Gray October

One morning in October, after two months visiting family in Washington, I prepare to drive back to California.

Against a slate sky the trees are an ombré of golds and reds that no longer fully hide their branches. They will stand bare once the first heavy rain arrives, but by then I will be gone.

On this morning my car becomes a well-played game of Tetris. A suitcase, two duffle bags and the final boxes from storage are packed in tightly. Numerous childhood items fit where big items can’t, including a considerable amount of stuffed animals – so many that I’ve placed them on the front seat with a blanket over them, a makeshift bed for my canine travel partner.

There is a wooden footstool, a small child’s chair hand-painted with white and blue flowers at each leg, and a rather large toy barn that would not be here if it didn’t fold down flat. I’ve tried to make myself donate it but can’t seem to let go.

I am no monk; my vehicle attests to this. Fitting anything more into the car would be akin to a phrase my Kentucky grandmother used: “like trying to stretch a gnat’s ass over a barrel.”

The footstool in my backseat once belonged to her but has been mine for many years. She died when I was barely seven, one of four grandparents who I did not know. My insular family lived thousands of miles from other relatives and, in retrospect, often seemed to avoid a good chunk of our extended family. Perhaps we lived far away from everyone else for the same reason I now live far away from my Seattle home; maybe it’s in my blood to run.

My other mémère, from Quebec, is said to have held me in her arms when I was a baby but of course I have no memory of that. Two decades after she died someone found a trunk in her attic with lavish beaded gowns and a photo of her as a young woman standing naked in the Caribbean. Because of this and the ease with which we place unfamiliar people on pedestals she is my favorite grandparent.

The time nears 9 a.m. on this mid-October morning. I’ve put the dog in the front seat atop the stuffed animals, checked our snacks, checked our water supply and we are ready to go.

When leaving a place there is a moment—subtle, but significant–in which a person standing outside a car pauses to look around one last time, then gets in and shuts the door. I am deftly aware that this moment is a transition from one world into another. I will never understand those who do not pause.

And here I am in the midst of that moment, standing beside my driver’s door in the fall air and taking a look around. My breath visibly surrounds me before fading away like finger-streaks on our wintry kitchen window when I was a child. I think of breath as a piece of us that stays after we are gone. Maybe mine will settle into the soil or find itself on the wind, carried up to swirl in front of my mother’s window where she is lying in bed.

I get into the car and close the door.

The first time I made this journey was eleven years ago, twentysomething and with a new college degree. I’ve driven this route from Seattle to San Diego several times since, each time further removed from the past and aware that one day it will barely be there at all, which will likely leave me half relieved and half empty. With the last of my things in the car, I wonder what I would like to keep and what I would like to leave in the mirror that I wipe clear with the sleeve of my jacket.


Crescent City

Eleven years later, I still think about the girl on the beach.

January 2011: I am two days into my move from Washington to California. The drive is gray, dreary. I reach Crescent City and it is raining heavily. Northern winter rain. Something you only understand if you have been out in it or at the least watched it through a window. Perhaps one time you rolled down the car window and stuck out your hand in it, palm against pummeling water, and after that you might never again have felt right about calling precipitation. Such a gentle word that is.

I leave the highway and cut through town toward the ocean. At the top of the path to the beach is a child’s bicycle, streamers blowing sideways in the wind, which begs the question of who else is ridiculous enough to come here in this winter storm. Yet there she was, skinny driftwood in her hand, tracing a dragon into the sand.

She speaks to me as though we are peers, although I am then twenty-four and she must barely be in middle school. “I come here every day and I draw either a horse or a dragon,” she says as if I have asked her this question (which I have not) and then informs me on how Chinese and Japanese dragons differ from one another.

Both of us are drenched. Rain persists. She signs her name above her finished dragon, then traces a large circle around it, all the while running, exuberantly chatting on.

I tell her I used to draw horses, too.

And then, there on the first day of my new life in California I take a photo of her beside her dragon. She poses with childlike, unabashed pride. A moment later I am back in the car, back on the highway. I will not see her again.

Eleven years later I am deeply rooted into adulthood, a career, budgets and bills, an aging parent. But every now and then I think of her.

I want to go back to that day and tell her to be an artist. That anything else is a lie.

I want to tell her to take her dragons and her horses and stable them where they cannot run away.

I want to say this to anyone who will listen.


Shiny Objects

To the left of my piano hangs a painting of a Chincoteague Pony. My father bought this for me just before I became a teenager, so I did not appreciate it then but I do now. It was painted by a local artist and sold for $250 at a cafe by the beach near to where I grew up. This is what I remember being told about its origins; I was young when he gave it to me, and sometimes our memory changes our truth, but I think that I have recalled this correctly.

The painting is behind glass, so when I sit at the piano I can see my face reflected in it. I often look over and watch my silhouette as I’m playing and think about how long my hair has grown or what angle my jawline is taking or if my posture is straight. I hate that I look at myself this closely, but it is how I have gotten (climbed) to where I am–such ruthless attention to detail, such heightened awareness–so I find that I simultaneously appreciate this part of myself.

This is not the first piano that allowed me to see myself. At twelve years old my parents purchased a black lacquered Yamaha that was for many years kept against the living room wall nearest to the front door. I could sit at the piano bench and look directly into its dark gloss finish and see my face reflected, like looking into a tinted mirror or opaque window.

Once I became a good pianist, I could play the keys and watch my reflection at the same time – meaning that, simultaneously, I heard what was on the inside and saw what was on the outside. If this sounds intimate this is because as a girl it was, and as a woman still is. I am today no less fascinated to experience myself in this way, to discover what is reflected in my music, in one way and sometimes two.


Elegy to a Maple

Going home this summer, I found the fence torn down halfway along itself, the same fence that divided our yard from the neighboring plant nursery – that I climbed over on one particular night with a childhood friend, and we wandered through an acre of potted trees taller than us and startled wild rabbits and I distinctly remember looking up at the stars, and in the veiled night felt the air of magic that children feel before they become adults and enchantment becomes something entirely different. And this night is what inspired Girls in the Garden, which is about trespassing onto another’s property after hours but is also very certainly about more than that.

And so last summer, upon returning to my childhood home during the same month we signed over our family’s property of 30 years to a land developer, I walked through the opening in this newly fallen fence and further into my backyard than I had been in years, to an aged and giant maple that like the next door garden I once personified into a friend, and in my memory still do, but at the time of this writing I don’t believe the tree still stands.

On this day I approached my Giant Maple Tree with hesitation, and I believe this is why: sometimes we wait to touch something that is good, because the sooner something begins, the sooner it also ends.

But of course I did touch it, because that is why I went to see it: to say goodbye. I put my palms on its moss-grown bark in the way a daughter touches a parent who is soon to die. I did not want to take my hands away.

I put my forehead against its trunk, the way a tired woman leans her face into a man’s shoulder. Who comforts who in this moment I do not know, but would like to believe it can go both ways, whether you are a woman or a man or a tree. Regardless, I did not want to take my face away.

I asked that they wait until I leave – until I flew home – to cut it down. Who wants to watch death.

The boating ropes we’d tied to it more than twenty years earlier were still wrapped around the trunk the day I pulled out of the driveway and watched my childhood home and the Giant Maple Tree disappear as we drove up the hill to the airport. Those ropes, once upon a time, at one end held the seat of a swing where my younger self would sit and sing as loudly as I wanted on the back half-acre.

By now the ropes must be gone, and of course, the tree too. Now I hold in my memory the branch that, for the span of at least one childhood, supported a comfortable swing for a young and awkward girl who for many years believed in the magic of her yard.

And now I must turn my face from its shoulder. Now, I have taken my hands away.



At the feet of mountains, meadows and shores I turn from busy-minded woman to awed servant of our earth. I breathe the pines smelling like childhood camping and hold to mind valleys cradling cloud shadows in the afternoon, once in Montana and another time in New Mexico. 

I know now: that the still of a mountain lake arrives twice daily, at each end of the light; the embrace of everyday grass under bare feet; the change in the air that signals an ocean is a few miles out of sight; a love affair that, next to humans loving one another deeply and intimately (the only way worth doing it), most makes apparent life’s worth.

Love and land. Currency of choice, given the choice.

A stretch of road once led (still does) through northern New Mexico toward Colorado. Such flat, open ground is good for the mind. It doesn’t change at every turn; it doesn’t make you work to maneuver through it or ask much of you but to hold reasonable speed, if you like, and keep one eye out for the pronghorn.

If arriving somewhere new at night, then you are not yet there. The exploration begins in the morning, when the sun rises to reveal the surroundings. The evening before was merely counting a series of freeway exits, unpacking the car and falling into the bed or chair or arms of wherever your inner compass has taken you.

“I began to feel I loved the land and to know that I would never forget it. There I would go for long walks alone. It was alive, I was sure of it. I wanted to identify myself with it, to lose myself in it.” – Jean Rhys

(written in 2014; edited for