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You Want it Darker?


Our anniversary this year: my husband and I woke to a bedroom full of light, our twin aspens filling the third floor window with incandescent autumn, with happy and seemingly nonsensical babbling on the baby monitor, and the news that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel prize for literature.

We were not expecting this, this small gift from a Colorado morning that makes two faces on pillows look at one another in wonder. And turn together to another wonder, the greatest wonder, perhaps, of our love, and lives: a child, named first and middle, for songs written by our new Laureate.

And then the news, night before last, Leonard Cohen’s passing. A sadness so much easier to name, to put words to (his own, more than likely) than the other sadnesses of the world right now, so great and miasmic. But here, and then no longer here, a person, a man who is often thought of along with Bob Dylan as one of the greatest lyricists, writers of melody, a craftsman beyond measure in touch with the celestial spheres.

And yet, does that sound sentimental? He eschewed sentimentality, his humour was sharp and dark and dry. He plumbed the depths of melancholy and rose up beyond hallelujahs- but there was a lot of amusement in between.

Where Dylan writes in free verse and brilliant flashes of association that open new lands, Cohen detailed and pinned down this universe, our universe and its secrets (chords) with precision, labour and perception that transcend each of its corners; transcending, yes, and permeating, changing, moving but not breaking the boundaries of the universe he names. David, even in pleasing the lord, is right there on the kitchen chair, lines away from the moonlight and beauty of a woman bathing on the roof. The sacred and profane harmonizing, first person, third person, then second. You.

Cohen has passed, and passed with more grace than this world has witnessed in any public person in months, his “house put in order”, his muse holding her hand out to him, his heart at peace. And who else’s heart is at peace now? A sad year, so very sad, with the passing of Bowie, Prince and others. Political and global decisions were made that are tragic and tragically inspire fear, or worse: they spread hatred. And on the personal, cellular level, a small life fluttered back into the ether.

And yet: Laughter. Kindness. A Nobel laureate who writes songs that I can curl up inside, or that I can shout out from, that I can use to articulate a challenge to the hatred and oppression and racism and misogyny I see and fear. Here are words I can use to question the right of bigotry someone believes they are now entitled to, and there are songs whose mysteries and beauty can keep me curious, guessing, imagining, living in worlds populated by holy medallions, artists who don’t look back, waterfront docks, Dante, Verlaine, Rambeau, Tangier, Spanish manners, Spanish boots of Spanish leather, mother’s drugs, a bridge at midnight, Arabian drums.

And this is our landscape. This is our country. Carl Sandburg wrote the Rootabaga stories for his girls so they could have American fairytales, the right and ritual of children learning to define themselves and the world around them. Dylan writes them, Cohen (though Canadian) wrote them, baseball players write them, our politicians write them, and our immigrants write them, artists do, and our native Americans write them; I would argue our mountains write fairy tales and the plains and the lemon groves and Great lakes.  But you and I do too, in the stories we choose to read to our children, in the woods we walk through and the seashores we follow, in the food we feed them. In the people and ideas and cultures we introduce them to, in the display of in whom we place our trust. In the volume and cadence and sounds we choose to speak around the table, in the words we choose to speak of other colors, other genders, other languages, other races, in how narrowly we choose to illustrate them – even in how we talk of other animals and species and the kindness that we can afford them. What can we afford, then, with the currency of language and all of its fairy tales and cruelties and imaginings, all of its goodness and nurturing and cadence and beauty? What words do you choose to use if you want to describe a dragon or a bully, a prince or a magician, a friend, a disagreement, melancholy or joy? If fairy tales are rituals, and we as Americans are still writing ours, whose pen do we want to watch, whose voice do we want to listen to?

I said our baby’s words were nonsensical. But isn’t that where joy resides, and brilliance before articulation? Where the liminal understanding of words lies, and isn’t that where free verse is born? Isn’t that what so many of Bob Dylan’s songs sound like? Nonsensical, mischievous, musical, breathing – a poem by e.e. cummings or even Emily Dickinson – nonsensical until you gently (and it must be ever so gently and ever so UN-precisely, like opening a pomegranate) ease it apart – and see what lies within the beauty of those sounds, what lyrics lie beneath (and above) a Cohen melody, what the words in the images come together to form? Isn’t that where understanding accumulates and gathers itself up, rather than slinging itself around, calling itself something like truth or another abstraction that has no meaning at all? It is in the tangible, the visual, the auditory – melody, rhyme, non-rhyme –  it is in her laughter, cooing, triumphant shouts, wails, in Dylan’s cabarets, brothels, churches that we can finally see – hear – what? Yes. What? That is the question I don’t want to stop asking, that none of us can afford to stop asking.

If harmonicas play the skeleton keys in the rain, why, and for what purpose, and what locks are opened?


We were in Aspen the day of our anniversary and walked by a beautiful old theatre, built in 1915, the kind of place where I can imagine Cohen and Dylan drinking coffee and discussing one thing or another, perhaps putting infinity up on trial as the heat pipes cough. But the theatre’s name is Isis. The day that Dylan was awarded the Nobel peace prize, and the anniversary of two people who fell in love and gave their daughter two Dylan names, was a day when a word – a name I had considered for my own daughter because it is the name of the goddess of nature and sky in Egyptian mythology, and because it is the title of a Dylan song – was taken away from me.

I don’t want this to happen anymore. I don’t want to casually say, “well that trumps all,” and then think, lord how could I even speak his name?  (I’ll make an exception for Voldemort, that word can be as bad as it gets forever.) I want our words to stay fresh and used and resonant. So, Yes! the theatre kept its name as an act of defiance and because it is its own, and I love that, and love the word and will do everything to put the thieves of it out of my mind, but of course would never give the name to a child. I want to keep our words ours, be they English, or Spanish or Arabic or German, French, Chinese, Wolof, the words of all Americans-  and write our fairy tales and songs in this language. I want to shout out and repeat and lullaby my baby with the words that our poets and songwriters use, listen to them as a bridge, a refrain, a hallelujah or a blessing.


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drawing the costume

First, I thought I would sketch my costume on paper.

This year, I thought I might make my own costume.  I decided to make an oven, because I have been very particular about my food selections lately, and my oven, you see, is quite particular, too.  I feel a certain affinity for my oven, because it, like me at the moment, will reject any food it doesn’t care for. Sometimes it will burn it, sometimes it will mush it, and sometimes it will simply refuse to cook it in the center.  We try to find foods that the oven likes, according to her whims.  So, I think, like me, she is fickle, and so I decided to be her this year. 

Cutting out my costume.

Then I would cut it out.

Right now my handsome husband is half-costumed: he is wearing his apron and his green shoes and making risotto while I am busy being the choosy oven. But it isn’t exactly a costume for him because he wears this same ensemble quite often. (He is a genius in the kitchen.)

oven costume

Our costumes.

So, have you caught on yet? I’m not actually making an oven costume. Because, like my husband I am already in costume. Guess what is inside of me this Halloween?

bun in the oven

Bun in the oven!

This recipe will take six more months.

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Hi there! Just a quick post today. I want you to meet Coco and Theo, Coco and Theo, I’d like you to meet your readers.  These are the twins that will be the hero and heroine of my next book, though we’ll see how heroic they manage to be with a baguette and a bag of carrots.   Let me know what you think of them.  Did you notice their little friend by the gate? Guess what his name is…


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Spring came late to the mountains this year.  Our last snow came after warm days, a big snow, 12 inches and two days of it in May. But it is a lovely spring now, where the leaves on even the largest trees look tender, translucent, as if looking up at them you are seeing water suspended in a child’s hand, and the way the faces of children look, too, water and blood running in warm and cool currents, just below the surface, glowing with a delicate network of capillaries and emotions – if children were a different color, I could swear that chlorophyll filled their veins.

My earliest memory is of pulling myself up on the side of my crib, under the open window of summer and sky, and somehow wrestling my chubby little un-walked legs around the bars and up over them and crawling onto the roof where I could watch my dad in the garden, looking as small as I was beneath the trees and over the plants he put in – babies themselves, like me, that I wanted to make friends with – touch, talk to, confide in. I saw the Easter bunny, too, in the way that our earliest memories form themselves, where magic goes unquestioned and reason doesn’t exist, but images do, what we create from the half words we hear.  With thanks to the-gods-that-be and a chastising and the terror that must have taken years off the life of my poor dad when he saw me on the roof, that adventure was quickly put to an end, and I was sat upon a blanket outside, watching him create the wonder that he did every year – hundreds and hundreds of bulbs among the trees and small animals in the garden.


As I got older, he explained how to pull a weed, tugging gently at the root until it let go, and how to handle a seedling as you ease it out of its pot, how deep to plant it, how to make a little well around it once it was in the ground for water. And as I watched over the years, I learned the succession of spring flowers: snowdrops first (I added them to my list many years later, when I moved to Ohio and they pushed themselves up right through the snow, looking like suspended snow themselves), narcissus, daffodils, tulips, wisteria, then gladiolas, iris, roses, and lilac.  I watched the wildflowers, too, when in May the hills of the central coast of California would turn bright orange with poppies, and my best friend (now a botanist, of course!) could find the first wild strawberries near the ocean, so tiny, just the right size for a fairy’s dinner. Then lupine later in the summer, and then the wild blackberries would ripen and stain our hands and arms and mouth with something wild and uncontrollable – something that tasted like sun-warmed honey and blood and saltwater, like sage and magic – sweet beyond anything that existed anywhere on earth. To this day, I can’t eat a store bought blackberry, for they taste like nothing. Nothing at all.


In Texas, when I was younger, I remember my dad digging up the wild iris on a stretch of road that was going to be torn up. He took them, replanting them every year, from house to house to house, all the way across the country, one coast to another. And when I was small, I learned Texas wildflowers, indian paintbrush, cherokee roses, bluebonnets. My mother would take me, when I did learn to properly walk, on nature walks, where we collected leaves from all of the trees, and thanked them for each, and then to a nature museum each week for forest walks. In East Texas, I visited virgin prairie, and learned that an eggplant is a terribly frightening thing to see growing in a garden. I canned wild plums, wild grapes, and made pesto from the rows of basil plants that grew in my adopted God-father’s garden. And here, spring seems like a miracle, green seems to fall from the sky, and the peas are growing and the tomatoes are starting, and the cherries are sweet and taste like roundness itself.


In Switzerland, I found an edelweiss. In my first house, I planted a vegetable garden among the calla lilies. In Ohio, I had a rogue tomato plant that grew to the size of a car, and not a small car, either. Now, I have no yard, but a window full of herbs, succulents, geraniums, and on the roof I’ve put some tomatoes and peppers. We have an airplant suspended in glass over our dining room table.


And I watch these plants. And, as much as I know they don’t think like we do, they don’t see like we do, or experience emotion in any way I could ever begin to understand – I do see a will in them. A will towards the light, and faintness without water – the creation of something, an intentional something, out of nearly nothing. There must be some kind of sentience and wisdom there, at the very least, desire exists in these tiny, slim slips of green. The purity of it is breathtaking – to think of a seed in the darkness righting itself pulling itself up as it pushes roots down, looking for nutrition, for light, for water – and experiencing the world in a way that I will never come close to understanding – they breathe, they drink, they vibrate, they reach up and out- the ivy twines, the succulents fatten, the basil grows new leaves each day. I have to think about how to brush my hair, how to cut it, but they know, and they do, and they are beautiful (do they have aesthetics?) and I can’t help it but think that they have secrets locked in each of their cells, and stories to tell if only I learn how to listen.

I’m listening.


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Bats in her Belfry


I *hope* I don’t have bats in my belfry.  But there you have it…. An irrational manipulation of… Hope. 

It could be a good indication of, well, battiness?  That I spend far too much time hoping – fervently, feverishly, frantically -hoping. For things that perhaps aren’t quite on the level of prayer – prayer is sanctified, appropriate, polite, even smiled upon by God and angels, I think – and quite fitting for certain desires. But most of mine don’t quite make it to that level, or perhaps don’t occur to me when I’m on my knees and being good. 

But it isn’t exactly naughty, my hope…I hope. I mean I may have really really hoped that my fiance liked me as much as I liked him in the first few weeks, months. I may have even hoped that he would kiss me. But generaly, it’s more, just… selfish. I hope that this rain keeps raining and raining all afternoon and into the evening.  I hope it makes the trees green and in the fall, those green leaves turn all colors of gold and yellow and orange for my wedding. I hope that my hair grows another two inches, and that I drop two inches from my waist. I hope that far-flung friends are secretly planning on scampering across the country for the October wedding, and I am willing their ships to come in to make it easier. Sometimes, like in Mathilda (Roald Dahl) I even will the impossible to happen (bear! come to my back porch again! With your babies!) — and when they come true, I believe I have magical powers. (Baby bear in my driveway, hooray, hooray! Look what I accomplished with desire alone!)  Selfish, unselfish, naughty, or holy, my hope is as erratic and fervent as a bat in a belfry. 

Last week, my fiance and I went on a beautiful hike. I’d hoped for good weather, and it was idyllic (except for the burning thighs). We found wild strawberries, and aspen groves and a river running through a deep canyon. If we were sweaty, it wasn’t from heat, because it was, oh, perhaps, 75 at the bottom of the mountain… and maybe 68 up where we hiked to?  Heaven. Better than I’d hoped for even.

But we were dirty. And hungry. And dirty. And dusty when we got home.  Into the shower for him! Then into the shower for me! He was toweling off after a good scrub down when suddenly, he ducked, made an exclamation. My shower door is, well, clear. I ducked down too and let out a little pre-emptive scream.

“Is it a moth?” (There are rather gigantic moths here)

He made another exclamation. I won’t repeat it.

“Is there a bird in here?” He didn’t answer.

I had just put shampoo in my hair, and soap all over me. And I was cowering in the shower, the water still running. My hands protected my head from what could, for all intents and purposes, be a dragon breathing fire all over the bathroom.

“What is it?”

“I uh, don’t want to tell you. I don’t think you want to know.”

Whatever it was swooped over the bathtub, towards us, away from us, towards us…

I made a sound somewhere between a whimper and a shriek. He was still ducked down on the floor, too, and we looked at each other through the glass of the shower.

“Its a bat!”

“What do we do?” Full whimper mode. “I’m never showering in here again! Never!”

He, however, is my hero. 

He watched as the bat flattened itself and slid through a crack in a viga – one of the exposed beams in the ceiling. Oh, Lord, the whole house is full of split vigas. 

“You’re sure its gone?”

“I’m sure. But I would have had you with your mad tennis skills go after it with the racket.”

I don’t like flying rats. Ugh. At least not in my bathroom. But I wouldn’t have killed it. I’m pretty sure the hero of this story would have taken care of any bats had it come to that, but this one bat is probably telling the same story… slightly differently, to her babies tonight. “The great escape from the Dungeon of wet people!” (What she doesn’t tell her children is that people wielding rackets are about as likely as dragons breathing fire.) 

And so the story ends. Soapy and sudsy and wet as I was, my hair in such a state! I bounded out of the shower and out of the bathroom. The hero checked the bathroom each day for many days before I went in – to brush my teeth – I wouldn’t even comb my hair.  He filled the offending crack with foam wood filler.  There are only about a thousand other cracks to consider…. and what sorts of bats and other mad creatures might invade? 

I jumped backwards and landed on my fanny this morning when my washcloth fell off the counter. I whimper when a bird comes to perch on my windowsill (only at first). I cower from shadows on the floor, and the moths? They make me faint. And I hope, hope, hope, beyond all reason that I never, ever see another bat in my house. Or mouse, for that matter. Or spider, or moth…. well. 

Bats in my belfry? Quite possible.

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written and directed by William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg

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