One thing I didn’t expect when I began working with the Morrigan is how many forms Her messengers can take. I have always loved Her dark-winged children, of course, and their presence brings me great comfort and strength. Crows have been a constant in my life since I was a babe; my first word was even “caw!”. Yet I’ve learned over time that they aren’t Her only children. The Morrigan also utilizes other local birds as messengers and omens. Early in my devotion to Her I began finding feathers, but not just crow feathers. I found soft little striped owl feathers, long pink-hued northern flicker feathers, and sleek seagull feathers the color of ocean storms. I came across fragile robin eggshells and abandoned nests. Even more startling, I began spotting birds I had never seen in my part of the state before. At work I sometimes glimpse a California scrub jay who lives in some tree nearby. Driving home I was once accompanied for a time by a huge raven who glided low over my car and disappeared into the forest behind my neighborhood. And while I often spot red tailed hawks hanging out alongside the highway (courtesy of the Netjeru) or bald eagles soaring high in the summer sky (courtesy of my father), I also recently spotted a huge osprey on the hunt for a snack. Each feather, each glimpse of a wing or sharp beak, is an honor and a reminder of the Morrigan’s presence and power. You start to recognize which birds are Her messengers for you and which aren’t, but it’s important to keep an open mind. All the winged creatures of the sky can be Hers.
It has become such a trite phrase, an excuse for bad tattoos and wild partying. But what does it mean beyond those trivialities, beyond the shallowness of YOLO culture? What does it mean to truly live a regret-free life?
It means forgiving.
It means forgiving the past for taking you to this present. It means forgiving yourself for not understanding what was happening at the time, for not clinging to those final moments with tooth and nail. It means forgiving those who may have hastened that end through their carelessness or the flaws in a broken system. It means forgiving every person their lack of omniscience – yet especially yourself. It means forgiving yourself for the things you did and the things you did not do and how that closed all the doors on every possible future but one.
And it means accepting.
It means accepting that you can neither change the past nor predict how it will affect the future. It means accepting that we are only human and that we all make mistakes, every one of us every day, and nothing can change that either. It means accepting endings and embracing beginnings, always. It means accepting a new normal. It means accepting that new normals are not inherently bad, only different.
And it means being able to one day look upon a gravestone without flinching. It means knowing in your heart you did all you could and continue to do all you can. It is not an easy philosophy. It is not a philosophy of misspelled tattoos and drunken selfies. It is a philosophy of hope tempered with the weight of experience. It is a constant striving to do what you think is right in the moment and a constant forgiving of yourself and others once the moment has passed. It is closing the door on the past, yet never locking it.
I ask the Morrigan what side of Her I need to better understand and She shows me the Five of Pentacles. Traditionally this card portrays a ragged individual huddled in the snow outside a stone building, their gaunt features highlighted by warm light pouring from a nearby window. I realized when the Morrigan gave me this card that I make several automatic assumptions based on the image. First, that this person is a soldier, with the bandages on their arms or legs suggesting wounds earned in battle. Second, that this stone edifice they shelter beside is a church with a service currently in session. And third, that this soldier stands in the snow outside the church, begging for a coin or bite of bread, because the church refuses to succor them. Why these assumptions? I do not know, but I feel they are the core of the Morrigan’s message regardless of the card’s classical interpretation. To me, the Five of Pentacles shows how the church has turned away this old soldier and yet the Morrigan stands with him in the cold darkness. After the war ends, after the victories and defeats have faded to mere history, the Morrigan remembers all those who fought on both sides. She remembers – and She understands. She understands the ache of old wounds which refuse to heal. She understands the weight of memories too dark to share with loved ones. She understands the difficulty of returning to a society that values war yet devalues those who must wage it. The Morrigan is not only a goddess of battle; She is a goddess of war, and war does not end just because one has left the battlefield.
This is how I think it went down. After Anubis finished weighing my father’s heart on Ma’at’s grand scales – lighter than any feather, magic or otherwise, of course – he was met by Wepwawet to guide him through the underworld. Along the way they got to talking, bonding over a mutual appreciation for travel in all its forms by land, by air, and by sea. It is rare to meet another as knowledgeable as yourself in the more obscure aspects of your passion and they became fast friends.They probably shared about the classic cars they had owned and old motorcycles that had carried them faithfully down hot roads beneath a desert sun. Maybe they discussed the aircraft and ships which had shaped the course of human warfare or reminisced about the modes of travel long outdated by technological evolution.
(This is where the story gets hard for me to write. I keep deleting it. Ignoring it. Pretending I can’t see the scene so clearly. I can, though. And I want to tell it, I do, but it’s like my hands just… stop working. Revert back to heavy, lifeless clay. Not this time, though. Come on, just get it out!)
At the threshold to the Field of Reeds my father asked a favor from Wepwawet. He had left behind a teenage daughter, you see, and he worried for her safety. She wasn’t a very good driver, for one, and was often scatterbrained or easily distracted. Would Wepwawet look out for her as she moved through the world, just to make sure she got home each night in one piece? He gave my name and Wepwawet must have smiled, maybe even said something like, “She’s already known to us,” and assured my father He would keep an eye on me. And He has ever since, though He’s probably had to save my butt more times than I can count and I’m sure it’s a stressful promise to keep. But they’re kindred souls, I can feel it, and every time I feel Wepwawet’s presence I feel my father’s as well and know I am doubly blessed.
[ Hey, I added a “dad stuff” tag if anyone’s interested ]
Everyone says the Morrigan tears your life apart in order to rebuild you from the ground up, so that’s what I expected: rapid, inescapable destruction. I worried over when the hammer would drop and what part of my life it would utterly wreck. Would I see it coming? Would I have any agency in the matter? Would I even survive the breaking? No subtle goddess, She; surely Her lightning would strike without warning and send my carefully constructed tower crumbling to the ground.
Lightning did strike, though of course not in the way I expected. It was a flash of illumination, not destruction, and it revealed my tower in all its fearful glory. I knew then that the Morrigan had no intention of tearing down that tower – she intends me to do it. Brick by brick, inch by inch, I will dig at the mortar until my nails are cracked and bleeding. I have been building this tower all my life, though my work began in earnest when my father died eleven years ago. To dismantle my tower I will need to deal with the grief I locked away inside. And that is correct and right, I know it in my heart. After all, what do you learn from someone else doing the heavy lifting?
Still, part of me longs for the quick, crushing swing of the wrecking ball.
My mother and I share a lot of private memories, things for which only we were present – the time we got locked in a dark sauna and I was thoroughly convinced we were going to die; the time we accidentally ordered so much food at a Chinese restaurant that it was like the chocolate factory conveyor belt scene from I Love Lucy; the time our car was nearly hit by lightning during a tornado warning and we rode out the storm in a little diner in the middle of nowhere; all the times we sat talking over dinner or laughing at stupid reality TV. We share countless private memories between us, both mundane and magical, silly and serious, yet there is a specific shared memory which binds us beyond mother and daughter – a memory I have barely touched in the last eleven years.
I was fresh out of my first year of college, just eighteen years old, and my parents and I were on vacation in northern California. We had driven to the ranger station at the top of Mt. Lassen, a ride during which my mother had kept her eyes squeezed shut for fear of the steep cliff-side just feet from the car. She hated heights, hated seeing the tops of trees passing by below as the car wove its way up the steep, winding path, and probably didn’t trust her own driving skills enough to risk the attempt anyway. On the way down, though, she had to take the wheel and remain calm for us both while my father sat stunned in the front seat by an inexplicably painful and disorienting headache. We didn’t know why the headache struck so suddenly or with such force, only that he needed medical assistance – and so my mother faced her lifelong fear to get us all to safety. I knew she was on the edge of panic that whole drive down and yet she reined in her fear to keep her teenage daughter, who had never seen her beloved father so vulnerable, from panicking too. Thanks to her we made it safely back to the tiny town at the base of the mountain and hurried to the local hospital. If my father was cogent enough to commend my mother for her bravery at the time, I don’t remember… and at this point it’s only she and I who remain to tell the tale.
My mother is made of steel and I could provide a hundred examples of her strength just off the top of my head; anyone who knows her could. She fights for her family, for her friends, and for her community and has always set a positive example for everyone around her. However, I’m the only one who can offer up this particular memory as proof of her unyielding bravery. A check for a million dollars couldn’t have convinced my mother to make that stressful drive back to civilization on her own and yet she did. For my father, mysteriously sick, she did. For me, young and terrified, she did. Maybe if we had known what the upcoming days would ask of us she would have quailed at this first test, but all I remember is her determination in the face of the frightening unknown.
I talk a lot about the ways in which I’m like my father because I’m proud to carry them on in his name and make him present in every moment with me. However, what I should say more often is how much I hope I am like my mother. How I hope I have inherited her courage, strength, and conviction. How I hope I may act quickly and calmly to protect my little family when emergencies strike. How I hope I may so bravely face down any and all of my fears to do what is right for those I love. Anyone can tell you my mother is a little blond spitfire who doesn’t back down from a challenge, yet only I can tell you about the time I saw her at her bravest. It’s not a happy memory to share between us, nor are any of the other memories from the week that followed, but it remains preserved and clarified in my mind as testament to the strength for which I want always to strive.
Reading Master and Commander, or: Meet Your New Fandom
Last winter my father told me to read Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian. This might not seem very odd or momentous to you, but my father has been dead for eleven years. However, when I dreamed of us walking through a bookstore, looking for this exact title, I took the hint and grabbed the book off his shelf where the series has sat untouched all that time. I figured even if I didn’t like the book, I would read it in his honor and move on. Certainly I wasn’t going to attempt reading the entire 20-book series! I know next to nothing about the Napoleonic Wars, the British navy circa 1800, or Georgian society – while I might like the book okay, I just couldn’t imagine liking it enough to read the rest. So I started it with some trepidation… …and then my mind exploded and I developed a new and undeniably intense obsession. Hello, new fandom!
I’m here now to pass on the favor by telling you why you should read what is quite possibly the best western historical fiction of the 20th century, if not western fiction in general. But let’s start at the beginning. I’m betting most of you have no idea who Patrick O’Brian is or what Master and Commander is about, but you may know more than you think. Remember Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, that boat movie that came out in the early 2000s, the one with Russel Crowe and Paul Bettany as BFFs Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin? If you don’t, ask your dad – I think the movie is required viewing for all fathers. Either way, I will try with my mediocre literary powers to convince you why you should read this entire series right now. So here we go!
Master and Commander throws us into a world at war – it’s the year 1800 and Napoleon is fucking shit up all over Europe, much to the chagrin of the British Navy and her allies. Against this historical backdrop we are taken all across the world, from the icy waters of the Arctic to the blazing deserts of Africa, from the prim and proper society of Georgian England to deserted tropical islands beset by pirates, and everywhere in between. Many books take you to other places but this series does so with a depth of detail and historical accuracy that will leave you feeling like an expert historian.
But I don’t know anything about that time period! you say. Never fear! You don’t particularly need to. Look, high school history class failed me too – I know more about Napoleon from Assassin’s Creed: Unity than I do from any teacher I’ve ever had. Thankfully O’Brian understands the need for accessibility and flawlessly weaves any necessary explanations or information into the text in a way that educates without boring. As for the immense amount of nautical terms thrown back and forth, the reader is comforted in knowing Stephen Maturin has no idea what they mean either. However, I promise you that upon completing the series you could convince anyone that you’re an expert in early 19th century naval history, social status and etiquette, biology, ornithology, entomology, hydrography, naturalism, mathematics, astronomy, religion, medicine, imperialism and colonialism, and just about any other topic you could think of. The amount of research O’Brian had to do to make these books so believable is absolutely mind boggling.
This series is most commonly referred to as the “Aubrey/Maturin novels” or the “Aubreyad”, as the two main characters are naval captain Jack Aubrey and doctor/naturalist/spy Stephen Maturin. Theirs is one of the most beautiful, realistic, and enduring friendships I’ve encountered in any form of media and forms the true heart of the series. These two are such utter dorks that you can’t help but fall in love with them and turn eagerly to their next set of adventures.
On the outside Jack Aubrey is an ambitious naval captain who passionately loves the navy, his crew, and doing anything to foil Britain’s enemies by sea. On deck he’s a dashing master of his ship, called “Lucky Jack Aubrey” for his skill in battle and his frequent taking of prize ships. He bears a number of nasty scars as evidence of his firm belief that a captain must lead, not direct from the sidelines as his men head into danger. Even more, Jack is a man who sees the silver lining in every bad situation and always manages a smile in the face of danger or disaster. His seemingly endless fount of optimism endears him to the reader immediately, especially since we are offered glimpses of the emotional turmoil beneath which he hides not from pride but from the necessity of leadership. I would sail into battle with this man in a heartbeat.
On the inside, however, Jack Aubrey is a big squishy teddy bear and the king of dad jokes (even before he becomes a father). This man finds puns so funny that he laughs at his own before he says them, and laughs even when he can’t think of one to fit the situation. He’s just so tickled by puns and it’s adorable. He’s also quite fond of food and good alcohol, as well as a talented amateur violinist and astronomer. Jack appears at first like our usual dashing hero, eager for battle and flirting with all the pretty ladies, but this James Bond facade masks a dorky, good-humored man with a heart of gold who loves his family and friends fiercely. I love him so much it hurts.
On the outside Stephen Maturin is a singularly intelligent and talented surgeon and famed naturalist with a focus on ornithology (i.e. a huge fucking dork). He’s the most hopeless landlubber ever to fall into the ocean while trying to board a ship, his mastery of multiple languages no help when it comes to naval jargon, and the crew of the HMS Surprise has to constantly keep him from dying at sea. Stephen will go to extreme lengths to observe a particularly interesting bird and can happily monologue for hours about a new species of beetle. He’s your classic nerd: cranky, socially and physically awkward, unkempt, and simultaneously unbelievably smart and totally oblivious to everything around him. He’s everything I want to be.
On the inside, however, Stephen is a man driven by love of his home countries, Ireland and Catalonia, and his resulting abhorrence of all forms of colonialism and oppression, especially slavery. This leads him to become a valuable member of Britain’s spy network to stop Napoleon. Few characters know his secret but the reader is gifted with insight into Stephen’s activities and we come to understand just how dangerous an enemy he can be and how valuable an ally. Stephen’s nerdiness and clumsiness lead to some of the best laughs in the series, yet he can be colder and scarier than any other character. What he is at his core is a good man driven by higher principles and a truly exceptional love for weird birds.
Jack and Stephen might have stolen my heart by the end of the first paragraph (in which they get into a fight at a musical concert because Jack won’t stop air conducting), but the secondary characters are where this series truly outshines its contemporaries. Every single side character is as richly developed and complex as our protagonists and will capture your heart just as easily. From Jack’s loyal crew and officers to Stephen’s odd collection of wayward souls (many of whom are ex-slaves), both men manage to form an extended family of lovable and loving characters. One of my personal favorites is Tom Pullings, one of Jack’s young officers whom we watch grow from little midshipmen to captain of his own ship. His utter adoration for Jack is so sweet it makes me want to throw my book across the room:
“…All except for Pullings, who had the watch, and was walking the quarterdeck with his hands behind his back, pacing in as close an imitation of Captain Aubrey as his form could manage, and remembering, every now and then, to look stern, devilish, as like a right tartar as possible, in spite of his bubbling happiness.”
I know what you’re thinking. That’s great, but this just isn’t my genre. I know I’m gonna be bored. I need magic/sci-fi/paranormal-whatever. And you know what? That is FALSE. Look, I have extremely high standards for my fiction and while I’m a sci-fi/fantasy girl at heart, I’m drawn primarily these days to queer speculative fiction. Historical fiction set in 18th century England is not at all my cup of tea (pun intended)… or so I thought. But please understand the gravity of the following statement:
I have never read a more beautiful, well-written work of fiction than this series in my entire life.
It’s true! In just one book Patrick O’Brian surpassed Ray Bradbury as my Biggest Writing Hero Ever and every single book in the series is as fantastic as the next – how often does that happen? The prose is flawless, at once accessible and laden with historical accuracy, a fast-paced read rich with minute detail. What O’Brian does best, though, is his weaving of subtle humor into every scene; a reader paying close attention is rewarded with some truly humorous, one might even say silly, little scenes and asides. I have to share my two favorites, though they’re a little long:
“The sloth sneezed, and looking up, Jack caught its gaze fixed upon him; its inverted face had an expression of anxiety and concern. ‘Try a piece of this, old cock,’ he said, dipping his cake in the grog and proffering the sop. ‘It might put a little heart into you.’ The sloth sighed, closed its eyes, but gently absorbed the piece, and sighed again.
Some minutes later he felt a touch on his knee; the sloth had silently climbed down and it was standing there, its beady eyes looking up into his face, bright with expectation. More cake, more grog; growing confidence and esteem. After this, as soon as the drum had beat the retreat, the sloth would meet him, hurrying towards the door on its uneven legs: it was given its own bowl and would grip it with its claws, lowering its round face into it and pursing its lips to drink. Sometimes it went to sleep in this position, bowed over the emptiness.
“In this bucket,” said Stephen, walking into the cabin, “in this small half-bucket, now, I have the population of Dublin, London and Paris combined: these animalculae – what is the matter with the sloth?” It was curled on Jack’s knee, breathing heavily: its bowl and Jack’s glass stood empty on the table. Stephen picked it up, peered into its affable, bleary face, shoot it, and hung it upon its rope. It seized hold with one fore and one hind foot, letting the others dangle limp, and went to sleep.
Stephen looked sharply round, saw the decanter, smelt to the sloth, and cried, “Jack, you have debauched my sloth.””
And from the very first book in the series…
“‘I was contemplating on the Pongo,’ Stephen said aloud as the door opened and Jack walked in with a look of eager expectation, carrying a roll of music.
‘I am sure you were,’ cried Jack. ‘A damned creditable thing to be contemplating on, too. Now be a good fellow and take your other foot out of that basin—why on earth did you put it in?—and pull on your stockings, I beg. We have not a moment to lose. No, not blue stockings: we are going on to Mrs Harte’s party—to her rout.’
‘Must I put on silk stockings?’
‘Certainly you must put on silk stockings. And do show a leg, my dear chap: we shall be late, without you spread a little more canvas.’
‘You are always in such a hurry,’ said Stephen peevishly, groping among his possessions. A Montpellier snake glided out with a dry rustling sound and traversed the room in a series of extraordinarily elegant curves, its head held up some eighteen inches above the ground.
‘Oh, oh, oh,’ cried Jack, leaping on to a chair. ‘A snake!’
‘Will these do?’ asked Stephen. ‘They have a hole in them.’
‘Is it poisonous?’
‘Extremely so. I dare say it will attack you, directly. I have very little doubt of it. Was I to put the silk stockings over my worsted stockings, sure the hole would not show: but then, I should stifle with heat. Do not you find it uncommonly hot?’
‘Oh, it must be two fathoms long. Tell me, is it really poisonous? On your oath now?’
‘If you thrust your hand down its throat as far as its back teeth you may meet a little venom; but not otherwise. Malpolon monspessulanus is a very innocent serpent. I think of carrying a dozen aboard, for the rats—ah, if only I had more time, and if it were not for this foolish, illiberal persecution of reptiles … What a pitiful figure you do cut upon that chair, to be sure. Barney, Barney, buck or doe, Has kept me out of Channel Row,’ he sang to the serpent; and, deaf as an adder though it was, it looked happily into his face while he carried it away.”
Also, there’s literally a chapter in one book where our heroes escape from France by buying a recently skinned bear, turning it into a costume, and tricking everyone into believing Stephen is a traveling entertainer and Jack is his pet bear. They walk hundreds of miles to the freedom of the Spanish border over harsh terrain, sometimes acting for pennies in the town square, as Jack just suffers in this stuffy, slowly spoiling meat suit and no one suspects a thing. IT’S THE BEST.
These books aren’t just about laughs, though. They elicit emotions across the spectrum from joy to sorrow, anger to triumph, disbelief to nerve-wracking anticipation. They utterly captivate the reader from page one – twenty books won’t be enough once you get caught up in the Aubreyad! I’ve never read a series that made me want to simultaneously hug and throw my books as often as this series and I truly will be bereft when I finish the last book. This is a stunning example of “genre” fiction raised to the very heights of literature and a must-read for anyone who appreciates complex characterization and masterful prose. You will not be disappointed, I can absolutely promise you that.
As you can tell from my previous pieces, I’m not doing so great in the life department right now. A deep spiritual crisis has somehow perfectly coincided with both a supremely busy time in my life (getting married in 25 days, holy shit) and what feels like the worst depression I’ve ever experienced. I’m not just questioning my spiritual path – I’m questioning whether anything beyond the scientifically provable even exists, and whether there’s much point in our existence if it doesn’t. I feel listless and apathetic, and I’m really only getting the absolute minimum done in all aspects of my life. It’s not fun! Super not fun.
If you actually read to the end of this, wow, damn. I’d love to hear your feedback or insight!
It’s been ten years. Three thousand six hundred and fifty-two days. In that time, three years of college; three of Americorps; three with a ‘real’ job. Two degrees and one diploma. Four years with the woman I love, who you will never meet. Forty-two foster kittens. Some hundred thousand miles on my car. One car accident, zero broken bones. Two trips to Washington DC, one to Yosemite, one to Switzerland. One new Jurassic Park movie, which you’ll never watch with me, and too many Tremors sequels. Three tattoos, going on four. One wedding to plan and one to attend. Three times a bridesmaid and once a bride. Zero fathers to walk me down the aisle. Zero dads to dance with. Zero you but countless dreams and too many things I’ll never get to share with you.
I’m a member of the Dead Dads Club. It’s a shitty club and you don’t get to choose to become a member; one day it just happens, congratulations, you’re a member for life now. At first I didn’t dream about him at all, or if I did he was always in the periphery, silent, watchful. Then it was dreams where I didn’t know I was dreaming and he was back – he had never died, he had been resurrected, he just walked through the door one day and didn’t know years had passed. Then it was dreams where I didn’t know I was dreaming and we were just hanging out together – riding in his truck, baking chocolate chip cookies, me telling him about Assassin’s Creed. Then it was dreams where I knew it was a dream and he didn’t understand why I’d hold him hard and sob into his chest. Now it’s dreams where I know it’s a dream but I still tell him over and over and over again how much I want him to come to my wedding. I cry, hard and ugly, and the dream never lasts long enough. In the dream it feels unbearable, the thought that he’ll miss this, too, just like he missed so much else. When you’re in the Dead Dads Club, the list of things they miss just gets longer and longer, and yet you’re continually blindsided when something new comes up.
December 31st, 2015, 5:29 PM
From your last letter, it sounds like you were nervous for 2015. 2014 was a tough year and you were afraid all the stress and darkness would spill into 2015. That fear was unfounded, though. 2015 was a wonderful year. Not without its demons, of course, but as of today I think the scales tip in its favor. So much happened! The year began with Bast knocking – or maybe hammering – at your spiritual door. I’m so glad you let Her in when you did; taking up Her path has been a wondrous, awesome experience. Of course, She came when She did because of Bruno, who was finally diagnosed with stomach cancer. He’s doing well and fighting bravely… I just hope he’s still with you as you read this letter. He should be sixteen, almost as old as Trouble was when she passed. The years are never enough, though, are they? Not for cats or dads. You dealt with that a little this year; I hope you continued to deal with it in 2016. It’s okay to miss him. It’s okay to talk to him. To write to him. To feel him everywhere around you. He’s there.
I was glad to see you hadn’t fucked things up with Chriselle. Hopefully you still haven’t. If everything went according to plan, you should be reading this in the house Mom bought and that you currently rent with the woman you love. Maybe there’s even a ring on your finger – but if not, it’s okay. No rush, right? Every second with her is precious. I wonder if your quirky little family is any bigger? Perhaps you’ve added a certain orange tabby kitten who, as of writing this, you’re currently worrying and waffling over? Take strength from that family, from what you’ve accomplished and created. They’re worth any sacrifice, any risk, any leap of faith. I swear it.
I don’t really want to make any resolutions, so I’ll just say what I hope 2016 has in store for me. Er, you. Us? Anyway. I hope 2016 sees the continued growth, strengthening, and evolution of your relationship with Chriselle. I hope you have continued your journey down Bast’s path. I hope you faced your fears in taking on more responsibilities at work, and that that has paid off. I hope Bruno is still with you. I hope having a house is everything you want it to be. I hope your connection with Tanim and Daren is still strong, even if They can be jerks. Most of all, I hope things are good. I’m sure there will be hard, painful things to face in 2016, but I know you can make it through with the support of friends, family, and the noncorporeal. You’re rocking the tattoos and sidecut – what more could we want?
You know the path you’re supposed to take. If you have any fears going into 2017, just remember that; even blind, you walk a sure path. It’s okay to falter. If you need to stop and catch your breath, the path will still be there. The Wheel keeps on spinning. Let it spin.
P.S. Chriselle is still writing. You were watching her and she looked up and caught you staring. You can’t help it, though, she looks beautiful in candlelight. You’re so in love with her it’s overwhelming. Tonight you’ll sleep curled up next to each other in the bed you share, and that just might be the most wonderful thing in the world.
Except, maybe, for kitties.
This is a long time coming, I know. I’m not even sure what I’ll say here. Happy birthday, I guess. Did it ever feel weird to you to have been born on Pearl Harbor Day? I suppose everyone remembers the date that way, but what a downer, huh? Though it’s a day that will live in infamy for me for a different reason. A happy reason, I try to remember, though it’s more bittersweet than anything else. I wonder what you’d be like, if you had lived to see this birthday. A little older, a little grayer, but still strong as an ox, I’ll bet. I wonder what your current projects would be; the Model A, of course, and a Harley of some sort. Would you still have the ’56, or would you have sent it off to a new home in favor of some other needy vehicle? You’d like my car – he’s very reliable and I try to take good care of him. It’s hard, though, not having a dad to turn to for that stuff. We have Greg, of course. You’d have liked him, I think, even if you’re the exact opposites in temperament. Did you know it’s possible to put up the Christmas tree without swearing the entire time? I didn’t either!
I’m sitting at my desk right now, in my very own cubicle. How adult, huh? Don’t worry, though, I have pictures of cats everywhere and lots of Christmas decorations. Pictures of my girlfriend, too. I wish you could have met her. I think I wish that more than anything. You and Mom taught me what true love looks like and now that I’ve found it too, I’m trying my best to follow in your footsteps. To be the caretaker, the provider, the protector. It’s a small family I’m building, just us and a dog and Bruno (though we have transient foster kittens most of the time), but so incredibly important to me. Was this how you felt about us? Is that why you kept every school assignment, clay figurine, report card, childish doodle, and even my baby teeth? (That was SO GROSS. What a creepy surprise! Why did you keep those?) Is that why we keep finding old home videos? Those are what I’m most thankful for this holiday season, even if hearing you say my name nearly made me break down in tears.
I’m not ready to write all the stuff I need to say, I don’t think, but I can say this – even eight years later, you’re still teaching me and I’m taking those lessons to heart. I might have regrets, but I’m doing my best to prevent any others.I’m doing my best to live the life you would want me to live. I think I’m doing pretty well so far. What do you think?
When will the dawning break? Oh endless night
Sleepless I dream of the day when you were by my side
Guiding my path; Father, I can’t find the way
You promised you’d be there whenever I needed you
Whenever I call your name you’re not anywhere
I’m trying to hold on, just waiting to hear your voice
One word, just a word will do to end this nightmare
Sometimes I feel like I’m overflowing with all the things I want to tell you. They’ve accumulated over the years, you know? Eight years of stories, questions, secrets, interesting facts and finds. I want to tell you about Rose’s Pawn Shop; I think you’d get a kick out of the fact that my favorite band is a bluegrass band. I want to tell you I ended up majoring in Geoscience and History, not English; would that surprise you, or not? I want to tell you about this Roger Zelazny short story I read – it has the Mary Celeste and the Flying Dutchman in it! I want to tell you about field work in New Mexico, climbing to the base of the Nisqually glacier, studying Japanese biological warfare, and the crazy, wonderful professors who made that all possible. I want to tell you about trying to explain recycling to immigrants from Sudan, Vietnam, Ukraine; I want to tell you about teaching emergency preparedness to children and teenagers and adults. I want to make you see Jurassic World with me, even though we both know it will be awful. I want us to go see Jaws in theaters for its 40th anniversary. I want to tell you I remember the first time we watched that movie, and every movie you ever showed me. I want to tell you I discovered the magic and power of Bradbury too late to discuss him with you, and I’ll always regret that. I want to tell you I’ve finally fallen in love, and I know you’d like her, and I know you’d be happy for us. I want to tell you I look at time differently now, and relationships, and life. I want to tell you we’re okay, but we miss you terribly, and things can’t ever be the same.
I know that the night must end
And that the sun will rise, and that the sun will rise
I know that the clouds must clear
And that the sun will shine, and that the sun will shine
I know that the night must end
I know that the sun will rise
And I’ll hear your voice deep inside
happy birthday, Dad
wish we could take one last ride
I’d give anything
“Like Father, Like Daughter”
channeling my dad
I stomp up and down the stairs
sighing and cursing
[ My dad was a laid back guy but he had quite the fiery Italian temper, which I inherited in spades. I had some computer/printer difficulties at work the other day and as I was trudging upstairs once more from the printer to my office, swearing unprofessionally under my breath, I realized I sounded just like my dad whenever he had to do something particularly irritating like fix the dryer or a leaky sink. It comforted me to feel like my dad was beside me, also cussing up a storm and trying not to kick the printer into cooperation. ]
in my dream, cookies
fresh baked, warm from the oven
Dad grins ’round a bite
[ If you’re interested, I wrote an essay a couple years ago about my father, his influence on me, and the circumstances of his death: Keep Your Sandwich Dry ]
[ A year old English assignment on “home” that I discovered in the bowels of my external hard drive. A bit on the cheesy side, I admit, but girls who lose their fathers at eighteen are allowed to be nostalgic. ]
Some may say my childhood home is cluttered, or lacks a cohesive design style – I say my home is made of history. Daily histories are piled on the floor by the front door: my father’s work boots, mud-caked from tromping through the wet lands in front of our property; a stack of homework, mine or my sister’s, spilling out of a hastily discarded backpack; dainty high-heeled shoes traded by my mother for a worn pair of slippers after a wearying work day. Personal histories plaster the walls and shelves: my parents’ wedding photo hanging above the mantle, with my father’s Marine Corps saber below; grade-school pictures stashed in mismatched frames along the stairwell, a visual progression of embarrassing outfits and home-cut bangs; a life’s worth of height marks dutifully recorded on the kitchen door frame as my sister and I struggle to beat each other by a centimeter or an inch. Family histories, however, those steeped in the familiar and weighty word tradition, are the intangible qualities that transform this house into a home: the quiet crinkle of my mother turning a newspaper page as she sits at the kitchen table; my father humming along to Arlo Guthrie as he chops vegetables for tonight’s beef stew; the mysterious and enviable maturity of my sister’s closed bedroom door. Every sight, every sound, every scent is a history, and this history is my foundation.
I dreamed I was attending my best friend’s wedding in a house beside a wide, pebbly beach. My father was there. As the guests began to leave I caught his arm and asked if we could walk on the beach together before he left. He laughed and said that I could always walk on the beach. “Not with you,” I replied, and he nodded at the truth of my words. So we made our way down the wooden steps of the house and out onto the sunset painted beach. I saw green anemones shrunken tight away from the air and prodded them with my bare toes, giggling “look, squishies!” as I had done so often as a little girl. I glimpsed jellyfish drifting lazily in the rising tide and smelled the salt water breeze as it ruffled my hair. At one point as I walked at his side, my father held out his arm and shoved me playfully so that I tripped on the sand crusted beach rocks and stumbled into the shallow water. As the icy liquid hit my skin I gasped and glared, bending down to splash a scoop back at him. He laughed. I laughed. It was a good dream, though short was our time together. I would give anything to have my father back for a day, an hour, a single moment, but at least sometimes the dreams are kind to me.
The summer wears on me, endless and harsh. I didn’t used to find the heat and the light so oppressive. I remember when I danced beneath the Sun until my skin burned to olive and twigs tangled my long hair. I remember when I passed lazy evenings with my body sprawled out in the cool grass, staring as tiny potato bugs crawled among the clover. I remember wild blackberries and fallen apples warmed by the Sun, and bare feet sinking into moist wetland mud. But these things are not part of my summer now, and so the weary procession of days only serves as reminder of all that is lost to me. There are no more streams to leap over or plum trees to duck beneath. There are no more Sunday sojourns to pick berries until my fingers are stained sweet and purple. There is no more father to trail after like a tiny shadow, soaking up laughter and knowledge and memories. There is no father at all, now, so why should I greet the summer with anything but scorn? I just want to sleep. Through today, through tomorrow, through August and September and all the long, hot months that hurt me so terribly. I just want to bury myself deep beneath the chill black earth and slumber in last autumn’s rotting leaves until the Sun finally sinks and merciful fall returns. Then, perhaps, I will wake again.
Such a strange day indeed. Peter hugged me so hard I thought I might break in two, but he was laughing as he hugged me and it was such a heartfelt, surprised laugh, like he hadn’t realized how much he meant to me or how much I would miss him. But he’s one of my best friends, regardless of whether he’s also my professor. Not my professor now, anyway. Just friend, and always mentor. Stacy and Erika were crying. I was crying too, a little bit, but it was strange to see them cry and want to comfort them even though the tears were happy as well as sad. Tiny family, we’ll see each other soon. We’re close, despite mountains and islands and all the things that might try to separate us. I always thought I had a small family, smaller now without my dad, but today I realized how wrong I was. I have a huge family. It’s a mish-mash, bits of other families stolen for mine like outer electrons, but it’s my family and it’s perfect. Karla and Caroline hugged and hugged me, and in their hugs were sixteen years of all girl camping trips and late nights spent laughing over kitchen tables and cheap white wine. Karisa hugged me, and in her embrace was the first day of eighth grade, and us both new and so nervous to find a kindred soul in a crowd of strangers. And Ed hugged me. Ed came, sat alone in an auditorium of families for three hours just so he could watch his best friend’s daughter walk across the stage. Just so that the piece of himself that my father left with him would also be there, and I did see that piece, I saw it in Ed’s eyes and his sweet, sad smile, and the weariness that must come from outliving a man in whom you saw so much of yourself. Ed came, and in his hug I felt my father, felt every father, and could not express my love or gratitude. I have a tiny family. I have a mother and a sister, an uncle who will always be part of our core no matter where he lives, and now a brother-in-law (just brother, just brother). But like an atom, that’s just one shell. Go outward, and suddenly there are other family members revolving around our little nucleus. There are old friends, friends from ballet and photography class who journeyed far to share this joyous day; there are professors who have given me the kind word or harder shove to push me back on track; there are adopted parents of friends and significant others who have no duty to me, but are here because they are moved by love. And there are soul mates. There are the friends who cried with me at midnight and laughed with me at two AM. The friends who suffered with me, celebrated with me, opened up to me and loved me unconditionally when I opened up to them. I feel like I am in free fall, moving fast from the world I knew and into one I cannot predict, cannot control, but far below there is a safety net. When I need it, it will cushion my fall. When I need them, my strange family will catch me. Right now my mind is muddled and I know I’m not making sense, not saying what I want to say or need to say, but somehow I’m not too worried. I know I won’t forget today. I know I don’t need to copy down every emotion into words (impossible, anyway), because I will always feel this awe. This love. This acceptance and want and protection. Today hurts without my father here to crush me in his adoring embrace, but I have hugged so many of my beloveds in my arms today that it almost (but never quite) makes up for his absence. He would be so proud of the family I have forged. I am so proud of the family I have forged.
[ My third English essay: the autobiographical one. This essay deals with my father’s life philosophy of “keeping your sandwich dry”, as well as our relationship and how it shaped the person I am today. The topic is very important to me, so I hope everyone enjoys this piece. ]
[ English assignment: short paragraph on your “ideal meal”. What would your ideal meal be? ]
The ideal meal cannot be found in adulthood. The ideal meal is so steeped in tradition and memory that it can only be found in the nostalgia of childhood, for the years which have passed since that moment wash everything in warm colors and sweet flavors. Nor can the ideal meal be recreated now; it remains in the realm of childhood, preserved with perfect clarity by a mind young enough to truly appreciate simplicity at its finest.
For me, that ideal meal could only be had twice a year. It was the eagerly anticipated dinner break between a four hour dress rehearsal and curtain call, forty-five precious minutes of freedom before I would have to return to South Kitsap High School for a three hour dance recital. Despite my pudgy and uncoordinated ten year old body, as well as my affinity for sweat pants and Harley Davidson t-shirts, I was a ballerina. You would not know it from my eating habits, of course. During the dress rehearsal break of every semi-annual performance, my parents would take me out for dinner to the same restaurant: A&W. This was not your run of the mill fast-food joint, though. This A&W was a staple of the Port Orchard community, a throw-back to earlier times when you could still order malts and people other than my fifty year old father drove Model A’s and ’56 Chevies. It was not the forced retro of a 50s style diner built in the 90s, but the old-school sort of greasy spoon that reminded me of car shows and swap meets and southern California.
Like any picky ten year old who despises all deviations from tradition, I always ordered the exact same meal: two corn dogs and a root beer float. The corn dogs, like every other item at this A&W, were made with more love than is possible at any fast food joint these days. The thick coating of cornbread was perfectly fried, golden and crispy on the outside but still buttery on the inside, like breaded sunlight. I peeled the cornbread off the corn dogs in long strips, savoring the moist crumbs which clung to what were now basically hot dogs on sticks. Between bites I sipped at my root beer float, stabbing at the mass of vanilla ice cream to submerge it beneath the frigid root beer. As the ice cream slowly melted, it swirled and mixed with the root beer to form a cream-sickle-like drink, the perfect compliment to the delicately fried corn dogs. Once I had devoured the cornbread, which always happened far too quickly for my likes, I turned my attention to the breadless hot dogs. They never interested me much without their tasty coating, but under my father’s watchful eye I always made the effort to dip them in a liberal dollop of ketchup and finish them anyway. Then, having drained the last sugary drop of root beer float from its mug and licked my fingers clean of ketchup and cornbread, I prepared to have my unruly hair stuffed into a bun and don my frilly tutu. Forty-five minutes of corn dog bliss at A&W was totally worth the three hour ballet recital.
Sometimes the meaning of my dreams is so obvious that I feel like I’m beaten over the head with symbolism. For example, a dream in which I nearly drowned, literally, in my living room in an ocean of misery spawned by my father’s grieving ghost.
The baby egg is actually really tasty; I’m sorry I didn’t listen sooner. V8 Juice is still kinda awful, but I’m trying to learn to like it anyway because it’s healthy and I want to take care of myself. Despite all my misgivings about the future, and possibly a few about the present, I think you’d be proud.
I miss you.
In my dreams my father nods to me as we pass in the crowd, and before I fall asleep my inner child whispers fairy tales in my ear. I knew I would not wish to write of such things in the morning but I will attempt to do so anyway. The autoclave technician reminds me a bit of my father, if only because his smile is genuine and he laughs as he works, and last night that little girl told me she had built a kingdom in my absence. She said see? and I saw. There were valleys so deep they cradled the Sun itself as it set each night. There were oceans so wide the dawn could not touch upon all waters at once. There were rivers from which one could drink the stars and plains where golden grasses grew horses as wild as the wind. And there were mountains. There were mountains so vast they devoured the horizon, so high they cleaved the very sky in two. What does God do with mountains, she asked me as we lay in the dark, that rise almost to Heaven?
Walked to the grocery store today. Pumpkins and squash and Indian corn ripe to overflowing on the shelves, nestled among autumn’s leaves and a scent I could have sworn the store had stolen from my home on Thanksgiving evening. And in that produce aisle of reds, oranges, afternoon golds that taste like honey? Italian plums. When they caught my eye I stopped in my tracks, suddenly frozen, suddenly somewhere else and sometime else and, possibly, someone else. Dappled leaves overhead, warm grass crushed beneath my knees, summer prickling my burnt-brown skin. Although I had not thought of this Wonderland for, God, how many years? it was all around me and I recalled its every living, breathing detail. A forest, a tanglewood, a massive castle of plum tree branches with a high court inside for the child brave enough to push through leaves thick with fruit and spiders to claim it as her own. A child brave enough with golden retrievers at her side to swipe their happy tails like machetes and a father-king to guard the drawbridge from unwanted arachnid visitors. So I stood there in the produce aisle, my shopping forgotten, as in my memory I crawled through the summer ripened kingdom in which I had spent so many years of my perfect autumn childhood, ripe plums clutched in my dirty fingers and the warm air thick with sweet flowered scents. And in recalling these things I suddenly missed my father so vehemently that I was not sure whether to cry, hurting from the years between then and now, or laugh, remembering the taste of fresh plums and my father asking, “What’s worse than finding a worm in your plum?” only to take a bite and answer with a grin, “half a worm!”. I had laughed then, absolutely delighted, and so I laughed now with both love and longing and continued on my way, thanking my own strange Providence for the gift of a memory too long buried but so easily retrieved by a bit of fresh fruit.
Once upon this time there is a woman. She is young and beautiful and could have the world at her fingertips, if only she would reach out and grasp it. So why doesn’t she? It is because this tragic young woman is too consumed by the quest she has dedicated her life to fulfilling to acknowledge the world around her. When she was a child her father told her a legend about a lake hidden deep in the wild mountains. In the center of this lake supposedly towers a jagged rock, and any person who sails to the center of the lake and touches the rock will have their greatest wish granted. Every day and every month and every year of her life since, the girl and now woman has searched for the enchanted lake. She scours every body of water she encounters, memorizes maps and charts ships and planes and trains to take her across the land. She searches a hundred lakes a year, every year.
On this once upon a time her searching brings her to her 2,785th lake. It is a frigid body of glacial melt water bordered on all sides by steep mountain cliffs. She steps into her little wooden boat and pushes off from the shore, paddling through the mist and silence. The lake is not wide but it is very long and as she paddles the Sun sets and the night descends. The mist glows gently in the moonlight and the ripples dance from the paddle as she sails, sails, sails.
And then the rock rises before her in the darkness. It pierces the sky, a monolith of stone like smooth black glass. The prow of her boat bumps gently against the rock’s face and then comes to rest. The woman trembles and slowly, so slowly reaches out her hand. She places her palm against the wall of stone and–
–is in her father’s arms.
“My princess,” he is saying as he lifts her little child body up, “whatever are you crying for?” He wipes away her tears with fingers that are gloved in white satin. How can it be him? How can he be here? His voice is just as she remembers it, so kind and gentle, and his eyes are exactly as she recalls them, sparkling with sweet amusement behind round glass lenses. He is not a day older than when she last saw him, and as on that distant day he is dressed in his funeral finery. She reaches out to touch his cheek and his skin is as warm as hers.
He smiles in a way she has never seen before, an expression that is so impossibly sad that it should not be called a smile at all. He strokes her golden curls fondly and says her name once, twice, three times under his breath. Why is he so sad?
“Princess,” he holds her closer, “do you know why you are here?” She buries her face against his neck and breathes in his scent of paper and ink and woodsmoke. He kisses the crown of her head, like he did when she was a child. “You’ve been asleep, dearest. All these years, all the time between my death and this moment right here, you’ve been like Sleeping Beauty trapped in her castle. You haven’t lived. You haven’t experienced all the things I hoped for you. All the things I wanted to show you but never had the chance to. I wanted you to see the world and… you haven’t seen a thing.” He cradles her in his arms and she cannot remember another time in her life when she has heard his voice tremble with tears. He kisses her again. “You have to wake up. You have to live for me.”
The young woman wakes in the bottom of her small boat. The lake is very still, and dawn is just beginning to lighten the sky. The stone at the center of the lake has vanished.
Today was of such a nostalgic peacefulness that I feel I should remark upon it. The dead, dry air of the past weeks dispersed last night amid jagged bolts of distant lightning and by morning the cool Washington weather had made itself known once again. I woke this morning, like I woke every morning of my high school years and have not since in my college years, to dreary rain blanketing Vashon island and the gray arm of water between its shores and our own. No trace of Summer’s brilliant blue skies or burning Sun could be seen; there was only the white fog moving across both water and land, snagging like soft wool on the tops of the cedar trees. It was a morning from my childhood, painfully absent in my current location and recaptured only on these rare sojourns back to my true home.
The fragile mirage of Winter lasted the day, not evaporating away before the might of August like I feared it might. It rained, and continued to rain, and fogged, and continued to fog. I cleaned my half-abandoned room in a poor effort to restore it to its former glory, as a clean room is always of some odd comfort. I lit candles which melted the air into golden ribbons and dusted it with the scent of vanilla. I wrapped myself in blankets soft as rabbit fur and napped with warm, purring cats. The day passed in this way, quiet, sweet, and the Sun set early behind dark rain clouds. Now as I sit my room is of honeyed light and gentle silence and very much like all those Winter nights I spent in here as a child and which of late I have been aching for and needing to calm my stormy Autumn soul. True, there are missing pieces which I will never be able to regain, which have slipped from my fingers forever. On a night like this I should smell the scent of homemade stew cooking, drifting up the stairs as good stew-mood music, perhaps Arlo Guthrie or The Irish Rovers, plays softly from the living room. In a few moments my father should yell up the stairs to me, whistling and calling “Miss Elyssie” down to dinner. These are the things from my childhood, however recent they must actually have been, which I shall never have back. Still, I reclaimed a small fragment of this Winter night soul of mine today and tonight, warm in my home as the world outside falls to peaceful slumbering.