Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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For four days I watched the presidential-election returns from when I got up in the morning until I couldn’t keep my eyes open at night. My grandchildren, Jack and Ava, slept over at our house that Friday. They had trouble settling in, and at 5 AM five-year-old Jack came to our room to announce that the sun was up. So we got out of bed, too tired to do anything but sit and watch the votes being counted on TV.
It was that morning when the winner was announced.
“Let’s go!” I yelled up the steps to my husband.
“To the corner. I have a bottle of prosecco.”
“What about the kids?”
“They’re coming. We’re almost out the door. Hurry up!”
We headed to our neighbors’ porch. They had gone to New York for the weekend, but I knew they’d be happy to “host.” I brought pots and pans for the kids to bang, and I texted our neighbors: On Fred’s porch. Right now.
Within ten minutes we had eight adults and two children, all waving Joe Biden signs.
For years I had felt a darkness descending over the country, and COVID had only made it darker. It was like the winter in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when the wicked queen turns her enemies to stone and freezes the world so it’s always snowing and the days are always short. There is no joy during this period except in secret caves where people whisper about better times. Then the lion Aslan arrives and empowers four children to vanquish the queen.
In that gathering on Fred’s porch I felt the snow was melting, and we were becoming unfrozen.
I married my first husband when I was twenty-one. He’d been pressuring me to marry him almost since the day we met, right after I finished high school. I hardly considered my own feelings on the matter. Mostly I worried about disappointing him and his family.
I struggled through five years of marriage until one spring I saw an ad for a women’s backpacking group led by a woman in her sixties named Alison. I’d never been backpacking before, but the thought of getting away from my husband for a full week with a group of women enticed me.
After a few days on the trail I was talking openly with my fellow hikers about my marriage and how I yearned for something more. I spoke tentatively at first, assuming they’d criticize me for not standing by my man. So I was surprised when they spoke as if they agreed he wasn’t right for me. They shared stories — sometimes laughing, sometimes crying — about their first marriages and early relationships. Alison said it took her three tries and more than thirty years to find the right husband.
There was no judgment, and none of them implied there was anything wrong with me.
By the end of that week my collarbones had developed spurs from carrying the heavy backpack, but the clarity I’d gained from those women propelled me. I couldn’t wait to get divorced.
Twenty years later I’m happily married to someone who is truly my partner. We’re raising two kids in the Sierra Nevada, where I often hike to clear my mind.
This is how I got started: alcohol in my mother’s breast milk, and later in the cotton ball she placed on my aching gums when I was teething. As a child I was allowed sips of Mom’s martini, Dad’s beer, and Grandpa’s old-fashioned. Alcohol was served every day at five, and earlier when visitors came, or when sports were on TV, or to soothe the hangover from the night before.
Our house, even when it was a single-wide trailer with barely enough room for the six of us, always had a bar. In the early evening someone flicked on the small light that displayed the pretty bottles with their fancy labels, the shakers and metal stir sticks, the jars of cherries and green olives.
I was twelve and babysitting with my best friend on New Year’s Eve when I got drunk for the first time. I remember helping to clean the vomit out of her hair. When I was fourteen, my grandfather taught me how to make drinks and serve them with a white napkin draped over my arm. Occasionally I was tipped with a drink of my own.
On payday Mom drove us to the commissary on the base for our semimonthly ration of food and then to the liquor store, where she spent nearly as much. From there, she brought me to the noncommissioned officers’ club for happy hour and bingo. They served me when I was fifteen years old.
After I got my license, I became my parents’ designated driver. By then our home had become the party house for my friends and me. I could drink most of the boys under the table. I won drinking games at the local taverns, which waved aside my fake ID when I walked in the door.
I started having blackouts and often woke up with strangers or near-strangers, not knowing how I got there. Drugs, too, had become part of my life, and I had relationships with much-older men.
I’m now sixty-three. My drinking stories are familiar to anyone who has lived a life with alcohol. I hit rock bottom twice. Last year I was on my way down a third time when I was thrown a lifeline: not from God, not from a friend or family member, and not from AA. It was from an online post by a stranger who, like me, wanted to make her decisions without the influence of alcohol. So, that same day, I decided to restart my life. With this stranger’s encouraging words and the help of an online program she directed me to, I am alcohol-free for the first time.
A year after graduating from college, my partner, Kyla, and I have saved up enough for a three-month bike tour in New Zealand. I cycled up the California coast two years ago and am itching to do more. Although Kyla has never done this before, she is tough and athletic.
We keep our first day mellow, riding only twenty miles from our start in Christchurch, but Kyla rides slowly and is hesitant in traffic. Her bike trailer randomly pulls her to one side or the other. At night I encourage her. “You’ll get used to the trailer,” I say. “Tomorrow is going be great!”
Unbeknownst to us Americans, however, tomorrow is Waitangi Day, New Zealand’s version of July Fourth. This means an inordinate amount of holiday traffic heading in the same direction as we are. Furthermore, a heat wave has brought record temperatures of a hundred degrees.
What’s worse, we face a two-thousand-foot climb before descending into the valley below. It would be a difficult ride in any conditions. By late morning the tar on the road bubbles in the heat. Kyla lags behind. I am cycling at a good pace and decide to ride a few miles ahead and then wait at a rest stop.
After two hours Kyla walks her bike up, black tar stains on her touring jersey, tears streaming from her eyes. “I’m done!” she yells. “Why did you leave me?”
Luckily just up the road there’s a pub where we eat lunch and rest. A sympathetic local offers Kyla a ride to the next town, and I finish the day cycling alone.
We spend the next five days hiking, meeting locals, and spending quiet mornings sipping coffee together before we agree to start cycling again. To make her more comfortable, I take the trailer along with all my gear.
For the next week we ride only a few miles at a time. Gradually the frustration of not cycling at my own pace is replaced by our shared discovery of this beautiful land together: the majestic spoonbills, the tree-sized ferns, and the kindhearted locals who offer us food and lodging.
One day, in drenching rain, we take shelter in a trailer park that has a vacancy. In a rusty trailer we spread our wet clothes to dry and climb naked into bed, finally enjoying a warmth we came across the globe to find.
Morro Bay, California
When I entered the stark cinder-block juvenile hall on my first day of teaching, I thought, This is no place for children.
I was there to instruct the girls in mindfulness practices. I knew firsthand the good the practices could do. In my troubled younger years yoga and journaling had been tremendously helpful to me. I wanted to offer that help to these girls who needed it most.
There were forty of them on the unit, rowdy but respectful. We went around and “checked in” at the beginning and end of the class. They started out feeling “irritated” and “hella angry” and finished “peaceful” and “relaxed.” After a few months the girls were doing headstands in their cells and using deep-breathing techniques during school tests. They had even started chanting, “Om,” during an altercation on the unit.
My head is still full of their stories: One was “sold” by her mother to support a methamphetamine habit. Another had her sex trafficker’s name crudely branded across her collarbones. A third was so desperate to die that she bit through a vein in her wrist.
I’m not naive. Some of the girls had committed serious crimes like armed robbery and aggravated assault. The ones who were in gangs could display unpredictable, aggressive behavior. Yet they were all just kids, alone and afraid. I always asked anyone who’d listen, “Why are we locking up these children?”
Over the next several years the girls in my class told me they felt more alive, less overwhelmed, and, most importantly, safer. They told me that yoga was like crying because it lets “all the bad out.”
Mary Lynn Fitton
Palo Alto, California
I was raised in the suburbs with the expectation that I would become a wife and mother. How could I explain to my parents that I envisioned neither in my future? I wanted to grow up to be someone interesting — to live life with humor, commitment, and purpose. Instead I had failed relationships, lousy self-esteem, and a deeply ingrained unhappiness. How could I find the life I had envisioned?
I decided to end my eighteen-year marriage and, with the support of my friends, come out as a lesbian. Starting over wasn’t easy, but I’ve built a life on a sustainable farm in the small village of Cloverdale, Michigan, with my new partner, Valerie. I could not be more surprised to find myself here.
We farm five and a half acres, which seems small until you are planting, weeding, or harvesting. The work keeps us fit. When I first came here, it was unthinkable for me to lift more than twenty pounds. Now I load fifty-pound grain bags without strain. I’ve developed muscles I never knew existed.
The rural environment led me to shed many things I’d thought were important. Before, if I left the house for any reason, I always had my hair styled and my makeup on. I preferred air-conditioning to the heat outdoors. Now my hair is silver, I hardly ever wear makeup, and my arms are a deep, nutty brown.
Living side by side with nature, I notice the moist scent of the earth, the wind in the trees, and the width of the sky. What a joy to walk out our back door and harvest our dinner. I am calmer. Birdsong and wind chimes have taken the place of the car stereos and police sirens of the city. Time has taken on a new dimension.
This land and this life have changed me. I am grateful to have landed where I did.
I am twenty years old, eighty-five pounds, and locked in a psychiatric ward 450 miles from home. After a sleepless first night I am greeted by Amy, who escorts me downstairs. In her office Amy tells me what to expect in the months ahead, using phrases that fill me with trepidation: weight gain, mealtimes, liquid supplements, group therapy, body image. I dig my thumbnail into my palm to feel the flash of pain that grounds me. I never planned for recovery or wellness or the possibility of a future. I always assumed death would whisk me away first.
“Shall we get started?” Amy asks with a smile.
“OK,” I whisper. I want to run, but there’s nowhere to go.
I step backward onto a digital scale — no longer allowed to see the number — before accompanying Amy to the cafeteria. After meeting other women who share some variation of my disease, I approach a fragrant buffet and freeze before a mound of tepid scrambled eggs. I haven’t had a normal breakfast in years, and I don’t know where to begin.
“Are you all right?” a voice asks. I turn to face an anorectic woman who’s begun to fill out in several places, though she still has sunken cheeks. “It gets easier,” the woman assures me. “Consider starting out with something other than the eggs.”
I thank her and head toward the dry cereal. I put a tiny box on my tray, along with a half-pint of nonfat milk, a small piece of fruit, and a six-ounce container of fat-free yogurt. It’s a start.
The coming months will be the hardest I’ve experienced: I’ll learn to eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full — to nourish my body and let myself live.
Later, on a cold January morning, I’ll stand in line behind a new arrival staring wide-eyed at the eggs and bacon before her. I’ll ask if she’s all right. I’ll tell her it gets easier.
Mill Valley, California
The dilapidated house where my husband, our three kids, and I lived in the 1960s had windows that would not totally open or close. The floor sloped at such an angle that anything round that fell to it would roll away. My husband sold cars on commission at a local lot, and since his sales were few and far between, I had to closely monitor our grocery budget. One summer, in the midst of an Oklahoma heat wave, I compared the cost of flour and yeast to the cost of bread and saw I could save money if I baked my own.
I waited until the children were napping, then meticulously read the instructions on the yeast package. I even used the children’s thermometer to ensure the water was the right temperature when I added it to the yeast. Then I kneaded the dough and covered it with a kitchen towel.
The instructions said to let the dough rise until it doubled in size. Right then the children were waking from their nap: I had to change diapers, provide sippy cups and bottles, and read them their favorite storybook, The Poky Little Puppy. By the time I checked on the dough, two hours had passed. It hadn’t risen at all.
It was the same story an hour later, which was nearly time for my husband to return from work. I knew he would be angry if he saw that I’d wasted money on an unsuccessful experiment, so I took the bowl of dough and a small shovel out back, where I buried my failure shallowly at the edge of the yard.
After dinner that evening my husband went out back to play with our three-year-old son. A few minutes later he called to me through the screen door: “You have to come see this! Look, at the edge of the yard — it’s the hugest, whitest mushroom I have ever seen.”
Our most terrifying day on the Pennine Way trail was the first. With enormous packs strapped on our backs we entered a pub at the starting point in Edale, England. The customers took one look at us and burst out laughing. Apparently two American twenty-something women planning to traverse the 268-mile trail through the northern uplands were not to be taken seriously.
But we were serious. We’d spent months preparing, uncertain only of our compass-reading skills. (We’d taken a one-day class, but putting those rudimentary skills to use was another matter.) For the most part the way would be marked, and of course we had maps, but getting lost was a distinct possibility on the stretches where the path was swallowed by the moors or encased in dense fog, or where resentful farmers had removed directional signs.
A kind-faced park ranger emerged from the crowd at the pub. Terry was lunching with his daughter before they headed out to check the trail’s conditions, and he offered not only to walk with us for a couple of hours as a guide, but also to give us a refresher on compass reading.
The three-week hike was the biggest physical challenge of my life: sinking hip-deep into the moor, losing toenails, fending off the advances of horny young British men. And we did have to use our compasses, on a day spent trapped in fog on a high plateau with no markers. But we made it across in a straight shot. I’m still in awe of what we accomplished.
I’m grateful to Terry for doing what everyone else in that pub wouldn’t: helping us get started.
Molly Maslin Arbogast
His booming laughter on the phone makes me smile. We haven’t spoken in years, and we catch up on our gardens, our countries, our mostly grown children. Then the conversation takes a turn: he wants to know if perhaps we could rekindle what we once started.
I ask what happened to his girlfriend.
He says they’re still together, but that since coming back from visiting me, he hasn’t told her he loves her. “We have sex,” he says, “but we haven’t really kissed. Not a real kiss. I can’t do it.” They just “peck,” he says.
Our visit was ten years ago, and I will not be starting a new relationship with him now. I think of him as a bullet dodged, not an opportunity missed. I am glad we decided not to upend our busy lives to become a couple. Our time together wasn’t a secret. His girlfriend knew where he was going and why. She even called my phone and politely asked to talk to him.
I ask him what she thinks of being in a relationship with a man who does not properly kiss her or say he loves her. He says she’s happy, and that they’re “good to each other.” He adds, “She thinks this is who I am!”
I’m touched, but I can’t imagine a relationship without truth, without kissing. How could they live like that? That word peck snags in my brain, and I remember how, in my own marriage, after a kiss, my husband would prod my lips with his fingers and tell me to soften them. How trapped I felt. How long I stayed.
I spent this morning on my hands and knees, scrubbing sticky brown puddles of urine off my ex-husband’s bathroom floor, because he is dying and I don’t want our children to have to do it. We laugh, my ex and me. We are good to each other. He thinks this is who I am.
Who am I to judge others for their cheerful facade? For their forbearance? For choosing what seems like kindness over what feels like the truth?
Prince Edward Island
After graduating from high school a year early, I decided to spend a year abroad. This was the early 1970s, and many American kids were backpacking through Europe. Why couldn’t I?
One reason was money. My parents were fine with my taking a trip, but they weren’t going to spend a dime on it. Luckily I found a restaurant in Switzerland that was hiring waitresses and offered room, board, and a minuscule wage. With my high-school French I felt confident I could manage. I had dreamed of hiking and skiing in Switzerland.
I spent my babysitting money on a plane ticket to Luxembourg, then figured out the trains and buses that would bring me to the Dischmatal valley, where I slowly became aware that this was not the French-speaking part of Switzerland.
Surely the restaurant owners spoke either English or French, I reasoned — they had hired me, after all. But no. Except for the owner’s sister, who farmed nearby, no one spoke English or French. This place was as Swiss as could be, with towering, snowcapped mountains and crisp, pine-scented air. I was shown my room and surmised that I was to unpack and come to the kitchen for dinner.
I did not unpack. I wrote a letter to a friend in Paris, asking about any au pair positions. Then I went downstairs with the letter in my back pocket to find a post office.
Lisbeth, who ran the place with her husband, greeted me with a Swiss chocolate bar. She dropped the bar and said, “Ach, schade” — Oh, too bad — then encouraged me to take some of the broken pieces. The rest of the evening she taught me the German names of objects around us and made sure I repeated them properly: Wasser, Milch, Stuhl, Apfel. By the time I went to bed, I knew at least fifty German words. I ripped up my letter.
For the first two months I did not waitress, which earned me dirty looks from the overburdened other waitresses, but I did everything else: cleaned toilets, peeled potatoes and apples, washed pots and pans and floors, folded laundry — all while learning a new language. Eventually I was deemed ready to enter the dining room as a server.
I brought my first customer the wrong dish, which he graciously accepted. It wasn’t the best start, but I got better. Customers tried to identify my accent. “You must be Dutch? No? Swedish?” The entire time I was there, no one guessed I was American.
It was a tough year, 2020. Stuck at home, my family was forced to take a good look at the house we’d lived in for twenty-three years.
Our bedroom walls had grown furry with mold, though the forest-green paint helped to hide it. Clematis and ivy once kept in check by our neighbors had invaded our yard. Our deck was splintered with rot. Our willow tree’s leaves were yellowed, and it had lost many branches. How had we let it all get so bad — even with the excuse of working and raising three children?
In May we awoke to a sharp crack. The willow had come down, letting in light where there had been none. It was as if a switch had been flipped in our eighteen-year-old son. Following his instruction, we trimmed the willow to its trunk and planted raised vegetable beds around it. We spread forty cubic yards of wood chips, started compost bins, and harvested tomatoes, squash, corn, melon, peppers, potatoes, herbs, and peas.
My son tore down the deck and, with his older sister, put in a stone patio. We repainted our moldy bedroom a warm gingersnap. A neighbor gave us a long table, and we started meeting for outdoor dinners and board games.
Amid the anxiety of the pandemic, my husband’s job loss, my son’s decision to defer college until he could be back in a classroom, and the uncertainty of the election — not to mention forest fires that gave our city the worst air quality in the world — we found the will to wield rake and shovel, paintbrush and broom.
A client who comes to me for an energy-healing session says I need to go to China to learn how traditional Chinese medicine is harmonized with allopathic medicine. I tell her I’ve received some invitations to tour China and Mongolia with the American Holistic Nurses Association, but it would cost five thousand dollars.
“You’re going, right?” she says.
No, I tell her. I don’t have the money.
She says I should borrow it.
“I can’t pay it back.”
She insists that I need to go and asks how many energy-healing sessions I could offer her for that sum. I sit up straighter. We do the math and come up with seven years of weekly treatments. “OK, you’re going,” she says.
When I arrive in Mongolia, an electric hum rises from the soles of my feet to the hair on my head. On the bus ride to my hotel, colors appear brighter: the white yurts and flocks of sheep; the green pastures stretching to the treeless mountains; the silver swirl of the river; the brown horse hitched in front of the hotel. Black-haired Mongolians wear silk robes of gold, maroon, and blue. I meet a doctor with a Tibetan Buddhist sutra book beside his computer.
That was twenty-seven years and nineteen trips ago. The doctor with the sutra book would become my teacher. When I took that first flight, I never imagined I would one day practice traditional and allopathic medicine for Dukha reindeer herders, or start a nonprofit, or feel a shaman’s drum inside a Siberian tepee vibrate my heart at midnight.
Even after the chafing dishes have been cleared and the tables have been pushed along the wall of the multipurpose room at Camp Sea Gull, the smell of beans and franks lingers in the air. Thirty or so of us tenth-graders sit cross-legged in a circle on the linoleum floor.
“To start off the weekend,” says Father Bill, “we’re going to sign our vows to stay chaste until marriage.” Father Bill is rotund, and his glasses slip down his bulbous nose every few seconds.
“He probably couldn’t get a woman interested in him,” Shane whispers in my ear. “That’s why he married God.”
I laugh nervously. Shane is a super-cute bad boy. I can’t believe he just spoke to me. I feel like I might pass out.
A clipboard goes around the room as Father Bill reads a passage from the Bible filled with Thou-shalt-nots, but all I can think about are Shane’s pink lips and the scent of cigarettes on his breath.
The clipboard comes to Shane, who confidently scribbles his commitment. I’m surprised he has bought into all this. His hand brushes mine as he passes me the clipboard.
Eric Estrada, Shane wrote.
Farrah Fawcett, I write.
Later that night we make out in a sand dune.
You, my husband, go with me that first day of chemotherapy. I’m shaking as you hold the door open.
A half hour later you stand beside me, because you prefer to stand when you’re nervous. “The light is so pretty,” I say. The wall-size windows look out on a suburban forest. The room is full. I expected tension and sadness, but I’m pleasantly surprised. Though not quite a spa, it’s peaceful. Folks sleep in chairs under blankets. Husbands sit next to wives. A daughter sits next to her father, whose eyes are closed against the brightness.
The port-a-cath on my chest is buried beneath a scar and pokes me every time I roll over, reminding me of its presence. The new pink flesh covering it is sanitized before the needle goes in. I’ve signed the forms:
Yes, I acknowledge the side effects.
Yes, I acknowledge it can cause heart failure.
Yes, I know I will lose my hair.
The nurses prep my treatment. One looks like a worker in a nuclear plant: full protective gear, mask and gloves and all. I laugh nervously — that shit’s going into a blood vessel that goes right into my heart. You raise your eyebrows.
The nurse asks if I’m ready. I’m not, but I nod. The needle goes in. The nurse connects a syringe, and a cool liquid slides into me.
The old woman next to us, there for treatment, starts to fuss at her husband. He’s stooped, shuffling, trying to fetch what she needs. I think he must be nervous like you.
When the old couple speak, I can’t understand them, and I start to panic: What’s this poison doing to my brain? I cry and tell you why I’m scared.
You reach for my arm and explain that they’re speaking German. Your eyes crinkle at the edges, as you stop short of making fun of me. I giggle. You do, too.
We will laugh about this long after the poison has left my veins.
Tracy R. Lynch
Glen Allen, Virginia
After a stressful experience with virtual learning during the pandemic, I decided to homeschool my son. I had taught elementary school before, and my son is an easygoing, bright kid, so I figured it would be a breeze. I was excited about our plan. He seemed to be, too.
I ordered books and subscribed to online resources. I printed out state standards and drew up a curriculum. I made posters and graphic organizers. I filled out a planner. I was prepared for any scenario except one: on the first day, my new third-grader hid under a blanket and wouldn’t come out.
Things weren’t much better the next day. As the week went on, my boy decided he hated math, formerly his favorite subject. He also detested writing, which was mine. He laid his head on the table during art class, rolled his eyes at my attempts at PE, and downright refused musical instruction.
He still liked reading time, thank goodness, probably because I could give lessons from under the blanket. With snacks.
The pandemic was crushing us. We were not our normal selves, and I had been naive to think we could be. So I revamped my approach. I ditched my homemade math activities and started working through the book his school used. The familiarity gave him comfort.
I let him take the reins during writing time. He preferred fiction and ended up writing a sixteen-chapter book in two months. We’ll get to personal narratives and research reports later.
Art class, for now, is drawing comic strips, and PE is taking starlit jogs around the neighborhood. Music class is listening to nineties hip-hop, which, it turns out, we both adore.
We still love to read, especially under a blanket. With snacks.
On a December night in 1981, in the cavernous basement of an Episcopal church, I attended my first AA meeting. I was eighteen years old, scared and ashamed.
We sat on metal folding chairs in a large, irregular circle. Nearly everyone smoked. I didn’t know how to act without the comforting presence of alcohol in my bloodstream. I don’t recall what I said when it was my turn to speak, or what others said, but I do remember how I felt.
I’d always been a misfit. In that meeting, though, where I didn’t know a soul, I discovered my fellow attendees’ stories meshed with mine, as I’m sure mine did with theirs. More than that, I saw there was a way out of my addiction.
I remained in the program for a year and a half before I relapsed, first by smoking the odd joint with friends; then with pills and coke and eventually booze, my drug of choice. I spent three more years in active addiction — more than a thousand days of despair and humiliation — before returning to recovery at twenty-three. But that first meeting had given me something to hold on to.
I’m approaching thirty-four years of sobriety, and everything good in my life is a result of having returned to meetings. Every December I remember the initial glimmer of hope I found in that smoky church basement.
La Crosse, Wisconsin
In my twenty-fifth week of pregnancy I bent over to tie my shoe, and my water broke. I panicked. My spouse and I married in our mid-thirties, and I was pushing forty before we got serious about kids. After several years — and some major medical interventions — we were elated when I became pregnant. Those first twenty-five weeks had been so easy.
Now I found myself crying on the bathroom floor alone, dialing for help and trying to keep my feet elevated while the amniotic fluid flowed mercilessly out of me. I kept thinking my baby boy was still too little.
My baby didn’t come that night. I woke the next morning in the hospital and learned the best-case scenario: nine weeks in the hospital on complete bed rest, hoping to keep the baby inside me and infections out. The alternative was my baby spending months in the NICU and a long list of developmental delays.
On a whiteboard I have started a countdown. Today my board says I have eight weeks, three days to go. Though I detest being in the hospital, I hope to make it exactly that long before he is born.
COVID has removed the possibility of most visitors. I have moments when I selfishly wish for my boy to come a little early, so I can be home with family for the holidays, but that would mean leaving him here in the hospital by himself. Instead I send him telepathic messages about how good life is in the womb, and how we will get to meet soon — after he grows a little more.
I spent five years living in Alaska in a cabin without plumbing or electric heat. I’d ended up there after running away from home following the death of my grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s. I had spent seven months caring for her with my grandfather on their Midwest farm. It was the hardest thing I had ever done in my twenty-eight years, and after she passed, people told me I was “so kind, just like she was.” What I really wished for was her humility.
Having to build a fire to stay warm throughout the dark winters granted me that wish.
I decided to come back to the Lower 48 during a visit with my grandpa, who asked what it would take to get me to stay with him awhile. All he had to do was ask. I moved back to the farm, which had come to feel like home, and stayed for nearly a year, playing rummy with Grandpa every afternoon, baking meat loaf and cookies, and tending a garden that grew inside old tractor tires.
When invasive thistle started to take over the farmyard, Grandpa, who was ninety-six and had lived there all his life, gave me a spade and told me to do my best. In the blazing summer heat, surrounded by what felt like acres of prickly thistles, I grew indignant. There was no one else I would have agreed to do this for, but I could never say no to Grandpa. I told myself I would give it an hour and then report back that we needed to find someone better equipped.
Soon enough, though, I was singing while I hacked away, releasing my frustrations and experiencing a satisfaction I could never have imagined. I kept it up for hours, until the field of thistle had clear patches of freshly overturned dirt, which I admired proudly. As I wandered back to the house, stopping at the garden hose for a big gulp of water, I realized I was capable of a lot more than I gave myself credit for. My real problem was getting started.