On Birds and Change and Hope

We were both barely awake. I was not deep enough into my first cup of coffee and Ben's Monday morning eyes told me it would be slow going to make the bus on time. It had been a very full weekend and the remnants clung to both of us as we tried hard to work ourselves into the day. As I slid open the patio door to let the cats out on the deck, a lone robin warbled and it felt like a bit of hope. Despite everything that is true today, this bird was singing and for months to come birdsong will soar above the normal morning music of coffee percolating, water running, and toast popping. 

"Did you hear that mom?" he asked.

I nodded and he went on. "You know how they go away one by one and you just sort of forget because you get excited about the first snow and you don't think about the birds being gone? And then they come back slowly and you remember what you missed? I missed the birds."

Ben is 13. His voice is changing and the hair is appearing on his face and legs. He's dropped holding my hand, sharing a book before bed, and sometimes he even forgets to say goodnight. The kid who always wanted to "be" wherever we were suddenly wants to be elsewhere. I don't tell him I notice these things. I don't tell him I notice how the bedtime routine, once the hallmark of my evening, has gradually disappeared into the ether of  "when you were a kid'. I don't tell him I feel each loss a bit more acutely because a pining mournful mother is not what a son wants. 

What's that they say?  Eeeewww!

I also don't tell him I like that he noticed the birds. Instead, I let his words hang in the air with the birdsong and my heart seems to double in size. His observations and how freely he's given them have always been a gift to me. As his body changes and his brain works to keep up with the pace, I know these verbal riffs might also become rare.

And so I do what I've always done. I sit in the moment, I let my heart regroup, and then I smile.

He looks at me and says,"At least we know they always return, right?"

Ah...that is the hope, I think. 

Ben has moved on to food and clothes and Monday morning. But not me. Instead, I sit a bit longer in my hope of what will be.


I’ve always had trouble feeling comfortable in my skin. I can trace it back to junior high journals where I write, “I wonder what it would feel like to be at ease.”  I’ve said this at 13, at 21, at 27, at 33, at 41, and I can say it now. For as far back as I can go, I can point to times where I felt squirmy. I can see little moments where it’s like I’m in a bodysuit made for someone much smaller and I cannot get out of it, but I am trying hard for release. Maybe it started with noticing I didn’t look like other girls. Maybe it started with just thinking I didn’t look like other girls. I don’t really know.


Today I can tell you exactly when I started feeling uncomfortable again, sort of off and unsettled. Many people might say election night, but I was a fighter until inauguration day. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to face it. I just wasn’t willing to give up on everything I believed to be true about who Donald Trump showed himself to be. His actions never lied.

There is this life of mine before he became our president and there is a whole new life unfolding after it. There was the life of mature leadership and measured thought and equality and kindness (before) and the life of secrets and lies and manipulation and abuse and isolation (after). I feel whiplashed. I feel like I don’t know my country anymore. I’ve witnessed abusive relationships. I’ve had too much exposure to narcissism. I know enough to know this is bad. This is not normal.


Why divide my life into the before and after? Before I lost babies. After I delivered two children who live (still!). After Andrew died. Before I met my husband. After I got married. After my sister came out. Before I knew steady love. After she got sick. Before depression stole my heart. After the roof caved in. Before the fall. All these moments, big and small, all mine. What is the point in before and after? Is it to see that you really did have the sun and the moon at one time? Is it so that you know when the dawn breaks, it is a gift?


I have been labelled “too sensitive” and “touchy”.  I react and notice and I have a hard time trying to manage all I am taking in. I know my feelings enough to trust the ones that will pass. I know what to write through, walk off, let go. This doesn’t mean I am always good at it.

I was told to release my negativity, that I need to pray to find joy. But there is a far-reaching and treacherous malaise setting in and it’s not just happening to me. I think I am seeing that this is what it must feel like to anyone not white, not born here, not privileged. Finally, I am tasting a microsant of their exhaustion and I don’t mind letting others know that the power of positive thinking is not going to will away the nightmare unfolding around us. This doesn’t mean I don’t see the good and I don’t experience joy. I have cats! But so many are fearful and in pain.I will not be ignoring that.


I think back to my hot pink carpet and lime green bedspread of my seventh grade bedroom. I am sprawled across my bed and  I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is on repeat for me that year. I devoured everything Maya Angelou had written. I know I don’t think about why a chubby white girl from Iowa is drawn into the world of a mute African American girl. Was it the first time I “got woke”? Was this the first time I understood that beyond geography and skin color, our humanity is what unites us?

I am thinking about walking through Anne Frank’s hiding place in Amsterdam. I went there when I was 22. I am remembering the beautiful commode and how unexpected it was to find bright white porcelain inlaid with beautiful tiles. It was strange amidst the cramped quarters, the slanted roof and creaky boards. The tenacity and resiliency of the family in the midst of utter terror seems remarkable. I am wondering if this is what will be required of all of us now.

My introverted husband, peaceful, loving and tender asks, “ At what point do we become physical with our resistance?”

This morning my web browser history has a site I do not recognize. It is called Guns and Gear.

I don’t know anything so I keep writing. I keep asking questions and searching for answers that may not be there. I keep talking and typing towards relief, towards commitment, towards something that looks like a stance, a promise, a protection, a resistance to all that I do not believe in. I keep going. That is all I can do for now. And I won’t “release negativity”when it’s being trotted out on a daily basis for all to see. It’s not mine to release. Somehow, our country brought us here. I certainly didn’t ask for it, but I do know what I won’t stay quiet about what I see as unjust. Because when I am, a different sort of trouble begins.

Freedom is my voice.

I heard a young man say that the other day. He’s in jail for reasons I don’t get to know, but when I asked him why he mattered to the world he said, “Because I have a voice.”  And it’s true. Even in jail, he can use his voice to make his presence known.

I am grateful he reminded me that in difficult times it’s more important than ever to speak up.

I am thinking of him and the daughters he discussed with pride. I am thinking of the music he says he writes in his head when he can’t find a way to express himself. Even confined, he is not quiet.

It’s true I want to remain kind and that I want to treat anyone I encounter with kid gloves because everyone is under some duress. I have no idea how what’s going down is shaping my neighbor’s life or affecting my friend’s children. Or maybe I know, but I can only think about it little bursts. But none of this means I have to be quiet. That, I think, would be the worst thing.


What I Know

It feels like a weird time, doesn't it? Or is just me?

Today marks the 4th anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and too many people in our country have been killed since that day. The lack of movement on this pressing issue baffles me.

The people in Aleppo are being bombarded....still.  

The man we elected to be our president seems to lack compassion for the very people he will be leading and respect for the office he will be taking. 

With all that in the works, I add a friend who is ill and other friends who are caring for aging parents with complex health issues. 

It is freezing in these bluffs of mine. The wind is whipping the snow, which sparkles in a way that seems almost like a taunt. 

Today at my kitchen table, I am picturing a mom like me, huddled in some tiny room with her kids at her feet, trying frantically to text a goodbye to loved ones, so certain is she of her death. 

All of this makes me wonder why am I here in this warm home with a full fridge and enough blankets to share. What is my point? 

I work all of this out with friends or on the trail with my dog or in a private writing group or alone, staring at the computer. 

I am compelled to read stories, the stories of people who turn tragedy into a life that shines not with success but with vitality. I turn to poetry because I am not the first human to turn such issues over and over. How do I live in troubled times and the problems loom large, but I am only one?

When my husband rolls out of bed and hits the ground running, he knows how many people he will care for. Twenty or more people will come through his door for an office visit in various increments of time ranging from fifteen to sixty minutes. He will say through word and gesture, "I am here to help you." That, to me, seems so perfect. He has a record of people he has helped- a tangible list and a paper trail to prove it.

My life looks nothing like that.

I wake up, the pets gather, I drink my coffee and read. I think about what I'm reading and then see if my charges are up. We do the family breakfast dance and scuttle for this and that and after a flurry they are gone. I wrestle with my pages, I make appointments and organize groups of people to do this (practice compassionate listening) or that (speak up about women's rights) and tidy and manage a family life.  

I come back to write and look at my charges who want to eat (again!) and I am grateful I can feed them. I do not have to text my loved ones good-bye. I can heat up the cast iron skillet until it is perfectly warm and place slices of bread buttered just so.The sizzle and pop as the butter hits the pan is a comfort and this is what moves me to tears. The normal of  my life is not in direct proportion to the normal of our world. I am the odd one out carrying on as is.

I care, I try, I seek, I look, I offer, I hold, I look, I resist, I attend, I retreat, I listen, I speak, I move, I rest, I wait.

Does anyone really know what to do in such dark days like these? I carry on believing I cannot be the only one.  

And so I settle on the grilled cheese and a steaming mug of tomato soup. The warmth is something to sink into. It is my offering and I already know the scene so well that I play it in my mind before it happens. 

"Hey sweetie, here's your dinner."

My son will barely look up from his book. He will mutter a thanks and take a huge bite off the corner of the sandwich. He will then blow too harshly across the top of the mug and soup will spatter onto his page. He will wipe it so it smears and then shrug. He will dip the eaten corner into the soup and then wait for it to cool as he dives back into his book. 

I like that I know this, and for now, it is the only thing I know.