Rule Number One

Great heaps of snow press into the mountainside, and ski tracks thread down a high chute like parallel scratches of a needle. Torreys Peak pulls blue sky earthward with sharp granite hooks. I sit on a sun warmed lift chair at Arapahoe Basin, my ski pants pressing human form into the plastic cushion.

Rule Number One: Don’t take spontaneous detours onto black diamonds.

Getting off the Pallavacini lift, I take a right, then a hard left onto a trail named East Woods, entering the new Beavers terrain. I hug my skis into the side of the slope, expecting a short traverse that will connect me to the blue-diamond Davis trail. Instead, I glide my way straight into Face Shot Gully, then Thick and Thin, which is much more thick than thin. I traverse until I get stuck. Then I have to find a way down.

Rule Number One: Never ski trees alone.

The slope is dense with evergreen and filled with fresh powder. I’ve checked my speed by turning into the slope, and now I am looking at the rock face, my back open to the steep drop behind me. My ski tips are wedged against a tree trunk. The backs of my skis hover over a powder well that I can’t risk stepping into. And my right ski has been stopped by a sapling that rises only a couple of feet above the snow. Its sharp needles reach into the cold air like the beaks of a hundred tiny birds. As I shift my weight, my skis strip off a ribbon of its tender bark.

There is only one navigable track in sight, and I am perpendicular to it, back to the hill, skis pinned. I could only be in a worse position to get out of here if I were upside down.

Rule Number One:  Don’t panic

I catch my breath and regret the impulsiveness that got me here—enthusiasm over-riding logic, again. A thin membrane of sweat forms under my jacket. I have to find a way to shift right and keep traversing until I get to Davis.

There’s not another soul in sight or within shouting distance. How long would it take ski patrol to find me if I hurt myself? How would they even know I was here?

I pray by thanking the trees all around me for their strength. I ask the fairies to keep me safe. I say, please. I tell the sapling, as my skis gash it once more, I am so sorry.

I look up at the blue sky and pull mountain air into my lungs. I have never been in a more beautiful glade. The hill falls steeply into pristine forest. Patches of light break through the shadows and land on snow like freshly cut jewels.

I put both hands under my right knee and lift it over the mortally wounded sapling. As I push over it, the supple tree bends between my legs then snaps up again behind me. I am back on the barely-there track.

I traverse again, looking for an opening, for any line to follow. Tree after tree, thicker and thicker. Traverse, traverse, TURN!

But my legs won’t do it. My torso won’t shift to face downhill. Instructions to my body have been over-ridden by the muscle of fear. So be it. I sit down on a stamp of snow and flip my skis over my head, then stand again. This fake turn buys me a few more feet of descent. I skootch sideways, sidling down a steep spot. A rock etches a deep groove into the base of my skis as I grind over it, and a tuft of virgin powder is revealed to be a small log. As I scuttle down the hill, I say to my scared mind, It’s all right, just get down bit by bit. Take your time.

Finally, an open slope appears, and I can see the cables of the ski lift not far off.  I make slow, messy turns to the bottom, then load my shaky legs onto the Beavers chair lift. As I ascend, I see how badly I misjudged the distance between Pali and Davis. From here, the notch I came down looks impenetrable.

A half hour after breaking all the rules at once, I stop for tea at Black Mountain Lodge. I set my jacket and helmet down on the bench beside me. When I pick them up to go, a small shower of pine needles floats down, fragrant pixie sticks I sweep into my pocket for safekeeping.

east wall

Coffee with Mamma

Every time I make coffee on a cold afternoon, my mother stands next to me. We watch the first splash of boiling water dampen the paper cone and soften the grains of coffee. Our shared breath breathes in the winter aroma. We wait patiently to pour more water, tempering our eagerness.

And I see my mother, gone so long now, standing in my childhood’s turquoise kitchen. She is letting me “help” serve dessert at a dinner party. In the middle of the kitchen table, a round platter holds a ginger brown cake that has been dusted with a flurry of soft, white sugar. Mamma heats the silver coffee pot with scalding water then empties it again. Soon, the surge of hot coffee fills the gleaming container like the will to life. In the dining room, she pours its black heat into delicate cups, and tiny wisps of vapor rise over the winter tablecloth. Candle wax has overflowed into puddles on the fabric. I want to dip my fingers into its warmth and feel the wax form stiffly to my fingertips. But I don’t. Being Mamma’s helper means being allowed to watch her—close enough to touch her, but not moving at all.

A kettle sings fresh steam into our kitchens. The skin of my face tingles with my mother’s tension about how to make everything, always, just right.

And I miss her. The sadness drips, drips, drips.  But I’m with her all the time. Every time I smell coffee, every time I doubt myself, and every time I cook a meal. I miss her food–fish cooked into so many different forms and flavors that it expands its skins, dives past its limits. I crave the long, white scar on her left elbow, marking where she fell onto an Icelandic country road from the over-sized frame of her brother’s bicycle. I seek out her mingled scents of cigarette smoke and Chanel perfume. I perceive in myself her outward gaze and her habitual remove.

I want her back, but she’s right here.

I see her everywhere when I go to Europe, in the dignified elegance of the dark-haired women who withstand the unflinching north wind, who wear wide silk scarves and line their lips in red. I see her small feet in every shoe store, and I watch her firmly set mouth as she considers something, then decides. I see my mother in the shape of every island. All fishing villages are hers. All forbidden romances are hers, and every mental illness.

A year ago, on the tram sliding into Edinburgh, my mind buzzed with excitement about a new city, about solitude, about seeing my son.  And it washed over me like warm light, a zephyr, how much my mother loved me! I saw her sparkle of joy every time I showed up at her house with or without my little boys. I saw how happy it made her to see me and how far she came to be with me. I sat on that train and remembered the long dazzling years of her health and sobriety. I gave thanks for the hours of travel I’d taken on to savor a seafood extravaganza for my middle boy’s 24th birthday, just to have time together. And the tram floats along the track. Soon, Mom gets on and sits down next to me. She takes my hand and presses it to her heart. We sit quietly as roads and fields turn to old stone walls and a castle comes into view on the hillside.

edinburgh coffee

Night Heron

                       Come down now

as my hand slips from the dial,
                 tired again of looking
for the sound of another way

         to say everything.

Come down now with your diction
                and your dictionary.

Come down, Uncle, come down
        and help me rise.

I have forgot my wings.

--Jake Adam York, from “Letter Already Broadcast into Space”

 

The more I write, the more I wish Jake York were still here. Jake died six years ago this December, felled by a stroke during a holiday party. He was 40, a phenomenal teacher, and a gifted poet.

About a decade before he died, the husband and I sat with Jake in our back yard as late summer dusk fell around our shoulders. While we talked about Jake’s new apartment and his fall classes, a large bird flew overhead. Its white wings darkened to gray at their tips, and its head and beak were inked in black.  What kind of bird is that? Jake asked.

It’s a night heron, I answered. They nest in City Park, just a few blocks away. Night herons are larger and more serious looking than seagulls, and, to my eye, they have some of the ferocity of a bald eagle. But their flight is unique–stillness in motion, a seamless defiance of night herongravity. Determined.

Jake loved jazz, and he loved barbecue. Once, after a brief conversation about music, he stopped by our house with a compact disc of “A Love Supreme,” along with a carefully typed document entitled “How to Listen to John Coltrane”.  Jake savored every meal we shared with him and was horrified by the husband’s rushed gustatory habits. He once offered an admonishment in his baritone drawl, almost preacher-like:  Brad, I do believe you don’t know how to pleasure yourself with food. In this week of feasting gratitude, read Jake’s beautiful poem, Grace, here, “because meals are memorials that teach us how to move.” And his poem, Abide, here, because we can never know how long love’s light has traveled to reach us.

Jake’s poem Letter Already Broadcast into Space, printed on one of his memorial fliers, is tucked in the back of my notebook. I keep a stanza from a Kahil Gibran poem in the same notebook. It asks:

What is it to work with love?

It is to change all things with a breath of your own spirit

And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you

and watching.

Rejection, and Cursing the Drought

The more I write, the more rejection emails I receive. I feel a keen joy hearing back from editors who have read something I wrote closely enough to turn it down. My longest and most kindly-worded “no thanks” came from Brevity Magazine for the time-sensitive, thrice rejected piece below. (Four rejections for this one, if you count the deafening–and understandable–silence from a Colorado on-line newspaper that prints personal essays.)

Thanks, as always, for reading! Please do subscribe via email, post a comment, or just go on quietly with your day. I’ll be here writing and submitting and writing some more.

Cursing the Drought

Summer solstice wind rushes over the roof of our South Park cabin as the husband sleeps. I lie in bed and worry; there will be a fire soon, and it will be bad. On the carpet, our poodle Nyx has a bad dream—she whines and twitches. The wind calms, but before I can drift off to sleep, I suddenly overheat. The searing sensation moves through my lower back and climbs the knobs of my spine until it reaches the base of my skull. A florescent light flicks on in my head. Nighttime hot flashes are like sleeping on a soft electric skillet with a broken switch.

I curse the drought and demand rain.

In the morning, sunlight pounds the field where wildflower buds have hardened into dismal husks. So goes my mood. Seething wind chases me from room to room and chair to chair. Writing outside is impossible—the paper words blow away. I re-latch windows and sit on the bed, my jaw clenched, willing the gusts to stop and water to fall from the sky. But the rain won’t land. Stingy clouds drop only enough moisture to dampen dust into tiny mud balls. Brown splotches land on the deck and windows.

I curse the drought. I demand rain. I glower at the heavens.

June 29th, a spire of white smoke lifts straight into the sky just south of our place. I call 911. The operator tells me that if the fire is up toward Weston Pass, it’s been burning since yesterday. She sounds relaxed. We watch as helicopter-wasps buzz over the fire, fire for blog 2dropping mammoth buckets of liquid. Soon, hot air moves fast from the west, and the smoke darkens and reddens. I put down my binoculars and step out the back door, determined not to watch, not to worry. Nyx sniffs the air and refuses to walk with me, panting in the shade as a gust rattles dry aspen leaves. I go watch again:  the smoke has become its own swirling black hillside as desiccated conifers combust. We throw our bags into the car and drive back to Denver.

Rain, dammit, rain! I curse. I complain.

The internet offers a photo of the Weston Pass Fire, red flames licking through doomed trees as Jones Hill is consumed.  The fire took two hours to grow from a 50-acre lightning strike to a 1500-acre inferno. Two days later, it triples in size. It doubles yet again the following week, topping out at over 13,000 acres. Our cabin is just outside the mandatory evacuation zone, in a defensible field without evergreen. But I am obsessed with worry. I check the website hourly, day after day. I hate my privileged self-absorption, and I hate my helplessness. I don’t sleep. I can’t cry.

Here’s what happens when your prayer for rain becomes a profane demand: a bit of helpful moisture lands on the fire, but it brings with it a rare high-country tornado. Your peaceful retreat becomes a news video of a funnel cloud touching down in the middle of a raging wildfire.

Here’s the other thing that happens when the afternoon monsoons finally return:  the rain falls in torrents, and rocky mudslides block recently re-opened roads. But the fire is contained—we return in time to see the firefighters’ trailer-camp being towed away. The helicopters fly off into a wet afternoon sky. All summer, the air holds a gauzy curtain of haze from hundreds of western fires. Thirteen thousand acres burned in the local forest I love; a million and a half acres are scorched in California.

Walking near our cabin in August, I am startled by the sight of a white mushroom the size of a bowling ball. I sleep again, and I wake one morning to watch a herd of elk grazing green shoots. A burst of yellow appears at the top of an aspen. In September, more hot wind chases the rains away. Taking in our view on the fall equinox, I see the burn scar without flinching. I want it to snow this winter, but I request it gently, without cursing or demands. I know the heating planet will outlive me. Today, I’ll write in peace and hope to leave something good behind.

 

Nothing Bad Happens

Martha and I are asleep in our room with yellow curtains the night that Mamma wakes us up to meet her new friends. Dreams may be happening when I start to hear talking and music, but I don’t always know the difference between dreams and daytime. I know how old I am and can show you on my fingers–this many:  four. I don’t know what the sixties are or that they just ended. And I don’t know where my Daddy is tonight.

I am the baby of the family. My other big sisters are sleeping in their own rooms downstairs, but I share with Martha. She is five. Sometimes she will sing to me at night and I will feel myself float up up up in the air with her pretty voice.

Before bedtime, if I stand on my tippy toes, I can look out my window and down into the shadowy back yard. When I am twice as old, when I know what the 1970’s are, and that I am in them, I will jump out of that window to show that I am big and that I won’t break my leg. On that day, I will perch on the narrow window sash and my mind will freeze, stuck like the tip of a knife in bone. Martha and the bigger neighborhood kids will have gotten bored looking up and watching me be scared. They will be gone when I finally bend my shaking knees and stop looking down at the grass. So no one will see me when I push off into space and land with my thighs shoved into my chest. No one but me will hear my teeth clack together as I hit the ground. Everything will hurt when I land. But I won’t break my leg.

And, with no audience, I will practice how to not to let fear stop me. My sweaty hands will will grip the window frame just long enough to prepare for landing by bending my body into the leathery shape of a bird’s feet. I will leap and land, then walk through the back yard and into the house through the dining room’s shining glass doors. I will saunter through the kitchen, wishing, as always, to be seen. I will want Mamma to notice what I have done and to say, Jenny Lynn! I thought you were in your room! How did you get here? But that day, the kitchen will be empty.

Tonight, when Mamma comes to wake us up, I’m still little. She opens the door, sending a crooked line of light across the floor. I roll onto my side, away from the brightness. Voices I don’t know creep in from the hall.

I feel my bed tilt as Mamma sits down beside me and touches my shoulder. My nose wrinkles at the smell of grown-up drinks and smoke on her skin. Jenny Lynn, wake up! Come and meet my friends! I push my eyes half-way open and see her hair loose around her face. My eye lids fall closed again.

I hear Mamma’s crooked, late night way of walking as she goes over to Martha’s bed. Wake up and come see my friends! My beautiful girls. Come on, get up for Mamma! Her voice is sticky like pink candy.

She pulls us to our feet, wrapping a warm arm around each of us. We lean into her sides and stagger together down the hallway. Two men sit on our long, gold-colored couch. They look fuzzy in their blue jeans and straight brown hair. There wasn’t a dinner party, so I don’t know why there are ashtrays and drinks and strangers. Martha and I stand next to each other in our nightgowns, blinking at the bright lamps Mamma has turned on. Light from the kitchen ceiling bends over our heads to the top of the dark basement stairs. See? These are my little girls!

We start to smile at Mamma’s new friends. I know I am supposed to be cute and sweet.

Aw, Ragna, you didn’t need to get them out of bed! one of the men says. His smile to us is real.

The other man says, Look how sleepy they are! What cutie pies!  He looks from us back to Mamma, who tilts her head and grins.

Say hi to my friends! We obey her and give a little wave. She tells us to go back to bed.

Those two are my babies, we hear her say as she turns back to the party that came out of nowhere. But you know, I have seven children! The words of the men melt away as we close our bedroom door.

Martha and I go back to our beds and our dreams. I don’t remember anything about the next day, but my mornings were joyful–I woke up happy, and I woke up knowing I was loved. Only decades later did I paint that night in dark colors. I write the story and recoil at my old certainty that my mother had been so horribly wrong, when nothing bad happened. I loved her and loved that she was proud of us. I jumped at the chances she gave me to be seen.

Welcome, and Clams Casino

The more I write, the more I appreciate reading and being read. So, welcome, and thanks for spending some of your reading time here! Expect a short essay two or three times per month–mostly memoir, with a few reflections on the writing process.

And if I haven’t already tracked you down to announce it in person, I read my first post, Fighting Woman, on the Denver Orbit Podcast (ten or so minutes into episode twenty-seven). You can find it here.

Clams Casino

One summer day when I am twelve, Michael, who is my mother’s best friend, teaches us how to make Clams Casino. Michael has a regular place at our dining room table. He and Mamma always smoke and laugh together after dinner, his lopsided grin under wavy black hair bringing out the deepest green of her hazel eyes. On Daddy’s days off from the Weather Bureau, he and Michael sit at the backyard picnic table and drink cans of Stroh’s. I like to perch on the patio steps in that summer of 1978, listening as they talk about politics and travels and all of the things we have to be grateful for.

After Michael dies the next spring, I hold on to the bright memory of our summer feast. I watch again as my mother stands next to Michael at the kitchen sink. She looks small leaning toward him, her head barely reaching to his shoulder. Michael demonstrates how to press a blade into the tender seam of a clam shell, then twist until it snaps open to expose a mound of flesh resting on its own blue-green reef. He says:  Ragna, I’ve seen guys stab themselves right through the palm doing this, so be careful!  She smiles and takes a turn–soon she wields the clam knife like an expert. I help sprinkle the opened clams with a blend of cheese, bacon, and spices. I stare into the oven as they bake, transfixed. Meanwhile, the wild blue crabs that we have scooped out of Chesapeake Bay are waiting to be steamed, bubbles of salt water foaming at their crusty mouths.

That morning, Daddy had driven Mamma and Michael, one sister and me to a cove along the bay, a place with a pier and a welcoming stretch of beach. He’d supervised the noosing of chicken-necks onto lengths of twine that hang under the surface, just deep enough to be in shadow.  I lie on my tummy and rest my chin on my stacked fists as I watch the dimple where a bait line meets still water. I inhale the mingled scents of salt air and creosote. Soon, my eyes catch a flash of blue as a crab latches on to eat while paddling backward with its its tiny swimmer-legs. I pull the taut string slowly and wave an alert to my dad so he can slip the net under our prey. The crab thrashes as Daddy raises it from the water. We untangle it from the net, then go to the next line and pull up another.

Mamma is wearing a bandana on her head, paisley red against the dark of her hair. Her legs are tan under jean shorts. Even dressed for the beach, she radiates elegance. She strolls along the shore, her shape growing smaller as she scrambles to the edge of a rocky breakwater. I watch the bait lines and look for her again. Soon, I feel her light step on the boards of the dock. Tendrils of hair have blown free as she explored, and sheer sunlight bounces from the water back up into her face. She is filled with peace. In a little while, we head for home.

Today Michael laughs with us as Daddy uses long metal tongs to hoist pugnacious crabs from kitchen sink to stove. The claws of one giant are clamped onto the legs of another’s, forming a crustacean chain that travels through the air and lands with clanks into the beer-belching steam-pot. My father holds down the lid of the pot until the crabs stop fighting. In the dark heat, the blue shine of their shells transforms to brick red.

We fill water glasses and pull down the can of Old Bay seasoning from the cupboard. Layered sections of The Washington Post protect the kitchen table, set with wooden mallets, small knives, and stacks of paper napkins. We sit in a circle and toast in Icelandic: Skal!  First, we eat the clams, succulent flesh under lightly flavored cheese. Michael is pleased as we marvel at the tastiness of Clams Casino. Then, we settle in to pick our crabs—removing the top shell and pulling translucent cartilage away from segments of crab meat. The afternoon stretches into dusk. I use a wooden mallet to break open the hard shell of a claw and dissect its pieces, chewy flesh still holding the shape of pincers.

I put my hammer down and look into my mother’s face. I absorb her concentration and her pleasure in the day.  She lifts a morsel of back-fin to her lips, holding the delicate bite between her thumb and the edge of a serrated steak knife. She doesn’t drop a speck, wastes nothing. I see that the sunlight reflected off the bay still dances on her cheek,  shimmering all around us, from face to face. I pull that light forward through time and extend it to shine through the dark day of Michael’s funeral. When I tug again, the taut string glides through my hand like water.

Fighting Woman

Mamma

We called our mother Mamma, not pronounced Momma in the American way, but mummah, as it sounded in Iceland, with a pause on the combined m’s. She forbade our calling her “Mommy,” the indignity of the American word implied by her mocking tone as she said it. When I was small, I only ever called our mother Mamma. The second syllable turns upward in my memory, holding the shape of a question, of hope and home.

Mamma

When I was little, Iceland was the scent of sulfurous water that clung to my father’s skin after he returned from a trip there. My mother’s island home was the smell of smoked leg of lamb—a frozen red haunch wrapped in foil that had been smuggled past customs, then softly boiled to anchor our feast on Christmas Eve. Iceland was a dragon-shaped map on our dining room wall. And Iceland was the place that held my mother’s name, simply and crisply:  Mamma.

So “Mamma” was the answer I gave when a neighbor in our DC suburb asked me my mother’s name. He re-introduced himself to her, and they laughed at my not knowing her real name. Embarrassed by my ignorance, my mother taught me, syllable by syllable, how to say her name properly.  She wrote down every letter, and her handwriting, so elegant and even, was itself a lesson in correctness. She had me repeat her name over and over until it rolled off my tongue with sharp r’s and a crisp Icelandic rhythm. Most grown-ups, including my father, called her Ragna, using open vowels and mushy r’s. But I knew how to say her full name: Ragnhildur Gudrun Finnbjornsdottir Ellis.

Ragnhildur:  Fighting Woman.

My mother fought incorrectness, both in pronunciation and in behavior. She fought the dulling ordinariness of American culture, with its casual manners and sloppy clothing. At night, through cycles of peacefulness and of combat, she simultaneously fought my father and alcohol, her berating voice rising and falling for hours. Then came the thump of her shoulder hitting the wall after my father shoved her hard and staggered to the front door and escape. She fought to hide the bruises, but showed them to me when I came out of my room to try to take care of her. Year in, and year out, she was Fighting Woman.

She fought hard for the steady sanity she gained in her sixties. Now that I can see the pattern of illness in her descendants, diagnoses lined up like breadcrumbs in the woods, I know she fought cyclical depression and psychosis. When I was growing up, I sometimes thought she was a monster. But the monsters were in her head, and, as strong as she was, she couldn’t defeat them.