Impressionist Stories


If poems are to story what Impressionism is to landscape, here I’ll dabble in the mixtures.

What if I just wrote a little scene with glimpses of light and feeling, brush strokes of an ordinary day?  It probably won’t count as a story.

It may not peer deeply into a psychological truth, or reveal a flash of insight. But perhaps today I have a craving for something simple to mellow out the stressfull thoughts, like a balm applied to the scattering of randomness that seems to dominate my mental state since putting certain apps on my phone.

And so being this distracted, there’s no story here.

Just a few little moments.

I walked outside on a familiar bustling street, the wind in my face, in my hair.  Jeans on my legs, cotton flannel on my chest, back and arms. To walk was liberation.  I was alone. Strides long, energy high, I felt everything, the muscles in my body working as if I were a little horse. Forward, fast and free.  I came upon the bookstore before I was ready to stop walking in this air so charged with alive-ness, feeling bliss, feeling high on low temps. A northerner can be once again at home when the breeze whips up into something like gusty blows.  But there was the doorway.  Overhead, the tree planted in the sidewalk commanded me to enter, slaping her branches together and smacking the air with her leaves.

Inside, I was captured in the house of words, a home warmly lit and scented with spices and coffee, the schhhuuup of the frother matching my inhale. The volume of everything living had been turned down, as if the golden light shushes us low talkers into meditative listening.  We are here to read.

And I become a bee.  The pollen seeking begins.  Odd contrasts bring me to myopic inspection and I land on something unexpected.  A case for negative thinking appears among the positive psychology books.  This wry kind of humor is the edge that delights.  It reminds me of my love for Richard, who would have written such a book, given more free time.

Can negative thinking bring us to joy?

Example from the book: A bear pops out of the woods on the trail you are hiking. Be happy or get mad?

Get a little mad, be firm, and talk to the bear as if you are the boss of this universe.

Your joyful reward?  Passage.  Freedom to keep hiking.  An intact, uninjured body and the sudden miracle of that.

Joy was in this new awareness…hey! I have this fleshy body with skin holding everything in, and isn’t this the most amazing and wonderous miracle?

I didn’t get that joy from thinking happy. I got it from being pissed off to be interupted so rudely. Get off my trail, bear. You didn’t cut down this section of brush.

After that, the titles didn’t seem to interest me much. It was time to go back out into the fresh gray afternoon, where the wind found my face, rushing in to kiss it. A little hungry, I looked for a place to eat.  A man inside the sandwich shop told me his favorite uncle just died and he was heartbroken. I wanted to tell him that I related to grief, about how going back into the world of people and work was such a surreal detatched experience, and that my body felt as if I were walking underwater.  I may have said a few comforting words, then took my sandwich back outside, a little less bouncy, a little heavier with feeling. But the wind pushed, and I heeded her swift call.









Seeking Smallness



Elliot and Emily sometimes ask about my childhood.  Elliot enjoys my young fantasy of becoming a tiny person, and my secret wish to be a member of The Littles. Imagining myself to be the size of a fairy, minus the insect-like wings, was my great mental escape.  It was my dream to enter into my doll house, or take a vacation inside the stick shacks I made at the base of the cottonwood tree, where my knees and the soles of my bare feet would collect those sticky seed cases.

During our real world adventures visiting mountains or taking a rest at the edge of great bodies of water, it’s always that feeling of smallness that thrills my heart.  I think I would make a very good astronaut for that reason.  Vastness, endlessness, and then, a little something beautiful. The blue earth with swirling white clouds. The thought that there are people down there, tiny little people!  And I am one of them! I’m so small down there that I can’t even see me.

I am counter cultural in my thinking because of this.  When I discovered Etsy, I was thrilled because it meant that small was good, even preferable.  You didn’t have to try to be McDonald’s or Target.  You could just be tiny and that was cool.

When I write, it only works well when I talk to myself.  That’s how tiny I have to think.  It may seem selfish, but I really can’t write to entertain anyone except myself or the stories just don’t work.  And because of this, critique group experiences are absolute hell for me.  It’s like walking into a room where everyone else is clothed and I am naked.

It takes me a while to forget that I was naked in public.  I try to do a lot of covering afterwards. There’s a lot of obsessive behavior that happens.  A lot of building up of grand ideas, a lot of obsessive worrying about what comes next.

But for some reason, being here doesn’t feel that way.  I’m not so acutely aware that I’m even here in public. The internet is a mountain, and I am standing at the base.  Even if I were at the summit, it would afford the vision that I’m even smaller at the top than I was at the bottom.

I love the feeling of smallness.  The smallness afforded by travelling on an endless road that leads to a rock the size of a country.  You can do anything in all that space!  You can walk and walk and run, or climb all day, and bliss out with that pleasant feeling seeping through all of your muscles, the tired that carries you into the mist of untroubled sleep.

I am seeking that feeling of smallness when I write and when I travel.  Getting outside is the best feeling.  I recently learned that my grandmother was claustrophobic.  I never knew this about her.  But now we are connected in our shared dislike of small spaces.   Maybe she felt, as I do, that small spaces make one feel like Alice after eating the cake.  That feeling of being so tall you touch the ceiling?  Terrifying.  Sickening.  I wonder if people in power feel this way.  It must be traumatic to fill up the world with your voice.

Maybe this is why God whispers.


We once took a tour of the Arch of St. Louis and climbed into a little pod that carried us all the way to the top and down the other side through the inside.  Being in that tiny pod was not a good feeling.  Scratch that former statement about being a good astronaut.  While the idea of feeling small next to Earth would be fantasic, I could not take life inside a can.




Confidently, I Love You.



Love is fueled by confidence, which is a matter of belief.  Analysis, by it’s nature of breakdown, might lead one closer to the truth, or to a semblance of reality. When we love, we want it to be real, as Jane does in Austenland. But like the slippery nature of meaning through language, reality is complex. As my friend Courtney writes, by way of her father’s wisdom: “there is no reality, only perspective.”

I want to be confident that love is real and lasting, and that the perspective I have regarding love, is true.


That what lives in my heart is not so ephemeral and fleeting as the foam that dripped into the water from my bath pouf, in the perfect shape of a heart that disolved before my eyes.  A sign of love, but not love, just an image fading into the water.

But love is also a thing that works on me, like sandpaper on wood.  It is a knife that carves, trying to find the form within the block.

But enough of metaphor.

When it comes down to it, criticism, that knife that carves the wood, doesn’t make me feel love.  And I want to feel it so I can give it.  Criticism can give me writer’s block and lover’s block.  I guess I want praise, and that makes me needy.  I guess I want compliments, and that makes me greedy.  I want to be lifted up somehow, not shown where I fail.

But I also want the feeling of love, and the idea of love, to be real.

And not being perfect, all that praise and complimentary talk would ultimately lead me into enough self doubt as to wonder: is this real? Do I always want my relationships to be exchanges of non judgement?  Can I, as as my friend Mariela says, give what is vital to love–acceptance?   Acceptance for hard uncomfortable stones in my boots?

Can I accept that relationships involve criticism, and that I have given out loads of it over the years?  Is there a way to truth in love without critical judgement and analysis?  Do we always need the perspective of distance?  Or just some very close eye contact, and no words?

Let me be silent, and sweet, and kind. The truth is that I’m fire and ice and storm.  I’m earth, soil turning with blind worms.  I’m clouds and leaves that drop, brown and thirsty.




The Silence of this Little Candle

The silence of this little candle

speaks to me

like a soft lullaby.

I am cold

and the cold makes me happy.

The dark night is here

and with it shivering starlight.

Walk out into the absence of streetlights,

follow the white line on the edge

and hold his hand,

let the dogs pull you all the way uphill.

There on the summit, the sky is an upturned bowl.

There was a journey in the dark under these same star candles.

What stories did they tell along the way?

Did they hum?

Were they happy?

Were they in love?

Did he tell her sassy jokes?

Then the baby came.

And the scene is still and silent and reverent.

Those stars are still shining,

connecting me to that sacred night.


One Hundred Reasons No


When 12 year old Elliot Hoppins, creator of Elliot’s Ninja Art: Helping the Homeless One Ninja at a Time, learned that more affordable housing in his neighborhood is destined for destruction, he took on an overwhelming challenge.  In less than 24 hours, help to compile a list of one hundred reasons why his neighborhood should not be rezoned into a commercial shopping center.  Having less than 24 hours before the neighborhood street protest, he asked for help from family members, neighbors and friends.  The title and the challenge was a response to the City of Greensboro’s decision to ignore the Guilford County School Board’s unanimous 11-0 vote to oppose a shopping center directly across the street from Jesse Wharton Elementary School.  The provided reason for ignoring this vote is that the school board didn’t provide sufficient reason for their decision.  Working with that idea, a flash of insight appeared:  there are at least one hundred reasons why a shopping center in a residential neighborhood, across the street from a school, within walking distance from the city’s water supply at the Lake Brandt Watershed is inappropriate and not right for the area.

As a family, we believe that the school board assumed that this is a matter of common sense, needing no explanation.  And why should we automatically expect parents and students, consumed with the daily stress of not only arriving to school on time, attending a full day, returning home for additional homework, participating in extracurricular activities all while managing enough healthy nutrition, rest, and family time, to take on city hall?  Families with kids in school all over the nation are stressed to the limits, mired in daily struggle for academic achievement. Children in school simply do not have time for civil action, but they deserve to be safe getting to and from school and playing outside on the playground.  While working on his banner, Elliot remembered when he was a student at Jesse Wharton, and he said, “today it’s a wonderful thing to be homeschooled.  I have this whole day to work on a project that might help our community with needed housing and protect the kids at school, too.”

Here is the entire list, which was handwritten and illustrated the day of the neighborhood street protest, on a banner that was so long it was difficult to photograph in one shot:



One Hundred Reasons No

****This list is a compilation of reasons gathered from the neighborhood protesters, parents, big sister, friends, and Elliot’s own ideas.
The banner is a work of illustration, handwritten copy work, and  his own unique critical thinking.

  1.  Guilford County Schools unanimously voted 11-0 to oppose the rezoning and commercial development plan.
  2. Because the City Council is in service to the needs of the people, not one wealthy individual.
  3. Because Greensboro is in a housing deficit.
  4. Housing is a need, not a want.
  5. Greensboro needs more high paying jobs, not low wage earning opportunities.
  6. The addition of five access points to the proposed development creates a safety hazard for cyclists, pedestrians, busses, cars and trucks.
  7. The road at the dam cannot be widened without great cost to the city, creating a traffic nightmare and bottlenecking that will back up traffic for miles on either side of the school.
  8. The shopping center’s presence across the street from the school will increase pressure on parents, students and bus drivers as they need to calculate additional time entering and exiting the parking lot.
  9. We do not want to set the precedent in building a commercial development directly across from an elementary school with small children.
  10. Polluted drinking water from storm runoff means no clean water for hundreds of children every day while they are in school.
  11. Children who walk to school are in danger of being killed by angry drivers attempting to swiftly navigate a traffic nightmare.
  12. Increased exhaust from traffic negatively impacts the health of students, teachers and parents, especially asthma sufferers.  Exhaust fumes also cause brain damage.
  13. Commerce brings crime due to easily accessible cash and goods, exposing students, teachers and parents to desperate individuals attracted to the lure of a quick score.
  14. Children need not only to feel safe at school, but to BE safe at school.
  15. Parents will be increasingly challenged to navigate the road when colorful banners announcing new business pop up.
  16. The school’s peaceful surroundings will be shattered with the noise and activity of a bustling area of commerce in a time when focused attention is the most vital asset we have in learning.
  17. A strip center’s presence sends the daily message that commercial advertisement goes with school like peanut butter and jelly.
  18. Because logic, common sense and truth are more valuable assets to society than lies, corruption and greed.
  19. The potential for increased city revenue is offset by calls for police to regulate traffic and manage crime.
  20. The natural area leading to the lake will be forever lost.
  21. A shopping center is not compatible with the natural beauty of the area.
  22. Jesse Wharton Elementary has a nature trail and an outdoor classroom leading to Lake Brandt.  Loss of wildlife due to road kill accidents leaves the woodland area devoid of wildlife for study, enjoyment and childhood delight.
  23. A shopping center’s presence leaves no room for the potential of small agriculture to be a possibility in the future, which is a need TODAY and EVERYDAY.  You can’t grow food in a parking lot.  And Greensboro is one of the hungriest cities in the entire United States of America.
  24. More impulsive spending by passerbys means more national debt and less saving.
  25. More impulsive shopping for things other than needs creates more trash.  More trash means more landfill space, and less space for needed homes.
  26. Additional traffic drawn to the shopping center is risky and dangerous for cyclists on the curvy, two lane, downhill road that is the only access point to the world class Wild Turkey trail, a phenomenal mountain biking challenge.
  27. More traffic emissions in combination with the loss of trees and additional acres of hot asphalt for parking lots adds to the global warming crisis.
  28. Less trees=less oxygen=less air to breathe.
  29. People need trees.
  30. Where will the local children play?  Not outdoors in speeding traffic=more screen time=less face to face interaction and meaningful conversations, less exercise, less health, less healing contact with nature.
  31. Nature is now a prescribed medicine by doctors.
  32. Less wildlife due to traffic accidents, noise and congestion=more disease because animals like opossums and vultures clean our environment of zoonotic diseases.
  33. Wildlife habitat loss decreases access to healthy living.
  34. Because the protection of wildlife matters.
  35. Consider fish poisoned by stormwater runoff.  Toxins in fish lead to health risk for humans consuming fish.  A food source is threatened.
  36. Consider all cats.
  37.  Swans live here too.
  38. Because Ken Miller, the developer, has only ONE reason, and we the people, have over one hundred reasons NO.
  39. Stormwater runoff pollutes Lake Brandt Watershed, the city’s water supply.
  40. Cut through traffic on Oak Tree Road is a safety hazard for residents because we have no sidewalk.  This prompts the residents to close the south access point and create a cul-de-sac.
  41. The developer Ken Miller uses sneaky business practices to secretly buy property in the neighborhood, thereby causing us not to trust his word on the wiggly and vague compromises proposed.
  42. A new traffic light, part of the compromise, will not make less traffic. It will make more traffic.
  43. Curiosity seekers brought to the area by a shopping center will feel drawn to explore the neighborhood, which means less security and more traffic on our streets.
  44. Respect for community—listening to our concerns is a benefit to the greater good.  When other neighborhoods are threatened by big business, they will have a resource for support and learn effective ways to work towards the best possible outcome.
  45. Dr. Stephen J. Sills, Director of UNCG’s center for housing and community recently studied what’s driving the affordable housing deficit and discovered that increased population growth=no incentives for landlords to discount rents.  Income stays stagnant while rent increases.  No money to shop at the strip center puts the proposed strip center at a huge risk for failure.  No place to live and no money to shop means no customers.
  46. The proposed development will not serve the needs of the neighborhood because the neighbors do not need it or want it.  Shopping is 1.6 miles away.
  47. Blight is likely when the businesses in the shopping strip fail.
  48. Gang tagging to follow #47.  Look at the recent history of our local convenience store and gas station.
  49. Which leads to increased crime in our neighborhood, and increased volume of calls to the sheriff.  Not good for the county.
  50. Stranger danger.
  51. Endangered Species: The affordable single family home in Greensboro, North Carolina.  Watch them fall.
  52. DOG’s:  Dirt, Oil and Grease from parking lots contaminating surface waters.
  53. Banging trash dumpsters.
  54. Late night deliveries.
  55. Approximately 50% of households in Greensboro are renters.  Increased home ownership provided by not tearing down houses means more revenue for the city, not less.
  56. Because peace matters.
  57. Trash from parking lots blow into yards.
  58. Because participation in civic responsibility and activism makes a stronger society.
  59. Because the City Council and the Mayor care more about residents than wealthy, sneaky individual prospectors.
  60. Because residential life matters to the city, and cannot function without people who live here.
  61. Because homes for people matter more than shopping.  If no one lives here, who will need goods and services?
  62. One billion songbirds die every single year due to city lights.  More lights means less songbirds.  Songbirds eat insects, thereby controlling the spread of vector diseases like Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, West Nile Virus and allergic reactions to stings.  Charlotte and Winston-Salem are participating in a lights out program to save songbirds, but Greensboro does not.  More lights on during the night from commercial business means less birds, and less visible starlight for them to navigate during migrations.
  63. Songbirds also need trees to survive.
  64. Raptors, who control pests like mice and rats, also need trees to survive.
  65. Rats attracted to the dumpsters behind the businesses spread zoonotic disease to people and pets.  Raccoons attracted to dumpsters carry rabies.
  66. Pollinators, like bees, need trees.
  67. Children need trees.
  68. Everyone and every living thing on earth needs trees.
  69. Owls, Hawks and Osprey live near and around Lake Brandt.  Commercial development will either drive them away from the noise and fumes, or kill them with speeding traffic.
  70. In 2000-2010, Greensboro’s population grew by over 20%, increasing the demand for homes.
  71. Privacy intrusion
  72. Greensboro needs more high paying jobs, not more low wage opportunity.
  73. Greensboro is rich with post secondary education, creating an intelligent workforce needing jobs that don’t involve operating a cash register or serving coffee.
  74. Rental properties are currently 93% filled.
  75. Moderate and low income wage earners lost their homes during the recession.  Now is the time to help people return to home ownership.
  76. Because homes matter MUCH more than shopping.
  77. Late night deliveries wake residents.  Sleep deprivation causes illness, poor mental focus, traffic accidents and obesity.  The hidden cost of disrupted sleep cannot be ignored.
  78. Aquatic wildlife and birds are threatened by litter.  Birds and fish eat plastic, thinking it is food.
  79. Lowering of property values depresses the local economy.
  80. Three new intersections creates frustration which leads to road rage, which leads to DEATH.
  81. An estimated 286 vehicles per hour happens at school drop off time.
  82. N’er do wells canvassing our neighborhood is a concern held by many residents.
  83. It is a fact that crime increases around shopping areas.
  84. Increased crime in neighborhood as a result.
  85. Consider all children, not just the kids at school.
  86. Children in the neighborhood are restricted from play and bike riding in the neighborhood for safety concerns.
  87. Increased traffic=less safe dog walking=sad and unhealthy dogs.
  88. Drive bys now stopping, blocking and increasing impermeability.
  89. Potential alcohol sales from drug store and restaurants increases risk of drunk drivers in the neighborhood.
  90. Access to prescription drugs with the proposed medical facility by abusers is a high cost to the city, to families dealing with addiction, and to the well being of the community.
  91. Peace and nature are more valuable than money can buy. Once it’s lost, it is irreplaceable.
  92. The sense of peace in our neighborhood will be lost, thereby driving away our valuable and important and much loved residents, who contribute their skills, talents, education and kindness to the city and to the county.
  93. Look at Detroit.  Is that nightmare Greensboro’s future?  Look what big business did to one of the biggest cities in the nation’s history. Imagine pockets of abandoned property left by people who could no longer afford to live here.  In fact, if you study Greensboro, you will find that this is happening RIGHT NOW. Greensboro, the ghost town of North Carolina!
  94. Attracting business to our area involves attracting people to live in the area.
  95. People and their skills and contributions to the city as workers and as business owners are all important, and Greensboro can show the nation how residents and businesses together make the right decisions that serve both sides fairly and with great success.
  96. The ecological balance of our world is a value that billions of people hold dear.  Because we cannot survive without natural resources.
  97. It is easy to disrupt this delicate balance by construction.
  98. Increased electricity usage is a problem not solved by more unwanted commercial buildings.
  99. Unpleasant odors block and mask fresh air for residents.
  100. A strip mall does not fit because of the negative impact and stress it creates for everyone.  Stress is responsible for a majority of illness and death. The high and hidden cost of this plan is simply not worth it.



When the Devil was an Angel



The metal bottle cap with pinched edge flies like an arrow released, making a line drive across the field of a fifth grade classroom.  It misses the heads of students seated in neat rows, but finds a target, the brown-nosey girl in the last row, standing as she reads aloud.

The cap’s velocity is such that when it finds resistance, it digs into flesh, piercing her ear.  The girl yells out her pain, turning her head like a raptor hunting prey.  It becomes obvious that the boy with blue eyes, wide with surprise, his mouth forming a little pink “oh!” is responsible.  Holding the blood-tinged cap in her hand, the girl points in his direction.  He is the shortest student in the entire fifth grade. He compensates by earning the reputation of trouble making clown.  His short legs seem in opposition to his deep, raspy smoker’s voice.  She could have loved him out of pity, for her sense of compassion tended to fall on rejected people, animals, even inanimate objects like the Raggedy Ann doll who was found on the road, run over by some uncaring driver who obviously hated red-heads.

Bart Jackson wasn’t one of those who made her heart soften.  Holding the cap, she felt the heat of embarrassment pulsing in her stung cheeks, as if freshly slapped on both sides.  Shriveled-Up-Apple Head (the name the neighbor boys gave to her beloved Mrs. Stratton), asks the girl what happened.  “Bart Jackson threw a bottle cap at me, and it hit my ear!”

Stratton’s mild response sends anger rising behind the embarrassment.  The girl, now experiencing betrayal from her favorite teacher–wasn’t she supposed to be her friend? Or at least responsible enough to care about the safety of her students?  What if that cap had taken out an eye?— stands, indignant.

The injustice of no consequences for Bart Jackson make the girl feel strangely cemented, like a statue that won’t budge.  Class was not going to return to map reading or vocabulary or whatever unimportant page lay exposed on those 25 textbooks.

“Bart Jackson needs to go to the principal’s office for throwing the bottle cap at me.”

Seeing that Jenny wouldn’t sit down without some kind of action, the teacher motions the boy to go sit in the hall.

Go sit in the hall.  Go sit in the hall? A reward!  A nice little time-out for Bart, minus the coffee and donuts, or in Bart’s case, a smoke.

Jenny sits down, feeling empty handed.  Like she’s lost something important and can’t get it back. A feeling of surprise appears inside this bag of freshly opened emotional garbage. Surprise that executive punishment will not be forthcoming.  Her request, or in this case, demand, denied— by the harshest, most stern disciplinarian in the fifth grade.  Not counting Mr. Jones who throws erasers and Mr. Mallory who probably just looks mean because of his dark eyebrows and black rimmed glasses. Could it be that Mrs. Stratton was not the hard, mean crone that everyone believed her to be?  Did she have a soft spot for misbehaving, struggling boys as well as over-achieving girls? Or was this another case of “boys will be boys?”

Mrs. Stratton’s nickname didn’t just signify “old” but “mean.”  She was known for being intolerant of horseplay, talking out of turn, sassiness or disrespect of any kind.  As fifth grade teachers went, she had a reputation that passed down from generation to generation.  Kids all over town groaned to see her name on the their room assignments at the end of summer.  When Ted Weaver saw Jenny’s fifth grade assignment paper, he suddenly became sympathetic and consoling.  Normally the neighborhood boys, besides her brother’s best friends, were antagonistic toward Jenny. Why? Who can say.  She seemed average enough, but maybe kept her head a bit aloof.  If only they knew that not participating in their kind of fun kept her out of trouble at home, maybe they’d be more understanding. Instead, they saw her as a tattle-tale and a bossy bore. Ted’s sudden kindness had the effect of making her afraid to start school in the fall, an event she normally anticipated like Christmas morning.

After a few days of moping around, Jenny’s dad demanded an explanation.

“I got Shriveled-Up-Apple-Head for a teacher!”

Jenny’s dad, not a lifetime resident of the town and having no knowledge of the reputation of local teachers, was not sympathetic.  In fact, he was pleased to know that someone with a disciplinarian backbone would be a daily presence in his daughter’s life.  But he also said, “Are you going to believe what people say about someone before you even meet them? Find out for yourself if the reputation is based in fact or myth.  And never be so sure that a teacher with strength is automatically a “bad” teacher. You will learn the most from the hard ones, and if you keep your mind open, you may even discover a friend.”

Jenny wanted to believe her dad.  But on the bus that first day of fifth grade, the imagery of a wizened, shrunken head perched on the shoulders of a wool cardigan wearing, ruler-wielding, wide heeled teacher stuck firmly in her mind.  Suggest anything to Jenny, and her imagination fills in the blanks.  She was doomed.

It turned out that Shriveled-Up-Apple-Head didn’t carry a ruler, but possessed a shiny metallic chalk holder that protected her smooth, powder-white sticks from breaking while she ribboned out long reams of perfectly looped cursive on the green board.  Turning to face her students as she waited for hands to raise around the room, in these moments of waiting she had a habit of rolling the tube like a kindergartener rolling a snake of clay, up and down her fingers and palms.  As the chalk holder passed her wedding band, it clicked pleasantly, like the turning of a gear while students contemplated (scrambled for) possible answers.

Her face was old, with plenty of wrinkles behind her cat’s eye frames.  Her hair was obsidian, shiny black and wavy, keeping up with the 1920’s flapper fashion. If she was a flapper at one time, all the party in her must have been long spent and forgotten.  She kept a small brass bell on her desk  to ring when someone whispered or talked out of turn.  She had placed an odd assortment of plastic buckets and bowls around the room to catch the drips from the leaky roof on rainy days.  The sounds in the classroom were a mix of inhales and the frequent exasperated exhales of children at work, set to a backdrop of plip-plopping rain drops, the click-click of the metal chalk holder, and the tinkling of a brass bell. The room smelled like a wet, neglected basement, much like all the other rooms in the trailer that sheltered all of fifth grade.  Jenny’s mom complained that she came home smelling musty.

But on ordinary days, Jenny loved the idea of being separate from the rest of the elementary school.  It was kind of like being “off campus” on her way to bigger adventures in middle school.  The day Bart Jackson threw the bottle-cap, she was inspired to grow up and stand up, the sense of injustice growing like the Grinch’s heart when he realizes that generosity feels wonderful.

But in the place of generosity, her heart grew bolder with resistance, beating harder with an urgent need to have someone, anyone, be on her side.  A witness, maybe? Someone to agree that this was wrong.  At least someone to ask, “are you ok? That looked like it hurt.”  But in this unexpected moment of standing up for herself, Jenny learned that sometimes the ones who stand up for justice are often targeted for takedown.  The reality of  constantly trying to be rewarded for good meant that a persona was created; a perception that Jenny was, in her neighborhood and in the bigger world of school,  a goody-two-shoes, know-it-all-brown-noser.  There is a hollow downside to being a perfectionist in training. The silence of the class and the lack of response from her teacher made Jenny feel like she was making a big deal about nothing, like whining over a hornet sting, or a scraped knee.  Nothing to cry about.  Everyone back to work.

Maybe the problem was in the wording of her objection.  “Bart threw a bottle cap at me and it hit my ear” didn’t accurately describe the way this object shot across the room like a harpoon, turning the sharp-edged metallic disc into flesh piercing shrapnel.  How did he do that? She wondered.  A sling shot?  Years of practice at a target?  Was her yearbook picture pasted to a red bull’s eye in Bart’s back yard?

Jenny did not readily accept his mumbled “sorry.” Too huffed up on righteous fumes, she believed his words were insincere.  She didn’t care that his clothes were rarely washed and his hair, perpetually oily, lay flattened in a straight line across his forehead.  She didn’t see that maybe in her privilege, she deserved to feel a little sting, to be taken down a peg.  Maybe this was social justice after all, the impoverished piercing the righteous, comfy middle, even for a second.  Did she deserve this? Did she feel better than Bart? Morally and socially superior? Academically superior? What if she had sent the bottle cap flying? Would she be sent to the principal’s office?  Once, in kindergarten, she was sent to the office for wearing shorts.  On a hot day.  Maybe this air of superiority that she carried was the only defense against the degrading episodes of being picked on. Was she really just a hurt and angry girl who was repeatedly told that if a boy picks on you, it just means he wants your attention?  That it’s normal and acceptable for boys to play pranks on girls because they like you. This explanation silenced her.  She doesn’t think to pose a counter argument: if this were a case of “boy hits boy with speeding bottle cap” the scenario would likely involve a playground fight, and everyone would accept the outcome.  But now, in this moment, think of the possibilities! A boy likes you!  It made her want to die.

She doesn’t imagine physical violence as a possible solution. Fighting a boy would lead to trouble, and this is what she wanted to avoid at all costs. But accept his mumbled apology? This time,  she refused to fulfill expectations with forgiveness.  She refused to be submissive to make everything seem okay, a habit she would learn how to do later with boys and young men– in order to be acceptable, to win affection, in order to stay married.

Maybe it was a case of classic jealousy that hardened her heart.  Jenny never got away with anything.  Even that time when she accidentally whipped the neighbor boy on the neck with a freshly picked willow switch.  When this neighbor kid told her dad what happened, the same green switch was applied to the bare flesh of her exposed bottom.  And though she should have by now been accustomed to the sting, like that whizzing bottle-cap to the ear, shame and anger stacked up in piles like a thunderhead on a humid summer day.

The whipped neck incident was an accident.  Jenny had been enjoying the sound of the wind resistance that it made while she handled the weapon, flicking it up and down with her quick wrist. She had been following the boys at a distance, but suddenly they stopped, and the whip found a mark. A very red mark on the back of a tender neck.  Was Jenny subconsciously acting out some dark desire to control? Freud would say something along those lines. Was she a first-born wanting to be the boss? A sinister dominatrix in the making?  Or was she a kid just enjoying the pleasing sound of a cracking whip?   She loved things with texture: sounds, sights, foods.  The clip-clop of horse hooves on cobblestone, the snap of the leather as the driver prods the horse. The crunch of acorns underfoot in the fall, the way shrimp seemed to burst on her teeth.

If you believe the latter, then maybe the bottle cap incident was an unintended miracle, a once in a lifetime event, like a buzzer beater shot from half-court to win the game.  Was the assailant simply enjoying the practice of his new skill as a bottle cap skeet shooter?  Maybe Jenny stood up a fraction of a second after the release, and it was just her misfortune to be in the wrong place at the right time, but also her good fortune not to have taken it in the eye.

Maybe it was because she had a history of being harshly reprimanded for small innocent mistakes and little lies told in order to remain in the good graces of authority.  Maybe this explained why she felt bold enough to demand a harsher consequence for Bart.  And who knows, maybe he did get some when he got home.  Maybe a beautifully handwritten, instructional note was sent home to his mother.  Maybe he took a harsher beating that involved some hard object.  Maybe he had to give up his collection of bottle caps, the only “toys” he possessed.

And now, this girl, all grown up, thinks this would be a shame.  Because in this world today, there are so many worse things happening to girls than ear piercings via sailing bottle caps.  And Bart’s childhood was obviously not filled with good things. But there’s a funny thing about physical pain when it’s inflicted by someone else.  The kind of pain that happens when a dog attacks or when you are punched in the face, having your glasses broken and your nose bloodied.  Instead of laughing like a hyena as in the case of clumsy accidents, you rage like a lion.

At least, you do inside.

But here’s a curious thought:  when an emotional stabbing takes place, we sometimes take those into our hearts, inviting them inside, making space for them to grow and sprout dark thoughts.

One day, while Jenny rode her blue bike with the white banana seat, a boy from another neighborhood rode past and said “you’re ugly!”  And Jenny replied, “I know!” For a long, long time, she believed it.

This was the same boy who slobbered on a cherry flavored cough drop and threw it at the back of her head while riding the bus home.  The red sticky gob stuck in her now curly brown hair (thanks, puberty!) so that she had to walk past all the kids on the bus with it dangling like an ornament on a sad Christmas tree, the syrupy gunk like a strange, bleeding jewel.

But then, soon after, by the grace of some benevolent spirit judge, Jenny received justice from the cough drop incident.

As an unfailing tradition, Jenny’s Dad dressed up like the devil every Halloween.  He had a rubber mask that accentuated the whites of his big brown eyes, and a pair of horrid gloves with a bloody gash and long fingernails.  He carried a pipe in his teeth with the face of the devil carved into the wood.  He wore a flashy, red satin cape that whipped like a flame on a dark night.  He wore red tights and a satin tail that he animated with a hidden wire.

When trick or treaters arrived, Dad the Devil played creepy sounds on Mom’s old organ, and slowly turned his head, eyes wide, toward the children.  By today’s standards, this would be mild, but in the late seventies before pyrotechnics and digital recording, some kids got really freaked-out.

And late one Halloween night, the cough drop boy appeared at the door with his best friend.  Dad did his scary best, including deep intimidating  questions about what they were doing out so late.

Both boys, by now old enough to have outgrown costume traditions for the sake of seeming “cool” ran away, backwards and tripping, out into the darkness without their treats.

Dad had no idea what this meant to his daughter.  To see cough drop boy afraid and scrambling. Not afraid because he was being bullied, but spooked by the drama of Halloween. Dad didn’t know how this event healed the buried, sheltered pain of body piercings by bottle caps, the sting and shame of misguided willow switches, the embarrassment of cough drop hair ornaments.  The need for justice, from all these things, melted away.  He doesn’t know, will never know, how his little bit of darkness, his pretending to be the Devil, gave me so much light.






Somethin’ t’ Do.



Betcha’ don’t have much to do on a Saturday.  If you’re like me, the day would normally stretch out in an eternity of unfilled hours, where all the chores are caught up and your imagination for creative projects remains in a holding pattern of a blank screen.  No one in your family needs you to help them with anything, and the pets are content not to eat or ask to go in and out eleventy million times a day.  It’s just one of those days when you suddenly realize that every last stich of laundry is totally caught up, and the grass never grew all week, the groceries never ran low because no one ate, and there was certainly no need for you to do anything except sit around all day in your hammock on the back porch with a blank gaze toward the ceiling.  There isn’t, even in all the libraries in the whole city, a book worth reading.  The second hand stores ran out of junk to sell you, and the facebook feed is totally empty of anything. You’re all caught up on ted talks and podcasts and blogs, and there is just simply, nothin’ t’ do.

You have Saturdays like that, don’t you?  So, you decide that since there’s a few buckets of gray paint sittin around doin nothin, you might as well open one up and paint your garage.  Nice and early, but not too early. Like around 9 am when the sun has started to help the midnight dew evaporate.  When it’s not yet unbearably hot and humid.

You get to work right away, when your neighbor comes out to get the newspaper with his big yellow lab, who barks in your face.  Thinking of being polite, he says “Dais-ey. Knock it off.”  Then he notices you with your paint and says, “Well, look at you! Painting the house!”  And you reply, “Yep! It may take a while.”  And he answers in his usual big booming voice, “Well that’s alright, it’s SOMETHIN T’ DO.”

After he goes back inside, you consider his observation.  You think, by golly, yes.  This is something to do.  I am doing something.  This is good.  It is good to keep myself engaged in a long, interesting process of slapping gray paint on the side of this garage in August.  When simply standing around doing absolutely nothing at all produces a full body sweat.

By 11 am, you have managed to paint your way around to the opposite side of the garage, where there is shade.  Climbing the ladder, you again enjoy the simple process of swiping your gray glop back and forth while the sweat soaks the back of your shirt and your head begins to feel a bit swimmy.  You decide it’s time to go in for some ice water and a bite to eat, and step backward, into thin air, which quickly turns into concrete.  You only feel a ripping pain in your ankle as your head hits the concrete.

Somethin. Ta. Do.

Stunned by the fall on the driveway, you realize that something is not quite right.  You feel like you are going away.  Slipping out of consciousness, you call to your son.  “Elliot.  Call Daddy.”

In a moment, you hear the sound of your husband’s voice telling you to keep talking, when you really just want to close your eyes and take a nap.  But the pain in your ankle keeps you awake.  You ask for ice, for ibuprofen, for water.  Which your son brings to you while you listen to your husband on the other end.

Then a strange sensation appears in your ears, and you feel like throwing up.  Your ears feel as though they are pressurized, and begin popping.

Realizing that you might need to go to urgent care, you ask Elliot to bring you a clean t shirt.  The paint flew every where when you fell.

Your heart is racing,  and you think it might be a flow of adrenaline.

The pain in your ankle is pretty much a problem and you decide not to get up right away. In fact you just sit very still until your husband arrives. At the urgent care, they send you on to the dreadful ER, because, you know, head injury.

In the ER, you can’t stop laughing.  The adrenaline does something funny to you, and your husband starts to worry that something is seriously wrong because whatever you are laughing at is, in his opinion, not the slightest bit funny at all.

But he doesn’t understand.  Every summer, my dad would need an ER visit for some freak accident.  And because this was a pattern with him, my mom would start laughing.  And giggling, and chuckling and wheezing.  She would ask him, “Rog, is it time to go to Wheeeeeeeeelock?” (Whelock was the name of our small town hospital.)

He once drove his car off the road during a sneezing attack, broke his nose on the steering wheel, came home late for dinner (my mom had invited guests and had been working very hard all morning on the meal)…anyway, she made him sit though the meal before taking him to the hosptial.  Because, this was just a normal thing that happened every single summer.  And she laughed. Even though she tried to stop and knew that this was serious.  She just couldn’t help it.  Nerves or something.

It sounds so mean of her, but my father always understood.  It’s that relief that happens to know that you made it through without dying.  You will be okay.  Dad was going to live.

As I sat in the waiting room for six hours on Saturday, my laughter keep coming out.  And it flowed knowing that at this very moment, I was both my parents at the same time.  Here I was, being my dad and my mom at once.  The person hurting in the hospital, and the one laughing.  And then, I got my son to laugh, and he couldn’t stop laughing.  He was sucking air  when he recognized that when he laughs uncontrollably, he sounds exactly like a chimpanzee.  Just imagine a chimp.  That’s Elliot when he laughs.  Now try not to laugh when you think about it.

So it’s no wonder that it took six hours.  The nurses must have realized that I wasn’t going to die that day.

Anyone who laughs that much in a place like the ER must certainly be okay.

And I am.

They even had crutches just my size.  And the CT scan says my brain is not injured, although it is surely up for debate on whether it is normal.

So if you have nothin to do on a Saturday… you could spend it like I did.

By the way, after the paint was applied, it rained.  Like mad.

And when I came home, all four of our pets surrounded me.  It was so good to be home, with nothin to do.