Wednesday, January 29, 2020


A treatise on fracking arrived in the mail.  Of all the environmental injustices today, this one bothers me at a personal level.  The Pennsylvannia coal fields, the exposed layers of shale and slate I could see in the old river basin near where I grew up, are ripe for it.  I think of the Blue Ridge mountains, the sassafras trees, the waterfalls, Laurel Run creek and the Schuylkill River practically in my backyard.  Miners blowing off the tops of mountains in the Appalachians.  An injury as personal to myself as my mother cutting down the centuries-old oak tree in our front yard.

We are born of place.  The place we grew up in is our psychic home, and to destroy it is to destroy our own foundation.   

When I woke up this morning, I was thinking about Native Americans, how we drove them from the natural lands of their birth and culture.  Imagine being lifted up and dropped in Antarctica.  How bewildered you would be, how desperate to simply survive.  How people—friends, family, neighbors, ourselves--would die from inexperience, the absence of cultural practices designed over centuries to keep them alive.  Or if that’s too extreme, imagine a rural village in China, the Namibian desert.  Alien, the opposite of home.

We’re driving ourselves into an alien environment.  One for which we have no tricks or practices or beliefs to keep us alive.  One in which there is no relief on or off the dusty reservation.

Artists see further ahead than the rest of us.  This is the future that writers like Richard Powers (The Overstory) and William Vollmann (The Dying Grass) and Barbara Kingsolver (Unsheltered) are already imagining.  We’d best pay attention.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Re-claiming the Sacredness of Earth

Just finished reading two of Richard Powers’ books, The Overstory and The Echo Maker.  I feel cracked open and gutted.  I yearn for the trees, for nature, for some sort of connection I’ve forgotten about. Ecology is “the study of home,” and I’ve forgotten where my home is.  I knew it once, without knowing I knew it.  Nature is my truest experience of God.  I’ve forgotten to live according to that knowledge. I‘ve forgotten to "love this beautiful land,” the phrase Chief Seattle uttered that once brought me to tears. 
My intellect inserts itself, questioning my certainty and longing.  I choose to resist it for this moment, to believe what I believe at the place deepest in my gut: that we are all connected, part of one vast living thing. That the world is mythic, and the psyche operates in symbols and drives stronger than reason. To put my faith in intellect alone is a mistake.  The aboriginal people of the world had it right: the sacredness of earth, the immanence of the gods.  And we mocked them, called them childlike and uncivilized.  

Without earth, we are going to die.  It’s that simple.  Without understanding that we and nature are one fabric—and we the newest members of this 4 billion years of creation—we are already dead.  We are sinners, egotistical in our belief that we are special, that we are in control. Forgetting we are a single finger on the body of God.

We’re destroying our home/we’ve destroyed our home.  We have to stop/we will be stopped.  That’s the knife’s edge we’re teetering on, pretending not to see. 

Friday, January 24, 2020

The Place Where I Used To Work

Where is it? my 18-year-old son wanted to know.  A community college I thought he would like. 

It’s up north, past the place where I used to work.

My throat closed as I heard myself say it: Used to.

The grief rolls over me in waves.  Grief over the loss of my work as a teacher, the place where I worked, the people I worked with.  The looming loss of my brother-in-law to cancer.  The looming loss of my son.  The loss of youth, of multi-potentiality, of energy, of the belief in perfectibility.  The loss of hope that the past will ever be redeemed.  The belief that anyone other than myself is responsible for my failure and limitations and unhappiness.

Twice a year, lakes turn upside-down. The well-defined gradations of light and temperature and living creatures break down, and everything mixes with everything else: protozoans, algae, bottom-dwelling scavengers, decomposing litter.  Dissolved oxygen and minerals intermingle throughout the water column, a fertile reshuffling of matter and nutrients.

Like the monarch in its chrysalis. Another potent soup.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

After-Life: What Will Persist

I used to believe that I would  persist after death as an individual, recognizable soul. Now I doubt it.  I think I'll persist instead as what the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls the continuation body --my impact on all those I’ve touched in ways big and small. 

It comforts me to believe I will persist in the memories of my son, perhaps speak to him in dreams.  That he will carry me inside him, a constant reminder that he is precious, he is loved.  

Monday, January 20, 2020

My Son Will Soon Leave Here

My son will soon leave here.  I find this intolerable.  I can’t imagine life without his continued daily presence.  He has been the light of my life for 18 years.  My only comfort is that he will be and is a part of me.  The little boy I cherished will always exist as part of my memory, part of myself.  And the grown man will always be part of my daily awareness, no matter how far he travels. 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

My Son Reminds Me What He's Made Of

Every sane mother adores her child. I was no exception.  In fact, I knew I was right: he really was cuter than the sum total of all other earthlings.

I recall a photo: he’s wearing a tiny baseball outfit, grinning from ear to ear.  His eyes are a deep soulful brown and twinkling.  He’s a bright spirit, someone remarked.  I would agree.  He couldn’t sit still for 10 seconds, but he was a happy kid, full of passion and drive and delight.

There was one moment: he wanted to demonstrate a new skill he’d acquired.  This was at ECFE, when the parents re-joined their children at the end of the session.  A worker led us to the school gym, with wooden bleachers and lacquered floors. 

Okay, Max, she called over.  Your mommy and daddy are here.  Do you want to show them what you’ve been practicing?

He nodded. He was three years old.  She told him to stand behind a painted line.  Then said, Go!

He took off, skirting the walls of the gym.  His head was down, as if he were pushing against cyclonic winds, and his expression was deathly serious. 

My heart dropped, not in disappointment, but in love and a desire to protect him in his vulnerability.  I believe he was literally running as fast as he possibly could on his little legs.  He ran the entire circumference of the gym and came to halt in front of us.

Wow, Sweetie, that was amazing! I didn’t know you could run so fast!

I pulled him over for a hug, which he received with the seriousness and dignity that clearly was his due.  He was demonstrating what he was made of, though we didn’t fully realize it at the time.

I loved him down to my toes, through every molecule of my body, and yes, up to the moon and back.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Art Versus Science?

My friend Colleen interrupted me the other day: I know you’re very creative, but you’re also very scientific. What did she mean? That I’m not a real artist? It touched that raw nerve of doubt I already have. It hurt. Can an artist also be inquisitive, precise, and analytical? Love biology, nature, and solving complex physics problems? Whenever I return from seeing my family in Pennsylvania I’m beset by doubt, suddenly uncertain of who I am.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

On Not Being Special

Another layer of grief. I cannot be all that I wanted to be. I wanted to be endlessly creative, a font of love and creativity and beauty and energy. But here’s the truth. It takes lots of energy just to take care of my mental and physical health. And to be with my son and my marriage. I want to expand my local community and strengthen ties to my sisters and mother and nieces and nephews.

I don’t want to volunteer or get a job. I want to write. I want to put down on paper what matters to me, what I find beautiful and true. This is what I want to give-- not only to my son and family, but to the world. This self, this bundle of timidity and failure and yearning and ecstasy.

I wish to jettison the parts of me that steal time from the creative work. But they keep me grounded in my humanity, the desperate difficulty of trying to become anything other than what my DNA and life experiences have made of me.

Monday, January 6, 2020

The Lake Turns Over

As a graduate student in the summer of 1980, I spent five weeks at the Lake Itasca field biology station, where I meant to do an independent study of the alga Volvox. Under the microscope, Volvox is a beauty: a hollow, spinning sphere formed by a single layer of luminous green cells. Well, not completely hollow: parts of the outer skin fold inward and pinch off to form baby spheres, floating happily around inside the protective parent colony. A few of the babies already contain tiny spheres of their own. It’s like peering into a tiny galaxy, each green world giving birth to the next.

I was supposed to collect and analyze Volvox samples from one of the streams that fed the lake. But I was immature, easily distracted by the volleyball games and bike trips and bar outings. And by a tumultuous relationship that siphoned my attention. I let the project peter out.

I signed up for a limnology class instead. Before I cracked the textbook, I’d had no idea that a series of ecosystems existed beneath the calm surface of a lake, stratified by gradations in light penetration and temperature. Surface waters are lit and warm, supporting green algae and a host of creatures. Bottom waters are cold and dark, allowing the slow decay of dead plants and animals. But at a certain point in the spring and the fall, someone or something pushes the puree button. The lake becomes a whirling soup of chemical solutes and chlorophyll and mud and dead plants and animals, careless of their appropriate places. It’s as if God has thrown up his hands--“Do it again!”—like a delighted child.

Turning over is a natural effect of seasonal changes in a temperate climate, but to me it seemed as if the lake had simply decided, in some mysterious way, to bring light to darkness and darkness to light.

There was a darker side to that summer. I was scared I was pregnant. My boyfriend was far away, visiting his brother in Hawaii, and I did not trust his love. One night after a long, tearful argument on the phone—at midnight, from an isolated bar four or five miles out from the field station—I emerged from the booth to find that everyone else had left. I didn’t have a car. I was too embarrassed to ask for help. So I started walking.

The night was cool and misty, partially lit by a pale moon. I would just follow the road back,
I thought. But it grew blacker under the trees.  A doe crashed out of the forest and leaped across the road in front of me. A paranoia surfaced. Who else might be out here, on his way to the bar? When I saw headlights approaching, I jumped into the forest and hid behind bushes. After it passed, I walked as fast as I could, breathing puffs of mist in and out, in and out. Time itself faltered, so that it seemed as if I’d be on this road forever.

I was scared I would miss the turnoff, but I didn’t, and eventually I slipped into
the cabin bunk-bed, my heart thumping.

The next day, my classmates and I piled into the boat, nets and jars and secchi
discs in hand. We moved out into deeper water. We had to complete our careful
measurements today, before the lake did indeed turn over.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Maybe I Should Write It As Fiction? Nah.

Here's a stab at fiction.  I wrote about two pages and then petered out.  So not a fiction writer, at least for now!.

Sunny feels she’s forever stuck in her mother’s house, ironing a shirt she hasn’t worn in over 40 years.

A threadbare shirt she’d worn as a teen, when she didn’t want to be a girl at all. When the only brand she would buy was Wranglers—blue jeans and cut-off shorts. That skinny year, when her chest was flat, her shoes mostly sneakers and hiking boots. Who would wear the shirt now? No one.

She sighed, set down the iron. Rosie was well-launched, off to Australia to teach English literature to Maori children—some kind of exchange program. Max was … well, Max was struggling. His last year of high school, with no idea what he wanted to do next: culinary arts or chiropractic or needle felting. No idea what it took to accomplish these things. Wild notions of going off to the University of Virginia or Cornell, when his ACT scores were abysmal, the tuition impossible. There was no money for experimenting. She could not afford to send him off to flounder and fail.

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Forging the Second Self: A memoir in progress.

Forging the Second Self: Post-Teaching, Post-Mothering, Post-Midlife: Who Will I Be Now? Part I.: Who Am I Now? When I see myself a...