There is the sense of language trapped like dank water caught in an old tire, or a swamp stagnating in the harsh sun….no mystery or energy rippling beneath its surface…and it will stay there unless you dig a small trench, with a shovel or even a thin, sturdy stick, from the pool towards a descending curve of the earth, gravity drawing the water gently, incessantly through the channel you’ve dug, a trickle turning to a steady stream, leaves caught in the current, turning one direction and then another, their green and yellow edges twisting, spinning, revealing the water’s intentions that flow beneath its surface.

There’s the new job, of course; the phone calls and the registration forms and the credit card numbers scrawled at the bottom of handwritten faxes. Vaccination records and adoption certificates copied and stapled. And then the names, all the names: Luna and Lulu and Marley and Tulley and Sammy and Jake and Booyah and Kayla and Titan and Oscar. Classes and dates, scrawled, crossed-out, underlined, last-minute pleadings we’re having an obedience emergency, please please can we get into the class tonight and Excel spreadsheets with fields copied, cut, pasted as the capricious nature of people and their dogs and their schedules demand.

And I’m tired; every new job leaves me tired, my worry of the small details, the folders and the receipts and the waiting lists and the voice mails. It takes time, to adjust, to streamline the chaos left by the former coordinator, to page through stacks of unreturned calls and expired credit cards and letters of complaint. To steel myself for each call, each voice a little world of worry or privilege or frustration. Every employer I’ve ever had has been damn lucky to have me.

But I’m happy when I’m busy…the laws of physics propelling me forward a body in motion stays in motion but to write I need to sit still, to have a few moments of silence.

And the doubt. Reading the words of other online journals, just one or two, here and there, the cynicism and the posturing…I absorb it, take it too seriously, too personally…like a drug injected, humming with the blood rushing through my veins. And one or two ruin it for me, just one or two detract from the brightness and the generosity all the others pour out. Resolution #1. Stop reading the one or two. Or better, don’t take it personally. Instead, go back, read the ones I love, and see in them their singular human flawed sacred life, all their own, see them write it down, see them try, each day, to say it, say their lives, their private vocabularies spinning language, sewing one word to the next, raising the tattered cloth on flagpoles that sing as the cords strike the metal and bounce back towards the sky. “All I can say” the emerald-eyed poet wrote, snapping pictures of the lights flying past her on the bridge.

You either get it or you don’t, the atomic monkey boy said, his voice brushing my ear though several states separated us. He meant, I think, that at least the two of us get it. I hope I get it, I hope I always get it. I hope I always have in my life those that get it.

But I do. And I will.

Tonight, stepping out of the cabin and into the dark; moonlight glowing across the snowdrifts, I hear…nothing. Silence; no hum of motors or city life. My ears buzzing with the absence of sound. My footsteps on the wooden staircase, the slush squeaking under my boots. I stop, stand still for the first time in days. I listen to the silence, drinking it in, pulling it around me. Then wind rushing through the tall pines and, in the moments of calm, the sound of wet snow falling in a clearing, a hundred feet away.


Three years ago, when my mother was still alive, when I had moved back to Minneapolis for a few months, I was talking with her partner, Lee…someplace, in some room. The kitchen (the warm center of their warm house)? Or a waiting room at the hospital? There were two surgeries during those six months. When the muscles that controlled her swallowing failed, she had a stomach tube implanted. Yes, that was it. I was still staying in their house, a week or two before I moved into the little studio apartment on Franklin Avenue. Mom had stayed at the hospital the night before, and Lee and I were to join her in the morning, and wait through the surgery. I woke early; a dark, cold, winter morning, and I could hear the shower running in the bathroom down the hall. And I could hear Lee crying in the shower, her sobs not quite covered by the water, and the sound filled me with dread.

Later, in the waiting room; the florescent lights buzzing overhead and the orange-upholstered chairs we sat in; old copies of People and Reader’s Digest piled on the table beside me. Lee told me about the previous year, when she first knew. They were in Orlando with friends. In the hotel room on the morning of their departure, Mom had started to pack her bag for the return trip to Minneapolis. But she was packing her clothes into Lee’s bag.

“What are you doing, Susan? That’s my bag,” Lee had said.

My mother stopped for a moment and stood there, her face empty. Lee could see the machinery of my mother’s thoughts groan and shudder.

“And my heart just fell,” Lee told me.

What may have been just a small incident to anyone else was, for Lee, a dark omen of the terrible future rushing towards them. Lee, a retired nurse and my mother’s companion for twenty years, knew it meant trouble.


I had wanted to be alone for the weekend, to fulfill the romantic notion of a writer in a cabin, surrounded by snow and trees. But Tahoe isn’t cheap, and the cabin is shared by five of us for the winter, and at the last minute my former boss’ boyfriend asked if he could tag along. I was disappointed but said yes. After all, I’m learning, or trying, to accept what life offers, rather than say no when my expectations aren’t met.

During the four-hour car trip I realized that I hadn’t been around a straight man in a very long time. Everyone I know in San Francisco is either a gay man or a woman. But we managed just fine. We had Veronica in common, and there were movies to discuss. The traffic was slow but steady. Rain showers fell the whole way, and though I expected it to turn to snow as we neared the lake, the rain only flirted with the cold; a few fat, wet flakes struck the windshield as the light drained from the sky. I was grateful for my Subaru and I was grateful for Mike as I drove us around the curves in the dark; he knew where to turn, and where the cabin sat waiting for us. He also knew where to find the light switch as we stumbled in with our bags and groceries.

“As you can see,” Mike said, gesturing to the living room, “It’s decorated in Early Butt-Ugly.” Indeed. Brown pile carpeting, strangely-shaped orange couches, a clock fashioned from a piece of varnished wood. I took Louie back outside. He hadn’t seen snow since we left Minneapolis over five years ago and he trotted nervously along the snowbanks in the driveway, unsure of where to pee.

He was a different dog the next morning. Mike and I strapped on snowshoes and set off on a trail that led from the back of the cabin up into the woods, and Louie charged ahead, his tail wagging, alert and excited. The trees were frosted with snow, and some were covered in a pale green moss that grew despite the cold. It was a mild winter morning; I stuck my gloves into my back pocket and shuffled after Mike, who was much better equipped with appropriate hiking gear. He had one of those backpacks with a plastic tube that snaked out of the zippered enclosure and over his shoulder, offering a cool supply of water. He even had two walkie-talkies, in case of…well, just in case.

The only sound in the woods was the muffled crunching of our shoes along the trail, and the snow melting and dripping from the branches around us. I shuffled along, as Veronica had suggested. My inclination was to raise my feet high off the ground, but the raised lip of the snowshoe’s toe seemed to thwart any potential face-falls. We followed the trail up the side of the hill, pausing to snap pictures here and there. After an hour or so we reached a spot that offered views of the mountain peaks and the pale grey surface of the lake. Mike was ready to turn back, but I wanted to climb higher. We parted company, and I promised to call on the walkie-talkie should I get lost.

Louie and I continued up. The trail was thinning out; fewer hikers and skiers had come this far recently. The snow grew lighter and my shoes plunged through the powder. Finally, after another thirty minutes, we reached the top of the ridge, and I turned to see the panorama of Lake Tahoe and the winter woods below us. It was good to be alone, just me and my dog, and to have accomplished something. I followed the ridge till all traces of the trail vanished and it was just fresh, deep powder ahead. Louie lay in the snow, ears cocked, scanning the horizon like a king surveying his land. I stopped to listen again to the silence, the air still, the trees dripping. My breath was shallow, under my clothes a layer of sweat clung to me. I looked around at the surrounding mountains and the low clouds hanging just across the way, no higher than where I stood, panting.

But honestly the hours aren’t the problem. Or rather, they are, but not in the sense that Viriginia Woolf implied. Instead of enduring the hours, I can’t seem to get enough. Where the hell did they go, all those hours? Was that really me, a year ago, playing Tomb Raider for days at a time? My God, what waste. There’s so much to do, 48 voicemails to return, a new (read: merely super-expanded-without-pay) job to wrassle to the ground; my blog surfing cut short, exquisite e-mails from strangers to answer, sponsees to meet, steps to discuss, the gym because I must look good, a freelance writing gig for a friend due tomorrow, errands to run (a paper towell wedged into the coffee maker now that the filters ran out) , six half-read books at bed-side, two magazines at toilet-side, laundry accumulating, the dog (oh yeah, the dog) to walk, kill the television, send back Sopranos season 2 to Netflix, watch Bjork lose her sight sometime this week, start the new writing class Wednesday night, and blog, yes, we must blog, must always blog and have something interesting to say, and said artfully, speaking of art wander dazed, chilled, laughing through the Richter show, dodging docent tours while wishing the monkey boy was here, oh need that form notarized and that check dropped and draw some blood and get eight hours of sleep.

I am sharing a cabin up at Tahoe this winter. I think it’s empty this weekend, I’m gonna go.

The Pull of Water

The sandy cliffs are carpeted with ice plants; we descend slowly, the hills crumbling beneath our feet, mist hanging in the air. Louie sniffs at the ground, lagging behind, but as we reach the crest of the final hill he charges down the steep grade onto the thin strip of beach, startling a flock of sandpipers into flight. The high winter tide plays with us; waves sweep across the full expanse of beach and up to the edge of the cliffs. We run together, try to climb the eroding cliffs as the waves rush towards us, water pooling and churning around our feet, soft clay sucking us in. Louie gets ahead of me, and my heart catches for a second as the waves wrap themselves around his body, his head turning towards me as he’s carried back towards the ocean. He struggles free and with a moment of empty beach we run together towards a wider section, the waves chasing us.

Later, after the gym, I sit in my car in the parking garage, biting into a ripe mango, the juice running down my chin and fingers. My body reacts as if I’ve never eaten; I devour the fruit, sucking it down.

The 10:25 showing of The Hours, I sit alone near the back, moving my legs as couples pass my seat. I hunch down as the lights dim, clutching a cup of coffee.

Strange, how I react sometimes. When an author I’ve loved for years, whose books I’ve read and held onto through several moves, when his work begins to reach a wider audience. I wanted Michael Cunningham to win the Pulitzer, but I also wanted to keep him all to myself. And his characters, from all three books, have lived a little in me, or maybe I’ve lived through them. And it is exhilirating to see them lit from within on a giant screen in the dark, inhabited by actors and actresses I love. But I want them to myself. Or rather, I want to protect them. Because only I can understand them; I have that conceit, sometimes, as if I alone have supernatural qualities that enable me to fully comprehend an author’s constructed world. I want to hold his characters close to me, their fragilities safe in my arms. Because I know this: she felt the dark sensation around her, the nowhere feeling, and knew it was going to be a difficult day and I know this: she can feel the nearness of the old devil (what else to call it?), and she knows she will be utterly alone if and when the devil chooses to appear again (funny, even Tennessee Williams called them “the blue devils”) and I know this: “But there are still the hours, aren’t there? One and then another, and you get through that one and then, my god, there’s another.” (and how could it be that when I first read the book, several years ago, I didn’t understand the title?) and I know this: Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more. Because yes, even though I’ve had my share of those hours, I still want more, of everything, it’s not something I can give up. And because these women and men, made from combinations of words across a page, because they know the doubt and the soul-numbing fear and the undependable love they feel for each other; because of this I want to protect them, from the crowds and the ignorants and the never-saddened, I want to hold them tight in the dark theater, I don’t want to hear the chatter around me as the lights come up again, I don’t want to walk back to my car in that parking garage and hear around me the debates and the frustrations why did she have to kill herself? because I am conceited that way; I alone understand these women and men, I cannot trust their lives to the people around me.

Going to the Chapel

A month after the diagnosis she sends me an e-mail:

Dear Michael,

How are you? I am doing okay but have been sad lately. Mary Thornton is holding a healing service for me at Plymouth on December 23rd. It doesn’t change the fact that I am dying, but it will be nice to have friends and family there. I am so sorry lately. I’m so sorry that I won’t get to see you and David grow old together.


David and I don’t know yet that we won’t grow old together. Maybe we have our suspicions. And I don’t know what a healing service is, exactly. It sounds a little New Age-y and gross. But she’s my mother. David and I fly to Minneapolis.

We gather together on the evening of the 23rd in the small chapel at Plymouth Congregational Church, off of Franklin Avenue downtown. Family and friends; maybe thirty people altogether. I sit in the first wooden pew with David on one side, my brother Mark on the other. Mom next to him. Lee, her lover of twenty years, beside her.

The red carpet below our feet stretches up the aisle to the three small steps leading to the alter. A simple wooden cross hangs overhead. The walls are bare and white. There are stained glass windows set high around us, though at night they only appear dark.

Mary Thornton is a lesbian minister that my mother has been confiding in since her diagnosis. She’s a tiny woman; no more than 5 feet tall, with short dark hair shot through with grey strands, and green eyes that never leave yours during conversation. She wears a small gold cross on a chain around her neck. She stands before us at the front of the altar, and she smiles.

“Thank you all for coming, for joining us here today.”

I look over at my mother, who is gazing up at Mary with an almost childlike expression of trust. A stab of grief tears through me, and I look down at my legs. I run my finger along the crease in my pants; the only nice pair I own. David sits beside me, mute and withdrawn. He doesn’t like to talk about what’s happening to my mom, and for a second there in the chapel I hate him.

“We’re here to show our love and support for Susan McAllister, as she faces with courage the journey ahead. “

I look at Lee, who is fighting to keep her expression neutral. I know she’s not crazy about churches. “God is not my favorite person right now,” she had told me.

“We invite each of you, who care to participate, to come up here and say a few words to Susan. But first, I’d like to ask Susan if there’s anything she’d like to say. Susan, would you like to come up here?”

My mother shakes her head gently. The muscles that control her speech and swallowing have already weakened and it is often difficult to understand her. When she begins to speak we all lean forward, to catch every word. But she speaks slowly, and clearly.

“I just want my sons to know how sorry I am, for not being a better mother,”

My brother Mark bows his head beside me. My vision blurs, the chapel swims for a second, red and black. Tears boil up hotly and I blink them back. I suck air into my lungs. But my hold breaks on the Michael I was trying to be, the strong one, the man of the family. The tears rush forth and I lose it.