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Posted in Beliefs and Practices, On Writing

Girl, You’ve Got to Be What Tomorrow Needs

When I woke up this morning, two things came to mind: I remembered being extremely wary of mystical readings until just a few years ago; and I cannot begin to count the number of times I’ve been told I have an “old soul.” My feet hit the floor with purpose, knowing I wanted to tap into that soul today. I readied for the day, getting Lucy fed and dressed, the dog out. I did the things that needed doing; took Lucy to daycare, picked up prescriptions, called to get a repair on the car.

The sky is Oscar blue, brilliant and deep in the spring air. The maple tree extends her shade, bright new leaves reaching for the sun, a blanket of her fallen flowers in her shade. My new plastic Adirondack chair was covered thickly with samaras, helicopters that never quite touched down. I feel insulated from most of the noise of the city around me, and the tension in my shoulders finally starts to slide away. 

Since my birthday, I have had ideas knocking around my head. Essay topics, snippets of poems, ideas for long-form and short-form stories; fiction, nonfiction, memoir, academic writing. I feel surrounded by words; if this were a Disney film, my hair would catch and lift on a breeze of prose, as the words wound themselves through my animated world and the townspeople joined in my song. Je m’appelle Marjanna, et j’ai quelque chose pour dire. 

I kept my birthday very low-key this year. I had a beautiful weekend where I was more focused on myself than I had allowed myself to be before. One of the gifts I gave myself was today. I am off work today. I took the day off, on purpose; I have no appointments, no reservations. I’m not sick, and neither is my kiddo. 

I took the day off so I could write. 

Those reading it may not gasp at this thought, but I certainly did. I practically heard the record scratch. What a crazy idea, I thought. Taking a day off to write. 

I texted some friends; want to hear a crazy idea? Sure, they said. I told them. 

“Cool. So what’s the crazy part?”

I do not take days off lightly. I don’t take days off without reason. To do so, and focus on writing, on me and my craft, feels over indulgent. Who am I to think that my writing is so important that I can skip my actual job in order to focus on it? I must have some ego to think I’m good enough to justify that. 

The audacity of me. 

Self-doubt began to slither in the door that sarcasm and negative self-talk left open. It climbed like smoke, scaling the walls, winding around my body, curling tendrils around my fingers. I tapped out my thoughts on the bright screen in front of me. 

No, it’s silly. I can’t. I’m not really a writer. I’m not published, how can I actually be a writer? This is stupid.

Three dots, blinking. 

“You write, don’t you? You’re a writer. Take the damn day.”

Sometimes we need reminders of what’s true in our lives. When the night closes in and the doubts follow, it’s easy to get trapped in the sticky, negative thought spirals that can drag you down. You start to follow that path down, down, a sickly pale the only light you can see, so you follow it. 

It leads nowhere; it takes you through caves and channels you didn’t know existed, paths you thought you left behind long ago. It is the upside down; you’re not sure if it’s real, but it’s all so familiar, almost comforting. It’s easy to stay, in this dark world you know; you’re tired of fighting, tired of trying. The effort to get back is too much, why not just sink in? The darkness gets its hooks into you, a thousand tiny daggers; it feeds on you, draining you of your energy, your will. 

It is so insidious, so quick to come when you slip. It is opportunistic and cagey, using your own thoughts and words against you, twisting and distorting everything you have worked for, dismantling the structures you so carefully built. 

And it lies. 

The smoke shrank back as I pondered that answer. I write, yes, this is true; doesn’t that make me a writer? I cook, but I’m not a chef; I stitch, but I am no seamstress. What makes writing different? 

I cook to feed myself and my family, to show love and to share with them. I stitch to relax my mind and keep my hands busy, to show love and to share with friends and family. 

And I write for me. 

Me, first. I write for Oscar, and I write for Hawthorne; I write for my father, my mother. I write for all those beyond the veil, whose stories are left in limbo; and I write for those here as well. I write for my friends who can’t find the words; I write for those who hurt, for those who question. For those who wish, and want, and dream. I write for Lucy, that she may know who I have known. 

And.

I write for me. First. Foremost. Finally.

I recently was a guest on a podcast where I talked about confidence (among other things). I felt like I rambled, and the final version hasn’t hit the air yet, so I am not sure how it all worked. I enjoyed the experience so much; I loved talking to the host, and getting to dig into my interpretation and experience with confidence. A lot of my readers thus far have been friends and family; if you’ve been around some years, you know that confidence has not been something that came naturally. If you haven’t known me long, it may or may not surprise you. 

Confidence, to me, is an energy. It’s a force and a flow, something that can be harnessed or let loose. It shifts; it waxes and wanes. As with any energy, there can be disruptions, and you need to reset. On the podcast I mention those friends who help make that happen.  

No one can shake my confidence like I can, when I follow that path, when I let myself be carried by that thick gray smoke. I am a master at getting in my own way, at talking myself out of things. I flip to feeling guilty and self-indulgent very easily. It’s hard for me to see that it is an act of love to do things for myself, too, not just for others. I am learning every day how to love myself. 

I had a tarot pull for my birthday, a full-year spread to welcome 35. It’s been on my mind, daily; I’m not so skilled at reading the cards yet. My mind plays with them like Lucy with a Rubiks cube; futz around with it, shake it, chew on it a little. This is the first time I’ve had such a major pull. I have an app (which feels a bit like cheating, but I like it) for a daily card. I believe that you bring as much to the cards as they give to you. Some days it’s a BOLO, sometimes a new perspective. Some days, it’s the piece that completes the picture.

My card this morning was the Four of Wands, and the key words given were Home, Backbone, and Foundation. Not a bad omen for my first day off to pursue being a writer. 

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Every Regret I Have I Will Go Set it Free

It’s been another jukebox week, here in middle spring. The air is thick with pollen, a thin veneer of yellow fairy dust over every car and mailbox. The leaves are unfurling at a boisterous pace from their casings. The trees aren’t aflame the way they are in October, but still burn with vibrancy and color. Buds of burnt orange, lavender, and wine-red laden their thin branches with excitement; the winter-weary trees assume their green mantles and welcome home the songbirds. 

I awoke this morning feeling clearer in my head than I have all week, with one singular thought: I needed to go to the woods. 

We arrived at the trailhead to find it empty. It was still shy of 7:00 AM, but I was surprised to see the bare pavement. There has been someone parked there every time I drive by. There is only room for 4, maybe 5, cars before the pavement gives way to hard-packed dirt, fitting several more vehicles in. Thin gray clouds still blanketed the sky, reluctant to wake on a Saturday morning. We checked out the board, Lucy fascinated by the dead bugs behind the protective plastic. I put her down, and we set a toddler’s pace onto the trail.

I don’t know why, but for some reason, I assumed that Lucy would understand the concept of a trail. Nothing more than an, “oh, flat. I walk here,” mind you, but nonetheless I learned that’s a hell of an assumption to make of an 18-month old. She immediately chased a stick off the path and into the leaves and young green plants. After a couple of redirects, I hauled her up and dropped her on my shoulders. She bounced, babbling with excitement, stick in hand. 

I kept my steps quiet on the trail and as we made our way onto the boardwalk. The spring morning never silent, the raucous calls of red-winged black birds (black-winged red birds) rose from the marsh around us. Their bright epaulettes came into view as we turned a corner; boards pulled from the boardwalk were scattered in a discarded swath slowly sinking into the roots and reeds. We watched them pinball around the marsh, grabbing hold of a reed here, then zinging off to a dead tree branch there. Grackles joined the fun, their iridescent blue heads glinting in the rising sun. Two yellow warblers gave chase to each other, performing a speedy aerobatic routine just a few feet away from us. The ubiquitous sparrows were impossible for me to identify as they clung to the reeds halfway up the stalks. 

Lucy, however, sang them a song of her own. Throwing tranquility to the wind, she called out to the lightening sky as she bounced, and raised her stick like it was a wand. The birdsong never faltered. I was unused to a birding partner who was noisier than those we were there to visit, and I was utterly charmed. 

I had been on a roller coaster of emotion for a few days leading up to the second Sunday in May. Mother’s Day has been historically difficult for many years now. My own mother and I had a tense relationship, which had entered a tenuous ceasefire in our last conversation before her death. She had finally spit out “significant other,” referring to the woman I didn’t yet know I would marry, replacing the previous moniker, “that person.” It’s ironic to look back and think that my mother was so far ahead of us, unwittingly already on board with gender neutrality. 

Oscar, of course, took the day to a new level. I was thrilled. I had made it to 24 weeks without issue, and was thrilled to be truly celebrating my first Mother’s Day. Almost everyone I knew wished me a happy one; I had a full hand of cards to open. Strangely, there was one missing. I wouldn’t find out until later that my bio mom did not send one for the very reason I came to understand too well. 

Last year, in quarantine, we celebrated in our quiet way. I wanted Lucy and Hawthorne to be dressed up, and oh, they were. They wore their matching Oxford shirts, and Lucy had on her little suspenders and salmon colored pants. I have pages of pictures of them in my phone; the bright as the sun baby, and my beloved. I made brunch, and we went for a Sunday drive. It was one of the last holidays we celebrated. 

Unsurprisingly, I was not looking forward to this year. I am becoming acutely aware of how close the first year without Hawthorne is drawing. I have realized that, by Hawthorne’s birthday, they will have already been gone for half of Lucy’s tiny life. I don’t know what to do with that. But that was for another day. 

Lucy has some unbelievable fairy godparents out there in the world. I received a deep blue hydrangea, and a bouquet of white hydrangea and pink peonies, both delivered to my door. Cards came in the mail tucked in pink envelopes, and white roses awaited me on Sunday. I am grateful to everyone Lucy enlisted to make such offerings. 

Lucy has given me another gift, one that I am still unwrapping and discovering, bit by bit. She’s given me an understanding of presence. I have practiced mindfulness before, and felt like I was “in the moment;” but I don’t think I truly understood it until Lucy showed me. There is no pretense in her; she is ignoring nothing when she becomes involved in something. She doesn’t care about the laundry that’s not getting folded, or that the floors haven’t been swept. She is wholly, body and soul, in whatever moment she is in. Turning the pages of her upside-down board book, picking out the carrots from her dinner smeared across her tray, eating the crayon she knows damn well isn’t supposed to be in her mouth. 

It is never more evident than it is here, outdoors, in the air and the wild. She sits up so straight on my shoulders; I know by the shifting of her little weight that her face is turned up toward the sky as far as she can. Her arms reach out to the sides, her heels tight against my collarbone. I hold onto her feet so she doesn’t fall when she bounces in her excitement. She babbles on, softly, communing with something beyond my ken.

This is a holy moment; there is something I cannot put my finger on, but the air feels different. I can still hear the highway, nearly drowned out by the birds; I smell the Sulphur rising from the black mud in the marsh. The boardwalk stays in sight, ahead, behind, and under my feet. But there is something else. Lucy recognizes it. Her little song continues, softly, almost a whisper. My steps on the planks make almost no sound. We finish crossing, and I place her on the ground. She looks at me a moment, directly in my eyes. It’s like she recognizes me from long ago; there is a depth to her that is echoed in me. I am not sure what our souls said to each other in that moment, only that it happened. We walked quietly for a minute, no longer, her hand in mine, my body tilted down to reach hers. The path widened and she let go of my hand. That intense peace was snapped, and the air shifted back to normal. Lucy yelled as she toddled down the path ahead of me, and I watched her come up to a section of roots. She stopped and reached down as if trying to pick them up, like sticks. I explained that they wouldn’t come up, they were still growing in the ground to help the trees hold still and drink their water. She patted them for a minute, stood, stepped carefully to the next, and repeated. She started trying to run, but very slowly, as if she thought it would hurt the roots she ran over. About ten yards away, the roots gave way to smooth hard pack again. She turned and ran, faster this time, towards me. Back and forth over the tangle, shouting and stomping. She would stop, reach for a twig; I’d say no baby, that one’s still growing, and she would grab another until it came away in her hand. She brought me stick after stick, like a bird building her nest. When I had my hands full, she grabbed the sticks, ran halfway across the rooted path, and threw them. I don’t know what magic she was conjuring, but she picked up a few of them again and threw the down. Apparently satisfied, she turned and ran back to me. She bumped up against my legs and continued to go past, back to the boardwalk. Clearly, she had finished.

I put her back on my shoulders, and felt her shift as she laid her head on mine. We walked back together in silence, listening to the sparrows and the blackbirds. We left the trail and got into the car; her pacifier went in her mouth, her hands behind her head. She was asleep before we pulled out of the parking lot.

There is more magic in this world than we can see. There are more lessons to be learned from the children and from the wild than we, as adults, may be ready to admit. I hope Lucy doesn’t lose patience with me, and we can continue to explore the world together. 

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I Hope Your Broken Bluebird Heart Still Sings

I am not a spontaneous person. 

I have been searching for ground lately. I’ve tried buddhify, a meditation app that I’ve enjoyed in the past. I’ve tried breathing exercises, and sitting on the ground. I’ve gone outside and taught Lucy how to hug a tree; I’ve propagated some plant cuttings and put my gloveless hands in cool earth. I have returned to the nature of my youth, and found new trails. Still, I have not felt settled. I have been pacing, prowling the immovable cage of 24 set hours per day.  

My birthday just passed, a day I have dreaded for some weeks now. I don’t care about aging; it’s not the 6thanniversary of my 29th birthday. It’s the first without Hawthorne. Two years ago, when it was my first birthday after Oscar passed away, I wasn’t sure I would survive the day. I didn’t want to celebrate; I didn’t feel like I deserved a birthday, since he would never see one. I wasn’t suicidal, though I thought about death – mine, his – a lot at that time. I was overflowing with pain and grief and anguish. I had just started in a new department at work, and told no one of the day. I made it through work with few well-wishes and semi-dry eyes. I went home, and Hawthorne, their friend, and I all went out for dinner. It’s almost unthinkable now – going out not only to eat, but to spend over 2 hours huddled around a small table in a very busy restaurant, long pauses between courses and refills. 

Just a year prior, Hawthorne had felt Oscar kick for the very first time. 

I don’t remember what I did for my birthday last year; not much, I’m sure. We were quarantined; I was working from home most days, if not all. There was cake, or there would have been a revolt, and I feel like I would have remembered that. Beyond that I don’t know what we did to ring in my 34th year. 

And now, here we are. A second Covid-era birthday in a completely different world. The calls of owls are replaced by cars ignoring the posted speed limit. Artificial moonlight streams through the same spaces in the blinds, a constant wash of white. The walls have closed in, home now a single floor of a duplex; the bubbly stream that ran so low in summer has been replaced by that dirty water. The baby is no longer content with laying around and downing bottle after bottle, but runs through the house, babbling and yelling nonsense, fat crayons clutched in tiny fists. Every tree is in bud; the forsythia, bright blossoms once exploding ahead of the green, has gone patchwork. Springtime in Boston looks so different than in Vermont; it’s still mud season there.

I feel like I have watched myself come apart slowly over the past two weeks, unable to gather the energy to reach out and catch the trails of myself as they floated away. I fell off my diet and all my goal-oriented routines, which had been going so well. I could not drag myself to care. 

Anniversaries of anything have always struck me; it is an emotional thing to mark the time, year after year, cycle after cycle, based on a single event. The numbers crowd my head: 16 years since Dad died. 9 years since Mom. Oscar should be coming up on his third birthday; seven months since Hawthorne died, and almost exactly a month since Stan. Those I love on the other side of the veil grow their numbers while I stay here, growing older. 

I did not want to celebrate my birthday. Family and friends offered; a party for the mostly-vaccinated family, Zoom happy hour with wine and laughter, easy time to spend together. I wanted none of it. As it grew closer, I became more unnerved by the worry that someone would try some grand gesture; not out of disrespect or anything of the sort, but out of love, and their urge to care for me and shower me with that love (hashtag, you know who you are). 

I signed up for a birding event the morning of my birthday; pretty sure bet that it would be quiet, and no one would have to know the significance of the day or of my presence. My sister and her guy leapt to offer to babysit so I could have my time. I planned nothing else, and  turned down every offer made to me. The gift I wanted was their acceptance that this was truly what I wanted – to be alone (as alone as one can be with a curious and rambunctious toddler), to let the day pass by. That wish was granted.

I cried the nights leading up to it; I rose with a headache from the tears to a bright, Oscar-blue sky. Something settled, firmly, in my heart. I knew from the moment I saw the sky that this was NOT going to be a repeat of 2019; I didn’t have to question how I would make it through, if I deserved it, or if I could possibly bear it. I already had the answer to all those things, a current on the spring air. And with that realization – that I would be okay, today, of all days – I decided to let go of everything but the present moment.

I would do as I wanted – whatever that meant, whether it was housework, or writing, or neither. I would work and/or play at my whim. I would do what felt good in the moment, and I would place no other expectations on myself. This was – and I cannot stress this enough – not. the. plan. My gift to myself was to throw that plan out the window. When I realized that was what I was doing, I grabbed my phone – I had already started unloading the dishwasher and running the laundry (6:17 AM), and suddenly the lack of plan made me panic. I needed to put these things down on my list so I could cross them off and then that way – 

Instead, I made a couple notes. I turned off the screen, listened to the click as it went dark, and I put it in my pocket. I turned away and completed unloading and reloading the dishwasher. To look at me, one would have seen nothing out of the ordinary. I wasn’t outwardly frantic, not tapping my fingers or wringing my hands. But as the tumult inside me went quiet in a fingersnap, it felt momentous. In that moment of pause and self-interruption, I gave myself the gift of staying in the damn moment. 

I was brought coffee and my choice of pastries as I gathered my things quickly to go. I put my hair in braids to accommodate my hat, which I completely forgot. Armed with notebooks, my binocs, camera, water, and coffee, I followed the directions to the trail head. The guide was young, and most of my fellow twitchers were novices. I fell to the back, taking up the last spot in the single-file line. We weren’t 200 feet in when I felt the tension melt out of my shoulders and I breathed in deeper than I had in days. My headache was gone; my hip and shoulder weren’t talking to me as they had been. I let the cacophony of morning marsh birds surround me; the harsh skree of red-winged blackbirds, the squeaky calls of grackles, the sweet assorted notes from sparrows and chickadees. The chorus swelled around me, unabating, as I walked the packed ground. My footsteps fell silently, clad in well-worn hikers made to leave little trace. I listened to the absence of sound from myself and the symphony that rose to fill the silence, and felt nothing but peace and a contentedness I had not counted on. 

That peace allowed other memories to float back gently, without anger or even pain; Hawthorne calling out every dog and plane they saw as a “lesser known dogbird” or “silver skybird.” How they transposed the name to “black-wing red bird” to drive me up a wall. How they always kept their camera at the ready to get pictures of little birds as they flitted in and out of the bushes and reeds. How they always wanted me to have a special birthday with a big celebration, or at the very least, the day off. And holy shit, here I was, enjoying just that.

Somehow, this year of all years, I smiled more on my birthday than I could have ever thought possible. I saw a new life bird (palm warbler), watched one of my favorite movies with Lucy (Lilo and Stitch), took her to the park, and ate cake while re-reading one of my favorite romance novels. I answered the phone, but I didn’t talk to anyone I didn’t want to. I left the cards and packages to be opened soon, and made a late-night single-serving Wegmans prepared meal. I slid into bed nearly two hours later than usual and, remembering how Hawthorne held me every night, fell asleep nearly smiling.

What I needed for my birthday, how I chose to celebrate, was deeply personal and connected to those I love on both sides of the stars. I am grateful that my friends and family understand that, and grant me the space to do that. I’m lucky to wake up every morning to the sunshine singing out from her crib, and the weight of our sweet old dog coaxing me into cuddles to start the day. My heart still hurts, and many days there is just utter confusion at what all has happened. The tears aren’t gone for good; I’m not sure they ever will be. And, as I write out my list of what needs to be done today, I’m going to carry some of that warmth with me – the sound of birds, Oscar blue sky, sweet silly memories of my love. That is a present I can open again and again. 

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La de Dee, La de Dah

I don’t believe in fairness in this world. I’m not even 100% sure I believe in karma.

I do believe that matter can neither be created nor destroyed, that the net energy of the universe is static. It flares here, diminishes there, mountains to valleys and all that lies between. And I believe the physicist brings comfort to those left behind.  

And still, I am tired of writing obituaries. I am tired of losing family.

Two weeks ago, Stan Flynn slipped out of this world, his beloved wife of over fifty years by his side. It’s hard to describe who he was to me. It’s strange, isn’t it, how a family loses the same individual, but everyone has lost a different person. Technically, he was my father’s first cousin’s husband. I supposed he embodied more of an uncle/cousin role who, when he felt necessary, was known to impart his fatherly wisdom to someone who lost their own. Whatever branch of the family tree he sat on, he was Lucy’s grandpa, her Gumpy, through and through. 

Growing up I did not really know my cousins. They were older than everyone else’s cousins that I knew of. It wasn’t until I became a teenager and began to understand what a chosen family meant that I grew to know them. As a kid, I was a little afraid of Stan; I probably avoided him at family functions, not knowing how to interact with this large man who used a cane, whose face was obscured by a gray and trim Santa beard, stern blue eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. It would be years until I understood that it was not steel, but pain, that drew his brow together and made him appear disapproving. It’s funny to think now that I was ever intimidated by him. 

Stan was a master of sarcasm. I knew not to sit too close to him at Thanksgiving; I understood the impropriety of his sub-volume humor long before I understood the jokes, and I’ve never had much of a poker face. My mom was usually too busy talking with the others to hear many of his wisecracks, but I do remember some of her thin-lipped smiles when she heard but did not want to acknowledge whatever was just said. I knew I’d be the one in trouble if I laughed, so I stayed at the other end of the table. 

There’s no one experience I had with Stan that I can look back and say, yeah, that was the best day, or hey, that was the time when I knew I could show up and be welcomed with open arms. He was quiet in his ways of showing his love. He’d make sure that he picked up a case of what he remembered me liking to drink whenever I visited, whether it was ginger beer or the real stuff. He knew my mother’s long history of judging and commenting on my eating, and made sure I always had seconds of whatever I wanted; every time I cleared my plate was a thumbs-up from the head of the table. When Hawthorne and I were going to drive out to meet my birthfamily in Indiana, he made me put the number of one of his service buddies in my phone, in case anything happened to us out there. He worried about us travelling in that part of the country in Trump’s America.

Stan was in poor health for having such a good heart. The man endured; that can be a full sentence about him in itself. He underwent nine back surgeries which failed to bring any lasting pain relief; his legs bounced if he sat in his chair for any length of time, trying to find any moment of ease. In his seventies, he battled bladder cancer; when it recurred for a third time, they removed his bladder, giving him a permanent ostomy. Even without the organ, the cancer returned. More radiation cleared it up again, and he got clean results just weeks before his death. 

A lifelong smoker, I never knew how hard he was trying at any given time to hide his cigar habit. He always kept it out of sight, back turned to the glass in the door. I could smell it on him; his daily trips to the dump, grocery store runs for one or two items. Before they died, Hawthorne would pick up a handful of cigarellos to smoke in companionable silence. I kept the tradition going this past Christmas, knowing that H would have gotten a kick out of me sneaking away to hide the Cubans in the glovebox. 

The two of them shared something intangible that no one else in the family could understand; the experience of living in the uncompromising grip of pain. They were both beyond having tips and tricks to get by in the day to day. I think that knowing the other was there and got it made a world of difference to them both; I know it helped Hawthorne feel less alone in their suffering. I hope it did for Stan, too. The two of them would miss dinners and desserts, escaping to lie down in the middle of the day, trying to accomplish the dual mission impossible: get comfortable and don’t miss out on family time.

There’s still so much I don’t know about Stan; but I can feel his thin arms holding me so tight after Oscar’s birth, and Hawthorne’s death. He never could look at pictures of his first grandbaby, the one who never made it home. I don’t think he believed that the pictures could every bring anything but more pain. 

What I do know is how much we were loved, every one of us. The pride in his voice when he talked about his sons and their lives. The love and patience when he asked Annda if she’d taken her pills, the affable exasperation when she told him to move his coffee cup up if he was just going to fall asleep in that chair anyway. I don’t think there was a dessert she baked that he didn’t love, and say so.

When Hawthorne came to explain their gender journey and what transitioning meant to them, Stan was concerned. To him, somebody who couldn’t settle peacefully on either side of the binary must be sad to not have that space to call home. It took some conversation, and an agreed upon option for a name – “Ed,” for at least some of his worries around the subject to be eased. Throughout that, though, the acceptance and love never wavered. 

Lucy was just eight weeks old when we brought her over for Christmas. She didn’t quite take up the space of his two hands cradled in front of him. She wasn’t even six pounds yet, and had him wrapped around her tiny finger; he stayed right there through the day he died. He would bellow at her for putting her feet on table, and for getting handprints on the windows. He’d hang her whatever toys she threw out of her playpen, answering his cherished dog’s audible requests for more pets.

I have learned that I cannot talk about my losses without talking about love, and remember Stan is no exception. I don’t know how to finish writing about him, so I ramble on. I will be thinking of him when I find myself puttering about in the yard, and when Lucy leaves smears and sticky prints on the windows she can reach. I hope that as time goes on, I get to know more about him, so that Lucy can have all the stories she can about her Gumpy. I have seventeen pictures to show the love between them.

The family reunion in the stars keeps growing, brightening our someday sky of the beyond while hearts grow heavier down here. Stan brings them an extra twinkle, another smartass remark from under his breath. I should think he would enjoy being less orderly.

For now, that’s all I’ve got – so in the immortal wisdom of Stan Flynn, “If they don’t like it, fuck ‘em!”

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Fright Gives Way to Memory, Having Coffee With My Love

For years, I have loved Moka pot coffee. Fancy coffee at home has been a deciding factor of decadence to me. Hawthorne had been a barista for a solid decade, and must have been a bartender in a past life, so we were always on the lookout for new and fun ways to make special drinks. When we had met, I was drinking far too much; it wasn’t uncommon for me to finish off at least two liters of coffee a day. I was working overnights in EMS, taking classes during the day, and trying to learn how to live with my new husband; I ran on about 4 hours of sleep a night. I needed all the help I could get from the magic beans.

After we had moved in together and things started to feel like they settled down a bit, Hawthorne staged a bit of an intervention. Basically, I needed to get more sleep and cut back on the caffeine. They pointed out that my migraines and general headaches had been largely uncontrolled and that my anxiety revved at a pretty high baseline. I put up a fight. No way I actually drink that much coffee, I said. But sure, I’ll go to bed earlier. 

Of course, going to bed early in a new and passionate relationship with a smokin’ hot partner didn’t result in more sleep. It wasn’t until nearly a year later that I admitted to my new doctor that my migraines were more frequent than they needed to be. She tried me on an anticonvulsant that I hadn’t tried before. After two days of feeling like Hawthorne existed solely to piss me off and some nice but confusing hallucinations of a pet cat that did not exist, I stopped taking the medication and agreed to maybe try some lifestyle changes. I’d drink more water, go to bed earlier, and yes, cut back on the caffeine.

By now I wasn’t working on the street anymore; I was working in quality improvement for the ambulance company, and though I was always on call, it was a 9-5 job. I wasn’t in school, I wasn’t trying to hold multiple jobs or devote 20 hours a day to being productive. I asked Hawthorne to help me cut back; they were in school, so anytime we were home, the coffeepot was on. I had finally met the one who could match my stubbornness; they kept on my ass about how much I was bringing to work, and since we couldn’t afford for me to get coffee out often, I ended up cutting my intake in half. My migraines didn’t improve overnight, but it was a major step towards controlling them again. 

Early on in their junior year of college, we drove out to Premier on Niagara Falls Boulevard. We splurged; Hawthorne picked out exactly the right coffee contraption; more importantly, I found two Le Creuset demitasse cups, blue and brown. The silver, angular hourglass  of the Moka pot was entirely new to me but promised something near espresso, and my barista beau was more than willing to be in charge of it. For a little while, Sunday mornings were for fancy coffee and homemade breakfasts.

I’m not sure why it stopped; maybe it was too much hassle to keep clean, or it got packed away for another move. Whatever the case, the Moka pot made only very rare appearances in Vermont. It remained a promise, this time set in nostalgia; when I was studying day and night for grad school, Hawthorne would mention making some that weekend. It didn’t happen, for one reason or another; finally I started asking Hawthorne to make it. They’d agree and kiss me on the head. “You love a Moka pot,” they’d say. I’m pretty sure my reaction would always be somewhere on the Catana spectrum of love and excitement.

As grad school wore on, the role of coffee in my life changed dramatically; I was brewing something much more magical than beans. I dreamed of graduation day, taking pictures in my cap and gown, Hawthorne at my side and our baby on my hip. The smell of coffee made me nauseated; I had gotten so sick while trying to cut down on caffeine before we were even pregnant, and hated every minute without that familiar jolt. I drank green tea to wean off, and then for the nausea. Since I was the morning person, I still saw to their coffee in the morning, but Hawthorne would be waiting with a hot mug ready for me as soon as I walked in the door from work. When I was five months pregnant, I remember driving down the mountain heading to work, and just needing something more than tea to wake me up. Newsflash, pregnancy is exhausting. I drove to Dunkin Donuts and bit my nails in the drive through; even the smell of the store was turning my stomach, how was I going to drink it? But I NEED it, I argued with myself. By the time I pulled around I’d come to the conclusion that I would try an iced coffee with no sweetener. 

I drove back the way I came, making the turn at the light for the hospital. I took my first sip passing a cemetery behind wrought-iron fencing; color began to seep back into the world. The gray of the stones picked up their luster; the oddly lush green of the not-quite-spring grass shone more verdant. Shining purple and butter-bright crocus emerged in dense patches on yellowed lawns, shaded areas holding on to shrinking piles of dingy snow left over from the long winter. My forehead and neck relaxed, my shoulders loosened. My mind felt clearer than it had in months. Oscar learned the caffeine jitterbug that day, and we would dance in the car on the way to work, listening to RuPaul while cradled safe in my belly. I miss those dance parties. 

Lucy didn’t miss a beat when it was her turn. She demanded her coffee strong and iced, with a healthy dose of cream. Occasionally, she would relent and allow me to throw back a quick-fire shot of espresso and cream, but would still revolt at the scent of sweet, hot coffee. I stuck to half-caf for a while. OK, well, I tried, alright? I intended to stick to half-caf until I realized that I was drinking double the coffee, completely negating my efforts. Oops. So, I just tried to be a little more intentional about it, drinking my normal amount but with a few scoops of decaf beans. Fast forward to now, when I’m not breastfeeding or pregnant, and it’s just a high-octane free-for-all. Sometimes I find myself staring at the leftover decaf beans from over a year ago, wondering what to do with them. Then Lucy will growl or Ella will whine and I’ll forget about it.

I’ve come to accept that grief is going to rear up and grab me unexpectedly. In the time between Hawthorne’s death and packing, I realized that they were never going to be there to make me Moka pot again. It began a cascade of similar thoughts; there was no one to buy me flowers, or additions to my fairy collection, or jewelry from the shop on Church Street. They were no longer there to tell me to treat myself, to make sure I got a donut or a coffee, or have that glass of wine at the end of the day. There was no one there to tell me I deserve it.

I don’t know what hit harder, the utter grief and loss I felt in that moment, or the hot wave of shame that crashed over me immediately after, salt water in already raw and bleeding wounds. How could I be so selfish? Hawthorne was dead, and I was feeling sorry for myself over coffee and presents? What the hell was wrong with me? 

Writing about it now brings the moment back so strongly. Sinking down to the floor of the kitchen, the floor cold and unforgiving, the darkness of the evening pressing against the windows. Flanked by guilt and self-loathing, I couldn’t even cry. Grief returned to her post in the presence of these bullies, quietly celebrating the break.

This is one of the experiences that makes it feel as if Hawthorne has been gone for so long. It’s taken time, and distance, and therapy to work through this episode. I still remind myself that it’s not selfish to wish they were here to make me something – chili, tea, their magical healing chicken curry soup. One of the ways they showed love was cooking, or acting as barista or bartender. They liked to put the time into those acts for people. Sometimes I wonder at what creations they would have dreamed up if they had been able to bake. 

One of the things I decided when I moved to this new place, this home without Hawthorne, was that I would make myself fancy coffee once a week. I’d buy myself flowers, and treat myself. And I have. Maybe I haven’t made my weekly coffee, but I know how to do it now. And yes, I may have gone overboard on the treats; I mean, I don’t need to be eating cupcakes for breakfast three days a week (a dozen cupcakes don’t last very long), scattering sprinkles in the car. It makes me laugh to see the bright colors littering the car seat, and to remember Hawthorne’s look of horror to find my stash of sprinkles in the console. They hated the crumbs and detritus that filled the cupholders and got lost down between the seats. I think they were mostly shocked not only at the fact that I essentially drank a few teaspoons of sprinkles at a time, but had been doing so for weeks without their noticing. It feels good to laugh.

I miss them every morning when I make my coffee. I stand in my bright kitchen with its black countertops, still learning to navigate around old furniture in a new place. I often make my go mug at the same time I make my first cup; I had nearly ten years where I made up two cups at a time, so it just feels natural. I often stand in the middle of the apartment, watching the light come in while I get that first hit in. I do my journal and set up for yoga, letting the day seep in, taking quick notes on the early thoughts running through my brain. 

I’m not missing the gifts they gave me that I no longer will receive; it’s not out of selfishness that I get upset at jewelry commercials and “treat the woman in your life,” advertisements. I’m not grieving their loss because they did things for me. I’m grieving the loss of someone who showed me love, and believed that I deserve nice things and special moments. Hawthorne wanted me to be kind to myself, to show myself love in ways that were meaningful to us both, to treat myself if they weren’t right there to do it for me. I miss how they made me feel as if I deserved those things, when I so often don’t think to. I miss being made to feel like I was the only girl in the world, the only one who got to see their eyes light up just so. 

It’s hard to show myself the love they would have when they aren’t here, and I don’t feel like I deserve it. But then I remember, I didn’t have do anything to earn or deserve their love; I was just myself, the girl from Boston with the pigtail braids stomping up the steps at work. I was just the Patriots fan undaunted by the barrage of Bills fans telling me that Brady sucks. I was the one who found their inhaler in a snowbank, the one who wouldn’t pronounce the R’s in their name; the one their rescue pup liked better than their girlfriend. I was the one, and they were mine. Now I’m the one left behind, the one who has felt all our shared dreams fade over six months of mornings without them. 

At least they made sure I had the proper equipment so I could be awake to make some new dreams. Turns out, a Moka pot can hold an awful lot more love than it can coffee. 

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Why Do I Care How Much it Storms

I was a paramedic for ten years. 

That’s not quite true – I became certified as an EMT in Massachusetts in October of 2006, earned my New York State paramedic card in 2010, and let that lapse in 2016 after moving to Vermont. Two states, two certifications – for those who don’t drive the band-aid bus, it’s simpler to say that I was a paramedic for ten years. 

Now, in the times of Covid, people react differently to that. “Thank you,” is heard a lot more often. Neutral acknowledgements of, “you must have seen a lot,” and “Bet you’re glad you’re not doing that now!” have become the common response, replacing the question every first responder hates.

“What was your craziest/best/worst call?”

I’m never sure what people are looking for when they ask. War stories? Blood and gore? The intro to an episode of Criminal Minds? 

Sure, I’ve seen those. I can tell you about the heartbeats I’ve watched slow, the last breaths I’ve exhaled alongside, the countless rounds of CPR. I could tell you about not knowing how to deescalate a person in a schizophrenic break, or knowing how to best restrain a violent patient before they injured you and your partner. I can give you the names of the friends I have lost, not in the line of duty, but duty still implicated in their deaths. 

I can take you to the ambulance bay, the acrid smell of stale urine and freshly crushed cigarettes, chew spit and diesel exhaust. Where every head turns when the bay doors slide open, triggered by errant garbage interfering with the sensor. Where hard plastic backboards, not yet washed clean from last night’s shootings, lean stacked haphazardly, waiting for bleach.

I can take you to where the discarded nitrile gloves are missing a finger (the better to find a vein with, my dear), where oxygen tubing holds closed wobbly cabinet doors, where the radios crackle on and on.

I can tell you about the smattering of good calls; the ones where we actually made a difference, when we were in time. The babies I’ve helped come into this world, the overdoses reversed. 

But that’s not the call I want to tell you about. 

Hawthorne and I picked up shifts together as often as we could. We stretched them out, offering to take a couple extra calls, hold hands a couple extra hours in the never-quite-dark of the city. We never ran out of things to talk about. 

One day, sometime in late winter/early spring, we got dispatched around morning rush hour for an interfacility transfer. A woman had given birth and her baby had been transported overnight to the children’s hospital NICU. These were easy calls to us back then. I took the chance to drive while Hawthorne took care of the patient. She didn’t need any care other than observation and conversation, something to help pass the worried minutes from door to door. Now that I’ve had kids and especially one in the NICU, I think about those calls often, the opportunity for empathy I didn’t notice as it passed. My own ambulance ride to bring Lucy earthside is hazed by the hypertensive headache and steady drip of magnesium sulfate; I remember that my medic that night was in the military, and he was kind. 

Since I was driving, the radios were mine – dispatch, 911, and AM/FM. I skipped over the country station in deference to the direct challenge in the bright blue eyes that caught mine in the rearview mirror. I settled on Top 40, whatever the station was. Traffic had cleared mostly by the time I called transporting. I sang along softly to the radio and made the trip into the city.

As we pulled into our destination, Bruno Mars came on, playing “Just the Way You Are.” I glanced back at this person who put stars in my eyes as if they had been born for that purpose. Those brilliant eyes smiled into mine, the melody making its way behind the dividing wall between the compartments. I remember straightening up in my seat a little, and pushing my voice out a little louder, a little more confident. I sang them every line of that song. I somehow navigated the ambulance into the parking space; I don’t remember ever looking away. 

I don’t think I had called Hawthorne beautiful before that day, when I borrowed those lyrics to give them. The magic of music is that it gives us the words we can’t say. I know my voice cracked a bit on those notes; mama sure as hell sang tenor, not whatever high-alto range Mars is famous for. I don’t know if I have ever sang truer.

The DJ broke in, the vocal equivalent of a record scratch, and not nearly as welcome as the real thing. The radio static almost obscured the response from dispatch after I called us on location. The moment over, Hawthorne turned back to the anxious woman on our stretcher. I jumped down from the ambulance, swinging the door hard to close it. I reached up for the handle; right door, left door swung open. I lifted my hand to my partner to steady themselves on the steep drop between the truck and the ground. They clasped it as if the world hadn’t shifted underneath us. I pushed the lever in, pulled the stretcher out; Hawthorne guided the wheels down, and through the sliding doors we went. 

We finished the transport and walked the stretcher back to the truck. I made it up, sheet precisely laid and tucked in, safety belts clasped and tightened, ends folded and arranged just so. Hawthorne wandered off with the rugged laptop to finish the paperwork and have a smoke. I jumped out of the rig, slammed the doors shut, and walked around to the driver’s side to move the truck out of the way of whoever would be coming in next; the driveways in and out were narrow, and call volume was high. Flip the switch, hop in, turn the key. It worked (always a question of whether it would or not), and I slid the truck out of the drive and into a spot, angled towards the old brick wall. I let it idle and pulled out my book, The Bridges of Madison County. My eyes were devouring Waller’s words; I was deep in the heat of Iowa summer when the door holding my feet in suddenly opened. Hawthorne leaned in, leaning over me, their boots steady on the corrugated running board, legs apart for stability as they held onto the frame. Eyes on mine, those clear-day ocean eyes, they kissed me until mine unfocused. My hands were trapped between us, holding the book, one finger stuck awkwardly between pages. Tenderness, a soft thunder I had not heard from Hawthorne, radiated out and around us, warming me far more efficiently than the questionable heat in the rig. 

I don’t know how long we stayed there, lost in that moment. It was like a dream; the kind that you wake up from in the middle of the night, not knowing why, then you fall right back into it; when you wake up in the morning, you can’t tell what was dream and what wasn’t. 

I can’t tell you a single other thing about that day; any other call, any post we made it to. I don’t know if we got out on time (probably not) or if we volunteered to work longer just to be near each other (probably). The only thing I knew was that Hawthorne had trembled my heart, so tired of hurting. They had reached in and given me a gift I didn’t know I wanted, didn’t know how desperately I needed. And I had given one to them, as well. From that day forward, until it became a word too imbued with femininity for them to find themselves in, I called them beautiful as often as I could. 

It’s going to be six months this week that they’ve been gone. Grief digs her nails in my softest parts, leaves bruises over bone and sinew. The hurt and anguish run deep; the anger has become a balm to the raw wound, a salve that deadens the pain for a little while. I’m exhausted from feeling so much, so consistently. I’m still working out how an absence can weigh so heavy, how a loss can leave so much behind. 

The wind is picking up, neighborhood chimes creating a chorus of sing-song clanging; not exactly a lullaby. Some undetermined piece of house shudders with the gusts, banging against the siding. The past couple days have seen temperatures in the fifties, but the wind has snuck in leaving a cold wake around doors and windows so recently open. Nights like this Hawthorne and I would curl into each other as best we could around 40 pounds of anxious old dog. Ella hates the wind. 

I’ve got the bed, the dog, and the blankets. All I’m missing is my love. 

So tonight, I’ll remember that call, wrapping myself in the tender and warm they filled me with that cold day a decade ago. I’ll cuddle Ella close and listen to the wind moan its way over the old boards, but it can’t get to me here; I’ve got my love to keep me warm

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An Algebra of Lyricism Which I Am Still Deciphering

Every two weeks, I will write and publish a blog post, I said.

I’m announcing this for public accountability, I said. 

Six days later, the love of my life slipped wordlessly away from this world while I sat at my computer, tapping away. I had logged over two weeks of daily writing, more than I had accomplished in years. I heard Hawthorne’s snoring change, and left the cursor blinking on the screen as I tried to quietly run upstairs, so as not to wake Lucy, sleeping in her swing by my desk.

The next week I kept my promise, with the support of my friends, family, and therapist. 

Yet now, I sit here, watching that thin line blink, a silent metronome of progress unmade. 

I need to write, I tell myself.

I don’t want to. I watch myself in my mind’s eye, see my folded arms, childish pout on my face. Hawthorne said when my eyebrows came together like that, I looked like Sam the Eagle. It hurts too much. I hurt too much. 

It has been a difficult week. Work has been wonderful; I go, and throw myself into the data, the tracking, the registration of folks coming in for their first vaccine. It’s the closest thing to a party I’ve seen in nearly a year. Eyes crinkle up with smiles behind masks; the effort is made to stay six feet away, though difficult with this crowd, close talkers that they are. At times, there’s almost a waft of jubilation; we can meet our granddaughter, our nephew, our cousin/child/long lost friend, they say. I can see my parents, my older children, my students, they tell me. Soon, they smile. We will be back to normal soon. 

Some are frightened. Some have heard nothing but conspiracy theories, some have allergies and medical problems. So many have been isolated for so long they seem intimidated by the people around, the noise that builds at the busier times, even with detailed and careful scheduling. Many arrive, anxiety balled up in their pockets, worried to shreds by restless hands; but everyone looks lighter when they leave. The weight of “someday, maybe,” has been lifted, replaced by colorful kites of “soon.”

When the work day is done, the sun slips west. I pick Lucy up from her daycare and bask in her light, securing her. We sing on the way home; she interrupts herself with growls and little shrieks. The moon rises full, stark against the softening sky in the east. 

Within an hour of arriving home, Lucy is fed, changed, and asleep. Her single-nap days playing with her friends knock her out by 7pm. The hours lit by still mismatched incandescent bulbs stretch before me; what once felt like stolen time now drags by. I think Netflix has stopped asking if I’m still watching. Most evenings I wake up, disoriented, to the plot of episode something of NCIS, having no idea how they arrived at their conclusions, or even how many fifty-minute mysteries have been solved. 

All around me are projects, half-done or barely begun. Painted terracotta pots wait for their glaze; the plants droop, losing hope that I will soon re-pot them. A belated Christmas stitching lays over a bookshelf, and yards of fabric await their transformation into curtains. One room remains full of boxes to be unpacked; books and office supplies and blank greeting cards and candles. A roll of contact paper sits on the bar it is meant to revitalize. Corkboard monstera leaves sit in their stack next to a decorative photo box, on sale and misspelled, saying “kindess matters.” 

I don’t want to write. I don’t want to open that door; it’s too heavy, stained too dark, and I am weary. I lean against it, a passive act of resistance, feeling the creak in the boards and hinges. My heart already feels too raw, my soul still scraped from the last missive. 

But I know – whether I put pen to paper or not, or fingers to keys or not, the words will be there. They will build and build against the other side of that door, until, like a sinking ship, it bursts open. If I wait for that to happen, the waves come with splinters, arrowing in on old and unsuspecting wounds. My phone lights up to remind me to drink water; the little notepad icon taunts me. I carry how many notebooks, and still, my go-to place to record the lines and stories that cross my mind is my phone. Maybe I should call it Diane

A giant laid down their head the last time this week; one of the brightest city lights of San Francisco was swept away to the stars. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, my favorite of the beat poets, died at 101. I can honestly say that I have never really stopped to think about who my influences are in my writing, but without a doubt, he lead the pack. I have been infatuated with his poetry since high school. I had the opportunity to see him do a reading at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. I arrived late and breathless with my boyfriend; the auditorium was full, and we sat on the wide, shallow steps on the side. Ferlinghetti’s deep voice hummed over the words as if the world had slowed, allowing each line to reverberate from his lips, past the ears of all in attendance, and out and down the hallowed halls. I still hear the echoes whenever I return, though it’s been fifteen years. 

I loved his unabashed appreciation for the beauty of the human body; he didn’t shy away from words like cock or breasts, a titillating and undeniable mark of maturity to my sixteen year old self, poring over his poems in study period at my Catholic high school. I was already queer and appreciating the female form myself, but he helped me discover my love for women went beyond wanting to get under their skirts. Burned into my memory is the image of a woman hanging laundry atop an apartment building, no shelter from the California sun; the wet sheets cling to her, and she laughs. It is a gif; more movement than a simple photograph can allow, yet there is no need for a story before or after, only the complete immersiveness of the moment. Even now, as I lean hard into this season of anguish and grief, I know that rooftop awash in sunlight is there. It is no oasis, but a pinprick star through the gloom.

So, before I say goodbye, Lawrence, Mr. Ferlinghetti sir, a favor if you will – if you see my love there among the stars, perhaps watching the sunset between the baobab trees, tell them that I ache for them. Tell them I miss the planes and curves of their body, the soft skin and all the changes; tell them I’d give anything to watch them hang out laundered linens on a rooftop. While you’re there, mapping the constellation of your next hundred and one years, tell my son a lullaby, a spoken word song that comes from a far rockaway of the heart. And if you can spare it, send a little of their starlight this way, so I may teach my daughter how to paint sunlight, and give me a wild dream of a new beginning.

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The Slow Honey Drip of Those Young Nights Long Gone

Ten years ago, I realized that I’d fallen in love with a beautiful person who was supposed to have been a one-night stand. They had done the same, and tried to end our budding romance, as we were both in other committed relationships at the time. I cried for three days; I remember the sun shining bright as I tried to hide my eyes from my partner on the ambulance, and gazed with aching sorrow down the street that would take me to their house. He bought me coffee that day, and was kind enough – or smart enough to save his skin – to not offer platitudes or advice. My marriage was in shambles; my husband had moved his boyfriend in months ago, and I could not relax in our house. I could only work, try to keep up with the housework and the animals we had, and avoid the two of them for my own safety and sanity. My lover was the sunshine that had disappeared from my life; I didn’t notice it was gone until they kissed me, hadn’t realized the dark around me until they made me burn. 

On the third day, lightheaded and resigned, I asked to stop by their apartment. I had a Valentine’s gift for them and their girlfriend; a poem I’d written for the two of them, every stroke of pen a denial that it was I who wanted those long looks, nights with old movies, and shared bottles of wine. I walked up the steps and waited on the porch with its painted floorboards starting to sag. They creaked underneath in the icy grip of February. My lover opened the door and looked at me; neither of us moved for a minute, maybe more. I don’t know who moved first. They pulled me in and we buried our faces in each other’s necks. Their soft voice echoed through my body. “Stay,” they said. “I can’t do this anymore. I won’t be without you.”

The following months were fraught with arguments on each of our homefronts as we each tried to detangle ourselves from relationships that had long since soured into “situations.” My husband’s boyfriend grew more abusive; after one night where he nearly broke my arm, I stayed at Hawthorne’s apartment they shared with their girlfriend for three nights. Hawthorne gave me both a safe place and the resolve to not return until the boyfriend was ousted. They took pictures of the bruising, and told me that I didn’t have to leave, even after the boyfriend left. I did, though; they walked me to my truck and kissed my forehead, telling me I’d always have a safe place with them. I went home and tried, again, to fix what was left of my marriage. My then-husband would never forgive me for evicting their lover, and crossed boundaries in our relationship that couldn’t be uncrossed. It took a couple months more for me to concede that I had done everything I could, but I could no longer stay. One night, laying as far away from me as they could in our bed, he asked again why I wouldn’t just leave if I was so unhappy. The summer air was cool on my skin as I tugged off my wedding ring and laid it on the nightstand. I dressed quickly and quietly in the dark, grabbed my get-out bags from the back of the closet as he lay silently. I didn’t think he had any reaction until I backed out of the drive, and he appeared in the headlights of the truck. He stood, softly calling me in the hideous pet name he had for me, his voice childlike; his eyes looked dead in the artificial lights. It took more than twenty minutes to talk him down and away from the truck. I drove down the street without looking back, calling Hawthorne on the way. I had texted them when I was first leaving, and they had left a couple frantic messages when I had been delayed. I arrived at the apartment in tears and exhausted. They ushered me in, undressed me gently, and tucked me in on the futon. They held me until I fell asleep. 

Hawthorne’s story of the spring of 2011 doesn’t feel like it’s mine to tell, at least not yet. 

We talked about this every year, about a week before Valentine’s Day. 

“Remember when you broke up with me?” I’d ask.

“I had to,” they’d reply. 

“Never again,” we’d say. We meant it.

We were married almost exactly three years from the night I left the house I owned with my ex-husband. The nights were comfortable; the day dawned gray and dry, and the light cloud cover gave way to skies the reflection of my lover’s eyes. 

We chose our vows carefully; Hawthorne personally curated the music for the day and the ceremony, and given the DJ a list of approved songs. We wanted no mention of ending or death; we wanted to be in the moment, to ride that wave of joy and jubilation that was bursting out of us. We brought the light out in each other. As I walked down the aisle to an instrumental version of “The Luckiest,” we were trembling with laughter, smiles so big they hurt our cheeks. 

We promised forever.

We never said “til death do us part.” 

It’s been nearly five months since they died. My body feels hollow, a cavern carved from sorrow, jutting protrusions left from where my heart was torn away. I didn’t know it was possible to feel such anguish before Oscar died, and my womb became that haunted, hollow place. The echoes of my own cries ring out, bouncing off the sharp edges, sounding foreign even to my own ears. 

It has only been recently that I’ve started to be able to talk to them, to let them in, to let them linger. It was easier to be angry. It was easier to refuse to talk to them than to acknowledge the emptiness of the space beside me. Now the soft material of the shoulder bag that Sherri gave them feels like their jeans when I reach over, my hand searching for theirs in the passenger seat. I grip the sturdy cotton and watch the dance of the tow truck lights in the bumper of the car barely in front of me in traffic; the ambers and reds refract in my tears, a kaleidoscope of blurred edges. I think about how they would never have let me let the car get this messy, the grief I would have gotten for the errant sprinkles from a week’s worth of cupcakes for breakfast.

They’ve come home, too; my friends and I have talked about all the apartments that fell through, leaving me in my new place, with all her creaks and moans. I don’t think its happenstance that this house reminds me of Buffalo with its wood-framed glass built-ins, it’s layered-painted white trim, and two-handed bolt on the back door. It has the wide entryways and narrow-planked hardwood floors I came to know so well in other 1920s-born apartments. I hear Hawthorne’s footsteps in the floorboards. I hear them checking on the baby in the night, I hear them unloading the dishwasher and the drip of the water off the hot, clean glasses. I hear our summer nights spent fishing in the sounds of the radiator, the forced air system earning its name.

Valentine’s Day was about the little things; great food, wine, chocolate, and just being together, silly and romantic. There was never pressure, there was never expectation; just love, that joyous expression of it we always seemed to be able to find, even in the cold and the dark. We would dance, wherever we could. We’d trade cards, proud of our finds or our creations. I’d keep the fancy box long after the chocolates were gone. They would kiss me until my head spun, and I’d smooth away the lipstick left behind as I caught my breath. 

I don’t know what to do with myself this year. I am not decorating; my heart aches too much to hang up the garlands of fish I made for our first real Valentine’s; I can’t bear to open the tote where they rest among the Easter chicks and foam pumpkins anyway. I’ll hang Lucy’s first piece of art, a heart made with her long little feet dipped in red paint. The rest can stay packed. 

I’ll buy myself the chocolate, and hell, I’ll take the heart-shaped boxes too. Let them burn; strike a match and watch the cellophane melt, red dye dripping into spreading pools. Let it seep into the frozen ground, branching out a root system, something to ground me in the cold winter nights when I’d give anything to feel their ice-cold feet sliding up my legs to warm up between my thighs. 

I will never forget that burgeoning joy, the sheer exuberance of our love for each other. It doesn’t matter if what ended up being the last months were the hardest; we had a lifetime of love crammed into our ten years together, jam-packed like a Pop Tart. Anger might be easier than the depths of this grieving, but there is solace to be found here, too. It’s just hiding in the shadows, waiting for that slight sliver of light to catch off the surface and set it glowing. 

So I’ll sing the bebop apocalypse to our baby, and I’ll leave an extra-thick pair of socks near the bed, when the cold feet looking for comfort in bed are mine; and baby, our love song will survive.

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It’s Knowing That This Can’t Go On Forever

One year. 

It’s been one year since the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a worldwide health emergency.

At the time of this post, there have been over 102 million cases, over 2.2 million deaths globally. In the US alone, over 25 million cases, and over 436 thousand deaths.

You hear the numbers. They’ve climbed so high, they cease to make sense. Who can comprehend of hundreds of thousands of deaths? It’s as if Oakland were wiped off the map. All those people, gone.

You can see the effects. You look around; almost everyone knows, or knows someone who knows, someone who has contracted the disease. You see the businesses that have closed, the decrease in traffic, the increase of delivery trucks, and lack of big yellow school busses. I wonder, can you see the ghosts? The nursing home overnight environmental staff whose ’13 Honda doesn’t pass your house when you sit down to dinner. The schoolteacher who no longer needs her parking pass. The taciturn grandfather who used to pick up a 30-rack from the convenience store every few days. 

You taste your food, and you’re grateful in a way you never have been before. You have been home, cooking; all your ingredients are delivered, hand-picked. It’s easy to bitch when there’s been a substitution you weren’t expecting, and there’s no one there to explain or make it right. You make your sourdough, post it on Instagram. The tang of the warm bread, the melting butter seeping into all the nooks and crannies inside, are a comforting reminder that you have followed the rules, that you’ve kept yourself safe. Your hands taste like sanitizer, so you’ve stopped biting your nails while working from home. 

When you do go out, you smell your breath behind your mask, remind yourself to add mouthwash to your Instacart. Maybe it’s time to cut back on the garlic. You cough once, as the dry winter air reaches your lungs. All heads turn. Your eyes both apologize and deny that it’s the ‘rona, it’s allergies. Remember to wash your cloth masks; they’re telling people to double up, as new strains wind through communities, spreading through the mountains and the cities to raise the threat of contagion. 

You touch no one. You pay for your coffee from your phone, you do the still-awkward “I’d shake, but,” smile-and-shrug when you meet someone new. You watch people approach with the warning in your eyes, meeting the same in theirs as they watch you. You rub sanitizer on your hands when given the opportunity; you’ll scrub your hands at home, smooth and soothe the dry skin with a lotion made with oats or aloe. 

Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you go out, like everything is okay. Maybe you do your shopping at a busy supermarket, 2:00 PM on a Saturday, grab a free sample. Maybe you go to church and shake hands with your neighbor. Your kids go to school, you go to karate and yoga and soccer. Maybe you somehow don’t think it’s a big deal, that it’s just politics, the China virus. Maybe you think your faith will save you, or maybe you’re just tired of the restrictions.

I’m tired. I don’t know about you, but my hands hurt from the emptiness. My arms ache to wrap around someone; my cheek yearns to be laid upon another’s. I’ve always been a hugger; physical affection wasn’t just reserved for my beloved, but was always available for anyone who needed or wanted. 

The way I talk has changed over the past year, not just since Hawthorne died. I tell my friends that I love them more often; I tell people I miss them. The words “be safe” leave my lips every day. I make much more of an effort to stay in contact with those distant from me. I RSVP to online events with every intention of logging in, I promise. I have a harder time staying organized, keeping track of the days, remembering things. Relegated to mere mortal status, Hawthorne would say. 

There is no resolution, no lesson in this. Yes, the vaccines are coming, and again I recognize the privilege I carry in having had my first dose already. But the preliminary numbers show that as of December 13thover 16,000 people in the US alone have died over the past year than was expected based on data from the past ten years. That doesn’t include the past 6 weeks which saw nearly 140,000 additional coronavirus-related deaths.

Not everyone has a chance to live through history, and know it as it is happening. As we enter year two of this global pandemic, I again think back to the Ebola epidemic in 2014. I remember how terrifying it was to watch the newscasts and see these tiny numbers in large text in the corner of the screen, vying for attention with the different ALERTs and BREAKING NEWS banners that scrolled by. 11 people had Ebola here in the US. Now the numbers grow so large the news is forced to either abbreviate them or minimize the font size; I’m sure marketing teams decided based on what was thought would retain the most viewers. 

I remember healthcare workers scoffing at having to learn and then practice regularly how to don and doff the significant personal protective equipment required to safely care for patients suspected to have Ebola. It won’t get here, they said. And then, they were right. Still, they also believed that Ebola was a real disease, and a threat to anyone close enough to it. Nobody wanted to be the one who died bleeding from their eyes. 

I wonder if that jaded response helped to lead to where we are now; where people don’t trust scientists, where literally an entire disease is thought to be propaganda by some. Where people don’t want to take the precautions necessary. After all, no one is bleeding out in the streets. Not here. Not this time. 

I do have hope that with the old regime gone, we may have greater faith in a leadership who puts their trust in science. Will that change again in 4 years? Maybe. 

Maybe by then, everyone will know how to keep their mask over their fucking nose. 

I love you. 

I miss you. 

Be safe. 

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Are You Still Taking Notes

I can write anywhere. When I make it a priority – when I let myself make my writing practice a priority – I enjoy the trappings. The desk set up just so; pens and notebook ready, for whatever comes through that isn’t the topic I’m working on, or doodles and notes about pictures to add. My brain feels like it’s always firing, so I always have some version of a to-do list handy to catch the fleeting thoughts of “call the vet,” “get creamer.” There is a window nearby, natural light softening as it shines through the curtains, or lit from the other side by the warm glow of the desk lamp. There are plants within reach; stuck on a thought, I check the dirt for dampness, and usually add it to my list before rising for a stretch break and to cross it off. There may be music playing, there may not; it depends on my mood, and that’ll change during the writing. If certain tiny humans and old puppies didn’t demand my attention, I could sometimes move hours into the evening before noticing the shadows. 

When writing makes itself a priority, I can and will write anywhere. On the back of an envelope off someone’s desk with a quick, “can I use this?” Post-its, receipts, bank statements. The Notes app on my phone serves as a catch-all, thoughts recorded while driving, intermittent list items, ideas to explore for a blog post. I’ve written entire journal entries on it, if you can call furiously moving my thumbs clutched around a three-inch light in the dark as my brain races ahead beyond the screen “writing.” I do. Right now, I’m sitting cross-legged on the cold wooden floor at the front of my new apartment. My posture is terrible (she says, straightening her spine as she types this), and my ass is frozen. In front of me is the thick braided rug that used to lay in Lucy’s room; I set up old lady Ella a little nest at my knee with a bathmat and the couple of towels I could quickly find. She’s tucked up against me, a scraggly black crescent of snoring dog. 

Yesterday was the day I moved the three of us into the apartment; the movers came the day before with the contents of the storage unit in Vermont, which apparently did not include a single chair. I had ordered an IKEA sleeper sofa which was supposed to be delivered yesterday and never showed (item for to-do list: call IKEA 10am). My desk is where I want it to be, but without the chair, I default to the couch – or where it should be. My pre-caffeinated brain put me in the right place, whereas my barely-caffeinated brain is telling me to move forward a few feet and join Ella on the rug. Yet my fingers keep moving, and my cold ass stays in place.

I am on a constant search for tools and tricks to maximize productivity, provide structure, and enjoy the results. Yes, enjoy – a deliberate choice of words, because using tools and structure to creates something – whether that’s a piece of art, a blog post, or a work product – sparks true joy (I will never KonMari my toolbox, and you can’t make me). One thing I stumbled across recently was a new app called GoalsWon. I chanced upon the opportunity to beta test it, and thus far, I’m finding it helpful. I’m using it specifically for my writing practice; I wanted something to keep me on track in this time of crazy transition, when nothing feels stable, and I don’t even have my coffeemaker unpacked.

On moving day, I set two goals in regards to my writing: make my daily goal of 500 words, and get my writing space set up. I hit my word count easily in the morning, pouring out my angst about the day, and how bullshit it is to have to be doing this. Later I muttered to Hawthorne that I never thought I’d be carrying them and our son under one arm to the car, I figured I’d be dragging them both; a kid-at-heart and kiddo not wanting to leave the playground when it was time to go. 

My other goal didn’t happen. My immediate thought was that I had failed; I wanted to get my writing space set up, and I did not. I automatically cast myself as both judge and defendant, Lady Justice peeking out from her blindfold to tip the scales and let me sink into the cold, comforting arms of the part of me who somehow always feels so undeserving. Reframing this as data doesn’t release me; it doesn’t give me the familiar path of saying, “well, guess I’ve gone and fucked it up again, what a surprise.” That loop of failure to accomplish equaling my failure as a person is a deep-set track; the banks are steep, and once I’m in, it’s easier to stay than grind my way out. 

One intention I set this year is to be kinder to myself; so rather than thinking about not meeting the goal as failure, I am trying to reframe it as a simple fact, one of two possible outcomes. Making this choice to deliberately turn failure into data is not easy; recently, one of my best friends told me that I could squeeze failure out of a tomato. It’s funny, because it’s true.

And clearly, the fact that I did not set up my writing space is OK. Because here I am, cold ass and snoring dog, banging away at the keys. 

I let go of writing for a long time; truly, it was a different world. The bright blue folder I’ve carried with me, hidden, house to house for over twenty years is ripped at the corners, the shine on it dulled from years of being tucked away. It is thick with my angsty teenage poetry, songs that I wrote in the shower, and fragments of stories that were not my own. I have been collecting these lines, building up the case to remind myself in ways that no photograph ever could of what my passion is; an indelible reminder of the kid that I was and the dreams that she had.

I had just recommitted to writing this blog when my world was utterly shattered for the second time in as many years. Hawthorne spent their last minutes asleep in our comfortable bed, Ella snoring alongside them while I sat with our daughter who was asleep in her swing. It was a sunny Saturday morning; I was awake, sitting at my desk, iced coffee going warm by my elbow. I was writing when the sky fell in. Exuent Hawthorne. Scene. 

One of my friends, a particularly badass and fearless woman, somehow held onto the thread of my writing through the chaos that became my world that week. She asked what no one else did, what I’m sure no one else was even thinking about; was I going to publish my blog on time? I told her, with some pride, it was already in the editing phase. One week after Hawthorne died, I met my scheduled biweekly goal when I published the obituary I couldn’t give to the papers. 

Part of why I had left writing locked up for so long was that Hawthorne had been planning on going to school. They didn’t think they had a career in sociology, so they were looking at their MFA in creative writing. I think their Facebook page still lists their major as “Sociology and Pretty Writing.” They were not so prolific as I find myself, but each word was hand-selected, a quality gemstone for just the right setting. Like their return to music, however, picking up the pen again proved difficult; pain robbed them of the ability to think of much else, and the medications that took the pain away also stole the keys to their creativity. For those who continue to fight through incredible pain, it is a battle engaged on every front and facet of a person. It’s too easy to forget that if you aren’t facing it day after week after month. 

I didn’t pursue writing because I wanted to give Hawthorne the space to do so. They never asked; they never would have dreamed of it. Instead, I let my impossible standards transfer leak out. I worried that success was pie, and there was only so much to go around; what if we both weren’t successful? What if writing turned out to be something good and important for me (which, clearly, it’s integral) and they did not have a good experience? What would the fallout be? So without breathing a word of this into actual conversation, I decided the best way to support Hawthorne’s writing dreams would be to put mine aside. 

It’s only now that I am able to articulate this thought process. Whenever it came up before, I’d always brush it off; Hawthorne was the writer, I was the data person. Qualitative and quantitative, a perfect match. It was one aspect where I did not want to compete; I was afraid for what either success or failure would mean, and I could not see beyond that binary. It took losing Oscar to find that in me again. The world had crumbled, leaving dusty artifacts and oddly preserved opportunities to build anew. Some of those are in Hawthorne’s own hand; I have a crate full of their notebooks that I cannot open yet.

Today, through the wonders of both time and therapy, I know that it’s not just writing. I find myself excavating pieces I had thought lost, for one reason or another, usually ridiculously self-imposed based on what I feared other’s perceptions would be. Each discovery is wrapped in grief and guilt, and must be carefully exposed. It takes time for the relics of my dreams to be brought out into the light, time I know must be dedicated. 

Hawthorne would never have knowingly buried my dreams. They were my champion; they gave me the pushes I need to take new jobs, to go back to school, to apply to my dream program. Once I said I wanted to write, they were all in, and they were hurt by my surprise at that. I tried to explain it wasn’t them, that this view was completely fabricated in my head. I’m not sure they believed me. 

I am getting to the point where I can talk to them again. I look at their picture on my desk or on my phone. I awkwardly met someone recently who happens to be quite attractive, and one of my first reactions was, Hawthorne’s got to be getting such a kick out of this. Our friends agreed when I told them, after only a brief internal argument that it was too soon for me to see another person as attractive. Hawthorne and I would tease each other mercilessly when this would happen; why not now? I like to think it’s their laughter that shines the stars bright enough to break through the light pollution of the city, giving them that extra twinkle.

It’s a different day; I still don’t have my writing space set up, but I do have a couch. I’m writing in bed, in my bedroom sanctuary, free of (most of) the flotsam of moving. I have the fan on, since the heat from the house seems to settle here the most. I’m much more comfortable than when I started writing this post; the urgency is no less intense. I can hear what Hawthorne called the sound of mice tap-dancing as my fingers fly across the keyboard, trying to keep up with my thoughts and outrace the red lines of misspelled words. Lucy will wake up soon, and the day will begin. By the end of it, I’ll find scribbled notes to myself, quick lines of prose enmeshed with shopping and to-do lists. Tomorrow morning I will take the time to sort it out as I find some space between the half-empty boxes to park myself and write again.