There were two swans on the river this morning. I said to them, “You are my swans,” and they swam closer, as close as they could until they met up with the jagged barrier of ice. One trumpeted softly as if practicing.

“It’s still too early,” it said. At least that’s what I figured it was saying.

And Betty pulled on her leash, half way across the melting ice, while I held onto a branch on the shore. We, Betty and I, stared at each other.

“I’m determined to go out further,” she said to me. At least I think that’s what she said.

“No way, Honey,” I said, “then this walk will end in mishap.”

By now the swans had broken their side by side formation with a slow, smooth spin. Quietly. Certainly. They are so unfunny, unlike ducks with their stunted wings, rapid flapping and whistling with take off. They splash their landings and complain about everything. They make me laugh.

What am I to learn from this? Maybe not a single thing.

Ian at 14


Ian, there’s no question that you are beautiful, that you’ve always been beautiful. You’re taller now, that’s certain. I can wear your shoes. You can wear mine, if that’s something you wanted to do. The thing is, though we’re matched right now in shoe size, shirt size, pants size, we’re moving in opposite directions. Tomorrow, you’ll be taller. Tomorrow, I won’t be taller. You’re stretching outward. I’m stretching inward, each of us reaching for the same universe.
You always surprise me with your astounding kindness, that pensive and quiet part of you, that escapes from you when you forget about being a teenager, when you forget about who you think you should be, when you just are. And you’re funny. And you think I’m funny. And I hope it will always be that way. And I love you so, so much. Happy 14th my little man!

The Word Gratitude


Gratitude. I keep running across this word. Be grateful. Practice gratitude. It’s the only way to happiness and inner peace.

The problem I have is not with gratitude itself. The problem I have is that the word has become cliché, its power and meaning shrunk down to a nicety. Be nice. Be grateful.

Since I do not like to use clichés, words and phrases that have lost weight to the point of anorexia, I will talk about thankfulness.

In order to fully feel thankfulness, a dose of sorrow is required, sorrow that has lodged itself firmly in our bones, sorrow that stands in our minds like a tall clock with a quiet tick. With age, time seems to speed up. The ticking loudens. And, as our sorrows increase, so does thankfulness.

Often I tell my boys to say “Thank You.”  But thankfulness is not taught. Thankfulness is accumulated.

As always, I am thankful for my boys. If there was nothing else in my life, they would be enough. But, I’m always getting bonuses like these:

The other night, the sky was smooth and clear and the stars were near, plumped and glittering like Christmas lights above my head.

In the alley there is a stringy, leafless plant. The stem is lavender and bends over as if in prayer.

I walked my dog, Betty, to the Mississippi where hundreds of ducks had peacefully gathered until we showed up. Then they flew. They all flew. They rose up and scattered.

And then there’s Betty, the rescue dog from Kentucky, the rescue dog that saves me every  single day.

Costa Rica


I brought them, my sons, to a place with a wild tropical ocean because I wanted them to feel the wheel of its waters softly rolling around their ankles. I wanted them to know the unsteadying of their sturdy bodies as the sand was pulled out from under their feet. I wanted them to know joy in the ocean’s unpredictability. I wanted them to be tossed around, their thoughts and perceptions jumbled. And I wanted them to learn that, even when we nurture a vigilance and a steadiness, there are waves that stalk the shore, that spring up suddenly and flatten us.

One cannot say to the ocean, Come this far but no further. One cannot say to the waves, Grow this tall but no taller.

And myself? What did I want? I wanted to see the rise of the mountains. I wanted to feel the rainy season rains that fall with purpose, stopping as suddenly as they began. I wanted to live the surprise of nature, presenting itself without pretense or order– a ceiling covered with geckos, watching an iguana watch a turkey vulture watching us.

The man said there were crocodiles in the river and if you lifted a stone to the steel frame of the bridge, you could summon them. I didn’t want to summon crocodiles. I wanted to see monkeys, the kind that bark like big dogs, that grunt like wild pigs.

  I wanted to see if there was possibility, the possibility of returning to a landscape I knew in my youth, one of exquisite color, one of sounds echoing, and one of thick fragrance trapped in the humid air.

Mostly, I wanted to know if I could return to a place like this, not as a daughter or a sister or a wife, but as a self who doesn’t find beauty in the blocks of the neighborhood houses and lawns, all sleek and square and even, an order that blunts the possibility of surprise. And my boys, I wanted them to know about fierce beauty.

I can’t say how this will set up in their memories. I can say that my youngest son was churned in the ocean waves, was beat up without the malice of fists or feet. My older son, with his all-seeing swim goggles bound tightly to his face, was pummeled and thrown to shore and his goggles were ripped off his head.

He went looking for them.

“You won’t find them,” I said.

And my boys looked at me as if I was the ocean, but we walked the beach anyway. I could not interest them in the tide pools, in the tree growing on top of the ocean rock.

“I need my goggles,” my son said, like once he needed his blanket in order to fall asleep.

“Go get the other pair,” I said, and they, my young sons, walked off while I distractedly climbed a rock.

Then they vanished.

Were they playing a trick? Had they unwittingly taken on the unpredictability of the ocean? No, the sun must’ve gotten to my brain because they didn’t play tricks like that. Would they have gone back into the ocean and gotten pulled out? Both of them? Oh God, I thought, then my life is over. And I walked and looked and I walked and looked. It occurred to me that I’ve been doing this my whole life.

I will not see a monkey, but a guacamaya will fly over my head and let fall a scarlet feather, which will spin in circles around my vision until I catch it. Any my boys will not be carried out to sea and my life will not be over. With hazy vision and the slow realization of distance, of shoreline walked, they, too, will return.


When I first walked into this house, I didn’t see clean or dirty. I saw fixable or unfixable.

I saw how all the kitchen appliances leaned in, doors waiting to fall open.

I saw where the owner, in a fit of drunkenness, painted the stairwell, some parts whitish, other parts a greenish brown, like the Mississippi at its weakest, dam water running over.

Where the moulding was missing from the frame around the basement door, I saw the jaggedly cut drywall. I knew the feel of the score, the fold, the snap, and the final cut with the dull blade of a utility knife.

I knew the dry rot. It was outside, under the patio door, hidden behind a 1×4, and sealed over with bathroom caulk.

It is natural, this dry rot. It is expected. It is the persistence of water. 

There are the slippery Spring rains, soft and bitter. There are the raucous thunderstorms of Summer. In the Autumn, when our rain coats shield us from having to look at ourselves, the rains bring unexpected sounds, drips of golden leaves.  Soon the snow, water in white camouflage, will press up against us. Decomposition is not fixable.

We hang on in our sponginess, thinking our skin is breaking down because of too much coffee, too many cigarettes, that we give up on occasion. We think that, like the kitchen appliances, we lean in to listen and see, freely open our doors, because we’ve become more welcoming, more interested in others besides ourselves. We think that the way our veins pop out on our hands, like the screws on the kick plate under the patio door, is because we’re so good at laboring, consistently busy and being helpful.   

The only reason any of this matters– the appliances leaning in, the jagged skin of drywall, the kick plate under the patio door popping screws– is if the plan is to make this house your permanent home. I’ve got other ideas.