Categories
Memoir

Iceland, Island, Eesland

Iceland, spelled in Icelandic, is Island, the plain English word “island.” But when Icelanders pronounce their country’s name, Island, it sounds different, Eesland, instead of island. “Island” spells “Island” means Iceland, my mother’s first home. As a child learning to love words, I ponder this oddity and the unpredictable nature of that far-away and mysterious place. Iceland is the land of fire and ice. It can explode like my mother does sometimes, in white-hot rage. And it has cold dark winters as bleak as my mother’s face on a November morning when she can’t get out of bed, when the effort of making breakfast for us before we go to school is too much. 

It is the 1970s, and I am maybe seven. I watch a color tv documentary with my mother about the emergence—through four years of volcanic eruptions–of a new island, named Surtsey, off the southwest coast of Iceland.  My mother was born and raised in village of Isafjordur that rests in the crook of a northern fjord. In her thirties, she moved to the US with my American dad and their combined family of five.  I am her seventh child, one of two girls born to her after she became a foreigner, living just outside America’s capital city.

Usually when she watches tv, my mother’s hands are busy with knitting or needlepoint, her eyes glancing up at the screen as she works. But now, sitting in the basement of our five-bedroom house that she keeps “spic and span,” Mamma’s attention is rivetted, her chin resting on her palms as she leans toward the image of a hot ash explosion lifting over ocean water. This is unbelievable! She exclaims. There was nothing there, and now there is an island. A cooling gray river of lava, red underneath, flows slowly into the water and hardens with a crackling hiss, meeting the North Sea like a sworn enemy.

Under the water, subterranean vents continue to discharge magma that piles on top of itself in layers until it expands the land mass named for Sutr, a Norse fire giant. Surtsey began to form in 1963, and grew into a rounded mile of land where once there was only moving water. It is a slowly greening island, now eroded to half its original size. Surtsey holds a solitary place above the ocean; its only part-time residents are sea birds, seals, and scientists.

In fifth grade, in Mrs. Corkum’s class at Green Valley Elementary, each of us draws our own map of the world. Standing in her blue skirt, brown hair pulled back into a bun, our teacher holds a globe in her hands. I locate Iceland by looking for the white-painted oblong of Greenland at the top of the Atlantic, then finding the rough-edged island tucked below to its right, just outside of the arctic circle. The class is paying attention because we all like Mrs. Corkum–she is fair and talks to us like we are smart, almost grown-up. Class, when we draw our maps, continents that are small will look bigger, and some things that are big will look smaller. We are flattening something that is curved to fit it on our paper. The round world, represented flatly, is distorted. This feels true to me.

I pencil faint guide-lines, holding my hand next to a wooden ruler with a thin, metal edge bent at one corner. My map is bisected vertically by the Prime Meridian, which is intersected by the Equator, and by the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. We draw Madagascar first, a fat ell-shape off the right-hand coast of Africa. I trace precise coastal shapes set within the grid of latitude and longitude. Starting with Madagascar, then working our way around the world, my class copies the world map one shape at a time. Tracing coastlines through meridian grids, pencil gripped too tightly, I recreate the world in the shape of islands.

Americans don’t even know where Iceland is! my mother complains. But I do. I know Iceland is a small, independent country that had democracy hundreds of years before America got its start. And I know about Leif Erikson–Mamma teaches me to say his name right, so it sounds like “Laif,” not like “leaf”. He was the first European to go to North America, in a sturdy Viking ship. Iceland is part of Scandinavia and also part of Europe. In Iceland, women know how to dress. They don’t go around to the stores in blue jeans, and they don’t have to be skinny or stupid to be pretty. Icelandic women are not like American women. They are one right way. Like me at ten, they know that they know a lot.

Iceland happens apart from me as I watch my mother’s back. She turns herself to the endless routine of cooking and cleaning, grocery shopping and cigarette smoking. She scrubs and she shines, always moving. A few months later, she seems to just sink into herself, the fiery island pummeled by scouring waves.

As I grow up, my mother’s language is like the water surrounding Iceland, chilling in its depth. Icelandic mystifies me, pulls my full attention to its musical cadence of words I don’t speak or understand. I see the surface of the language; images appear in my head when one of the few words I know float by. I can say “sael” for hello with a proper back-of-the-tongue click on the ell, and I say “bless” for goodbye, the polite beginning and ending. “Jaejae” is an all-purpose word of mild impatience that winds things up. Jaejae, says my mother as she inhales and stands up from the kitchen table, where a yellow ashtray rests half-full. I know she is getting ready to hang up the phone after talking to one of her Icelandic friends who also lives not far from us. The landline phone is anchored high to the wall, in the doorway to the dining room. It has a twisted cord long enough that Mamma can get up and look out the back door, toward the north, as she talks in her private language.

Every land form surrounded by water is a version of my mother’s home. I sit with the tip of my tongue drying in the air, tracing the shape of Madagascar. It is bigger than Iceland. It is warmer than Iceland. It is far away from Iceland. Iceland. Island. Eesland. The place I go in my mind where the air is always clear, where my mother is happy because she is in her real home. My Iceland is both far-away and more real than this America where childhood plods along, where I make the dreary winter walk to school while dreaming of riding a sure-footed Icelandic pony past moss-covered fields of ancient lava rocks.

But I am not there. I am not even all the way in America. I can’t be popular or all the way American or brash like a boy, so in fifth grade, I try to copy the world onto paper and make it look good, make it right. Over weeks, all of the continents appear, and finally, I add the dragon shape of Iceland. Sitting up in my wooden chair and setting my blue pencil down, I see a miniscule piece of the gigantic world, almost meaningless next to so many other place shapes. Surtsey is so tiny that even adding it as a dot would be wrong.

Our world maps are drawn on three separate sheets of paper that cover the surface of our small desks. After weeks of work, with new calluses on our index fingers, we carefully connect our pieces of flattened earth using invisible tape. My map looks how I want it to look, just right, pleasing to Mrs. Corkum and to me. It is hung in the school hallway alongside the worlds of my classmates, and every time I walk by, my eye goes straight to Iceland, confirming its existence. Even today, I can’t help but center the world and much of my imagination exactly there.

Front and center in 6th grade.

Categories
Uncategorized

Sliding to the Solstice

Light Play

The light is pretty much killing it this morning. It bashes into the white wall, plants itself on full-moons of log-ends. Shadow shapes appear on the painted cabinet:  a crown!  a microphone! a fishing line! A hunk of sea glass washes up next to the coffee maker. Light ricochets off snow in valiant sparks, then throws itself at me through window glass. When I try to meditate, it yells orange through my closed eyelids. I tilt my head into a beam of shade and inhale. Oooh, the light says, Aren’t I warm? Don’t you wish you were me? I exhale, inhale. Instead of peacefulness, a bouncy castle in my third eye. Light careens around the house screeching like a three-year-old, yapping like a collie running happy circles on the beach.

Bubbles

Our beloved recreation center closed indefinitely; we restart our membership at the club my salary once subsidized. When I worked downtown, I swam in this deluxe saline pool, killing off my stress by training for triathlons. One grief-coated spring, I counted laps using daisy petals in my mind’s eye and discovered—a month after my sister died–that I hadn’t fully exhaled since her funeral.

Emails and websites chant, “these times,” “these difficult times.” But the late fall rays bounce from the same glass tower across Larimer Street into the morning water. Sun rests on the bottom of the pool in wavy patterns, like sand shaped by ocean currents. Today I am a meatloaf swimming uphill. But my outstretched fingertips launch bubbles that rise, shining, to meet the skin dividing water from air. I approach the wall and flip, then glide through hundreds of miniature circles held in light.

In the lane next to me, a wormhole spouts opens, and—with one graceful kick–my niece swims over from Africa. Her dancing woman tattoo shines through the water, and her smile flashes as she glides by. Heat sears between my shoulder blades in the shape of the equatorial sunburn I earned swimming with her in Lake Malawi, in that time before “these times.”  In a blink, she is gone again, and I haul my December gravity up the ladder, then plod my way home.

Night

We stand on the cabin deck under a scatter of stars. Elk have tracked holes that stretch in long shadow lines through the snow. Thousands of Americans died today, and even more will die tomorrow. Today, I forgot to look up at all. The cold air holds the darkness, and I remember how ancient is the starlight, how finite this speck of humanity. The next morning, I sleep late. 5:45 pitch black turns to 6:45 faint light, making me second in line for coffee. We wait out the chill in scarves, under a blanket on the couch. Slowly, the sky brightens. One of us writes. One of us meditates. At 7:20, the switch is flipped, and a spotlight blazes over the ridge of Black Mountain. I yell upstairs, It happened, look!  The bare trunks of aspen, standing in a penitent circle, are washed in pink.

Categories
biking Memoir

Blazes

A week before Election Day, the husband and I drove six hours west on I-70 to the town of Fruita, on the sun-warmed Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains. Our campsite was a short walk from the banks of the Colorado river. Gold-topped cottonwoods offered shade, and renegade fall mosquitos flew in clouds around our heads. I could almost forget about the pandemic, about the anger and fear swirling in its wake.

In a burst of forgetful optimism, we went to a Chinese restaurant, deciding that if it got crowded, we could leave.  But soon after we dug in to our steaming entrees, a short woman with light brown hair and no mask stomped past the Masks Required sign that was posted by the door. Her bare-faced family trailing behind, she paused only to tell a carefully masked and gloved server, We’ll go to our favorite table. And there she strode, with a look on her face that said nobody was going to stop her. Certainly not the staff, all of whom, I think, were immigrants and who know much better than I how much casual racism has been give free rein when the sitting US president uses terms like Wuhan Flu and Chinese Plague.

Was I angry first or scared first as we took a few more bites and rose to leave? And was it the fright or the outrage that roiled more powerfully in my belly? Almost immediately, it felt good to resent this woman, to know that she was wrong, wrong, wrong. Us-versus-them thinking, in which we are always the better people, might be built into human DNA. But that doesn’t mean I want to play along, to taste the sourness of self-righteous anger like bad whiskey on the tongue.

As we drove to Moab the next morning, I sang along to Alanis Morissette’s song “Ablaze,” in which she cautions her young children about Some separation from each other, yes it’s a lie we’ve been believing through time immemorial. But I struggled with how satisfying my resentment toward that smug woman felt.  Anger is one thing–a natural and often clarifying emotion. But a grudge is something else; resentment morphs into a heavy and barbed burden. The trick is reminding myself, over and over, that I can put that weight down. And yes, the fact that contemplative biking is part of my package of privilege is not lost on me. Easier to feel the oneness of all life with a full belly and secure housing, not to mention the presumed acceptance that my whiteness still too-often conjures. I’m spoiled and I’m forgetful, losing my way every single day.

Amid the shales and sandstones of Moab’s trails, where shrubs grow in low gaps between rock slabs and root in crevices along cliff walls, few options exist for way-finding. Blazes painted directly on slick-rock hummocks dot the route like lane markers. But a rider must trust the blazes, must believe that the dashes do, in fact, reveal the optimal route. Trusting the blazes, even when they seem at first glance to offer a more difficult path, could save you mashing your body between a bike and a very hard place.

As I pedal up and down under blue sky, still ruminating about the maskless woman, I trust the blaze that tells me I can’t hate just one person. I look for the loving blaze that tells me to be less afraid and more generous. I swoop and swerve and am reminded that gravity will be gravity. The world will be the world. And a more loving perception is always an option.

Post-election, we are home in Denver where Covid 19 marches relentlessly on its own destructive path. Close friends get sick. Two of my nephews test positive. A week later, after a few unmasked minutes with a loved one who soon got sick, we isolate. We wait for our own test results. Thanks in part to sheer dumb luck, they come back negative. Our loved ones were also lucky, recovering well from non-severe cases. And this week, the election results are sticking, like yesterday’s soothing blanket of snow.

Today, gratitude hunkers down with us, mingling with memories of that restaurant and those blazes of light. I see the yellow-crowned cottonwood framing our view from camp under a blue dusk sky, how the perfect black commas of starlings flew and circled, then fell like rain to their evening roost. A perfect trip, really, one to draw joy from over a long winter.

Contemplating blazes on the Big Lonely trail.
Off blaze.
Categories
humor

I’m Not Scared!!

Halloween morning, three days until the election, and I ask the same question I ask every year—isn’t the world scary enough without putting goblin heads on our front doors? Even without Trump and Covid–two frights that only make each other worse–I am a chicken. Don’t say Boo to me—my startle reflex is so tightly wrapped that seeing the word carved into a pumpkin can make me jump out of my skin. And I worry.  I worry about so many small things (mice, socks, humidifiers) that I can barely make room for the big things (elections, democracy, climate). But the big things pervade, and nothing dominates the aptly-named “Breaking News” today than the soaring number of Covid cases. Rising community spread in Denver is enough to keep me home on a sunny day, but it’s time to refill my Ativan prescription.

I’m lucky that Ativan works for my anxiety (along with exercise, meditation, and the occasional self-hating rant). It’s a drug that is easy to abuse, and I know it helps me most if I use it only a couple of times a week and don’t think of it too often. It’s the difference between, say, a cute acquaintance at the coffee shop and a full-blown romantic obsession.

Today, I go to a neighborhood pharmacy where, two days earlier, they gave me someone else’s medication. (Yes, I worried about that person, and no, I didn’t mistakenly take their pills.) The only problem with my prescription is how much worry it causes me to stand in line at the pharmacy, so this second trip, on a busy Saturday morning, has shallowed my breath and dampened my palms. I have picked up a couple of bags of candy for possible trick-or-treaters, some worry-reducing ballpoint pens, and sensitivity toothpaste because I’m a very, very sensitive person. Before my turn in line, I realize that in my bike pouch outside I have left my cell phone, neatly bundled with all of my plastic and $70 cash. It’s still there when I go back for it. I resume my place in line.

The pharmacist is kind, apologetic, practically oozing with her own concern that the person behind me in line is my lawyer. I verbally confirm my name, birthdate, and phone number, but the small beads of sweat breaking out on my forehead confirm my diagnosis: anxious AF. The pharmacist hands me a $25 gift certificate and a $10 cash refund. I hand them back to her to pay for my purchases, then sanitize my hands and thank her profusely.

Making my way to the exit, prescription and pens and Halloween candy in hand, I pass less than six feet behind an older white man and say, I’m right behind you, so sorry. He turns to me and loudly replies, nose jauntily uncovered by his mask, Why are you sorry? I’m not afraid!  Me either, Mister, me either.

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Uncategorized

911

On a soft summer morning, a Sunday in June, our front door stands open to the sleeping city. The old house inhales dawn, and our normally bustling block soaks in quiet like a sponge. The screams seem far away at first—cutting through the morning silence, rising like a set of waves on hard sand, louder and higher, louder and higher again.  Coffee mugs land on tables. Listening at the back windows, then moving to the front porch, the shrieks become words. Help! I’ve been stabbed! I’ve been stabbed!  A young woman stands across the street, leaning on a neighbor’s railing. Help me! Help me! I’ve been stabbed!  

I experienced trauma as a child, and I was a therapist for a decade. But that morning, I re-learn how perception is torn by trauma, how time pauses and re-winds. As I recognize danger, colors brighten, and sounds sharpen. The fear jabbing into my belly is immediately tamped down, creating space for decision-making.  

I ask her, Do you want me to call 911?   

Yes, call, I need help! She walks toward me, left arm holding her right. She pauses to lean on a parked car. The block is eerily quiet, deserted. Where are the usual early dog-walkers and baby strollers? Why hasn’t anyone else heard her screaming?

I tell my husband, Call 911. Now. She’s bleeding a lot. I grab a chair from the porch and set it on our lawn. Here, I ask her, sit down, please.

I don’t want this to be happening. Blood streaks red stripes down her legs and oozes slowly from the back of her neck. I put my hand on her fear-damp shoulder and tell her she is going to be okay. I ask her to keep her wrist up, to squeeze the towel I’ve wrapped around it to her body. I’ve been stabbed! I’ve been stabbed! Her voice shakes. Her pupils are circles of glazed fear.

He stabbed me! He’s in a car. He’s still around. He’s in a car! She stands up to keep running from him, to repeat the motion that kept her alive this morning. The mind tells the body now now now run run run!

I look up and down the block and see no one.

Your job is to sit still right now while we wait for the ambulance. You’re going to be all right. I rewind. I repeat: Sit down, please. Help will be here soon. You are going to be okay.

The ambulance comes. One strong woman takes each of her elbows and walks her inside its big doors.  The siren wails away.

Soon, police crime-scene tape closes both sides of our street, and pooled blood dries slowly on the plastic chair in my front yard.

The sun is high when neighbors begin to gather in tight circles on the corner. I avoid them. I try not to swirl my thoughts into whirlpools by over-telling the story. I focus my mind on the police, mostly women of color, whose compassionate intelligence shines over their face masks. Talking to my friend, I describe their supervisor, wearing a simple summer skirt, badge around her neck.

Mid-day, a firefighter hoses down the blood in the street and on the sidewalk. Water pressure flips the plastic chair over and leaves a patch of bare mud on the lawn. We use a soapy brush to clean the dried blood off my car.

The next morning, I wake up and think, Crap. That happened. I recite the thank God’s: thank God we heard her; thank God her injuries will heal. I remember my hard-won crisis-counseling mantra:  trust the intervention you could give and when you gave it.

I have a nightmare the next night:  I’m still a therapist, working at the university counseling center. I’m supposed to be doing something, but I can’t remember what it is. In my dream, I avoid my frustrated boss and finally tell myself, in a refrain, I’m going to have to quit. I’m going to have to quit.

Four days after the stabbing, I’m hoarding gluten-free bread. I have one loaf in the bread basket, two loaves in the freezer, and two in the refrigerator. I’m not anxious, I’m just hungry, right? Before I left the job where vicarious traumas stuck to my skin like burrs, I’d open my desk drawer to find six open bars of chocolate in my desk drawer, each with one solitary and reassuring square remaining. Under my desk, pairs of Piccolino sandals and Dansko pumps seemed to multiply on their own–as if someone else had bought them. Until I realized, until I finally said, I’m going to have to quit.

Day nine, I look down at my sneakers and see small circles of rusted red-brown. Oh. Blood specks on my shoes. I remember that, not long ago, I helped someone. I keep walking.

Categories
Memoir

Porches

Open fields were flattened into dusty pans by the Colorado sun, and an old thermostat shaped like a coke bottle read eighty-six degrees that noon. I stood in a narrow line of shade cast by a dusty porch pillar. A thin layer of dirt and cobwebs clung to the house’s beige siding, and behind me, the wide lawn was yellowed by heat. Rain refused to land in those weeks; wildfire smoke colored the sky day and night.

At my feet sat two bags of medically tailored, frozen meals that I volunteered to deliver to Project Angel Heart clients, all of whom live with a life-challenging illness.  On this porch in a Denver suburb, I knocked and waited, hoping that a favorite client was well enough to make it to the door. As the sun baked my bare calves, I heard “Omar” approach. Tall and a bit stooped, he opened the door slowly, and smiled. One of his eyes was bluer than the other, and light shone from his brown skin like it does through oak leaves in November. I was fifty-two that summer and wouldn’t be surprised if Omar was twice my age.

When he asked how I was that day, I told him, I’m doing fine, but I get discouraged about this country sometimes, you know? Only six months earlier, President Obama had left office. Omar thought for a moment, leaning his tall body against the door frame. Then he touched his heart and said, Just look in here. Hand on chest, he reminded me:  This is where it all starts.  

A few Fridays later, Omar’s blue shirt bore a stain of food debris where a military honor might have been pinned.  How are you doing? I asked him.

I feel pretty good, then not so good. He said. I got hope, though. I do have hope.

What are you hoping for?

Well, it’s a general hope, he told me, and the lines of his face softened. We got some problems in this world. But the Creator put it all there. Ain’t nothing missing.

That is the truth, I responded.

Here’s the thing, he went on, the inside and the outside, you know, one of those is more important. And that’s the inside. He looked past me into the distance. As he took a deep breath, the bones of his sternum rose, suggesting he could gently lift up and fly away. The subjective is the inside. And culture can’t touch that. That’s what my mother taught me. What we make on the inside? That’s the real culture.

I haven’t seen Omar in almost a year. I volunteer less often lately, and my routes are more varied. One of the last Fridays I saw him, Omar opened the door wide and invited me inside. I have a bag for you, he told me. In those pre-Covid days, volunteers returned clients’ delivery bags to Angel Heart’s office so they could be re-used.

I stepped from the porch into his living room. The house was bright inside, with a comfortable clutter of books and papers scattered about. A 1940’s jazz tune swirled out of his stereo.

How are you today? I asked.

I’m not so well. It’s hard when you’re old, he responded.

 Well, I love the music you have on.

I don’t like the TV. I just listen to this all day. He waved his long fingers toward the stereo. It’s messy in here, he said, shuffling toward the kitchen. On the wall was a framed photo of a younger Omar, with round cheeks and dark hair. And amid family photos, a portrait of a brown-eyed Jesus gazed down from the wall. Reds and greens animated his Kente cloth robe as he held his hands out in welcome, at the table of communion.

Omar returned with the delivery bag. This music makes me want to dance, I said. He grinned at me and straightened his back.

Well, you go right ahead. I wish I could join you!  He moved one foot out to the side, then back to the center again. Here we go! he said. We stood giggling together for a moment, with Jesus looking on.

I said, Well, you just gotta be sure and not dance too fast after I go. Take it easy now! He smiled, then lowered his head and walked me to the door.

 Oh, I’ll be careful, don’t you worry. And thanks for the food. You take care out there!

I stepped off his porch, heading to my next delivery, as the door closed behind me.

Decorated Meal Bag
Loading up for April delivery

Categories
Memoir

Indiana Lake Shore, c 1971

The hilltop dune rises above Michigan’s shore in an arc of pure white, ancient as the lurching staircase. Handrails offer splinters to the grip of a summer child, and bare feet, tender from the climb, wind the apex path past a mottled green door to the crest of ribbon sand shining in late morning sun. Eternal sky-face above the blank-white ridge, spikes of tall grass dividing into soft trail that will fall, fall, fall under her weight.

Mouth closed, should she drop from flight head-first and gasp grains of sand. Legs lift, then touch into drifts of forgiving white. Speed at the turning, and impossible freedom. Laughter erupts like the wild cry of a gull, to fall and fall and fall.

Under her feet, dry sand sings a whale song.

Dune angles away. Breath catches solid earth while a heart is beating and the lake is laughing its own blue-green witness. Then the magnetic southerly lean, hand reaching to grasp the brown rail squared above wooden risers. Breathe and ascend, touching every tread, toe after toe, to the velvet top of the sand hill roost.

 And run it again.

On the hilltop with Mamma

Categories
Memoir

Shamrock Viking

Thanks so much to the kind folks at Pithead Chapel for including “Shamrock Viking” in this month’s issue: https://pitheadchapel.com/.

Categories
Memoir

Colfax and Monroe

In 1985, almost twenty and on my own in Denver, I worked as a hostess at a restaurant on the fringe of downtown. Legend had it that the building–three narrow floors encased by roughhewn brick–had once housed a brothel. My manager called me the “door whore” and made sport of sidling up to me to brush his hand against my behind.

The gleaming wives and glittering girlfriends of Denver’s powerful men would sashay through the large glass doors with a gust of winter wind. Standing next to my podium, they shrugged off their fur coats for me to catch mid-air. I hung those expensive wraps in a long, oak-paneled room that soon filled with the smell of designer perfume—Cline’s Obsession, Dior’s Poison. During lulls on busy Saturday nights, my fingers brushed along the comforting softness of mink, raccoon, and fox. At the end of the night, rich men veiled in cigar smoke filled my tip jar with five-dollar bills.  Their cash paid for white Russians at the corner bar, or– sometimes—for lines of cocaine at all-night parties.

Finally away from the small flat house in Florida where my mother drank and raged, the sane and stable independence I’d envisioned eluded me. Instead, a gnawing loneliness festered under my rib cage, growing sharp and dangerous edges.  I shared an apartment off the corner of Colfax and Monroe–a block from the number fifteen bus downtown–with a roommate I once hoped to befriend but now avoided. A few nights a week were spent with my boyfriend, who liked to “wake and bake” on his days off, pressing his mouth to a bong as he sat up in bed, then raising his glazed eyes to the late morning.  Sometimes, he and I would walk from his place near Cheeseman Park to a small grocery and buy Soft Batch cookies to binge on together. The chemical sweetness of those cookies was choking, but like so many things then, I thought I could take it, that I should be able to withstand any discomfort, no matter how tainted.

That second winter away from home, a long coke high morphed into depression and thoughts of suicide. I sat in the back of a cab one night after work, under the midnight streetlamps, and watched the reflections of tidy brick bungalows flick past the window.  Families lived there who were safe and normal, people who knew how to be good, to be happy. As the cab pulled over on Monroe Street, I quietly handed the driver a small wad of one-dollar bills.

As I entered the dark vestibule and trudged up the grimy flight of stairs to my apartment door, my tabby cat meowed her insistent welcome. In the bathroom, she waited for me to pull dental floss along the cracked linoleum, then pounced on the white thread in mock ferocity. She turned on her back, and I knelt to play my fingers over the warmth of her belly. Batting at my hand, claws retracted, she purred. When we went to bed, she curled into the bend of my knees while I cried in the dark. I could never abandon her.

On the back page of Westword magazine, near the personal ads and photos of escorts for hire, I found a therapist with a sliding scale fee. Esther was tall and beak-nosed, her dark hair faintly shot through with gray, and her gaze both alert and tender. Session after session, she listened to my stories, then offered a brief hug as we said goodbye. When Esther told me You’re a very strong person, I believed her. Before long, I registered for classes at the Denver campus of CU, toting shiny pumps that I’d slide on after class to hostess the dinner shift.

I didn’t understand–as I started my adult life that year–how my moods would continue to cycle. The tentacles of sadness that wound around my chest in November would sometimes swing upward in spring until I was filled with more energy than my body seemed able to handle. Much later, my mother’s family tree was lit up like a hazard sign with bipolar symptoms and diagnoses of her siblings and grandchildren. While my mood problems never crossed the threshold to that diagnosis, my patterns of withdrawal and impulsivity were much like my mother’s and—like hers–driven more by heredity than lack of effort or love. Now and then, with my grown sons, I will drive past the gentle slope of porch roof where my old cat would lounge on sunny days. Inside the upstairs bedroom that was mine are freshly painted white walls and a whirring ceiling fan. The neon light of Monroe Liquors still glows on the corner, but across from its parking lot are an upscale restaurant and a pie shop. Like a tour guide, I have pointed out to my family the landmarks of my lost days. My boys know well the vulnerabilities they’ve inherited, the tender traps they must navigate as they map their own adult lives.

Categories
biking Writing

Publication Number Two!

Down in the Dirt Magazine liked my piece “Nothing Bad Happens” well enough publish it in their May 2020 issue: http://scars.tv/cgi-bin/works_e.pl?/home/users/web/b929/us.scars/perl/text-writings/g8964.txt

Thanks to them, and thanks to all of you for your kindness as I slowly build my writing skills, which I couldn’t do without the blog’s self-imposed, twice monthly deadlines (loosely enforced as they are). More important, the rewarding jolt of attention from you, dear reader, makes my inner four-year-old very happy.

My adult self, meanwhile, has been drawing inspiration from my biking life. Several years ago, I stood in a friend’s driveway as he chatted with his neighbor about the Leadville 100 mountain bike race, a grueling hundred-mile, high altitude suffer fest. Registered for the race, he told us With two little kids and a job, I have no time to really train. But I’m not worried. I have a deep base. He’d raced in Leadville before, and spent years grinding out impressive mileage. I heard from my friend that his neighbor finished the Leadville 100 in only nine hours. For weeks we riffed about the deep base. I could ride that again, no problem. I’ve got a deep base. Writing muscles, like leg muscles, must be worked, then worked again, each repetition contributing to that under-girding structure.

The more I write, the more I realize that my writing base has only begun to be built. I wish it weren’t so. I wish the habit of writing was as ingrained as the pressure of my feet on bike pedals and the instinctive turn of my eye to the top of the rise. It took me years to learn the simple truth that the trick to riding all the way up a steep hill is to not get off the bike. The secret to writing, in the inimitable words of Annie Lamott, is to simply stop not writing. Get and keep your butt in chair. But I’ve been mountain biking—with a few lulls—for over twenty years. And I’ve been writing for only a few.

Well before the pandemic reared its ugly head, I struggled to keep consistent writing hours. And I agonize over finishing pieces.  Self-criticism screams at me to stop, but I am learning to roll my eyes at myself and just keep going. I only learned to stay on my bike on those climbs after I realized how hard it is to get back on it, to re-gain purchase on a gravelly incline is more work than slogging slowly along. I made a commitment to write because the satisfaction of making something beautiful has no equal.

I’ll have my deep base as a writer, eventually. The only way to fail at this is to stop and not start again. I may not be the most ambitious or self-disciplined person in the world, but I don’t know anyone more stubborn. My impatience and dis-tractability mask a mean resolve. I’ll keep pedaling. I’ll blog imperfectly, submit relentlessly, and take class after class. Every hour in the chair will be another mite of progress building that elusive base.

Downhill is differently wonderful. Last summer, near Keystone.