Gimme Shelter

Protection, shield, cover, roof.  Shade, security, defense, refuge. Sanctuary. Asylum. Safe keeping.  Haven. Safe haven, sanctum, house. Port in a storm, bolt hole. Hideaway, retreat.  Shelter can be anywhere. What we create, not made of wood and steel, but rather this gnarled tree or that one. The way they say you carry your stories on your back and in your heart, that you are all you will ever need to make of yourself, a home.

Make of yourself a home, and of course in the great green growing wide world are all kinds of homes, stick, branch, mud, fur, bone. And in those homes certain other kinds of homes, mites on feathers, and inside those mites bacteria and then cells, back out again, through the skin and into the sunlight and air.

The way looking down through the shelter of our too high cedars (the ones that crack in heavy snow, the ones we are asked to evacuate for every time there is a windstorm) at my roof you would see the shingles and moss, the holes where the rats got in, the place where the birds made their nest, you would see your way past the darkened pipe of the uncleaned chimney and into the attic, past the rodent chewed parasols and old moving boxes, the insulation nests and nailed boards to the light switch beside the handle where the string gets pulled to create stairs, until you would be standing next to my youngest son’s room, his own home in there, with the tree of vinyl 45s stapled to the wall, incense on windowsill, the door shut, headphones and music all the time, the messy bedding, a small mountain of covers filling the well between the  wooden frame my father painted and the clothes on the floor.

That too, a kind of home, where the brain injured cat sleeps and snores, and then again through the floor, past the water stain from the tub leaking and into the living room, where two more blankets create another type of port, a shelter that is of everything and the building place for everything else, the grey great couch where you might nap to shut out the world and heal, a place to dream harder than before.

First the grey fleece blanket an eighteen-year-old gave at Christmas, as a soft thing to hold while napping, because he now can see how tired you can get, because finally the right medication and therapist, and able to move beyond his own bleakness at last.  And if you had known what he was like, and the struggles and struggles to get here, the fact of sleeping under this gift, this woven warm and safe embrace would be true haven.

And lying on top of that grey gift, the first quilt your mother ever made, her stitching it one of the few things you might remember of Canada before the move, the red white and blue a celebration before the fact, the way the weight of it is exactly right, how seams around the edges are unraveling, how each child slept underneath it at times, in pairs or alone. The weight of both of these things driving you down into the deepest naps, where whole villages and lives are lived and lost and beautiful and forgotten and you will rise from them as if through water, the red light through eyelids before coming to.

Then you might rise from your nap, and head back out into the world beyond the walls, with your obedient dog by your side, and rising too from the fog that envelops after deep sleep, watch the dog stretch and head for the door, find your Bean boots, the leash, the door and a key. Need to beat the school bus home so quick glance at phone for work email then past the mailbox, on the gravel where we stay during daylight, to the field and then the forest, now the trees are turning, now the pussy willows out and then the old growth. Mossy branches and puddle, the side path you cannot see unless you know it is there, the quiet air, thick with forever.  

Then faster comes the light in the turning of the year and one day the puddle is gone and the moss is translucent and the path is thorns-grown tighter and so it all spins, in and out, over and year, we circle the sun and the moon circles us and we rise and we rest and we dream and we work and we dream and we rest and we rise and the moon circles us and we circle the sun and the sun moves the named planets and all around that sun a thousand more suns and beyond them still more and then back in again, the rushing blood, heartbeat, the pulsing cells. The way one thing becomes another and you fall through, rising.  


So then, we are gathered again,
resting our glasses on uneasy wooden slats,

lovers, friends, infants and song,
the word made flesh in these faces.
Sweet guitar, barman shaking ice,
so much longing
and reward.

House sparrows, invasive here,
can’t help themselves, join the chorus.

In Palestine children died today,
Tennis racket against tear gas,
so much to bear, so much to love.

Though in this minute, the perfect rose light,
Prosecco and poetry,
mention of that beast, still slouching along.
It can be too much for anyone, this rich
and sorrowful world.

And yet these sparrows,
Catholic themselves,

a promise of resurrection,

still singing.

For Snapdragon friends & Peter Mulvey



Last October I hit my head and halved. Before and after. So then two of me, and also the mother of triplets, and two more boys, each born alone. Twins believed liminal for life in some cultures and like so much else since the concussion, not sure where that leaves any of us.

There was dinner out, an oyster, an allergy, the older brother I had not seen in years, then dizziness seated on the toilet and the half-zipped fall, the tender blue bruises. I did not know I was concussed until Halloween when I lay crying on the bathroom floor of my friend’s bar. You cannot make these things up, although rising in fog from too many naps and long deep nights, they feel made up. When what you think you know about your way to face the day melts to ghost memories, lack of coordinates, it turns the entire factual (and well loved, well loved) world translucent. The day starts in gray and ends grayer and spends most of the day there, despite email and work calls.

Then there is because I love her, the white dog to take walking through the cedar and fir forests of our Pacific Northwest Island, although I don’t want to. Because few things remain the same but she does, and because I don’t want to take her and do anyway, I am, I think, rewarded. For now there are also the birds. Birds of prey, every day new feathered beauty.  Yesterday a barred owl, before that a falcon, the eagles, the geese, a Stellar jay, the gulls. Never have there been so many birds. I would have noticed.

This was going to be about an oyster, but became, through looking up, and doing the next indicated thing, about birds, another reason to important to pay attention, keep on trucking. Ostreidae, oysters, carnivorous invertebrates. Group name: colony, bed, reef. All thresholds of a kind.  Bed, couch and children my colony, the hard work of keeping awake long enough to earn month to month a reef I inhabit, focused on tops of trees, not looking down, not being dizzy.  Falconidae, diurnal birds of prey with strongly hooked bills, sharply curved talons and eye sight so good it is a cliché.  They feed differently, kill with beak’s tooth over talons. Then, if we are quiet and the light is shallow enough, the true owls of this forest, genus Aegolius, family Strigidae or typical forest owls, having large, rounded heads, facial discs and long wings, reveal themselves. They are still, watching.

At first, those walks were my one tether to before and after, the thing that remained the same, though always different. The moss, the trail, the one root where the puddle forms. Days and the light are brighter now. The work day easier. My body stronger. Still daily naps (shhh), but I rise from them eager, head outdoors.

There are teeth and beaks and flight in everything.

A Brief History of My Wrist in Three Ages

For Lidia, Portland OR, March 27, 2016

5th grade: I am not a gymnast but I want to be. I want to be the girl that sings through the air or the goddamn monkey bars in front of everyone and reveals only, and only if they/her/we are lucky, a tiny sliver of taut skin as she flips and grins and walks away. Or the girl who runs the six hundred yard dash without stopping or tasting peppermint saliva, fighting vomit and the new smell under her arms. In the lot across from our townhouse I wait until I am alone, bite my tongue, will myself forward and over,  crotch to metal, a broken line of rust in my panties before time, before years, before bleeding. I am determined to learn, take classes after school, practice and practice and practice a floor routine, then balance beam. My wider body, solid in effort, lacks grace, hopes if not for promise, then hope of promise. I choose music, Leo Sayer, I make myself feel like dancing when I manage finally to somersault, keep slapping chalk on my palms and thighs like an athlete, chalk so much lighter and whiter than the resin I use on my violin bow at home, this dust more athletic, the dancing motes between claps a symphony of popularity, all imaginable success. I am eleven. The music starts, I jump on the beam and waver, fall, shatter my thumb and wrist, radius and ulna. I am fractured and swollen. The only ice there is ice cream from the school freezer, I still hate the taste of vanilla.

16: I am so proud of this. I can undo a zipper with my teeth, pop a beer tab or 501 button with my jaw, make anyone hard, take the last line of “She’s So Cold” to heart, I can make a dead man cum, my hands, wrists so fast and slick and braceleted, like a blues musician in full flow, my boyfriend’s hands on the stick shift that later will jam into my side,  a bruise I wear like a blue ribbon. I am chrome fuel injected and stepping out over the line. I can move these hands and wrists and lips over anyone I choose, stay up all night reading The Mists of Avalon, recognizing the goddess flow in that story in me, I get to choose. My fingers ache from journaling and touching, apples, dogs, boys, books, nothing is safe from my hunger because I am choosing. I am choosing into danger because I like it and I am choosing choosing choosing, unstoppable.

46: I am solid muscle but sore, hands okay, fingers ring less, wrists swelling from too much yoga in too few days, but I will master this. Chataranga, upward dog, downward dog, Warrior 1, warrior 2, hold plank until something gives, scaphoid bone, located near the base of the left thumb, still twisted from the fall in 5th grade. I drop to my forearms and keep holding, sleep with braces on my wrists, will prevail. Tourist dust on the floor past my cheap mat, like all the chalk in older days, unscrewing bottle after bottle of Advil and Nicorette mini lozenges, the only things I can do to make myself better for now, ice at home but not in Mexico, not in my friend’s room where I sleep without a bed because I couldn’t afford I to book one, the waves are filled with a thousand flecks of gold dust and keep rolling. My fingers try not to move as they type, have to type to keep the kids fed and in college, wrapping cold cloth after cold cloth around wrists, securing with clothes pins. The placement and creases, the ridges of skin that stay put when pinched, the emails going and then the resting. I take breaks. I am okay.

Deep Water

Vashon Island sits in the Puget Sound just outside Seattle. Moved here on Valentine’s Day, needed to get out of the city, for reasons of cost and complications. I have loved it here for years, reminds me of my New England home. My two youngest sons, both teenagers, join me every other week, commuting by ferry from their father’s house in the city. One side of Vashon is bordered by Colvos Passage, deep water where the tidal currents flow almost constantly north. Kayaking down the West side of Vashon thru Colvos Passage, you may emerge into the light and glimpse the heavy body of Mt. Rainier, or Tahoma, meaning “mother of waters” in the Puyallup tribal language.  Rising from sea level to more than 14,000 feet, on clear days her snowy peak- so high- is visible from most of the city.

I am fascinated by deep water, places where anything can happen, places where we as a species are still unsure of what we might find. Once sitting on a flight I remember the flight map show that we were passing the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of this world’s oceans. Located in the western Pacific Ocean, the trench reaches a maximum-known depth of about 40 miles at the Challenger Deep, a small slot-shaped valley in its floor, at its southern end. It is widely accepted that microbial lifeforms can exist at the trenches deepest levels, and descents – both manned and unmanned- have been made. I am impressed by the way life pushes up all over the place, iconic imagery of weeds forcing through the sidewalk, leopards in the snow, these hungry cells beneath ocean.

Part of my reason for moving was wanting to meet each day freshly, to not fail to thrive economically, mentally, creatively. I’m grateful I found this place to come, that my work allows for a longer commute, that my boys are able to make the journey alone, that things have fallen into place somehow, the way they always seem to, that my hope that this blue world was designed for thriving, that you have to find a way. The other night I was invited to a new friend’s gathering in a home with fields leading down to the passage, the sun setting, a reference to the Shawshank Redemption, then the Mozart aria sung by our hostess and a guest, two horses racing across pasture to be closer to the music, the bright sun setting, the deep water.

Farm by Colvos
Colvos farm

October so far.

Pru in OctoberThis week has been strange. A dear friend is pregnant for the very first time. My ex-husband took his new wife on a tour of the tiny New England town we courted in. One son got his driver’s permit. Another friend maybe headed to court for more child support. A friends’ father passed away. Another lost his mother. Someone else is dating happily after all this long time being yelled at. It all just turns and turns. What do I want to say?

The world this week full again of awful news- stranded walruses and beheadings and on it goes, and goes. I understand Russell Brand when he says, “look at the faces of our politicians. These are not our leaders. Their faces are all fear.” Yes, the media and Ebola and the Seattle rain that has started to fall- it is a lot. And waking up and all that, also a lot. And I completely get it when friends are just done in. I have been so done in, so many times. Elizabeth Gilbert said earlier this week something like…grace is whatever keeps you lifting your head up from the mud. I can picture myself a few years ago, chain smoking on my front porch, literally knocking down the hours with cigarettes and calls to friends and walking the dog twice a day. Hour after hour after hour. Yet this morning I could not wait to get out of bed to have a day.

I stand amazed, in the midst of so much awful, that it has become easier (even possible) for me to see connections and beauty all the fuck over the place. Even here, writing this, and that Thrift Shop song comes on and in that just one thing I have a dozen powerful connected memories. That he played at a Sweet 16 party my eldest, most anxious son attended his first year at a new school, how it was the beginning of a new happier time in his social life. That when Elliot and I were at Value Village last week to get baggy green clothes to make a Pippin costume, he started singing “I’m gonna pop some tags” in line, making the grump in front of us smile and everyone waiting started to get jiggy with it. That my brilliant friend and yoga teacher hung Macklemore’s portrait at the front of the studio for a while, in good fun a true reminder that he is living his dharma, sober and trying hard, like so many of my dearest and funniest friends. That one of them who I met in treatment, a beautiful doctor from NYC has relapsed, writing scrips for herself using her sister’s name all over Manhattan, texted me last week from the Four Seasons in Bora Bora, saying “I’m using. Headed to treatment. Help.” And I was able to answer with  “I love you” first. The rest matters so much less than that.

I thought I was sitting down to write about finally being brave enough to ask for what I want from my beloved. Instead it turned out to be about how brave everybody is, and how brave the world is too, how it turns up- again and again – in a thousand small ways, beauty and effort and love mattering, over and over.

Bye-bye baby A,B,C. ..Sending triplets to college.

triplet babies

I am lucky enough to be sending triplets to college in the next weeks. I am aware of that the power of an education in the world, especially for my only daughter, is nothing to take lightly. We are lucky enough that despite unemployment and foreclosure and sighing over bills, somehow the crazy quilt of scholarships and summer jobs and work study and freelance projects and extra jobs has knit firmly enough to see us through freshmen year. I am aware of the good fortune of having an ex-husband that is patient enough to explain financial aid forms times three, dutifully fills out his half and has always dealt squarely with me and our five children. I am aware that this week in particular- when the news is so full of the sorrow of another mother, who lost her college-bound son to six heavy bullets in Ferguson Missouri, that having white children in a still racist country is an ugly kind of luck, that when my three return to Seattle this rainy Thanksgiving and head out in their hoodies to walk with friends in the dark, that what will worry me most is simply their own youthful foolishness. I am aware of all this luck, and nothing about my deep sadness this last full week of everyone home discounts the marvelous fact of college times three actually happening. For many years, when asked, “how did you do it?” about the triplet factor, my answer has been glib, too much to explain to curiosity seekers, you manage with what you have, they had each other, it was harder at first, and so on. What only the closest friends, those around since the beginning will ever know is the amount of triage that goes into raising three children at the same time. Three mouths, two breasts, from day one the odds are stacked. Three nursing mouths turns into six skinned knees, or six hands to hold on the street and still only two of mine. Grade school turns into three diorama projects due the next morning and only one piece of poster board. Field trip forms in triplicate, lunches, shower times the intricacies of grade school friendships. Inviting so and so even though he/she doesn’t like your brother, or no he cannot come because he is mean to your sister and always, someone losing out on some part of things. Which back to school classroom to sit in, which homework to review so that child can get to bed, which braces to try and afford first. Why accepting a scholarship to private high school makes sense for one, when a big urban public school works for the others. And now, surrounded by boxes and xl-twin mattress covers, how can I make sure each one knows how blown away I am by love- the thousand specific reasons that are entirely their own. That maybe it has been three times as hard but three times as worthwhile. When they were toddlers, my friend’s grandmother told me to always remember that when my feelings got hurt by a child pulling away it meant that the time had come for that, was developmentally appropriate, and happened because we had done something right. And so now, this last week, when my son who just got his first OM sign tattoo tells me he does not want to grab sushi because he needs to say goodbye to friends, or my daughter leaves town to work a few more days before leaving or my eldest (by a minute) is more worried about the state of his high school romance than packing, I remind myself all of this is because we did something right. All those mornings and afternoons and bedtimes in a row, we have done something right. And that this sadness is appropriate, and oh-so lucky.

Venice 1

VeniceI wrote the following in 2012 as a submission to the Sun ( a little liberal print magazine I sometimes grab as a small mental treat at the PCC near Seward Park after a run. Not sure I ever submitted. Originally entitled “Honesty”, I can honestly say that progress has been made, I am just not stuck in this place all the time anymore, have opened up to gladness again. Less obsessive, more present. Grateful.

I met him twice in 2001- once at a kindergarten potluck for our Catholic elementary school, and in AA group that met mornings in an Indian restaurant nearby. When he called in the spring of 2009 to ask questions about how my ex-husband and I had managed such an easy looking and friendly divorce, we established a deeper friendship based in “no filters.” The first few months of our love affair were indeed that- unfiltered, talking about how he’d divorce his wife and have a safe landing, the best ways to stay clean, bands and books we both knew and loved and inevitably of what it would be like to finally be together. I had some brakes on, he was still married, we had kids in the same school and I was not yet in over my head.

That August, I became desperately ill with a necrotizing lung infection and was hospitalized through six surgeries. I survived, but the rare, no-filters status of what we were did not. We have kept up this affair for four years now, he has other romantic relationships and I have tried but cannot find one that suits me as well, or at all, and will not accept second best. Being in bed with anyone else feels untrue to where I really want to be. The biggest change between us is that filters exist everywhere. We’ve written most of a book together, started two businesses, he trusts me with his bank accounts and hard earned clients and calls when things are worrisome, when he needs to rent a house or make a decision on his daughters.  We talk about traveling north to ski for months; he leaves for the weekend and tells me via email from the road; I sit in the parking lot outside our office feeling literally kicked in the stomach and say nothing upon his return, though tossing and turning my way to another migraine.  What started out as the fulcrum of honesty has become the opposite of that. If my daughter were in a relationship like this one, I’d pray she get out of it.

Enough about prayer anyway, one of the most pressing memories I have of a trip to Italy to see my eldest son are of lighting candles in every medieval church, asking to either be given some freedom from this endless want or get the want answered;  the one line email he responded with to my photo of the full moon over Venice, sent from Whistler where he was — I believe– traveling with someone else.

There is no clear narrative here- I wish I could say I can see the end as easily as I can pinpoint the beginning. It might be that the honesty I need to refind in this would be as simple as showing him these paragraphs, but I am not sure if I am lying to myself to say I’d do just that.

My Mother’s War (part 1)

Before the war

Again, an older piece. My mother is Dutch, was in a Japanese POW camp in WWII as a girl. She wrote about this in a book called the Flamboya Tree (published in 2001, right around when my youngest child was born, has been translated into fourteen languages and received some critical acclaim.) I wrote this feeling guilty about my first thought when she was published, “It was supposed to be me.” Over that now- the world has room for lots of stories. People ask sometimes how/why I started using. Not sure there is anything causal at root- just made that way. That said, I am long acquainted with the idea of more…

I think the beginning might be rooted in my mother’s war, the one that wrapped itself around the leg of my childhood, like an undercurrent you know you can get out of until the last minute, when the rush against the sand leaves you bloody lipped and grated, gasping and blinded by sun. A war, even an old one, can reach out if you are not careful. Ankle grab, quick tug and there you are again, tucked around a swollen lunch (too much, all ways) with your brothers and sister, the unremembered children she watched for pocket money tucked between you at lunch time like junk mail. The warm bowl of orange tomato soup hypnotic, impossible either to choke it down or leave it, hunger and lack the constant reminder of her own girlhood and the camp. The keeping quiet because a meal is, in wartime, nothing to be savored but a grim, toothy march to the future. Scarcity is common to war. Nothing is ever enough if you once ate grubs culled from a post-monsoon rain track. It sounds almost fake, to eat grubs. Better to say old canned food or a soup made from some leftover Russian potato. But grubs it was. My Oma would try to make it a game, the spearing them with sticks, the gush then the chew.

My mother named her book the Flamboya Tree for a painting her mother took in the one suitcase they traveled with. This painting of a single red and exotic tree and a road in the dust still hangs on my parents’ wall in Bellingham. It hung on the colonial wallpaper of my suburban Massachusetts home, was the image I stared at twirling the phone cord, laying on the bench, newly deepened voices at the other end. It hung on the walls of apartments I cried in and will hang somewhere after I’m gone.

It is a surprising story, this, the way her words were taken and made into a book, the one thing I have ever wanted, paraded in front of America via Rosie O’Donnell (who lost her mother as well, though differently.) How the hardback came to me in treatment for “opiate dependency,” such narrow words for a time defined by too many young children and not enough friends, the frantic calling and late taxis’ to Walgreens for another fill.  Her war played its part, too, laughing in the cracks of the stone walls when I lay in the basement of my first college boyfriend and let him (no — asked him) to slide the needle into the careful crook of my own arm, the way the room spun for a moment until I realized just how at home I felt, beyond the vomiting and the spin.

My mother still cannot bear the bombs bursting in air on the Fourth of July, would in fact hide in the back of our Impala with her ears covered as we sped around Pomp’s Pond before parking to watch. By twelve, I had read too much Judy Blume and had impossible dreams of romance, tossing at night, the FM radio down low. Wanted Bobby P. to stop blowing shit up and put his hands on me where they belonged. When the fireworks were over, my mother would always say with irritating relief, “Well, there’s that for another year.” I’d lie awake hungry for more. Always. More.

Vashon Revisited.

To establish some kind of narrative order, I’ve been going through old notes/writing from the last few years… much of what I wrote then was journaling, or lines from songs or prayers that made a particular kind of painful sense. The following was written sitting at a friend’s kitchen table on Vashon Island, Thanksgiving week 2009, waiting for his ferry to dock and the knock on the door,  narcotic in my anticipation.The children and I had stayed at the beach house earlier that year when M was Hawaii with his wife and kids, trying to see if they could right their situation. I needed to get mine somewhere, anywhere, for a few days, just to stay in motion. I remember that the cherry trees on his street were in incredible bloom that spring, and how much even the sight of a single blossom on pavement somewhere else in the city felt piercing- I was still new to the feeling of everything reminding me, a phase that– though not past– has lessened mightily. Or maybe I have grown in my ability to be past the hurt and (as my yoga teachers would say “the story”) into the day that is, the big universal love.


The last time I was here, at this table, the tide was out and I ran mercilessly on the wet sand, over logs and ahead of my children, hoping they’d never be stuck the way I was stuck, knowing it would happen to them someday too, this beautiful bloom, this truncated flower, this hopeless longing, the veritas of being human, of having a heart. I am back at the table now, and mirable dictu, his divorce has happened, and I have no idea of what he suspects is true for me in this.

I –who thought  I’d done everything- have done nothing of this particular sort before, this much hushing of what wants to come out of my mouth, what messages my breath could carry if only I felt that gate open, what riches lie in the field beyond silence.

Yet. I know better. One thing these forty years have given me, slim chance to play the cards correctly, risking the immediate for dignity and a measure of patience. Never could wait well. Waiting now, waiting for I am not sure when he’ll get off ferry and come to me, what that will be like, how even as I type I am aware of this day shifting to be what I hoped for, how disappointed I’d have been if he couldn’t come, how I would have been just fine.

Puncture. Caress. Opposite poles. I am not good at this.

Non sum ego quod feuran. I am not what I was. Not what I was in April, in this room with the children and the summer just bending around the corner, what that summer would hold, the waiting, the joy and the sudden sickness. I haven’t told that story on paper yet, again waiting, feels less essential to me than this puzzle of how I got to wanting this much, solving the mystery of why I focus on the one thing in a hundred that is not in my power to solve, this dilemma that isn’t, this lesson in – again- letting things be as they may be, and learning to let them go.