saltfront

 

saltfront cover - Issue 3

saltfront cover – Issue 3

Deepest gratitude to the editors at saltfront for including me in Issue 3. It’s hot off the presses and gorgeous.

Out of Salt Lake, ecological storytelling is this journal’s jam. I’m thrilled they said yes to my story “The Leaving Half.” About a Japanese-American girl working at a gas station mini-mart across the street from a pulp mill, the story’s also about loss and love, destruction and preservation.

Sorry online readers, to read Issue 3 means buying these pages and treating yourself to some really lovely poetry, art, and fiction. I promise supporting this small band of literary soldiers will be worth it.

Here’s a teaser:

More than this, there was his art sprung from the skins of what he purchased at the Timber Mart.  The plastic triangular casings from pre-made refrigerated sandwiches. Little Debbies or gum or hamburger wrappers.  Unsettling at first, the found objects that boomeranged back to her, origamied as fish or birds, others cut and collaged into tiny landscapes.  Most she carried to her apartment and staged on the bookshelf opposite her futon couch, where she could sit and examine his puzzling presence.  On tender days when she felt most alone, she’d rearrange the tableau of his art.  Tug gently on the folded wings of the birds, willing them to fledge and soar above her, their flight a glorious transformation, weightless.

 

 

 

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Categories: fiction, publishing, short story, writing | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

fog

This winter, a relentless inverted fog has shrouded our valley. We are weeks into this trend; I’ve stopped paying much attention to the forecast which, according to our weather folk, is simply: “Gray.”

From the table where I write, the black relief of deciduous trees against a white surround looks like the smoky aftermath of war.

To find sun I could drive up out of the inversion to four or five thousand feet.  Many people do this. Above the white sea of our valley cars line the shoulder, their drivers standing next to the road with faces turned to the light.  Up there I’ve seen picnickers on the hoods of cars, games of hacky sack, lawn chairs with umbrellas. On weekends, a driver bound for the very top of the mountain must aim, not unlike Tour de France riders in the mountain stages, through this carnival gauntlet of parked sun-seekers.

But I don’t much seek the sun. Truthfully, I’m delighted about the inversion. With little temptation to go outside, it’s easier to keep my butt in the chair and work. Soon, it’ll be gardening season, a hard set of months on fiction.

It’s not for wimps, this writing life.  Solitary. Time-consuming. Hard emotional work.  Craziness. Spending so much time with magical people sometimes makes me feel less adept at communicating with the real ones. Recently I left the house (late, always late) wearing two different shoes and only noticed once I stood waiting in line at the post office. There is never enough time. I struggle to reconcile the insistent knocking to create against the inherent selfishness of world-making.

Today, my house is filthy. The refrigerator is beginning to look like an artifact from a college dorm.  Plenty of condiments, some moldy cheese, and something in a Tupperware container no one can identify. There’s a pile of laundry – neglected, growing. My daughter has no pants that fit and can’t drive herself to the store to get ones that do, she reminds me. We discussed her clothing quandary long enough to make her late to school this morning. Also, there was nothing to put in her lunch, she told me as she got out of the car.  Can’t you please go to the market before you work?

She’s on to me.

On the way home from school I scratched out a list of life chores.  If I raced through them first, I’d have time to write and then everyone would win, at least for today.

I started a load of laundry, hauled out the vacuum cleaner, and then got distracted by a text from a friend who’d shared a clip of Bill Moyers interviewing Louise Erdrich in April of 2010. Here ’tis:

Lovely and humble as ever, Erdrich steps around being compared to Faulkner, Hemingway, and Camus (clever woman-what possible answer to this question could there be?). Instead, she speaks about how she’s managed to write so prolifically while also being a mother, how she’s given herself permission to let the small things fall away.  To answer Moyers, Erdrich reads her poem “Advice to Myself”  (from Original Fire, 2003. Thumbs up to Garrison Keillor for making it Monday, November 19th, 2012’s The Writer’s Almanac piece). Here ’tis:

Leave the dishes. Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
Don’t even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll’s tiny shoes in pairs, don’t worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic—decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don’t even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don’t sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in through the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.

One hand on the vacuum handle, I considered the way of the universe’s mysterious gifts. Into my confusion descended the fierce creative mind of Louis Erdrich via my tiny, fierce community of writer friends.

Fierceness, the order of the day.

Outside, rain fell through the white ceiling of fog. After school, after solitude, there’d be time enough to find pants the right size, to visit the market. Vacuuming could wait.

I settled into my writing chair.

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: community, fiction, writing | Tags: , , | 12 Comments

warrior

Every year, standing at the threshold between years feels bittersweet.  The year in rear view a tangle of experiences powerful and ordinary, some regrettable. The year ahead brimming with possibility.

The new year will deliver another birthday, hopefully, and an age I’ll be surprised about. I don’t feel nearly as old as the data indicates. I’m beginning to understand how my ninety-three-year-old grandmother, even at the end when she insisted she was only sixty-four, couldn’t reconcile how fast her life had gone by.

In 2014 some dear friends spent the better part of the year ill, others navigated divorce, joblessness, financial ruin. Deaths of loved ones meant wrangling fresh grief. I hope wherever those souls are they are at peace.  Raising kids continues to be hard work, so often a befuddling puzzle difficult to decode with any sort of clarity. Looking back, I spent too much of the year wishing I had better tools for living, wishing I was braver.

In 2014 one of my favorite writers, Kent Haruf, passed away.  I considered him a friend, though I never met him. More, I considered him a mentor.  Reading Haruf’s novels helped me understand the fierce tenderness a person ought to strive for and inspired me to take my writing seriously.  His Plainsong – that spare, gentle tale of regular folk who learn to rely on and love each other like family – is the kind of story I hope to write someday. Until his death at the end of November, he wrote, talked about writing and also about getting ready to pass over to another place.  Six days before he died, he even gave one final interview.

I miss his presence in the world.  Though he left his readers with one last book, Our Souls at Night, due out in May, I miss already whatever future stories he might’ve created that won’t be told.  Wherever he is, I wish peace for him, too.

I’m hopeful a new year means my loved ones and I will be healthy and wise, kind and forgiving, productive and successful.  But I know a new year will have its share of struggles, ones I’ll hope to meet with grace and dignity.

In line for bagels this morning I listened to folks chatting over coffee, reflecting, planning how they would celebrate the end of this year.  On the magnetic board above the deli counter, some words by Pema Chodron reminded me to rejoice in the ordinary:

“Rejoicing in ordinary things is not sentimental or trite. It actually takes guts. Each time we drop our complaints and allow everyday good fortune to inspire us, we enter the warrior’s world.”

I didn’t know who she was, so back at home I asked Uncle Google about her – the first American woman to become a fully ordained Buddhist nun, an author, a teacher, a spiritual leader, a mother.  She has her own foundation.  She’s a bit of a rockstar. These words are from her work titled The Places That Scare You:  A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, a title that made me chuckle for its timeliness. A little barb to prod me in the direction of courage.

Waiting for my turn in the bagel line, I read her words again and again, comforted by the notion of being a warrior fierce and insistent in celebrating the fact of existence and the daily-ness of it.  It occurs to me that Kent Haruf would’ve agreed with Chodron, that his stories are about opening oneself to the grace of fully, purposefully inhabiting life with all its imperfections.  He seemed to do that himself until the end.

Onward to 2015, then, a year during which I’ll take experiences as they come, and work to be a warrior for gratitude.

 

 

Categories: books, family, fiction, writing | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

humdinger

ShenandoahWashington and Lee University’s literary magazine whose contributing authors often appear among winners of prizes like the Pushcart and O. Henry, has done two things right this year:  publishing Heather E. Goodman’s story “Humdinger” in the spring, and then selecting her as the co-winner of their annual Shenandoah Fiction Prize.

A story of two friends, Beth and “Henry,” the sort of women I want to be when I’m much older – gritty, outdoorsy, fierce – “Humdinger” is also about love and loss, the complicated tangle of the human heart’s desires, human restraint and recklessness.  And ice fishing, which is fantastic.

Here’s hoping this story will go on to reach a wider audience and win other prizes.

Meanwhile, read Goodman’s story here.

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: fiction, publishing, short story, writing | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

mice & men

As family gatherings often are, ours is total chaos.  I’m from a family of seven—more now including spouses and kids—and this Thanksgiving fifteen of us gathered to celebrate.  As always, there was too much food and noise, packs of dogs running out into the rain and bringing their joyful muddy selves back inside, a burn barrel night where we torched old bills and scraps – articles my parents save for the occasion, the murder mystery party we’ve adopted as one of our rituals.

It’s fun and exhausting, perhaps more so because we all come so far to be together.  It’s hard not to binge out on catching up amid the fray.

This year marks the last Thanksgiving we’ll have at my parents’ house.  With five wooded acres, fifteen miles from the nearest town, a couple of knee replacements and other surgeries, my parents are finding it hard to take care of the place.  Anyway, we seem to be a moving kind of people.  I think for my parents this will mark the seventh time they’ve moved together, and we hope next summer will be the last.

Moving will be no small task. Like so many in their generation, my parents have a lot of stuff.

They’re not hoarders, exactly, but they do love a bargain, and they don’t love getting rid of things.  “I might need that,” Mom says, and Dad, “I’m going to fix that.”  The result of this philosophy is rooms gorged with belongings, a three car garage they usually don’t park a car in, and difficulty with the decision-making required to downsize their possessions to fit into a smaller next-time house.

There’s a lot of work to do, and since my brother and I are the siblings who don’t sit down very well, we take on a project each time we visit. It’s usually something my parents can’t do themselves, like chopping wood, cleaning the roof and gutters, clearing brush by the creek.  But now, helping them come to terms with their possessions, namely which ones need to go to the dump or the giveaway bin, is our primary occupation.

Every time I shuffle through my parents’ things, I’m mindful of what I’d feel like if it was me at the spear end of this game.  It’d be pretty shabby, conflicting, confusing.  Which, I think, is exactly how my parents feel, though they’re open to the help from their kids.  They’re overwhelmed and know they can’t do this next move on their own.

Still, it’s a funny thing to do the job right in front of them.  Understandably nervous, they take turns evaluating what we’re getting rid of.  They might need it. They’re going to fix it, they say.

Dad picks through the piles when he thinks we’re not looking and takes things back.  He hides them inside the house until we leave.  Mom wanders around talking about projects she aims to get done.

This visit my brother and I tackled a part of the garage, which is to say we went through boxes full of things that haven’t been opened in five moves.  Shoes that haven’t been worn in so long their soles are disintegrated.  Collections of broken toasters, lamps, rotary telephones.  A box of Top Ramen from 1987.  According to my brother, they don’t even make that flavor anymore.  Vases, baby clothes, tools, dried flowers.

Near the end of the day, we’d dug down to a layer of boxes underneath a shelf.  I reached in, pulled one toward me and opened it.  Decanters, it read in Sharpie on the side.  A desiccated mouse who’d almost made it inside the ripped tape rested on the top.  My brother and I had already found eleven or so mice in our garage travels – it’s one of the perks of country living, the mice, and made worse because my parents’ cat Sam died last year.

I opened the box to find six decanters wrapped in paper, a pretty tidy packing job, my Mom’s work.  When we were kids, my sisters and I called them genie bottles.  My favorite was an iridescent gold one with indented circles.

The decanters were in there alright, along with my favorite.  A closer look revealed a whole lot more than glass bottles, though. Cloth, hair, shavings, and shiny bits of things I couldn’t identify had been smuggled in and laid among the papers.  Three dead and shriveled carcasses greeted me on the top of one decanter.  I took the box out by the burn barrel and unloaded it.  We agreed to get rid of the decanters.

In one corner of the bottom I found a mound of poison pellets, around which eight more mice were arrested in various poses of distress, their little front paws raised up in surprise near their mouths.

By then my sisters had wandered out to see what was going on.  We stood looking at the box on the ground.

“It’s like Mauschwitz,” one sister said, and another elbowed her.

“Its’ the country,” Dad said, then shrugged. “See? We need another cat.”

“That’s probably enough for today,” my brother said.

“Twenty-three mice,” I said.  “I think that’s a record.”  The last visit I’d found fourteen.

We unwound the decanters and set those into the giveaway bin, and threw the box into the burn barrel. I stood a minute and watched the flames consume it, wondering how long those rodents had been in that box.  There were many other such boxes in the garage, and eventually, someone would have to deal with those, too.

I understood, suddenly, a little bit about my parents’ inertia in getting ready to go.  We were very far away from getting a whole lifetime full of possessions to a new place.  It WAS overwhelming.  The stuff, the change, the uncertainty, the saying goodbye and starting over and the sheer work involved with all of it.  Not to mention the mice.

The next day, as I was packing to leave, I went back inside the house to make sure we hadn’t left anything.  And then I found it.

The faux leather-sided decanter with a replica of a Rembrandt on the side.  Dad had trash-picked it from the giveaway bin.  He’d washed it and put it in the dish drainer after I went to bed.

Mom was in the kitchen making coffee and nodded her head at it.  “He always liked that one,” she said.

I decided he could have his secret.  After all, I’d done the same and kept my favorite.  I might need it.

genie bottle

genie bottle

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: family, parenting, writing | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

loft

www.loft.org

 

Many thanks to the Loft Literary Center for the invitation to write about creativity and how I try to keep that motor running.

You can check out my post here at the Loft’s Writers’ Block site, where lots of folks smarter than me are noodling about all sorts of topics related to writing.

Also check out Heather’s post from a few weeks ago.  I’m tickled we’re in the same virtual space together.

 

Categories: fiction, publishing, writing | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

longing

quince

Over the weekend a friend invited me to make quince jam.  Quince,  I learned, is a “pome” fruit, a cousin of the apple and pear.  Some believe  it was the quince and not the apple Eve plucked in the garden, the quince and not the “golden apple” at the heart of the Trojan War.  Most Colonial gardens had quince trees.  Quince fruit is loaded with pectin but labor-intensive to access.  As soon as modernity figured out how to manufacture pectin, the virtues of quince fell away, and now it’s rare to find a quince tree growing in backyard gardens.  It’s an old story.

While the fruits in a bowl can fragrance a whole room, they’re too tough and sour to eat and need to be cooked.

Every year, in remembrance of her mother, my friend cooks up a batch or two of quince jam using her mother’s handwritten recipe.  This method requires more than twenty-four hours– day one you cook down the fruits and strain them through cheesecloth; the next day you boil the juice with sugar until it sheets in the right viscosity.  Although quince meat is white, once you process it for jam it blooms first a salmon color, and then the most gorgeous shade of amber.

I was honored at the invite to participate in this autumnal ritual, a tender communion between mother and daughter.  At the bottom of the page, faded and water-marked through years of use, her mother had drawn a little heart.

At our house, we try not to gobble up our preserved fruits too quickly.  It’s important, in March especially, to have access to a jar of peaches put up during summer’s heat.  To remember standing next to the tree and eating the perfect one.  We picked it, rubbed the surface gently to stand down the fuzz.  Golden and red, neither mealy nor too hard, the juice dripped everywhere.

As it always does, canning strikes me as an activity as much about celebration as it is about longing.  We gorge and revel in the fruits of our labors and that of others.  And yet there’s palpable yearning in our efforts – all those brilliantly colored jars are sense memories of summers recent and past.  We are desperate to preserve these as we steel ourselves for the dark season, for the uncertain future.  The inherent hope present in germination, the thrill and sometimes defeat of the growing season, the labor and satisfaction of harvest, the reflection necessary to begin the cycle again as we put up jars and save seeds:  These are the elements of stories that resonate.

I’ve had my head lost in writing fiction lately (thus, the radio silence here), so longing has been on my mind more than usual.  My characters are a lot pulsing with yearning, desperate in their quest for it; they make messes everywhere, then shamble through the messes they’ve made, hoping, still, they’ll get at least some flint of their desires.

Emily Dickinson, fond of the gardening metaphor, wrote about longing in far fewer words than I’ve used here. I would’ve like to sit down over toast and preserves with Emily.  After, we’d walk out to the garden and noodle about a place for a quince tree to live in our tiny orchard.

Longing is like the Seed

That wrestles in the Ground,

Believing if it intercede

It shall at length be found.

The Hour, and the Clime-

Each Circumstance unknown,

What Constancy must be achieved

Before it see the Sun!

*This is supposed to be two stanzas.  The first ends after “found,” but  I can’t drive the formatting well enough to make it look that way.  Apologies to Emily.

Categories: community, fiction, gardening, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

light

Early this summer I packed up my bookshelves, preparing to move again, though only a few miles away this time.  Each move, I designate a special box of books I unpack first where I’m going.  My old friends.  Rick Bass and Kent Haruf, Barbara Kingsolver and Jane Austen, Zola and Hurston, Steinbeck, Ron Carlson, Elizabeth Gilbert, Annie Proulx.

This move, before I closed the box lid and taped it shut, I added one more friend:  Anthony Doerr’s newest novel, All The Light We Cannot See.

bw-books0506

It’s important to note before I say anything else that I’ve been a Doerr fan for years.  His short stories are the sort, like Faulkner’s, that stun and sting, surprising and sharp.  Visceral.  You cannot shake the watermark of them.  This latest Doerr work is a complicated arc of character and time, swooping between years before and during WWII and among characters on both sides of that conflict.

At the heart of the novel is the pulse of radio, a tool that comes to mean emotional and intellectual desire, and how and whether one pursues and uses it.  Radio in Doerr’s pages means yearning for innocence and family.  Radio is a tool used for savage murder.  Each sentence crafted, a surprise, the language exquisite and rich, Doerr’s prose reads like poetry.

The story is complicated, full of characters working to survive.  Marie-Laure’s father, the principal locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, teaches her how to survive blindness.  She learns to navigate in their flat with the aid of twine and bells.  She learns to navigate the streets by first memorizing a scale model her father builds out of wood.  She learns Braille, and thereby learns to navigate the world of fiction and the human thrum of yearning, adventuring with Nemo Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  Despite these skills, and though she is raised up intellectually by her father and Dr. G. at the museum, Marie-Laure is sheltered and must ultimately navigate a war-ravaged terrain alone.

Werner, an orphan in a coal mining town, has early survival built into his existence. A proclivity for math and electronics leads him to be chosen to attend an elite Nazi school just before the war begins, a boon and a curse, although he does not yet know it.  He will not have to work in the mines like all men before him, like his father who died far below the ground; he will do something much worse.  Early on, we see that Frau Elena and Werner’s sister Jutta guide his heart, act as his moral compass, present in Jutta’s refrain, later echoed by Werner’s friend Frederick:  Is it right to do something because everyone else is doing it? 

The way we use and harness light and energy, and the miracle of what we can do for and against each other, is present on every page of the novel.  Blind Marie-Laure cannot see light, and yet she can:  people, events, and sound have color for her—the world is sensorially rich, fully tactile, layered with meanings.  From within her emanates an energy vibrant enough that Werner, when he sees her on the street, cannot help but mark her gait and her aura, and also remember it.  And Werner, too, possesses a special vitality– his shock of white hair, tiny stature and early ability to solve complicated triangulated problems are an engine within him.

Marie-Laure and Werner are not the only ones compelled by fierce energy.  There’s an insistence of self-preservation in every character Doerr unspools, the desires of each glinting like so many facets of the Sea of Flames diamond Marie-Laure’s father tries to protect and the Nazi Von Rumpel risks everything to obtain.  Von Rumpel is Nero here, racing against the clock of war and the sentence of his own terminal illness, and yet his maniacal pursuit is one a reader recognizes.  For who hasn’t been terrified of death and wished to live forever?  To find the Holy Grail? To shout over the rooftops of the world, even if it is crumbling?

By the time these three lives collide in Saint-Malo, for of course they must, the race to save what each cherishes most puts a reader at the top of the narrative scaffolding Doerr has so intricately assembled.  It’s a delicious tableau:  A gem seeker who’s abandoned all sense of humanity, a girl with nothing left but her hope that humanity still exists, a boy who understands, finally, that he’s forsaken his heart for his mind.

I couldn’t help but think about the artist behind the crafting of such work.  My own stories are often dark, full of doomed folk, the creative effort behind them infected with a baseline Eeyoreness I work hard to inject with any kind of hope.  Yet hope is an undercurrent I look for in the work of others, because who wants to read a story about all the useless desires that elude us?

Anthony Doerr understands how to tell a story we want to read.  More than that, I think his secret might be a fundamental hopefulness in human nature.  How else could he have tackled the dark torment of the Holocaust and nonetheless, what rises to the surface is a world emanating with the light of kindnesses, of bravery, of love?

Doerr talks about the inspiration for his story here in a Powell’s interview.

And also here:

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: book review, books, fiction, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

resurrection

As she often does, in her latest story “The Resurrections” published at Terrain, Heather E. Goodman writes about complicated relationships that are real, gritty, honest.  Her characters muck around in each other’s hearts and on the land, aiming for grace, yearning to be understood, seeking forgiveness and sometimes getting it.  There’s palpable tenderness rising up out of this hardscrabble life etched by a series of deaths.

The narrator grieves the death of his wife Elna, of his father, of the business he and his father built together, of his youth and the loss of a young man’s full life.  “The Resurrections” isn’t a long story, but it’s stitching is both intricate and simple, giving the impression that Goodman knows exactly what it’s like to be a grieving widower, an older man on a threshold between a past he can’t do anything about and the awakening knowledge that he’s got enough life left in him to hope for the future.

Goodman’s prose is spare, always, and prismed here with the flinty winter landscape and a friendship that resolves to thaw itself nonetheless.  Even the animals have agency and longing, evident in the hound dog Beagle who can’t seem to help digging up his dead friend Smokey, a cat.

Delicious fiction.  Read it.  It’s the sort of story you’ll carry with you.

 

 

Categories: book review, fiction, nature, publishing, short story, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

billy and the band

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 515

This summer John and I gave in to the siren call of buying a log built home on an acre.  A project house, a blank slate of a place, it’s too small, has poorly insulated doors and windows, and lacks reasonable cooling (which is to say, it has none) and heating (which is to say, it has a tiny woodstove and electric baseboard heaters we’re not sure work).  We nonetheless fell in love with its possibility.

For Riley, the cabin fulfills a few wishes.  She’ll get to raise animals, have her pick of climbing trees, eat fruit she picks herself, go wading in the small irrigation stream in the back.

The first time we showed the place to Owen, he stood next to the car shaking his head.  “I mean, all that looking around and this is what you chose?  I’m confused.”   Our choice was further evidence that his parents are nutjobs, that he was switched somehow at birth and got taken home with what he calls “hygienic hippies” instead.  Owen wanted a pool, a media room, a hot tub, a house that said “Wow” from the street.

Early summer was long and lovely and mild, the perfect conditions in which to move ourselves just the few miles with hundred of trips in our pickup truck and some help from a band of teenage boys.  Owen’s friends are much more willing helpers than he is, for which we’re grateful.  In addition to a growing curiosity about his real birth parents, Owen is newly in love, and therefore anything we ask him to do is half completed in a hot rush, one eye on the clock, while he counts the minutes and seconds until he can be reunited with his gal pal.  When they cannot be together, there is furious love-struck texting, and also more than a little staring off into the middle distance, deep in thought.  He wants to be fully independent and stay out at night as late as he likes.  He wants to bring five friends home for dinner with five minute’s notice.  He wants to go camping with a pack of boys and girls and no chaperones, burn huge bonfires in the desert, wear a LOT of cologne.

This territory is new for all of us and seemed to come all at once.  He can hardly have a conversation, changes clothes three times a day, and takes a lot of showers.  We like his gal pal quite a bit; she’s genuine, helpful, a good friend to him.  John and I do remember how all-consuming teen desires of any kind are, which helps us dread the brain-damaged condition we’re all going to have to suffer through for the next few years.  We remember enough to be a anxious about Owen’s choices in his Technicolor love haze.

“Give me a break,” Owen tells us when we talk about not getting carried away in love. “You’re in love too, you know.  With LAND.”  As if it’s a bad thing.

Many days, the new house is too small for Owen and me, so I spend a lot of time outside on the LAND, which I do, I must confess, love.

Anyway, by day three in the cabin I realized the back pasture’s thigh-high grass needed attention.  On Craigslist I found a goat wrangling schoolteacher with a hobby farm a few towns over, so I called him and asked him to bring me some professional eaters, which he did.  The next day our new Nubian friends pulled up to the house in the bed a tiny pick-up truck .  A mother goat and twin kids, a boy and a girl about four months old.  They’d been on the freeway and caused quite a ruckus among drivers, but when they arrived the goats eyed us from the back of the truck, chewing rhythmically on some hay, and didn’t seem too worse for the wear.

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 528

The wrangler stepped out of the cab.  He wore workout clothes, a pair of Nikes, a baseball cap.  I’d expected him to show up wearing, um, goat wrangling clothes, and then realized I had no idea what that attire would be.

“That’s Cooper, the mom,” the wrangler said, “and Coeur d’Alene, the girl; and Preston, the boy. We name all our goats after places.”

Riley and I sat on the tailgate.  The goats nuzzled our hands from the truck’s bed and leaned their foreheads into our chests.

“I just banded Preston,” the wrangler said, “so he might not feel too well for a few days.”  He took some leashes from his cab and reached to clip one to each goat’s dog collar.

I had no idea what he was talking about.  “You did what?”

“See that rubber band back there?”  I maneuvered to look at Preston’s backside and spied a green rubber band wrapped around the top of his testicles.  “It takes the Billy out of his Billy, if you know what I mean.  Last thing you want is a Billy around.  Doesn’t really hurt, just tingles a little.  Should dry up and fall off in a few days.”

Though I had just met the wrangler, I said something about how great it would be if it was that easy to take the Billy out of some human males, remembering John’s post-Billy-surgery-drama-queenness.  The frozen bags of corn and peas. I thought of Owen’s burgeoning Billy, and also wondered how anyone could possibly know that for a goat, having a rubber band cutting off the blood to its Billy did nothing more than tingle.

We stood quietly a moment.  “Wait,” I said.  “Which thing falls off?  The Billy or the rubber band?”

“You’ll see,” he said.  “You can call me if there’s a problem.”

We put the three goats on leashes and took them into the pasture and let them go.

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Preston licked at his backside and then laid down by the gate while Cooper and Cordy wandered off.

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We watched them browsing in their new salad bar, and by the time the wrangler was ready to leave, Riley and I were decidedly smitten.

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It’s been two months, long enough for us to train the goats to come when we call.  They follow us around in the pasture, nudging our hands for kitchen scraps, putting their front feet onto our chests to make sure we’re not concealing anything.  When it’s hot, they lie together under a big spruce at the corner of the property, just opposite the fence from our neighbor’s chickens, who lean against the fence from their own side, close enough to touch their goat pals.  They’re fast friends, which has given life to a habit of breaking property lines to be together.  Once, my neighbor found the goats inside his chicken run, where they ate all the chicken feed and then laid down with the chickens.  A few days later, the hens were in our back pasture, trailing the goats and chortling to one another in chicken speak about what good fun a day visiting friends was.  They put themselves to bed later in the evening.

We’ve spent a lot of time shoring up fencing, hoping each time we’ve succeeded in preventing their next houdinied adventure.

All summer we waited for Preston to lose whatever it was he was going to lose in only a few days.  We called the wrangler once to ask why it was taking so long and got another cryptic answer:  “Sometimes it does,” he said.  In the background I could hear a chicken laying an egg, a lawnmower, some kids yelling.  Riley and I decided to resist asking Uncle Google what to do, and instead, we just waited.

Preston, his Billy perpetually shriveling but not falling off, spent the summer trying to work out what it all meant.  At dusk, he’d run up to his mother and nurse furiously for a minute, then canter spastically toward his sister Cordy and mount her until Cooper bleated at him to stop, at which point he’d run in zig-zags, until they were all sprinting back and forth along the fence line, tossing their ears.

Summer’s pretty much over as far as the kids are concerned.  Owen’s still with his gal pal.  Though John and I are bold in our conversations about how it’s possible to be in love and also make smart choices, we’re terrified of Owen’s Billy being in the driver’s seat of decision making.

Last week Owen and I were in the way back diverting water into the pasture.  He’s been much more willing to help than I imagined, and I’m tickled.  The goats were with us, using one of the fence posts to stretch up into the leafy branches of a locust and eat.  Their appetite is like nothing I’ve seen; it beats even a band of teenaged boys after swim practice.  Owen and I stood in the knee-high stream in our rubber boots, watching the water find its way through the grass in the pasture.

“Isn’t water games so much better than a media room?” I asked.

He shook his head, smiled, offered a clutch of mint to Preston, who nibbled on it, jerking his head to keep it away from Cordy.

I leaned down to check out the status of Preston’s rubber band, finding nothing at all.  All of it had fallen off, both the Billy and the band.  I patted his head and asked him if he felt better, if he’d even noticed that he was newly unencumbered.

“Poor guy,” Owen said.  He stepped out of the water, and Preston sniffed his pockets and put his front legs up on Owen’s chest.  “Wasn’t really a fair fight, was it, Bud?”

I opened my mouth to seize the opportunity to have another TALK about inhabiting the world of love while also making good choices.  But my boy was in galoshes, mucking around with me in the pursuit to divert water, and he was pretty good humored about it, for once.  And already, I was seriously at risk of being the dog whistle he couldn’t hear, so I let it lie.

Owen patted his pocket for the appendage of his phone, then looked toward the house.  “So.  We’re done here?” he asked.  “I’m going to do that thing in a while?”

“Sure.  Thanks for the help.”

I bit my tongue against all the cautionary words to live by, the pearls of wisdom gleaned from my own near-misses and hard lessons, the ever-present feed of news informing new pitfalls for youth.  He wouldn’t have heard me anyway.  Already gone, Owen walked back to the house, sloshing through the water-soaked pasture, his head bent into texting while the goats trotted along behind him.

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Categories: family, goats, kids, nature, parenting, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

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