Pissarro Family Legend

We are allowed to love ourselves.

We are allowed to show up. We are allowed to take the compliment even when we fall short of our own standards.

We are allowed to determine the standards.

We are allowed to talk about how hard it is to love ourselves. We are allowed to enjoy our own simple company. We are allowed to release our grip. To revel in the small days. To have just one or two good friends.

We are allowed to think of our family, whatever its shape, as worthy of a crest.

Continue reading “Permission”


Plant Anyway

corn shucking.jpg

He  drops his backpack by the door and heads out. Whether the temperature hovers at freezing or rises to a swelter, he and his friends find each other. Sometimes I block the way and steer him back to his violin for a round of scales. The neighborhood kids bang on the door every three minutes, “Is he done yet?” They loop around the breezeway on bikes and scooters. A few come up barely past my knee. A few are already shaving. When he’s free, they all charge off down the hill, hollering ever-changing rules to an ever-evolving game that winds through this labyrinth of stairwells and parking lots.

I shut the door and head to the kitchen to rinse out the lunch containers.

Divorced at 37 and still single at 43, parenting a surly tween, stuck in the suburbs, jammed into a 5-story development abutting a freeway, and working a desk job for a paycheck that barely covers groceries while a white supremacist and a Russian oligarch run the White House.

Continue reading “Plant Anyway”

This New Day


The suffragette whites hung at the foot of the bed.  In the jacket pocket, I’d tucked a gold wedding band belonging to one grandmother and a pair of gold earrings from the other — the last Christmas gift she gave me before she died.  Both of these women were born before the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

In their lifetime, my grandmothers earned the right to vote.  Even so, they didn’t have a chance to see a woman run for president.  One probably wouldn’t have marked Hillary’s name.  The other — a little blue dot in bright red Texas — would have. I wanted them both with me on election day 2016. Continue reading “This New Day”

Drink Loose the Noise

What young self didn’t know was that cool is a lid that screws down tight on the swelling delight of yes.  From the edge of her ancient eye, older self notices women in the dark corners of the bar bouncing in their seats.  Girls titter near a post trying not to sway — girls who are surely women but seem so far from their fullness.

The dude in an oversized plaid suit and orange ponytail hollers into a microphone while the bassist ducks his eyes under his fedora and yanks on steel strings.  Two spaghetti-armed boys blow brass right through the back wall.

Older self stands and strips off her sweater.  She steps toward the unnamed sister, the one in a cherry red tank top and spiked gray hair. She touches her arm and draws her onto the space in the center of the room.  The worn Persian rug there is a far cry from a welcome mat, but carpet is no great challenge.  Years earlier, she sent her young selves scurrying off to road-test every surface. Concrete, rooftop, mountaintop, pier.  Boardroom, waiting room, snowfall, bed.  Every floor is a dance floor when it’s time to dance.

It’s always time to dance.

She pops her hip and snaps her hand, beckoning to the one across the room who’s been having trouble sitting still.  They are three now.  Soon they are five.  Soon nine.

Low ceilings press in on the battered cafe.  Amateur pencil sketches hang crooked the walls. Light shifts and a gleam slices across the bowl of the saxophone.  Soon it’s a glittering ballroom.  Soon the pulse of the Cotton Club on a Saturday night.

The wall of dudes collectively holds confines itself to straight faces and non-committal postures until one man, pushing 70 easy, steps into and sheds 10 years. The young women form a ring of cool, turning their taut backs out for protection.  The rest shimmy and grin knowing there is no outside and no in.  Guarding one’s soft parts is a survival skill for certain,  but the older ones have learned the taxonomy of danger.  They can differentiate battlefield from playground now.  It wasn’t always so clear.

Here, the belly is free to roll towards the snare’s smash and crack.  That’s lightning for sure, but older self unfurls anyway inside the grounded body of her scars.  She twists the lid loose and drinks the song’s bright rain.  She is growing older still.  Time is running out, so she runs out into it.  She fills her bones until they spill over with dance.



umbrella house

It was easier when the heroes were prophets. They stood just far enough forward that we had to keep moving to keep up. We had to lean in to hear. That was when tyrants wore names like uniforms. Good and evil faced off across chasms and we knew better than to tumble between. We stood firm on our side. Myth grew us a chorus of muses. They sang in every shade of green.

Over across the way, it was hard to make out anything but ruin. Rumor had it someone had salted the earth. The restoration was a long way off. We knew we could only build a bridge after the villains had been vanquished. Even if we could arrive sooner to begin the purge and planting, would our comrades welcome us? Would they even recognize us?

Instead, we wrote our letters to kings and their ministers. We marched in a small but mighty throng to the houses of power. Memorizing the choreography of revolution in playback, we rehearsed scenes for battle. It was easy to believe we mixed with warriors when really we danced our masquerade on daylit streets, aping others in costumes crafted as artfully as our own. We called our theater change.

When we braided dense strands of “oppression” and “hegemony” and “injustice” into our script, we heard only echoes of assent. It was many years before anyone would subject our terms to scrutiny. Anyone we respected, anyway.

We had no idea what was coming.

Inside a TGV we didn’t remember boarding, we sliced through one decade. Then another. We barely registered the motion. Through the dark glass, who can see the land screaming past?

We crossed bridges someone else laid. They were there all along, we come to find. But only later. Only after disembarking where some natives had stars on their bellies and some had none. Allies were naked and bundled in robes. Strangers smiled with knives in their teeth. The rich were kind and the givers were tired and the children still hadn’t learned the folly of human taxonomy.

We expected the destination to be promise made flesh. In our imagining, lush jade pushed up through the cracks. Our steady and earnest struggle would spill open the soil from below. Redemption was to grow from  the efforts we seeded;  whole forests slaking their thirst on the faith we poured into everything.

We find our way more tangled in steel cable now, more carved into concrete, than it ever was. Or maybe just as much as it has always been but far more than we let ourselves believe.

Trade offs are trickier. It is no longer clear how to weigh need. Pushing or pausing? Security or truth? The children of our tongues or the children of the world?

The work we do to shelter what we planted draws our hands ever farther from the fertile soil tucked deep beneath the bed. Love is a 20-sided die. We cast it every morning and it may come up indictment or diversion, servitude or freedom. It may douse a flame. It may call us to action. The day saturates us with its hope. The clock burns us with its light.

We do small things now, hoping that the net around our meager garden hangs together with some kind of coherence. The strands sag away, break, twist into the seedlings. We take them up and bind them to any loose corner. For now, the best we can do is collect stems and bits of string to sustain the perimeter around what we are called to cultivate.

Meanwhile, our tired hands crave surrender. Sometimes we succumb to the indifferent churn of earnings and health and construction and obligation and a thousand small exchanges between a thousand anonymous neighbors. It is too easy to point to the absence of a point, especially when the heroes have vanished from the line of sight. Very few of our people now hear the pulse of our quiet rebellion. We let so very few of our people lean in to listen.

We are reluctant to to reveal to anyone the cacophony of whispers. A way exists. It is possible to stride to the front and lead. Sing your way home. We know but pretend otherwise. We’d rather conceive of heroes as other than us.

Yet the beat hungers to twine like fingers of ivy around limb, stalk, flower. Around anything that will expand its reach and accompany it on its journey. It aspires to become rhythm rising to a hum, to gather into a resonant, endless, breathing chord.

It is for that fecund but silent pocket of promise that we must till and sow the small things. We must keep joining edges and feeling for the tiny vibrations. We  must fill chasms with life. We must turn a larger plot of earth and harvest a bounty that can feed tomorrow’s ragged, bellowing mouth.

Image credit: Umbrella House is a co-op in the East Village of New York City run by former squatters. Photos and full story in The New York Times.

Border Guard

Stone Eye

Suddenly frightened by her hatred, she said to herself: the world is at some sort of border; if it is crossed, everything will turn to madness: people will walk the streets holding forget-me-nots or kill one another on sight. And it will take very little for the glass to overflow, perhaps just one drop: perhaps just one car too many, or one person, or one decibel. There is a certain quantitative border that must not be crossed, yet no one stands guard over it and perhaps no one even realizes that it exists.

 – Milan Kundera, Immortality

Here we must trust ourselves that the weight we feel is real.

Yes, it is only one milligram at a time. The increase is almost imperceptible. Those who want our resource will claim there is no change. They will suggest we are just anxious or imagining things.

When a true accounting gives evidence of the creeping escalation of our burden (and depletion of our stores), they will change course. They will try to convince us that we can handle the accumulation. They will flatter us that we are strong and our capacity is limitless.

Nevertheless, like any vessel, like any ecosystem, we do indeed have a threshold. If demands on our time and attention swell unchecked, the increase will become unbearable. We will have to pay the cost of the load, every pound of it.

So we must stand guard over that quantitative border and measure choice in terms of consequence. We must prepare ourselves for cunning maneuvers and seductive story lines. When we enumerate potential gains and losses, they’ll say that life is random, that we never know how events unfold. Things will change in ways we can’t predict or even imagine, hasn’t it always been so?

This argument is compelling. We’ll rethink history and wonder if perhaps complex forces beyond our control actually got us here. It will start to seem more true than our limited experience, more bearable than our uncomfortable insight. We might let that reasoning turn our focus away from what sits heavy on us.

The idea of unforeseen outcomes is a relief, really, and it will nudge us towards acting on whims and allowing brighter lights to guide us. We want to give ourselves permission to let things “just happen.” It would be unnecessary to identify the source of our unease. We’d be justified in skipping the difficult questions. We’d be free to dispense with complicated endeavors like seeking truth and living with integrity.

We could take a break from sowing discord. We could be agreeable and well-liked.

For these reasons, we are wise to be wary of any implication that our perception is misperception. We have to be suspicious of those who claim our attempts at setting limits are misguided and likely fruitless. We have to ask, How do they benefit when I ignore my instincts?

When I surrender to “fate,” who wins?

Only when we are able to articulate the choices in front of us can we make explicit trade-offs. This requires courage. It needs us to give voice to our intuition even as it is taking shape. With the careful inventory we’ve taken, we can decide what resource to tap and where to yield. We can consider how to fortify our depleted areas before we give over or take on.

But if we let the delusion of unlimited capacity carry us headlong into more, we will find that what we believe to be permanent is actually far from guaranteed. The repo man will come to collect something much more precious than we would have ever parted with by choice. It is up to us to claim the choice at the moment of the exchange or — better yet — well ahead of it.

We have the power to bargain with intention. We can be effective in planting and cultivating what we value most. This is true as long as we retain agency over our body, our time, and our determination of what’s worth saving in this beloved world.

Image credit: Horoshi Ito, I Know You