Thursday, February 13, 2014

Watch For Falling Rocks

Dear Chloe,

Remember when we were driving to Acadia in Maine to go on a big camping adventure and we were almost there after driving six hours and I was flustered because I wasn't sure if we were going the right way? You were sitting in the front seat - just old enough, or maybe not quite even old enough to be there legally - and I asked you to help me navigate the way to our campground. You were so dutiful sitting there next to me, your eyes peeled for something  that might help me know I was on the right road, headed in the right direction.  You were new to the role of helper, and you took your job very seriously. You had been assigned the lookout job, but it was unclear exactly what I wanted you to watch for.

The ocean was in all its majesty on our left, and there was a steep incline - a mountain - on our right. The narrow road wound around in tight curves, slicing between contrasting sceneries. The ocean was vast and strong and light. It was indestructible and serene. The forest, on the other hand, was peppered with leggy pine trees swaying to and fro.  Their roots were exposed, and they clawed at the ground like white-knuckled fingers, trying to keep the trees upright despite the pitch of the mountainside.

I was demanding of you as I drove. "Pay attention. I need to know if we're going the right way! I'm not sure where we are! Help me out. Turn off the radio. Focus!" I snapped.  I was not that different from the pine trees - my roots were showing big time, and they were barely doing their job.  When you asked gently -the ocean- how you should help exactly, I barked back, "I don't know...look for signs!"

Signs of what or for what, you couldn't be sure, exactly. I could feel you trying to buckle down though, and be the kind of helper I needed.  You were taking this assignment I'd given you very seriously, and I had sent you a clear message that this was no time for fun.  You took a cleansing breath and focused, just like I'd told you to. We drove on, your senses alert. Your eyes searching for...something.

After a moment, much to your delight, you spotted something ahead that just might help us!  In the distance was a yellow seemed this might be your chance to offer some help and to be successful at your job. It was right around the next bend!  You did just what I had asked.  You found a sign! Slowly, it came into view. "WATCH FOR FALLING ROCKS!" you declared with pride. You smiled and looked to me for affirmation.

And then, all at once, the tension broke and together, we laughed and laughed.  By reading that sign's message out loud, and doing so with such an earnest effort to help, you uncovered something.

Watching for falling rocks is, by its very nature, absurd. Isn't it? Watch for falling rocks? If we're seeing them, aren't we a millisecond away from sure death (our own or the poor sucker who's in our line of vision)? And isn't peering up at the cliff waiting for a piece of it to break free, while you're driving, watching for falling rocks, kind of distracting and, well, dangerous? Isn't it also just a bit grim? As we laughed at the notion, some big things became clear.

When I think about it now, I like to pretend you got to be in charge of signage on that curvy, this-or-that road in Maine that lead to our camping trip adventure. I picture you putting big yellow caution signs all over the damn place! There'd be one around each bend.  But they wouldn't caution drivers against death by falling rocks. Nope. Your signs would alert people to "Watch for precious time!" or, "Watch for hidden gems of connection!" or even the sign that I really needed that afternoon: "Watch for hurt feelings!" I needed your signs that day.

You did something really important that day, and I'm grateful to you for it. There was  something about your generosity in wanting to help, something about the way you read that sign's message out loud as if it could be exactly the sign I'd been looking for and demanding you to find, something about your inexhaustible sweetness and optimism. It reminded me, if even for a moment, that I really don't want to watch for falling rocks in my life.

I hope you don't either. I hope you spend zero time searching for disasters that may or may not be looming in your life. Rather, keep a lookout for the adventures in life and the joy in your daily routines. Watch for connections with the people you love or who look up to you. Don't look above their heads just in case a boulder should flatten them; look right into their eyes. When you read that sign out loud that day, and then we giggled together, you reminded me to spend time watching out for joy, yes, but also for your feelings. Before we came to the sign, I should have been watching for a furrowed brow that might have indicated a deflating spirit.

Watching for falling rocks is stupid.

Find the beauty! Look for your passions! Search for hidden treasures! Uncover your joys! Don't spend one minute watching for falling rocks.  You reminded me that day, and today I'm reminding you. Stay on guard for the good things; they're everywhere.

I love you so much!

Love, Mom

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Ring

I hung up the phone and let out a sigh from somewhere deep in my soul, resting my head in my hands. It was positively exhausting to talk to my sister. Having to talk to her on the phone about our daily lives in suburbia, to be polite to her as we discussed our kids' birthday parties and the state of her minivan was actually repulsive to me. I didn't want to know what her son Tommy's latest accomplishment had been, and I cringed at the thought of her running her errands.

I hated imagining her sitting there, a reflection of myself, talking on the phone to her sister.

But why? Hadn't we shared the same upbringing? Hadn't we supported each other through broken teenaged hearts, lost favorite jeans, and our father's occasional temper tantrums? Why did I find her so unbearable now, when we were living 400 miles apart with children of our own? I sat at the kitchen counter and pondered it yet again. Was I really such a bitch?

The ring of the phone startled me out of my loop. She must have forgotten to tell me something. I picked it up as if I were having to do someone a great favor. "What'd you forget?" I asked with that twinge of annoyance I'd grown to hate in my own voice. Why couldn't I just be nice? Would it kill me to be welcoming? Forgiving?

"I'm sorry...what?" The voice on the other end of the line was not my sister's. It was an older woman's voice, slightly gravelly, yet kind.

"Oh. Sorry. I thought you were...uh...Who is this?" I said, my face flushing a bit.

"You don't know?" she asked. If you can hear a smile, I did.

I pressed the phone a little tighter against my ear.

"Oh...," I stalled. "Oh, hey there...How's it going?" I was trying to sound vaguely enthusiastic. Though the voice was very familiar to me, I couldn't place it. I had the same sensation I have when a word I'm searching for is right there on the tip of my tongue. I can see its color and hear it whispering clues, but I can't find the actual word. This voice was like a mother's touch - so much a part of my fabric - but I couldn't place it and my instincts wouldn't let me admit to not knowing from whom it was coming. My guard was up from the conversation with my sister, so I was even more conscientious than usual about trying to seem in control. Aware.

The voice continued.

"So, Susie, I was watching you at Stop and Shop the other day, checking out the meats, and I just thought I'd tell you that when you're buying steak, it's perfectly fine...better buy it right ON the 'best by' date. Beef just gets more flavorful with age." She paused for a second. "So, I'm calling to tell you that you really could have gone ahead and bought that steak you were looking at. If you had seasoned it and broiled it, it would have been delicious."

I had begun walking over to the pantry as the voice on the line started talking. Now I stopped in my tracks. Listening. Searching. Trying to place it. This voice. Whose was it?

I was still. Dead quiet. The line crackled the tiniest bit, and I was grateful for that bit of noise. It broke the silence.

"I...I'm sorry. I thought this was someone else. Who is this?"

I noted how it was actually hard to admit that I didn't know something, even something so small. Was it because I was worried about the person on the other end's feelings, or was I somehow allergic to seeming oblivious? Immediately, I found myself annoyed. People should really identify themselves when they call, I thought. This person was amused by my ignorance, and I felt a surge of anger about that. I could feel the heat rising in my cheeks. The itch of sweat.

"Hello?" I prompted.

There was a long pause.

Suddenly, a flash in my head previewd the next few seconds for me. Somehow - and I'll never quite understand this phenomenon - somehow I knew what was coming, and I braced myself.

"It's Carol," she said. "I couldn't stay away forever. I wasn't through with you, and I know you have some things to..." She stopped, and so did my heart.

I sat down in the middle of the kitchen floor. My beloved mother-in-law.

"You're dead," I said.

"I have more to teach you," she replied.

The tears were stinging my eyes. I focused on the dog bowl right next to me, reached for it with my trembling hand. My throat was so tight, I couldn't have spoken even if I'd had something to say. A squeak left my mouth as the tears rolled down my cheeks.

"You still need me," she was saying sweetly, "to help you navigate the world and...and my son and...I just couldn't stay away."

Carol had died suddenly seven long years ago, and not a day had gone by when I hadn't ached for her. She was right - there was so much more I needed from her. I missed her so deeply, so fully, that I often wondered if she had taken some of me with her when she had gone.

"I've been watching you, trying to help you," she continued with the voice I loved so, "but you're impossibly difficult to teach. Do you know that?" She let out the tiniest laugh. "I've decided I need to be more direct with you, so I'm calling you up."

I wanted to hug her. Smell her. The voice wasn't enough. I wanted to bend over the garden with her again, learning about all of the flowers. I wanted to take another quilting lesson from her, see her strong weathered hands work the fabric. I wanted to sit at her kitchen couter and watch her whip up a batch of brownies from scratch and have her teach me the difference between liquid and solid measurements. I wanted to watch her eyes sparkle in laughter.

The voice was hers, and I was weeping on the floor, mute.

My Carol.

And then I did something I'll never ever forgive myself for. Never.

I hung up the phone and cried by myself on the kitchen floor.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Antique windows create that warpy-wavy view when you try to look through them sideways. If you approach the window head on, like you mean it, the things on the other side of the glass - the outside or the inside depending on your perspective- are clean and straight and just as they should be. The same is true with lots of things. You have to look at them with intention, like you really want to see through them. Or else they'll get all shifty on you and make you see things like fairies and bends and arches that aren't really there at all. It's like trying to see through the lake water down to the bottom where you dropped your ring; you can see the glimmer down there somewhere, but reach down to grab it and it dances away. If you're not directly in front of things, a frown can all of the sudden look like a smile, two fingers can seem like three, or disarray can appear peaceful. So you need to always take into account your angle on things. Water, antique glass, lots of things can have that effect.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Shooting Stars

I have a very vivid memory of laying next to the lake with you at night, hearing the small waves - really nothing more than ripples - lap just beyond our bare toes. We were whispering secrets to each other and counting shooting stars. We were exploring the wondrous souls of each other. I think at the time, I believed we were, on the one hand, causing the stars to fly across the sky, and, on the other hand, somehow being chosen to witness them. I felt we were powerful enough to move the stars, and entirely special enough to be seeing them in all their glory. There was magic within and around us.

The dew saturated our shirts, and I shivered from the brisk night air. We held hands. The counting and the searching and the waiting was like an addiction. I just wanted to stay for one more shooting star. That one, the next one, the one I had yet to see, would carry all my wishes across the night sky and land them in my lap. Of this I felt sure. Optimism? Superstition? Naivete?

That was a long long time ago, and now I sleep in the same bed with you every night. Though every once in a while (like, say, this afternoon) I feel that the magic that was so alive burned up in its flight to Earth, most days I feel certain that my wishes were truly granted. Because here we are together still.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


The roots of the old maple in front of her happy yellow house rise right up from the ground and expose themselves. They render the sidewalk more dangerous than the street, causing great waves of cement to go spilling every which way. They bubble up from beneath the surface, claiming their space despite all efforts to conceal them.

Sometimes she'd stare at those roots from inside her home and curse them. "That sidewalk would be so pleasant if you weren't so damn stubborn," she'd think. "I could teach William to ride his bike." She'd imagine them slipping noiselessly back into the Earth, each crack sealing itself perfectly with the retreat. She'd think how nice and right it would be if only the tree were showing, and not those mounds of disturbed ground huddled at the base like anacondas. She hated the roots.

The tree rises up in great glory. It brings brilliant hues from emerald to crimson, it offers a hint of privacy from the curious passers by, and it offers the children shade for their lemonade stands. But the notion that roots are meant to be forever hidden below the surface is proven preposterous by that tree.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


When she was a little girl, trying to go to sleep in the log cabin became nothing short of torture. Her bedroom was cozy enough, with the Hansel and Gretel lamp by her bed, the ruffled curtains. She had a cup of water placed with care on her nightside table. She'd been tucked in sweetly by her parents, kissed lovingly on the top of the head. They whispered, "Pleasant dreams, honey..."

But as soon as she was alone in her room, the eyes in the wood began to watch her. Each log had several pairs of unfriendly, judging eyes looking right into her soul. They emerged from the knots in the pine. She'd slam her eyes shut and refuse to give them anything to see, anything to mock. But then, as if to prove her powerless, they'd crawl back in, this time in red from behind her tighly closed eyelids.

The eyes. They'd float as if on an ocean wave into her own mind's eye, and watch her. They were in the stars, under the blankets. They were in every passing car, imbedded in every tree branch, and they peered out from tiny babies. They saw her very soul, and she couldn't escape them.

Later, in her teens, she'd learn too late that the neighborhood boys had been peeking through the gap between her pink pull-down shade and her windowsill while she got ready for bed. She felt shame at the thought of them huddled outside in the darkening evening, eyes carefully watching her sing at her naked reflection in the full length mirror on her closet door. She'd been rehearsing for the moment when her fame might come to fruition, and she'd thought she was all alone with her big dreams. The eyes had come back for her though, only this time they had mouths and fist pumps and story-telling and laughing whole selves attached to them. They weren't just eyes in the knots in the pine this time.

Now as an adult, she sees eyes all around her, and she's begun to wonder at the possibility of all alone.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Why Wait?

The crunchy golden maple leaves are thigh deep in my back yard. I like them best when they're on the ground, really, because you still get the acute, high-frequency colors of fall that they offer when they're on the trees, but you get to add the crisp sound and the wake-me-up smell when they're on the ground. They're the same color as my dogs, which makes for good entertainment, as well as a leg up for those guys when they want to stay outside because I can't find them and drag them inside. They lay in the leaves and hide from mama like a fully camouflaged sniper in the jungle.

This morning I stood on the deck, wrapped in fleece, waiting for my dogs to surrender their game. It was early still, golden, quiet, so I knew there'd be a giveaway rustle soon. A stray puff of breath rising like a geyser. A wag. I stood watching my own breath all foggy in the morning air and waited for them to come out come out wherever you are. Fall all around, I bathed in it for a bit. Up the maple tree in the back yard - the one that holds the tire swing - I saw it shimmering.

The last leaf on the tree.

Golden red, it was the one who won (or did he lose?) the contest of tenacity. He's holding fast. Afraid? Not wanting to give up what he knows?

For the love of god...go with your friends and family!

I remember how long I stood on the high dive at camp, knees rattling, knowing I had to jump to pass the life guarding test, but terrified into a kind of paralysis. Is that what's going on for you, leaf? Because if it is, I can tell you that the landing was downright exhilarating. To say nothing of the pride I felt for conquering my fears. Go ahead, dude...jump!

All alone makes me sad, even in the world of leaves. It's time to go, honey. Your friends are there to cushion your fall and throw you a party. Let go and join 'em.