful? Is it the way her eyes balance perfectly in her face? Those eyes that can be extra blue or extra green depending on the light? Is it how carefully she pulls herself together for the world, putting makeup on before she goes out to the grocery store? I know she is beautiful because she is my Mamma, and she takes care of me. She is special because she is Icelandic. I see how other people look at her, their smiles of admiration, or of envy.
In the kitchen, when she turns around and looks at us, her sixth and seventh children, the hungry girls of her second marriage, her smile brightens the air around us. My sister and I stop arguing and notice the sparkled air. Without any makeup, Mamma’s face looks easy and free. Her eyebrows let go of each other. She is all soft morning, the promise of warmth and fullness.
Breakfast is ready! She reaches to pull juice glasses from the cupboard. Martha and I have been distracted from our waiting by stirring the orange juice, concentrate slowly blending with water in the oblong Tupperware pitcher. Daddy lets us do this every time, telling us the two meanings of the word “concentrate.” He is at work or maybe asleep after a night shift.
Mamma gets tired of listening to us talk about the melting chunk of orange ice. We can argue about anything—who has had the best turn with the long-handled wooden spoon, who was right about whether there were any ice chunks left to stir or poke at, who wants to watch the thick orange goo melt to the bottom of the container or keep taking turns stirring. We argue about who gets the fanciest spoon, maybe a silver one from Iceland. That’s enough, Mamma says, patient today. She takes the pitcher we have argued over, snaps the plastic lid on top, and shakes it smooth, with no layers, no clumps.
She fills our glasses, and we drink greedily. The juice clears a sleepy taste from my mouth, paints my tongue bright for the day to come.
I fix my steaming bowl the special way Mamma once showed me, with a snow-layer sprinkle of sugar over the top. I lift the edges of the smooth oatmeal to dribble cold milk between it and the edges of the bowl. Melted sugar glistens on the surface as milk floats my breakfast like an island: it looks perfect. But by the time I have finished making it just right, it is stone cold. I don’t want it anymore. Mamma tells me to be careful, that if I don’t eat my breakfast, the wind will lift me up and carry me away like happens sometimes in Iceland when children don’t eat enough. I look up at her, startled, but she has turned away. I spoon a few bites into my mouth and swallow them with a tight throat, seeing myself stuck in a tree like a lost kite, wanting to get back down to the ground. After we put on our coats, she kisses us goodbye, and the two of us step outside into the chill air. I don’t understand my mother. She was telling a lie, Martha explains. The wind can’t be strong enough to blow us away. Maybe it can in Iceland, but not in America.
I snap back at her, I know that! I wasn’t scared! Silken relief wraps me in warmth. Martha lets me walk with her all the way to the corner of Catskill Avenue before she runs ahead. I wish I could be in third grade, and fast like she is, smart enough to not be scared by made-up stories.
As an anxious adventurer, I have to play tricks with my nervous system, use shortcuts to get down mogul runs free of halting fright.
Recently, riding up the Beavers lift at Arapahoe Basin, I confessed to my unflappable ski buddy Carl just how nervous I had been, how downright shaky, on a run we had just finished. He was surprised when I reminded him how anxious I felt on the slopes. You don’t seem scared. Just very determined. A typically kind response.
When I ski down to Carl and exclaim, Beautiful! I am not just catching my breath. I say beautiful because acknowledging beauty burns off my crackle of anxiety and turns down my self-criticism.
When I say beautiful, I mean that I’m scared out of my mind, but I can calm myself by looking at the trees, at the sky. I say it knowing that if I face my torso downhill and plant my left pole firmly, my legs will have to swing my skis around into a turn.
I say beautiful, feeling the semi-wilderness around me and the eternal blue above, knowing that the mountain and I are connected.
Beauty is why I ski, why I ride my bike in the mountains, why I want to be in this messed up world. Hearts break every day. Wars rage. The human family appears beyond dysfunctional, downright broken.
And as part of this world, far too often, I forget beauty, forget generosity and grace. I fret about the busted pipe in our cabin. Sheltered and warm, I worry about the weather. I look at the news, and look away again. Then, out of nowhere, magic happens.
Last night, for the first time in a quarter century of looking out at these woods, the husband said, Bobcat! I have heard him say deer, elk, moose. One memorable morning, he even said bear. But never, until last night, bobcat.
She was graceful and still, square face lined in elegant geometrics, black ear tips twitching. We watched her in the early spring dusk as she sat stock still, perfectly camouflaged in her white and brown coat. After listening intently, she made a quick pounce for a mouse tunneling underneath the snow—a near miss. With the confident serenity of a predator, she watched us for a few minutes, as we watched her. She made a few strides toward us, took a showy turn or two, then stepped gracefully over the hard packed snow into the silent woods. Beautiful.
A December email from Alisa Golden, editor at Star 82 Review. She wrote: “Yes. I love it.” An acceptance! Da, da, da da DAH da da!! I skipped through the dining room, past the Christmas Fern, singing the I Love Lucy theme song.
Kiddo, kiddo, kiddo! I chirped to my grown son as he came down the stairs. I caught my breath and announced: I got an acceptance from a magazine I’ve submitted to five times!
Way to wear them down, Mom! Funny man.
Not really. I just had to send her something good. In fact, I’d submitted to Star 82 Review not five, but eight times, over three years. After seven kind rejections in a row, I feel lucky the editor opened the last submission. Rejections pile up over time, of course, given my determination to keep sending things out. This time, I made the cut. It feels good.
I will try to do at least one slow, celebratory twirl when the next “thanks but no thanks” hits my in-box. Like all the others, it will remind me that I’m committed to the process, with its rare orchestral celebrations and its long fallow periods. Meanwhile, the publication of Beginning of the End of the Dream Job is a lovely reminder that the more I write, slowly but surely, the better I write.
This is the kind of cold that kills people. Astronaut wear: Gore-Tex layered over down, over wool. Neck gaiters under helmet. And still a shiver. Eight thousand feet above the far-away sea, searing wind has pushed snow into wave-like patterns. The chair lift rises through a bleak gust. Taos ski valley. Birthday number next.
Breathing in, she puts her mittened hand over the small gap where wind blows through her goggles. The wind sucks warmth away from her thrice layered neck. Relentless. No one should be out in this weather.
A snowmobile bores its way uphill, small siren wailing, lights flashing into the white-out. Tugging a rescue sled. Please god, she murmurs, not today, not me. A group hikes skyward, skis shouldered, to launch down a couloir. They are crazy. This is crazy. This is killing cold. Raising a layer to cover her face, feeling only ice on the crusted fabric. Wind bites like fire at her nose-tip. Too cold to breath in, too scared to breath out.
At the top, in front of the ski patrol hut, and look! Everyone! Down she goes, left hip bouncing off hard scrape. Embarrassment bolts her vertical again, sliding onto the lip of a run called Honeysuckle.
Chair seven to Bob’s run to Walkyries Glade. Do not explore black trails alone. Do not enter the narrow track, or pass the sign with a pretty name for treed moguls. Do not be lulled by this hush of trees weighted with snow, by this spotlight of calm. Time falls away. Look down, turn once, turn again into perfect cushions of soft white between oval humps. Just a person, skiing.
Too fast! Trees narrow on the steep. Traverse! Angle against the hill. Knowing she will die this time. Launching into the air.
And both skis land firm. Heart pounding, looking back. Six inches off the ground, at most.
Adrenalin surges, recedes. Up to go down again. Down to go up. From death by wind chill. To a tea stop in a crowded lodge.
Legs ache for days. The slow-motion tumble? Too much thinking, too much pulsing fright? Or doing, as happens, a bit too much. Afternoons huddled on the blue couch, soothe reading Austen under hand-crocheted blankets. Pushing away, and into, this next middle year.