Fresh

Fresh.
A raccoon squashed on the New York State Thruway, going west.
It’s bright pink against black asphalt.
Everyone is trying not to run over it again,
Swerving even, to miss it.
Today the raccoon.
Yesterday the cat, dog, squirrel, skunk, opossum, deer.
Endlessly crossing the highway while we try to get somewhere.
Who’s fault really?
There are always more animals.
I heard once that the reason so many skunks lose their lives on the road is because
They have no natural predators.
They start crossing, see a monstrous growling metal animal hurtling toward them,
And they simply stop, turn around, stick up their tails, and aim.
We avoid the messes.
It’s a fact of life for the animals.
What’s one more cat, dog, squirrel, skunk, opossum, deer?
Yet, there’s keening and confusion in the dens and nests.
Junior had only wanted to see what was on the other side.
It was his time to leave the soft needle-lined safety of home.
While we drive around the mess of his mother’s brother,
Eyes closed momentarily to the bright pink death,
Wondering whose job it is to clean that up.

The Problem with No Problem, Part 2

Once I’d glimpsed the Truth about my Self—gotten just a taste of the inherent power I have to create the experience of my life that I want—it radically changed my perception. Suddenly (it seemed), I cracked open. Love flowed out of me and washed over my family, my life situations, my challenges, and even the laundry. I looked at myself in the mirror and literally saw a different reflection. I’ve hated my body since age 9 or 10, but now I looked in the mirror and saw a beautiful, living embodiment. I smiled at my wrinkles and sagging and non-perfection. The miracle of being born a human! It was an ecstatic feeling; not just happiness, but joy. I wanted to shout like MAD TV’s Stewart: Look what I can do! And when I looked at my children, all I could see was the light in THEM, shooting out all over. Kids! We talk about that energy they have and it’s the pure, unfiltered, dynamic, creative force of the Universe. 

I could see clearly when I needed to take action and when I did not; I had no story. I didn’t have to do this because I felt this way (or because someone else did), or because this always happens, or whatever. I could discriminate. Life suddenly seemed easy, simple. I had more energy. I just did things. For at least a week, I was able to eject those old tapes, the deeply held beliefs that no longer served me and clouded my view of things as they are.

I looked at my husband and really saw him, maybe for the first time. A mess in the mudroom was just a mess in the mudroom. Piss on the toilet seat was just piss to be cleaned up. Changing the sheets was just changing the sheets. Setting boundaries for the kids around screen time (and listening to their loud, angry, rude objections) was just that. I thought—Holy shit. This freedom thing is real! And it’s accessible whenever I want it. Nothing else in my life had changed; there were no conditions for this joy. It.Blew.My.Mind.

Then, I got bored.

It set in slowly and insidiously. At first, it was restlessness. I was having a hard time concentrating. I got cranky. Then the old tapes started creeping back in, like smoke from a smoldering fire coming in under the door. The stream of judgments. The self-hate speech. But this time, the messages were so, so subtle, I almost missed what was going on.

What was going on? 

It took me a while to figure this out. In the meantime, I started down the familiar road of suffering. I started down the road of anger and hopelessness. I went down the only fucking road I’ve ever known… [Cue the Whitesnake rock anthem.]

During my week of living from a more open, connected place, my ego started to freak out. It was all like, “What??” When I was simply experiencing things as they were, doing what I needed to do (or not), there was no drama. It was smooth. My emotions rolled along, but I didn’t grab onto them, or try to push them away. The thing is that I’m addicted to the usual drama, or really, my ego and mind are addicted. Without it, my ego was starting to realize that it might CEASE TO EXIST. That I might cease to exist! And that scared the shit out of me/my ego. As a quote on the wall of my yoga studio says, “Enlightenment is the ego’s biggest disappointment.”

What is my ego? It’s separation between me as the subject and everything else out there as the object of my perception. It’s two instead of one: “me” and “my life.” When I felt connected and open, I walked around acting and thinking: “I am.” Just being. But usually, I (we) operate in the world from my ego’s perspective, thinking: “I am … this, that, and the other thing.” And if my ego is the subject—the actor on the stage, thinking I’m manipulating the scene, the “things” of my life—then everything “out there” that is not who I think I am, or what my ego thinks it needs to be “fulfilled,” can be discarded. Thrown away. Or openly resisted against or criticized. The next logical step for my ego is to put itself, and it’s separate, special needs, above everything and everyone else. I’m not just talking about narcissists here. We (I) do this every day, whether we recognize it or not. This is where anger, impatience, fear and judgment come from.

I got bored and restless because, when I was resting in a space of wholeness, my ego’s incessant needs were no longer being met. But that’s the ego’s MO: it always feels incomplete so it looks outside to fulfill its needs.

I was bored because my ego did not want what was happening to be happening. Where was the drama? The excitement? Why was I not spinning those stories that I usually did? My ego, and its accomplice the mind, were trying to convince me that One-ness was bullshit. That it was the illusion. I know it sounds insane, but our ego is hell-bent on maintaining the status quo, even if that status quo sucks and feels awful. As another quote says, “The ego, our limited consciousness, likes to be comfortable in its suffering.”

Comfortable in our suffering.

And the cycle begins. The moment of forgetting, of noticing the boredom and the desire to turn outside again and again for fulfillment, is the moment we can either decide to go inward instead—or snuggle back down into our big heavy down comforter of suffering.

Which led me to this: Who am I if I am not my ego? If I am not my stories and my striving? My “issues” and my emotions? My past? My body? And if I believe that I am already whole and complete, then how do I live in the world without my ego? How does that work?

I was quickly finding that my mind wasn’t the best tool for answering these questions. I needed another way and to take this advice (from a badly paraphrased quote):

“You’ve already been hard like a stone. Why not try something different?”

The Problem with No Problem, Part 1

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Me, going “full yoga.”

I’m just going to go “full yoga” here. I’m tired of being in the closet. For a while now, I’ve felt “bad” about pursuing a spiritual path. And by bad, I mean I’ve felt that it’s a baloney thing to do, an excuse for not “doing” something real, meaningful, and ideally, that makes money or someone else like or respect me more. I’ve felt like this a long time, but I never really named it until lately. Like the last week or so.

First, by way of introduction, here’s a sampling of my reading list over the last decade: Most recently, The Power of Now by Ekhart Tolle,  a few versions/commentaries on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and almost finished a wonderful book called Tantra Illuminated by Christopher D. Wallis. Before this: Zen Mind, Beginners Mind; Living Your Yoga by Judith Lasater; A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield; You Are Here by Thich Nhat Hanh;  The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz; Krishnamurti’s Think on These Things; The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey; The Life-Changing Magic of NOT GIVING A F*CK by Sarah Knight; and Writing Down the Bones, Thunder and Lightning, Wild Mind, and The Great Spring all by Natalie Goldberg. Oh, and Natalie introduced me to two more wonderful books: A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Bones of the Master: Journey to Secret Mongolia by George Crane. Add to this list some others, like re-reading again Donna Tarrt’s The Secret HistoryPalm-of-the-Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata, Departures, a memoir, The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner, Ph.D, Toxic Parents by Susan Forward and Craig Buck, and Not My Father’s Son, a memoir by Alan Cumming.

For the past decade, every time I brought home a new book from the library, or ordered one from Amazon, or downloaded one on my Kindle—it seemed to fit this mold. This mold was what my husband called “self-help.” Even the memoirs could be viewed this way; maybe, by reading the life stories of other people, I would learn something that could change my life. Well, isn’t that why we read them? Anyway, he would point this out to me as a kind of reminder (I like to think, a loving one) that perhaps reading about all this stuff wasn’t quite the same as doing the things these books suggest. And with that remark—which at the time made me want to rip his throat out—my husband unwittingly (or did he?) launched me toward a more dedicated path of spiritual practice.

Who knew? You never know when you’ll meet your guru.

Oh, and don’t get caught up in that word—guru. It just means teacher. Really.

So, I started on the path feeling pretty yucky about it. And about myself. This, I’m coming to recognize, seems to be a common experience. I won’t call it universal, but then again, I’ve been studying the non-dual Saiva Tantra and could very well assert that this is precisely the case. If we humans did not have a limited experience of our selves (small S), we could never hope to have the unbounded, freeing experience of our whole Selves (big S). I would argue that most humans feel yucky about themselves, and not in a depressed kind of way, just a “why does it have to be this way?” kind of way. Which I’ll get to later.

I didn’t study my way into becoming a “spiritual person.” And I’m not just a super fast reader and can read more and therefore am way smarter than you (which is what my 7-year old would say). The books (and yoga asana practice—the postures—I’d been loosely following since my late teens) were merely pointers, sign posts. In and of themselves, they meant nothing. But without them, I would never have had the will to know or seek my own experience of what each author and person was trying to point to.

This year, I started the process of getting a certification from Yoga Alliance to be a yoga asana teacher. It began with a series of immersions in yoga philosophy in general, and the Anusara yoga school’s philosophy specifically. It felt right. It felt natural. It felt like I was doing the thing that flowed naturally from my ever-growing will to know and experience my true Self. Not transcend it, but know it.

Clarity is a funny thing. The moment you open your eyes and recognize reality as it is, everything falls away. It’s the moment you recognize that all the stories you tell yourself about who you are—depressed, anxious, fat, lazy, a bad mother, lacking discipline, alone, mean, never going to amount to anything, a bad dancer, always screwing up, unable to sit still, etc.—are just that, stories.

Wait. What about people who are clinically depressed, with chemical imbalances in the brain? What about schizophrenics? Are you saying it’s all in their head??

Yes. Isn’t it? Aren’t all those diseases originating in the mind and its ability to discriminate between consciousness of this moment (as in, what is happening right now) and some other mode of consciousness, like when we dream during sleep, fantasize about the future, or remember the past? And lacking that ability, the person can’t choose appropriate responses?

Okay, I really have no idea about this, but I threw it out there because it is something I’ve been contemplating a lot lately. Because I have battled depression and anxiety, and suffered deeply from it, over many years. Because I have contemplated suicide. Because I have been looking back into my past for answers and working with therapists too. So yes, I would like to know. But here’s the thing. I am the last person to throw out modern psychology, neurobiology, etc. and have always embraced the idea of mental illness as a disease. I was a fucking Psych major in college, for goodness sake. Also, my brother killed himself after suffering his entire life with mental illness. So I am by no means calling the extreme suffering caused by mental illness a “figment of the imagination”; that suffering is terribly, horribly real.

Yet, I walked into my most recent therapy session, sat down on the little wicker sofa, and told my sweet therapist that “I had no problems.” She gave me a beatific smile and nodded her head, making her tight grey curls bounce. It was a non-verbal thumbs up. This isn’t some kind of Jedi mind-trick, power-of-positive-thinking bullshit. This wasn’t the result of brainwashing by a charismatic (but highly flawed) self-appointed “guru,” or of standing in front of the mirror and repeating positive daily affirmations. Oh, and it wasn’t because I lost that last 5 pounds either.

It was because I simply woke up. I woke up to the fact that at this moment, now, I can honestly say I have no problems (this taken from Tolle’s book, where he asks readers to contemplate this very question). It might be true that my left hip is hurting again, or I don’t agree with my mom about something, or that I got a speeding ticket, or have an assignment due in 1 hour when I really need three hours, or owe the bank money I don’t have: but unless, and until, my mind creates a story around that situation—and labels it “good” or “bad”—there is no problem. There is only the situation, as it is now, and my response to it.

BOOOMM!

Needless to say, along with this freeing insight has come some interesting things I call “side effects” of conscious awareness.

So stay tuned for Part 2, in which I realize that I am Universal Consciousness manifest, my marriage is wonderful, my children are angels of the highest divinity, and I am bored out of my freaking skull…

We Make the House

five-arrows
Cluster of arrows: A symbol of unity for the Haudenosaunee, representing the strength conferred by the nations joining together.

There is a lot of talk about action right now. I marched in the Women’s March in Seneca Falls, NY last weekend: the birthplace of women’s rights. Though there were native men and women there who offered an alternative history of women’s rights (not to mention democracy) in North America. That was inspiring; the story of the “great Peacemaker” of the Haudenosaunee (meaning “they made the house,” referring to the many nations coming together as one) traveling throughout the massive territory stretching from just west of the Hudson River to the Great Lakes and into Canada. The Peacemaker went from village to village, nation to nation, explaining his vision of democracy. A unified community in which all members could have access to clean water for drinking and cooking, fertile land for farming and hunting, and the support of the entire community in their lives—from birth to death. Regardless of status, ability, birth name, location. And they “wrote” these conditions into a constitution, a statement of agreed upon and shared values. But not everyone was convinced.

We stood on the street in Seneca Falls, next to the original Wesleyan Chapel where 200 brave women and men of America set down their list of “Sentiments and Grievances” in 1848. The native woman speaking was standing outside the chapel. The sun was out and it was getting hot; it was almost 60 degrees on January 21st in central New York.

The woman said that there were plenty of people who didn’t like what the Peacemaker proposed. If we agree to provide for all, what about me? What about mine? She explained that among those villages, Clan Mothers of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga and other nations took up the Peacemaker’s proposal. These women spread the ideas to Chiefs in other villages; they talked with other women and men. They listened deeply to their fears. And in the end, these women’s intense presence and support of the Peacemaker’s vision changed the world. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy was born. If you visit the website link, you’ll read this description of the Confederacy.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy has been in place since time immemorial. The Peacemaker was sent by the Creator to spread the Kariwiio or good mind…Travelling from community to community they both succeeded in persuading the Chiefs of each nation to join in the Great League of Peace and founded the only government with a direct connection to the Creator.

I’m not doing this story justice. I was listening—to an Oneida  Clan Mother, a Mohawk-Iroquois author and speaker, and a women’s rights historian and author. A lot of people, I’ll be honest, were texting. Or they were taking photos with their phones, scrolling through Facebook and Instagram, maybe posting a picture or tweeting about being at the march. They were connecting with people who weren’t at the march and with people who were. I won’t cast stones; I texted a picture of the crowd to a friend who was marching in D.C., to my mom, and to my best friend.

But did you read that description? “…founded the only government with a direct connection to the Creator.” I was listening to the Clan Mother and then she said something that was out of the normal cadence of her speech. It kind of broke through.

“Can you imagine if protecting the Earth for all people was written into YOUR constitution?”

Because this was part of the Peacemaker’s vision of government, along with systems guaranteeing representation, protection of rights, and accountability. The foundation of that accountability was honoring the One, Universal energy that manifests in everything on our planet, in the universe.

Can you imagine if our governments were founded on this, and not our fragile, frightened human egos? Our deluded minds?

Holy shit. Talk about a revolution.

I’m worried that right now, people are more concerned with doing something about the political climate than they are about being. We can get involved in all kinds of movements. Unlike some people, I do believe that marching can accomplish something. But it doesn’t accomplish change: we didn’t get a new president, cleaner water, introduce any bills, make anyone happier or healthier. We only did one thing; we marched. That’s it. And next time I am offered the opportunity to march, I’ll make another choice to act or not.

It’s important to act. But how? Do we call congressmen, write letters, protest, make signs, knit pussy hats. What do we do? I hear people asking this. I ask myself this. “I” ask myself this, as if I’m two people. I am two people.

If you aren’t two people, you don’t have to ask yourself what action to take next. There is only one You. It’s the same You that’s your dog, your cat, your son, your co-worker, and your garbage collector. It’s the You that voted for Donald Trump, the You that likes sushi, the You that owns a truck the boasts two Confederate rebel flags on the back. It’s the You that is divorced, drunk, homeless and pregnant. It’s the You who’s none of those things. It’s the You on an inflatable raft in the Mediterranean Sea. It’s the You that your mind is convinced is NOT you.

If you can feel your breath in your belly just once, You will start to emerge. And when You emerge, You will not have to ask “yourself” what action to take next. You will naturally pick up the trash on the side of the road when you see it. You will listen deeply when you want to turn away. You will insist on staying present when you are facing: death, corruption, loss, illness, hate, anger, pain, happiness, boredom. Stay with boredom. Why am I bored? I’m resisting what’s happening now, right here. I get bored a lot.

Another thing the Clan Mother said that rang into my chest and made me tear up. She again stepped out of her speech a little, making this exclamation to the crowd in Seneca Falls (paraphrased as best I can remember):

“We [the Haudenosaunee, the native people and their culture] are not a myth! … And if you are not satisfied with your leaders and have no way to redress your grievances, consider renouncing your citizenship and becoming a citizen of our nation.”

Unlike the war cry of “Two things are certain: We’ll get out asses kicked and We will win!,” made by another speaker, this line got little applause. There was a smattering and some murmurs. Renounce our citizenship? My friend leaned over to ask, “Do they really have their own nation?”

Apparently, this idea was too radical for the group assembled. Too out there.

But I thought about it hard. Did she really want Americans to leave their country in protest? It seemed like she was asking us to give up. Then I read The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle. This book popped into my life in the last year or so; a friend here and there recommending it, an article or other book referencing it. It showed up and I finally read it; somehow it was time. Whatever you think about Eckhart Tolle—is he enlightened, insane, or both?—well, don’t think about it. So I read the book, kind of absorbing it instead. Softening my mind because I didn’t like the title. It rubbed “me” the wrong way.

I finished the book this week, a mere 240 pages, and it hit me that the Clan Mother was saying something even more fundamental when she suggested we “renounce” our citizenship. She was calling on us, collectively, to reject the corrupted and unconscious ego-based world we have created and full on create a new fucking oneCreate one, that like the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, is directly connected to the Creator. The Universal. From whence we came and whither we’ll return. You don’t have to believe me. In fact, don’t believe in anything.

And the only way to create that new world is for each human on this planet to realize their connection to the Universal. From connection comes right action. From connection comes compassion. Not “I wish you well” compassion, or “I know what it’s like to be in your shoes compassion,” but an essential, deep recognition of the fact that we are not just a collection of individual minds wandering around competing to survive: we are just the One.

So if you march, march. If you stay home and cook dinner. Cook dinner.

If you write a postcard to your representative, do that because now, this moment, it is the right action for you.

If you find yourself worrying about “the movement,” or being depressed about the news, or obsessively checking to see what new evil Trump has dreamed up—stop and close your eyes for three seconds.

And when you open them, look around. Do you have a problem right now?

No, there are no problems right now. Now is as it is. And from that clear, open space you can choose. And there is immense strength in choice.

You can choose to do nothing. If so, do nothing 100%.

Or you can choose to act.

Whatever you do, Being has to precede it.

It’s fucking revolutionary. And frankly, it blows my fragile little limited mind. Exactly as it should.

Wild, Wild Onions

wildoniondraw6x360It’s one of the first nice days of spring. The sun is out and everyone is wearing t-shirts even though a stiff breeze is blowing cool air off the lake and into our fields. The boys are keeping themselves warm running around outside (Hallelujah!) and I’m washing vegetables at the sink in a contemplative mood. All’s right with the world.

SLAM!

“Mom! Look what we found!”

Ian flies into the mudroom with a rush of cool, earthy air.

“Wild onions! Tons of them!”

His fists are clenched around bright green stringy bundles. His smile is so wide, he might pop. He drops the bundles on the floor.

“Oh wow! That is a lot,” I say, trying not to sound too disappointed that it looks like an Easter basket exploded on the floor. I give Ian a paper bag for his bounty. He snatches it and runs back outside.

SLAM!

“Will!” I hear him shout to his brother. “I have a bag, let’s get more!”

I contemplate my vegetables.


Wild onions are the odor of my childhood. I played outside a lot as a kid; I hated dresses and loved dirt. I built tepees and forts with sticks and old blankets, played “Kick the Can” every summer night, road my bike, rolled in the grass.

I also made mud pies, for real. I turned the red Virginia clay of our backyard into primitive pots, cups, and saucers, drying them in the sun on our back deck. I pretended to be on my own: hunting and gathering. I managed several archaeological digs in our woods. I found a shoe-shaped rock, cracked precisely into two halves, containing prehistoric shell fossils. My mom showed me I could eat dandelion greens. Nasturtiums. Tiny black caps. Wild onions.

Maybe because they were everywhere—or maybe because they were weeds—I picked lots of wild onions. I harvested them like they were the first crop after a long, cold winter. I nibbled on them. I felt a prick of pride being able to fend for myself. Could I live on wild onions and dandelions alone? Yes, when you’re seven years old, you can.


SLAM!

Ian rushes back into the mudroom with a full bag. I’m not paying attention; I’m making dinner. He takes off his shoes and squeezes between me and the counter. He gets a storage container and a lid from the drawer. He shoves his harvest into the container and closes it. He puts it carefully in the refrigerator.

“Now we can save them for later, Mom,” he says.

I want to tell him that squeezing the onions in like that will bruise them. That I really don’t need a bunch of stringy weeds, barely the size of a chive. That I can’t think of a thing to make with them and they’ll just rot. Instead, I just stop cooking, watching Ian’s blonde head in constant motion moving away from me. Constantly moving away.

I’ve got to find a recipe for those onions.


A year later and spring isn’t here yet, but in between grey, wet days of winter cold, we’ve been blessed with sunshine and warmth. It made everyone giddy to go outside, especially me. I’ve been talking about building a fort with the kids forever; this time, we were going to do it.

It was a real team effort: me, me, and a little more from me.

To be fair, I had a wonderful time. I smiled a lot. We dragged dead tree branches around. Prickers scratched my gloves and coat, burrs covered our socks and pants; we lost track of time (I lost track of time!) and finally wandered inside as the light faded only because we were starving. Ian went off alone at some point, creating a special path to our fort. Will got bored and made a make-shift baseball tee from some deadwood.

We had a roof and walls, and we could sit inside—sheltered.

They lost interest after a few weeks in my plans to expand the fort. It got cold again and wet. I didn’t push it. But one day, while they were at school and the sun came out, I walked into the woods to our fort and crawled inside (the benefit of never growing taller than most of today’s 6th graders).

It was cozy. Safe. Quiet. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I enjoyed it more than my kids did. I felt exactly like my 8 year-old self and remembered why these spaces are so special to children. Spaces where adults (usually) cannot go. Spaces created in a passionate frenzy of joy. Or out of necessity.


I did make that recipe with the wild onions. I made a quiche, I think, and the kids thought it was pretty damn cool.

The Omega

Does it matter whether I get the great teacher to sign my book?
I came to it 30 years too late.

What matters—
The 75 year old white-haired ingenue,
Struck suddenly under the cape of the pear or apple tree,
Brought up short by the flaming dahlias,
Orange fuchsia in the sun at noon.
Her face frozen in recognition of beauty.

You have to capture it now,
Because we’re all going to die.

She roots in her bag and pulls out a phone to take pictures.
These suffice for memory.
She’ll have color and form to scroll through,
To remind her of beauty.

To remind her of stopping still,
Inside one moment at 1 p.m. on this Friday,
To recall beauty and record it.

How to Eat Tomatoes (or Why Food Tastes Good)

Revellers fight with tomato pulp during the annual "Tomatina" (tomato fight) in the Mediterranean village of Bunol, near Valencia, August 26, 2009. The origin of the tomato fight is disputed - everyone in Bunol seems to have a favourite story - but most agree it started around 1940, in the early years of General Francisco Franco's dictatorship. REUTERS/Heino Kalis (SPAIN SOCIETY FOOD)
Revellers fight with tomato pulp during the annual “Tomatina” (tomato fight) in the Mediterranean village of Bunol, near Valencia, August 26, 2009. The origin of the tomato fight is disputed – everyone in Bunol seems to have a favourite story – but most agree it started around 1940, in the early years of General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. REUTERS/Heino Kalis (SPAIN SOCIETY FOOD)

It’s a Southern thing and a summer thing. When the Big Boy tomatoes are so ripe they drip off the vines in huge, red globes, you pick ‘em. Leave them out on the counter. God forbid, don’t refrigerate them; it saps the flavor. They sit for maybe a day until you get some nice white bread at the store. Not artisan or crusty, but just a plain simple loaf, not too soft. But this isn’t life or death, because you’re going to toast that bread anyway. Slice the tomatoes with a long serrated knife, not too thick and not too thin. There will be lots of juice on the cutting board so protect your slices from the expanding puddle because you don’t want soggy bread. No.

Now, toast two slices of bread so they’re suntan kissed and not too crispy. Crispy in a nice way so you have something to hold onto. Get the mayo from the fridge. Not light mayo, or fat-free, or Miracle Whip. God no. Real mayo. Make it yourself if you have to (just egg yolks, oil and a little lemon juice and water and you’re done). In the fridge at my mom’s house there is a lone jar of Duke’s mayonnaise. It’s a brand from her childhood in North Carolina and is perfect for recreating the best sandwich ever. So use Duke’s. Or use homemade. Or use Hellman’s. Slather it on, not too thick or thin. More than a schmear but less than a dollop. You should be able to make small waves back and forth across the bread with your knife, small waves in your poor man’s hollandaise.

Get those tomato slices. They’re ready to go on your bread on one side. One side only. Two sides and you have a mess and don’t know which side to flip first. Put the slices on, overlapping slightly, kissing each other’s sides. Cover your bread slice with them. Don’t skimp but give them some breathing room. Don’t crowd. Maybe you fit three slices neatly. Maybe four, if you’re lucky. Overload and you ruin the ratio. Underload and you’re eating toast.

Now this next step is important and I don’t care about your blood pressure or what the news says or what your doc told you. You already have that real rich mayo on the bread, so let it go. Get a pepper mill and some Kosher salt, flaked and ready to melt. Crack the pepper over your tomatoes in repose and sprinkle a good pinch, a full pinch, a full teaspoon on those red juicy-sweet circles. You can almost never put too much salt because the sweet tomatoes of summer are always sweeter than you think they’ll be and just like baking, you need salt to balance it all out against your taste buds. You do. Believe me. Don’t be afraid and pile it on, evenly across. When it melts into the room temperature slices, you’re ready. Fold the empty bread slice on top of your seasoned tomato half and press lightly to firm the flavors together. The unguent mayo and briny, sharp spice against sweet sunshine of tomatoes and toasted yeastiness of bread. Take your serrated knife, hold down the sandwich and cut a neat swath through it all to make two halves. Find an old white plate or your grandma’s china and place your lunch on it.

You can get fancy with a little green lettuce leaf on there or a tiny sliver of sweet Vidalia onion. But I say no, eat it now as is. It takes practice but if you’ve toasted the bread right, and put mayo on the smoothed, even way, and loaded just enough tomato onto the whole thing—it will be perfect and not squeeze out to attack you like some sandwiches. The juices will hold, the mayo an oily shield reinforced by firm toast, and the tomatoes and their juices caught in between for your benefit. Enjoy. Eat that other half and I dare you not to go out to your garden or back porch again and pick another Big Boy and slice him up for a second round. These are addictive.

I hear some people eat summer tomatoes like apples, they’re so sweet. I’ve never. But I will slice them and put them on top of anything that will take them. Or a salad. Not the leafy kind. Slice that tomato and slice those sweet Vidalias and a crisp watery cucumber. Same sizes if you can. Thin, thin slivers of onion. No one likes to eat a stinging raw chunk of onion. Find a bowl big enough to use a hand or spoon to mix without making a mess. You’re gonna use that bowl to serve from so make sure it’s pretty enough for the table. Or don’t. No one will care once they start eating. Pile in your slices and sprinkle them with Kosher salt, liberally. Liberal, left and left again. Over further to the left. Don’t be stingy. And pepper again.

Now in your pantry somewhere might be a very old bottle of vinegar: apple cider, red wine, sherry wine, balsamic. Maybe you have rice wine vinegar. Your luck if you do! Use it finally. In a separate small bowl, mix some vinegar and plain veggie oil (a tablespoon or so) and sugar. Yes, sugar. White and granulated. Not a ton and not Splenda. No honey or maple syrup. You just want sweetness, not flavor. Mix together so they dissolve and combine, emulsify. Pour that over the tomatoes, onions, and cukes. Toss ‘em up together and very important, let them sit. Don’t fool with it and don’t serve it right away. They need to marinate and mingle or else you just get each thing, alone together and nothing special. Pop it in the fridge if you want, for at least an hour or so. But please, take it out at least another hour before you eat. Room temperature is how foods are meant to be eaten if you really want to taste them. This “salad” is the perfect side dish for barbecued chicken or burgers or steak or hot dog. And maybe the kids will eat it. Tell them there’s sugar in it; that might work.

Then go back outside and pick more Big Boys and see if you can find new small, yellow flowers because you’re gonna need more tomatoes. Stat. A few Big Boys could make a very good tomato pie. Or a huge batch of Sunday sauce. Or another sandwich. Or be eaten out of hand. I hear some people do the same with sweet Vidalias.

Maybe that’s a Southern thing, like black-eyed peas and collard greens and pig on New Year’s Day for luck. Or like succotash. Succotash. I love that word. It’s native and old colonial. It’s part sweet corn kernels, other veggies optional, and of course, lima beans. You have to have lima beans. And maybe lard. I envision an old Virginia wife at her deep cooking fireplace with an iron pot hanging over the coals and a wise Native American woman with kind, calloused hands offering her these things: corn, shell beans. The lady’s garden is string beans from England and carrots. She makes do and we enjoy succotash. Corn kernels broken off the cob. Battered. Suffering. Which it turns out, after all, is not just a Southern thing.

Toad, Interrupted

IMG_20151001_112602It had started raining in the afternoon and by the time we went to sleep, it was coming down steadily. When I woke the next morning, there were puddles in our front yard and the rain was still coming down. I walked downstairs to my basement office. The window was open and water covered the sill where the rain had been streaming in all night.

Damn!

I grabbed a towel from the laundry room and wiped the sill dry. I started cranking the window closed as the rain kept coming.

Crank, crank. Squeak!

I stopped. I cranked one time slowly.

Squeak!

The sun wasn’t up yet, but it didn’t matter in the deep basement window well where it was always shadowed. I turned on the light. I looked into the well at the rocks. Nothing. I scanned the walls. Then I looked into the corner of the casement window, where the hinge mechanism opens and closes. In the tight angle between window and sill — made tighter by my cranking — sat Toad.

I almost squished him to death.

I was horrified but he just stared at me, as if to say “Death. Humph. What’s the big deal?”

I took off the screen, plucked Toad off and sat him on the rocks. He didn’t hop away. He didn’t croak — literally or figuratively.

My husband is worried about Toad.

“You should put him outside, somewhere out of that basement window well.”

“Why?” I said. “I think that’s his home.”

“Well,  maybe. But it’s weird that he just lives down there alone with nothing but rocks.”

I agree. It does seem odd. Is he lost down there? Cut off from his toad relatives and friends and potential mates by some awful twist of fate that stranded him at the bottom of our lunar-like basement window well? He seems perfectly content. I think. I don’t really know what toads think, especially my Toad. So, every morning now, I check on Toad. He’s amazingly hard to find, just sitting there alone with a bunch of rocks. But he is always hidden in plain sight, right below my window. This morning, I took a picture of him. Who says toads are ugly? I think he (or she) is beautiful.

Yet, I still can’t help wonder whether he is a toad interrupted. If his presence outside my window is some kind of toad exile, a parallel toad universe where humans provide nice places to sit on open windows when it rains and develop a sixth sense for not squishing them accidentally.

Yes, I’ll keep checking on Toad.

Toad and I Are Friends

From Frog and Toad Are Friends, by Arnold Lobel

I settled down on my bolster, folding my legs into each other and resting my hands on my thighs. My eyes were tired with sleep and pollen and a wakeful night. I closed my eyes. I breathed in and out. In and out.

Then, like a stunned rabbit, I felt the urge to jump out of my seat.

And do what?

I don’t know, but whatever it was, it would be better, I thought, than sitting here. I breathed in and out and my sleepy eyes closed.

I am doing this, I said to myself. I will meditate this morning!

The intermittent sound of tractor trailers and cars and birds and crickets drifted into my open window. My mind drifted on the sound.

And then I started making my grocery list, and chore list, and “forgot to call/email/talk” list. I drifted away on my lists.

I twitched and wiggled. I sat up straighter, aiming the crown of my head upward. I relaxed.

I was sitting now.

Then my ears picked up a rustling of rocks and gravel, so close it must be coming from my basement window well. It got louder. It stopped. It started again. I cracked open my eyes. I closed them. The rustling continued in the early morning half-light.

“What the hell is that?”

“A raccoon? A snake?”

I cracked my eyes open again.

“Oh crap! I bet it’s a damn raccoon getting in our garbage can. Or maybe more mice living near our foundation.”

I squeezed them shut.

“Stay. Here.”

The rocks knocked against each other again and I imagined whatever it was scratching its way through the window screen and getting into our house. I was verging on panic.

“STAY!”

Like a tiny, not-quite-trained puppy.

I sat and listened to the creature. My timer went off — 10 whole minutes subjecting myself to sitting. I went to the window immediately. Spiderwebs and rocks and not much else. Then I heard the rocks knocking together again. I followed the sound to a large brownish rock amidst the piles; it moved. My raccoon, my snake, my mice, my monster — was a toad. A beautifully camouflaged toad.

I laughed at myself and my fearful mind. I smiled at the toad.

I like to think he smiled back.

Don’t Remind Me

I rolled over and turned on the light 10 minutes after I had turned it off. My left eye was swollen and oozing and felt like a grain of sand was lodged in its corner. I grabbed the book off the bedside table and left my husband sleeping.

I hadn’t read a book like this, gotten into a book like this, in a long time. It wanted me to finish it and I had nothing else to do. Sleep wasn’t coming. No one needed me, except this book. I hunched over it at the kitchen table, reading to the end and midnight. I still didn’t want to go to sleep.

Today, I logged onto Facebook and a series of algorithms started popping off, calculating what day it was, what year. They were so proud of their power to show me my memories posted from two years ago! It was a photo of my brother—slimmed down and looking almost like he had as a high school football player—dead since August 2013; I was thanking friends and others for their support in the post.

I imagine that the people/machines at Facebook think memories are a good thing to relive. Personally, I don’t want to take a trip down memory lane right now to revisit my brother’s suicide death. When a friend mentioned what I tough time I was probably having right now (right now being the day we’d left for a family beach vacation and also the anniversary of his death), I was shocked. It hadn’t even crossed my mind.

Read more: http://www.theverge.com/2015/4/2/8315897/facebook-on-this-day-nostalgia-app-bringing-back-painful-memories

I’ve been pretty busy lately, nursing a very sick kid for a week, then preparing for a week away, and now being sick myself. It’s been a busy summer; busier than I wanted. Call me selfish or self-absorbed. I don’t mind. The early wet, cool days on the lakes are now hot and humid. Cicadas serenade us, madly rubbing their bodies. It’s the sound track of my childhood summers; it’s the sound track of memories that I’ve been trying to forget.

I don’t care much about marking my brother’s death each year. His death, frankly, is meaningless. It was his life that mattered. The problem is that I don’t know his life. The book I finished that night? I had to get to the end. It was about a woman remembering and reclaiming her memories, and who she was, in order to move forward. For herself. For her children. And she had to do this alone: she had lost the boundaries of her life defined by her mother and father, her lover, her friend. She was alone with herself, defining what that meant. Those people, she realized, were not who she thought they were, and neither was she. I am finally realizing many of the same things, and it’s like scraping your skin off slowly with a butter knife.

I scrounge my memories some nights when I can’t sleep, conjuring images of my brother and I. Maybe they’re memories, or maybe they’re things I’ve been told. They merge in our brains and become one. I’ve been told so many things.

When I finished the book, I cried. My swollen eye was worthless; the kitchen was swimming underwater. I never came up with a memory. I never plucked one out and said, Aha! Yes! This is what it was like. This was him. I sat there, a floor below my sleeping boys, thinking that I was all I had. I was what was left of my brother. My present was the whole: my now, my past and my future. He was here, even if I couldn’t pin a memory on him. He was with me and my children. Present tense.

Maybe this is what religious people feel about angels in Heaven. Or others about good people being reincarnated as higher beings, gods. For me, it’s a simple coping mechanism, because the truth is just too bitter a pill.

After I was cried out, I settled in bed. I felt calmer because he was with me, like all good big brothers are.