I have always thought of this week between Christmas and New Years as a sort of Holy Week. Once Christmas is over, and everyone relaxes, you can sink down into the protective darkness, creep off into a corner by the wood stove with a new book and a new notebook and dream your way into the new year. I protect this week. I rarely make plans. I want to stay home, make soup, take down the Christmas tree, and see what’s stuck in my mind after a busy year. I long ago gave up going out on New Year’s eve. Starting the year hung over is not what I want. I want to read and write for a week, maybe have a nice dinner as we head into another calendar, and wake up clear headed to take the dog for a walk on the first morning of the year.
This year, it’s all been both a little darker and a little more restorative than usual. My mother died in mid-December, bringing to an end a long story of love and enmeshment, addiction and flight. And my beloved’s mother is also failing. She fell at Thanksgiving, and while her bone is healing, something has fundamentally broken in her being. A lifelong battleaxe, she does not know where she is, or why, or understand that if she eats, and does her physical therapy, she can go back to her apartment and her husband. Himself was out there for a long ten days, and on the night he came home, while he was in bed asleep, recovering himself, my mother died. We’ve been passing sorrow between us, trying hard not to both succumb at the same time. We’re both cracked open, and luckily, so far, we’ve been able each to rally when the other is sinking. It was a very quiet Christmas and we’re headed up to White Sulphur Springs on New Years day. We’ll go for a hike, take the waters, go out to dinner. Shore ourselves up to launch into a New Year.
The shock of hearing my mother die over the telephone has been profound. I’d been on the phone off and on all night. She’d gone in with COVID, finally infected, probably during a medical procedure the week before. We thought she’d be fine. A few days of antivirals, some antibiotics for the pneumonia she seemed to be brewing, something to treat the GI infection she also seemed to have. And then the calls started coming. Can we intubate? Do you want us to respect the DNR? Should we try to do an emergency bowel repair? No I had to keep saying. She has a DNR. She won’t survive emergency surgery. And finally, the call from the nurses in her room as she was failing. No, I had to shout. No chest compressions. They held the phone up to her ear as I said goodby. Two nurses, a doctor, and her friend were there. She didn’t die, as I’d so often feared, on the floor of her apartment, alone and afraid in the middle of the night. She was in a lighted room. There were people holding her hands. I am grateful for that.
I’m also grateful that I have a beloved partner who I could wake up and tell, climb back in bed with, who held on while my teeth chattered.
At the end, my mother weighed 85 pounds, wizened from a lifetime of smoking two to three packs a day, a lifetime of drinking vodka beginning at breakfast. Her coffee table always had a vodka, a cup of black coffee and sometimes a glass of fizzy water going at the same time, her giant ashtray overflowing. Her great loves, vodka, and cigarettes. And self pity, the fuel of addiction.
She was very funny. Even at the end she was witty, and rebellious, and she went down giving a full-fledged finger to all the forces of the universe who wanted her to behave. Including me.
And yet, no one knew me more deeply. Drove me crazy most of the time, but it was true. I’ve gone to pick up the phone half a dozen times, to call her, and tell her how sad I am, how deeply deeply sad. I miss her, my albatross. She was the last immediate family I had left (my father is alive, but he moved to Prague 30 years ago. I get an occasional email).
And so I flew out to Kentucky, where she’d lived for the last 8 years, and my cousin Adam and his wife drove out from their farm in Missouri with a horse trailer, and we waded through the absolute, shocking and horrifying filth in which she lived to pack up whatever was left that was worth saving. So much was broken, and ruined, and lost. There was some art, much of it her own, and a big family portrait, random silver from her grandmother’s generation, the last generation when the family was wealthy, and a few pieces of nice china. And photographs. All the photo albums had fallen apart, but we packed them in boxes.
The rest went in the dumpster. There’s no cure for consumerism like cleaning out someone’s belongings. At the end, it’s all just stuff. In her case, stuff coated in a thick layer of nicotine, and grime, and the incontinence she shared with her 17 year old blind poodle. Adam took the dog.
I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to navigate the rocky shoals of my mother’s addictions, and I only mention the filth, and the toll it took on her body as an antidote to layers and layers of denial that come with addiction. If there is a reason I’m so devoted to naming the truth of the world and the situations in which we find ourselves, it is because I had to fight my way out through a jungle of half truths, of untruths, of stories made up on the spot because they were better than the truth, funnier or softer or put someone, usually my mother, in a better light than that of the truth.
Give me a hard clear truth any time over that fog.
My mother had a tough go of it, but that she chose, time and time again to waste her considerable creativity, her talents, and to evade responsibility for herself and for us will remain one of the central heartbreaks of this lifetime. She was enormously talented. She struggled with depression her entire adult life, and never recovered from our father leaving while our youngest brother was dying of cancer. That Dad bankrupted himself a year later didn’t help. She got herself stuck in that self-imposed identity. It was her addiction to that identity, as much as her physical addiction to both cigarettes and alcohol that came to rule the last several decades of her life. We all offered to help. So many people offered to help. But she chose, over and over and over again to refuse help. And it is that choice for which I might never be able to forgive her.
That said, we were in a good place. We had long periods of estrangement, but as it became clear she was in her final descent, there was no point being angry anymore. She was what she was, and that it ended as easily as it did is a blessing of magnitude. We were good. I’d just been there for a visit. She’d been to a family wedding she longed to attend. She’d made up with my cousin, her lifelong favorite and had seen a child she loved married to a nice boy. The health effects were piling up, her money was running out, and she was staring down the barrel of another winter, a season when she always struggled with depression.
It’s a difficult thing to lose a parent, but a tricky thing to lose a problem parent. I will miss her terribly, but I will not miss worrying about her. It is a great weight off my shoulders, that this story is done, and that it ended as well as it did.
And so, as I come out of a deeply restorative week of mostly watching junk TV, and getting to know my book manuscript again, I’m grateful to be heading into a new year with a clean slate. I’ll be able to concentrate again on the job I like so much, and I’m looking forward to having the headspace to do some good creative work there. I like the first chapters of the book manuscript, and can see a way to progress with the next section. And I’m glad I’ll be free of my own tangles of family trouble so I can be there for my love, who with his brothers is facing the daunting prospect of their mother’s ongoing decline, of worry about their father, of their own family story to complete. It comes for us all, this part, but that doesn’t make it any easier, or any less complicated. No matter how many people you have lost, each one is only ever itself.
If I’m ending this year on an image, it’s the pebble laid on the gravestone, that humble reminder that we were here, that our beloved dead were here, and that we’re all doing our best to get through what we have to get through. May we do better next year.
I went back to Chicago at the beginning of the month for the funeral of my dear friend Posy and on my way to the beach for a swim, I discovered that the Henricks house, which they sold a couple of years back, had been torn down! These poor worker guys were a little bewildered when I came flying into the driveway in my rental car, and leaped out, aghast.
This is what the house looked like before:
One part of growing up with a lot of social capital and zero money is that you largely grow up in the houses of other people. This house belonged to two of my mother’s friends, John and Bonnie Henricks, and for most of my 20s and 30s, if I went home for Christmas, we stayed at the Henricks. They went to California to visit Bonnie’s mother, and since my mother lived in a small apartment, they had her to “housesit” for the holidays. I cooked countless Christmas dinners there. If I was home other times of year, the Henricks put me up as well — I remember coming home one night in my mid-30s, after going out to dinner with friends, and John and Bonnie calling out from their bedroom to come say goodnight. There they were, in their PJs, watching TV and I stopped in to give them both a kiss and tell them about my evening. As I went down the hall to “Debbie’s room” (Debbie had been married and the mother of 3 for at least 15 years at that point) I thought that that must be what it’s like to have parents, “normal” parents, the kind who wait up and want to say goodnight. It was lovely.
They sold the house because they’re in California full time now, and only one of their kids lives in the area and didn’t want the house. It was a lovely 1920s house that I’m sure needed some work — the bathrooms were old-fashioned by today’s standards, and the kitchen could have used an uplift, but like I said, I cooked many many holiday meals there and it was absolutely fine. But it’s on the bluff above the beach, on a prime piece of property, and it looks like someone had it torn down so they can build something bigger, with whatever ridiculous great rooms and double kitchens people are building now. I’m still a little sick about it. The waste if nothing else.
But if there’s anything that going home for the funeral of an octogenarian will remind you, is that we’re all on a one-way journey. Nick Cave’s recent Red Hand Files posted while I was home, and it seems apt:
It seems to me that the common agent that binds us all together is loss, and so the point in life must be measured in relation to that loss. … These losses are many-faceted and chronic, both monstrous and trivial. They are losses of dignity, losses of agency, losses of trust, losses of spirit, losses of direction or faith, and, of course, losses of the ones we love. …We are capable of the greatest atrocities and the deepest sufferings, all culminating in a vast, collective grief. This is our shared condition.
It was a privilege to be included in what was a very intimate service for our friend. As her kids said, it had to be either 100 people or 1000, and they chose the smaller number. Gathered under that tent were people of great wealth and privilege, along with Posy’s staff who built that garden with her, ran her house, and did the caretaking at the end. It was probably about half and half numbers-wise. But what bound us together was that our grief was collective. We all knew one another’s losses. We’d walked together through most of them. To know and be known like that, to have been there for one another’s joys and babies and weddings as well as for the divorces, and the rehabs and the inevitable decline of our parents, it is a privilege to know people for so long. There were people in that tent I’d known since we were in playpens together, and some, like Posy’s daughter, and her nephew, who I remember mostly as babies, although they are grown people now with their own children.
I’m no longer much of a practicing Catholic, but I believe in ritual, especially when it comes to death. Like the firemen who drove three days up from California for my brother’s funeral, calling often along the way to tell me where they are, and then turned around to drive back, I believe in going to the funeral. This funeral was lovely, and I got to spend time with my cousin Elizabeth, who I spent a lot of my 20s with in Taiwan and then Telluride. She brought her mother, Genvieve, who was one of the people who told me, in no uncertain terms at a time I really needed to hear it, that I was not to waste any more of my life trying to save my mother from her own disasters. Genvieve is a little scatty these days, but very much herself. Like the zen koan, she is her original face all the time now, even if some of the details are a little off. I’m deeply grateful I got to see her one more time.
And so, I suppose there’s something iconic about losing the Henricks’ house as well. I never had the kind of family home to mourn. I can’t even count how many houses I lived in before I left home for good, between divorced parents, it’s in the double digits. To see that house gone, reduced to rubble like that, was heartbreaking. But so is losing Posy. So is knowing we’re going to lose Genvieve soon, and my mother, and my Aunt Daphne. When you start to bump up against your 60s, you’re going to lose the entire generation above you. Which leaves just us as “the grown ups.” And we’re all in agreement, that we’re not sure we’re up to the task.
But then again, neither were they. We have their example (for better and worse), and all of our kids are getting old enough now to need different kinds of advice. We’re past the days when a scoop and a snuggle and a kiss and a bandaid could stop the tears, when a shouted warning could keep them from jumping off a high rock. We’ve got the next generation falling in love and trying to figure out what their talents are and how they’ll use them and up against the terrifying reality that there are people out there who would hurt them.
That we have one another is the key. That’s why you buy the plane ticket, rent the car, get an AirBnB and show up to mourn together. That’s why you go to the wedding (and kids, this is why your parents friends who don’t really know you want to come to the wedding — because it’s a collective joy, when too often we’re just going to funerals). That’s why despite everything, and how weird it was to be the poor one, to grow up as a sort of foundling in other people’s houses, that’s why I’m grateful for this intimacy. We know one another. And that is a gift.
I have finally found a good spot. It’s along the path where I walk Hank, an eddy deep enough to dive in, and wide enough to swim around a little bit. Because it’s an eddy, you don’t get swept downstream, and because I am no longer young and lean, I can finally, float.
I was a sinker all the way through my childhood. I was a sinker during the years I led rafting and canoe trips. At summer camp, they lined up on the pier to watch me fail the backfloat. The camp director, head of waterfront, head of swimming and a couple of other random counselors. Arch your back they said. I did, and sank in a graceful curve, feet first, landing on my tummy on the sand at the bottom of the swimming area. Hold your breath they said. I did, and sank sank in a graceful curve, feet first, landing on my tummy on the sand at the bottom of the swimming area. Spread your arms out they said. I did, and sank in a graceful curve, feet first, landing on my tummy on the sand at the bottom of the swimming area. I’m the only one ever to get my Polliwog basic swim award without floating.
Swimming was a race against death. Could I get to shallow water or the other side or something I could hang onto before I sank?
When I started teaching again, I joined the campus gym because there was a pool. Despite being a sinker, I like swimming. You can do it slowly. It’s good for hands and shoulders frozen from too much typing. One afternoon, I was doing my usual slow crawl across the deep end, when I realized I was floating.
I rolled over on my back to test it.
I was not sinking to the bottom of the pool in a graceful curve led by my feet. I was just bobbing there. At the surface. Floating! Who knew?
Floating in the Yellowstone on these hot afternoons, with Hank-dog worrying on the shore, has been an balm. The water is shockingly cool when you first dive in, then lovely. The sky is blue. The cottonwoods are green. The boaters are all on the other side of the river where the boat ramp is, so I don’t have to worry about someone crashing into me.
I never stay in very long, but for several minutes most afternoons, I take a long moment just to float. To let the water hold me up. To look at the sky.
I realized earlier this week that if it’s August 2022, then it’s 20 years since I managed to fool the bank into lending me money to buy this house.
I never thought I’d have a house. Houses were what my parents lost. Once the baby got sick and they split up, once Dad went bankrupt the first time, then it was a steady slide down the economic ladder. First to go was the fifteen acre horse farm, then the house in Lake Forest, then the condo in Madison, then even after we moved in with Dad it was one house, then a smaller house, then a series of apartments in Chicago until finally he fled to Prague and was gone. There was no home. We were always moving out of one place we couldn’t afford and into another, smaller, more precarious one.
By the time I finished my PhD and moved to California to live with my surviving brother Patrick, we were both in our 30s, both still reeling from the chaos of our childhoods, but we were both determined to figure out why we were having such a hard time getting launched in life. And so we teamed up, with that as our goal, and after rooming together for four years, we felt like we’d made huge progress. We figured out how to live in a house with someone you love. We figured out how to discuss things that needed discussing without waiting until there was a crisis, then screaming and crying and throwing accusations around. We hosted holidays. We paid our bills. We each made real progress in our careers.
But I wanted a house. I wanted a house the way other women my age wanted babies. There’s an image from my childhood, one of those summer weeks we’d been sent to our grandmother’s farm, and it was hot out, and she’d sent us off to play in the barn. I came in to get something, and found her upstairs in the library at the top of the landing, in a chair, with her shoes kicked off and her feet on a little footstool, reading a book. It was probably a mystery novel. She loved them.
It seemed like the ultimate luxury. Your own house, where you could, if you wanted, go sit in a chair by a window and read a book in the middle of the afternoon. By yourself. It lodged in my head as the thing I wanted above all others. A place of my own, where I could put up bookshelves, and start a garden, and read a book in the middle of the afternoon.
It was pretty wrenching to leave Patrick to move here, especially when he lost his job 2 weeks before I moved. And while I was a little bit conflicted when he wound up here, once I got him out of my basement and into his own apartment, it was ideal. I loved him. He loved me. It was time to split up if we ever wanted a chance of meeting actual romantic partners, but I was so relieved to have him around. For one thing, he was way more social than I am, and so I could draft along behind as he made friends all over town. I always had someone to meet up with at Happy Hour. We settled into a routine – he’d come walk the dogs in the morning, then we’d have coffee, and most afternoons we’d meet up for a drink on the porch. We did dinner together a few times a week.
If it’s been 20 years since I moved here then it’s 19 years this fall that Patrick died, driving drunk, late one night after an Art Walk, when he was coming out of a bad depressive episode. His death is the defining event of my adult life, no matter how much I wanted to believe that it was something I could get over. You get used to it. You move forward. But it’s always there.
I bought this house myself. There was no family help to be had. This is the house my little novel bought. I got a second job as a visiting writer at St. Mary’s college, and put that money aside. Livingston wasn’t chic yet, and I found this house, put 5% down, put a new roof on so the bank would give me a mortgage, rewired it, and took what felt like a gigantic risk putting the moving truck money on my credit card. I got here with my noisy calico cat, and spent three days sleeping on an air mattress in my empty house, sure someone was going to burst in and tell me to get out! what was I doing here! go!
No one threw me out, and I dug in, and built a home. I have bookshelves. I have actual furniture (I didn’t have a bed that wasn’t on the floor until my very late 30s, so this too feels like a real accomplishment). I have a lovely garden shed room where I write, and yes, have a comfy chair with a footrest where I can read a book any time I want to (well, I also have a full time day job). I have a garden, and a dog and two cats and at the moment, two chickens. I have a lovely man to share my life with, and a pack of children who are subject to my very active Auntie-ing. I have a community here, even if pandemic and my own dislike of small talk means we haven’t seen as much of one another the past couple of years as we might have liked.
I did it. I built the life I wanted. How many of us get to say that?
That it’s been twenty years seems weird to me. Maybe it’s the garden, maybe it’s the cabin and living with someone who is very much a creature of the seasons, but it all just seems like the same time. Circular more than linear. Milestones come back around, and we pass them one more time. Here I am again, starting seeds, harvesting tomatoes, putting up plum jam. It’s a good life on my tiny plot in the middle of town.
My house is the center of a set of concentric circles. The house, the garden, the town — the Paradise Valley, the Absaroka range, the Gallatin range, Emigrant peak at the base of which is the cabin Himself built, and where we spend so much time in winter.
I’m not a lifestyle writer, and I’m deeply suspicious of the internet genre where well off white people show off their houses/gardens/cooking in a way that implies that everything is basically okay. We’re in the early stages of a catastrophic planetary climate change, with the political and economic chaos that comes along with that. Previously unimaginable floods, fires and droughts are reconfiguring where and how we live. Pandemics are going to continue. Hot and cold wars are exacerbating the effects of these unnatural disasters. And people in power are using all of this to convince us all to fear The Other. There have been a few small glimmers of political hope in recent weeks, but as for all those calls to “go back to normal” that’s impossible. There is no more normal. Normal is a country none of us live in any longer.
However, I think it behooves us all to carve out our little place, whether it’s a physical space or a place within our artistic and literary and online communities. For me, having a tiny spot where I can live on the earth, with my hands in the dirt, is probably what has saved me. But I’m lucky that my patch of dirt is embedded in this community of people, folks I know I can rely on because I’ve seen \ over and over again, how everyone rallies when there’s trouble. There was my disaster when people walked into my house that first night, refused to leave me on my own, and stayed for years. We’ve done it over and over again for so many here. Twenty years means I’ve cooked for ailing elders, for funerals, and have made the frosting for so many little-kid birthday cakes. I’m not as good as I should be about showing up for readings, but that we have so many is a blessing. And when that big flood hit this spring, the neighbors all gathered on the street to make a plan, and pitched in afterwards to help out those who’d lost their houses and their businesses.
I love my house more than is probably seemly. I’m trying to push back against the creeping agoraphobia that is a family trait, especially in older family members, because I know that as much as I love my house, and as happy as I am within these walls and this garden, if anything’s going to see us through this disaster that’s unfolding, it’s mutual aid, it’s community. What turned this building into a home is not the decor, it’s not paying off the mortgage, it’s not even the garden — it’s the people and the animals and the landscapes in which this house is situated. That’s what makes it my center, the place that grounds me at the bullseye of all those concentric circles. It’s not the building it’s the relationships, relationships with plants, and with animals, and with my fellow travelers in this odd little corner of the world.
May we all be so lucky. May we all find ourselves homes.
Our houses weren’t even close to being touched by floodwaters, but I am once again grateful for Geology 101, the course for non-majors at Beloit College, where Prof. Stenstrom drilled into our heads that we should be geologically aware when buying a house. My front yard is 4 feet above the sidewalk, with a concrete retaining wall, and the alley drops off steeply about 2 houses down hill from me. Even if the levee hadn’t held, I’d probably have been fine.
However, others were not so lucky. Our neighbors on the east end of town were inundated. The water came up so fast and high that it submerged the highway at Yankee Jim canyon, a place where the river is usually 50 feet below the roadway. A large building that housed multiple Yellowstone National Park employee families washed away, after the river ate a full 90 feet of frontage in just a couple of hours. And our neighbors over in Red Lodge suffered catastrophic losses at 2 in the morning. Their whole town is ruined.
For decades now, I’ve been telling people that if you’re going to have a disaster, Montana is a good place to do it, because people not only pitch in, but they have skills. There have been brigades of folks helping the flooded — doing the dirty work of pulling out soggy carpets and floorboards and drywall. As the waters were coming up, the road crew working in the canyon just south of town, which floods even on a non-catastrophic year, were bringing in loads of gravel and volunteering their heavy equipment to help berm people’s houses.
The water still came up. The last major floods were in 1997, when the river topped out at 37,500 cfs. This year it hit 60,000. Damage was done. The two northern entrances to the Park are going to be closed for at least this season, if not for next. This will have devastating consequences for the people who live here. I’m not sure how everyone will survive.
What has struck me from people who don’t live here, is the impatience. The morning after the flood, there were tourists in Gardiner calling in helicopter services, not even willing to wait to see if the waters would go down, to see what the road would look like. As it turned out, they were able to drive out about mid day. We’ve had folks who have reservations at our vacation cabin calling and emailing Himself, wanting to know what the situation is, if the Park will re-open. He keeps telling them we don’t know yet, we’re still in the middle of the crisis. However, he does keep reminding people, there is plenty to do in the Paradise Valley, and you don’t have to sit in a traffic jam all day to do it.
When is it going back to normal, they keep asking. We’ve been in this endless loop for the past year, since the vaccines came in, this endless loop of pressure to “return to normal.” There’s all this social and media pressure to return the world to what it was like before the pandemic, to the globalized, superheated economy, to a world where workers were “happy” to commute to soulless office parks every day, where Starbucks workers weren’t unionizing, where everyone pretended we don’t know what the working conditions inside Amazon warehouses are like. Where you can fly across the world on a whim for vacations, where entire industries exist to give you a neatly-packaged consumer experience of “going to XYZ.”
Until there’s a flood, and the road washes out, and your sacred itinerary might be thrown off because the world still exists. The physical world in which, astonishing as it is, a canyon can flood so deep that the road is submerged and you can’t get out. People panicked. They couldn’t even wait in a safe place with food and water and a community who rallied to take care of them, they couldn’t even wait 24 hours to see how the situation was going to play out. They were frightened and offended that the actual physical world was impeding their sacred right to a vacation.
And like those tourists who didn’t want to admit that the road was flooded, that the actual world had intruded on the experience they thought they should be having, so too with the rest of us. There is no more “normal.” If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s how fragile our house of cards is. Viruses, wildfires, tornadoes, floods, a planet where we currently have more C02 in the atmosphere than in any moment in recorded history. We can’t “the economy” our way out of this one.
If we’re smart, we’ll start inventing new normals. New economies.
Normals that normalize not commuting, that normalize distributed systems of work and energy and leisure. With any luck, we’ll start inventing new models where “economics” and particularly the economics of neoliberalism, are no longer the prime value. I’m beyond exhausted by politicians and talking heads (and “libertarian” dudebros on Twitter, although I mostly have them blocked) nattering on about “the economy” as though it’s the only value that counts.
One thing that’s been striking and inspirational to me about the Ukrainian refusal to bow to Russia’s invasion is how the entire narrative of that war has kept the focus on life. Human life, animal life, the life of their fertile farmlands, the life of vibrant cities. None of it has been couched in the language of money and “the economy” and what it’s cost Ukranians to have large sections of their country bombed into smithereens. The cost has been dead children. Dead people. Dead animals. That they have not allowed themselves to become inured to the assault on life itself.
The circumstances are utterly different here, although we did see the Montana response we rely on. Everyone helped out. My neighbors and I were outside making a plan at 10:30 at night, when the police were telling us to evacuate. They have little kids, who were asleep. We’re all up on this little bench. “Bang on my door in the night if you need to,” I said. “We’ll go across town to my friend Nina’s house. It’s empty, and she’s got 5 kids, so there’s plenty of beds.” Word got out that the river was slopping over the top of the levee and people showed up with flatbed trucks full of sandbags and warm bodies to keep passing them along, piling them up against the unbelievable force of the Yellowstone river, running at THREE TIMES the normal flood level. They kept it from breaching. Word got out that the animal shelter was flooding, and the swift water rescue guys got in there, rescued all the animals, and people found them temporary lodging. And the next morning, crews of volunteers arrived to strip out wet carpets, crowbar soggy drywall, and start making a plan to rebuild.
I moved here 20 years ago for a number of reasons, but among them was climate change. I wanted to be someplace where people have skills, and where they come together in a crisis. That’s what we saw this week. I just hope we can be smart enough to take the right lessons from all of this. That what’s important is life. That what’s important is community, and cooperation, and making sure our neighbors are okay.
This stretch of ditch I’ve been walking the past few years is empty now. The headgate was turned off in late summer, and the water went down slowly, but surely, until now it’s dry stone and snow.
But there’s water in the distribution box. I normally stop there at the end of our dog walk, say the Heart Sutra, and look down the ditch to the Absaroka-Beartooth range rising in front of us. Some days I have to try to muster up some hope, other days, it’s all so beautiful I can’t believe I live here. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.
As the water receded, I started to see fish in there. Some mornings I’d lean over to peer into the darkness and the whole surface went ashimmer with tiny minnows. Other days it was big fish, ten or twelve inches long, lurking in the darkness. Knowing there were fish in there comforted me somehow.
A couple of weeks back, Hank found a small dead buck in the ditch. Hard to tell whether it was hit on the highway and managed to get this far on adrenaline, or whether coyotes took it down, since most of it’s hind end had been eaten. It had a nice little rack on it, so I took a picture and sent it to Himself. About ten minutes later, I got a call. “Where is it?” he asked. He came by on his way back into town and cut the antlers off. It’s not quite horn season yet, that is, the deer and elk are not yet dropping their antlers as they do every year, but he’s been watching the bull elk up on Emigrant through his telescope, keeping an eye on “his” bulls, hoping to get the antlers when they drop. All spring he walks the back country between his cabin and Yellowstone park, stalking the elk, looking for antlers. You can sell them, but mostly it’s the finding them that’s the point.
In the morning, over coffee, I watch him scan the mountain for elk through the spotting scope. We like just watching animals being animals. And then once in a while, if we’re lucky, he’ll spot a wolf. I worry about them this year, since our right wing state legislature declared open season on wolves. They’ve made it legal for folks to shoot 10 wolves AND to trap 10 more. So far, 15 Yellowstone wolves have been killed just outside the park by folks people who set out bait, and snare traps, or wait with lights and guns ready. Himself gave me a set of cable cutters for Christmas, because of the snare traps. You can maybe get a dog out of a leg trap if you keep your wits about you, but there’s no release mechanism on a snare. So now I get to dog walk with a heavy cable cutter in my pocket, and hope for the best. For my dog and for the wolves.
Like so many other incomprehensible things this year, it feels like all I can do is to try to protect myself and those I love.
Maybe that’s why as the year ticks over, I keep thinking about the distribution box. It’s frozen now, and we’re into the season where trying to walk out there at all depends on how bad the winds are. We’ve had a couple of weeks of 40-60mph winds/gusts, and even bundled up in a lot of wool and down, that’s a brutal dog walk. But tucked up in my house in town, with the wood stove going, and the cats and dog asleep around me as I write, I keep thinking about that square hole. I’m notoriously bad at estimating distances and volumes, but my guess is it’s six to eight feet deep where it emerges from the underground pipe. Even cold as it’s been, I don’t know that it would freeze to the bottom. If you’re burying pipes around here, they need to be six feet deep to be below the frost line, so I like to think there’s some water down there in the bottom. There would be protected water up in the pipe as well, and some air that’s insulated in there too. I like to think there’s just enough cover, and just enough algae and insect larvae in there so those fish can overwinter. I like to think of fish down there, their metabolisms and heart rates slowed down, hunkered at the bottom of this odd square hole, waiting for spring.
We’d hoped to do Christmas this year, all together at Nina and Elwood’s house like we have done for years now, since the twins were born. They just turned 17. We spent a lot of last week sending college essay drafts back and forth across town through the intertubes. But Covid hit again. The 21 year old and I didn’t get to cook together because she tested positive while visiting her boyfriend in Canada. She’s still there. You don’t need the rundown of how crazy it all is. If you’re reading my newsletter, you know. Covid is running rampant again, the suburbs of Denver are burning up in late December, and as I’m writing this, the new breaks that national treasure Betty White has died. Everything is still a lot out there.
And so I’m thinking of that square black hole in the middle of the Paradise Valley with a few fish lurking inside it, protected by concrete and ice, by six feet of earth on top of a corruguted iron pipe set into the hillside to prevent erosion.
I’m thinking of my house, and my woodstove, and my garden and my sense twenty years ago that I needed to find a bolt hole, needed to find a place I could pay off, a place I could grow food, a place I might hope to be safe. And I am. We’re fine. We have one another and enough firewood to get through the winter. We have so much food in this house, because when I get scared I buy more dry pasta, and beans, and rice, and olive oil.
Winter is upon us, the New Year is about to tick over, and for me at least, this time of year is when I dig in and use the darkness to read and to write, when I make soup and order seeds, when I sleep a lot, knowing that summer is coming, with long days when the sun doesn’t set until after nine. I have no idea what’s to come as we all sail into another year of climate crisis and pandemic, civil unrest and wildfires, but like the fish in that square hole out there in the middle of the valley, I’m going to duck and cover, muster my resources, and hope we all get through another winter.
Thanks to all of you for reading this year, and may we all be well in 2022.
In part it’s because I got headhunted for a new job — I’m back in the corporate fold, with nice people and a real salary and actual benefits again. But it’s also Been A Lot. Learning new things, meeting new people, getting my feet underneath me. So here we are. There was a lull.
The other thing that happened is that we went on a small exploratory trip to the West Coast. It was so hot and dry all summer that I was jonesing for the ocean. Which is amusing since I am terrified of the ocean and all its inhabitants. But I do love big crashing waves, and cold rain and moody grey skies. All of which we got. We arrived just in time for the first “atmospheric river” storm, and it was very dramatic. There were waves sending spray 30 feet into the air, vistas where all you could see was miles of giant white swells heading toward shore, and rain. Lots of rain. Soft rain. Driving rain. Everything in between.
I drove out first and had a little visit with my stepmother in Seattle and then Himself flew out to meet me. We took the ferry over to Bainbridge, then drove the Olympic peninsula. We stopped for a minute in Port Townsend, and had a nice walk at Ft. Worden, but we weren’t that interested in a bougie arty town full of retirees. That’s what Livingston is turning into, much to our sorrow, and one of the reasons we were on this trip was to see if there’s anyplace out there that seems promising. We spent the night in Port Angeles which was more our speed — slightly run down, with pretty buildings, but once you get out of the historic district it gets bleak pretty fast. It reminded me of the minor Rust Belt towns where I went to college in the 80s. It was one thing in town, but there was another kind of bleak out in the strange countryside of the Olympic peninsula. It’s slash and burn country out there. Anything that isn’t explicitly protected by the National Park has been logged hard, then replanted as monoculture plantation. We’d pass an unnecessarily brutal clear cut, where the mountainside was just a mess of slash piles left behind, only to turn a corner and drive down corridors of uniform plantation pine for miles.
And then you’d come around a bend, or drop down into a river valley and the whole forest would open up. “The real forest” we took to calling it. It’s open, and while there are giant trees, they’re not all the same, and there are epiphytes growing up in the canopy and tree ferns bigger than we are growing on the forest floor. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, and heartbreaking in that it only exists in these scattered pieces, pieces in which you can feel the pressure from out there, the pressure from those who are jonesing to cut it, to cut the last bits of it, to cut it all. The drumbeat of rapacious, extractive capitalism is strong on western coast of Washington state.
And then there’s the Trumpism. You’d come out of the Real Forest, into a stretch of plantation pine, you’d come around a bend and there would be a little settlement, homesteads with trailers and old vehicles and junk that had just exploded across the property. There’s nothing wrong with living in a trailer, and Himself is famous for collecting Useful Bits and Old Things. That wasn’t what we were seeing. We were seeing the fury of failure out there. Trailers with a leaking roof no one had bothered to fix, that had a tarp thrown up on top, and no one even had the energy or drive to keep the tarp on the leaking part of the roof. And all of it, festooned with Trump signs and flags and messaging. In that really manic, crazy way that it seems the worst, least competent, most angry white people in America are currently manifesting. It was not good.
Since we’ve been back I’ve been reading Amitav Ghosh’s new book, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis. I’ve been banging on about The Great Derangement since it came out in 2016. When I was in grad school at Davis, Elizabeth Tallent was telling us about a story the New Yorker had rejected, a story that had a miscarriage at it’s heart, but one that happened off stage. The male editor had returned the story because “nothing happened.” He’d been blind to the nothing that had happened. “Who decides what a story is,” Elizabeth challenged us. “Who decides what stories matter?” One of the things I struggled with for years in fiction was trying to figure out how to tell the collective story, the story of a group or community. I think of To the Lighthouse when I think of this kind of story, a story where the actions and perceptions and feelings of the entire group are really the subject. Where every perception pings off another character and changes things, even slightly, for everyone. What I loved about The Great Derangement was how Ghosh took on the core trope of the Western novel, the Hero’s journey, the story of a single protagonist, and demonstrated how this is an explicitly Western trope. And that it’s part of the same story of the white man triumphing over “brute nature” that lies at the heart of the extractive capitalist mindset that has led us to our current fix. He’s written several wonderful novels about how capitalism played out in Asia, how it impacted those communities, how some people got rich and some got run over. I love those books in part because the perspective is so different.
The Nutmeg’s Curse feels like a natural extension to The Great Derangement. Ghosh begins with the disaster that befell the Banda Islands when the Dutch East India Company discovered they were where nutmegs came from — nutmeg, a spice that until then was rare, and expensive, and traded through a number of hands, traveling by sea and by land from Banda through Asia and finally to Venice, where spice traders had controlled it’s high price for centuries. It was not yet a commodity. It was a lot of things, a spice, a rarity, a fetish object to show off your wealth. It was also not controlled by any single entity. It was a trade good. Until the Dutch East India Company discovered that it originated in the Banda Islands, a small cluster of volcanic islands in Indonesia. They sailed out there, demanded a monopoly over the nutmeg trade, and when the Bandanese objected, they killed them all. 1621, just as the same thing was happening in the Americas. But what’s so compelling for me about Ghosh’s account (and also so compelling about his fiction) is the perspective. It’s an Asian perspective. This is not the story of Europeans “discovering” the world, this is the story of those who were already there, trading their valuable spice in any number of places, including throughout Asia. They weren’t “savages” — they were prosperous, rich even, and they had towns and ships and trade relations, they were embedded in an existing network. Ghosh writes from the perspective of a people who were not treated like trading partners, or even like human beings, but who were brutally subdued by the forces of European capitalism who murdered them, traded them as slaves, and commodified them the way they commodified the nutmeg.
Ghosh uses this story, and the Bandanese attitudes toward their volcanic homeland, to introduce the question of terrestrial sentience. What if the earth itself, is alive? What if the earth is a protagonist? How does that effect the way we think about the climate emergency we’re in, the ways that we’re all complicit in extractive capitalism and colonialism? Part of the thrill of the book for me, was seeing Ghosh pull together work from writers I’ve been reading a lot of the past ten years: Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, Jason W. Moores, Bruno LaTour, Tim Morton, Robert Macfarlane. Jed Purdy … writers who are doing the work to show that these forces are not “natural” but are social constructions that allowed certain actors to seize power and resources and wealth and to continue to do so for the past five hundred years.
I had a classics professor at Beloit (who I’ve written about before), and John used to look at us, his classroom full of well-off middle class American kids, kids with prospects, and he’d say “You know, for five hundred years Antioch was the center of the known world. It was the trading center. It was the center of power. It seemed as though it had always been there and it would always continue to be there.” He’d pause, write Antioch on the board, then turn to us with that twinkle in his eye and wry smile and say “And now it’s just sand and ruins. It’s gone. Sub specie aeternitatus.”
I also think of Ursula LeGuin’s great last speech when they gave her the National Book Foundation Medal. “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”
One of the things that has been so upsetting these past couple of years about what’s happened to our home, is that it’s been commodified. It’s being wrapped up and packaged and sold as the answer to any number of dreams: the dream of living in a wild place, the dream of living among artists, the dream of living in “small town America” complete with God Guns and Flags. There’s a lady across the street, who seems perfectly nice. She moved in over the pandemic, because her daughter and grandson were also living on this block. The daughter is selling, and I expect she’ll be gone again soon. They didn’t move here, to Livingston. They moved to “an arty western town.” They moved to “Montana.” I’ve spent a lot of the pandemic looking at inexpensive houses in the French countryside, dreaming of living out my final decades in a place without Trumpsters, with good bread and cheap wine, in a language I’m not entirely fluent in so I can’t be as bummed out by the inevitable right-wing prejudices of my neighbors, the ones I’ve displaced by buying a “vacation home.” It’s the same thing, really, the dream that there’s someplace “out there” where everything will be better. It’s the central dream of America, and especially the American West. It’s how I got here in my 20s.
So we both felt a little weird about heading out to see if there might be another place. We actually didn’t really admit to ourselves we were doing that — it’s just a vacation, we told ourselves. And yet, every town we drove through, we kept an eye out. Could this be a place? And as we passed from the hostile degradation of the logging lands of the Olympic peninsula down through the tourist zone of the Oregon coast, a place that was spectacularly beautiful but also warped by the idea that it’s a location whose value lies in scenery and pleasure (see also all the tourist economies I’ve lived in in the West since I came out here in my 20s), it became clear that no, there isn’t another place, at least not there. It was all just different manifestations of the same problem we’re dealing with here.
Which I suppose is why the Ghosh struck me so deeply when I came home. We all keep asking: where would we go? And despite the robber barons who are buying up ranches and building bunkers, the answer is that there really isn’t anyplace to go. We’re in the places we are. Its one thing that’s so unsettling about this emergency we’re in. It’s everywhere. It’s the arctic on fire and tornadoes ripping up the Ohio river valley and a global virus.
And so, we came home. Neither of us grew up here, but after decades, this has become home. We have a community, even if it’s fraying, and our older community members are dying. We have bits of land in which we are deeply invested. Himself has been walking the public lands of the lower Paradise Valley for nearly 30 years now, hunting horns in the spring. Where are we going to go where we have that kind of connection to a place?
And yes, I realize we’re colonizers on this land. Land that belonged to the indigenous peoples and which was absolutely stolen from them. If we’re lucky, we might sneak through to the end of our days without the new rich stealing ours from us via that age-old practice of raising property taxes until holdouts have no choice but to sell. “Freeing up” property, they call it. We may get fucked. I mean, we’re all going to be fucked in the next few decades, especially since it’s now abundantly clear that a very large proportion of the American public has no intention of changing anything in their lives. I don’t have any great hopes for this next transition to go well, nor do I think we’re necessarily safe in our corner, with our friends, and our little patch of land.
But I think that for now, the answer for us is not out there.
The weather finally broke. Yesterday was all clouds and soft showers. Today is the same. We had a couple of small frosts in September, but for the most part, it was more fire weather. Hot dry days and wind. So dry that watering doesn’t really work anymore. The last few weeks, I’ve just been survival watering. Trying to keep new plants alive, trying to keep trees from dying. You can feel the water evaporating as it comes out of the hose, puddling up on ground that’s gone hard as clay.
According to the local paper, we’ve had 8.36 inches of rain this year. Normal is about 11 inches. Neither of those is enough, which is why our agriculture, and our gardens, rely on irrigation. The ditch above probably has a day or two of water left in it, it’s been going down steadily the last few days. I’m pretty sure it’s been turned off at the headgate. The Yellowstone is all gravel bars, lower than I’ve ever seen it this time of year.
Despite being ready for it all just to end, being impatient for snow, an impatience along the lines of “burn it all down” but in this case “freeze it all” — despite that, my nasturtiums came in so late, the weeks of 100 degree temps put them in suspended animation for most of June and July, just little 2 leaf sprouts, neither dying nor growing — they came in so late that I wanted to draw them out, revel in the their perfect green and gold and orange and deep red. So I got out the old sheets, the long white frost tarps, and swaddled the nasturtiums, the cosmos, the last of the tomatoes. Monday we’re due for snow, so I expect this weekend I’ll be pulling the tender annuals, piling them in the compost, shovelling chicken-litter-straw into the raised beds to protect them for winter, to add organic matter to the soil.
It feels a little tiny bit like some of the pressure of the summer is lifting. We still have the worst COVID infection rates in the nation, but folks seem to be back in masks in the store. The worst of the tourists seem to have dispersed, and the traffic to my morning dog walk is not fraught with so many people passing multiple vehicles at one time. The hunters will be here soon, but we’re in that brief moment between seasons, when we stack wood, and I put up preserves, and we get ready for what should be six or seven months of snow and cold weather.
You can feel it sometimes, when the pent-up energy starts to break. I got headhunted for what looks to be a really great new job, with people who have been so welcoming and nice that even someone as skittish about corporate life as I am is feeling hopeful. Himself sold a house he bought 20 years ago and has rented long term ever since — it was his version of saving for retirement, and so now there’s a little cushion, which is making us both breathe easier. And we’ve got a tiny vacation coming up — a few days drive around the Olympic peninsula, down the Oregon coast. I’m not an ocean person, but I’ve been desperate for cold and fog and big crashing waves.
And my book has a shape. I fought to write a piece for weeks this summer, before realizing I’d already written it, that I had it in a draft I’d discarded. Turns out it’s all pretty much there — a skeleton of a book, with 60K words, most of which need a rewrite, but now that I can see them, can see the shape of the thing, well, it’s another reason to look forward to winter.
All the big problems are still there, as the world as we know it cracks at the seams, but for the moment we have a little breather. I walked this morning, and while everything is still dry, there’s a lovely wet fog hanging in the grass. I came back with wet boots, and a wet dog. We have a moment to stack the wood, and dry the mushrooms, and stock the freezer and hope that the healing snows we need descend on us soon.
My cousin called last night from Telluride. “Remember that year you sent mushrooms to me in New York?” she asked. “That was so amazing, and I was so busy that year. We’re having the best mushroom season here in ages. Can I return the favor?” I told her yes, I’d love that. I said we’d finally got some rain, and I’m seeing social media pictures of mushrooms, but I’m working too much to get out in the middle of the week, and it’s too crowded on weekends. I’m under water on about six different fronts just now.
“What do you want?” she asked. “I have boletes and chanterelles …” I asked for mostly boletes, with some chanterelles, and then we caught up on our aging parents, her kids, her plans for fall, and all the other stuff that family catches up on. We don’t talk as often as we should these days, but there’s something so comforting about a conversation with someone you’ve known all your life, and in our case, we spent our twenties together in Taiwan and Telluride.
It got me thinking about the restorative power of a day spent hunting mushrooms, and since Culinate, who originally published this piece, are no longer around, here’s an older essay I wrote about how walking very slowly through the woods in search of mushrooms saved my health in grad school.
The Walking Cure
About three years into my doctoral program, my health broke down. The low-grade fever I’d run for a couple of years — a fever I referred to as my Victorian Illness, for its lack of specificity and its ability to render me prone on my futon, propped up with a novel like some swooning maiden — finally blew up on me. My entire mouth erupted in canker sores.
Because the regular doctors at my Utah university’s clinic didn’t have any good treatment for either the canker sores or the Victorian Illness, I wound up in a traditional Chinese-medicine clinic in a strip mall. There, I was told that the problem was “damp heat” and “mental overstimulation.” I was told to rest, to eat broccoli and beets and brown rice, and to not eat sugar or coffee or garlic or spices.
I was also told to walk. Not on a treadmill in a gym, but outside, in nature.
Since I couldn’t concentrate enough to get any work done, I took this advice. It was early fall, just after the monsoonal rains had swept in across the desert and rescued us all from the crushing heat of summer, and some nearly forgotten part of me could feel that there were mushrooms growing out there. I remembered that someone in my department had said that she’d found boletes up in the Uinta Mountains on the Wyoming border. So I got out my map and found a small road out of Kamas that looked like it’d take me up to the top of the plateau. About 90 minutes later, I parked at the trailhead and — after stuffing my daypack with a mushroom book, a trail map, some water, and a sandwich — I got out and started to walk.
I wasn’t hiking, exactly. “Hiking” implies a more vigorous activity than I was up for. I was still exhausted. I still ran fevers on and off with some regularity. I didn’t have any energy, I couldn’t concentrate, and although the canker sores had mostly healed, I lived in a state of constant vigilance, terrified of a return of that painful eruption.
So when I got out of my car on that rainy Wednesday afternoon, I was really hoping that I wouldn’t run into a group of those cheery, athletic types Utah is so full of. I’d been outdoorsy in my 20s — leading canoe trips, working as a raft guide, ski bumming, rock climbing — and now I found myself, a decrepit 30-something in a 10-year-old jacket, stopping every 100 yards or so to rest.
But mushroom hunting rewards the slow and the halt. Mushroom hunting requires very slow hiking. It requires that you pay attention. It gives you a reason to creep through the woods, stooped over like the prematurely old woman you feel yourself to be. It also gives you a reason to just look at everything: roots, rocks, leaves.
And after a while, you start to see that what looked like a weird yellow leaf is actually a chanterelle. And then you notice the other chanterelles around it. And then you’re seeing mushrooms everywhere. One minute it’s a bare forest floor, the next it’s covered with mushrooms you couldn’t see before. It’s eerie. It makes you understand why there’s so much folklore linking mushrooms with fairies and magic.
When I began hunting that first year, I only really knew how to identify oyster mushrooms and chanterelles. I’d never found boletes before, but I’d read enough to know those were what I was really after. King boletes (Boletus edulis) are also known as cèpes, porcini, Steinpilzen, and, in England, as penny buns for their round, toasted-brown-bun appearance.
The key to the boletes is that, instead of gills, they have spongy-looking masses of tiny tubes on the undersides of their caps. This makes it exceedingly easy to tell if you’ve found a member of the genus. There are many boletes, including the slimy but wonderfully named Suillus tomentosus, but once you’ve found a real cèpe, it’s unmistakable. There’s just something about the heft of one — about the bulbous stalk, about the toasty color of the nice dry cap — that makes a king bolete memorable. And it does look as edible as a penny bun at a bakery.
I spent a day or two a week up in the Uintas that fall. My Chinese acupuncturist was right; getting out in nature and walking started to cure my Victorian Illness. True to form, I felt like a character out of one of those books, like Mary in The Secret Garden, who was cured of her sickliness by fresh air and everyday contact with the earth. The smell of the damp forest, the rain on my parka, and the clean air did the same for me.
By the time I got sick, I’d been locked in a small studio apartment for a couple of years, living almost exclusively inside my head. The irony was that I had holed up to write a novel that takes place entirely outdoors, in the mountains of California’s Desolation Wilderness area. At the same time, I was engaged on the academic front in a fierce battle with a number of literary, ecological, and religious theories. My brain had been spinning like a gyroscope for months.
Getting out of town, getting in my car and driving for an hour and a half up to the top of that plateau, getting out into the actual physical world — a world of smell and taste and touch — did me as much good as anything could have. Mushroom hunting was both meditative and active; I got some very moderate exercise, and I was forced to pay close attention to something other than words on a page.
Mushroom hunting brought me back to my body and allowed me some mastery of that most basic of human skills: finding and preserving food. I’d come home from the mountains and my mushroom meditations would continue as I cleaned and trimmed and put up my bounty. While I stood at the sink, rinsing, trimming and cutting chanterelles into chunks, I had a chance to think about how the woods must have looked to my characters, who were searching a different terrain altogether, but who were nonetheless spending their days walking slowly through the woods looking for something, too.
I sautéed my harvest until all the liquid cooked off. It gave me a chance to just slow down and watch something cook, a chance to slow down and smell something delicious, a chance to slow down and know that I was going to have enough Ziploc bags of chanterelles in butter stashed in the freezer to see me through the long winter to come. The porcini I ate fresh or cut into slices and strung on thread in my kitchen to dry. My little studio apartment smelled all woodsy and mushroomy that fall as, slowly, my health returned and I managed to finish my doctorate.
Sometimes life tells you the hard way that you have to pay attention. Sometimes life rises up and smacks you in the mouth and reminds you that you need to learn to feed yourself, that you need to learn to feed your body and your soul and that you are a part of nature. For me, this was the lesson of the Victorian Illness: that my illness was a symptom of a life out of kilter. I healed myself by walking very slowly through the woods, looking for the delicious things that nature has provided for us. It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me, the questions I’ve asked as I’ve moved on to other places, other jobs, other homes: Will I be able to walk outside in nature every day? Is there a chance I’ll find a delicious surprise?