first tooth

Her first tooth erupted on Saturday after a prelude of drool and night nursing. She is six months old, it seems too fast, but isn’t that the way it always is? For every new milestone represents a loss as well as a gain. She’s a different baby this week than she was last week. She is the river I can never swim in twice, the shifting clouds, the unfurling leaf. I gasp as I smile, I embrace the new child I meet while I long to hold her a bit longer as she is, to keep her small. 

Perhaps it’s the curse of an older mother. We know the heartache of loss, and these mini ones sting old wounds. I’ll never know what kind of mom I would have been in my twenties, but I suspect more like my own, with a sunny optimism that pushes away the painful realizations. Or maybe not. Maybe it is part of me, this longing to have things be as they are, yet also different. Maybe Mom experienced some of these feelings too, but I can’t ask her, and she never would have shared with anyone if she did, for she kept close vigilance over her darker thoughts and generally did not give them the dignity of breath. I can only go my memory of her and her words, spotty and inaccurate as that can be:

Do you miss me being a baby?

No. I always feel like I love the age that you are. It’s fun watching you grow up. Plus babies are a ton of work. 

Well, then. Was she protecting me? Giving me the answer I wanted to hear? Or was that really her truth?

I guess I want to shield J from my sorrows, the twingy sadness that comes with every leap forward. I want her to feel my love like sunshine, warm and shining, not heavy or mournful. Her victories we can share but my grief will be my own to hold.

her hands

If I were to claim any part of her as my favorite, it might be her hands. They dance when she is alert, fingers waving,coaxing the air into becoming her own invisible instrument.  When she is startled they bunch up into tight fists and she gives them a shake or two. Often a finger or five can be found in her mouth, shiny with drool. Lately she has started to explore the opening and closing of her hands. She touches fabric or skin or anything really, and her little starfish fingers  joyfully leap forward only to immediately spring back to nestle her palm again. Open close, open close. And sweetest gestures of all happen during nursing, as more frenzied activity slow to sweet caresses. She feeds quietly, eyes closed and gracefully, ever so gently traces her fingertips along the outside of my breast, my sternum, my chin. The very light touch of her fingers, so tiny, not yet hardened by life’s labor, feels more like a brushing of butterfly wings than the touch of a human, but here she is, real and mine. 6 months after her birth I still check her breathing while she sleeps. You are okay? You are okay.


The annual reprieve is here- monsoon season. We desert dwellers look to the sky, to the dark clouds which form in the afternoon hours with hopeWe need this, the nourishing rains, the plummeting temperature which follows in its wake. In an instant lightning rips across the sky, big fat drops kiss our face and we clap our hands in gratitude. Yes. 

The desert hangs on to nothing, and water rushes and rushes, trying to return to the sea. It flows down alley ways and pooling only when contained. In a flood zone at the end of my street, the dusty embankement has given way to lush Johnson grass stands and puddles. But even in monsoon the water is not always enough.

I noticed the wriggling tadpoles after the season’s first big storm. The desert toad laid those fertilized eggs remains unknown to me; I’ve never heard their mating song at dusk, or seen one hopping around in the grass. But there they were, thousands of tadpoles in the seasonal water stand. Undulating and undulating, some of them clumping together, some perpetually pushing forward, on and on. Countless miracles, nearly in my own backyard.

But then things dried up. The puddles shrank, retreated. The tadpoles become a writhing mass in the small amount of remaining water.  I prayed to the God of Rain to bless us thoroughly and quickly, thousands of tadpoles depended on this. I prayed to the God of Frogs that they may develop preternaturally quickly. My prayers went unanswered; yesterday they had evaporated along with the puddle, leaving behind only a greyish film in the center of a mud ring.

It made me hate the kind of world were thousands of beautiful creatures live and die in a breath. The waste, the injustice.

But then today the rain returned. Again the streets flowed, water pooled, and there are tadpoles once more. Well developed, survivors transplanted from other puddles perhaps. I watch them undulate with a renewed sense of gratitude. With a renewed sense of hope.


I am packing boxes, surrounded by dust bunnies, wrapping paper, and the odds and ends that baffle any sort of organizational schema. Should this be in the “kitchen” box, or the “buffet” stuff? Keep it or throw it? What did I need this for anyway? The animals pace, smelling domestic upheaval in the air.

Yes, it is once again time to move. I have predictably timed this transition for the hottest part of the year. Highs temperatures are said to be 111 degrees on Saturday.

Most pictures are packed away yet one photo remains, taped to the inside of my bookcase. A smiling image of my mother presses the infant me joyfully against her cheek. I look to her image as though it were an icon, Our Lady of the Uhaul, Patron Saint of Gypsies and Restless Humans Everywhere. She who loved this shit. She who couldn’t live in a house more than two or three years. Houses were places to leave your mark, and then leave. Enter, refurbish, enjoy for a time, exit. When she wasn’t moving her own family she was shuffling her mother around: Now, she needs a senior apartment! No, assisted living! A senior apartment with some assisted living services! No, something closer to me! And so on.

I pack and remove, unwinding my life in this tiny casita, a cozy abode with blue-green walls and saffron ceilings and windows, so many windows. The light streams in at all hours of the day and if you catch a beam just right in the winter it warm you straight to the core. When I arrived here two years ago I nearly wept with joy because it was so perfect for me. The person I was. The house I needed.

The promise came true. What was broken down and dead healed over and woke up. I grew into me here. My life is now as vivid as the paint on the walls.

And now it is time to go. I have a new chapter to begin, and it will be in a different house. One that can better shelter me, now that life has become so full. So bright.  

 She understands. 

no words, only beauty

I got the news– her father passed away.  Cancer.

The news detonates a dam, and the tragedy of another triggers a flood of memories. I remember the quiet that pervaded the house during my mother’s final days, even while streams of thoughtful friends and family trickled by with somber faces.  The flocks of grey geese, a silent V slicing the grey skies above. The terrible disbelief that sets in after the final, jagged breath.

There are no words to comfort.  Maybe I can say that I understand what she is going through. Afterall, I too have lost a parent, but everyone grieves differently.  It is a lonely road, and she is a mother, she must carry on for another. The phrase “I understand” seems a bit inauthentic.

I can tell her that I’m sorry, because I am.

I can tell her everything will be different going forward, but how? I cannot predict. It is for her to discover. The truth will dazzle gradually.

What I can say, and what is the greatest truth: the only thing that knit me back together again was beauty.  People, with their awkward hugs and concerned faces, tried to comfort me, but I was beyond reach. There is nothing that anyone could do or say.

But there was poetry.  There were brilliant Arizona sunsets. There were songs that managed to fill a broken heart with joy and hope.  There were mountains that touched puffy white clouds.  There were birds, so many birds.

The beauty of the world can deliver you from her horrors if you open yourself to it.


Alan (4)

he gave me a backpack, he showed me the way


His last gift to me was a backpack.  A royal blue, 60 liter, Gregory backpacking pack. Rugged, heavy, built for the wilderness and paid for with drug money, or maybe it was stolen. He smiled while he extended the pack and I felt his glassy, bloodshot eyes trying to read my face. I hesitated, as this gift-giving stank of another tactic to delay me in throwing his ass out of the house we bought three years earlier with the blind optimism of newlyweds. A new build, as young as our marriage. I can recall the smell of the fresh plywood as we wandered through the partially framed-out structure the day we signed the purchase agreement. We were two children playing house in a half-built skeleton, wondering where the ceiling fan would hang in the living room.  If I had known what demons lurked in the shadows of the not-so-distant future I would have fallen to my knees in the construction dust and screamed.  Instead, I innocently grasped his sweaty hand with mine and contemplated ceiling fans. It was better that way, better not to know of the impending storm. It wasn’t long, after all, before the demons stepped into the light; we saw their faces and whispered their names, and began the long slog of suffering which brought us, too-thin and broken, to that moment under the whirring ceiling fan when he handed me a backpack. A bulky manufacturer’s tag swung back and forth in the circulating air and the body of the pack was slightly slumped, begging to be filled with camping gear. My toes curled on the standard-issue, builders-grey carpeting while I steadied my face, trying to suppress delight at the pack so as not to confuse the giver, for I had no delight left for him. But I smiled, I couldn’t help myself, and I took the backpack from his shaky grip. Sliding it on my thin shoulders it felt foreign, but somehow right.

How did he know I needed that backpack? He was nearly as shattered as a person can be, consumed by addiction and rocked with grief. Was he informed by whatever love for me that remained lodged in his big, broken heart? Was some higher force working through this tortured man, transforming selfishness into charity? I may never know, but this gift, this final act of generosity in our doomed marriage, was the answer to the question I had yet to articulate.  In giving me a backpack he showed me the door to my salvation , although I didn’t walk through it in earnest for many more years.  I had more suffering to do.  I had to fall further before I was ready to rise.

Oh, and I have risen!  Nature has soothed me.  Freedom has saved me. And this pack has been with me through it all, my trusted companion while I strolled through forest meadows, gazed at the sea, smelled temple incense and gulped thin mountain air. We shared the adventures he and I only dreamed of. It has traveled in trucks, planes, trains, but mostly on my sweaty back. We have been rained on, hailed on, snowed on, and baked in the desert sun. I have kicked dust on it, I have thread wildflowers through its numerous straps. I have dropped it, propped it, hung it, slugged it. It is starting to show its age, but I still adventure with it proudly.  From misery to ecstasy, we have been through a lot together.

a survivor

I have become preoccupied with survival.  The art of endurance, of strength, of balancing precariously between life and death and miraculously making it.  I pour over manuals to learn and re-learn wilderness navigation techniques, insurance against getting lost. I do presses and pull ups and push ups in the rediculously-early morning, a rehearsal in pulling myself up and out of impending disaster.  I lose myself in memoirs of surviving avalanches, plane crashes, sinking ships. I run down city streets to prepare myself for climbing mountains. I tie myself on to ropes and learn to climb on delicate foot holds, squeeze precarious handholds, and fall, when necessary, safely, gracefully.  I practice breathing deeply, so when I feel fear building up I can just as easily let it slide away, the back and forth of waves crashing on a beach then being pulled back to sea.  The study of survival is a preoccupation which eats up, in its various permutations, most of my free time.

My degree of obsession seems funny to me because I am already a survivor. I have fallen, bruised and bloodied, to the lowest levels and climbed back up again. I have lost myself in the darkest realms and found my way back to the light.  I have worked through searing pain. I have made it, am making it, again and again.

Survival isn’t an endpoint, but a gateway. It only matters if there is a promise of life beyond the blackness of the rabbit hole. Every battle needs its prize. So perhaps these survival exercises I perform in relative comfort are more than preparation for future challenges.  They help me relive the story of my life and unleash the wisdom loosely folded in the challenges and the failures and the victories of my past.   In the consuming rituals of knot tying, trip planning, pushing and pulling and repairing and strengthening, I am reminded daily that I am a warrior, and mine is a life worth fighting for.


Anna’s Hummingbird, Boyce Thompson Arboretum, February 2014