How to Keep a Childhood Promise

part one—a taste

I’m in Oaxaca with my mother. I’m thirteen years old, and it’s the first time my mother has taken me out of the country. My grandfather thinks we’re on vacation in Florida, and my mother reminds me “not to tell Poppy” so many times that I start wondering if we’re really in Mexico or just a part of Florida that isn’t flat. 

Casitas the color of pomegranate and persimmon cling to the hillside at the all-inclusive, and my mother and I wear beaded bracelets to pay for extras. She posts up poolside en la mañana, and I do water aerobics with my hands in the air. My mother thinks I’m waving at her. I kayak, snorkle, and paint clay. 

Eventually, I make a few friends, white kids like me from the suburbs. By day we hit tennis balls, smoke cigarettes, and lay out topless on our windsurfing boards. By night we trade some of our beads for drinks at the on-property disco that allows kids. My mother doesn’t worry because we’re inside the resort. 

Some of these kids go on excursions with their families—catamaran trips to offshore reefs, horseback riding, fishing. My mother isn’t sure it’s safe to leave the resort, but she consults with the frontdesk and eventually we compromise on a short morning trip to a craft market. We go in a van with other Americans wearing coordinated outfits and clean white sneakers. 

My mother says it isn’t safe to drink anything outside the resort, but lets me buy a Coke that I’m allowed to drink only after she sanitizes the cap with a wet wipe from her purse, which hugs her body tight thanks to a cross-body strap. It’s not just Mexico; my mother’s home city of New York was full of purse snatchers in the 1980s, and she learned to take precautions. 

“Put it across your body,” my grandmother says, demonstrating “but be aware they might also cut the straps right offya, so holdontoit.” Decades before fuhgeddaboudit leapt the Hudson River and became known worldwide, my grandmother strung words together in that classic New York way so they appeared to be one—turning entire phrases into single words—rendering them both incomprehensible and beyond translation to non-native ears.

I learned a little Spanish in school, but I awkwardly counted pesos in the market and was too embarrassed to barter. I fell in love with the textiles and wanted to be wrapped in that brightness, but my haul was small—a woven ankle bracelet, a silver ring, and a few wooden figures. The figurines were bright and whimsical, not of this world—a donkey with butterfly wings, a rooster with bull horns—and when I got home I placed them around our home to lend light and promise to our beige-on-beige backdrop.

part two: a vision

I’m fifteen years old. I’m standing in the threshold of my great-grandmother’s galley kitchen in New York City. At the far end is a round table with too many chairs around it, though they only sit on three sides because nobody dares back up against the sizzling radiator. The radiator is under the window, so by default they’re all looking out of it and at a brick wall. 

One section of the wall has a carefully tended vine growing in the shape of a tree of life, tending to by the Tibetan neighbors. Another section has an old metal ladder that doesn’t do much beyond capturing the plastic bags that blow in on the regular. 

Huddled around the table is my great grandmother and her four living daughters, plus my mother and her cousin. They are having a conversation, but mostly it sounds like sighing. Somebody complains that the coffee is lousy, bic lighters flick, cigarettes tap into ashtrays. Their inhales sound like warnings and their exhales like whistles. I wonder if this is contagious. 

My great-grandmother tells me to go to her jewelry box and grab the two-dollar bill she left for me. “Go buy myself an ice-cream pop,” my great-grandmother says. “Get a couple boxes,” my grandmother says, “one is not enough.” My grandmother knows that one is never enough. 

Somebody asks if I can pick up a pack of cigarettes. Somebody else says that is ridiculous. Then they don’t want to let me out of the house alone. Finally they agree on something. Eventually they make a plan, and the whole pack of us goes into the street. 

We’re looking for two of the male cousins who’ve been on a bender for days or years depending on the angle. Nobody in the family has seen them in about a week, so we start asking strangers on the street, poking our heads into bars. My eyes cross the boulevard and land on a blond surfer-looking dude with a pink, popped-collar Polo shirt and a bomber jacket. My grandmother tells me that he’s my cousins’ drug dealer, and every syllable out of her mouth begins with a razor and ends with a knife. She folds me into her body and covers my face.

“Don’t look at her!” she yells to the drug dealer across five lanes of taxis and busses and everything short a rickshaw, but he can’t make out what she’s saying, so he comes toward us. We meet on the corner and I don’t dare make eye contact or sneak a peek. I remember him being polite and smelling like Drakkar Noir. He hadn’t seen the boys.

A few hours later the boys are still missing and anxiety has reached a new high. The women are gathered back around the kitchen table. The ashtray is filling. Most of them don’t drink, but a couple of them crack effervescent beers to take a bit of the edge off, though they don’t drink past the neck of the bottle. They need their wits! 

One of my great-aunts rubs her hand up and down her thigh, as if wiping a stain. She thinks she’s hiding her anxiety under the table. My grandmother picks at her fingernails, my mother files her edges. I stand there in the doorway, promising myself that I’ll live in another culture some day. 

part three: hear, listen

A dozen years later I leave for my first solo trip abroad. I’d gone to Mexico a few more times with my mother, and to Puerto Rico. I went to Jamaica with my husband, but now I’m his ex-wife and I’m going to Guatemala by myself. I don’t yet know what I don’t know. 

I’ll be meeting up with a writing group, but first I’ll spend a week traveling alone. I’ve read the guide books and know that Guatemala City isn’t an ideal place for me to stay by myself, so I arrange to stay in the colonial city of Antigua. The hotel will send a driver.

It’s not that I lack street-smarts. My mother taught me not to make eye contact with the junkies, not to walk alone after dark on deserted streets, not to open my wallet and show all my cash. I know that I should leave my expensive watch at home, and that a backpack will give me the look of someone who doesn’t have a lot of money, someone not worth kidnapping, though I’ll later learn on the streets of Tegucigalpa that almost any American is worth kidnapping. 

I get off the plane, file through immigration, and collect my pack, which is giant, like the kind you’d take on wilderness adventure in the backcountry. I don’t see a person holding a sign with my name it. I step onto the sidewalk, and still—no sign. I don’t realize it yet, but mine is the last plane to land for the day. This becomes clear as the crowd thins and doesn’t replenish. An American couple asks me if I’m ok and I tell them I have a ride coming. I wait an hour, then two. I’m still wearing the big backpack, and its weight increases by the minute. It’s getting late, maybe ten en la noche. I withdraw quetzales from the ATM machine and buy a bag of chips so I have a few coins for the payphone. 

I call the hotel and they’re glad to hear from me. They say that my first driver broke down and then they sent a second one but he got a flat tire, and gee, they can’t believe I’m still waiting. They tell me it’s about a forty-minute drive from Guatemala City to Antigua and that I should grab a cab. They say the drive might take an hour because there are hazards in the road at night—mostly livestock, probably not Zetas—but, and they laugh, at least there won’t be traffic leaving the city. They tell me they’ll wait up.

I’m angry and don’t hide it when I ask if it’s safe for me, alone, at this hour. There was a reason I booked their hotel and arranged for a ride in advance, to avoid this. They don’t make any promises, they just say, “Probably.” Then they tell me it might be hard to get someone to come this far so late. “So good luck,” they say. 

In the two hours I’ve been waiting, I’ve been asked thirty times if I need a taxi, but by now most of the drivers have called it quits. I scan the few that are left, and I try to be stealth but I’m also aware that stealth is not in my current wheelhouse. I wanted to dress low-key for my travel day, but my bright teal backpack and electric purple fleece make me feel like a Bird-of-Paradise in a sea of cinder block.

I pick the least eager-looking driver, sort of the way I pick puppies, and approach the passenger-side window of his car to ask if he’ll go to Antigua. I explain what happened with my other two drivers breaking down. I try to make it funny. I tell him the hotel is expecting me, not exactly as a threat, but more like a fact. 

He says yes to the ride and offers to put my backpack in the trunk. I quickly scan my brain for all the things I’m supposed to look out for while traveling, and tell him I’d rather keep my pack in the back seat. This leaves little room for me, so I’m pressed against the door of his small Corolla. I double check that the door is locked. Vamos. 

He starts speaking to me in Spanish and I’m a little uncomfortable that he’s looking at me in the rearview mirror and doesn’t have his eyes on the road, though I’m not sure which is more worrisome. “Más despacio, por favor,” I say. Please slow down. I mean his words, not his driving. He hears me. “Mi español no es muy bueno,”  I say, “Un minuto, por favor.”

I dig into the top pocket of my backpack and pull out my headlamp and Spanish-English dictionary specific for Guatemala. I ask him to repeat himself. He’d asked me a question and now I’m preparing myself to answer. I knew he asked me something about a man, but before I answered I needed to be clear if he was asking if I have a man or if I want a man. 

I blank on the verbs for have and want—tienes and quieres, such basics—but I know that my one-word answer has the potential to make or break this night. 

“No echcuche,” I tell him. “I didn’t hear you.”

“Quieres un hombre?” He asks me, looking again in the mirror. He asked if I want a man. 

I decided to remove want from the equation. 

“Si, tengo un hombre.” I say,  “No, no necesito un hombre.”

Yes I have a man. No I don’t need a man.

part 4: “The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.” (Rudyard Kipling)

I was thirty-one-years-old when I moved to Honduras for an undetermined amount of time, my only goal to fulfill that childhood promise of living in another culture. I couldn’t wing it with accommodations because I wasn’t traveling light. In addition to my duffel bags, I had my massage table and my long-legged wolfdog that required a jumbo-size crate. I rented an apartment sight-unseen off the internet and hoped for the best.

Because the dog crate precluded us from the smaller planes that fly directly to the island, our journey included several modes of transportation, and each leg was separated from the others by at least one night at a hotel because that was the only way to string them together logistically. 

We began at our home in Montana with an eight-hour drive, then a night in Salt Lake City before flying to Houston. Lucky’s plane ticket was already more expensive than mine, and if he left the airport the price doubled, so he stayed at the kennel and I stayed at a hotel. I ordered chicken fingers and fries and started an extended process of second guessing. In the morning I met a man on the shuttle back to the airport who knew nothing about me, but questioned my decision to live on a island thirty miles off the coast of Honduras.

“Do you know how remote that is?” He asked me.

“Have you ever been to Montana?” I asked him.

Next Lucky and I flew to San Pedro Sula, where we met up with one of my best teenage friends and stayed there several night because I wanted to buy a truck. That was unsuccessful, so we hired a guy to take us on a long, dusty pickup ride across Honduras, after which my black dog was so dusted he looked like a German Shepherd.

We stayed the night in La Ceiba, where we were entertained by an American military retiree who had a full-size tattoo of a hand giving the middle finger on his forehead. The end of the journey included a ferry ride to the island, which—let me assure you—was not like the ferry to Nantucket. Lucky rode in the cargo area with the luggage and other dogs and chickens who did not have luxury dog crates, but who were in cardboard boxes with tiny openings for their snouts and beaks. I spent the 90-minute ride leaned over the railing as I watched waves crash onto the deck and fill Lucky’s crate before flowing out.

This was a few years after 9/11, but the year that waterboarding made the news as a technique used in Guantanamo Bay as an interrogation technique. 

“You’re okay, baby, you’re okay,” I repeated to him, knowing he couldn’t hear me but hoping the message would somehow be received.

We got off the ferry in the hectic village of Coxen Hole, and needed to arrange transport to my place, which required two taxis for the three of us and all of my stuff. When we arrived at the apartment the manager wasn’t there to let us in, so we sat in the sun until a neighbor brought us beers and offered dog water for Lucky.

The Canadian property manager finally arrived arrived—several hours late—to show us around. She arrived in a Suzuki Samurai with the doors rusted off. Her yellow hair had turned to straw and she’d lost so much weight she’d given up on wearing anything more than a sarong, under which her deflated breasts swung like two tube socks with shot glasses in the bottom. 

“Don’t mind the smell of the water,” she said, “it’s rich with sulfur and you’ll love it—it’s amazing for your skin.”

The water wasn’t great for my skin. I got mosquito bites that got infected and turned into abscesses. I got a Hondureño boyfriend who told me he couldn’t shower at my place because the smell of the water made him gag. The sulfur smell increased daily, and my boyfriend said, “Sorry, baby, but that’s not sulfur.”

Eventually my water flow reduced to a trickle, and the property manager had someone come look inside the cistern, which was shared by a few people. They discovered that our cistern has almost no room for actual water because it was filled to capacity with bloated, decaying rats. I did the next logical thing: I bought my own house.

part 5: touch 

The power is out in the supermercado. In the absence of harsh, overhead light and conditioned air, the place is almost peaceful. The front doors are propped open with wedges of wood. Birds swoop and dive around the market. A woman shoos rats with a broom handle.

I know it’s hot because the bored cashiers fan themselves with rolled newspaper and the old, white men with beachball bellies walk around with their shirts unbuttoned. “Hey, lovely,” one of the old men calls to me with a Caracole accent. He runs the customs office, and the day I went to collect a few boxes, he was drinking Chivas out of a yoghurt cup at eight en la mañana, and he asked me to come around to his side of the desk so he could show me the papers. 

He went line by line through the paperwork, and at each one he dragged his pen across the paper, using enough force to make three carbon copies. The hair on my body stood on end as if that pencil was digging into me. When every line had a mark through it, he pushed his stamp into the ink pad and marked my page PAGADO. I owed nothing.

Now he’s standing in the doorway of the supermercado, which I’m trying to leave. The shelves had been picked over, and the only things left are boxes of crumbled saltines and dented cans of soup, but my shopping cart remains empty. I realize I’m leaning on it, using it like a walker, and it’s not just the heat that’s making me weak. My skin has that crawling feeling. The weight of my cotton dress feels like too much. The man touches me as I walk by. I try to ignore him, but he speaks: “Yuh burn fiyah, lovely, go si di doctor.”

I drive myself home, but by the time I arrive my head throbs and my hands shake and opening the corroded padlock on my gate is almost more than I can handle. I race to the shower, but the power is off at my house too, so no agua caliente. I get down on my knees and drag my suitcase out from under the bed. I’ve stashed a set of warm clothes in there on the off chance I needed to fly home during the colder months. I pull on knee socks, long underwear, fleece pants, a sweater, a wool cap. I wrap myself in a few cotton blankets and I get in my bed where I shake.

A few hours later, I heard noise from my upstairs neighbor and remembered it was his birthday party. He’d imported steaks from the USA and bought local lobster. I didn’t want to miss the surf-and-turf dinner, so I headed upstairs. As I reached the top of the stairs, I saw that most of the guests were still in bathing suits and sarongs. I was dressed for cross-country skiing. “You’re sick,” a woman told me, “It’s ninety-five degrees with ninety-five-percent humidity.”

In the morning I dragged myself, wrapped in blankets, to la clinica to get tested for both malaria and dengue, as the treatment is not the same, and taking the wrong one will make a person even sicker, though I could hardly imagine anything worse. I’d taken Tylenol for the fever and pain, and that interferes with the test results, so they sent me home to wait out 24-hours without painkillers.

The power was still out. I had no running water, no air conditioning, no fans, no light, and would be without for five days, the longest stretch I endured while I lived on the island. I attempted to mellow my fever by spreading as much of my body against the tile floor as possible. Inner thighs and arms, neck and check, belly. The absence of motors humming made everything more pronounced. Geckos chirping on the walls, crabs clicking on the tiles, my racing heart. I crawled around like a dog looking for the next cool spot. 

I soon found out that the treatment for malaria is almost as horrible as the disease itself, though the effects of the parasite and its cure lasted years longer than I could ever have imagined, which was sort of a prolonged hell.

I crawled around my apartment for days that felt like weeks. My toothbrush felt heavy, and my neighbor heaved pitchers of water into the toilet tank so I could flush. After the pain subsided, my skin began to itch. I couldn’t tolerate anything touching me, and the only thing that cooled the fire was floating in the sea.

six: hindsight— how not to be spoiled

I’ve returned from Honduras and I’m visiting my family in New York City. My mother and I are walking down Queens Boulevard, the main drag through heart of her neighborhood, which extends six blocks between two subway stops and boasts an impressive thirty-five different types of cuisine. 

A friend stops us on the street, asks me about my time in Honduras. I’m tired of trying to explain it to people who travel but don’t leave the resort, so I came come up with a schtick. 

“I went because I didn’t want to be a spoiled American my whole life, and I came back because I realized that being a spoiled American for the rest of my life wouldn’t be so bad.” Sometimes they laugh, gasp, or snort. Sometimes they just stare at me. 

“But by spoiled,” I continue, “I mean having access to things like electricity and clean water, being able to go to a store to buy basics like contact lens solution, tampons, fresh milk.”

I don’t tell them anything else. They need to see for themselves. If they want, if they dare, if they promised.


Last summer I met a man. He surprised me, made me pause, knocked my socks off. I didn’t even know I wanted him until I met him, had no idea he even existed. If asked to sketch a profile of my dream man I’d never have set my expectations so high for fear of being disappointed.

Martin and I met online, but the night we met in person it was just for a drink after I’d had dinner with a girlfriend. It’s hard to tell from an online profile and some messaging if you’re going to like a person in real life. I need to know how the person smells, if he makes eye contact, if he has nice table manners. I was the one who pushed for the meeting, but because I didn’t want to give him too much of my time, I suggested we simply meet for a drink after my girl-date.

“I’m going to be more dressed up for our first date than I normally would be,” I warned him, and the disclaimer was unspoken but understood: I didn’t dress up for you. 

I live in a place where people get judged more for dressing up and having nice things than for being casual, and it would be reasonable for a person to show up for a first date straight from floating the river. I wore a cotton dress, but instead of flip-flops I had on sassy high-heeled clogs. My hair was washed and not in a ponytail and I wore both jewelry and mascara. Instead of a sweatshirt around my waist I had a pretty shawl in my purse.

Martin arrived first and told me he was sitting in the back. He stood up when he spotted me, and when I arrived at the table we hugged, but honestly it was more like him holding me up. He wore well-fitting linen pants, a pressed shirt, and dress shoes. He wasn’t wearing his blazer at that point, but if he had I might’ve just hit the floor right then. It wasn’t just his looks. He oozed confidence and sincerity.

“I figured you’ve probably had your fill of guys in Carhartts and Chacos,” Martin said, “So I got a little dressed up for you.” It wasn’t just a one off. Still, even when we go out for Sunday night burgers he wears a blazer and good shoes.

The beginning was thrilling and filled with the jitters and nerves that accompany the excitement of a new relationship, but it didn’t take long for us to fall into a routine that felt comfortable and safe. Martin does all of the little things that added up to the big thing. The first time he brought me coffee in bed I thought it was a fluke, a kind gesture to make up for him getting out of bed at 6:00 on a Sunday to run eighteen miles, but no. Then I thought maybe it was a Sunday thing, or a weekend thing, but no.

Even on days that Martin doesn’t have to work he’ll set his alarm so he can make fresh coffee and bring it to me in bed. Even on days that I don’t have time to linger, he sets it on the nightstand so I have the luxury of starting my day with a few sips while I’m still cozy under the covers.

We spent our first ten or so Saturdays together at the farmers’ market. I’ve always been a fan of going early to beat the crowds, but Martin likes to go later, eat brunch there, and then shop. It only took me about a week to adapt. Going to market with Martin quickly became my favorite thing. I loved that he’d take my hand and hold it, kiss me just because, wait patiently while I chatted with endless numbers of people. I’ve always hated the question, “What’s for dinner?” but with Martin I liked it and I wasn’t afraid to tell him. In fact, I wasn’t afraid to tell him anything, and our relationship—even in the early days—had a marked absence of fear.

I have a fourteen-year-old dog, and warned Martin that dating a girl with an old dog can be tricky. For starters,  Lucky comes first, which Martin reported was obvious from the start as Lucky had not only been in the car during our first date, but had also sniffed him out. More important is the reality Lucky will die sooner than not and I don’t know what will happen to me when he does.

“I could come unraveled,” I told Martin, “Completely undone.”

Martin held my face and looked me in the eye when he said, “He won’t leave until he knows you’re in good hands.”

My mother came to visit in September and Martin was incredible with her, but during that visit Lucky stopped eating, drinking, or walking for a couple of days. Martin showed me who he is in a crisis: clear, calm, and present. He’d baked my mother a cake for her birthday, but entered my house to find five of us hovering over the dog bed.

The cake he baked was a German recipe that translates into “gentleman’s cake,” which turned out to be perfect for Lucky’s funeral. Martin brought joy into the room where the air was heavy with heartbreak. It was a gorgeous late summer day, but we sat in the living room with the curtains drawn, the only light a thin column coming through the front door. It appeared we wanted to sit in the dark and wallow.

“Let’s take him outside,” Martin said, and we all looked at him like he was crazy. “He needs space,” my pragmatic guy continued, “and air. You’re all so crowded around him.” It was true. All of the fresh air in my house had been consumed by our sighing and heavy breathing. It was stale. It felt sick. It wasn’t helping. We carried Lucky out of the house on his dog bed.

“He’s like Aladdin,” I said, and he really did look like a little prince being carried into the sunshine on his magic carpet, his portal to the afterlife or maybe just to the yard. We let Lucky have some space in the last bits of light which turn quickly that time of year into alpenglow off the mountain across the street. In September this light is warm and pink, yet the air is cool.

It’s a decadent thing to have your dog bed in the front yard, and Lucky looked so peaceful, but eventually his body felt cold to the touch so we carried him back inside and into my bedroom. Everyone else went home, but Martin stayed with Lucky while my mother and I went to pick up slices of pizza; a whole pie seemed like more than we could manage.

Every breath seemed like Lucky’s last. The following days Martin did an extraordinary job bringing presence to Lucky’s downslide, while keeping us rooted in some of our normal activities. We went to the farmers’ market. We went to our friends’ house to pick plums. We hiked the mountain across the street—just the two of us, a first—while Luck’s grandma watched over him. Tears streamed down my cheeks all the way up the trail, and Martin rubbed my back and gave me kisses. It was nearly dark when we got to the top and nobody else was there. The sun dipped behind the mountains and my dam broke.

“I don’t know who I am if I’m not Lucky’s mom,” I wailed, “Who am I without someone to feed and walk?” One of the first things I noticed about Martin the night we met was his intense gaze; it’s unwavering. It made me nervous at first, but then I recognized it as a safe place.

“You will always be Lucky’s mom,” Martin said.

In the middle of the night I heard rustling from Lucky’s bed, little more than an arm’s distance from mine, so I ran to get a piece of bacon, the litmus test of life in a dog. He had no interest. I held the shallow dish of water under his chin, but he didn’t even seem to notice. Martin woke up, propped himself on one elbow and was patient while I sat and cried into my dog’s neck, which smells better than anything I’ve ever known. A quarter-sized piece of bacon sat perched on my knee.

I kept trying with the bacon, alternating between trying to get Lucky to recognize it as his favorite and wetting his lips with a paper towel soaked in water. Martin closed his eyes.

“He’s taking it! He’s taking the bacon!” I squealed. I ran to get more and then fed Lucky strip after strip of bacon. At exactly the same time—but I had no way of knowing—my father was having emergency heart surgery in North Carolina after suffering a heart attack.

The next day Lucky had almost completely reclaimed his groove, and my mother went home to New York. I had a visit planned later than week to see my father in North Carolina, but my flight was cancelled. Driving back home from the airport at 6:00 in the morning, Martin said that he thought Lucky had a hand in this, like maybe he knew his Mommy needed to stay home and rest.

It’s true. I was exhausted. It had been a long summer of running around and I need to be still. Martin set up his hammock with a sleeping bag and pillow so I could read and nap in the sun. He worked in the yard, then baked a cake with the plums we’d picked the previous weekend. He whipped fresh cream.

It had been a hot summer, so there hadn’t been any baking, but with cooler temperatures on the horizon and a few family crises I learned something about Martin: he’s a stress baker. He bakes everything from scratch. When things are falling apart he takes ingredients one at a time and carefully measures them, taking the bitter and making it sweet.

The first couple months of our relationship were filled with joy, yet there had been—for me—a low-grade, underlying grief: I wished I’d met Martin sooner. When my mother has a question she want to ask but is hesitant she prefaces it with another question, “Can I ask you a question,” she’ll ask. This annoys me sometimes and I’ll respond, “You just did,” but that doesn’t slow her down.

“Where has he been?” she asked as if I knew the answer, which I didn’t. The truth was, if Martin had showed up in my life five or seven years earlier there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have been ready for him. By the time he arrived I felt a bit overripe and perhaps ready to be made into a pudding or quick bread, but he quickly stopped the process and renewed my hope.

I hadn’t lost hope in a hopeless way, I’d simply removed expectation. After taking care of my grandmother with dementia I lived with more present-moment awareness than ever before; I was happy with the life I had as opposed to wanting something that might or might not be available to me. But then Martin appeared—a true vision in linen pants with an enormous heart and brilliant smile—and I felt grief. I’d finally met a man who I felt like I could have a family with, but I was forty two and he was forty seven.

The summer I was thirty I’d just broken up with a great guy and Lucky and I moved into an apartment by ourselves. Every morning we walked to a bakery for coffee and a croissant, and I taught him how to walk off leash because every few steps I’d give him a tiny bit of our pastry. I loved being a young mother to my pup. I got to know the owner of the bakery, and sometimes we’d chat. She told me that she never wanted children until she met her husband, and then suddenly it was all she wanted. I didn’t get it, but suddenly, twelve years later, her message was clear.

I talked about this fairly extensively with a few of my best girlfriends, but not to Martin. I know now that I can tell him anything, but I didn’t want him to think that I thought I was missing out. But really, I didn’t want him to run away. Talking about having a family—or lamenting the thought of not having one—was a premature conversation for us to have after two or three months. I wanted us to stay present; we were good there.

During this time my best friend Emily was pregnant. We’re exactly the same age and have embraced lives that were more adventurous and explorative than rooted and oriented toward family. If she could have a baby at forty-two then maybe I could too. We talked about it at length. And then some.

Emily’s baby was born in October. I’d been through an emotional ringer the past couple of months—my ex-husband died, Lucky almost died, my father had a heart attack—and I felt cut to the root and emotionally exposed. I was o raw and gutted over Lucky’s slow dance with death that I worried I didn’t even have the strength and stamina to be a parent. I reckoned I’m just too sensitive and emotional.

But I’d seen how Martin weathers a crisis or two and how much love and tenderness he extends with ease and grace. It made me want a family with him even more, so when Emily asked me—with her newborn in her arms—what I was thinking regarding making a family with Martin, I stood there in the shadow of the mountain and said, “I’m not thinking about it. I’ve stopped thinking about it. I’ve accepted that he and I—with Lucky and the dogs of our future—are enough.” She nodded the way she does, and we hugged and kissed goodbye.

Four days later I got something I wasn’t expecting: I got a positive pregnancy test.

I’d driven down to Jackson, Wyoming to visits a wonderful group of old friends, and was staying with my friend Sam, who’s like a sister. We were enjoying the afternoon sun on her deck, and I casually mentioned a few symptoms.

“Are you pregnant?” she asked, “Let’s go pee on a stick.” We giggled like kids en route to her bathroom where she sat me on the potty with a pregnancy test and told me to pee. She got in her bed, but with the door open we could still talk to each other.

“What does it say?” Sam asked before I’d even stopped peeing.

“Nothing yet,” I told her, then a few seconds later the air was sucked out of me. “I don’t know,” I said, “I feel like it’s dark in here and I can’t really see. I feel like I’m wearing polarized lenses and I’m seeing lines that aren’t really there. I’m not sure.” I touched my face just in case, but my sunglasses were nowhere to be found.” Sam came into the bathroom and took the stick out of my hand.

“This is a positive pregnancy test!” she squealed, “Oh my god. You’re pregnant!”

Not sure what to do, we climbed into her bed with our dogs, a scenario we’ve spent countless hours in over the past fifteen years that we’ve been friends. We do our best thinking in beds with dogs.

I had plans to go meet two other friends, and knew I couldn’t keep my exciting news from them, but I knew that the next person to hear this news was going to have to be Martin. I took a shower, and as I drove across town I called him. I had a hunch he was going to be delighted, but I was wrong.

“How did this happen?” he asked, and I had no answer, but reminded him that he’s forty-seven-years old and I didn’t think he needed a biology lesson. There was a lot of silence from his end. I asked him if he was still there.

“I had to sit down,” he said.

It was awkward. I couldn’t see him, feel him, or smell him. I wanted to reach out to him, but I was four hundred miles from home. I apologized for having to tell him this way, but I told him I couldn’t wait. He was glad I told him, but I felt doom from the other end of the line. The only thing Martin said during that conversation that gave me any confidence was, “Everything will be okay.”

I was fortunate to be seeing four of my dearest girlfriends that weekend and to be able to share shrieks of joy with them, which made up for Martin’s lack of enthusiasm. I held my friend Danielle’s miracle baby as I told her, I walked in the twilight at the Elk Refuge with my college friend Julia as I told her. There was so much joy.

Julia worked some magic and got me an appointment with her astrologer friend for the next morning. I sat with Lyn and told her that I couldn’t quite believe it, but I felt the presence in my abdomen. She told me she saw two babies in my chart, and I panicked over the thought of twins.

“Is is possible that one of the babies is a book?” I asked her, “I’m writing a book, and, well, now I suddenly have the deadline of all deadlines. It would be helpful if one of those babies is a book.”

“It’s quite likely,” she said with a smile. Lyn and I talked about Martin. As with everyone else, when asked about Martin’s reaction I described our conversation and said it was a little iffy. Lyn and I talked about the strong mothering presence in my chart and how I could do this alone if I needed to. I told her I had no doubt about that, but I was also honest with myself and with her as my witness.

“I want a family,” I told her, “My family has been me and Luckydog for years, and I could see myself being a single mom—having that family would be far more than enough—but that’s not exactly how I pictured it.”

The next day I drove home. The drive home was so different than the drive down just three days earlier. I started my drive fresh out of a soul-affirming brunch and walk with Mariah, who I met the summer after I returned from my year in Honduras, the summer after she graduated from college. Mariah and I were in different places then as we are now, and as we always will be—there are eleven years between us—but our hearts are aligned in a way that transcends time. I started home with sore cheeks from so much smiling.

The first couple hours of the drive were a breeze. The sun was shining and I listened to the recording of my reading with Lyn. I knew it would mean finishing the drive in the dark, but I stopped at the Patagonia outlet anyway. I wanted to buy myself some long underwear, and I didn’t go in looking to buy anything for my four-week-old embryo, but I couldn’t resist the little down jacket and fleece vest that would fit him his first fall and winter. I know now that this was not a wise decision.

I got back on the highway headed north, and had the unfortunate happenstance of stopping for gas right as the last light was fading. When I got back into the car it was pitch black. Hunting season was in full swing and I kept my eyes peeled for animals crossing the road, but also for pickups with big game in the bed. I knew it was likely many of these drivers had been drinking. Beer and hunting—especially when the hunt fills a tag—is a natural pairing in Montana. One driver rode the center line for miles, and when he finally edged to the right I drove faster than I usually do in the dark, but it felt safer than staying behind him. I pushed my odometer to ninety—knowing that’s nuts at night—but I begged a cop to pull me over.

If I got stopped I knew the first words out of my mouth would be, “Where have you been?”

It felt different out there on the interstate knowing I was pregnant. I felt like I needed to be more careful, but I also felt desperate to get home. I drove the last eighty miles clutching the wheel both because of what was going on around me, but more because of what was going on within me. I had a lot of practice conversations in my head.

When Martin and I made the decision to have less-safe sex I presented him with a bullet-point list of facts. I’d never stated it quite like this before, but perhaps my intuition had a suspicion something might be at stake. The most important thing I told Martin was that if I got pregnant I would have the baby. I also told him that I would always let him know where I was in my cycle, and that I would share the contraception responsibility but not take it on as my sole responsibility. I was clear that I wouldn’t consider an abortion, but I’d consider taking Plan B if we thought it was necessary. I also told him that if he thought that having a baby with me would be life ruining and the worst thing to happen to him that he should never even consider unprotected sex because a woman’s cycle can be fickle, especially at my age.

Based on this succinct conversation I figured that while Martin might’ve been surprised by the news of our pregnancy to the point of needing a seat, he’d accept responsibility and be happy about the family we’d create. But on that dark drive to his house I also prepared myself to let him go. I wanted to be clear that this was something I really wanted, and if he didn’t I would understand. I wept as I said the words aloud to myself in the car.

“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to,” I practiced, “I understand, and I don’t want you to force yourself to do something you don’t want to do. Worse than not having a family with you would be you doing it out of obligation, so please don’t do that.” I made myself cry.

“I will tell our child about when we met,” I continued, despite the fact that adding tears to this already dicey driving situation was probably not wise, “I’ll tell him about what a kind, smart, beautiful man you are and how wonderful you are, but that you just didn’t want to be a father.” I was sick to my stomach by the time I arrived.

When I turned the corner to his house I saw Martin in the kitchen, and when I opened the door the first sensation that hit me was the evidence of baking, the warmth of cinnamon. If I knew nothing else to be true I knew this: nobody bakes a breakup cake. Lucky ran toward the kitchen while I took off my boots.

“Hey, stinker,” Martin said, “Welcome home!” I heard joy. I felt love. I was home.

Martin greeted me with a soft, gentle smile and a strong hug. I cried into his chest, and for awhile neither of us spoke.

“I talked to Marietta,” he said finally, “And Thanksgiving dinner will be at 2:00.” He wasn’t dumping me. That was all—in that moment—that I needed to know. We went out for burgers, and then home to eat his apple cake and get to sleep early. We were exhausted.

That whole evening we didn’t even talk about the pregnancy. At first this concerned me, but then I realized that the most important thing was that we connected to each other. We held hands, looked deeply into each others eyes, and fell asleep cuddling, but in the morning I was anxious. As we ate breakfast I told Martin that I was glad we took that time to just be together, but that we needed to actually talk about the pregnancy. He agreed, but the next time we both had available was Thursday evening, otherwise known as an agonizingly long time away from Monday morning.

In the meantime I got to see Emily and baby Nina, I hosted some of my dearest friends for a birthday dinner, I met friends for hikes and tea. I got to tell a lot of people my exciting news. The news of my pregnancy was just a week after the election, and I got to be the bearer of good news in a world that had, overnight, turned more complicated and confusing than ever. I got to feel a lot of joy that week with many of my closest friends, but I still wasn’t sure how my boyfriend felt about all of it.

I was already pregnant the week before I found out, and I put on a pair of jeans before heading over to Martin’s. He put his hands on my waist to pull me in for a hug, and I said, “Ick, my jeans are tight today.” Martin kept his grip on my waist and looked at my belly before looking at me and asking, “Are you pregnant?”

“No!” I laughed, but the sweet way he asked the question made me believe he wouldn’t think pregnancy wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen to us.

Thursday came around and I made a beef stew to bring over and Martin picked up fresh bread. We chatted about the week as we ate, but the longer it took to talk about the baby the more my anxiety grew. Finally we settled in on the couch. I curled myself around him and prepared for the worst. I’d yet to see joy from him regarding the pregnancy and I wasn’t expecting it. I asked him how he felt.

“Concerned,” he said, and I peeled my body away from his a little bit. “I’m concerned because of our ages, because of all that can go wrong with a pregnancy. I’ll be close to retirement when the child graduates from college, my parents are getting older and it’s harder for them to travel. This will mean more trips to Germany. I worry about what having a baby will do to our relationship, what losing a child would do to our relationship.” He also talked a little about the upsides, that we’re more financially and emotionally stable than many people in their twenties and even thirties who are having babies, but the scales were far from even.

“I worry about our energy,” he continued, “Do we have the energy for a child? What about a child with special needs?” He told me that ten years prior if he thought he wouldn’t have a chance to be a dad he’d have thought he was missing out, but as he grew older he let go of that. I laughed and told him that ten years earlier if I’d had a baby I’d have thought I was missing out. We were coming at this thing from completely different points of view.

Martin’s points were valid and I told him so, but I also told him that I was optimistic. I told him that statistics are complicated and we’re both healthy. He told me that paternal age is more of a factor on a baby’s health than I might realize; he’d been doing research.

When he asked me how I felt I answered, “Excited.” I struggled to see this guy, whose heart is light, force a smile. I fell back into the headspace I was in on the drive home from Jackson, and I told Martin that he didn’t have to do this with me, but I was going to do it.

“You don’t have to do this,” I said, “You don’t have to make a family with me. You can’t want something you don’t want.”

“I want you,” he assured me.

The next four weeks were a challenge. I was tired and Martin wanted his girlfriend back. Things that hadn’t been a question before were suddenly looming large. The major upside was that the most pressing question of all had vanished. I’d been pondering for years how I’d survive the death of Lucky—even in Martin’s good hands—and what I would do with myself on a day-to-day basis. The answer had eluded me, but suddenly it was clear.

“I’m going to take care of my baby,” I realized, “When Lucky dies I will take care of my baby, and if the baby hasn’t arrived yet I will take good care of myself.” I no longer had to worry if I’d sell everything and run off to Bali or if my sadness would wither me away to nothing. Just like Lucky had a hand in delaying my trip to North Carolina, I started to believe he had a hand in bringing me an against-the-odds baby.

Those of us who witnessed Lucky’s near death in September knew he was close. His eyes were vacant, his breath labored, his body lifeless. For a few hours that Saturday afternoon we gathered in Emily and Jeff’s yard as Martin picked plums, and over the course of a few hours we all felt Lucky slipping away. He might even have crossed over briefly before returning to us. Lucky is an old dog. He’s almost fifteen now, and it’s not like he’s going to live forever, we just get to enjoy him a little longer.

What I enjoy the most about Lucky—and the list is long—is not his cheerful demeanor, not his unwavering love, not even the smell of his neck. It’s his wisdom. He is truly the smartest person I’ve ever known, and he only became brighter after his near-death experience. It didn’t take long to convince me that the only way I’d conceived a baby at age forty two while trying not to get pregnant was if Luckydog had a paw in making this happen.

It made sense. Perhaps Lucky thought I was prepared to let him go. Martin was the guy we didn’t even dare dream of, and he liked us too. Perhaps Luck had thought I was in good shape, and he had every reason to believe. That day in Emily’s yard we all got down close and talked to him. We told him he’s been such a good boy and that we love him very much. We said everything we could think of to let him know that he didn’t have to hold on if he didn’t want to, that he could let go if he was ready.

Martin crouched behind me and spoke to Lucky. He said, “You’ve taken such good care of your momma, Luck, but you don’t have to worry anymore. I can take care of her now.” Martin and Jeff wrapped Lucky in a blanket and placed him in my car, all of us certain we were taking him home to die. But he didn’t; he wasn’t ready.

I was eight weeks pregnant when I went for my first ultrasound. I’d been so worried that the images might show two babies, that I’d completely forgotten to worry about the absence of one.

Before the ultrasound I had a thorough exam and answered a lot of questions. I had many symptoms of a healthy pregnancy, and no reason to think anything was wrong. It was a transvaginal ultrasound, which means a probe is placed inside the vagina. Right before the midwife stuck it inside me she asked me why Martin hadn’t joined me for the appointment. It felt like an accusation, but I gave her the only answer there was.

“I didn’t ask him to,” I told her. I knew if I’d asked Martin he would have joined me, and I’d even booked the first morning appointment to make it easier for him with his job. But I didn’t ask him. In part I didn’t ask him because I knew it would be a long appointment that dealt with a lot of my health history and I didn’t want to waste his time, but I know now that I was afraid of the outcome.

Emily had asked me the day before if Martin was joining me and I’d told her no, for the same reason, and she pointed out that hearing the baby’s heartbeat is a great way for a father to connect with the baby. The mother is automatically linked physically, but the father just has a tired, cranky, swollen mother and that doesn’t always lead to feeling connected.

Of course she was right. But what happens when there is no heartbeat? What happens when the midwife turns the screen away from you to get a closer look and then turns it toward you, and with the cold probe still in your vagina, shows you the emptiness in your womb. She pointed out the size of the gestational sac and the slight fetal pole—the egg had implanted—but told me the baby had stopped growing after five or six weeks and that the pregnancy was most likely not viable.

When I heard that the egg had detached, the big question of what I’m going to do when Lucky dies came rushing back at me larger, louder, angrier than before. It was a slap. It had bite, now, when previously it only had bark. The option of having a baby to take care of had been removed from the menu, and now there was just me. I could just take care of myself, if I could.

I didn’t cry. I didn’t believe it. I was in denial. Grief can be like a moving target, but I refused to buckle under the weightiness of this unexpected plot twist within an unexpected plot twist.

I consulted other health professionals, some of whom are close friends, and I read everything on the internet. In some cases the ultrasound is wrong, and I held onto that hope. There had been a distinct shift to my nighttime fieldwork; I transitioned from staying up late researching non-toxic cribs to staying up late at night asking Google for how long will I bleed? I tried to be both realistic and optimistic, but until my water broke I didn’t fully believe I was going to lose the baby.

For nine days I waited to miscarry, which I now know is like waiting to exhale. I never considered a D&C, but I did consider taking a drug called misoprostal to encourage labor. I wanted the miscarriage to happy naturally if it was going to, and taking misoprostal felt like giving myself an abortion. I couldn’t personally do that without being 100% sure. I still felt as pregnant as I had before the ultrasound showed my blighted ovum. I felt I could breastfeed on the spot, and in many ways felt like my body had betrayed me. Purgatory is a lonely place.

I got another ultrasound that confirmed the first, and hoped it would help my body let go but it didn’t. I went to my writing group wearing a nighttime pad just in case, and despite my red-rimmed eyes and hollowed out heart I participated in the conversation as if nothing was wrong. I went to work. I told a few of my coworkers who I share shifts with what was going on because I wanted them to know in case I started cramping during a massage and had to leave in a hurry. One of my coworkers had a miscarriage and when I told her the waiting was the hardest part she said, “No, the worst is yet to come.”

It was the most honest thing anyone had said to me regarding the miscarriage process.

“If it happens at work you won’t be able to drive home,” she said, and that was actually the closest I got to comprehending that a miscarriage is far more than heavy bleeding and bad period cramps. Women don’t like to talk about their miscarriages, about how their body failed at the one big job it was designed to do. Some bodies fail at the simpler tasks, the ones we take as a given—breathing, digestion, happiness—and when those systems fail us we don’t do much like to talk  about them either.

By day seven my patience had worn thin. A dear friend was having a double mastectomy the following day, but she stopped by in the morning to bring me chocolate because we know that chocolate always helps. She was also the first person to bring me a congratulatory gift—tea, chocolate, prenatal vitamins, and a note telling me I was going to rock it. Neither of us wanted to believe we were in danger, but we worried about each other.

At a birthday party we laughed—even though it wasn’t funny—and agreed that I could worry about her and she could worry about me but we wouldn’t worry about ourselves. It seemed easier, I guess, to keep that distance from our own potential pain. That night at that party neither of us knew how complicated our situations were going to become over the next few weeks. She only needed a single lumpectomy, I was having a healthy first trimester. Boobs seemed to be our only problem.

Three weeks later things had changed dramatically for both of us, we could hardly keep up with the emotion and it felt easier to be strong. We stood there in my living room and cried, though neither of us really let go. We were both scared, yet at the same time fearless. The list of unknowns lengthened by the minute, and questions we didn’t even know we had multiplied until even our questions had questions. It was hard to determine which ones needed answering and which ones would remain mysteries. Neither of us drowned, but we swam hard.

I went to work that day, but not the next. Day eight was spent preparing. I saw my Osteopath and my Naturopath for care and supportive therapies. I changed sheets and cleaned the house. I stocked the fridge. I’d bought all the right stuff: apples, almond milk, letting go bath salts. I put together baskets of items I’d need—one with dark towels, one with cozy pants and tops, one with undies— so I’d have easy access to it all. I’d bought pads and wipes and set those in the bathroom in another basket. I mothered the shit out of myself.

I’d made a soft decision earlier in the week that if the miscarriage hadn’t happened naturally by Friday that I would take the pill so I could recover over the weekend. I laugh now—a month later and still recovering—that getting back to work on Monday was a priority. Blake gave me advice I wish I’d had the wisdom to heed, “Protect yourself. Don’t push pain.”

My body finally cooperated. For nine days my body had fought an inevitable process as it refused to let go of an embryo that had stopped developing three or four weeks prior. Martin came over. I was in the bathtub when he arrived, and he sat on the little stool and rubbed my head while I wept. I wept because of the agony of waiting, because of my fear of the pain, because of the outcome that I wasn’t sure I could accept. I was in it. This was not a story I could step out of.

I was weary and weak, and after soaking for well over an hour I asked Martin to dry me off, and he did. I put on underpants and a pad and he tucked me into bed. I don’t know how long Martin sat on the edge of the bed, but it was long enough that I was drifting off to sleep. I told him I had slight cramps, but nothing too bad. He left and we said we’d talk in the morning.

I was crampy during the night and aware of it, but I slept. About an hour before the sunrise I got out of bd and started moving about the house without thinking. I turned up the heat. I put on the kettle for tea. I ran water for a bath. I moved with purpose, yet it felt like a walking meditation, like maybe half of me existed on another plane.

I added salt to my bathwater and set my tea on the ledge of the tub. I was cold and ready to submerge myself. My water broke as I slipped out of my pants. I felt it burst and heard it hit the bathroom linoleum. It seemed louder than it was supposed to be, and at first I didn’t even know what it was.

I wasn’t expecting my water to break. I was only nine weeks pregnant, and despite all of my reading on the internet I didn’t have a grip on what was actually going to happen during the miscarriage. This is in part because every miscarriage is different, but also because I’d mostly been reading the stories about the cases where the ultrasound was wrong and the woman went back at ten weeks and the heartbeat was strong.

The other part is that a lot of women don’t want to talk about it, not to their friends, not to strangers on the internet. It’s an incredibly emotional thing to go through, and difficult to process on the fly. Then, when these mothers have recovered, they just want to move on and don’t necessarily want to relive the experience.

I wiped up the floor and got into the bathtub. I texted Martin, Emily, and Charlotte. They all offered to come over to provide support, but I told them it was an inside job.

The contractions took me by surprise. I hear from people who’ve experienced both miscarriage and live birth that the contractions during a miscarriage are almost worse. I think that’s in part because of the body’s physical experience of grief and knowing that in the end there’s not going to be a baby, but rather a void. I think the other part is purely physical, sort of how it’s almost more painful to dry heave than it is to vomit. During a miscarriage the cervix is dilating and the uterus is contracting to remove the tissue, placenta and sac, but there’s so little in there it aches against the pressure of itself.

As the contractions increased I quickly changed my mind. I was screaming and writhing in the bathtub and I had no idea how long I’d be there, but wanted to make sure Lucky was taken care of so I asked Martin to come walk him. It had snowed overnight, but was hovering just above zero that morning. Martin told me he’d clear the car and be over.

I discovered pain that has edges. It didn’t appear to have limits.

I put on classical music and tried to remember to breathe. At some point I texted Martin, “Please come straight into me.” I was worried he’d walk Lucky right away, which was silly, and I’d be left freezing in the bathtub, which I’d since drained. I was sad the night before when he found me crying as I soaked, but this was a whole new level. I was full-on primal, squatting in the bathtub, streaming blood and rinsing it away with water from a plastic cup. I was so cold.

“Get me out of here,” I pleaded when he opened the bathroom door.” I had a contraction then and fell back in the tub. “This is so much harder than I thought,” I confessed, “I had no idea.”

I repeated that line a lot over the next days—I had no idea—and still, as I continue through this process, I have no idea.

Martin got me into bed as the contractions continued. The pain was close to unbearable. The morning classics played and were calming, but the music sounded both near and far, a perfect metaphor for my experience. Martin gently stroked my face and brushed my hair off my forehead. The contractions got closer and the intensity continued to build. I hadn’t expected labor or delivery. There are a dozen “What to Expect” books for pregnancy through the preschool years, but nobody thought to write a book—or even a measly pamphlet—on what to expect when you lose your baby.

Exhaustion took over and I closed my eyes. I fell asleep for a few minutes, but I was aware of Martin’s presence, his weight on the edge of the bed like an anchor holding me in place. When I woke up and opened my eyes I asked Martin how much time had passed, and he told me it had been about thirty minutes.

We asked each other, “Is it over?”

It was. In many ways it was over, but a hundred times more ways it was just the beginning.

I texted my friends, and told them, “Emotionally I feel calm, clear, and aware. I love this aftermath of a trauma: even though it was difficult, stretching, exhausting, devastating…I still wouldn’t trade the experience and know I’m better for having had it.”

Charlotte, who in addition to being a friend who guided me through this, is a midwife, and she commended me for trusting myself to allow the process to happen naturally and for trusting my inner wisdom. She recognized the empowerment in relinquishing control over the inevitable, and tapping into my own insight and groundedness to find my reserve tanks of strength.

She said, “Seeing a best friend be so in charge and in control and trusting and working with things like this.. such a mysterious process…is pretty much the central love of my career. I work everyday and have for years for patients to have this sort of experience, so to witness my friend being so in tune, just sends me to the Stars, although it has been a very hard and perplexing couple of weeks. It makes me know that I am doing the right thing, in my cells to see you be so Amazing.”

My mother said, “I’m always so proud of you.”

Most people don’t share their pregnancies in the first trimester, and even though I felt like I didn’t tell everyone—just my local friends, people at work, a few old friends across the country, people I saw and told because I couldn’t contain my sweet secret—the numbers added up. I sent several dozen texts to relay the sad news.

It was crushing to have my friends’ hearts break along with mine, but I was glad for the support, which would’ve been harder to ask for had I not told people I was pregnant in the first place. So many people suffer silently—with miscarriage as well as with illness, heartache, etc.—and that only leads to a deeper struggle, to more suffering, to more disconnection from ourselves and the world. Breaking open is difficult, but it’s worth it.

Friends delivered candles, flowers, soup, chocolates, essential oils, books, sexy tank tops and cozy leg warmers. I sobbed over a goody bag with a mug, my favorite teas, a candle then when lit looked like a little sun, and an apology note from a friend who hadn’t intended to hurt my feelings. I drank fresh juice, herbal teas, and broth. Friends told me stories of their own miscarriages, and how they grieved and healed and built strength. I felt guilty for not knowing how to support them when they went through it, for not having the empathy to understand the depth of the loss.

My dear friend Julia—who hooted and hollered with me under the rising moon in Wyoming when we were celebrating—offered to drive half a day over the snowy mountain passes to support me. I knew that all I had to do was reach out and a hand would be there, but for the most part my friends knew that what I needed was space to grieve and the security in knowing I only had to answer the question, “What do you need?”

A lot of my grief was silent. I didn’t take much time to recover and I went back to work, to the gym, to making dates for lunches and hikes. It was too much. I was physically, emotionally, and hormonally depleted. I continued to downplay the emotional and physical trauma of a miscarriage until it played me down.

Most of Christmas weekend I sobbed. Martin, Lucky, and I hiked through deep snow to cut down a tree, and when I stopped to pee I saw my blood in the snow and it unhinged me. Martin asked if I was tired, and I was. I told him yes, but I as far as I could. I didn’t trudge through the even deeper snow to the place where he found our perfect tree, but I stood and listened to the rhythmic saw, soaked in the pine smell which invigorated the air.

By the time we got home I’d whipped through my already low reserve tank and had nothing left to even help him decorate the tree. I drank tea and snuggled on the couch with Lucky and watched Martin wrap lights and hang ornaments. I cried over my lack of involvement, and he gave me a simple job of tying silver string on cookies so I could participate in our first Christmas together. Martin never faltered, and has cared for me throughout this ordeal in a way that is nothing less than extraordinary.

The next night we drove through a blizzard to have dinner with his family up the Blackfoot, just past my favorite beach, where we’ll go when it thaws and have a ceremony. We went to church and sang Silent Night with candles in our hands, and he rubbed my back when I cried not because it was sad but because it was so beautiful.

Emily and I talked about how loss is sort of a homecoming, how enduring a great loss can be the path that leads us home. I thought Lucky had this miracle baby sent to me to pick up where he leaves off, but I was wrong. The baby came to show me intense loss, Lucky stayed to show me how to endure it.

This miscarriage has left me emotionally strong but physically weak, and I’ve had to accept that. I did too much, too soon, and I learned a lot of lessons about how to heal. I pride myself on my strength—both inner and outer—and confessed to my Osteopath that I’d been hiking and lifting weights at the gym, but that it wasn’t working. I told him I wanted to go running because that’s been how I’ve regulated my emotions since middle school, and it was driving me crazy that I don’t have the energy. I wanted to feel strong by building strength, and I didn’t realize that in order to feel strong I was going to have to submit.

“I don’t feel energized,” I told Matt, “I’m just so exhausted.”

He laughed. “Energized isn’t the goal. Calm is the goal.”

Matt told me to just be tired, and wrote me a prescription for rest. He told me to stay home until 1:30 for four days in a row, drink tea and broth, and watch and read lighthearted movies and books. I texted Emily a photo of my prescription, and a question.

“What’s a funny book?” I asked her because for the life of me I couldn’t come up with one measly idea. She rattled off a list and offered a delivery. It was frigid cold, and I didn’t want Emily and the baby running errands for me. Not only did she insist, but she also knew just the book.

When Emily and I celebrated our fortieth birthdays together in Portugal we were both grieving. I’d brought a funny book on the trip that I finished before we met, but it was worth lugging across Spain to watch her giggle as she read it.

That book (Where’d You go, Bernadette?) was on our bedside table the night we heard a sound like someone breaking into our apartment. I was fast asleep when Emily grabbed my hand in the middle of the night and told me she was scared. I held her hand and we were quiet as we waited for the noise to return. When it did I listened closely and took a deep breath after determining it had come from the apartment next door. The doors on the ancient buildings were five inches thick and swollen from the salty air; our neighbors were trying to close their door, not open ours.

“That’s the sound of a door closing,” I told her, and in that moment we both put a lot of our grief behind us. The book Emily bought for me is from the same author who wrote the book that made us laugh as we turned the pages on a new decade, and this one has a title that couldn’t be more perfect: Today Will Be Different. 

Maybe we need to stop encouraging people to keep their chins up, and instead give them books, leg warmers and permission to sit with their grief. At the end of my line, I submitted to the deep grief. My vitality and fire are returning.

With my renewed clarity and a little distance I’ve realized that I didn’t just have a miscarriage; four weeks later I’m still having it. When I sat down to write this essay my intention was to write a lot more about the miscarriage process itself, but I realized once I began that what I needed to write was everything that led up to it. The essay about the miscarriage will come when its ready, when I’ve completed the full circle. When that will be is still a mystery, and I’m okay with that.

There were dozens of photos and quotes I wanted to include with this post, but I decided to let the words speak for themselves. Except this one.


I took this Wednesday driving up to Hot Springs, where I go to rest and restore, and where I also hoped to locate the strength to write this post. It worked. The catharsis from writing this essay has been tranformative.

After I posted the above photo to Instagram, my dear Emily commented, “…driving to the core.”

Yes, that’s what I did. I drove right to core. I drove it home. I drove myself straight to love.


Last night I posted a picture to Instagram and Facebook with the hashtag #welovenighthikes. It’s true—we do love night hikes—but the hashtag could easily have been #welovewhatevergetsusthroughit.

Wondering what’s fair play in social media is a valid question and a worthwhile conversation. We criticize those with piles of unfolded laundry as the backdrop as much as those with nary an item out of place. We criticize those who whine about how hard life is on them as much as those who gloat about being #blessed and #grateful. Sometimes we are those people and sometimes we hate those people.

I have a diverse group of friends and posts in my feed run the gamut from “Look at us going from skiing to surfing in one day!” to “Can someone bring me a bottle of wine and a sandwich?”

Finding the balance on social media is a slippery slope. I’m not sure I understand why we care, but I know that we do. I’d estimate that over 50% of my Facebook feed is news and information, which I love because I mostly get what I signed up for, but it’s overwhelming and I don’t have time to actually read it all. I read very few articles in full, and the rest I skim for the gist before saving the link for the ubiquitous “later” and, well, you probably know the rest of that story.

Like many of us, I show up mostly for the pictures both to post and to peruse.

After I posted the night-hike picture I wondered if it was fair as a stand-alone photo. It was and it wasn’t. A photo is not a film, and a single shot is not a documentary; that’s the thing about any kind of expressive art: it allows for interpretation. And while deriving personal meaning is the beauty in art, it can also be the downside. We’re all free agents here.

Some people (maybe the ones asking for wine and sandwich delivery) look at social media photos (maybe of the people in the members-only lounge at the airport en route to or from a beach or a mountaintop) and they only see the smiles and the wide-open eyes and not the delays or the diarrhea or the fits.

And this is how it is.

I have to say that last night’s hike was crucial to my mental health. I’d had a headache all day. I’d gone to the gym, ran a few errands, walked Lucky in the park, and gutted the crap out of my closet. Nothing had helped the headache, and the headache got in the way of my writing, and then I was just grouchy because I wasn’t using the day the way I’d wanted to. I’d failed to meet my expectation of myself and it was nearly crippling.

I’d also slipped on the ice as I was getting into my car outside the post office and saved myself from hitting the ground (thanks, Pilates) in a way that has my deep abdominal muscles feeling shredded today. Because I’m no stranger to adding insult to injury, I came home and spent some time pulling half-frozen dog poo out of the melting snow. I cleaned out the fridge and the pantry and the linen closet. I cursed myself for saving this or that. I wanted to go for a hike in the sun, but there wasn’t any. It was starting to get dark and I knew there was one last-ditch option for saving the day. I needed that hike.

The truthier, extended version is that I shed some tears on that hill last night. I ran into a guy with his dog, a dog who attacked Lucky and sent him rolling backwards on his bony, old-man spine a couple of months ago. I confronted him about the attack, and although I’m a proponent of dogs running the hills unleashed, when he described his dog as a rescue who is “unpredictable” it boiled my blood. He told me he was sorry, and I’d say the exchange was overall positive, but my takeaway from the encounter was a reminder of was how damn fragile life is and, well, unpredictable.

With that man and his dog heading back down to town, Lucky and I had the whole mountain to ourselves. I kept him on his leash because I couldn’t bear the thought of losing him in the dark and I blasted some of my favorite songs and sang my heart out for no one to hear. I ran, I cried, I lost my breath, and I dropped to my knees. And I felt a lot better. Toward the end I let Lucky off his leash, confident he’d stay with me in the bluish light of dusk, and I took a picture of him because sometimes it’s hard to see where we are when we’re in the thick of it. I needed to shift my perspective.

I saw where the city lights roll right up to the mountain and the companion I’ve had for a long time. I saw a truth that I always end up seeing, that life can be both heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time.night hike

I returned to the cleaning when I got home. I skipped dusting and vacuuming in favor of culling toiletries and tea. I cleaned out as if moving, which I appreciate both in theory and in practice. In my last blog post I wrote about how content I am to be here—and that’s the absolute truth—but then there are those days where I want to be anywhere but here.

Here is relative. During the years I was near constant motion I felt an exhausting weight whenever anyone asked “where do you live?” If my car was near I could point, because it was obvious with a glance that there was a lot of living going on in there, but sometimes I had no props and was reduced to using my words. Sometimes I’d give a long-winded response of explanation and excuse, but then I discovered a better answer. “Right here,” I’d say, pointing to myself, “I live here in this body.”

Because “wherever you go there you are” is true whether running away, moving toward, or sitting still.

My heart has this edgy feeling right now as if poised to spring into action. I might not have one foot out the door, but I’m light on my toes like a boxer or tennis player. I’ve moved so much and gotten rid of entire households several times over, and although I’ve felt tinges of regret over handing over some items I can say without hesitation that I haven’t actually missed any of them.

I hadn’t felt compelled to read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, but I visited a friend last weekend and found myself thumbing through the book. I knew the theory, but hadn’t put it into practice until yesterday when I asked myself over and over if various items “sparked joy.” If it wasn’t a quick yes then it was a no and into the giveaway bag it went. It’s a process, though, and there are a few items remaining on my hit list because I have to do some deep digging to figure out if I still need them in my space and if they spark joy or, it’s opposite: regret.

I never got around to the vacuuming or dusting, but my house felt “clean” in a deeper way than if I’d wiped surfaces and stuffed unfinished projects into drawers and closets. By the time I went to bed my headache was gone and I got the sleep of all sleeps. I could’ve gotten up earlier than I did for writing, but made an adult decision not to beat myself up over that one. Luckily there’s also a book called The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck  so in the spirit of balance and riding that slippery slope like a wave…








Here and There. Same or Opposite?

Almost two months ago I posted (as part of The Striped Shirt Review with Emily Walter) ten photos with ten words to describe each one. Some of my photos blasted full, brilliant colors, but a few were black and white with a splash or just a hint of color. Those were my favorites.

Since then I’ve been writing a lot, but also taking copious pictures of all the places I’ve been as I’ve traveled deep down memory lane during my fortieth summer. Some of the stops were intentional and some just happened; as with any journey this one has been juiced with surprises. There’s been some light and dark to each place, to each moment.

I’ve taken photos of amazing sunrises and sunsets with that color that seems too beautiful to be real. That indescribably pinkish-orange enhanced by blue and purple sky, green grass and trees. I love those images—the capture of the moment between night and day—but mostly I’ve been drawn to the frames that capture light and dark together, not just the instant before and after.

It’s the contrast I adore. I love the juxtaposition and how one begs and threatens the other: consider me.

I like thinking about reference points and natural duality. For example, you can’t know hot if you don’t know cold and you can’t really hate something unless you’ve also once loved it.

The light and the dark need each other, but sometimes I need something concrete to assist my absorption of the abstract. For me, my light and dark images confirm what I already know and feel: there’s black and white to everything, there’s sun and there’s shadow, there are two sides to every story. There’s yin and there’s yang.

Shadow doesn’t exist without light; life doesn’t exist without death. Treetops grow toward the light, while roots exist in the dark. When a tree reaches its highest point of growth—its full potential—it falls. Its death becomes life.

Let me not mince words: it’s pretty fucking amazing.

Every single one of us has light and dark within us. For some the darkness is deeper, the light more outward, but it’s there. It’s always there to be discovered.

A friend of mine died the other night in a sunny part of the country almost to the minute that a baby was born to other friends in a place full of light, but where darkness is slowly creeping in. As I received the news I felt simultaneous grief and joy as both tragedy and hope filled the small space of my heart. At the same time, which is about enough to make a head spin and a heart lurch.

Almost two years ago I eulogized my grandfather and ended with a quote from Eckhart Tolle. “Death is not the opposite of life.  Life has no opposite.  The opposite of death is birth.”

There are some things that don’t have exact opposites. Like home, which I’m currently without. The thesaurus tells me the opposite of home is foreign, but I’m not convinced. As I’ve traveled it’s been interesting to see what places just feel right and which do not. You see, I’m currently in the market for a new home, but I’m not so much interested in rushing things so I just kind of go here and there visiting friends and family as I finish writing a book that is giving as much a sense of home as the most comfortable bed and well-stocked kitchen. As much as familiar photos on the walls, a constant view out a window, a toothbrush that isn’t in perpetual motion.

One thing that I know is that even when I’m in a place that  feels calming and comfortable and “good,” it doesn’t mean it’s the right place for me to stay. Or maybe it does, and I’ll eventually circle back.

One place that recently impressed me was Provincetown, Massachusetts all the way out on the end of Cape Cod. I don’t at all want to live there, but I’d like to visit for the rest of my life and here’s why: the place is full of joy. It brims with acceptance and love.

Provincetown is known as an LGBT summer destination, so a lot of the riff-raff is kept out. Provincetown is remote, so most people aren’t going to make the trip out there just to hate on a population they don’t approve of. The result is incredible. It feels safe. It feels happy. It feels like the kind of place where you just want to walk the streets until your paws wear out, which is what Lucky and I did.

What follows are twenty-four photos of light and dark. Most of them were taken in P-Town, but a few were taken in other parts of Cape Cod and in Maine.  There are twenty-four photos because twenty-four is a multiple of six, and I’m currently obsessed with six. Each photo gets a six-word caption.

What’s with six? Well, five years ago I heard about the six-word memoir project, and I played a game where I asked everyone I ran into what his/her six word memoir would be. It was a fun project, but at the time just for sport. Since then my love affair with six-word memoirs has grown and became a structural device for the many-word memoir I’ve been writing. My title has six words, every chapter title is six words, and six-word memoirs are scattered about.

 So. Twenty-four light and dark photos with a six-word memoir for each.


A closed shop; one man working.


The Pilgrim Monument. Tall, proud, bright.


Ambience is everything. Shine a light.


Art above and below street level.


Books beg me to buy them.


Lit windows, doors, steps an arch.


The light and dark are neighbors.


Lobster. Every day. Every single day.


The ocean at Truro was angry.


There’s always room for one more.


It looks closed yet still open.


Date night is a beautiful thing.


A dead tree full of shells.


The dock in Portland. J’s Oysters.


Parts of Maine offer one kind.


I wanted these. Forgot to buy.


They sold antiques but now BBQ.


We pierced ears here in 1989.


Where I sit today thinking, writing.


Fishing boats, sailing boats, lobster pots.


Light and dark in a harbor.


The brightest Light that I know.


Where the water changes direction. Love.


Hands down. My favorite photo ever. 

Learning is Winning

Yesterday was a good reminder. I was reminded of patience, joy, trust, fun, and the thrill of learning something new. I went to my first SUP (standup paddle board) Yoga class. I’ve been on a paddle board a couple of times—on a pond—but despite a dozen years in a state with some of the best rivers and lakes, I never learned much about wielding a paddle. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed many long river days, but was content in my role of handing out snacks and beers.

There was another first-timer at the class, and while she focused intently I mostly spaced out during the demonstration. She did some on-land paddle practice, and positioned her feet properly on the board while I gazed at the horizon and spied pelicans. The fact of the matter is, I acted like I knew more than I did and exhibited something akin to false confidence. I’m more than aware of my tendency to do this in various arenas, and I could say that historically that behavior hasn’t served me well, but the truth is I’ve found greater success (I think…) in acting “as if” then wondering “what if.”

But that’s a different story….

The Gulf of Mexico isn’t known for its waves. As far as Florida is concerned, the surfing is on the Atlantic side, but there is surfing here too—mostly during hurricane season and cold fronts—but occasionally the wind is just right and we get a little swell. Yesterday was one of those days. Ok, swell might be an exaggeration, but we had some rollers.

The three seasoned SUP yogis had been cruising around on their boards for a while, and when it was time to go I pushed my board into the water, hopped up on my knees and started to paddle. The instructor’s voice came behind me, “You’re a natural!” Then I laughed, tried to stand up, and fell. The other newcomer, who I later learned is a yoga professional, took her time getting started. I don’t know what she was thinking, but I guess it had something to do with wanting to feel confident on her board so she’d be better able to practice the poses she knows so well. Me: I just wanted to get the party started.

Jill Wheeler is the wife of a high school friend of mine and the leader of the class as well as many others she offers through Wellfit Institute.  She offers wellness coaching, therapy, adventure travel and workshops. She’s definitely a badass with a wide smile and infectious exuberance. You get the immediate sense that some of that will wear off just by being near her, and after ninety minutes playing in the water with her I can confirm that it’s true.

She wrote a blog post recently about her last month which included running the Boston Marathon and witnessing from close range the events there, then she went straight to leading a group of women on a Kite.Yoga.Love Adventure Camp in Costa Rica. After that she was home briefly then off again to yoga teacher training in Mexico. {And I thought my last month was exhausting. Perspective is an interesting thing. But here’s the real thing: it’s useless to compare ourselves to other people. Absolutely useless. The other new student and I took different approaches to the same thing, but in the end I think we had equally fun and satisfying experiences.}

Jill wrote:

Getting to Costa Rica was both a blessing and a curse. Good to be away from the trauma and drama, but hard to be away from my daughters. It was the first time I didn’t feel ready to shine as a leader…but I put on my big girl panties and planned not to miss a beat. I am really good about digging deep and pulling it all off, often at my own cost….I realized…how inspiring am I going to be if I am not leading by example and getting into that salty bay to ride, splash and play? How can I hold back and expect others to face their discomfort?”

Many of us connect to ourselves through nature, and Jill and I both fall into that camp. We don’t necessarily do it in the same ways—she’s more of an athlete, while I’m more of a feel my toes in the sand and the water on my skin and the wind in my face kind of girl—but sometimes there’s sameness in the difference and we both know one thing to be true: nature and movement are what help us keep it together when things seem to be falling apart. Or, in a more perfect world, what we use to prevent the seams from coming undone.

I have never in my life been as challenged as I have been writing this book, that has a new working title recycled from a previous (unfinished) book: NOT WHAT I SIGNED UP FOR. I joke that I’m the toughest boss I’ve ever had, and I’m not even close to kidding. I’m relentless, ruthless, critical and sometimes downright mean. I have everything I need to be successful, yet I still sometimes manage to get in my own way. If I had a choice I probably wouldn’t work for me.

I have a solid 96,000-word draft of a book, and a perceptive editor who gave me some terrific advice and a decent road map that I can use to guide me in my rewriting. He seems to understand me and suggested I do a quick rewrite. He didn’t say it in these words, but the implication was there: Don’t agonize. You’ve got this.

Sometimes I sit in front of the computer twirling my hair, and I wonder why my mind spins in a million directions as if I have nothing to work with, as if I’m starting from scratch. I worry if I have too much material and what I can do to skim some off the sides and create a more manageable manuscript. I worry that I’ll never get this done. I worry about what happens if I fail. I worry if I suffer from a Jonah Complex, or a fear of success.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow said of the complex,

“So often we run away from the responsibilities dictated (or rather suggested) by nature, by fate, even sometimes by accident, just as Jonah tried—in vain—to run away from his fate”.

I came to Naples for cutting, revising and adding a few additions to the book. I didn’t expect to like the place, but have been pleasantly surprised by the nature here—the proximity to The Everglades, the Gulf, the abundant wildlife—yet I struggle with some fundamental things about the place. If I’m being real here, and that’s the point, my struggle most likely has more to do with the rising tide within me than with geography, but it also has something to do with being able to connect to a place, and this place is so, so different from the Rocky Mountains I’ve called home for most of the past dozen years. So we change perspective a bit: big whoop, right?

Yesterday it was clearly time to dunk myself into the water. It was time to learn something new and to connect with the nature that’s here. It was time to feel like a ten year old. The summer between my junior and senior years of college I moved across the country alone to work on my thesis project. I chose Hood River, Oregon (for a magazine internship) and learned to windsurf while I was there because it was available and because I tend toward a “When in Rome” attitude.

Learning to windsurf in a world-class location known for its cranking wind has built in challenges, so most people learn to windsurf in places like Aruba where the water is warm and where you can beach start. You need a wetsuit in the Columbia River, have to watch out for barges, and the only option is to water start in deep water.  The result is that you get tossed around a lot and do a tremendous amount of face planting. But one thing is true: there’s a much greater success rate (with anything) if you focus only on what you’re doing, and keep your mind off how you look or if you’re doing something wrong or what’s for dinner. The bonus of a wetsuit: you don’t have to worry about wedgies. {There is always a silver lining.}

I found immense joy in that “mind vacation” as a twenty-one-year-old, and I hoped that I could tap into it again as a thirty-nine-year-old.  So finally, yesterday, I took Jill up on the offer to join her SUP Yoga class. And here’s the good news: it worked.

It absolutely exhausted my body, which I’d taken to the gym the night before and given a run for its money. I didn’t realize how fatigued and muscle-torn my quads and shoulders were until I was on the board paddling, but after a few strokes I forgot. I also forgot about the stress of writing and focused on the simple act of moving through water and balancing on the board.

I’m a decent yogi because I have natural flexibility, but I was not given the gift of balance. Strength yes, balance no, but the only option is to work with what we’ve got. Yoga on a moving object was not going to come easy to me—I knew this—but every time I fell off the board I smiled inside and out because I knew it was a direct result of will and effort. And sometimes, despite those things, we fall. Hoisting myself back on the board time and again I was glad to have the strength and will to do it. I didn’t get hurt, though I did bump and bruise a knee one time. The reason: I tried to stop myself from falling when I should have just let it happen. Lesson learned: submit a little.

I’d cried on the way to SUP Yoga and on the way out, but I didn’t cry during. I’m going to quote Jill again, “Nature has a way of just being without attachment to outcome, without apology for being real. Nature levels the playing field–for everyone.” I’ll add that nature and learning something new in the constantly changing environment of moving water levels our internal playing fields. Taking this lesson off the board is the next challenge, but if we can then we’re definitely winning.

I didn’t go back to SUP or yoga or even the gym today, but after writing this morning I did go back to the beach with a friend to read, rest and reconnect. It’s good for my writing and I’m getting to the point where it’s not necessary to apologize for doing what I know will work, when sitting in front of the computer and twirling my hair for too long clearly doesn’t. Learning is winning.

Jill took a picture of me trying to get up into Urdhva Dhanurasana (AKA wheel or backbend) on the board, and then another one of me after Shavasana (AKA corpse pose), the only yoga pose I never forget the name of. It’s the one where you lie back, let it all go, and experience gratitude.

Shame is a real crippler, and embracing it does nothing but breed more of the same. On my journey of trying to feel less of it I choose disclosure as the antidote, so here’s a picture of me either on my way into or out of wheel (does it matter?) and another, sitting happy, Buddha belly and all, at the end of the session, fresh out of Shavasana.




Book Excerpt: “In My Country”

I had a male writing teacher who once commented that women are always apologetic about their work. We say, “It’s not finished,” “It’s just a draft,” and the worst, “I don’t think it’s very good….” This is nonsense. In the spirit of sharing and not living up to that teacher’s analysis of my gender I’m sharing today a chapter from my memoir-in-progress.

“In My Country” is not the first chapter of I FORGOT TO START WITH MYSELF, and falls somewhere in the middle. This is not meant as a stand alone essay, so you’re bound to have some who? what? why? questions, and I’d appreciate if you’d share them with me as I continue to craft what comes both before and after this chapter. Thanks for reading….



The power is out in the supermercado, and the shelves with the non-perishables look like they’ve been rode hard and put away wet. I put my hand on the refrigerated case that’s still cooler than the air, and I speculate about how long it takes meat and cheese to spoil at ninety-five degrees with comparable humidity.

I eye the hotdogs—they don’t really spoil, do they?—and despite the fact that I grew up on meals of salmon, asparagus, and quinoa: I want them. I want the macaroni and cheese. I want the Velveeta. I want the Hamburger Helper. I want those not-even-Hebrew National-hotdogs.

My cart is empty—I could have done this shop with a hand basket—but it turns out I need the cart for support and use it as more of walker than a vessel. I’m thirty-two years old, living alone on an island off the coast of Honduras, and I’m not even halfway through two weeks of treatment for malaria, though the effects of the disease will last longer than I could ever imagine. To further complicate my self-induced scenario I also have a house under contract and a boyfriend who is cheating on me, but I won’t know these the ramifications of these game changing details until much later.

I step away from the hot dogs. I don’t need food poisoning to complicate night sweats, hallucinations, and incessant full body itching. It turns out the treatment for malaria is almost as bad as the disease itself, and once the course of treatment is started it must be completed to avoid giving the parasite the home field advantage of coming back even stronger than it began.

The cereal and long-life milk are gone. The bread and peanut butter are long gone. The beans are picked over. The battered bags of cookies are crushed into crumbs inside their packaging. My head tells me I should be able to live on mangoes, shrimp and avocados, but my heart says something different. I slide my leaden feet along the dusty floor, staring through and above the barren shelves as much as at them.

Then I spot it. The label is dusty and half-peeled off. The can is dented; and its exposed parts are flecked with rust. The price tag has three digits—way too high—then I remember to divide by twenty. My fuzzy brain computes the United States currency equivalent and I’m still appalled at the inflated price, which is three times what it would be at home. But I need it. I need this can of Campbell’s soup. It’s not tomato, chicken noodle, or cream of broccoli, any of which I could have passed by. It’s Chunky Sirloin Burger. I need that soup.

In my regular life I would consider this product completely vile as a stand-alone meal, and though I’ve consumed those creamy casseroles, never once have I prepared a meal with a can of soup as the cornerstone ingredient. Sirloin Burger represents the kind of food I work hard to avoid, but in my physically and emotionally weakened state I’m smitten with the idea of country vegetables and miniature burgers complete with grille marks. I need that can of soup.

I was lucky enough to grow up with my best friend right across the street, and because my house was mostly devoid of snacks we usually went to Debbie’s after school. Mrs. Burton often had a still-warm baked good waiting for us on the butcher block in the kitchen, but if she hadn’t gotten around to baking that day we’d dig into leftovers or hit up the pantry.

We ate Swiss Miss and Countrytime by the spoonful, added chocolate chips to scrambled eggs, and strove to discover the next unlikely pairing of dissimilar foods. We researched by eating a lot of Reese’s.

We were hooked immediately upon discovery of Chunky Sirloin Burger, and would pass up homemade eggplant parmesan or moist black bottom cupcakes in order to consume a wide variety of GMOs and a week’s worth of sodium before General Hospital was even over.

The phase didn’t last long, and the truth was: that soup had always grossed me out a little. It came out of the can as a solid mass that resembled dog food and re-coagulated quickly at room temperature. I tried not to ponder how they got those grille marks on burgers a mere half-inch in diameter. I always felt like I needed to lie down after I ate it.

In my fragile state I’m desperate for a taste of home, and the soup migrates into my cart. Everything is slower than the usual slow of island time, and I wait not very patiently in the checkout line where receipts are handwritten and manually calculated during the power outage. I hand the clerk the US equivalent of ten dollars for the soup and a box of saltines. I know with one shake of the box that the saltines are mostly crushed, but they’re the only thing I’ll keep down that day and even crumbs are better than nothing.

The dented and dusty can of soup wouldn’t make the malaria go away, nor would it bring me closer to home. Eating it would have made me sicker, and I had no intention of doing so. I just wanted it on my kitchen counter as a reminder that as bad as things can be they can always get better.

I lived on the island for nine more months. I bought the house, busted the boyfriend, and left before the military kidnapped the president in his pajamas.

I’ve never been an efficient bailer and knew it was time to leave long before I did. I made it official when I found myself starting many sentences with “In my country….” I’d say things like, “In my country a roofer doesn’t show up eighteen days late without so much as a phone call.” “In my country our power doesn’t come from an unreliable generator that runs on diesel fuel and is held together with silly putty and paper clips.” “In my country we can buy basics like fresh milk, light bulbs, and tampons.

The “in my country” statement that sealed the deal came when my friends and I witnessed a girl vomit while eating with her family at a restaurant. I said, “In my country when someone vomits on the dinner table the other people ask her if she’s okay. Or at least stop eating.” And then I booked my tickets to leave.

Life on an island thirty miles off the coast of a third world country is not going to be like life back home. Expats retreat from civilized nations in search of something different, but often what is discovered is not what was expected. People often say that if you want things to be like they were at home then you should just go home. Returning home might admit failure, so we adapt. We acclimate, acculturate and habituate.

We base our meals on what the stores have available and not on the latest recipe plucked out of a magazine. Magazines, among other things, are a hot-commodity on Roatan, brought down in a stranger’s carryon and passed among friends until the pages are free of bindings and bleeding color.

We adjust. We brush our teeth with purified water. Toilet paper goes in the garbage can, not the toilet. Gasoline is hand poured by the gallon jug into our vehicles behind a minimart. We discover things about ourselves. We expand our minds. We learn that we’re capable of much more than we thought. For some the perspective shift sticks, while others look for ways out or at least through.

That beat-to-shit can of soup stood on my counter as a reminder that life as an expat is not easy, and it’s not supposed to be. That’s not why we go and it’s not why we stay, though it often has something to do with why we leave. I don’t know what compelled me to spend my thirty-third year immersing myself in Honduran culture except that I’d made a teenage promise to some day live among foreign customs, and because at thirty-one I wasn’t getting any younger. A few weeks after my return I walked through Queens—the most ethnically diverse place on the planet—with my mother, and she said, “If you wanted to live in another culture you could have just moved to Queens!”

When I returned home I was incapable of summarizing my experiences into something palatable, so I said very little. I was quick to anger when someone heard of my recent adventure and told me they’d lived in Costa Rica for a few months. I’d silently rage at their comparison of my full cultural immersion to their three-month surf trip. “That’s not really living,” I’d say, “That sounds like more of a vacation.”

I wondered why that wouldn’t have been enough for me. For years I was unable to verbalize why I really went; I couldn’t quite comprehend it myself, so how could I explain to others? I said I went because I didn’t want to be a spoiled American my whole life, and I returned because I decided that being a spoiled American for the rest of my life wouldn’t be so bad. But there was more.

Five years later I am shocked at the physical and emotional danger I exposed myself to when I moved impulsively, alone, to an island thirty miles off the coast of Honduras. I wondered why I had to make it so hard. I could have traveled with a medical aid group or the Peace Corps. I could have enrolled in a language school or taught English. I could have at least traveled with a friend. I did not have to make it so hard.

But I did.


Jaime and Lucky on West Bay Beach, Roatan, Winter 2007


These Walls

“If you are careful, if you use good ingredients, and you don’t take any shortcuts, then you can usually cook something very good. Sometimes it is the only worthwhile product you can salvage from a day: what you make to eat. With writing, I feel, you can have all the right ingredients, give plenty of time and care, and still get nothing. Also true of love. Cooking therefore can keep a person who tries hard sane.”
John Irving, The World According to Garp

I did not write a single word yesterday, but I cooked, and I thought about writing all day. I recently got my cart before my horse as far as writing goes, and I needed to take a step back. I needed to slow down. I needed to right my upended wagon.

I knew a few days in advance that I’d be having some friends over for dinner. I planned the meal, but had neglected my home. I need to fire the maid (me) because she never completes her tasks, and I need to tell the teenager (me. again.) who lives with me to grown up or get her own place. In lieu of those domestic refinements I had one choice: to do it myself. {bear with me, folks.}

I was slightly overwhelmed despite the fact that it wasn’t the President I was entertained, but four of my all-time favorite ladies. These are not the people you need to impress; these are the people who love you regardless. But still.

As I broomed dog hair out of forgotten corners I wondered if I had enough forks for five people. I knew I had enough dinner plates but that I didn’t have enough wine glasses, though my friends don’t mind drinking out of jelly jars. As I did this simple math I realized that in the two years I’ve lived in my little house I have not had more than two people over for dinner at one time, and more often it’s been only one at a time.

Let me be clear. I am not a fan of throwing big parties or the kind of party where you aren’t sure who will show up where the attitude is “the more the merrier.” The last big party I really remember throwing might have been my 1998 wedding, and even then I knew, for the most part, who was going to be there.

As I swept and mopped I realized that two people can be fairly comfortable sitting at the table in my kitchen, but to add a third I have to relocate Lucky’s food and water bowls. How the hell was I going to squeeze five?

Let me be clear on something else. I sort of love my house and sort of hate it. I like my bedroom, and I love my porcelain bathtub and front yard maples. The original hardwood floors in the bedroom and living room are beautiful, but the person who designed and installed my kitchen floor should be incarcerated. It’s too embarrassing to describe—so just trust me—but on more than one occasion I’ve said that if I owned the house I’d rip out the terrible linoleum because a plywood subfloor would be preferable to that hideousness.

I also really hate the walls. I doubt they’ve been painted in the last decade (maybe two) and imagine that the person who chose the dismal, dingy white was probably also the person who choose the dreadful kitchen floor and painted the inserts of the kitchen cabinets cornflower blue, which only further accentuates the institutional white.

The walls show evidence of previous renters mishaps with nails, screws, and wall anchors. Among other things, the pitted walls make it clear that not everyone cares about hitting a stud. I’ve covered most of it with my own art and pictures, but sometimes all I can see is the spaces in between.

Two years? Yes, two years. I’ve lived in this house for two years with a month-to-month lease. There was even a change in ownership, and when the new owners took over I made it clear that a month-to-month lease means a lot to me. I could have painted the interior of my house two years ago, but because I’ve always been one foot out the door I never wanted to invest, you know, an entire weekend and a couple hundred dollars to improve my house.

One more thing I need to make clear: it’s not entirely the walls’ fault. I’ve also not invested much within those walls. I have some nice antiques in my bedroom (NOTE: it’s the same bedroom furniture I had when I was a kid.) but my bed is third-hand. I have a full-size featherbed on a queen size bed, but at least the semi-vintage linens are semi-decent.I love my pillows.

For eighteen months I lived with and loathed a couch that was probably born about the same time I was. It was in great shape as it had been at someone’s lake house—and who sits on a couch when they could sit in a canoe?—but it was not awesome. Not even by a stretch. I finally surrendered seven months ago and bought a nearly new leather couch on craigslist, but only because it was a steal and would be easy to resell, you know, when I move out next month.


When I bought the couch (which was Lucky’s tenth birthday present), I also bought a little writing desk (because it was perfect), and last month bought an $18 mercury glass lamp at T.J. Maxx (because it was a good deal). These purchases were palatable because they can fit in the back of my Subaru without the seats folded down.

I “made” my bookshelves with four wooden boxes and two panels from bi-fold closet doors. I scored all of this stuff at Home Resource for about fifteen bucks, and was so proud of my cool, recycled, “temporary” bookshelves. I actually do like them, and like repurposing discards, but let’s be real: my cherished books deserve something a little classier, or at least more permanent. Or least made of components that most people wouldn’t put in their slash pile.


My kitchen table was snagged from a friend’s yard, and the chairs are vintage aluminum folding chairs from Missoula elementary schools. They have wooden seats, and are as comfortable as mid-century school assembly chairs could possibly be. They were only $3 apiece at Goodwill and I knew they’d be fine for provisional kitchen use, and then, because they fold up, could be retired for “extra” seating.

And then “all of a sudden” I’m having four beloved people over for dinner and not exactly sure where to put them. The only option was to relocate the dog bed and move the kitchen table into the living room, because pulling it into the middle of the kitchen would compromise my ability to open the oven or move with reasonable ease around the room.

After I finished wrangling the dog hair I made the switch. I set the table with my wedding china, napkins brought home from Guatemala eleven years ago, and, after a lot of hunting in my sans-organizer silverware drawer, five mismatched forks and knives. And what do you know: it worked.

I spent a lot of the day preparing the meal. I went to one farm stand and two grocery stores for my ingredients. I squeezed lemons and vitamixed dressing then blanched picked-that-morning ears of corn and sliced off the kernels for the salad. I peeled, chopped and roasted. I sliced, layered, and measured with my eyeballs. I gutted local melons and froze chunks so we could have a palate cleansing sorbet course. I figured if you’re going to be in a makeshift dining room you might as well be classy about it.


I felt guilty that I wasn’t writing, but found comfort in all of those action verbs. I simmered, skinned, and sliced. I salt and peppered. I got excited about having friends over, and wished I could have every single lady I love over for dinner. But alas, four at a time….

My friends arrived (early, god bless them) with bubbly and bruschetta. We hugged, we talked, and we toasted each other over and over and over again. And it never got old. We offered congratulations and consolations. We welcomed one back, and are in the process of sending one down the road a little ways.

At the end of the day it isn’t about the ugly walls; it’s about what happens within them.


 To thine own self be true. –William Shakespeare

In less than a month I’ll have lived in my house for two years, which is the longest I’ve lived in any one place since I was sixteen. Some quick math tells me it’s about a 60/40 split in favor of twenty-two years of meandering.

It’s strange, though, because I value home. When I move into a space I’m quick to set up shop, flatten and recycle boxes, and act as though I’ve lived in the place forever.

I arrange lamps for optimum ambient light. I make my bed, put my books away, hang pictures, and situate the kitchen and bathroom. I buy some flowers, light a candle: I’m home.

I’ve loved every place I’ve lived in. I even loved the one that took two days of scrubbing to rid the kitchen cabinets of (what seemed like) decades of grease. I loved the ones that seemed too sterile, too noisy, too smelly from whatever was cooking downstairs.

I’ll stay up all night to scrub a stranger’s filth with steel wool and make sure all my shirts and hangers are going in the same direction, but as much love as I feel for my new (obviously semi-temporary) homes I quickly fall into my old patterns. Before I’ve sent my second rent check I’ve already started to wreck the place. I don’t mean wreck-wreck, I just mean making it more “homey.”

Piles build. Doors become overwhelmed with bags and coats. My toothbrush has to fight for space near the sink. Ponytail holders and bracelets cling to every doorknob. Junk mail discovers my new house then lands prime real estate next to the recycling bins, which don’t take themselves to the sorting center. The kitchen counters have teas in various stages of brewing and miscellaneous bowls of half-finished this-or-that and it often looks like someone got called out on an emergency in the midst of making dinner.

My nightstand book pile grows taller every day. My clean-enough-to-wear-again clothes piles exponentially increase. And then there’s the clean laundry in the hamper, the poor things in a perpetual purgatory of “go back in the dryer to de-wrinkle or just hang up?” And as with every unanswerable, million-dollar question: not a lot happens in limbo.

Six years ago I was getting ready to leave for Honduras, and a couple of friends came over to help me sort through the stacks of clothes all over my bed. I was as attached then as I am now to my Missoula uniform—yoga pants and capilene zipneck tops—and I had more than a few stacks of the components ready to go to the Caribbean. Another stack contained more than a dozen assorted swimsuit pieces, and as my friend eyed the two piles she says, “You can’t take it all. You’re going to have to trade the Patagonia tops for the string bikinis.”

She said I could bring one “favorite outfit” and the rest had to stay. I pouted, but she was right. The bikini pile went into the suitcase, and the other pile into a Rubbermaid bin that I marked in Sharpie: “Stays in Missoula.” With that indelible pen I scratched out passé labels from other stages of life. A label from a cross-country move said “Children’s Books,” one from an across town move said “Kitchen Stuff,” and from a time when we were staying put for a minute, “Lucky’s food.”

Six years later I’m not going anywhere (just yet, but never say never), but feel a similar urge to purge, clean, and sort. Because we’re hovering on the edge of fall in Northwestern Montana it is time to put most of the summer stuff away, but in the transition it’s a good time to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Even—and maybe because of—our short summer here, an array of bathing suit pieces drape and droop over door knobs, towel racks, and backs of chairs. Those have to go into storage, with one or two suits left out for hotspring-ing. It’s sweatshirt season now, and another few eye blinks and we’ll be into down jacket season. Transitioning between seasons is the easy part; it’s actually getting rid of stuff that can be problematic.

There’s a lot of attachment in things, and it can be hard to let some things go. There’s the “I paid too much for these shoes” that aren’t comfortable and “These earrings were a gift and is it rude to get rid of them?” Then there’s “I just don’t feel good in this,” and “This may have been who I was, but is it who I am now?” They are small questions imbedded in bigger dilemmas.

I’m a strike while the iron is hot kind of girl, so yesterday when I was invited to a naked ladies party I pulled out a couple of tote bags and filled them with everything I WOULDN’T bring on a road trip/adventure. (There’s a link in “naked ladies” to get you to my friend Melissa’s blog post about these parties in case you don’t know about them. It’s not what you think; it’s better!)

I made a rule while I was doing this: no second-guessing. I suppose second guessing can be useful, but I find it to be stress and anxiety inducing. There’s a pragmatic place for second guessing. If you’re trying to decide to buy a car, house or vacation you can’t really afford; if you’re on the verge of kissing someone who isn’t your spouse; if you are not in tune with listening to your gut.

Sorting through clothes and accessories is not a big life decision; there’s just not a lot at stake when you’re getting rid of a shirt that doesn’t flatter. I decided to move to an island thirty miles off the coast of Honduras with more spontaneity than what I’ve used in my decision making over getting rid of a $200 pair of shoes that 1) are old, and 2) hurt after more than four hours. (Note: They’re just like this except in black, if you care.)

The regular questions rush in: But they’re classic! They’re great for weddings! You love dancing in them! All of these things are true, but they have not made as appearance at the last batch of weddings I’ve gone to in Montana where cowboy boots and (gasp!) clogs are fine for a wedding where the terrain is not likely to be level. In fact, I don’t think the soles of those shoes have ever hit Montana soil, though they have made a couple of trips to Vegas. The question: exactly how prepared do we need to be for what may or may not ever happen?

Research has been done that suggests second-guessing leads to unhappiness, obsession, and self-judgment. Second-guessing is so interesting in that it is dual-faceted; we can do it with anticipation or with hindsight. We can basically do it all the time if we choose to, but why would we choose grief?

Anything that doesn’t fit right went into the bag. Getting rid of the t-shirt that is too close to my skin color was easy. The blouse that makes me feel like I’m in someone else’s costume: also easy. The earrings from an ex-boyfriend: a snap.

I do not need to jeopardize my mental health with miniature decisions that, over time, degrade the ability to make bigger decisions and feel confident with the outcome whatever it may be.

Should I stay or should I go? Well that’s still up for grabs, but for now I’m keeping the shoes, not out of choice, really, but because I can only find one. I live in a small house with only one closet, which means I should be even more selective about what I keep, but it unfortunately means I stuff things into recesses and corners where they’re difficult to discover. We do this with our thoughts and feelings too, but that’s a different blog post.

While waiting for the stars to align in one direction or another I’ll focus on what I can control, which is my clutter, my intentions, and at the end of the day: myself.