Don’t Look Now

We have reached the pissy part of winter, the cold, unforgiving phase I want to believe won’t happen year after year. “Don’t look at me,” Shelley says, which of course, makes me turn my head. It’s 26 degrees with a breeze — feels like 19 — and she is laughing, only her eyes visible, with a knit hat to her eyelids and her blue-grey scarf up over her nose. I wrestle my red pashmina into service, wishing I had thought of this first.

Although it crossed our minds to weenie out, we are walking early morning laps around Rock Ridge Park. We look like bank robbers, but there is no one to see us, no one dumb enough to trade chapped skin and dry sinuses for chit chat and exercise.

Bob and I get up in the dark and retire in blackness. The sun ditches us before I finish pulling dinner together, so I turn on the lights and pull the drapes. I feel cloistered, but what can you do? My kitchen lights up like a diorama when it’s dark outside, and I prefer no one see me poking around the stove in my fluffy socks and tired flannel. Lit up like this, we look like Billy Pilgrim and Montana Wildhack in their Tralfamadorian zoo cage, only not as young or sexy.

Bob sees me rush to the window and raises an eyebrow, so I let him in on my diorama bias. “You don’t look in people’s windows, do you?” he says, and I have to confess that I do. As a child, I took voyeuristic pleasure in what I glimpsed from the back seat of Dad’s Ford on the way home from Sunday dinner at Nana’s. I entertained myself with stories about the people watching TV, getting ready for bed, and working in their kitchens. Illuminated windows still draw my attention, even when I’m behind the wheel.

Only a few days ago, after a week of open-window weather, I brushed aside willow oak leaves and pushed Cylindra seeds into the loamy soil. I’m not a risk-taker by nature, but the stakes are low. Either they’ll sprout and flourish, or they won’t. We’ve got lots of beet seeds, way more than we’ll use this season. Working my way westward, I planted Detroit Dark beets, May Queen and Buttercrunch lettuce, and smooth-leaf spinach.

We’ll see if they make it. Time will tell. Hopefully, I’ll make it, too, through another dark winter without too many people seeing me at my worst.

Heartspace, a Review

In 1919, when my grandmother went into labor with her first child, the doctor put down his bag and asked her to remove her panties. Horrified, she crossed her legs, pulled up her night shirt, and pointed to her protruding naval. “What do you want with my panties? The baby is coming out here,” she said.

100 years ago, we knew more about how to lay out our loved ones than we knew about giving birth. Now we’ve got it the other way around.

Death is one of those things, perhaps the only one, we will all do and only once. It is final, and solitary, and something we don’t talk about.

Heartspace: Real Life Stories on Death and Dying tackles this problem head-on with honest and true tales of death as told by the survivors. It is a quilt woven from many perspectives. Here is the mother and daughter at vigil in a hand-built cabin, here the father — ninety and counting — in denial, and here the tragic death of a first-born son.

I was a death virgin when death came to my neighborhood. Many of us were, and we were blindsided. We helped each through the process and eventually came to terms with death. My story, along with many others, are in this book.

If you think you might die one day, or know anyone who plans on dying, this book is for you. We owe it to ourselves to get comfortable with the inevitable. Let Heartspace show you the way.

2020 Vision

I open our refrigerator this morning to get out the beans, the rice, the greens — required first meal of the decade — and consider throwing everything out.

In one of Gretchen Rubin’s books, she mentions a woman who completely empties her refrigerator on the first day of the year. No exceptions. Out goes last year capers and ketchup, and all those jars of jelly drabs. No more leftovers, bread, lettuce, or butter.

I love fresh starts, but all those years in The Clean Plate Club, using bread heels to wipe the last bit of stew from my little green bowl, make it impossible for me to waste food to prove a point.

Since moving to the south, Hoppin’ John has become our chosen first meal of the new year. Eat Poor for a Day, Prosper in the New Year, as the saying goes. Rice for riches, peas for peace. This year I made the dish with heirloom Yellow Eye beans from Purcell Mountain Farms, Amy’s delicious hand-harvested wild rice, and collard greens from our backyard garden.

Another way to step forward into this new year is to get out in the woods with my neighbors. Today we’ll define and widen a connector trail that completes a loop around the perimeter of Tami and Lyle’s ample property. Lyle will deploy his tractor. I’ll bring loppers and gloves, and we’ll spend three hours bonding outdoors before walking to their big-windowed home, glowing and spent, for a shared meal.

To round out the day, I’m going to put in writing my intentions, something I do every year, even the non-decade starting ones. A lot of people think resolutions are too constraining, or that they exert pressure where pressure need not be. But drill down, and I usually find that they do have goals, only they don’t want to call them resolutions. Fair enough.

Call it resolutions, intentions, hopes, dreams, or goals, here is my vision for the year ahead:

2020 will be my Year of Anonymity. I will use this year to further retreat from my outward-facing persona and into my inner landscape.

Since retiring in 2019, I have already stepped away from many outside obligations. I’m no longer interested in trying to be someone on social media or in representing anything beyond my little life here with Bob. In 2020 I plan on dwelling in a non-virtual world of my choosing, close to home, focused on polishing a close-to-the-bone, high-quality lifestyle.

As Bob toils away, strapped to his desk in one last, mind-numbing push to feather our retirement nest, I bustle about, growing and cooking real meals, and fluffing pillows. I spend hours deep-diving The New York Times and The Atlantic, gathering fuel for insightful porch-sitting and dam-walking conversations.

Towards those ends, here is my shortlist of 2020 Resolutions:

Daily Sentence, in which I challenge myself to write one stellar sentence describing an event that stands out in my mind from that day.

Analog Sunday, in which I challenge myself to pull out my sketch pad and create something during a day-long browser hiatus.

All the other stuff — the reading list, weight goals, push-ups — none of these need to be pinned down, regulated, managed, or recorded. I’m past that, beyond having to hold myself accountable. 2020 may not just be my year of anonymity; it might kick off a decade of rebellion. I’ll begin by opting out and see where that leads.

May you enjoy a prosperous and self-affirming year, also!

 

Happy Birthday to a 117-Year Old Woman

Dear Nana,

You would have been 117 today, a possibility which wouldn’t have crossed my mind had I not read Neenah Ellis’ If I Live to be 100 – Lessons from the Centenarians, a series of interviews with men, women, and couples between the ages of 100 and 117.

While some of the interviewees were bed-bound or under the care of others, many still lived at home. One woman had feisty red hair that made me think of your stylish cut and color, and this woman got up every day and rowed across the lake behind her house unless the weather got in her way.

Another woman got up every morning and made breakfast for herself and her husband, also 100. “Sadie can’t sleep past six o’clock,” he said and, having timed his wife on the morning of the interview, was able to boast that they had sat down to eat only twelve minutes after he and his wife got out of bed.

I picture you at 117, making your way downstairs to feed the dogs before stepping outside to ponder your gardens. I imagine you sitting in the shade of your plum tree, your fingers idly resting on a canine, or napping in your green chair, the latest copy of Newsweek spread across your lap and the sun spilling from the picture window over your left shoulder. In my mind’s eye, I see you gather a hunk of chives and clip them with your kitchen scissors to snip into a bowl of potato salad.

If I live to be 100, I am reasonably sure that my day will pulse with purpose much the same as yours did. You taught me how to keep everything moving along, high and tight, loosely organized, and comfortable.

Yesterday I met three individuals and my friend, Linda, in her living room. We were there to discuss strategies for Drawdown, a direct line of attack on climate disruption formerly known as climate change or global warming. However you frame it, we desperately need to stop spewing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and encourage carbon sequestering, or Drawdown. I know you would be front and center regarding this movement, cheering for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, Greta Thunberg, and encouraging your grandchildren to take action.

As Linda prepared hibiscus tea in the other room, I enjoyed some light, pre-meeting conversation. Talk of tea led to talk of Kool-Aid, which led to mention of Jim Jones’ cult massacre. Emboldened by how quickly we had skidded onto this deliciously thin ice, I noted the absence of Kool-Aid and new sneakers. “I think we’re probably not going to get beamed up today.”

The younger woman in Linda’s living room raised a quizzical eyebrow, and someone explained how the members of Heaven’s Gate in San Diego, dressed in new shoes, swallowed applesauce laced with fatal levels of phenobarbital and left this world in the spring of 1997. We paused, and I peered out Linda’s ceiling-to-floor windows at the pines, imagining the approach of that spaceship, the light growing more intense until we were all suddenly whisked away into the ether.

“Would you be ready if this was the day?” I asked, turning the question over in my mind. In my 30’s I wanted to live forever, but now I’m not so sure. Someone answered, “No, I still have things I need to take care of, so I don’t leave too much of a mess.”

But I could see myself letting go, staunching the flow of my newsfeed with stories of melting glaciers, coastal flooding, war, protests, and political upheaval. But, as long as I’m here, I know my To-Do ticker tape will keep pushing me out of bed every morning. There will be articles to read, letters to write, chives to snip, and in the spring — because summer is coming, there will be garlic to harvest.

Channeling Grandma

In a few weeks, Bob and I will arrive on our daughter’s doorstep and welcome her new baby, Evelyn Fox, to planet earth. She’ll be two months old, born in October to Emily and her husband, Tyler. For a few days, we will fuss over Evie and her older brother, Nolan, and attempt to ease Emily and Tyler’s burden as new parents.

I have vivid memories of my grandmother, my mother’s mother, arriving a day or two before Mom was released from the hospital with her latest newborn. Grandma’s clean, starchy aroma preceded her, and there she would be, her long, white hair pinned up and the crinkle of a smile behind a pair of unadorned wire rims. She would set down her small, smooth-sided suitcase containing a starched white uniform — day-wear for the job ahead.

My younger brother, Johnny, and I would move forward tentatively and give her sturdy stockinged legs a light embrace, our eyes never leaving her avocado-colored bag. After greetings, Grandma would reach down and trigger the scuffed brass locks, lift the lid, and pull out a package of Chicklets. We stood, excitement scarcely contained, hands extended in humble reverence. Shaking the green pillow squares onto her calloused palm, she distributed two each to Johnny and me, and when he was old enough, Bobby — the big kids who knew how to chew gum without swallowing it.

Sufficiently sanctified, molars already at work piercing the candy gum coating, we would wander off to play or do homework depending on the season. Grandma would go upstairs to change out of her traveling clothes, tie on an apron, and get to work, the sound of her white thick-soled shoes reassuring on the gritty kitchen floor.

For a few days, order would assume its rightful place, everyone relaxed and well-fed, while Grandma swept the remnants of chaos from our home. By the time my mother arrived, all would be calm, laundry caught up, and a hearty stew simmering on our four-burner stove. Mom refers to her mother’s postnatal visit persona as “the eye of the hurricane.”

Mom would ritualistically hand the flannel-wrapped child to her mother, and Grandma would peer at him, arching her neck to inspect his fingers and toes. Her smile of approval made Mom glow with pride, Dad hovering casually in a doorway, one eye on the proceedings as was his custom. Grandma would nod at my mother her secret signal of “I’ve got this,” and Mom would sigh in grateful exhaustion and retire to her room.

I have waited a long time to pay my Grandma’s legacy forward. Somehow I missed out on little Nolan’s early days, but soon I hope to make up for that. Inspired by my Grandma, I envision myself cooking and cleaning, homing in on the rhythms of their household, and helping out where help won’t be intrusive.

I imagine Bob and I making it possible for Emily and Tyler to get the rest they so need at this time, while getting to know little Nolan and Evie. We’ll find out what they like to eat and how they like to play. We’ll see what attracts their attention, take them for walks, read them stories, and cook mashed potatoes and gravy.

When it came time for my grandmother to leave, the family would gather around the ’54 Ford Sedan, both women wiping at their eyes. Dad and Grandma would disappear in the direction of the bus station, Mom would go back to bed, and the baby would sleep on for a while before waking.

Johnny and I would stand, blinking at the disappearing car for a minute before turning to each other. Then we would climb the stairs to the room where Grandma had slept and find the bed turned down, sheets freshly laundered, her scent lingering with a sense of calm purpose. As the house below roared back into anarchy, we would find our compensation prize on the nightstand: a pristine box of green chicklets.

Waiting for the Light to Change

I lay in the dark, roiling in the emotions of my last dream. If Bob were to ask, as he does most mornings, I would say, “I dreamed I lost my purse.” If I were in a hurry to get my caffeine fix, I’d stop there and get up. Instead I stretch my legs into our down comforters and dig deeper.

I dreamt that I was standing on a crowded New York sidewalk waiting for the light to change, talking with a tall woman in a long, red cashmere coat that matched her lipstick. I’d met her before and was searching for her name, watching her lips move without hearing her words. A woman on my left, younger and shorter, spoke. What a coincidence, I thought. I know her, too.

I nodded to the woman on my left and glancing right, roped in the woman in red. And then, I surprised myself by pulling out a name: Mary. The three of us were fully engaged now, so I pulled out some earrings and put my black-handled faux alligator purse on a patch of sidewalk, careful not to set it on a wad of chewing gum. We held the shiny baubles up to our ears and inspected each other. Time stalled as the crowd thickened around us.

And then in an instant, the woman on my left stepped on to a bus, the light changed, the tide of human bodies was unleashed, and Mary disappeared. I reached for my purse, and it was gone. I plowed through the river of feet and heads, searching in vain for the woman with the bright red lipstick. I ran back to the corner where we had stood, like a hound that had lost the scent.

My wallet, phone, change purse – everything vanished in an instant. I didn’t even have a quarter for the payphone, so I could call Bob and say, “Quick, cancel my cards.”

Later, in a daylit hotel bathroom that felt exactly like our airy bathroom in the Belizean rain forest, I stood before the mirror, trying to insert an earring into the pocket between a lower canine and my gums. The ornaments resembled top-heavy letter openers. I thought that if I could get three of them in there, they would support each other, like when I wedge multiple serving spoons in the plastic cup that hangs off the side of my dish drainer. One spoon will topple out, but three take up enough space to prevent that.

I wasn’t having much luck. The first earring kept falling out, slicing my gum before I could pick up a second one and wedge it in there. I looked at the blood in the mirror and saw Mary’s red lips, her pale skin framed in dark hair, and her beautiful red coat.

Satisfied with how I’ve rescued the remnants of my dream, I open my eyes. The light is thicker now. I have no idea what this dream was about, but I’m glad I took the time to capture the mood and the colors, even if their meaning eludes me — happy that I waited for the light to change.

The Power of Perception

My mother says I tested at 130 in the ’60s when I.Q tests were de rigueur, but I don’t put much stock in that. And, if she is correctly pulling up that specific number for this particular child — who could keep track with six little geniuses — I think it was a fluke. I’ve since read about how unreliably biased those tests were — culturally skewed in favor of little white girls, possibly from the Eastern Seaboard with Sicilian roots.

I don’t feel so smart. While others quip astute remarks, I’m wandering the side tracks, digging into the nuances of what was just said, or wondering why they pronounced that word in that way or trying to picture Aleppo on a map. I miss a lot of conversation in this way.

I think my mother assumes her children are all smarter than she is, just as my brother James believes everyone is older than he is, or how I perceive everyone, nearly everyone, as shorter and younger.

Mom, like me, married a smart man. Men who are quick in their mind, and don’t forget dates and details like we do, or flounder down side roads. Live your life around smarter/taller/older people, and you will feel dumber/shorter/younger. It doesn’t matter how much brighter they are. It can be only a tiny bit.

 

I saw the horse standing behind the steel panel run outside his stall, watching me approach. With a piercing, steady gaze, he commanded me to look up. I stared at the royal arch of his neck, his alertly pricked ears, and nodded.
Inside the barn, in a chilly, cavernous arena with one whole wall paved in mirrors, my friend was riding her young dressage prospect. The instructor stepped towards me, smiling. “What a magnificent horse,” I said, nodding over my left shoulder. “How tall is he?” She laughed. “Oh, he’s only 16 hands. But he has a big ego.”

 

And so we perpetuate illusions, fooling both ourselves and others by acting the part of long-held assumptions. Because my mother assumes I’m smarter than she is, she lets me throw my weight around in disrespectful ways. She refuses to argue. Rather than go toe-to-toe, she’ll tell a story, or even break into song as any simple-minded person might do. She knows I don’t mind it when she drifts. I find it charming, and often, we both sing, or laugh about what she thought she heard me say.

Eventually, my mother and I leave the conversation with our world views intact, me feeling smart and well-informed, she thinking about how wonderful it is to sing to her daughter with the high I.Q.

Line-dried Sheets and Other Unlikely Paths to Enlightenment

The heat pump hums inside our back door. It is 37° on our back porch this morning, and I’ve decided to sit in the corner of our bedroom instead. I settle into a comfy green and red plaid armchair, a chair I am proud to say came from a thrift store.

On most mornings, I write in my royal blue Challenge Manuscript Book, number five in a series of six. I filled the first one with stories of daily life in Belize in 1997, writing with the help of a kerosene lamp. Some mornings I download flotsam, dream captures, and mental purges to a small paperback notebook that I bought for a dollar.

Caught between thoughts, my pen in mid-air, I look around the room. Although our mattress and underwear are new, very little else in our bedroom is. The bed tables, dressers, even the towering corn plant are opportunistic finds or rescues. A worn Nepalese carpet lies at the foot of our bed, a gift from Bob’s high school friend, Fran Yarbro. I try in vain to picture the silk threads when they were new. I get down on my knees and count five saber-wielding huntsmen leaning forward on their rearing steeds, nine scrambling forest creatures, and one open-mouthed tiger.

Bob and I walk pad across this carpet many times each day without giving much thought to Fran. Sitting here I take the opportunity to picture them, she and her husband Sergei, sitting across the table from us, wine glasses in hand, animated, so obviously in love. It wasn’t long after that day that they perished on the slopes of Mt. Everest doing what they loved most.

I can almost remember helping Bob assemble our bookshelf many years ago. We bought most of the Kurt Vonnegut novels new, but they are well worn now from repeated readings. Ditto for Daniel Quinn. The other books are thrift store finds and gifts. There is a copy of Dead Eye Dick, signed by the author that Nick Meyers gave us before he died. A few books away from it is a 1956 printing of Rob Roy that Bob’s mother was reading when he was born and which inspired his name. And we have a 1951 copy of Marguerite Henry’s Album of Horses, my name penciled on the flyleaf in loopy grade school sprawl.

Our sheets, line-dried in yesterday’s perfect sun, were also previously owned. I stalk the sheet rack at Pittsboro’s PTA Thrift Store for 100% cotton, Pima or Egyptian. When I discover one with the right degree of softness, I drape it over my arm and walk to the counter and, gushing with pride, and invite the clerk to run her hand over the sturdy fabric.

When I learned that my brother John, and his wife, Darla, were coming to visit, I stripped the guest room bed and hung everything in the sun. And then I made a loaf of bread, the dough so irresistibly plump I could not stop kneading. I harvested okra, figs, cherry tomatoes, squash, and peppers, thinking with each pluck how wonderful it would be to have my family here. About the walks we would take, and about how, together, we would roast chestnuts and make them into soup with sherry, onions, and squash.

Later, after putting the bed back together, I entered the guest room to place a few pieces of dark chocolate on a scuffed night table and noticed how the whole room smelled of crisp fall sunlight and golden breezes.

Darla, John, Bob and Camille atop Jordan Lake Dam – October 14, 2019

I don’t think you have to sit still underneath a fig tree for forty-nine days to reach nirvana. I also don’t think you can buy it. Enlightenment, for me at least, is about manifesting my values, and I am fortunate that I can do that. My nirvana is time to think my thoughts, family visits, home-grown food, thrift store scores, heirlooms, treasured books, and line-dried sheets.

Here it Comes

Hillsborough Klan Rally – August 24, 2019

I’m sipping coffee on the back porch, listening to the crickets and the frogs. Their pitch is slurred, slowed by a drop in temperature and punctuated with crow calls. Our crepe myrtles shed golden droplets, like lazy shooting stars, always just outside my field of vision. I stare at one leaf, twirling madly on its tether, daring it to drop while I watch. I want them to stop before it gets too messy.

After breakfast, I open my laptop and read the headlines. The Democrats have finally initiated impeachment hearings. There’s been another shooting. A sixteen-year-old girl has sailed from Sweden to address the United Nations in New York. “How dare you!” she says, eyes blazing. Revolution, fires, famine, and floods — the world is spinning out of control.

Later, on my way home from town, I notice two trucks on the lawn across the street from Horton Middle School. A long, shiny pole lies in the brittle grass, and a Confederate Battle Flag spills carelessly over a tailgate. Inside the school, black, white, and brown kids tap their knees against their desks, waiting for the bell to ring. We know some of those kids. Their parents are not happy about the message being sent by the flag across the street.

The school is named after George Moses Horton, a slave owned by William Horton. Back then, people named their slaves after themselves. George Moses taught himself to read. He became a free man after the Confederates lost the Civil War and was the first black poet published in the southern United States.

My mother traces her heritage to an Englishman named Barnabas Horton, who arrived on the shores of Long Island in 1640. I wonder if William was also related to Barnabas.

I learn that there is a second flag, and, a couple of days later, I drive beneath it. It flicks a shadow across the hood of my car. In August, my next door neighbor witnessed a Ku Klux Klan rally in Hillsborough, thirty-five miles away. Turns out they were armed, too. Here it comes, I think.

Hillsborough, NC – August, 2019

A bronze confederate soldier still stands twenty-seven feet high atop a granite pedestal in front of the Chatham County Courthouse in the middle of town. But not for long. The County Commissioners voted last spring to remove it by November. Since then, the monument has become a focal point for conflict. It stands stiff-boned, surrounded by crowd control barriers. The inscription reads: “To the Confederate Soldiers of Chatham County — Our Confederate Heroes.”

Pittsboro, population 4,000, is small enough that we smile and hold the doors open for each other at the Post Office. We still take our feet off the accelerator to let side street traffic fold into line at rush hour while the courthouse tower clock chimes the time.

Turns out the flag erectors, the guys with the giant poles and crumpled flags aren’t from around here and that they plan on cementing in more flag poles around the county. They are with an outfit called Virginia Flaggers.

After the first two flags went up, there was a small protest/anti-protest demonstration at the courthouse. The police arrested three protesters. One video shows two officers leading a shambling, bearded man through the sparse crowd. I almost felt sorry for the guy.

History is not written by the losers, and the losers never forget. I understand how it might feel to grow up here on land my granddaddy farmed. To witness the onslaught, a wave of northerners, siphoning land, and sucking away my sense of dignity, in a world gone to shit. And how it might feel to watch a handful of liberal county commissioners remove a tribute to my ancestors that has been standing for over 100 years. I get it. I’d be upset, too.

Or, maybe I’d be ready to move on. Maybe, even if I was born and raised Southern, I might not align myself with rebel forces, six generations back, fighting to secede just as I don’t align myself with my German ancestors, three generations back, who wiped out six million Jews.

I go to dinner with a friend who is not sure what’s going to happen next. Yes, she is an American citizen, but she doesn’t look like the white people putting up these flags, and she knows that makes her a target. A few tables over, we hear the high notes of outrage coming from a similar conversation. Two men I know reasonably well, both have been to our house, are trying to decide what to do. They don’t want to stir things up any further but feel they can’t take this latest assault lying down.

Zoom out. The tweeter in residence is not handling impeachment proceedings gracefully. As part of one weekend twitter binge, he tweeted, “a warning from a pastor about ‘a Civil War like fracture in this Nation’ should he be removed from office.” Those of us who aren’t looking for another Civil War were not amused.

At this point, I don’t care if the statue stays or goes. I drive past the flags on my way to and fro without glancing up. I long for harmony. I’m sick of polarization. How do we give the old guard a sense of dignity without making the rest of us feel unwelcome, or worse, threatened?

I want to think this tension is new, but it isn’t — it’s just come to our town where I can’t ignore it. We had trouble like this in the ’60s and ’70s: assassinations, cops shooting kids, hippies against rednecks, peaceniks against patriots. Things were quiet for a time, and then the school shooting at Columbine sparked a dribble, and then a flood of gun violence.

I want to blame the high chair king and his incendiary tweets. I find it ridiculously sad that we aren’t even fighting over food. It seems a meaningless tussle when the victims appear well-nourished. But their discontent is palpable, an undercurrent of hopelessness strong enough to pull shooters into the abyss.

I think of the one-legged woman begging for cash the other day, stopping me as I made my way across the grocery store parking lot. How her partner leaned forward, nodding as she told her story, and how both of them relaxed after I sighed and reached for my wallet. I think of the millions of ruined soldiers and mental health refugees sleeping in doorway nests and culvert boxes and wonder how many of them sleep in our town.

I don’t think we are beyond fixing, nor do I believe we need an outside war to bring us together. I want what I’ve always wanted, what everyone ultimately wants: a sense of belonging, peace, and unity.

Leaves continue falling, green fading to yellow, and all turning brown over time. It’s been hot. Torpid. Frisky mornings slowing to long, motionless afternoons. The voices in the woods pulse, “We . . we . . we . . we . . we . .”

Two Days in September

On September 11, I logged into Facebook and found myself scrolling past a minefield of 9/11-themed posts. I bristled each time I saw “never forget,” that war cry without an exit plan. I hated that this national tragedy had come to be an excuse for revenge, and was frightened by how nationalism has hijacked patriotism.

I imagine you could fashion a rosary of human tragedies and pray to each and every one: white for hissing holocaust gas, gangrene green for Civil War, red for World War II kamikaze headbands, and black for the smoke pouring off the World Trade Centers.

~*~

My aunt could see the Manhattan death plumes from New Jersey that day in 2001. She stared out her window through the trees, pacing, and taking short sips of air. She thought about her sons at work in the city, willing her beige wall phone to ring, longing to hear, “Mom? We’re both okay.”

She paced with a legion of other families while mayhem reigned at ground zero: rescue teams beyond exhaustion, stunned survivors, agitated newscasters. So many choking on the news, unable to swallow, only the dead at rest.

Bob’s co-worker at the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission called before dawn; her voice pitched half an octave high. “Turn on your TV!” I climbed out of bed and was walking the floor in our little stick house, eyes squinting. What? Of course, we didn’t have a television. We had shed the TV on our way to Belize five years earlier.

We packed a light bag and drove down the volcano, hoping the inter-island puddle jumpers planned on flying anyway so that Bob could attend a native plant conference on Molokai. I brought my fencing tool, thinking that if we found ourselves in an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it scenario, I might want to cut through some barbed wire.

“Even if we had a TV,” Bob said, “I don’t think I would have turned it on.” I agreed. Neither of us cared to have another catastrophe etched into our retinas. We already had unshakable images of the exploding Challenger and John F. Kennedy’s last moments.

The airports, all the airports, were closed and the skies were blessedly silent for days. Not even the volcano tour helicopters broke the calm. My father told me later on the phone, “I held my breath for a couple of days, hoping they’d do the right thing.”

A sense of peace becalmed the Pacific, petty squabbles abandoned, stranded tourists embraced. We felt lucky to be alive, all of us grieving for the people digging through the rubble 4,900 miles east. For two days, the entire nation was grounded and unified.

And then the skies roared back to life.

A year later Congress gave the president authorization to use military force against Iraq and within five months peace was destroyed by the ink of an angry pen. Our disappointment was so profound that we quit our jobs and moved to a tiny island off the coast of Nicaragua, a place without an airstrip, roads, motorized vehicles, or even a proper dock. We met the big cargo ship at the reef when it arrived with diesel fuel, and watched the crew pitch 55-gallon drums overboard for us to lash to our boat. I remember hearing the drone of a propeller plane only once and rushing out from under the coconut palms to stare.

We lived in Nicaragua just long enough to notice a cultural shift upon re-entry. The first time a grocery store clerk said, “Have a safe day,” instead of “Have a great day,” I thought I’d misheard. The second time I chuckled, wondering, Safe from what? I began rolling my eyes at every well-meaning, “Be safe!” “Stay safe!” “Drive safe!” and “Safe travels!” I wasn’t a fan of this new fear-based vocabulary.

Then I started seeing “Never Forget” bumper stickers. More salt in the wound. For all of us who had fervently hoped for peace, “Never forget,” sounded exactly like, “Never forgive.” I began to lose heart. The United States had hijacked an unforgettable tragedy and was using it as an excuse to perpetuate death and destruction.

Had my cousins died that day, I would mourn them as I grieved for all the other lives. And I would resent, even more, the overlay of nationalism and military might that seeks to blur our grief into hate and revenge. What could have been a pulling together became an excuse to kill. Two thousand nine hundred ninety-six souls sacrificed so we could take more lives. Their heartbeats immortalized in the beat of our war drums.