Chaos in the Garden

…therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken.” (Gen 3: 23)

We have been eating zucchini for weeks. It’s that time of year. At first, each squash picked from the garden is cherished and celebrated. Now, we are feeding them to the chickens.

Joy fills my mom’s voice when she speaks of the garden, and when she harvests, she coos all sorts of endearing things. “Well, little one, aren’t you a beauty!?!” and “Oh my goodness! I can’t wait to taste you!

unnamed

My dad walks past the green beans, climbing in full splendor up the rack he built just for that purpose. The seeds were a bit old when we planted them weeks ago, and thinking they wouldn’t all make it, we sprinkled them close together. Now in full harvest, the plant has filled in thick and lush, bearing long twisty green beans on both sides of the planter. The soil is moist from the shade and regular waterings.

But then, hidden among the beauty of the plants, Dad hears the telltale rattle of a snake announcing its presence. The presence of danger is unavoidable.

The first order of business is to get the dogs inside. The younger of the two, Annie, hasn’t shown any restraint in recent encounters; she has attacked three javelinas as well as a porcupine. It’s better not to tempt her.

Dad yells at the dogs, using a very loud voice, commanding them to obey. “Annie!  Buddy!  Now!”

Hearing my dad’s stern voice is my first clue. It is out of character, not the normal end-of-the-day sound.

Soon, my phone rings and it’s Mom, who has now gotten involved.“Where are you? There is a snake in the green beans…

I am confused and a little sarcastic, “You want me to come look at it?!?!” Snakes are fairly common to our desert property and I am working on something that seems more important.

“We need you. Come now.”

I join the snake hunt, complete with nervous energy and raised voices. The snake is moving around and is hard to keep track of.  

“Mary, go get something long…we need to figure out where he is.”

I return a few minutes later with a twenty-foot stretch of plastic pipe, long enough to keep a safe distance while trying to rouse a snake out of hiding. Mom has a hoe. Dad has a gun. We are ready.

At the far side of the planter, I poke the bottom of the plant, trying to push the snake toward my parents. “Please don’t shoot me,“ I yell, only half joking. I am out of their sight, and the wall of green beans will not stop a bullet.

With a half-hearted laugh and a touch of exasperation, Dad snorts. “Got it.

Suddenly, the snake is on the move, unhappy with being poked and seeking safety. He crawls high into the bush, his movements shifting the leaves.

I use the pipe to lift a branch, and the snake’s crafty eyes and active forked tongue are now in plain view. Two feet off the ground, its body is wrapped around the planting rack.

Dad takes the shot, and 14102730_10154471164007943_7187211199284778346_nthe snake falls to the ground and continues to slither away.

Somehow, Dad now has the pipe and I have the hoe. Instinctively, I move in for the final blow, separating the snake’s head from the long body now wide open in the dirt.  It takes a few whacks to ensure the job is done.

This is the first snake that I have personally killed. For most of my life, I watched this kind of activity from a distance, fearfully.

The body continues to writhe and slither, the mouth bites the air, still on the attack. It is terrible to watch, this snake, seemingly alive but not. I feel the crashing sensation of adrenaline and the clammy feeling of sweat, but mostly relief that it is over.

We stand together, reliving the experience and dreading being the next one to have to pick green beans. I text my boyfriend to share the experience, and true to his roots, he texts back: “I can get $10 for the rattle.  $45 if you skin the snake.

We laugh and, with another whack of the hoe, the rattle is separated. We briefly discuss the possibility of skinning it. It is a big, worthy skin. But none of us is interested in getting that involved.

The mood begins to lift and normalcy settles back in. My dad, anticipating the release of the adventure-seeking young dog, gathers up the snake carcass to bury where it won’t be discovered.

I pick up the rattle, the silvery scales electrifying my fingertips, and head toward the house. As he drives by on the golf cart, my dad jokes, “Wait, how much for the skin?!?” He is always interested in a deal.

I shake my head. “No thanks, Dad. I’m going inside.

* * * * *

mary bio YAH

Trading time for breath

It’s Monday, the day I most need yoga and least have time for it. At 3:58, I rush across the bamboo floor of the studio, flustered and sweaty. Calm, centered-looking people who are already on their mats dot the studio, assuming some type of restorative/meditative/stretching pose that seems to highlight and mock my perpetual race against time.

Does being centered make a person on time, I wonder, or does being on time make a person centered?

Maybe I’ll never know.

I unfurl my pea green yoga mat, then make too many trips back and forth for various props, with each pass noticing another one I’m still missing. As I set up a block to sit on, my mind bounces around: a client I forgot to email; my daughter stretched on her bed as I left home, promising she would start her homework; a dinner ingredient I forgot to put on the list for my quick grocery run after yoga.

Ginger root ginger root ginger root ginger root, I chant to myself as I wind my hair into a hasty top knot. Even as I try to commit the necessary ingredient to memory, my brain ricochets its response: You’ll forget you’ll forget you’ll forget.

Scolding my unhelpful pessimism as our yoga instructor welcomes us to the practice, I settle into a cross-legged sukhasana, replacing ginger root and you’ll forget with that calming word: su-KHA-sa-na.

I feel the word rolling through me slowly, syllable by syllable; it flows and spreads rather than ricochets. Sukhasana. Its mere foreignness and lyrical rhythm help me shift from a day marked by meetings on my calendar, check marks on my to-do list, and billable hours measured by my laptop’s digital clock.

Yoga class was one of those calendar items—the last one of the day. Now that I’m here, I do my best to let go.

Sukhasana.

*  *  *  *  *

“Observe your thoughts. Acknowledge them,” my yoga instructor says. “Then let them go with your next exhale. Transition from your day to your yoga practice. Your only task now is to turn your attention inward and follow your breath.”

I’m not good at letting go. I’m good at making things happen, by pure force of will and careful strategy. In almost all other parts of my life, time equals progress—steps walked, words typed, hours billed, rugs vacuumed, cakes transforming from formless batter to sliceable delicacy. But in yoga, time is liminal. It speeds up or slows down according to my ability to access more breath, to find the far reaches of my lungs.

I am here. I am here.

This is the mantra I turn to most often to quiet my mind and deepen my breath—an adagio in four counts, inviting my breath to dance with parts of my body it hasn’t visited all day.

Inhale: I – am – here – (rest)

Exhale: I – am – here – (rest)

When I’m surprised by the instructor’s gentle voice saying “Begin to bring your awareness back to this space,” I know I’ve done it: I put time in its place, if even just for a short spell.

*  *  *  *  *

“Your back legs can be straighter. Even straighter. Reeaach through those finger tips, getting as much length as possible in your waist!”

Our instructor is walking among our mats as we all exert ourselves toward the best Warrior One poses we’ve ever achieved. She gently taps up on knees that aren’t straight enough, and lifts up on rib cages that could find another millimeter of length. As she wanders to my side of the studio I straighten and lengthen even more, hoping my back leg is one she won’t tap. At this moment I want to impress her as much as I want to punch her.

“Good! OK, hold it. Hold it. Just one more breath.”

One more breath my ass, I think. My deeply bent front leg begins to take on a trembling life of its own as our instructor forgets the definition of “one more breath,” pausing to align someone’s uneven hips.

In the agony, time becomes time again. There isn’t a clock visible in the studio, but there is a second hand ticking in my mind, mocking me as it did in middle school PE class when I was being timed for the dreaded “flex arm hang,” my arms betraying me in violent tremors.

Finally we are released from our deep lunge misery and allowed to “rest” in downward facing dog.

“That was wonderful!”

I’m a sucker for her enthusiastic praise every time.

*  *  *  *  *

6449941549_23f87d5c87_bFinally we transition into everyone’s favorite pose: savasana, or “corpse pose.” I’ve worked hard, so I sink into it gratefully, like one who has earned the right to release every muscle in her body.

But my love for savasana stems from more than my immediate need for a rest; I love it because there are no other moments in my busy life when I give myself permission to fully let go. No control. No effort. No holding what has been or what’s next. No seconds ticking into minutes.

For a while I am only a body, existing outside of time.

*  *  *  *  *

(Savasana photo, above, by Robert Bejil.)

Kristin bio YAH

The Lake House

I stand on the white planks of the dock, listening to the gentle sloshing of water against the grassy shore. The sun is setting behind me on this mid-August evening, earlier than it did last night, and the windows of the cottages on the eastern shore of Lake Chautauqua reflect its rosy glow.

Behind me, I hear the faint clink of wine glasses being refilled. The murmur of after-dinner conversation is punctuated with wild giggles from five-year-old Isaiah as his dad tickles him, doing his best to rile him up before bedtime.

lake-2016-bAs I walk back to join my friends on the shady side porch, I hear the teenagers laughing together from the kitchen. They have finished clearing the picnic table of ravaged corncobs and remnants of hamburger fixings, used paper plates and empty tortilla chip bags.

Once upon a time, I would have been the one standing at that sink, stowing leftovers, choosing dish duty as an introvert’s temporary retreat from the stimulation of too many people. But on this evening, I am content to lower myself into a cushioned deck chair and join the twilight conversation circle with my friends.

One combination or another of us have been gathering in this place over the course of so many summer evenings over so many decades—since we were barely older than the teenagers who are in the house now. They are singing selections from the U2 catalog, the soundtrack of their young lives—a legacy from their parents and their parents’ friends.

***

I was barely 18 when I first visited this cottage on this lake.

It was mid-October, a little over a month into my first year of college, and the Christian fellowship group hosted a weekend retreat at Lake Chautauqua in western New York State, an hour or so away from my northwestern Pennsylvania campus. There were too many of us to fit into one house, so a student’s family offered up beds and floor space in their vacation cottage for the overflow.

Little did I know then that the student whose house this was would become one of my best friends. And little did I suspect how many times I would return to this cottage on this lake and be comforted by how little it changed, while so many other things changed too much.

***

In our 20s, our lakeside reunions were carefree and action-packed. After many hours spent on the water, skiing and tubing, swimming and sunbathing, mealtimes were dictated by our hunger pangs, and bedtimes put off as long as possible as we basked in each other’s company. There were often more bodies than beds, and so sleeping bags and tents popped up on the side lawn. Those of us lucky enough to end up on the living room sofa bed were the last to sleep and the first to wake, as early-risers stumbled into the kitchen for morning coffee.

In our 30s, we negotiated whose turn it was to go out on the boat by calculating the appropriate ratio of adults to children, and then negotiating whose turn it was on the skis or the tube or the raft. Others of us stayed on shore to stand guard during toddlers’ nap times or to keep dinner preparations on schedule for the sake of the little ones. Bedrooms were assigned based on family sizes and necessary floor space for sleeping bags. The grownups cooked and the older kids took turns cleaning up.

This is the place we celebrated college graduations and engagements and anniversaries—and mourned broken relationships and divorces and losses of many kinds. It’s where we laughed together over shared memories and oft-repeated stories. It’s where we comforted each other during hard seasons that seemed like they may never end.

And always, the twilight conversation circle.

***

Isaiah has been tucked into bed. The singing teenagers are still in the house, busy with projects which will keep them occupied into the wee hours of the morning and cause them to sleep until noon the next day. And we—the grownups—sip wine and solve the world’s problems by the yellow glow of a citronella candle.

Tonight, a month shy of my 50th birthday, I soak in the familiar summer ritual. I listen to updates about friends’ “kids” who once-upon-a-time were with us at the lake, but who are now newly married or starting a first job after graduating from college. We commiserate about the most divisive presidential race of our lifetime. We pass around smart phones to share photos—and drugstore reading glasses so that we can pull them into focus. We joke about graying hair and thickening waists and, with broad yawns, our regrettable need for a full eight hours of sleep.

I think about friends who aren’t with us this year and how I wish they were. I think about singleness and marriage and divorce and remarriage and blended families and grief and brokenness and love and redemption. I think about the ways life has turned out how we hoped it would and the ways it has not.

I think about the grace of another late-summer evening at the lake house.

***

Amy bio YAH

Library Girl

The first job I ever had was in a library. I was seventeen, bored, and in need of cash so I put away books for a whole year. The library was small with one large main room with computers in the center, a children’s nook and video shelves to one side, and fiction stacks and study carrels to the other side. There was a dark little room off to one side with biographies and Sci-Fi and probably every single book L. Ron Hubbard had ever published—no small amount of wall space for that collection.

I spent a lot of time shelving in that little back room—Howard Stern’s Private Parts, Fran Drescher’s Enter Whining, Piers Anthony’s omnibuses, and at least three times a day, multiple copies of Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth. It was the nineties and people were gobbling up books written by stars and adapted for the big screen or television by the same stars. It’s funny to think that these books have likely been carted out many times over the past ten years with fifty cent stickers on them at library book sales.books-1617327_1280 (1)

In that back room, I was accosted by a man wearing what could only be described as a strap-on. It was plumed and colorful—almost a holiday outfit, if you could outfit that particular zone. He told me he was taking a survey of people’s reactions. At first I didn’t know what he was referring to. He was obliged to gesture at his varicolored nether regions. I laughed because I thought it was funny and shelved two Battlefield Earth’s. He disappeared. I told a librarian about the encounter, and she let me know that that was not OK. It was not OK at all. An interview with the police after my shift rounded out my education on how not OK it was to be flashed.

In graduate school I worked in a research archive. I catalogued children’s books in an enormous cement basement with motor-powered movable stacks. I was often the only person there for hours at a time. Patrons stayed safely behind glass doors upstairs in full view of the archivists. There was no way anyone who did not have business there could cause a commotion. The librarians and archivists stayed in their offices, oblivious to the public; what mattered was the materials, not people. Patrons came in to look at Charles Olson’s personal papers, or eighteenth century chapbooks. There had to be a specific reason to hang out there. I determined that I would never work in any other kind of library.

    * * * * *

Seven years later I found myself without a steady job, living in a new location, but with seven or eight applications submitted to libraries in the area. “This time it’ll be different,” I said to myself. “I love libraries. Always have.”

Of course I love them. I have only worked in libraries for a total of three years, but I have spent time in libraries my whole life. After months of applying, I received an invitation to work as a substitute library associate on the weekends. I found myself wheeling around the wooden cart, shelving books, and being schooled in how to alphabetize properly by a well-meaning associate. I was right back in high school. There were no flashers—that might only happen once in a lifetime—but there were many confounding problems of the twenty-first century to negotiate.

One patron asked me to help him write a letter to Donald Trump: “Dear President Trump” it ran, “I suggest you consider Russia as a top tier ally when you take America.” Another patron explained to me that he was allowed to visit the Ukrainian brides website on the library computers. It wasn’t porn. He’d already gotten the OK, alright?

I stayed for three months. It was all I had in me.

* * * * *

IMG_20160831_191540There’s nothing more exciting to me than backpacking in the library, carrying around tiny papers with call numbers written on them, finding the corresponding books in the stacks. Just today I picked up Barry Fell’s Bronze Age America and America B.C. on a whim. Alternative, badly received pre-Columbian history might help me write my book. Who knows? Libraries are pools of glorious random finds.

But there’s one thing I now know. Visiting a library and working in one are two different things. They might as well be two completely different places.

* * * * *

Elena bio YAH

More Than A List

Remembering may be a celebration or it may be a dagger to the heart, but it is better, far better than forgetting. ~ Donald M. Murray

I sit cross-legged on a pillow, playing tug-of-war with shelved books. I find it hidden, stacked between Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever and a large rectangular volume of maps. Dust tickles my nose as I run my hand over the linen-covered yearbook embossed with the class’s gold emblem.

Beside me, my laptop is open to a Facebook group page, Gone But Not Forgotten. It lists those from my class who have died. How many could be gone from our 450+ class of 1977? I squint, adjust the brightness of my computer’s screen, and strain to read the list. As I turn each page of the yearbook, matching faces with names, I hug myself around my waist. Sharp grief elbows my stomach. Tears puddle in the knot-holes of the pine floor beneath me.

I cover my eyes, hoping the names will fade back into the screen if I don’t peek. But, like a monster in a horror film, death doesn’t evaporate during my game of peek-a-boo. I uncover my eyes.

* * * * *

 A shy boy with smiling eyes, long curly bangs, and a slight tilt of his head stands dressed in a black jacket and tuxedo shirt with bow-tie. I imagine he is, like me, eager to pack his suitcase and throw off the constraints of high school. His name is written in a plain font on the list. I don’t know when or how he died—or why.

I remember sitting next to him in an economics class. Our marriage was arranged by a creative teacher who divided the class into married couples and assigned each a starting sum of money to work with. Every week we withdrew a sliver of paper from a bowl, on which our teacher had written a financial difficulty to test our ability to create a budget and stick to it. I gave birth to twins, had to purchase a washing machine and dryer, and my husband’s hours at work were cut back. Groans of despair, lusty laughter, and sidewise glances at my spouse filled the class hour. I was a little bit in love with my husband.

photo-1445357715217-0b01ff0a17cf

Turning glossy page after page, images of the dead remind me how I categorized each person in my class, even the ones I didn’t know. I remember faces, voices, the bounce in someone’s walk, and the shuffle of another. Classmates resurface in my memory: the popular, nerds, band nerds, jocks, hybrids, and the ones who gathered outside a designated entrance to the school for a smoke break. Their group was known to me and some of my friends as the freaks.

Questions sometimes floated around the hallways: Do the freaks smoke weed? Do they “fool around” in corners? I mixed harsh judgement of them with my desire to join them. Incognito.

Plagued by hormone-soaked daydreams of cigarette smoke exhaled in dark corners, I thought the freaks must be bad people; some even scared me. When one, a girl wearing a frayed denim jacket and low-slung jeans, spoke with genuine kindness to me, I was perplexed. At that time in my life, God was a square: predictable, with clean corners, a deity of certainties.

* * * * *

I did not choose my first college roommate. The housing office paired me with someone from my high school class. But, I didn’t know her.

She was a freak.

The entire month before classes started, I worried. Does she know who I am? What if she doesn’t want to be my roommate? Should I call her and ask her if she wants to have matching bedspreads?

I told my mother I wanted sheets and matching curtains for my dorm room in a blue tie-dyed pattern I had seen in a catalog. While different from my usual love of pink and blue florals, I thought a hippie style would give my roommate the impression I was chill.

I remember when she arrived to our dorm room. My wooden Coca-Cola crate painted high-gloss blue was hung on the wall, filled with knick-knacks and memorabilia. New sheets were cornered tight on my bed accompanied by a matching sheet draped on a curtain rod at the window. Towers of textbooks, notebooks, folders, and magazines were already stacked on my desk.

When she arrived, she said something like “this looks nice” and plopped a bag on her bed. We introduced ourselves in an exaggerated fashion, shaking hands, and laughing about What are the chances that…?

Her smile was crooked, and she studied my face like she was mining for truth, or that’s how I felt.

“Do you mind if I crack open the window?” she asked. “I need a smoke.”

I said sure, even though I wasn’t sure of anything, except that I didn’t want to be a party-pooper.

As the semester went by, my roommate partied. Beer was a staple in our mini-fridge, and when an uncooperative breeze changed direction, her cigarette and joint smoke wafted under our door into the hall. I became the doorkeeper, listening for the approaching footsteps of our strict floor captain. Even though I did not participate in her activities, I knew I was her friend. I had her back.

When I vomited my way through a wicked stomach virus, she ran to the Quik Mart, bought ginger ale, and wedged it beside her beer in our fridge. She had my back.

God was smoothing the sharp corners of my world, rounding and rounding it into a growing, multi-colored circle.

* * * * *

I scroll down the list and stop. Her name is there.

In my mind’s eye, I imagine her in a black and white photograph. She is tipped back in her chair, legs crossed, feet up, smiling after taking a long drag from her cigarette.

* * * * *

Lisa bio YAH

 

The Borders of Magic

It existed once, if only in our collective imaginations. It was a secret place, a sanctuary of my childhood.

There the tall evergreens intertwined with the clouds, forming an impossibly high ceiling and muffling the noise of life beyond its borders. The ground was soft with long pine needles, perfect for the bedding of small animals, runaway orphans, or clever kings and queens. Monsters, dragons, and bad guys were often a threat, but we were very, very brave. And of course, there were also long periods of peace when there was nothing to do but rearrange the castle, look for treasure, or set up cages for the pets.

‘Can I be the queen today?’ ‘The stable is over here.’ ‘Oh no, the lady who’s looking for us is behind that bush—hide!’

There, tucked under the pines, we could see it all. We could see the magic that was always, in those days, coloring the edges of what grownups insisted was real.

* * * * *

Real. The sound of my mom trying not to cry on the phone was real. “I have some very sad news,” she said, and I leaned on the concrete wall that divided my property from the neighbor’s. “Dad,” I thought, “it’s dad.” A week before my dad had a heart attack; he was still in the hospital. “Dad,” I thought, and wondered, in the split second before my mom spoke again, if I could bear to hear the news.

“It’s not your dad,” she said.

I exhaled, and she continued. “You remember your friends up on the hill, from when you were little? Emily, and her brother? She died. It was in the paper. She took her own life. She had some problems with drugs.”

I leaned hard on the wall. I hadn’t thought about Emily for years, hadn’t seen her for decades. All I could remember, through the cloudy vision of childhood, was our shared world under the tall pines.

* * * * *

As I scrolled through the remembrances on the funeral home website, I knew this–I do not mourn as those who knew Emily mourn. I wouldn’t have recognized her on the street. I learned about her adult life by reading her obituary. She was a writer and an editor. She lived in Boston. She had a Siamese cat.

A real Siamese cat won’t stay in a cage made of pine needles.

And a magical childhood can’t save you from the deepest kinds of grown-up despair.

* * * * *

In my own grown-up world, it been a hard and beautiful summer, heavy with sickness and sadness, light with outdoor adventure and the laughter of our daughters, now eight and almost-seven.

The youngest took me for a walk in the woods behind our house tonight, an urban forest full of sprawling vines and broken glass. “Do you want me to show you around?” she asked. “Of course,” I said hesitantly, “But maybe we shouldn’t be wearing flip flops.”

“Mama, we’re fine. Just be careful. Did you know that all the trees have names?” She led me down a path, speaking to several maple seedlings, “Hi Jack. Hi Bella.” I asked her how she knew the names, and she traced the bark with her small fingers. “The markings tell me, Mama. See, this one is a girl tree named Meeka.”

I smiled at her, but suddenly, I felt afraid. Emily and I had created our own imaginary world, but it hadn’t endured. What good is magic that fades? I wanted, in that moment, to lock both of my daughters in a high tower like Rapunzel, to save them from tragedy that reaches its claws into the past–into memories that seemed to belong to another world.

There is only one world.

My daughter tugged at my arm. “Mama, did you know that trees talk to each other when their leaves sway?” She moved her arms and hips side-to-side and motioned toward the leaves. “Like this, Mama. This is how trees say goodbye.”

And in this world, there is still some magic.

I looked up. The top layer of trees formed a cathedral ceiling, now a sanctuary of my adulthood. There I prayed. There I said goodbye.

Pine Trees

* * * * *

I did not ask my friend’s family for permission to share this story, thus ‘Emily’ is not my friend’s real name.

Photograph by Noah Weiner, shared with his gracious permission.

* * * * *

Jen Pelling is a writer and editor who lives in the woods of urban Pittsburgh with two daughters, four cats, ten chickens, and a husband who keeps her sane.

My True Self Was Hidden in the Woods Long Ago

There’s no easy way to access the woods behind my grandparent’s former home in suburban Philadelphia. But before my grandmother sold the house, I took one last rambling trip into the woods with my fiancée, Julie. She needed to see this place with me before we lost our access to it forever.

The stone steps that I used to tramp down were covered with dirt and leaves;  no one had set foot on them in years. We wound our way through some overgrown bushes that had taken over the trail, and hit the old dirt bike track that a kid down the street used to zip around on all summer. In the winter that steep, narrow trail had been a kind of toboggan track. The steep starting point was made all the more exciting with the large bump toward the bottom that sent my plastic sled shooting into the air. The massive rocks that popped out here and there added to the excitement when we didn’t have enough snow.

We passed the massive tree that had fallen over and had served as the bench for countless teenagers who ventured into the woods at nighttime to make massive bonfires. In the morning I used to poke sticks around in the ashes they left behind.

2015-06-Life-of-Pix-free-stock-photos-trees-forest-light-jordanmcqueenLooking up from the fallen tree, we could see the ridge line where my friend had seen a deer for the first time. Those woods were jam packed with deer, and hardly a day passed without seeing a few. He was maybe nine or ten years old, and as a child of the suburban edge of Philadelphia’s city limits, could only shout, “It has a tail!!!”

But nothing in these woods compared to its real treasure: the stream. It wasn’t much of a stream. It was hardly wider than 8 feet at most points, and who knows what kinds of pollutants had run off into it. But this stream, had always served as my main destination.

Along the shallow points I built bridges out of carefully piled rocks. Along the deep parts I skimmed pebbles. In the winter I slipped around on its smooth, icy surface with my wooden ice hockey stick and a hard rubber puck. Some days I even carried my hockey net down so that I could practice elevating the puck.

I don’t remember thinking all that much about those woods as a kid. I just remember being drawn to them every day. I never had to weigh whether or not I “wanted” to go into the woods by myself. If the weather was clear and I had the time, I typically headed down without a second thought.

I wish I could remember when I stopped going down into the woods. Something changed in me. As I grew up and “matured,” I lost sight of the freedom I found in the woods. I started thinking about it more. Going off into the woods suddenly felt a little riskier, even though I was far larger and stronger than I had ever been as an elementary school child.

At a certain point I stopped wandering in the woods. I never came close to rediscovering that desire to roam in the woods until going away to college. Perhaps the weight of guilt to pray more prompted me to take more walks in the woods, but soon the tiny patch of woods became a sanctuary of solitude again. When Julie and I returned home for that last visit in the woods behind my grandparents’ home a few years after graduating, I was finally remembering that something significant and sacred had taken place in those woods.

But concurrent with this realization, the path to those memories was becoming obscured and uncertain–like steps covered in leaves and dirt.

These days I feel a tiny tug to get better at seeking solitude, to love it the way that little boy loved venturing into the woods. My days are crammed with screens, conversations, and tasks. Somewhere deep within myself, I can sense a part of myself trying to find his way back into the woods. Something craves that solitude, to make it automatic and natural and to feel completely safe and at home in my own company apart from the noise and worries of life.

Was my time in the woods was just the product of youthful leisure? Or was it the purest expression of myself, now overgrown? Did I just go through a phase that is now dead and gone, or did my young mind try to set something in motion that I have needed so desperately as I enter middle age?

I like to think it was a divine mercy that prompted me to take that final trip into the woods with my future wife, and to mark off that place, in our shared memory, as something significant and worth sharing. If I have any hope of finding my true self, I suspect that it can be found wandering in my grandparents’ woods.

Ed bio YAH

Marshlands

As a kid, I always thought it was odd that my grandparent’s house had its own name.

When my siblings and I piled into mom’s red minivan to drive the five winding hours to the South Carolina Lowcountry, we weren’t just headed to “Mimi and Pop’s house”—we were bound for the oyster-shell driveway of “Marshlands.”

Marshlands (1)Marshlands dripped with history. Huge oak trees, strung with Spanish moss, seemed to have been rooted in the front yard since Earth’s creation. A plaque on the ivy-draped front gates declared the house a National Historic Landmark due to its early 1800s construction and its use as a hospital during the Civil War.

Inside, among antique furniture and fraying Turkish rugs, I found artifacts of more recent, familial history—pictures of my parents smiling on their wedding day, newspaper clippings about Mimi’s real estate business and Pop’s run for lieutenant governor, photo albums of my older cousins as toddlers, always at least one caught red-faced and wailing in the camera flash. Pop’s reluctance to throw anything away (a tendency born from his depression-era childhood, perhaps) even made the fridge an excavation site for expiration dates gone by.

To me, the exact dates and details of Marshlands’ past didn’t seem especially relevant. But the house’s musty oldness—hinting at stories of antebellum balls, of wounded soldiers, of my mother’s teenage years—added to my certainty that Marshlands was magical. It seemed like the kind of house where all the stories I read started. Surely I would find a hidden room if I just pushed some hidden knob on the fireplace or tugged on the right dusty, leather-bound book on the shelves lining the study. I knew the massive wardrobe upstairs would lead me to Narnia, though I was too intimidated to get close enough to pass through. The giant vase in the back yard (an actual relic from the filming of The Jungle Book in the nearby Sea Islands) sent shivers down my spine in the best possible way, as I envisioned the cursed rubies and gold coins that must lie at the bottom.

Marshlands had its own sort of everyday magic, too, in the way that only familiar childhood places away from home can. Much of that magic came from Mimi, who was unfailingly gorgeous and refined with her red lipstick, perfect makeup, and elegant Southern accent. She served us lemonade and iced tea on the porch, taught us to play rummy, and took us to Boombears, the nearby toy shop that (coincidentally?) went out of business shortly after Mimi’s 18 grandkids passed the age of Beanie Babies obsessions.

Even after Mimi got sick, some of the childhood magic of Marshlands lingered. My siblings and I still climbed on the low-hanging branches of the oak trees and bounced on the trampoline with rusty springs. Mimi still served lemonade and rum cake (with increasing portions of rum as her eyesight dwindled). Pop still snored in front of TV college football, and woke up to protest when anyone changed the channel.

But when we left, my mom would cry—not “sad to leave” kind of tears, but tears of a sort of loss I couldn’t quite understand. I was a preteen who had never watched someone close to me slowly slip away.

After Mimi fell and broke her wrist, my mom and her siblings decided to move Mimi and Pop to a one-story house in my uncle’s neighborhood. They rented out Marshlands to strangers for a few years.

The next time I went into Marshlands was for the luncheon after Mimi’s funeral. Nothing had changed—and everything had changed. The gold-patterned wallpaper remained. The old books. The dust and faintly musty smell. But the house’s magic was harder to find. In the years since I’d been in the house, I’d gone off to college and started paying my own bills. I’d forgotten the rules for rummy. I’d realized that the wardrobe upstairs only held mothballs and fur coats.

After cleaning up from the luncheon, my cousins and I climbed into the attic and tried on Mimi’s old ballgowns. We each took a few pieces of jewelry. One cousin pocketed Mimi’s iconic red lipstick.

A few years later, we celebrated that same cousin’s wedding on Marshlands’ lawn. We watched her walk down the aisle between the oak trees we’d climbed as kids, then sipped champagne under the huge reception tent that had temporarily displaced the rusty-springed trampoline. Pop joined us on the dance floor for a shuffling Carolina swing, taking my cousin by the hand as the band played “My Girl.” Just before the newlyweds drove off in Pop’s antique car, we all lit lanterns that sailed past the trees and over the house’s red roof, creating a new kind of magic.

* * * * *

photo (1)Dargan Thompson is a freelance writer and editor based in Orlando, Florida. Other than one glorious semester studying abroad in London, she has always lived in Florida, and she finds the Orlando airport quite accommodating for her frequent travels. Find her online at darganthompson.com or on Twitter @darganthompson.

Finding Womanhood

Dr. Tauer’s appointment schedule is shot. I wait with moist hands, survey the exam room, focus on dirt accumulated on the baseboards, and glance at the Holy Bible placed on a nearby table next to pamphlets arranged like a deck of cards. Women wearing colorful head scarves and wigs are on the cover of a small catalog. An anatomic chart shows a frontal view and cross-section of a woman’s healthy breast: nipple, milk ducts, fatty tissue, and muscle. I cup my right breast, still tender from recent surgery. I nursed my babies. This wasn’t supposed to happen. So much for statistics…

Dr. Tauer knuckle-taps the door, steps inside, and sits on a low stool; knees touch knees, warm hands cover cold hands.

“This isn’t going to be easy,” he says. “But you are healthy.”

Other than having cancer, I think. I appreciate his compassion, but I just want to get on with things. I want to go home.

“When you come in for your first treatment next week,” he continues, “you’ll have labs done first, and then on to the chemo room…” I knew all this from being a nurse, so I sort of tuned out. “…and you’ll have side effects…”

Yes, get on with it. I want to go home

“…and you will lose your hair.”

I zero in on his Brooks Brothers tie, dotted in navy, knotted even and tidy.

“Love your tie,” I say, as he glances at my life on his computer.

*   *   *   *   *

I bring my face close to the bathroom mirror. My eyebrows are my best feature: low maintenance, nicely arched, no rogue hairs, no sparse areas to fill in like old ladies do with unsteady hands, drawing wobbly, thick lines in Maybelline black.

Faint lines radiate from the skin around my eyes. I smile and the lines squint and deepen, but they aren’t too bad. Given the circumstances, I’m looking pretty good. A woman’s neck gives away her age, but mine is still smooth with just a little droop under the chin. Nothing that a dab of moisturizer won’t hide.

I raise my shoulders, take a deep breath, and pick up the expensive hair brush I bought a couple of months ago at a salon. I attack my scalp, brushing hard. Harder. Thin strands gather in the bristles.

After dividing my hair into sections, I pull each section taut, cut 2-3 inches, moving from section to section. Angry, curt scissors clip, blade against blonde. Swatches drop in the sink. Laying the scissors aside, I inspect my work in the mirror.

I look like Cate Blanchett when she played Queen Elizabeth and chopped off her hair.

No, I look like someone with a very bad haircut...

“Honey, I’m through with the preliminaries,” I call to my husband, Tom. “Just wait ‘til you see step one to a hair-free life.” I put my hands over my face and peek through my fingers as he walks into the bathroom. Dropping my hands, I burrow my face into his chest.

Leaning over the sink, I stare at the shiny drain stopper. My husband guides his whirring beard trimmer over my scalp. Dark stubble from my roots scatters on creamy porcelain.

I hope my head is a pretty shape, without too many knots. Daddy always called me a knot-head.

The whirring stops. I raise my head and look up at Tom. His eyes are edged with tears.

*   *   *   *   *

I crawl into bed shy and tentative, like a bride on her wedding night. Will my lover touch me? Will I please him? Even though the rest of my body is covered with cotton and lace, baldness imparts a feeling of nakedness. I turn on my side away from him, clutching the corner of our quilt, trembling. He pulls me in close and strokes my bare head as he would if my blond tresses were spilling over his hands.

*   *   *   *   *

I sit around a table with five other women going through various stages of cancer treatment. Scarves, wigs, and hats reflect our individuality. I’ve arrived bald, sparkly earrings dangling, wearing a peasant top reminiscent of the sixties, embracing a bit of a rebellious spirit I had secretly wanted when I was younger.

We talk about how we looked before our appearance was altered by the benevolent poison. Laughter and moments of silence mirror the way we feel inside. I describe my pre-cancer hair:  blown-dry, hot curlered, gelled, hairsprayed, and teased on top if humidity threatened to flatten it. Growing up–even as an adult–part of me thought a Southern woman’s identity was in her hair.

We each have our own tabletop mirror, various samples of foundation, concealer, eye shadow, blush, powder, mascara and brow pencil. Volunteers from the American Cancer Society give us tips for applying cosmetics while dealing with the visible signs of chemotherapy treatment.

I begin applying a lighter color of makeup along my jawline, blending it to match the pale color of my skin; a low red blood cell count has robbed me of rosy cheeks.

Oh, my Lord. I peer into the mirror and realize that most of one eyebrow is gone. A lone misshapen eyelash, resembling a small spider’s thin leg, is dangling from a top eyelid. Short, stubby lashes on the other eye are all that remain half-way across the top and bottom lids.

Brows, usually my best feature, have lost their arch. To create a natural look is a challenge. I pick up a pencil as though it were a paint brush and apply a light brown shade with gentle strokes. I call one of the volunteers over to help me.

775713_10152119807977952_1675942785_o(1)“I am afraid I’m going to mess up!” She chooses a darker brown, guides my hand with hers, and we apply it carefully, a light touch to avoid an obvious line. With only a little bit left to work with, I add as much color and beauty as possible, typical Southern woman that I am.

*   *   *   *   *

I stored my shaved hair in a Ziplock bag and tucked it away in an old cookie tin, my treasure box, to keep it as a remembrance. Every now and then, I take the tin down from a shelf in my bedroom’s wardrobe and look at the hair that was scattered in the sink on that day when I felt bereft of femininity.

I imagine someday sitting on the side of my bed next to a granddaughter with the treasure box resting on her lap. Perhaps she will lift the lid and giggle or gasp when she spies the baggie. I will tell her why I kept it, my story of hair lost, but life gained, strengthened by God, family, and friends.

I will run my fingers through her baby-fine hair and hope she’ll grow into a strong woman like me.

*   *   *   *   *

The black-and-white photo of Lisa, above, is by Cellar Door Photography, Memphis, TN.

Lisa bio YAH

Nowhere Near the Sticks

When the sound first came, it roused me enough to open my eyes and check if my husband was still asleep. It was just after 6 a.m., but his eyes were wide. “Did you hear that?” “Yes.” The sound came again. I pulled myself up on my elbows and looked toward our open windows. The sound had come from the east, from the window that most definitely did not face our chicken coop. Right?

“That’s not my rooster,” I said, and for a moment I believed it.

The crowing came again, tentative and incomplete, but undeniably from the west. “That’s not my rooster?” I asked, weakly. I rolled out of bed and walked to the window facing the coop. Crowing. I came back to bed, pulled a sheet up to my neck, and nodded at my husband.

“Yep, that’s my rooster.”

And then, with every subsequent crow, we doubled up with laughter.  

* * * * *

Pittsburgh Code, Title Nine, Zoning Code, Article V, Chapter 911 stipulates:

For property with a minimum of two-thousand square feet in size, the resident is permitted five chickens or ducks. For every additional one-thousand square feet of property, the resident is permitted one additional chicken or duck, with no other livestock for lots under ten thousand square feet.

5871466822_709f812fd0_o

photo by Kham Tran

Also,

Roosters are not permitted.

* * * * *

“So what do we do with it, uhm, him?” I asked, knowing that my husband didn’t know the answer.

We ran through the possibilities: Kill and eat him? No. The kids were teetering toward vegetarianism as it was. We couldn’t chance it. Keep him? No. We could lose the rest of the flock if someone called the urban chicken police. (How does one call the urban chicken police?) Take him back to the farm that sold him to us as a female chick? Maybe. But was that really worth the hour-long drive? Give him to friends and let them do whatever they please with him? Probably. But who?

This was going to take a few days to figure out.

* * * * *

The next morning, I sat in a plastic green chair just after sunrise and watched our exiled rooster pace. The hens were locked up; he was locked out. He wanted to be with the flock, but after he had awoken to his rooster-hood, he began strutting, pecking, and chasing the hens. The smaller birds has stopped eating and hid in the nesting box, like they did during a raccoon attack.

Aggressive masculinity. Unacceptable.

Now the hens were eating again, and the rooster watched them from the other side of the fence. “We’re probably making him neurotic,” I commented to my husband, who had come outside to see what I was doing, “Not allowing him to follow his instincts and all.”  

“Yeah, probably doesn’t matter, though. He’s not staying here.”

“It’s too bad. I like his crow. And he’s a gorgeous bird,” I said, my eyes following the bright ring of feathers around his neck. “If we lived in the country, maybe they’d all figure it out in a bigger space.”

“They’d have to,” he said, “We’d need a rooster to protect the hens if we lived in the sticks.”

Squawk! Feathers flew as the rooster poked his beak though the chicken wire. The hens scattered, and I sighed. Maybe the city ordinance is a blessing. 

Maybe. But I will miss my rooster, if not his bullying behavior. I’ve never had such a wake-up call.  

* * * * *

jen bio YAH

Epilogue: After a chorus of ‘no, thank you’ from friends and a scroll through the ‘Free Rooster!!’ ads on Craigslist, the husband of this story put on his big-farmer overalls and beheaded the beast. A female observer, who had served with the Peace Corps in rural Rwanda, approved his methods and asked to be included in the Coq au Vin feast.

The children and their mother were conspicuously absent that evening.