Sometimes it takes the loss of those who live close-by to really appreciate what great neighbors we have. Demographics have changed in my old Denver neighborhood since I moved here in 1989. Take Wilma and Lupe, for instance, who moved in next door about five years ago. They were colorful friends who loved to wake up early and roam in their garden, especially after a summer rain. They would pull at a weed or two, then yank up juicy earth worms. And devour them.
Daddy’s strong hands lifted me gently in the air and landed me on a bar stool. Bright morning light gleamed off the polished floor boards of his favorite pub near our home in Oxen Hill, Maryland. Bubbles rose through the pink-tinged soda of my Shirley Temple, served to me in a tall, thick-bottomed glass. The smiling bartender pierced three red cherries and a thin slice of orange onto a wooden pick. He balanced them over the rim of my glass, then plunked down a small bowl of peanuts between my fancy drink and my father’s tall beer.
On those pre-school pub mornings–also called “doing errands”–my father taught me about water tension. He asked the bartender for two small glasses of water, then slowly over-filled one with the other. See, he told me, the container can hold more liquid than the space inside it. It pulls on itself to keep from spilling over! I watched, transfixed, as water rose above the rim, holding onto itself in a rounded puff. But one more drop broke the surface tension, sending the liquid down the side of glass and onto the shiny wooden bar.
Another day, Daddy showed me how to create air pressure inside a plastic straw by holding my finger at the top and pushing the straw down into my drink. When I let go, the pink concoction lifted high into the straw, above the horizon of the glass. I watched bubbles sit inside the clear tube, then lifted my finger and let them fall. I soon became adept at lifting Shirley temple sips to my mouth in straw lines while my father savored his glass of beer.
On our morning outings, he piloted the off-white station wagon with its back seat littered with paper grocery bags and magazines. I sat at next to him, alert to our next adventure. He tuned his radio to a country station and laughed as he sang along, Work your fingers to the bone, and what do you get? Bony fingers, bony fingers! Once, we stopped to save a box turtle trying to cross Suitland Parkway, that fast-moving pavement between stands of deep Maryland woods. We often pulled over to pick up trash that had been left along Oxen Run, stashing aluminum cans in the way back to take home and mash flat with a brick. After we stuffed the compacted circles into a bag for recycling, we swept reddish clay dust off of the driveway.
I watched my father tap small white chunks of old mortar off scavenged bricks, and I helped him pile the best ones in the back yard. In a wheelbarrow, we combined water with gray cement mix, then used a hoe and a trowel to chop it into a smooth goo that smelled like summer happiness. As Daddy slopped wet concrete into a smooth layer on top of one brick, I waited with the next one in my hand. Restlessness sent me running along the connected back yards of our neighborhood, but when I returned, the base of a barbecue grill had taken shape under his hands.
When the kitchen sink sprang a leak, I shone a flashlight beam on the suspect pipe and handed Daddy a rag, then a wrench. He pulled his head out from under the sink and sat back on the checkered tile floor to consider his next step, sending me to fetch him a can of Stroh’s from the basement fridge. If a bathroom door hinge or a broken dresser handle had lost a screw, we drove to the hardware store in the Hillcrest Heights Shopping Center, a few doors down from the store-front library. We scrutinized various replacements, pulling out small plastic drawers until we found a screw with just the right size and shape and pointiness to hold together what had come apart. The man behind the counter put our treasures into a small envelope that he traded for a rumpled bill from Daddy’s wallet. As we stepped out of the door hand in hand, the chime of a bell silvered the air above our heads.
It’s a three-season week in Denver—technically spring but with a recent day close to 80 degrees and snow in the forecast for tomorrow. Above my back-yard fence, recently unfurled aspen leaves touch each other in surprise, too soft to make a sound as the breeze floats their fresh green in slow cirlces. The fountain tinkles water into the bird bath, and a bee buzzes past—a cliché of this season I can’t resist. The goddess Nyx, regal in her shimmering black coat, steps dainty paws onto the mulch behind the blooming crab-apple. She eats a blade of grass then retreats to the shade of the house.
The sun over my left shoulder tosses shadows from my damp curls onto my notebook paper. If I look inside the dark loops scattered across the page, rather than at them, I see moon shapes and slices of pie. I tilt my head, and bright oblong footballs give way to a constellation of marbles, light circles planets plopped onto a newly discovered cosmos. Half a block away, a chainsaw jets raw noise into the stillness, and suddenly the magical universe of miniature shapes becomes just shadows on paper.
Dogs bark next door. My hand moves over the page, determined to find dreamy stillness again.
The hundred-year-old maple across 24th Avenue has only the faintest green on its twig tips. With age comes caution. The mass of its old trunk holds as much wood as five of these quaking aspens, with their heart shaped leaves. The sun heats my arms into beaches and sandbars. On goes the chainsaw, then off again. Vroom. Quiet. VRROOM. Into one lull drops the click of a fence latch as another neighbor steps into her yard. A mourning dove coos, supplicant and charming.
The more I write, the more I appreciate the variety of stillness and interruption in all of my favorite places. Peaceful mountain meadows erupt into thunder claps, or into the rattle of disturbed grasshoppers. The loud stare of a moose stops quiet thought faster than any city siren. She might as well be yelling as your eyes meet on the muddy road: I will bash you. Just give me an excuse.
City quiet, though, is especially rare, an almost inner hush as traffic sounds and background rumbles miraculously cease. The multitude of neighborhood children all sigh into contemplation at once, daydreaming in unison. An hour west, the mobbed spring ski hill also silences unexpectedly. As the crowd swishes down a popular run and the chairlift creaks overhead, I take one short turn toward that pair of pines, and a celestial mute button silences everything but pure light, inside and out. In high volume motion closer to home, as I cycle next to a tumbling creek, perfect silence descends, startling as the cry of a blue jay in this sunny back yard.
A squirrel clacks and squawks at me from the top of the magnolia. Its tail twitching over its head, it spends its outrage then offers a friendlier noise from low in its rodent throat, its contrite little heart telling a story all its own. The chatter of the world meets my determination to making something in stillness–despite or in harmony with this creative symphony of interruption.
Will I learn to listen to the noise and the quiet? I crave motion and distraction as much quiet contemplation. I fall in love with the messy world all over again in the spring, my attention leap-frogging to the next season. It’s easy to be infatuated with summer when it’s not here yet, roasting both city and forest. It’s easy to be happy now, as a white butterfly slips through the holly-spikes of the mahonia bush laden with blooms. I marvel at the tender clematis vine threading itself into the air above the fecund earth. Yesterday’s heat has singed the late tulip petals and sent the hyacinth into retreat, but I’m in love, falling into spring with all of the irrational anti-gravity of romantic bliss.
A baby cries across the fence, his first warm season begun. In my house, the husband clatters a baking sheet into a drawer, jarring yet more sound to me through the open window. Voices take up conversation in the front yard. I crank open the green umbrella for shade, but keep the right half of my body in the white-hot light.
For the grieving moms, children lost to overdoses and gun violence, to illness or accident, all of you who have whisper-sung their lullaby at a funeral.
For the hearts carrying unmarked loss by miscarriage, for those who tried and tried, whose fertility couldn’t meet the call. To the adoptive parents, thinking of the woman who birthed this child you love with every fiber of your own body. For the ones who stepped in through marriage, and stayed, even when the marriage didn’t.
For the pastor mom, working on Sunday. For the trans fathers and trans mothers, on a day when maybe no one really gets it, and the gay and lesbian parents wondering why, even today, we have to use these labels.
To the mothers whose own moms have died. For the stay-at-home fathers and mothers, unpaid and too often unsung. To the mothers living in poverty, no home in which to stay.
To the woman after her abortion, grieved or relieved, and to the terrified teen in Georgia today.
To the incarcerated parents and to the grandparents standing in, to the soldier mom and the brave woman who knows Not this body, not this lifetime.
To all of you, I send comfort. To all of you–not a Happy Mother’s Day–but the day you have, the day this life has given you.
Down Elk Creek Road from the Buck Snort Saloon and a few miles outside Pine, Colorado, the North Fork of the South Platte River winds its way toward a popular mountain biking area known as Buff Creek. (What fun hog has time to say Buffalo when they can say Buff, after all?) This recreation mecca offers over fifty miles of flowing trails that roll through historic burn areas and offer views of the Continental Divide, or that meander in lush creek-fed forests. The Baldy Trail scoops riders over granite humps and tours them under the hat-shaped dome named Little Scraggy. For me, the place is a reminder of how my riding life overlaps the writing life.
On a recent morning, I stood in the Buff Creek parking lot with a group of very fit mountain bikers–mostly women and mostly racers. My friend Mary—gregarious, blonde, and seriously strong–made introductions. This is Jenny-Lynn. She is an amazing writer, she said. Even when spoken clearly, rider and writer sound almost identical, so I quickly clarified that my kind friend was talking about writing, and that, as a rider, I would do my best to not slow down the group. Seriously, don’t wait for me, I said. I’ll be fine.
As I chugged behind them all up the Nice Kitty trail, four miles of climbing through switchbacks and over small rocks, I felt an old temptation to conserve my energy, to hold back my breath and power. I answered it out loud: Spend it, Jenny-Lynn, spend it! I’d read an Annie Dillard comment some time ago that also fits the bike riding life: “One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.” She goes on to say, “These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.” Athletic and creative efforts share this trait of filling from below, I remembered, as I caught sight of Mary at the top of the hill. She’d had enough time to adjust a setting on her bike and have a leisurely snack while the group waited for me to arrive, red-faced and sweaty.
I have fought a temptation to hoard my stories, to save the most compelling or difficult ones until later. On a bike, I hear the same fearful voice advising me to hold back, to save my legs for another section or for another day. But strength and suppleness do fill from below—we need to empty ourselves over and over, to spend the spins of the wheel, to tell the stories as best we can right now, every all-out effort making us more generous, freer spenders.
Don’t save it, I remind myself, go, go, go. Pursue the conversation with the novelist, brave the anxiety of the workshop class, schedule a coaching session even though—or precisely because—the story you are grappling with is bringing up spend-able tears.
I’ll squander copious gratitude now on my “Getting it Done” pomodoro method teacher, Mark Springer and his Fiction Unbound portal into the world of speculative fiction. And joyful appreciation to my neighbor and bike-repair consultant, Josh Mattison, who gathers the voices of Colorado’s creative community on his Denver Orbit podcast and always has a kind word. Always. Congratulations galore to Joy Roulier Sawyer, compassionate teacher and beautiful poet, for her recent Pushcart Prize nomination. Check out her new book, Lifeguards. Kudos as well to Dreamers Magazine (the kind Canadians who published my essay, I Don’t Speak Icelandic) for their recent inclusion in Reedsy’s list of the best magazines of 2018.
Sweet trail and rewarding narrative to one and all!
In the warm heart of Africa, I crossed a concrete bridge linking tarmac to terminal as tropical sunshine blazed away an end of rainy season drizzle. Fronds of palm leaves and trumpets of yellow blooms curled in the warm breeze, and a tiny bird bedecked in scarlet plumes flitted through a patch of lush green.
This continent that birthed the human race so long ago is now home to my niece, Rachel, who works as a researcher for one of the many non-governmental organizations in Lilongwe, Malawi. When she arrived to pick me up at the airport, I greeted her in Chichewa: Moni. Muli Bwanji? I have practiced the simple Hello, how are you? many times on the plane, but these short phrases don’t stay in my travel-soaked brain for long.
Rachel’s long brown hair was twisted up into a ponytail bun, and she moved gracefully as a gazelle as she loaded my bags into a borrowed car. In her, I see my sister’s keen intelligence shine out from a darker version of my own mother’s eyes. But most obvious to me in my niece are her dignified beauty and her distinct laugh, a ha ha reminiscent of all her female relatives. In Africa, Rachel introduces me as her “little mother,” sister of her own mother. For twelve days, the topic of motherhood weaved through our conversations like a golden thread.
The day after I arrived, Rachel and I took a three-hour bus-ride across the border to the town of Chipata, in Zambia, where she worked for several months before going to Malawi. Rachel spoke four languages in one short taxi ride, chatting in Hebrew on her cell phone, speaking English to me, then switching from Malawian Chichewa to the closely related Nyanja dialect. My polyglot niece doesn’t get to practice her French, Spanish, or Russian very often while living and working in Africa. I, however, thanked a Zambian immigration officer by saying Gracias, and I greeted Rachel in the morning as I do my sons at home, in my mother’s Icelandic: Godan daginn allan daginn. It means “good morning, all day,” but Rachel gave me a quizzical look in response.
We hired a shared car to drive us to our two-day safari in Zambia’s South Luangwa Park. Shared cars work like this: you agree to a price before departure to get to your destination. Then along the way, the driver picks up other passengers or cargo as he is able, and makes short detours for drop-offs. Driver profit and efficiency maximized, traveler hurry and seat belt expectations minimized.
Outside one village, a young teen girl and a toddler approached our car. The older girl held a small clacking chicken by its wings and tucked it into the trunk between my suitcase and a bag of rice. After tucking the little one next to me, the older girl perched next to the window, face-forward and intent on the road. She wore a brightly patterned traditional wrap over a pink t-shirt. The toddler looked up at my foreign face in wide-eyed fright over and over, her dark eyes filling with tears. After a several miles, I stopped resisting my maternal instinct and briefly cupped her small head in my palm. She slowly let her head fall to the side in sleep. I wished the petite teen to be her sister, but I knew she was her very young mother, unlikely to be educated, and quite likely to suffer during Zambia’s “hunger season,” a hard time that lands almost every year here before the harvest. Little mother, indeed.
At the Marula Lodge, hippos pop their heads out of the Luangwa river, open their eyes to inhale, then flap their ears before plunking under again. I spend my writing time wishing I could slumber all day like they do under the cool river water, coming up for a quick breath to peek at the world and then swim-doze the day away. Mesmerized by the adorable ear-flapping, I can’t look away. My laptop goes into sleep mode. At this point in the trip, I am the dependent one, following my niece around like a baby duck to mooch off of her WiFi hot spot and translation skills. Rachel makes me coffee and cooks me oatmeal before she opens her computer and starts running data sets for her project–actually working–as I gaze at the fast-flowing river.
Rachel and I join an evening safari drive. We bounce along a track in the lush game reserve, sighting grazing zebras and an enormous pond ornamented from end to end with snow-white water lilies. A small herd of elephants enjoying dinner become annoyed by the stink of our guide’s Land Rover. Matriarch and child use their ears as protest flags, first the mother, then the imitating baby waving their ears in synchronized tempo before ambling away to snack a different set of shrubs. I surprise myself by wanting to cry. The elephants are so wild and intelligent, so distinctly and fiercely familial.
As the sun skimmed the horizon, our small group stood by the river bank in red-gold light as yet more hippos snorted laughter and growled yawns in picture-postcard poses. For two years, during one of her father’s diplomatic postings, Rachel and her family lived in Zimbabwe. On a camping trip in Africa, when she was four, the young adventurer resisted her parents’ rule not to explore outside their family’s tent, where hyenas roamed.
My parents visited Rachel’s family in Harare during the grace-filled years of my mother’s sobriety, when both of my parents were healthy and eager for adventure. Rachel tells me, I remember Amma playing the pumpkin pie game with me every night. I had pajamas with a pumpkin pattern printed on them, and Amma had those long sparkly fingernails. She would pretend to scoop out pumpkin from my pj’s, then mash it into a pie and bake it. Rachel was enthralled by this game. My mother tapped the “pie” into a pretend oven to bake, then they giggled together about their pumpkin pie feast. As a young version of my mother’s laugh echoed around us, I tasted the sweetness of their time together.
Note: Posting from Malawi last week with limited data was only semi-successful, so here–in a repeat for some of you–is “November”. And more to come soon about my trip to Mother Africa…. Thanks for reading, subscribing, and commenting!
Mamma stands in the November kitchen on slippered feet, her green robe loosely belted over a nightgown. Clutching her stomach, she leans over the counter between the stainless-steel sink and the humming refrigerator. She waits for the pain to stop, a grimace twisting her face like a storm captured in a photograph. My sister and I sit at the table waiting for her to straighten up and pour orange juice into our favorite glasses. But she keeps her back to us, doesn’t say a word. In another minute, she heaves a deep breath and walks gingerly down the hallway back to bed, one hand still holding her middle. She is sick, again. It is 1970.
In the tired light of not-summer, I bring Mamma milk in bed. She needs it to calm her stomach, and my five-year-old hands carry it carefully up the hallway. I want to make her better. She whispers to me, Just this much, and touches her finger a quarter of the way up a small glass. Just this much. I won’t spill, and the milk will help, I know. I watch her sip one slow sip and set the cup on her bedside table. I tiptoe out of her dark bedroom, turning the door handle quietly as she sighs onto her pillow.
Another damp fall day, we put on our coats and get into Mamma’s brown Chevy. She drives us to the Group Health building, not far across the invisible line dividing our neighborhood in Maryland from the city of Washington, DC. I decide to be a nurse when I grow up, even after I watch a nurse push a small tube up into my mother’s nose, sliding it down the back of her throat, then into her rebellious belly. They need to take some “stomach juice” out to see why she throws up so much, why she hurts all the time. My mother gags as the tube snakes low, then dabs her eyes and tries to smile at me. I feel the intrusion as if into my own throat, and I cringe at the scratches behind my nostrils. Soon, murky liquid lifts up through the miniature hose, coming out from a place where things should only go in. The reversal is disturbing, but I become alert. I am not bored. I will be a nurse someday. I will master this.
The spring that I am fourteen, my father takes early retirement from his job at the Weather Bureau. We are moving to Florida. Mamma decides to have the surgery her doctors have told her will end the acidic battle her digestion wages with itself. They tell her she will be well in two weeks.
A surgeon’s knife cuts out Mamma’s ulcers and most of her stomach. Soon, fevers push tiny drops of sweat onto her upper lip. She lies wordless in the hospital as her weakened body produces a parade of infections. One hundred nights she sleeps alone in that bed with metal rails. After a second stomach surgery, her left eye swells with bacteria. Another surgeon pierces that delicate orb with a needle to relieve the pressure behind my mother’s hazel iris.
I sit with her long days that summer, watching her slack face as she dozes. I open The Washington Post and entertain her with advice from Ann Landers. Out of a hole next to my mother’s belly button, a tube drains her stomach wound—I have seen this brown-tinged liquid before. When her nurse comes to change the bandage, I go downstairs and spoon Dannon blueberry yogurt into my mouth from the hospital cafeteria vending machine. The days become mechanical and remote. In the afternoon, a doctor’s scowl lands on my mother’s impassive face. She looks away from him, indifferent, and I feel the end in her. I’ve had enough of nurses and hospitals. I just want my mother back.
But it’s her nurses who tell the story later, how Mamma shook her head in a silent No when they tried to tempt her appetite back with offers of hamburgers, of chocolate, of beer. Then, one Sunday morning in September, she wakes up asking for food, newly able to lift her head from the pillow. She wants her hair washed. The staff brings cake and balloons when she is discharged, everyone so relieved at her sudden desire to live.
Soon, my mother comes home to our new house on the Pinellas coast of Florida, a house my father bought that summer, one that she has never seen. A small kidney-shaped swimming pool glimmers in the yard, and armadillos roam in nearby Hammock Park. Without her, my sister and I have started high school in this foreign-feeling place where the sun stays high and warm, even in the fall. My mother comes home weighing ninety pounds and pale as blank paper, smiling as she leans on my father’s arm. She comes home and learns how to eat again with her fragment of post-surgery stomach. Sitting on the edge of my new bed, she brushes my hair off of my forehead and tells me not to worry about only getting A’s in my classes. In that small house with no downstairs, I slowly get used to hearing her voice again.