All of our mother’s plantings are gone

Yesterday my sister called to tell me– our dad had landscapers come and scrape the whole mad DIY gardening jungle into a sheet of lawn with a few trees for effect. As she recited the losses, she wept: “The jack in the pulpits, the wild irises, the roses–all of it gone, Sarah. All those plants I helped her propagate.” They gardened together for years before the dementia spun things entirely out of control. For a time it was their literal ground for connection, for crafting a living history together. And my father obliterated it.

I don’t know what to say to him. Of course I love him, which is always the first thing. But I’m having serious problems with some of the decisions and actions he’s made in later years. Growing up, I watched him and my mother wage simmering, bitter campaigns against their own parents. I’ve always tried to understand, even when it’s a struggle to empathize.

And I guess I do and I don’t understand my dad’s actions. My mother and all her array of damage defined the very parameters of my father’s life for long, long years. Nearer the end it grew intolerable. I understand the impulse he must feel to rid himself of all the pain and recrimination. I understand the compulsion to wipe the slate. But as our father he fails to consider how his actions might affect us. We don’t exist in his reckoning. Clean house. Check.

This sweep has gone on for months in donations to various organizations and enterprises. Longer than that– it started before Mom even died. When he gave away Uncle Sharkey, he said, “Mom agrees”– despite the fact that the dementia didn’t leave her with a whole lot of agency and decision-making capability. She sort of became a mostly-amiable, rather vague woman. My sister and I speculate that our father is building some type of legacy, but it’s a haphazard and idiosyncratic one if that.

As much as I try to wrangle the psychological reality he operates in, as a would-be parent, I just don’t get it at all. I would want my kids in better communication. If I were counting down my final days, my kids would be foremost in my thoughts. But as he systematically rids our childhood home of reminders and heirlooms, not once does he stop and turn us and say, I want this thing out of the house. Who will take it?

In truth we have never factored that prominently in his daily endeavors at all. So it’s really no change in behavior or outlook. It just comes into sharper focus when death enters the picture. We all want pieces to hold onto. When my mother died, I took a teaspoon of her ashes to keep in a cut glass perfume vial on my dresser. The dresser from my grandmother’s house. I have planted the Easter lilies I bought this year in her memory. These pieces continue and connect us, and they are important. And my father doesn’t see it, and I don’t know how to, or if I even can, tell him.


I’m walking down a dark street when it starts to rain. I come upon a place where someone has left a bunch of old furniture out in the alley. A table catches my eye, and I walk over– but it turns out to be a chair, and I lose interest. Then I see standing off by itself a beautiful, pristine antique white gas stove. It’s a small model and embellished with delicate decorative flourishes. I think, Chris would love this, and raise my phone to photograph it.

Suddenly I’m taking a picture of a smiling baby girl in an old high chair over against the brick wall. I have a hard time holding my phone steady and end up taking a bunch of blurry shots. A yellow flower on a table in the foreground keeps getting in the way, so I


Facebook has become the standard vehicle for birthday wishes. It flags your friends when it’s your birthday and even gives a convenient little text entry box so users don’t need to navigate anywhere to dash off a quick wish. The result is a Facebook inbox suddenly overflowing with thoughtful reminders of friendship and connection.

For me this year the irony was poignant–especially that message that wished me a day surrounded by good friends and celebration. The contrast between the wish and the reality has sat in my heart these last couple of days like a fat clammy toad. I’m left asking myself how and why I’ve brought about such a sad and isolated existence.

The answer, like so many things, is at once simple and not so simple.

Simply, I have failed, for a number of years now, to build and maintain the very friendship connections I so treasure and crave.

The why of that is a more convoluted morass of depression and despondency. I’ve struggled with “the blues” for much of my conscious life, but for awhile now they have succeeded in circumscribing my daily existence ever tighter and smaller.
Unpacking the why of it may not even do me much good. Taking regular persistent steps to change the pattern seems the only beneficial course forward to daylight. I need to reach out and get out of the living grave I’ve dug myself– somehow, anyhow.


Someone used the word at dinner: stunted. Blunt and harsh upon my ear hours later.


Insomniac laundry folding

I am a disappointment to my parents. In terms of worldly ambition and achievement, I’m a disappointment to myself, haunted by my own phantoms of expectation. So often anticipation of the thing so far outstrips the thing itself, I’m psychically waylaid. Hobgoblins in the night.

Why have I so undermined my own worldly ambitions, time and again? Poor resource management and frittering only explains so much. There’s something damnably determined in the whole thing.

Sitting there tonight in that gathering of bright-eyed and ambitious whippersnappers tweaked the hell out of me. I grew dreary as a Gorey character, and when my turn came to tout my own achievements from the past year and hopes for the next, I opened my mouth, and toads fell out. They plopped around the tastefully laid table for awhile, until I swallowed them again and beat a hasty retreat back to the hermitage.

I used to be unbearably bright-eyed myself. I was effin’ dewy with earnestness. But I failed to bring it. Because I chose time and again to fail to bring it. Self-saboteur. But for why?

Chicago Politics

It’s all around me here, even while I lurk like a snail up inside its shell here, tucked into a third floor L train overlook, nested in amongst radiator clank bracketed with ice-steamy windows– still there is the exoskeletal framework to lug.

My husband, our sole brave breadwinner, works in the employ of that great municipal monstrosity, the City, pulling levers and switches deep in the gut of churningest turmoil, from my perspective. From his it’s something finer and more upstanding surely, yadda yadda. Granted I’m the sticky prickly one in the family– but for when I has to comes clean, clean up and shape up and make a good showing. Yes, I can make a spitting image. I had extensive training through dancing and private schools. Though I practice the elusive art of invisibility currently, I was once a clambering enough mannequin well practiced in the forms and costumes (if habitually disposed to escape to kitchens, basements, attics, and bygod servants’ quarters).

In my family of origin (cue bells tolling upon that phrase) politics was my way or the highway. Blunt force of ethics backed up with a legal degree and/or gender and/or age. A youngest daughter couldn’t win, by definition. So I became at times the most apoplectic of closet reds that litter soft suburbia.

tough questions

It’s that little three-letter word that sets the context, really:

“What are you doing now?”

Elsewhere, in daily life, I encounter its sibling, the simpler “What do you do?”– itself a query fraught with occasional complication and anxiety potential, but in this particular place implicit evaluation rings with stunning resonance.

“What are you doing now?” carries with it echoes of both what I’ve done and what I haven’t done up to this point in time (typically educational achievement like go to the University of Michigan versus an Ivy League school for undergrad, complete an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and abandon ABD a PhD in Language, Literacy & Culture on writing through media; more and more these days it entails a meticulously scaled range of employment categorization and hierarchy: not-lawyer, not-doctor, not-financial-industrialist, not-business-owner, not-heiress-of-gigantic-multigenerational-fortune, etc.)

I’m standing in the big dining room, and I haven’t had my coffee yet, eyeing the big urns as I chide myself: never should’ve stopped to to say good morning to P. that old family-friend/sort-of-cousin, with cold reflexes and an uncaffeinated brain.

at the old family club with its generations of up-and-comers, which I’ve made brief occasional visits to my entire life, all the way back to babyhood in my grandmother’s “cabin” (which had been another family’s before it was hers), a looming split log edifice with two three staircases raised in the early days of the 20th century.

“Where are you living?”

“Where are you from?”

Typically, I tend to answer elliptically: “Outside Detroit.”

Too often they’ll respond, “Where, exactly?”

At this point I’m inevitably thrown back a bit on my heels, forced to confront once again the question of what the places we’ve been say to people about us. For me, all those addresses we’ve been before and left, moving onward into years and identities and responsibilities, what does the particular geography of our past ? to what extent we’re measured, for good or ill, by lines of latitude and longitude.

Queried past a generalized urban descriptor, I’ll proceed into a certain rigamarole addressing the certain suburb where I was born and lived through the 8th grade– the words have gradually wedded themselves to my tongue in the years since being bodily on a daily basis in that green and affluent place, its private schools and pool and tennis clubs, yearround lakeside stately homes on narrow lots just north of Detroit proper, once a summer destination for certain folks well-paid enough to flee to the cooling breezes from downtown’s automotive and industrial stench– away from those with fewer resources, ill luck, ethnicity, community– to a place that bred a certain perspectives, boxy, attentive to insides and outsides, upper and lower. definitive and, to some of us, claustrophobic.

I might, if the person inquiring how I never really felt at home there, fled young to boarding school, and only really go back for quick visits to family members who remain there. How my real home, the home of my heart, is farther north in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, up among the wild blueberry bushes and ferns that line the sandy southern shore of Lake Superior. It’s where I’ve spent time every summer of my life swimming and hiking and camping under a wide-open sky far from the noises of civilization. It’s the place that feeds my inner being with cold lake water and pine needle scent and insect buzz.

But the truth is not so simple.

The fact of the matter is that the private reserve of land I think of as my most intimate and natural “home” is constituted in a


“What are you doing now?”

it’s a question that comes with a certain degree of discomfort.

so, yeah, let’s just acknowledge right here and now that anxiety is a general factor– we’ve established this assumption sufficiently, I think, right? all the backing-and-forthing about what I think, yadda yadda, the engine that seldom quits examining and reexamining– perhaps re-turning that starter key, as he puts it.

what am I doing now? what am I doing at all, ever, for that matter?

yeah, yeah. so the questioner doesn’t mean it so existentially– or does he?

in the place where it’s asked there are certain expected or acceptable responses, a landmine field of unacceptable answers. I actually think on this particular occasion I unwound into a blathering dismissal amounting to, “it’s hard to explain.”

so, inarticulate. feeling the same here and elsewhere lately with words. words failing, I resort to erasures and conglomerations of collaged imagery– which doesn’t really further the conversation substantially. too much time alone, likely, out of practice with live discourse, surely rusty joints present a factor.

as well it must be said, straight out, just like this, that very effing question– what am I doing now? what indeed. weeeeeelllllllllll…

I’m writing too many things that consistently fail to cohere or congeal sufficiently sufficiently to call a thing, a this-or-that but something. am midway through the assemblage of too many boxes of tiny stoppered jars replete with green herbs, bones, and flashcard animals. I fear I’ve stalled out on bookbinding and am currently in the throws of some dissatisfaction and distress on the subject of letterpress printing. I’ve been avidly losing myself in iphone snapshottery, recording miniature videos, the composition and recording of small still lives, listening to wind and neighborhood sounds and watching weather develop, watering my garden, going from one thing to the next like some avid pollinator…

but really: where’s the fruit?

am I kidding myself that this process is yielding… at all or sufficiently or… clearcut options:

snap to and get a job.


construct some concrete personal priorities, goals, and checklists– then take the steps to realize them.




you know I have a thing for it– the imagined so-called end of the world.

in all its panoply of permutation and prosody. the possibly-final battle against the human race’s threatened extinction. imagistically portrayed in popular and genre film, from the gruesomely zombie anarchic to the romantically poetic to the


Riverworld (2010)

margaret atwood’s version of our dim future as outlined in her dystopic diptych oryx and crake and the year of the flood is the smartest I’ve read. I keep encountering bits from