Monday, January 21, 2019

Pay Attention

When I come back here, I am always three paces behind my other self, the woman who never left. There, around the corner at the grocery, her short hair greying at the temples, her orange tights out of sync with the camouflage and parkas of West Michigan. Or there, around the corner of the trail, the dogs pulling her up the hill and down the next. Winter light sideways, bare trees like frayed nerves, nuthatches and chickadees in the empty lilac, black squirrels hurrying up a bare maple, a small brown hare running up the snowy walk.

That my father and Mary Oliver died within days of each other is coincidence. I doubt my father knew who Mary Oliver was, though he often surprised me. I do not know how to write about my father yet, as it has only been a week since he died a thousand miles away from me and I am still likely in shock. But still, I had to come here, into the frigid Midwest, to ferry Jonah to his father as not to risk another court summons, another pointless fight. But Mary Oliver is always who I think of when I return to the eastern woods, when I slip almost sideways into my old life in the beech-maple forests of the Great Lakes. When both lives--the old one here where I learned to pay attention, started learning the names of things, started learning how to unlearn my own named self and look the wild one--if not in the eye, at least a sideways glance. A flash of matted fur, white teeth, wild blackberries and marram grass and white throated sparrows, milkweed and wild garlic, a woman's body soft and round and small.

To hold these two traumas in one palm: my father's death, being drawn back to my ex's fury and anger, felt like too much this week. I am afraid, actually, to feel any of it, because at the moment, I must just get through it. Sometimes I'm afraid I don't know how to feel anything, that I am only half alive, that I am not paying attention. To feel is to be vulnerable and I am afraid. Mary Oliver's poems are embodied, they look closely at the world and it's impossible beauty. I want to do this, but I am afraid of feeling, afraid I will fall apart.

I know. We will die either way. Refusing to feel will not hold back the wildness in any of us, and part of that wildness is death. We are bodies, animals.

Last night, I stepped into the frigid dark and watched the moon go red. The neighbor stepped out too, Lake Macatawa behind us grinding and chucking its ice against the pier. Today I walked and slept on the couch and read and cried and walked again and poured a glass of red wine and am here, in front of the gas fire.

Pay attention. Be here, wild.

I'll take my boy home tomorrow, for a long stretch of weeks of not traveling.
10,000 feet or so over Michigan


Lake Michigan, my heart

Betsy DeVos' summer home. This seems the most appropriate photo. It's a monstrosity and approximately 8 times larger than any other house in this already super rich area. Also, choose an architectural style because it's represented here. Fuck her and the Trump she rode in on.

This little shack is in the dune shadow beneath the DeVos home. May a witch live there and may she lay a curse upon the house of DeVos

The view from my living room.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

An Update

I'm tired. I left work early today because I began sobbing uncontrollably and my administrative assistant burst into my office and hugged me and tried to calm me down. It has been a long week--a wonderful week, full of singing and putting up the Christmas tree and Jonah's science fair. But.

I got served today with notice of a hearing, in Kalamazoo, on Monday next. My ex filed an ex parte motion to modify our Christmas plans. Not that he would get Christmas, but that we would change our tickets from December 22nd to December 24th. The judge initially, from what I can tell, denied the motion but also set a hearing. In Kalamazoo. Ironically, a quarter mile from where I used to live with my ex. Ironically, at the courthouse that is next to the juvenile detention center where my ex's mother used to work for years.

I spoke with an attorney in Oregon a week and a half ago. Unfortunately, there's nothing we can do here. There's a clause in my agreement that states that Michigan is where the case is domiciled and, ominously, Jonah's "home state." And I don't currently have an attorney in Kalamazoo--mine left her practice and left me high and dry. The summons or notice or whatever it is was sent to my personal email and my home address. It is December 11th. So I also called R., hyperventilating. So I also called an attorney's office in Kalamazoo--recommended by many beautiful Kalamazoo friends, barely able to speak. The assistant agreed to at least a consultation tomorrow, $200. Yes whatever, I'll pay whatever. I've paid at least $30,000 in court costs over the past 11 years plus $20,000 a year in travel for the past five years.

So I came home. So I went to Jonah's science fair where he chatted happily with his friends, where he didn't win but did very well. He's getting straight A's, this boy of mine who was barely passing 4th grade after that first summer with his father.

Of course, I want to draw this picture with myself as the protagonist.This is perhaps normal--we are all our own protagonists and the story, whatever story it is, is ours. But what I mean is with myself as being right. What I am afraid of is that I'm delusional, selfish. That what my ex--and his attorney--have accused me of again and again and again: that this is my fault. That none of this would have happened if I hadn't left. If I hadn't left him. If I ha had an attorney when I first got divorced, instead of allowing my ex to dictate the terms, instead of allowing the (literally) blind mediator to set everything at 50/50 even though my ex hadn't seen Jonah in weeks, even though he has never been to a parent/teacher conference, violin recital, doesn't support Jonah being in therapy, etcetera etcetera. He does not pay for travel, child support, health insurance, clothing, school supplies, (but here I hear the voice that points out the exceptions--he bought a backpack, he bought jonah t-shirts and shoes that one year, he forces him to have a physical in kalamazoo every summer and not share the medical records with me or his doctor here).

So hopefully tomorrow morning this attorney will help. I feel crazy. I am so afraid that this life I've worked so hard to make for us here is fragile and that my ex can wrest it from us. That I will be punished for the rest of my life by this man.

Out of desperation I pulled tarot cards: Page of Cups, reversed Hierophant, Knight of Wands. I'm so tired. I'm so goddamned tired.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Custody and Other Disasters

The day before I left Michigan, came home, the weather was uncertain. The air still, the Lake calm as glass. Then clouds, then wind. It was warm, near 50 degrees. We got out just in time. Hours after our plane took off, a blizzard overtook the Midwest.

We were there for five days, four nights. I say "we" but I was alone, as I have been most Thanksgivings of my life except those I spent with my Kalamazoo family, C. and J. Jonah was with his father; therefore, invisible to me. I made Moroccan vegetable tangine. I found Petoskey stones on the Lake's north shores. I walked and ran and hiked and a bald eagle floated just five feet above me on the dune trail, harassed by crows, then landed in a bare tree. I spent hours in the interdunal wetlands that ceded to Great Lake Barrens (jack pine, white cedar, sedge, rush). Then we flew home. At the airport, Jonah and I were laughing, as we do, knocking into each other because, being shorter, I walk slower than he does, but he still falls behind me, my boy, and we end up tripping over each other every time. An older White couple behind us tsk tsk-ed, and the wife said, loud enough for us to hear, be considerate of other people! Don't stop there are PEOPLE BEHIND YOU. She made eye contact with me as she finished her tirade, and I looked her dead on, held Jonah's hand and said fuck off. Her husband scuttled away from us, head down and exclaimed you too! you that too!

Jonah was incredulous. Is it illegal to have fun? he asked. We've become that old Christian couple's story for why TEENAGERS ARE BAD. I'm not a teenager, I said. Yeah, but from behind we probably both look like we're 16.

In September, I emailed my ex husband to let him know my father is not doing well. That I want Jonah to see him before--well, before. You know. That we wanted to travel over Christmas to see my family. Because of our custody arrangement, Jonah's dad gets all holidays,  Spring Break, all summer break, and a weekend in January, Memorial Day, and October. We are supposed to alternate the first and second weeks of Winter/Christmas break. As long as I get the first week in December, he wrote back, I don't care. So, even though he was supposed to have the second week in December, i.e., also Christmas, I planned our travel accordingly. When you've been abused by someone for so fucking long, you don't argue. You can't argue with my ex. You just can't. So I booked tickets to get J back and forth to Michigan, then tickets to see my parents and sisters and nephew. I spent at least three months' salary on this. You should also know that per our custody agreement, I pay for all travel. I get no child support. I pay for Jonah's insurance, school fees, clothing.

And then this week my ex realized that what he demanded--the first week of Christmas break--did not include Christmas. So he demanded--is demanding--that we change our travel plans. That we are, and I quote, playing games and we are cheating him of time. And that we must change our plans NOW. When reminded that we planned around his request, he still demanded that we were "playing games" and that we change.

If you have not been abused, if you have not lived with a narcissist, you might not understand how this is triggering. If you don't have a child with someone who cares little about your child and more about how that child can be weaponized, if you don't have a child who has suffered from anxiety, depression, terror, abandonment issues, then maybe you can't understand how this has triggered me. Read Michigan custody law--you'll quickly learn how parents have rights even if they don't earn them. Even if they do very little to put the best interest of a child first. If you have never had a judge and a bunch of lawyers tell you if you'd been abused you should have reported it and because you didn't you clearly chose it maybe you can't understand.

I exploded Tuesday night. Screamed. Wept. My ex has continued harassing us most of Wednesday morning, demanding that we were the ones trying to fuck HIM over. It is remarkable how, despite being a professional, despite being someone others trust to be in charge of things, how this makes me feel infinitesimal. Like I don't matter at all. Like I can never escape this man, his abuse, his ability to hurt me and remind me how little I matter. And how he can hurt my boy without reason and it is my responsibility, not his, to protect him, that all of this is my fault because I left.

This feels like complaining. There is still a part of me that says you're exaggerating. It's not that bad. Get over it. It IS your fault, because you left. There's still a part that says don't be so dramatic. I think of a former friend who accused me of having a "star complex" in college.

But. What else is there to do but continue forward, to keep on moving? To say, in the face of all of this, fuck off and hold tight to those I love.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Snakey Bird Tattoo and My Grandfather's Pasta Maker

These are things I have done in the past two weeks:

-Gotten a tattoo on my right shoulder of an eastern garter snake casually wrapped around an apple. The apple is something in-between a gala and a winesap.
-re-seeded our lawn. Made a hillbilly fence with chicken wire and dowels to keep the chickens, dogs, and assorted other assholes off the new lawn for the winter.
-made 100 or so lemon/spinach/ricotta ravioli with eggs from said asshole chickens, using my grandfather's pasta machine. This took three hours. This was not efficient, but it felt right.
-made curtains for Jonah's office. darned two pair of tights.
-cleaned my office, organized my bookshelf, began organizing my music library.
-scheduled the piano tuner
-spent an entire month's paycheck to fly the family to see my parents in Minneapolis after Christmas.
-started running again, after a knee injury. Changed my December race from a half marathon to a 10K. learned to run with a bionic knee brace. I was really hoping to run at least two half marathons this year, but this will mean that in 2018 I will have run at least one 5K, 8K, Half Marathon, and 10K.  And now that I have the go-ahead and a brace from the orthopedist, I can aim for at least 2 half marathons next year, and by god, maybe a marathon? I want to run a marathon, I think. I'm Catholic (lapsed, feminist, angry): I like pain.
-had a serious panic attack after a poetry reading. Sat in my car after Lit Crawl--after almost flat out running from the bar--and hyperventilated for 5 minutes. Didn't puke. Spent the night curled up and "super sad," R. reports. He curled next to me.
-been clawed to hell by Iris-the-Cat after attempting to give her Benadryl. She's hyper-grooming, covered with scabs. She is the second-least affectionate, of the four cats. She allows us to hold her, snuggle her but refuses to be a lap cat. Unless I'm singing, then she climbs onto my lap and purrs and purrs.
-hiked up Mt. Tabor with Jonah who is my best person, who is so remarkably handsome and kind and smart and funny and puts up with me.

In the next two weeks I will:
-Haul my, and Jonah's, asses back to Michigan for Thanksgiving.
-go to work, choir rehearsal, run, run some more, walk, write, be afraid that everything I write is terrible horrible why do I bother.
-fly home, then three weeks later, fly back and forth. Then to Minneapolis and back. But R and D haven't met my sisters (and two of them will be there, I've been told). But D has never been to the Midwest, never seen that kind of winter.

It is windy tonight, all day today. As I turned West to run home, up the hill through Laurelhurst, leaves whipped against my face, hundreds of crows rose in a single cloud from Floral avenue. The attic doors are rattling upstairs; the chickens were happy to go back in their coop, their feathers fluffed up. What do we do with them all winter?R. asked. How do we make sure they are emotionally okay if we don't let them into the yard? how do we make sure they are warm enough?

Jonah hugged me so hard tonight, he lifted me off the ground. I love you is the first sign he learned what he flashes to me every morning i drop him off at school.

The animals are are gathered in my office and the windows click click with wind, leaves scuttling, everything so dark.

Here we are, alive. Here we are, here we are, he we are.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

In Holland, Michigan

Last weekend was our fifth wedding anniversary. Sometimes you forget how you got out, how an entire life can pivot, turn towards something else.

We eloped. R. flew in the day before, then we got married, then we went to court. The next day, he flew out. Six months later, I loaded Jonah and the cats onto an airplane, my friend Chip drove the dogs and my car, and we headed West.

The last two days I have done what I've done a dozen times: flew back, let my boy walk into his father's world, let myself disappear from the world and speak to no one. Walk, run, put my heart into the Lake.

After two and a half weeks without running, the orthopedist gave me a diagnosis of runner's knee, a cheap knee brace, a promise not to return for a number of years. He was young. Well, he is my age. He told me this after he shook my hand, was charming, bent my knee this way and that. After I told him Dr. Google had in fact diagnosed me with runner's knee, and also cancer of the everything, he said Dr. Google told him he needs to drink more.

So I've run, hiked the dunes, not spoken to a soul. Read Rebecca Louden's debut, Tarantella, and Ruth Stone's In the Next Galaxy. I think I'm at least halfway through my next book, and Animal Bride, my second book, will be out in January. It's raining. The Lake was loud today, white-capped. Yesterday she was calm, not glassy, but holding herself together.

All of the names here, on the fancy lake-shore houses, are Dutch. This is Betsy DeVos country; in fact, her abomination of a summer home is a few miles from here. I was going to drive by but then decided I'd rather take another walk, photograph dead deer, beech and sassafras and hickory trees gold and shuddering, the rain cold. I have a fire going. After this week's news I want nothing to do with the facists in office; I will instead stay here and write, will instead continue to inhabit the radical feminist leftist inclusionary incendiary poetry that is rising up inside of me.

I don't know how I feel about Michigan. I know that emotionally, I can't yet go back to Kalamazoo. My heart feels, still, like it will break into a million pieces. This is where I grew up, really. Where I became myself. There is a hardness to the upper Midwest, a steel through-line. I want to hate it, particularly when I see pickup after giant pickup truck, so many men in camouflage, Trump signs in multiple lawns. Gun stores. Roadside signs advertising deer dressing, taxidermy.

And yet. On one of my walks this weekend I realized how much I also love this place. Maybe that is obvious to everyone else. There is a magic here that is in my bones. There is a hardness that helped make me, that helped stiffen my spine. But I love Portland! I felt my heart saying as I realized this. And I do: Portland is the first place i have chosen to live since Aberdeen, Scotland. It fits me in a way I never expected a place to fit. Because it fits Jonah too. And R. is there, and D. My god(dess)--a family?

But I love this place too, can feel its magic like an ember, like a fist in my belly, like an aria. And I love it now because it can no longer hurt me. It can no longer suffocate me, tell me this is all there is. There is Portland and there is also this: sassafras, hickory, beech-maple woods. Lake Michigan. Autumn squall and rain sideways.

In Tr*mp's Amerikkka, I will remember that though there are Dutch names on everything, this is not their, our, place. That there were people here before us, that this land is holy and sacred and we are interlopers, intruders, are unasked-for guests.

That the only way forward is with our mouths open. With fire.

Sunday, October 7, 2018


for some tree species, particularly conifers like pine, sequoia, cypress, and spruce, the release of seeds is delayed until a specific environmental trigger is present. Serotiny is the process in which a plant relies on an external trigger – be it fire, flood, increased rainfall, or death of a parent plant – to signal the release of seeds. In the case of pyrophile trees, that trigger is fire.

Sometimes, I cannot remember how old I am. Am I truly 41 years old, 11 years out from my first marriage, 1,700 miles away from my start? Did I really make it here, despite, because?

I am certain I am not alone in how numb and dumb I've been these past few weeks. Since that November night two years ago, but moreso these past two weeks. The Kavenaugh nomination and inevitable confirmation is a gut kick. Is, as so many have alluded to, prelude to the Handmaid's Tale made manifest, Red Clocks in real time.

I think of my women's lit students all those years ago, when we were reading The Awakening and The Handmaid's Tale and how annoyed many of them got at the protagonists. Just speak up!

This would never happen here. 

This would never happen now.

Of course abortion is murder.

Just don't have sex.

Etcetera. Likely, at the time, I was going home to a marriage that defined cognitive dissonance. By day, I was a feminist; by night, I was fucked with a hand on my throat. My bodily autonomy was nil. I had--have--an eating disorder. When things become uncertain, out of control, I do whatever I can to smash myself into oblivion. Stop eating. Punch myself int he face until I bleed. Slam my head against the wall until I can't think anymore.

I was so fucking angry. I would take my dogs to the woods and for a few miles, be able to breathe, feel like I didn't have a body. Which is to say: my body worked the way bodies are supposed to work: in service to the spirit.

Then, as the miles came to an end, and my car was in sight, I would get angry. Enraged. It wasn't just at the tail end of a hike, it was all the time. I knew exactly how to sublimate my needs to the needs of my husband--I was well schooled at the ways of being a woman, a wife. I knew also how to direct that rage where I knew it belonged. At myself.

Of course I had cervical cancer. I was a whore who had sex before marriage. Of course I had to stay, even if he was cruel and hurt me.

I'm not writing this because I'm in crisis. I've had years of therapy and the moments when I'm at the brink have grown more infrequent. In fact, for a few years, I thought I'd moved past it.


I have also known that the patriarchy, men in power, don't fucking care. Not about me. Not about you. When my ex called my midwife and told her I needed medication, I was crazy, I was too emotional. When he threw me against the wall and said he thought I was the dog. When he told me I dressed like a whore and I needed to button up my shirt because I was inviting men to look at my tits. When he said he loved me for my body, not my mind that's a fucking joke, Sara, don't be so dumb that you don't know a joke. When my ex threatened to chop me into bits, when he raped me again and again (I didn't think it was rape. I was his wife, I was obliged to have sex with him, I was frigid, there was something wrong with me, at least he wanted to fuck me looking the way I did, damaged as I was, et-fucking-cetera), when the police came and the officer didn't need to tell me it didn't matter, that he didn't believe me that my ex had my baby, my ex had threatened to kill me multiple times. When the judge told me I had been foolish to agree to such a shitty custody agreement but since I'd agreed, there was nothing she could do. When a boyfriend put me on a diet. When I agreed to go on that diet. When another boyfriend said you know, you have a lot of baggage. When I found an anonymous article in my work mailbox explaining how women can avoid being slutty slutterton at work. When my ex husband cautioned my new husband that I smelled like fish.

Because I have had an eating disorder for at least 25 years and because I have believed--despite feminism, despite graduate school, despite being smarter than most people--my worth lies in my body, my sexual desirability to heterosexual men. Because that is a kind of power, sometimes the only power, women can yield in a patriarchy: when a man wants to fuck you, if he's not an overt rapist anyway, leveraging that desire can sometimes yield a woman what she wants. Or a facsimile of power. Except it doesn't, really. It doesn't.

It often goes off the rails, though. It rarely works the way she hoped. A cage is still a cage, even if be gold.

I am a white woman in a heterosexual relationship. I am enormously privileged. That I could leave my ex husband is due to having a tenured professorship: even though I didn't have an attorney because I didn't know, at 30, how to navigate divorce and laws and how to get a lawyer when your ex has stolen all your savings--I also had the benefit of a stable job. I was better off after my divorce, financially, than I was before it. And now I have a husband who is as liberal and kind as a white man can be. I have known hell, but I also can breathe, I can insulate myself, somewhat, from the Handmaid's tale that I'm afraid is coming: I'm 41. I'm not having any more children, and my husband had a vasectomy so I don't have to worry about the availability of birth control or abortion. I have a stable job and a little pension and two incomes.

I could, I suppose, do what a lot of white women have chosen to do: enjoy my proximity to power and pretend that since I'm safe (now) that it's because the choices I made, that I had some control over my privilege, my safety. Or, I could be outraged like a lot of white women also are: suddenly cognizant that this system is fucked at the core, and designed to screw over every person who isn't a rich white man. But Jesus Christ, if we only pay attention when it affect us, if we only scream when we are ones on the firing line--well, in a White Supremacist Patriarchy, by the time white heterosexual-presenting women are being ground up, it's probably too late. And if not too late (please, let it not be too late), then shame on us for only giving a fuck about ourselves.

I am writing this mostly as a pep talk to myself. I have been so sad. I have wanted (and had to literally sit on my hands to prevent this) to hurt myself, to try to control the situation by locating the blame for my blinding hot rage and sadness on myself. I am writing this because I am the mother of two teenage boys. I am writing this because I am in a heterosexual relationship that is sanctioned by the state and the nation and by the White Supremacist Patriarchy.

I am writing this because I am angry and I am not going to be silent and I am not going to hurt myself in order to prevent the world from hurting me. I am writing this because I have the responsibilty to care about people other than myself, because i have the responsibility of privilege and because so help me god I will do everything I can to force the Rich White Men of the world to look at me and my sisters, look us in the eye, before we burn their fucking patriarchy to the ground.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Harvest Moon

My garden has been garbage this year. Two--literally--two zucchini, a handful of snap peas, a few cucumbers and maybe a dozen tomatoes. It's the equinox, and the majority of my tomatoes are still green on the vine. What went wrong?

A Midwestern girl, I guess I'm used to soil and climate that means: plant it and it will grow. Here, I'm not sure. All of my lettuce seeds failed this spring. Only now, in late September, have some of them--maybe one--sprouted. I amended my soil, watered. And yet, not much happened. When plants failed in Michigan it was for two reasons: deer and dogs. Nothing else. Here, there are no deer and the dogs have no access to the beds. Here, it's something different. There is no laissez-faire gardening in the Pacific Northwest, I guess.

But the chickens are laying, and we're going apple picking next weekend. But the chickens eat out of my palm come when I call them and I can hold them under my arm and they tolerate my snuggling. But Jonah and I stood on the second story deck last night and hollered at the family of five raccoons who were tap-dancing on the roof.

But the school year has begun--midterms for Jonah, start of the term at the college. But I'm still an administrator, five and a half years from a classroom and unsure of what to make of this, how to move forward. The full moon leaks into my office; when I pull tarot, I pull Justice, the Devil, the High Priestess. I haven't been able to write in weeks; I am glad for this season of darkness. Jonah and I don't have to travel for another four weeks; then it's the season of travel and miles and airplanes and I cannot yet open my thoughts to it. It's so good to have him home, to have him hug me every day when I get home from work, his tall, thin body in my arms. His head in the crook of my neck though he's taller than I am. How he runs outside every night and gathers the chickens, picks one of them up and talks to it, soothsayer. How we stood on the deck last night and yelled at the raccoons. When i was his age, I remember my father sitting int he back yard peppering the barn with a bb gun, 'shooting' at raccoons. When I heard them outside, I'd run out and caterwaul. One night, I brought two sauce pans and clanged them together. Both pans broke off their handles, and my father milled two new handles on his lathe. He loves telling these stories about me. How I scared the neighbor's daughter by sitting in my bedroom and, using my best witch voice, saying hello, little girl and how she'd scream and run home, how I'd scare the neighbors' cats, how I broke two sauce pans scaring off raccoons.

Last night my boy and I threw rocks from a bucket and I yelled get out of my yard motherfucking fuckingface raccoon king! and five pairs of eyes gleamed back at us, unfazed.

My dad shot the neighbor's dog with the bb gun when it cornered my sister in the garage. My dad got drunk on cheap American beer every night when he got home from his 12 hour day at the airport and went into his woodshop/the garage and made furniture, listened to the Cubs on WGN. Upstairs, we have the armoire he made--golden oak, solid AF, the clock I made in eighth grade (Jonah's age, my god) in shop class.

No one take shop class anymore. I'm in my office eating zucchini bread from our second zucchini, drinking moderately-priced sauvignon blanc.

My boy is upstairs, painting. Two weekends ago, he requested watercolors and has been experimenting.  R is in the living room with a belly ache, probably watching something violent and artsy on TV.

How does grace enter in? How does one relax enough to be okay?

A thin slab of moonlight on my desk. The youngest cat snoring on the rug.

I don't know. Hope is a four letter word.