The Top Rope

Pema’s warm body was pressed on top of my lap and chest, her head curled under my chin. Our hearts, pumping the chemical syntheses that expresses themselves as emotions, were close. Her muscles were relaxed, but tension was secretly flowing into our veins. Bearing her entire weight on me, Pema let not a foot or elbow find its way to the couch below. I was the only surface.


“I’m going to leave in two minutes, okay pup?”


“Okay,” she said, trying to sound strong.


Pema and I had spent the last hour sitting together on Megan’s couch, more or less like this, she getting up occasionally to show me or her mom a drawing, a new dress she got from a friend, or to take a bite of the sweet, tangy clementine Megan had brought, whose aroma still clung to the air. Pema and I had been together for almost three days and it was time to drop her off with Mama.


“I’m going to go home and work for a little bit, and when you come back tomorrow we’ll hang out with Ruby and Francis, and maybe Advah. Okay?”


“Okay,” she answered, sliding off my lap and sitting on the couch next to me.


After nearly two years of separation, two years of going back and forth to Mama’s and Dada’s, largely without incident, Pema has recently begun having trouble saying goodbye. Somehow, almost uncannily, it happened just around the same time she lost her first tooth.


I stood up slowly, picked up my tea thermos, and walked to the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow at one, yeah?” I said to Megan. “We’ll hang out a bit, and then you’ll leave at two?” Our roles would be reversed then, Pema clinging to Mama while I sat largely unnoticed. As I put on my jacket, Pema walked under my feet and sat down in front of the door, blocking my exit.


Pema also doesn’t want to be alone anymore. She is newly afraid of the dark and has “scary” dreams. At least, that what she says. If I ask her what was scary, she’ll dive into a longwinded story, smiling and expressive, that eventually meanders into a series of playful scenes with friends. “So, what was scary?” I’ll ask her. “Well,” she’ll answer, in a way that perfectly mimics her mother or me explaining the meaning of a new word or how to perform some task, “We were all sitting around in a circle and the duck kept walking by, and…” “That doesn’t sound very scary,” I’ll say, interrupting her. “Yeah. Well,” she’ll respond, unfazed, “It wasn’t that scary, but it was a little scary.”


“Because of the duck?”


All this is normal enough, and clearly some of her behavior is based in part on having heard similar things from other children. She speaks of her “scary” dreams as if boasting, in the same prideful way she, upon hearing another child talk about a movie or television show, casually boasts that she’s seen, “like, six TV’s.” She just wants to be normal. Still, there is a different quality that has arisen in all these behaviors, and so far I’m not up to speed.


“Okay, pup,” I said, looking down at the diminutive posture of a little girl in front of the door, “I’m going to go now. I love you. I’ll see tomorrow, okay?”


“Okay,” she answered, scooting a little forward. Her eyes were downcast, as if looking me in the face would admit what was going on. She was trying to be strong; trying, because she wasn’t yet. Neither was I. I looked over at Megan, who was looking at Pema with loving sympathy. “Come here little one,” she said, “Can I hold you?”


Part of the newness in all this is that there’s a different level of maturity arising in Pema, and therefore me too. As a toddler, she couldn’t stand to be away from me or her mom, and I could feel it on an animal level. The attachment was so secure, so bonded, that she simply wouldn’t tolerate any separation. She couldn’t really conceive of it, and so Pema’s cry, should we have somehow separated beyond the degree of comfort, was akin to a duckling peeping for her mother. “I’m right here!” she seemed to be saying, so that Megan or I could find her quickly enough.


It was almost mechanical. I would respond quickly and efficiently, and while I sympathized with her tears, I didn’t empathize with her. I didn’t feel the same sense of loss, because even if she didn’t know where I was, I knew where she was. I knew she was safe, we were safe, and I didn’t sense the same separation that she did. I would scoop her up, hold her snugly, and say, “Hey pup, I’m right here.” She would immediately smell my breath, feel my skin and hear my voice. Satisfied, she would not, in that moment, have had any sense that I might, after all, still walk out the door in another fifteen seconds. Mere presence was the sole arbiter of comfort.


At such moments, even in the midst of Pema’s cries, I would have walked away with little strain on my heart, knowing that Megan would comfort her. Such a situation wasn’t heartbreaking, at least not to me. My point is not to undervalue the stress she may have felt at the time, but to describe how, as a parent, one sees the larger picture, responds, and remains at peace.


It’s different now. Pema cries not because she’s lost. She is not peeping for her me or her mother. She cries because she has begun to comprehend, truly comprehend, our separation. At five years old, the psychological and emotional bond between us is more complicated and nuanced than the relatively simple connection when Pema was still and infant or toddler. What makes this obvious is that, for me, I can no longer walk away in peace. I face the same pain and anguish.


When Pema was a few months shy of three years-old, Megan and I thought it would be healthy for her to attend a preschool two days a week. It wasn’t a school environment we really wished, but she was getting old enough to crave interaction with other children, and we thought this might be a good way to do it. It was a Waldorf school, with a class of about twelve, and her teacher, Miss Llora, was exceptional. The school was highly regarded. Her classroom, which resembled a house, complete with kitchen and living room, exuded a tactile sense of warmth and peace. I could not have imagined a better place.


Still, I regret it. At the time, I just wasn’t savvy enough to know what was best for Pema, and I mistook excellent care and loving expertise for an improvement over my fumbling uncertainty. In retrospect, I believe that was a mistake. The school was incredible, and I have nothing but praise for it and its staff. But my fumbling uncertainty was a greater asset, one that I wasted.


I remember the sadness I felt the first time I brought Pema to the school by myself. We walked through the gate, placed her snack box in the kitchen, and walked around to the playground, where all the children were dropped off and parents said goodbye. Megan and I had done this together several times, and Megan had done it alone twice now, coming home each time with a sagging heart. Now it was my turn. I was determined to be a stalwart and exemplary father, loving and patient, but also demonstrating trust in Ms. Llora and the school and Pema’s ability to negotiate this change.


I hung around with Pema a little while, pushing her on the swings, letting her show me the various play spaces, saying hello to Ms. Llora and some of the other kids. After a while, I figured it was time to go. I knew that in order for Ms. Llora and the other children to engage Pema’s attention, I would have to withdraw. “Okay, pup,” I said, “I’m going to go now. I’ll be back to pick you up in a little bit. Okay?” Pema didn’t say anything. She held loosely on to me, never venturing further than arm’s length.


A few minutes later, as I was walking away, Pema was crying in Llora’s arms, but she wasn’t running after me. I knew that Llorra she would do a great job of consoling Pema, and that in ten minutes she’d probably be absorbed in a game or peeling carrots, but right now, as my little duckling was peeping, I stood in awe of myself that I could simply walk away. My legs moved. I didn’t dare turn around. I walked mechanically to my car and forced myself to drive home, where I collapsed, heartbroken. I understood the rationality of it all, but I was a bit shocked that I could forgo the bond of love and trust for what seemed like a good learning experience.


I won’t say that I regret the experience completely, because there was much that Pema and I both learned during that year in school, but by and large I think it was a mistake. I was too young of a father. I didn’t yet understand all the implications. I was just going with the program. It wasn’t that attending the school was a mistake, it was that I wasn’t listening to my inner voice. I was specifically turning away from it.


Not anymore. I’ve found my voice as a father and caregiver, and I nurture it. I’m the big bad Dada, and I’m not going with anyone’s program. I can wrestle apart each moment and stay real. I can untangle the ropes, and I strut my stuff if I feel like it. In other words, I’ve shed the role of father and have simply become a father. I’m on the top rope, and I body slam like a maniac.


When I left Pema in the schoolyard with Ms. Llora, I was not yet a fully formed father. I wasn’t leaning on my own patience and strength. I was actually leaning on Pema. I was conflicted inside, and had little peace or clarity. I took all that discomfort and uncertainty and propped it against Pema, hoping that she, at two and a half years-old, would buck up and manage the situation gracefully so that I could walk away confidently. Certainly it was a bit more complex than that, but that was the root of our emotional and psychological interaction. I was pinned by circumstance, my vitality was sapped, and the ref counted to one…two… There was no confident strutting. No wonder Pema was crying.


I remember the time my brother left for college. Pete is a year and half older than me, one grade in school. We were very close. I always looked up to him, but even at an early age we were more like peers. His friends were my friends, and vice versa. Until puberty struck, everyone thought we were twins.


As the summer before his freshman year (my senior year of high school) came to a close, I knew that Pete would be leaving for college. The summer was memorable, both easy and exciting. We were fully mobile with a shared car, good jobs, good friends, and adequate money. We drove around the east side of Cleveland, playing golf at rinky courses when we weren’t working as caddies, drank coffee and smoked cigarettes, snuck beers at night, parked cars on isolated roads with our girlfriends, and generally did whatever we wanted to do. We weren’t crazy, but we were free. Our parents trusted us, and not without reason. We were young and wild, but also respectful, courteous and well-intentioned. We were well-meaning kids who were just old enough to bend the rules a bit.


I don’t recall the day he left in great detail. I remember our old brown station wagon, packed to the gills, and a terse goodbye from the door of my room. What I recall most vividly is lying face down on my bed after my mom and dad drove him away. I knew it was a big deal, and I was flooded with emotion, but I didn’t know how to authentically connect with that. Instead, I was buried by images of what I was maybe supposed to feel, or not feel, what it meant to be a young man, strong, stoic, or the prosaic scenes of departing brothers I had read about in novels or seen on TV. I cried, but I couldn’t even tell if that was real.


As I looked down at Pema, curled on the floor by the door, her face was drawn and taught, betraying the same sort of complex uncertainty I recall on my own face the morning Pete left. I could feel her in my facial muscles. She was holding back tears, struggling with her inner voice about whether she should stiffen up, be a man, and accept that life is painful sometimes. This was decidedly more complex than a peeping duckling.


Pema is only five years old. But I’m no longer seventeen. And I learn from my mistakes. I’m the big bad Dada, and the ref, distracted by some angry fans, hadn’t yet counted to three.


“Hey, pup,” I said, my body relaxing, “can I hold you?” I hurled my opponent off with a wild spasm. There was no three-count, and suddenly my back, bulging with muscles, was limber. The crowd, stunned, began to roar. This was my home turf. My opponent, trying to collect himself, ambled uncertainly around the ring, while I swung my arms and turned a few quicksteps under my powerful hips. People go crazy for that shit. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind - I was climbing the top rope.


“Ah, Pemalina…” I said, holding her with all my strength so that she could lay against my chest effortlessly. I stroked her back. “I love you. This is hard. It’s just hard. It’s not easy to say goodbye and I know you’re feeling sad. Me too. That’s exactly how we should feel right now.” Megan got up, a teary look of admiration in her eyes, and walked over to us. We embraced, softly and patiently.


“You know what I do after I leave?” I said, “I mope around for hours. It’s true. Last Sunday I came home and, you know that little music box thing?, I sat on the couch and played it super slow for almost an hour. Isn’t that funny?” I was referring to a small toy that plays “Zipadeedoodah” on tiny metal tines that resemble a miniature piano. As you turn the handle, little raised bumps rotate on a tumbler, striking the tines in the rhythm and melody of whatever song the tumbler is designed for, in this case “Zipadeedoodah.”


Pema giggled, that wet, mucousy sort of giggle that happens when you’re crying. I had my opponent cornered. I made a forlorn expression, imitating my listening to “Zipadeedoodah” in ultra-slow, but ultra-high frequency, each tiny note striking like the clink of a wine glass. Clink. Clink, clink. Poised gracefully on the top rope, I took a moment to rally the crowd. Arms akimbo, I flexed powerfully. Damn, I look good up here, I thought, my butt sculpting my red spandex shorts. My neck flared out and I made that face. You know the one.


Suddenly, I was in the air, the flex of the ropes adding buoyancy to my powerful leap. It happened so quickly, and yet, time stood still as if everything was in slow motion. My, oh, my, what a wonderful day.


I came down, all two-hundred and thirty pounds of muscle, crashing into the chest and legs of my opponent. It took but a few seconds to wrap him up. The ref, no longer distracted, slammed his hand on the mat - one, two, three. That was it.


“Okay, pup,” I said, “I am going to go though.” She relaxed, transitioning into Megan’s arms. There was sadness, but there was lightness too. After all, Pema is strong and mighty. She doesn’t need me or Megan to capitulate. What she needs, what all of us need, is simply to be acknowledged. Sadness prevails. Grief is real. So is joy, and tiny metal pianos.


As I walked away, I waved and goofed it up a bit through every window, even knocking on the one behind the couch, over her head. I did this to add levity, but also to demonstrate that, even in leaving, I was not turning my back to her. She was laughing and the consoling reunion between Mama and daughter was already well underway. I was just a bluebird on their shoulder.



Slowly, with the utmost care, and yet as casually as if talking to an old friend, she picked up the mallet, her long, slender fingers clasping the burnished wood and, with the swollen end, struck the gong. Bahmmm… “Her father,” she said, continuing her story, “took off her fingers, one at a time.” As she spoke, she pulled gently on her own thin fingers, as if to demonstrate. “Then he dropped them into the water,” and she motioned, as if sprinkling them. “Sedna fell,” she said, assuming a meditative posture, “just like this, and quietly sank to the bottom…” Bahmhmm…, “of the ocean.”


I was going down with her. The children, who had all been given handheld chimes to play, struck them in accompaniment to the brass and crystal bowls Tizia had been playing, weaving a narrative of sound into the story. “It’s just a little scary,” she had told us at the beginning, her soft French accent plying us for permission.


I held a chime too, smaller, Griffin had pointed out, than the one he had. Minutes later he would be, like the other children, splayed on the ground in front of Tizia as she played the gong, his serpent-like foot worming its way into my lap. Was he actually snuggling with me? What kind of magic was this? I put my hand, as if by accident, on his ankle. Moments like this are hard to come by.


But right now, as Sedna sank to the bottom of the ocean, I was mystified by the thick atmosphere of sound, a moisture that clung in the air and in my lungs, shaking my sternum like a reed. Bahmmmm…went the gong, Sedna draining ever deeper into the blue-black water…bahhmm…bahmhmhm…Bhahmhmhmmm… The children, playing their chimes, whimsical instruments with a hole in one side that produced a wah-wah effect as one opened and closed the hole with the thumb, added depth and tonality to the story. Sedna, forlorn, alone, yet twinkling to the bottom of the ocean, as if surrounded by thousands of tiny proto-plankton chirping beside her.


Minutes earlier, as we had walked into the little room, I spied the gong hanging by the wood stove and smiled inwardly to myself. Bigger than a truck tire, I immediately imagined hefting it in my arms. Grasping along its circumference, cold and metallic, it would warm to the heat of my hands, placed wider than my chest, seeping into its curving dimensions. The heft of its weight would align with the musculature of my arms and spine, balancing on my hips, becoming one. A dance of sorts. The gong’s face was a rich texture of hammered brass and black tarnish, with a smooth inner surface that, I would hear later, groaned like whale song. Sedna, you poor, lucky soul.


I visualized all this within my periphery, my eye muscles carving into the moment, sideways, always at obtuse angles. Registering the gong with the full frontal assault of my vision could be ruinous. After all, I was with the kids, and I’ve been in candy shops before. And one never looks directly at God. Without moving a facial muscle, I casually found a seat on the floor, all the while screaming inwardly, “Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit. I hope she plays that gong. I hope she plays that gong. I hope she plays that gong.” Silke, familiar with the landscape, took a seat quietly to one side, and let Tizia, who was by now passing out the little chimes to the children, step softly, ever so carefully and incrementally, into the lead role.


If you have never heard someone play a gong before, it begs a brief description. One is apt to think of a cymbal crashing, or some other cacophonous irritation. A gong, to be sure, is capable of such scintillation, but in the hands of a seasoned player, arrayed with several dozen mallets, each of which coaxes a different sort of tone, a gong can evoke a whole story of sound. Fierce, terrifying booms of thunder, wild crashes of ecstasy, and soft, evocative sounds not unlike whale song or the tender moans of a human. Soft and plaintive, it can be quickly aroused into chaotic rhythms that confound the mind and ears. But what is perhaps the most amazing and perplexing is the gong’s ability to produce all of these sounds at the same time, producing an agonizing and beautiful melody that is both lovely and terrifying.


So, picture this, as Sedna drifts to the bottom of the ocean, lost forever from her father, the king, and her husband, the giant raven. “She was alone,” Tizia continued, the fear of the gong softening into silence behind her. The children, nowhere near as frightened as I, listened carefully, occasionally striking their wah-wah chimes, whose bending notes evoked a sense of deep water. We were down there, waiting.


Tizia picked up a mallet, the color and shape of a spherical lollipop. Gently, she stroked the surface of the gong from the top, around the center, and to the other side, eliciting a mournful song. “Do you hear it?” she asked in her soft French tones, “a whale.” We listened eagerly as she picked up another lolly, this one translucent and green, stroking the gong and attracting a different animal of sound. “Another one,” she said, her eyes searching the milky waters. Ours followed. “All her fingers, which her father had taken off,” and again Tizia pulled gently on her own fingers, “had turned into whales and dolphins and fish.”


Sedna, Tizia had told us earlier in the story, had been pushed from the boat by one of her father’s men. The king, her father, had attempted to save her from isolation on a distant island, but when her husband returned, transformed as he was into a massive black raven, all the men on the boat feared for their lives. They scurried about on the small vessel, rocking the boat above the perilous ocean. Exposed and vulnerable, they wished to be rid of the evident source of the struggle, Sedna, the young bride. Thrown from the safety of the ship, Sedna grasped for her life, one hand on the edge of the boat. Her father, fearing for his own life, closed his heart to her and pulled, one at a time, each of her fingers from the rim of the boat and tossed them into the water. Sedna fell.


“Her only consolation on the lonely island had been to comb her long, luxurious hair, remember?” and again Tizia gave us the visual cue, combing through her own hair with long, delicate fingers. “Now she could not even do this. But her children, the whales and dolphins, swam to her and sang to her at the bottom of the ocean.”


“Now sit down,” Tizia spoke softly, “like Sedna, or find a comfortable position, and close your eyes.” The soft, guttural tones of her voice, rose from the rear of her mouth, where her tongue glided thick and syrupy against the contours of her palate, adding to the depth and comfort of the room. I had the sense of a massive whale gliding slowly through viscous waters. English, my English, is spoken right at the teeth and the tip of the tongue, as if I’m biting my words into creation. Hers slid effortlessly from the deep, invoking her words with an oceanic torpor. The lotus eaters. I was warned about this. But now I was becoming drowsy. What about the children? Too late. Bahmhmmhm…


Minutes later we were back outside. Tizia had broken her own spell, feeding us cake and hot chocolate, each child wrapping her hands around a beautifully glazed handmade cup. “Gluten-free,” she told us, “Just in case.”


Squirreling past the stone labyrinth outside - we dared not enter, not today - the children ran along the fence back to Silke’s schoolhouse on the mesa. Land was everywhere in sight, precious land. The sun, bright, evocative, had melted the frost and snow we had slicked our way across on the way here, and now everything was mud. The children’s boots quickly became encased in it. “I’m saving my mud!” Griffin shouted, pleased at the thick crust covering his boots. Many of the kids followed suit. Making a game of it, they raced from mud pit to mud pit to slop as much of it as they could onto their feet. Little Bear, devious, thinking no one was watching, flopped forward and spread her fingers deep into the wet earth.


I was still trying to get the water out of my ears.



I kept my speed up as I pulled off the road into a heavy snowbank. Nothing had been plowed yet. Nearly two miles from the paved highway below, I was at the end of the county road, what some folks call the s-curves. The next two miles would take me down a steep series of switchbacks, through Garrapata Canyon, and up an old Forest Service road into the mountains, all of which, in this weather, would be impossible in my little car. I would have to walk.


But even here, at the end of the county road, I was in danger of getting my car stuck. So I plowed vigorously into the snowbank on my right, trying to pull as gentle a curve as I could, in the hope of keeping my momentum and getting back out onto the road facing the opposite direction. No luck. Full stop. I eased backward and forward, the studded snow tires on my car straining to break out of the scalloped holes I knew I had already dug. Oh well. I turned the car off and opened the trunk. Salvation. My snow shovel.


I dug myself out and repositioned the car on the road, blocking it entirely. No one would be coming this way. After lacing my snow boots and putting the essentials in my backpack - phone, sunglasses, extra mittens for Pema, a thermos of tea - I left the keys on the dash and walked away. My car, now reassuringly pointing the way back home, drifted out of view as I dipped below the ridge and into the snow-filled canyon. Flakes were still falling rapidly, and immediately began to cover my boot tracks. I was alone.


It was Saturday. An hour ago, just before noon, I was on a leisurely walk after a quiet morning at home in the Hondo valley. I had expected Pema imminently when I happened to check my phone and read that Megan, Pema’s mother, would not be coming. The snow was too deep, she wrote, and she could not possibly make it out on time. “I might not make it at all,” she wrote. “Maybe I can bring Pema tomorrow and you can keep her through Monday?” I looked down at my feet. Old worn sneakers. There was a dusting of snow on the ground, but not much. Glancing back up, I scanned the mountains a few miles north. A thick bank of purplish-gray clouds obscured the view. “I’m coming,” I tapped out on the phone screen.


I live in a community called New Buffalo, in the relatively warm and moist Hondo valley. It’s really just an accident that I landed here, but it’s fitting given the last decade of my life. With a tendency to hermit myself away, I seem to enjoy the discomforts and provocations of living with other people. It keeps me balanced. Previously, I lived four years at Lama Foundation, where Pema and Megan were now holed up in the deep snow. Though it’s only a few miles from where I live in Hondo, the ecology and weather is quite different because it’s nestled right in the mountains. Lama is also rigorously structured, with clear schedules, responsibilities and common practices. At fifty years old, it is the very definition of intentional community. In contrast, New Buffalo, though just as old, is relative anarchy.


Megan and I moved to Lama together in 2009. We had met in 2005. After a year at Lama, we were married in a brief ceremony held at the spring, the source of all life at Lama. Shortly afterward, Pema was conceived, and she spent the first two years of her life with us at Lama before we moved down the mountain and eventually into more conventional settings nearby in Taos. During that transition, Megan and I had separated, and she has since returned to Lama, where she currently resides. I eventually landed at New Buffalo.


Megan and I are very good friends. Though we are no longer living together, we are both dedicated parents and so we acknowledge the domestic relationship that remains as a practical layer of our friendship. We communicate often, and not solely about Pema. Though I no longer live at Lama Foundation, I remain their sole employee, doing their bookkeeping and communications, and the sort of administrative work few people move to New Mexico to do. Megan is now the Coordinator of Lama, which is sort of like the President or CEO, except that Lama is governed very softly and via consensus. In other circumstances, one might say that there is a conflict of interest involved, but at Lama our arrangement, though unique, doesn’t turn any heads. People trust us.


So, as I walked into the middle of the mountain snowstorm, I was nevertheless treading familiar ground. I could walk this road blindfolded.


The muffled crunch of my footsteps accompanied my thoughts as I dropped into the canyon. I stopped for a minute at the bottom, between its steep walls. The silence was golden. Everything was white. Tiny snowflakes drifted in every direction, filling and giving definition to the space. The oak leaves, still clinging to their branches, were wet and tannic, a deep brick red that stood out boldly against the snow. I recalled the fermenting tobacco a friend had once hung in the greenhouse, years ago. I nodded to myself in that familiar way, fortunate soul, to be here and to witness all this. Alone and silent, the world slid into my body, and vice versa. They were like two images of the same object, which, when held together by the stereo vision of my eyes, produced depth and shape.


I took my backpack off and set it softly on the snow, listening to the sound of the snowflakes being crushed underneath. Zzzzip! I opened the zipper and rummaged through the top pocket to find my sunglasses. It was only 1:30, but it was dark and gray as dusk. Still, the air was so thick with snow that I could barely keep my eyes open from the stinging snowflakes. Is it the cold, I asked myself, or is it that, at the very moment those flakes strike my eye they are as solid and sharp as crystals? Funny world this is. As I put on my sunglasses, my periphery spied a tiny rock, leaping as it were, from the bare, wet cliff and tumbling into the snow. I turned instinctively, watching it form into a thick white ball as it tumbled down, settling amongst a dozen others at the bottom, its track, just a scent of a shadow in the snow, white against white. Zzzzip! I closed the pocket, swung my bag onto my shoulder, and headed up the other side.


Thirty minutes later, I stood inside the door at Megan’s small house, a one-room dwelling with a loft for sleeping. A fire was purring softly in the stove. She and Pema immediately erupted into laughter, and I milked it. I had purposefully not wiped the ice from my beard, and a semi-frozen trail of mucous ran from my nose over my lip. My hat and jacket were comically dusted and the bottoms of my pant legs were heavy with clinging globs of snow. “You made it!” Megan shouted, “Dada, our hero!” It hadn’t been a difficult journey, but I played it up.


“Guess what time it is, pup!” I said, stamping my feet on the threshold and taking off my wet layers.


“Are you going to hang out for a little bit?” Pema asked, excitedly.


“Yeah,” I answered, “But guess what time it is.” Pema looked uncertain. She knew I was forming a joke. “Tea time!” I shouted, holding my thermos like a trophy. I drink a cup of tea, like clockwork, in the morning and mid-afternoon. Pema knows this, and she and Megan both mock me afterward, as I grow more talkative, prone to both sentimentality and slap-happy antics. The gentle ribbing from the two of them only makes it better, and the recent exertion of having walked up the mountain would make this a perfect moment. Thermos in hand, I sat down by the wood stove to dry off, smiling abundantly. Paradise.


“Thanks for coming, Joe,” Megan said, this time seriously.


“Yeah, absolutely. No sweat,” I answered. “But I can’t stay long. I’ve already committed to taking Ruby and Francis at four, and it’s going to take Pema and me some time to get down the mountain.” I had already been relishing the polite challenges of coordinating all this, but now, heart pumping, tea in my hands, I was basically on fire with a lusty excitement for life. “Hey,” I said to Megan, “Can I take one of the sleds?”


The whole thing was a story. I could have waited out the storm. I could have canceled plans with the other kids. I didn’t have to be on time. None of this was necessary, but, sitting by the wood stove, playfully chatting with Pema and Megan, I was immersed in it, wrapped in a story like a big child in the blanket of snow now covering the mountain. Everything is make-believe.


Here’s how the story goes: I had two hours to hang out a bit and then trundle down the mountain with Pema, dig out the car and get it off the mountain, arrive home in time to eat, and then be ready to scoop up Ruby and Francis before gearing back up and heading outside. One of my housemates was leading a dance at New Buffalo that night, which would occupy the room the kids and I would have otherwise been playing in. Instead, the three kids and I were going to go to Silke’s house, where, in her absence (she was going to the dance), the four of us would explore her little schoolhouse, full of marvelous German toys. I had just enough time to do all of this, and the challenge of it felt invigorating.


Half an hour later, Pema and I said goodbye to Megan. I had my warm layers back on, and Pema was dressed head to toe in her green and red snowsuit, green checkered boots, and pink mittens. She always tells me how boring I am, by which she means I’m not colorfully dressed, which is true.


Suited up, we stepped out the door into the snowstorm. It was already thinning, and by the time we grabbed the sled by the kitchen, there was even a thin gauze of blue piercing through the clouds on the southern horizon. From the mountainside in Lama, one can see for dozens of miles in every direction, a seemingly endless landscape of hills and valleys, distant mountains and canyons. Everything, now coated in white, stood out in dramatic relief.


This was the moment I had most been looking forward to, ever since reading Megan’s message earlier that day. Me and Pema, nowhere in particular, with nothing to do but walk through the snow. The muffled crunch of our footsteps accompanied us as we descended the first steep hill, just like it had a couple hours ago when I left the car. The last sign of Lama Foundation, it’s brilliantly colored prayer flags billowing in the wind, drifted out of sight, replaced by a cluster of towering ponderosas draped in white.


“Dada?” Pema asked, licking some snow off her mitten. “Can I ride in the sled now?”


“The sled?” I answered, feigning surprise. “You can’t ride in the sled. It’s just for holding.” I showed her the firm grip I had, as evidence. She knew I was joking, but she also knew I’d want her to walk as much as possible. We continued on for a minute, following the trail down a steep, winding curve. Snow was still falling lightly, but nothing like it had been on the way up. It was brighter now, more sunlight filtering through the thinning clouds, and I could make out the soft edges of the disc in the sky.


“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “Let’s get to the bottom of this hill, where it levels off. Then I’ll pull you from there. Does that sound good?”


“Okay,” Pema answered.


We stomped down the path, each step a controlled fall through a thick layer of snow. I couldn’t see my previous boot prints anywhere. “You warm enough?” I asked.


“Yeah,” she answered.


We made it to the bottom of the hill, when Pema again asked promptly, “Can I ride in the sled now, Dada?” She looked at me eagerly. I nodded and set the sled down, fingering the frozen rope in my hands. She got in, beaming, dipping her hand in the snow and giving it a lick. We had another mile or so to go. I wished it was a hundred.


snowy Lama.jpg

Little Bear

Little Bear dropped out of line behind the others and knelt in the snow under a tall Ponderosa Pine. Her hands, crude paws in wet mittens, scraped at the stiff snow beneath the tree, revealing the slender green and golden needles below. The rest of the children, dragging a sled piled high with backpacks over the trail, moved ahead. Little Bear was in her own world. And yet, she wasn’t.


We had just been back to our forest home for the first time in over a month. The day before Christmas vacation a major snowstorm had blown in, canceling our winter celebration in the forest, and beginning the long holiday a day early. We hadn’t even had a chance to say goodbye.


“Hey look!” Griffin had shouted when we first arrived, “the house is still up!” Some of the children ran under the shelter, a crude lean-to made of pine boughs that we had used for snacking and storytelling. “Somebody knocked over the stones,” Advah said, pouting, referring to the little fire pit inside where we had warmed our hands and toasted bread. I sat under the old Juniper by the river, spying the castoffs of days past, pieces of yarn, green and pink, a red string that had once tied a tiny felt bird to a stick. There was a pile of bright green moss at the base of the trunk that had served as an altar, a pillow and a magic carpet. Buried nearby was a piece of bone, over which Wolfie had spontaneously prayed for the children of Syria.


Pema shouted to Ada, “Let’s go see if the gnomes are still there!” and took off through the trees. The last time we were here, about a month ago, we had made little gnomes from tree branches. The children had used a small handsaw to cut a small piece from a cylindrical branch, with an angle cut on one side that, when painted with a face, looked like a pointed hat. They had even laid out a little nativity with a grass arch, Christmas “trees”, and a tiny baby Jesus gnome. Silke had woven a grass donkey.


We spent the rest of the day searching out old haunts, eating lunch and telling stories. Now we were finally headed back out. Our backpacks were loaded onto the sled and hitched to a team of horses. Ada had the rope around her waist in front, followed by Pema, then Griffin, Advah and Little Bear. Esperanza held caboose, catching errant bags if they tumbled off the sled, which they did frequently. The horses weren’t exactly used to their harnesses yet, and as the team advanced the snowy trail, encircled by a long green rope, they bonked and tripped continuously, a journey that had mostly been filled with laughter.


“No, you can’t hold it like that!” Griffin shouted at Advah, who stopped and let go, only to be bounced from behind by Little Bear. The horseplay was giving way to nips. “Stop it,” Little Bear whined in her signature tone, b-flat. She has a way of speaking as though she doubts anyone will listen, the sort of cynicism one would expect of a teenager. To my eyes and ears, she is perhaps the most observant and mature of the group, but her feigned boredom often turns into real boredom. She is at times utterly morose, stubborn as a mule.


If Little Bear is a mule, Griffin is a colt. He is a ball of energy that enlivens every occasion, but sometimes sours the moment by naively crashing into people and contexts he’s not even aware of. Ada, at the front of our team, is a prancer, spirited and playful, but delicate. Pema, my own daughter, is probably another mule, sure-footed and hefty. Like Little Bear, she pays close attention to the social dynamics in the group, which occasionally overwhelms her with sadness and uncertainty, particularly if she feels left out. Our colt and prancer, quite pleased to just be themselves, don’t often encounter that problem.


Advah is a pony. Diminutive in size and temperament, she has the gift of observing the tiny things that most of the other kids ignore. There are moments when she and I, our faces pressed close to the earth, share a secret understanding and her huge, round eyes light up like stars. Esperanza rides side-saddle, meaning she is finicky, agile and elegant. She is plenty fast and playful, but tends to observe decorum and the rules, often demanding the same of her playmates. Like most well-bred horses though, one can still observe her rebellious independence lurking underneath. She is just this side of tame.


“Children,” Silke sang above the complaints and arguments of the kids. They stopped and turned to her, the well-trained horses that they are. Silke is an incredible trainer who manages to lead her team with neither carrot nor stick. The children follow her lead simply because they trust her. “What do horses do when they are harnessed together?” she asked in her sing-song voice. “They have to have space, yah?” she continued, her German accent landing with full force on the final yah. “You need to give each other room, so that you’re not bumping into each other.”


Pema, who was squishing Ada in front, slid two steps back. Griffin took a couple steps forward, closing the gap. Advah now had some space, and Little Bear, who had mostly been tripping on the sled with the back of her heel, was free to walk. Silke turned around and the team set off once again. We made it about twenty feet before a new set of turns, through some tightly packed tree trunks, caused a bit of chaos in our team. “Hey!” shouted Griffin, “Stop that!” “Hay is for horses,” sang Silke, walking further ahead. Little Bear quietly slipped out of harness and fell behind Esperanza in the rear. She would have slipped past me too if I had not slowed my pace.


Past the trees, the kids were all jockeying for position again, while Esperanza shouted “Wait!” and dutifully chased after lost gear. Little Bear wove her thick frame slowly through the tree trunks, me following. I could feel the disappointment sinking into her body. Her arms hung low and she scraped the sides of her jacket against the rough bark, ambivalent. She has a way of isolating herself, silently and stealthily. As we exited the other side of the trees, the horses were already beyond the next turn. She knelt under a tall Ponderosa, and began to paw at the snow.


It was a test, one that I had failed many times before. In a way, she wished I would fail, simply walking ahead, or issuing the prototypical “Come on, Little Bear,” a delicate taste of the horsewhip. I would have proven, once again, that no one had noticed, no one really cared. She acting engaged, as if she were building something out of the snow, but it was obvious she wasn’t. Her mittens were soaked, the kind of children’s mittens with an inner layer that becomes impossible to straighten out. She had already brought her mittens up to me several times that day, almost pleased about the fact that she and I would not be able to get them on correctly. It seemed to amuse her. As she hacked at the snow, I knew she could barely sculpt her hand into anything but a fist.


This is her way. She wears her disappointment like ill-fitting clothes, almost like a badge of honor. Larger than the rest of the kids, a bit overweight, she sometimes treats her body like her lunch bag, which she commonly drags on the ground behind her. Her whole expression at these times exudes, “I don’t care.” Perhaps she’s not a mule after all, but more like Eeyore, the hapless donkey in the Winnie the Pooh stories. Then again, her name, Little Bear, is also an apt description.


I have encountered a wild bear only once in my life. I was riding my bike on a mountain trail and, swerving quickly around a blind corner, came face to face with a baby bear, thickly matted with brown fur. It was early spring. I stopped suddenly, as did the bear, both of us expressing shock and curiosity for a brief second, before another sense kicked in and we took off in opposite directions. The bear, brown and chubby, loped off the trail into the dense shrub oaks, while I awkwardly turned my bike around, imagining, as all well-bred city boys will do, that it’s mother was nearby and I was, at all cost, never to come between a mother bear and her cub.


That was almost ten years ago. I’ve never seen another bear since, though I see their tracks and poop and claw marks - signs of them - all the time. I know of at least two active bear caves. I am in the woods all the time, and have crossed that same path where I saw the baby bear dozens if not hundreds of times. Still, no bears.


Little Bear, the person, is not unlike that little cub. She is a bright and curious child when she feels safe, but she’s quick to vanish from sight. She is most happy when romping with the other kids, when she loses her storyline a little, and becomes an imperturbable plaything. She is perhaps the only child who, because of her sheer size, is not overwhelmed by Griffin’s tireless energy. Solid as a tree trunk, her stocky build and high tolerance for discomfort make her the center of wrestling piles. I have seen her countless times, with two or three other children, wildly swinging and jostling inside one of the hammocks tied between trees in the forest. At those times, her laughter is wild and free.


And then there are these darker moments, where, for whatever reason, she pulls away from the group of her own accord. She is prodded, often enough, by mild disagreement, but the kind that rallies most kids into bids for dominance. Little Bear is by far the most physically dominant, so it is the social tension - largely within her own mind - that seems to be the occasion of her withdrawal.


At least, this is what I was thinking as I stopped next to her on the snowy path. Eyes to the ground, pretending to be absorbed in her task, she was waiting for me to pass, “like all the others,” so that she could believe in the story of her isolation. But I’m not scared of bears anymore.


“Hey Little Bear,” I said, approaching cautiously, suddenly recalling that, “Hay is for horses.”


“Hey,” Little Bear groaned, b-flat, her crude paws working at the snow.


We were silent for a moment. A slight breeze wrapped itself around the tree trunk, lifting the faint smell of butterscotch from the bark. The sun, behind a thick bank of gray clouds, bathed us in soft ambient light. There were so many ways to ruin this moment with words.


Years ago, I went on a camping trip with a friend, backpacking through Yellowstone Park. There are grizzly bears there, and when we registered with the ranger station we had to watch a video about bear safety. One of the park rangers told us that since it was only two of us, a relatively small group, we should make a lot of noise as we traveled to alert the bears in the area to our presence - so we wouldn’t surprise one. We even carried a bottle of “bear spray”, a canister of mace the size and shape of a small fire extinguisher.


My friend and I, heeding the ranger’s advice, shouted “No bears!” every few minutes while we were hiking, often ten or fifteen miles a day, for the entire length of our trip. We made a game of it, laughing at ourselves as we carried our hefty packs through the forests and grasslands. “No bears!” I’d shout, and he’d shout back, “No bears!” The wildflowers were magnificent. The cold water in the rivers and lakes was almost inebriating. I was experiencing this kind of wilderness for the first time in my life.


One night, camped near a muddy riverbank, we followed a set of bear tracks, the round pads accented by the puncture marks of long claws. After twenty or thirty feet, my friend shouted, “Holy shit!” There, in the mud, was a much larger print. We had been following a baby’s tracks. This was the mama, a massive print larger than my hand, fingers spread wide. At the tip of each pad was huge depression from what must have been claws as big as my fingers. “No bears!” we shouted, suddenly standing tall and scanning the horizon. We listened extra hard that night through the walls of our tent.


We made it out a couple days later, shouting “No bears!” to the very end. We didn’t see any bears. We didn’t see any buffalo. No dear. No elk. No wolves. No badgers. No moose. No fox. We spent five days in isolated parts of the park, and I can’t recall seeing a single animal, save maybe a small bird or two. “No bears!” If the trees could have got up and walked away, I think they would have.


I stood silently with Little Bear in the forest for what seemed like a long time, though was probably less than two minutes. “Hey,” I said again, softly. Little Bear turned around. We looked at each other’s eyes for a moment. “Hey,” she said.


The Pond

Pema woke early. It was dark, well before first light. I sat in my chair, drinking tea, listening to her stir. I held a book in my hands, but was no longer reading it coherently. Every few minutes the zippy sound of her PJ’s slid over the sheets, accompanied by deeper thumps as she turned over. I knew she was staring at me, but I didn’t want to acknowledge that. She was still in that sleepy morning space, and even if she wasn’t going back to sleep, our full frontal awareness of each other would take something subtle away. She needs that quiet liminal space to herself, just like I do.


But then I ran out of tea. As I went to fill my cup from the teapot, Pema stared at me from under the blankets like a hidden treasure waiting to be found. I held her gaze in my periphery while she eagerly anticipated my movements. Here I am, her eyes said. I laughed. “Hey pup,” I whispered, finally looking directly at her. I brushed her hair gently, leaned over her warm body, and spoke softly, “It’s still super early. You should try to keep resting. I’m just going to sit here and read my book.”


I sat back down and picked up my book, hoping for the best. Sometimes she’ll fall back asleep for another hour or two, at which time I’ll get up to feed the chickens and make breakfast. Not this time. I could feel her eyes on me, softly gazing. After a couple minutes, she started bargaining, “How long do I have to keep resting, Daddy?” Inside, I was laughing.


Sometimes I am shocked at the level of intimacy and trust Pema has with me. “You can do whatever you want,” I thought, “Why do you wait for permission?” Of course, it was gratifying to my heart that she trusted me so completely that even the simple act of rising out of bed, albeit a bit early, was something for which she thought she should have permission. Can it be that we’re this bonded?


“Alright, pup,” I said, putting down my book. She rose eagerly and crawled on her knees to the edge of the bed. “Ugh,” she said, reaching her arms out to me. “Oh, come one,” I answered. She stepped down to the bench, across the floor, and climbed into my lap. “Good morning,” I said, as she nuzzled her head into my neck. I took a sip of tea, the two of us hanging in the yellow haze of the lamp light, darkness still nesting in the corners of the room.


We fed the chickens. Pema unlatched the little square door that sits at ground level, folding down with a diminishing BANG-Bang-Bang-bang…into a little ramp. The hens climbed down. The large door, the human door, stays shut in winter. As I filled the water buckets, she took the old tobacco can full of seeds and spread a handful at a time on the ground. I opened the big door, a bucket of water in my hand, holding my breath from the dust and ammoniac odor. Several stragglers ran vigorously under my legs and out the door. A few more were still roosting on the branches, clucking suspiciously. I turned off the heat lamp. There were three eggs in the laying bins, white, tan and green.


“That’s it for the chickens, pup,” I said, closing the door. Pema had emptied the tobacco can and held it up for me. I refilled it from the tin garbage pail and passed it back to her, grabbed the second bucket of water, and headed over to the turkeys. “You coming in?” I asked, kicking away the frozen stone from the gate. “Yeah,” she answered, “I’ll stand to the side so they turkeys don’t hit me.” We laughed. This is our running joke. The turkeys, hatchlings a few months ago, are larger than the chickens now. They roost at night on branches in the little coop, like the chickens, and as soon as I open the door they come crashing out, wings and bodies flapping awkwardly. If you don’t move quick, they fly right into you.


I set the bucket of water down, grabbing the old, frozen one, while Pema poured the seed into the feeder. “Okay, pup,” I said, grabbing the handle of the door. Pema stood near the fence gate. I yanked the door open, purposefully blocking the exit for a second as I rolled a cement block to prop open the door. I ducked aside, just as the rhythmic flapping of feathers zoomed past. I walked out the gate with Pema, and kicked the stone back in place. Pema put the tobacco can in the pail and closed the lid with a clang. I dumped the frozen bucket of water face down on the ground, breaking the top layer of ice. We listened briefly to the glug-glug of rushing water as it poured onto the snow. After placing the bucket over the top of the hose spigot, we walked out of the yard, closing the gate behind us. “Thanks chickens,” I said. “Enjoy your breakfast,” said Pema. We held hands and walked to the kitchen. “How come they get to eat before us?” I asked.


As soon as we walked inside, I smelled smoke. “Damn,” I thought. We had been having trouble with the wood stove, a complex masonry stove that, when it works, is a trophy of efficiency. Its flu runs up and down through layers of fire brick, so that a small fire in the morning radiates heat for the next twenty-four hours. This year, though, for some reason that no one could yet assess, we were getting a lot of smoke out the front doors and into the Buffalo Room, the central room of our community. It isn’t such a big deal in passing, but when the kids and I are in the room, sometimes for hours, it’s a real nuisance.


Maurice, one of our housemates, was handling the fire this morning, in the hope that he might determine the cause of the problem. He had done the fire all last year, and we had never had this much smoke. This year it was every day. Someone else was doing the fire, but the complex society of our community, coupled with the complex workings of the stove, had created a bit of a gridlock.


Everyone has opinions, but no one really knows what’s going on. We’ve tried all sorts of things, different ways of building the fire, different people building the fire, cleaning various chambers and parts, fires that are hotter at the beginning, or, how about colder at the beginning? Nothing has worked. Then, just a few days ago, we installed a carbon monoxide (CO) monitor. It has gone off every day since then, at low levels, for about two to three hours, after which the room finally clears and the CO level drops back to zero. Damn.


I have now done a fair amount of research about carbon monoxide. The hemoglobin in our blood, which is the molecule that bonds with oxygen in our lungs and delivers it to our bodies, bonds more readily to carbon monoxide than oxygen, and this is why people die from it. High concentrations can kill a person almost immediately, basically by choking to death. Midrange levels are especially dangerous in places like bedrooms, living rooms, basements and garages, where ventilation is poor and a person is liable to remain for hours at a time, or even sleep. Part of the problem is that, as poisoning sets in, a person tends to become drowsy and inactive. The solution is easy - just get up and walk into fresh air, but people often suffocate without even knowing it. Hundreds die from carbon monoxide poisoning every year, and thousands more get sick.


Low levels, like we’ve had, can cause flu-like symptoms if you’re dull enough to stay in the room for long periods, which is precisely what can happen because of the latent drowsiness and inactivity. But even in relatively severe cases, once the person is moved to fresh air, the body usually normalizes. The lasting effects are minimal, so long as you get to fresh air before it’s too late. Carbon monoxide is not a chronic source of toxicity, like, say, lead.


I learned all this in a matter of a few hours, while studying the pattern of rising and falling CO levels before, during, and after the fire one day. I need to be cautious, but so long as we’re following some basic safety protocols, like being out of the room when the levels are high, I’m not particularly worried.


“I started the fire about two hours ago,” said Maurice, standing by the stove, seizing the moment to launch into a full report. Pema walked off to get her bike and began peddling around the room. I just wanted to make breakfast, but I felt obligated to listen. Because of the kids, I have been the most vocal about the smoke and carbon monoxide, and, in an endearing sort of way, all of our housemates had been trying to fix it for us.


Maurice continued, “The smoke was pretty bad, but I opened the doors and so far the carbon monitor hasn’t registered anything.” He was hopeful.


“Yeah, thanks,” I said, eyeing Pema, imagining her swaddled in a pool of colorless, odorless gas, slowly replacing the oxygen in her lungs and brain. I shook it off and walked to the monitor. Zero.


“Dada, I’m hungry,” Pema whined.


“I know, pup. Give me a second.”


As I listened to Maurice recount his observations of the last couple hours, I began to grow impatient. I was hungry too. I also knew that Brant, another one of our housemates, had plans to clean the stove pipe and some of the interior cavities of the stove later that day. To do so, he needed everything to be cold. The fact that Maurice had lit a fire this morning would be a source of irritation. He and Maurice don’t get along. They communicate poorly, and mostly just ignore each other. I appreciate all the effort people have been putting into figuring this out, but I’m also frustrated by the lack of communication. The owner, Bob, has final say in most matters, but he is very laissez-faire and he hadn’t as yet given much attention to the problem. Besides, he lacks the communication skills needed to coordinate everyone’s efforts. The result had been a sort of helter-skelter approach.


My problem is that I perceive all this. And I care. I care about the stove. I care about the kids, their lungs, and my own. And I care about Maurice. I want him to be listened to, to feel useful and respected. I also care about Brant, and I want the same for him. I want Bob to feel respected, but not burdened. And I want to make breakfast.


Having lived in community for much of my adult life, I’m relatively confident I could have brokered peace and coordination between all these parties, but this time, for whatever reason, I just didn’t want to. I’m also raising a daughter, working for a non-profit, caretaking groups of kids, and trying to carve space out for myself. I pick my battles. But sometimes it eats me up. As I sat there listening to Maurice, guessing at the prospects for the day, I felt a little hopeless. The next day was Pema’s birthday, and beyond my typical regime, I had a party to prepare for. Fucking carbon monoxide. I didn’t want to do one more thing.


Finally, Maurice finished his report. “Thanks man,” I said, “I appreciate all your efforts on this.” And I meant it. Frankly, I didn’t have any confidence that he’d discover the real culprit, but I did know that he’d sit with the fire and give it everything he had. Even if it smoked to high hell, he’d pay attention and air the room out. He’d also light the fire early, so that by midday - like when Pema’s birthday party would be - the room would be clear. “You’re welcome, bro,” he answered, and sat back down by the stove.


I turned to walk into the kitchen, but then stopped. “Hey, you know,” I said, “Pema’s birthday is tomorrow and we’re having that party at noon.”


“Yeah, bro, I’ll do the fire early so it’s all cleared out by then.”


“Thanks, man.”


I turned and walked up the stairs to the kitchen, shouting over my back, “Hey Pemalina! Do you want some oatmeal?”


“Dada, I’m hungry,” Pema said again, stopping her peddling to emphasize her statement with a vigorous whine.


“I know. Do you want oatmeal or do you want me to just get some cereal, or…”


“I want polenta.”


“Okay, give me a second.”


Walking into the kitchen, Francis, who was eating his breakfast at the corner table, shouted, “Hi Joe-din,” a new running joke based on the name of one of the sheep, Odin, in our fields. “Hi Francis-din,” I answered dryly, as his mother turned and smiled from the stove. “Good morning,” we both said, our eyes betraying the joy and laughably frenetic pace of parenthood. It was not yet seven-thirty.


I poured dry polenta into a pot and walked to the sink to add water. Francis’s mother, who is just as concerned as I am about the stove, said to me, “Did you know Brant was planning to clean the stovepipe today?” The intonation of her words left a heavy implication in the air. I had not done anything to coordinate between Maurice and Brant.


She and I are good friends, having lived in community elsewhere prior. During that time we both had had kids, my marriage had split apart, and hers had begun. I knew that she had overheard me talking with Maurice yesterday, and now again. All this was exchanged silently, with subtle body language. “Ugh,” I thought, “I hate it when people understand me.” She was trying to be gentle, but I was already irritated. “Yeah,” I said, stoically.


“Hi Joe-din!” Francis yelled again, smiling. He loves this game. “Hey Francis,” I answered, trying not to encourage him. I placed the pot on the stove, Francis’s mother and I orchestrating our moves in silence. She took some dirty dishes to the sink. I returned from the fridge with carrots and a purple cabbage. “You know,” I finally said, laying my veggies on the cutting board, “I just don’t want to coordinate this. I’m just…I don’t know…” I trailed off. Instantly, the mood lightened. “Yeah,” she said. She understood.


Twenty minutes later I walked back into the Buffalo Room with a plate of veggies and eggs. Pema had nearly finished her polenta and was now arranging her dolls on one of the benches. I sat down next to Maurice, but then thought better of it and got back up to look at the carbon monoxide monitor. It read 38, that is, 38 parts per million. A lethal level is around 5000. The monitor had not started beeping yet, but I knew it would shortly, right around 45. The highest it had gotten so far was 82. These are all relatively low levels, but where chronic exposure can cause flu-like symptoms.


“Thirty-eight,” I said, matter-of-factly. “You know, we should probably get out of here.” I could tell that Maurice was disappointed. He was trying. “Pema, let’s grab our things and go to our room. We can finish eating there and then maybe we’ll go outside.” I grabbed my plate and started heading for the door. “Daddy, wait,” Pema called out. I turned around. She looked at me anxiously from the bottom of the steps, two dolls, a stuffed dog, a frog, and a tiger in her arms. She was reaching for her bowl of polenta. “Daddy, I need help,” she said, starting to tear up. She often cries when she can’t do things. Sometimes I’m patient and helpful. Other times I’m not. I grabbed the polenta with enforced silence and headed to our room.


“Let’s go outside,” I said to Pema after I finished breakfast.


“Yeah!” she answered, her eyes lighting up. “We can try my new snowshoes!” She had been given an early birthday present from a friend, blue snow shoes shaped like monster feet. They also light up.


“Yeah, cool,” I said, gathering our hats and gloves. When Pema was all dressed, I looked around for my jacket, and then remembered that I had left it in the kitchen. “Hold on, pup,” I said, “I’ll be right back.”


I walked through the Buffalo Room and it was empty. Maurice had gone back to his room. The doors were open to let fresh air in. I walked over the monitor, which still wasn’t beeping. It read 39. I walked quickly to the kitchen, hoping not to get caught in any side conversations, grabbed my jacket and headed back through the Buffalo Room.


I was almost out the door when Brant walked in. “Damn,” I thought.


Brant, cheerful as always, had the stovepipe cleaner in his hands, a six-inch wire brush with an flexible fiberglass handle. He also had what looked like an old plumbing snake. “I thought we could attach the brush to this,” he said, indicating the snake, “and maybe get it through all the…” He trailed off, finishing his point with an up-down motion of his hands. Then he saw the fire. “Oh…well…” he said, disappointment creeping into his tone, “We can’t do it today then.” I could tell he was upset, but I didn’t care.


“Yeah,” I answered. He walked meaningfully into the kitchen, and I headed back to find Pema.


The air outside was cold and refreshing. The temperature had warmed up, hovering just above freezing. Snowshoes in hand, Pema and I walked through the courtyard, past the patio, over the acequia, down into the old ditch, up the other side, and across to the open field where the snow was pristine.


“Okay, pup,” I said, my mood already lightening. I bent over and dropped the snowshoes on the ground. “Put your foot in here.” The straps were bright pink, her boots bright green. The plastic bottoms, sort of sky blue, left imprints in the snow like a dinosaur’s foot. She was immediately pleased, tramping across the snowy field and into the stone labyrinth. Once in the middle, she stopped to say, “I’m making hot dogs,” another running joke.


I stomped around in my snow boots, the muffled crunch of the snow pleasant to my ears. The snow was only a few inches deep, having thawed and frozen several times since it fell over a week ago. It was now a uniform crust much like Styrofoam. Gray clouds filled the sky, but I could still make out the general impression of the mountains to the west. Flocks of small black birds flickered through the sky.


I turned to look at Pema, whom I could now hear running through the snow. She flopped awkwardly onto the ground. It was easy to trip in those things. She stood up, brushed herself off, and took off again in a quick run. “Careful, pup!” I shouted, but it was pointless. After falling a few more times, she came around to me. “I’m done,” she said. “Okay,” I said, “How about we go check out the pond?”


The pond, a short walk through some heavy weeds, had been an almost daily stop in the summer. No larger than a big puddle, we had spent hours there, watching salamanders and dragonflies come and go, stomping in the muck and algae, complaining about the thistles and prickers on our bare feet. Once I had even seen a little green frog. Keep in mind, this is New Mexico. Frogs are a visual delicacy. Sometimes, the whole pond would dry up and we would walk in the middle, peeling off layers of green-gray algae and building fairy houses.


The thought of the pond, which we hadn’t visited in months, excited me. I had images of blue-gray ice, red willows and white snow. I wanted to step on the edge and hear the ice thunder and crack, or throw a big rock into the middle and shatter the surface like glass. Would it be solid ice all the way through, or just a skin over murky water? We crunched through the stiff snow and finally descended into the little bowl that formed the walls of this little oasis. The pond.


It’s now four days later. Turns out the flu was just covered by a big piece of stone, a pizza stone to be exact. Behind and above the fire chamber is a brick oven, which can be used to bake food once the fire has died down. No one really uses it much, and the stone must have been left inside more than a year ago. No one recalls how it got there. Apparently, it cracked in two. When someone tried to use the oven a few weeks ago, they must have pushed one of the pieces aside and blocked the flu. I think it was me.


In the Absence of Toys

It had been a dull morning. I was still recovering from a cold, though the worst of it was behind me. There was a long day ahead of us, with no other plans than to hang out with Ruby and Francis. Lacking my usual energy, I didn’t have any major adventures in mind, and was even content to remain indoors most of the day. Pema was pedaling her bike around the Buffalo Room, the large central room of our community, while I brought some polenta to boil in the kitchen. I added butter, salt and some of Tia’s dried apples. Francis, who had till then been eating breakfast contentedly in the corner with his mother, had a plate of eggs and toast, soup, and tea with honey in front of him. Spying the polenta I was making, he shouted, “I want some.”


After offering a bowl to Francis, I walked into the Buffalo Room and set a bowl down for Pema on a side table. “Here you go, pup,” I said, turning to cross the floor to the opposite side, where I had arranged a few boxes of letters and envelopes. I had a large mailing to send out, and I planned to hand write the addresses, stuff the envelopes, and affix stamps intermittently as I hung out with the children throughout the day.


“When will Ruby be here?” Pema asked.


“I don’t know, pup,” I answered, “When they’re ready, I guess.”


When I sat down, I could see Francis, his white porcelain bowl of polenta carefully balanced in both hands, walking down the steps from the kitchen. “Hi Pema,” he said, half shouting, with a bright smile on his face. “Hi Francis,” Pema replied, with long drawn out words, as if it pained her to say them. She looked away, feigning boredom, her head slumping sideways in the universal expression of disinterest. Francis, oblivious as the sun, walked towards her in his new pajama suit, apropos of Christmas, with red, white and green stripes. His blond hair, still relatively thin on his toddler-sized head, resembled that of a balding old man with a windblown combover. Smiling, I grabbed my pen and started writing the first address.


“Daddy?” Pema asked, a few seconds later.


“Yeah, pup?”


“When will Ruby be here?”


I love this question. What I mean is that I hate it. But I do laugh at myself and Pema as we cycle through it, morning after morning, day after day. Typically, I’ll answer as I had earlier, two or three or fifteen times, until I reach my limit and, an edge in my voice, say, “Pema, I’m not going to answer that question anymore. Okay? You can keep asking me, but now I’m just not going to say anything at all.”


But I wasn’t exasperated yet, so this time I answered, “Oh, I don’t know, pup. Probably thirty minutes or so.” I turned back to my paperwork.


The Buffalo Room is worthy of some explanation. To begin with, we live at New Buffalo, a small community north of Taos, NM, an old hippie commune that has been restored and is now privately owned. There are currently thirteen of us living here, most of whom have some previous experience living in community. There is nothing “intentional” about New Buffalo, except that we intend to live here for the time being. Having lived in several community situations before, this is by far the most anarchic, though by that I only mean that there aren’t a whole lot of rules or agreements, not that things are crazy. We are a relatively normal and calm group of folks, ranging from two and a half to seventy-eight, in an area where alternative living arrangements are not uncommon.


Originally, New Buffalo was about one-hundred and fifty acres, a prime spot within the Arroyo Hondo valley, where the Rio Hondo flows, springs of all variety ooze from the earth, and the water table is in some places so near to the surface, that it’s almost marshy. Like most of New Mexico, however, if you walk fifteen feet away from the water you are standing in the desert, where sage, juniper and pinon predominate. There is plenty of bare earth.


Most of the original acreage of New Buffalo was parceled off long ago, and today the property is about fifteen acres. The lots on all sides are pretty wide open, so there aren’t any very near neighbors, but it’s not like being in the wilderness. It’s more like being in a rural farming area, with cows and horses, but one that happens to lead directly to the Rio Grande, one of the largest river basins in the southwest, and which occupies one of the most majestic gorges in the country. There are hot springs just down the road.


Each of us has a private bedroom at New Buffalo, which I also use as an office, and otherwise we share the common space, a kitchen, bathrooms, showers, workshop, greenhouse, storage sheds, etc. And, there’s the Buffalo Room. The Buffalo Room is a large, oblong room, large enough for small children to run across and even ride their bikes. Though there are tables and chairs, the main floor space is largely empty, and the earthen floor is mostly covered by two thin carpet remnants, a motley of burgundy and brown. The ceilings are high, about fifteen feet, with tongue and groove, and in the center is a large octagonal skylight.


The Buffalo Room is partially sunk into the surrounding earth. Made of adobe walls covered in a brown earthen plaster, the overall feel is very earthy and reminiscent of a kiva. On one side of the room, an original that hearkens back to the old hippie days, is a well-sculpted buffalo, about four feet across, that is part of the wall itself. On the other side, a more recent addition by the current owner, is a towering talismanic figure, sculpted of wood, tortoise shell, antlers and many natural textures and shapes. In one hand it holds a staff, and in the other a spear. Its aspect is fierce, and yet somehow its presence is warm, almost protective. It reminds me, in some ways, of the old Chuck E. Cheese’s, where huge, furry puppets hung on the wall in shadows and sometimes came alive. Except, fearful as that was, this one does not move and talk, at least not to me. But I won’t discount that, deep in the night, the right kind of person in the right kind of moonlight might have strange and powerful visions here.


What’s hilarious is that much of the time this room is full of shouting and scrambling kids. Almost museum-like, the room was seldom used when I first arrived here, and, needing a place to gather and play, it was the natural place. Now that we have a regular gathering of children, the community, by and large, has given free reign to the children, and the owner, thankfully, is the sort of man who loves beautiful things and likes them to be used. All along the walls, above built in earthen benches, are shelves with dozens of exquisite handmade drums and instruments, which the children drag about and handle as if they were their own. The room, let’s say, is alive.






“When will Ruby be here?”


“Jesus Christ,” I almost said. Instead, I threw my pen at Pema, who laughed. Then Francis, a little uncertain, laughed too. Acting like I was angry, I got up to retrieve my pen. Francis, spying the opportunity, picked it up and ran to the other side of the center table, made of an old wagon wheel and axle. “Chase me! Chase me!” he shouted, circling the table. I ran after him, and Pema took off after me, giggling uncontrollably. “Gimme that pen!” I shouted, matching my pace with Francis so that we circled round the table three or four times, never catching each other. “Gimme that pen!” I shouted. “Nooooo…” squealed Francis, who, in his striped pajama suit, looked all the part of an elf.


“All right, all right,” I said, as if my time limit were up. We all stood still for a second, as the children gauged my tone. “Come on, give me my pen back,” I said to Francis, who wasn’t so ready to give away the key to the game. “Come on,” I said, “I’m going to sit for a little bit and do some work.” He took off running again, but this time I caught him and wrestled him a bit in the air before grabbing the pen and gently slamming him to the ground with appropriate sound effects. “Pffff…” I said, wrenching my face in a mock snarl. Pema climbed on my back and I threw her, softly, on top of Francis. “Arrghhhhh…” I shouted, raising my arms in triumph. Feeling satisfied, I took my pen and returned to my table in the corner.


Shortly afterward, as I was neatly stacking the first few addressed envelopes in piles to be stamped, I looked up to discover Francis attempting to climb the center table, an impossible feat for someone his size. By that point, Francis’s mother had finished cleaning up in the kitchen and was sitting on the opposite side of the room, next to the masonry stove. Another one of our housemates, a quiet young woman, sat nearby on the rocking horse, eating her vegan breakfast. Spying Francis, the three of us shared lackluster comments along the lines of, “I don’t think you’re going to get up there, Francis,” which, of course, simply encouraged him. Francis is decidedly obstinate. And he was still wearing those striped PJ’s.


The situation kindled Pema’s attention, who had gone back to her bike after our brief wrestling match. She decided to show Francis how it was done. Squirming her midsection onto the table top, she managed to pull herself forward, swing a leg over the top, and stand up. Francis was delighted.


There was a brief moment as my mind scanned about for what I thought of my daughter standing on the table in the middle of the room. It hadn’t quite happened this way before, so I didn’t have an immediate reaction one way or the other. But the air was triumphant, and in the next moment Francis’s mother, doubtless having encountered similar thoughts, asked Francis, “What do you think might help you get up there?” To which Francis, who immediately made the mental connection, replied, almost berserk with excitement, “The stepstool! Yeahhhh!” After running in a circle for a second or two, he blasted into the kitchen to retrieve it. I love co-parenting with these two.


Meanwhile, as Pema stood proud and erect on the table top, I began to issue phrases of caution, as in, “Careful of the edge there, pup,” and other unnecessary remarks. Pema, in response, huffed and answered dramatically, “I know Dad,” because, of course, she did. “You don’t want to fall,” I continued.


The table itself deserves a little description at this point. It is about the size of a card table, with a round top. Made of an old wagon wheel, it is inlaid with woods of varying colors and trapezoidal shapes between the spokes, and sanded flat. Its iron ring, dented like hammered pewter, is still secured around the edge. The central leg is the wooden axle of, presumably, the same wagon, and is even more intricate than the table top. No mere column of wood, it is made of dozens of hardwood pieces fitted together precisely, like puzzle work. Curved and shapely, like a leg turned on a lathe, it is fluted near the top where it connects to the wheel, where it forms a sort of gear with intermittent hollow spaces, all made out of hardwood. I have no language for it. It is at once both astonishingly beautiful, massive and strong, the kind of woodwork that, for a modern man like myself, is hard to comprehend. Things like this are, in my experience, only made of steel. But one can immediately feel the massive weight and horsepower that this wooden machinery must once have commanded.


The table is so heavy and centrally balanced, aided by the addition of a few oak feet, that though it’s only the size of a card table, I cannot lift it myself. To move it around the room requires two people, or one person who can drag or “walk” it. The table can hold me, standing at the very edge, without the slightest inclination of tipping. I know, because, like Pema, I would soon be standing there too.


“I got it! I got it!” Francis shouted, carrying the stepstool down the stairs and into the Buffalo Room. He unfolded it and set it next to the table, while Pema watched from above. Climbing the two steps, he put one foot on the table and then the other, happily up top. At this point, the scene was riveting. Another housemate came through, a crotchety, but good-natured old man, and took a seat. Two children under the age of five on top of a table in the middle of a large room filled with ceremonial goods. Who would want to pass this up?


It took only a few seconds for all of us to realize that the consummation of the moment required jumping. “Okay wait, hold on, hold on,” I shouted, standing up, but by now I was all in. The floor, though covered in a modest piece of carpet, was hard as stone. A fall from that height wouldn’t have broken anything, but it would end with crying.


I scanned the room quickly. All along the outside, the earthen benches were covered in dozens of little seat cushions made of old Navajo rugs. There were also a few blankets by the wood stove. Then I spied the masterpiece. Under those blankets was a three-inch thick custom cushion that filled a deep recess in one of the benches. Curved like the benches, it was about five feet long and two feet wide. Set in front of the table, it was as if it was designed explicitly for this moment, a final piece inlaid in the old spokes of the wheel that now extended into the room, tying the past to the present. Hell of a cushion.


Adding some buffers with the pillows and blankets, the adults all seemed to casually approve, and the game was now fully at hand. Pema jumped first, laughing as she rolled onto her knees and back. “My turn! My turn!” Francis shouted, almost incapable of holding this much excitement. He landed on the far side of Pema, spilling into a roaring laughter.


They were quickly back on their feet and scampering up the stepstool. Francis’s mother smartly adjusted the stool to the rear of the table, and the two of them proceeded to jump, roll, scamper and climb, among an incessant thrill of laughter. The four adults looked on. This was a moment of pure bliss.


“I can’t believe we never thought of this before,” I said, sitting back down. I began writing another address on an envelope. I was already thinking about what Ruby would think when she came in. Ruby is one of the most tactile children I know. She is a climber and, at three and a half, has an excellent sense of her body in space. She has a wrestler’s intuition, but a sort of sloppy style befitting her age and size. She falls and slips constantly, which she tolerates because she is always at the ready to catch herself on a ledge, a stone, my pant leg. “Whoa,” she says, “I almost fell,” and then giggles.


By now we had the basic rules set in place. No jumping on each other. No holding hands on the table, because even though you think you’re going to jump at the same time, you don’t. Wait till the person on the ground is off the cushion before jumping. Only one child on the step stool at a time. There wasn’t a whole lot to it.


“Hey! No laughing!” I shouted, my typical mock remark. “You can’t laugh in here. What are you doing?” Francis, laughing, paused to look at me and say, “Nooo… Joe…” indicating that he knew I was joking. That’s my favorite. “Hey, watch it!” I shouted, getting up for the umpteenth time.


“Alright, I want a turn,” I said. I like to be the center of attention. Pema and Francis laughed, uncertain whether I was joking. I climbed up the step stool and suddenly I was on the table too. Height is a magnificent thing. Though I had stood in this room hundreds of times before, standing on the table gave me a new perspective, a new feeling. It was unequivocal triumph. Danger mixed with fun.


I pressed my toes to the edge, making sure the cushions were clear of any straggling children. “Aghhhhh…” I shouted, landing on my side. Pema and Francis were not far behind. “Get him!” Pema shouted. “Wait, hold on!” I answered, rolling out the way, as the two of them landed nearby. I rolled back up and wrestled them a bit and then said, “Okay! Okay!” my arms waving and my eyes wide with the exaggerated expression that means I’m about to lay out a plan. “Let me get set up, and then you guys can jump on me.” Pema and Francis looked at each other and shouted.


First, I lay on my stomach. No real sensitive organs that way. Francis went first. Pema is about forty pounds, and Francis is maybe twenty-five. He landed on my back, giggling and spilling to the back of the cushions. No big deal. “Okay, make room for Pema,” I said. “Ughmph!” I shouted, as Pema landed on top of my diaphragm. A direct shot. I could feign discomfort like this all day. My muscles were tense, protecting my innards from unwanted intrusion, and the kids were gleeful to have such a large punching bag. Meanwhile the other adults in the room looked on with the sort of excitement one feels when watching another adult almost injure themselves.


“Alright,” I said, rolling over, “Let’s try this way,” for no other reason than to find out what would happen. Laying on my back, I felt much more exposed. I expected to catch the kids in my arms, softening the blow, but a well-placed foot could easily catch me in the guts or the genitals. What is it about mild injuries that are so funny? Just a few weeks ago I had been ice skating and, asking my Dad to take a video, I had fallen suddenly, as if in a slapstick routine, onto the ice. I brushed it off, but every time I watched that video I spontaneously erupted in wild laughter - even though it was me being injured. Something about it is just hilarious.


Again, Francis was first. He’s small enough that I can catch him mid-air. I wrestled and rolled him down to the ground, feigning discomfort, roaring gently, laughing completely. Great fun. Then came Pema. I was a little concerned. She’s not only bigger, but, being my child, she knows her father’s strength and she has no hesitation to test it, even with well-thrust kicks. “Okay, pup,” I said, “try to land here,” indicating my arms and chest. “Not below the waist!” my usually reticent housemate shouted, clearly sympathizing with my predicament. She jumped.


“Omph!” I shouted, grabbing her midair as she crashed into my stomach. “Ruby!” Pema shrieked, clambering off me and running to greet her friend. I rolled over and watched Ruby’s face as she grasped the scene. Her father, a gentle but very stoic man, laughed. He and his brother, who have lived next door to New Buffalo their whole lives, grew up in this room.


Off the Grid

I had been up for an hour, drinking tea, reading. Pema was still asleep when I turned out the light and went outside to feed the chickens. The air was cold, and the mucous that ran down my nose froze almost instantly to my whiskers. As I opened the gate, my fingers stuck briefly to the metal latch. The hinges screeched, and the hens called inquisitively from within the dark coop. I closed the gate behind me, and, looking up, saw the light of dawn creeping over the mountains.


When I came back inside with a clutch of fresh eggs, I opened the door to our bedroom, still dark as night, and saw that Pema had not moved. I took off my jacket and hat noisily, to see if she would stir. No movement, so I stepped back into the sunroom, now filling with daylight, and closed the door quietly behind me. I tucked three eggs into my pants pocket. With two in my hand, I headed to the kitchen.


Half an hour later, I returned with sautéed onions, mushrooms and greens, and two fried eggs. As I opened the door and turned on the lamp, Pema stood up wearily on two knees. “Hey pup,” I said, “good morning.” As I approached the bed, she put her arms out and I scooped up her warm body into mine and brought her to the couch. “How you feeling?” I asked. “Good,” she replied curtly, and slid out of my lap to begin sorting out which books we would read after I ate my breakfast.


After we finished four library books, a less-than-stellar selection, Pema asked, “What’s the plan for today?” I love this girl. “Yeah,” I answered, gathering my thoughts, “Well, today is Friday, so in a little bit we’ll get you some breakfast and get dressed and then we’ll just play here for a little while and in a couple hours I’ll bring you up to Mama.”


Megan and I separated a year and a half ago, when Pema was three and a half. That transition had been hard, even though we were never consumed by open conflict. Love and respect had always been at the core of our relationship, and it remains so today. But having a child, and the ensuing lack of attention to our marital relationship, seemed to seal our fate. We drifted. I resisted it at first, not in small part because it seemed so predictable, and I feared the consequences to Pema. But eventually I resigned myself to this new arrangement.


We fell into a new rhythm. Pema, to my grateful amazement, never displayed obvious symptoms of discontent, and it didn’t take long to sort of enjoy the rhythm of coming and going. After all, that’s what it was like beforehand too, Megan and I balancing childrearing with work, chores and personal space. Now we did the same thing, but with a lot more clarity. In some ways, this even forced us to become better parents. When Pema was with me, I was a hundred-percent devoted to her, and this deepened our relationship as father and daughter.


So Friday morning, when I told Pema that we’d be heading up to Mama in a couple hours, it was a normal part of our week. As Pema got up to put on her day clothes, I swept the room for dishes and playthings, and began putting the room back in order. Pema mentioned that she might like to ride her new bike. I gathered ingredients for oatmeal.


We had spent the last two days with friends, first Ruby on Wednesday and then Ada on Thursday - long, full days with sledding, snowmen, arguments, bike-riding, snacks and all the treasures and pitfalls of childhood, parenthood and life. Using the wood stove, I had baked a handsome squash into utter charcoal, something we all laughed at, even as I groaned about cleaning up the shattered fragments of the glass pan, smeared with thick, oily creosote. But now the pendulum was swinging back toward my private life, of work, quiet walks, and the major sort of chores that I prefer to do alone. I had a meeting scheduled for that afternoon that was already on my mind.


Usually on Fridays, Francis and his mom, our housemates, are around to play with. So as I’m packing Pema’s winter clothes to bring back to Mama, sorting through leftover snacks, or tidying up loose toys, Pema is more or less engaged. Francis’s mother and I trade moments, listen, and occasionally stride through to make sure all is well. But this Friday Francis was away with both parents visiting family for the holidays, so it was just Pema and me for a couple hours.


“Here’s your oatmeal,” I said, as Pema pedaled her bike around the Buffalo Room, the large central room of our community. “I’ll put it here, and you can make stops for bites.” “Yeah,” she answered, distractedly. I could see she was bored.


I stepped back into the kitchen to wash the pot and put away the milk. Then I saw the plants on the high shelf and decided to give them some water. A few minutes later, I walked back into the Buffalo Room. Pema was placing her frog, a new toy from Christmas, in the front basket of her bike, and there were two babies tucked in a blanket under one of the tables. I could see that she had taken a few bites of oatmeal. “I’m going to go get the laundry,” I told Pema, which meant a short journey outside, past the chickens, to the workshop, “Do you want to go with me?”




“Okay,” I said, passing her on my way to the stairs, “I’ll be right back.”


“Oh!” I exclaimed, pointing my finger in the air, “I just remembered.”


“What?” Pema answered, perking up a little. She stopped her bike and looked at me. By now, I was standing on the landing in front of the door to the mudroom.


“It’s my day to water the greenhouse. Might as well do that since I’ll be out there. Do you want to help?” Normally, as I use the hose to water the raised beds of kale and chard, Pema loves to fill a watering can and make gentle deliveries to the lemon grass, the kale sprouts, and the calendula, which, even in the dead of winter, have a few golden blooms.


“Nah,” she answered. Turning her head, she pedaled away.


“Okay,” I said, standing for a second, then turning toward the door.


“Dada?” Pema asked, before I was halfway into the mudroom.


“Yeah, pup?”


“Can I bring the two babies and the stroller up to Mama’s?”


I had already felt guilty, but now it sunk home. The whole morning I had recognized the half-presence I was giving Pema, but I hadn’t done anything about it. A minor tingle in my throat preoccupied me with thoughts of imminent sickness, and I was slowly cycling through plans for the next couple days. Pema would be back in about twenty-four hours, and then we had a children’s New Year’s Eve party to host. The day after that I had two social obligations that, now that I was coming down with a cold, felt a little burdensome. Plus, I had that afternoon meeting, a small pile of paperwork, and three days of unanswered emails to tend to.


Still, there was a small opportunity, as I clung to the door, to put those things aside and meet Pema in that moment. But then, just as quickly, as if to assuage my guilt, I remembered the two previous days, jam-packed with fun. Hadn’t we gone sledding, biking, and made all sorts of forts and houses? We had read books at the library, including the one about the mice that scurry-scurry home to their cozy nests, a favorite. We painted, made postcards, and cut vegetables for dinner. There had been that charcoal squash…


“Yeah, pup,” I said, “that’s fine. So long as it’s okay with Mama.” And I headed out the door.


In using the title “Off Grid Kids” I imply that I’m writing about a sort of outdoorsy-life with children. Surely, that’s part of it, but what I really mean by that - what I mean to myself - is a real and frank perspective on myself, Pema, and the other children in our lives. Crawling around in the wilderness is great, but the wilderness of our minds and that of our emotions is just as enticing to me, if not more so. And that’s largely because it is such a tangled and throaty wilderness.


My goal as a father, and as a writer, is not to expose us merely to natural and wild adventures, but to expose the underlying emotions and intuitions, the mental blocks, and the occasional utter failures of day to day life. More than anything else, I’m interested in my own mistakes. They’re just so real. And so an entire morning of boredom, of half-hearted attempts to bridge the disconnection between Pema and me, and my failure to do so, is, for me, one of the most fruitful moments of all to bring to the light of awareness. It’s what I crave to understand.


As I walked across the courtyard to fetch the laundry, I felt guilty, but I didn’t really know why. In retrospect, I don’t believe it was because Pema was bored or distracted - after all, that’s not so bad - but because my attention was divided. I had started to pull my attention away from her and into my plans for the day. In response, she was doing the same, thinking about what she and Mama would do that afternoon, and whether Mama would let her keep the stroller.


Growing up, my brother and I were very close to two of our cousins. We slept over their house, and vice-versa, all the time. Parting was always a heavy affair, and I can recall one particular time that I was just heartbroken after coming home from a long weekend together. I felt utterly despondent, but of course I had no language for this kind of thing. I just ached and I couldn’t get over it. My parents tried to console me, even calling my aunt and uncle on the phone so that I could say hi to my cousins. But even their voices on the other end of the line did little to ease my pain.


I believe the root of what I felt that morning with Pema was similar, a sadness about our imminent separation. I’d like to say that my heart was aching for Pema, that it was pangs of sympathy that swelled in my chest, or fatherly devotion, but I don’t think that’s right. I felt guilty, not because I wasn’t giving Pema enough attention, but because I wasn’t giving my own feelings enough attention. I didn’t tend to them. I distracted myself with chores and plans. That’s why I wanted Pema to be happy and playful and engaged, so that I could warm up a bit in her emotional vitality. I wanted her to cheer me up.


The “problem” of that moment wasn’t that we felt bad, or even that I hadn’t given Pema enough attention. It was that I did nothing to acknowledge it. Instead of using the opportunity to give language and expression to my feelings, I merely kept up with my chores and hoped that Pema would turn around. That is my real regret, not only because I think it would have soothed me a bit to be honest, but because I would have liked to have given Pema the opportunity to express herself. Instead, I tried to solve her.


I don’t want Pema to feel good all the time. I want her to fully explore the landscape of her emotions, the sunny fields of wildflowers as well as the caverns of misery. I want her to get comfortable in that tangled wilderness, way off the grid, up high in the mountains where there are windswept escarpments of anger, and down in the valleys beneath the sheltered boughs of quiet joy. Mushrooms and hailstorms, sudden fragrances, and the endless screes of boredom. I want her to feel at home in herself, to be able to navigate, if never master, this terrain.


The only way I know how to do that is by walking the interior landscape myself, observing the way the wind sometimes blows a sadness over me, while at other times it shakes the leaves of the cottonwoods into a lively dance. The variation in sunsets, the coarseness of stone. The fact that, at night, the flowers close. I have to walk those paths over and over again, and the sad fact is that I’m often blind to what is directly under my feet. But sometimes, in the most common places, I discover things I hadn’t ever noticed before.


Snow Day

After donning our snowsuits and lacing up our boots, Pema and I stepped outside. The snow had finally stopped. The earth was soft and white, and above, amongst the thick gray clouds, mingled the small drifts of feathery white clouds that gave way to patches of blue. Hidden behind dense clouds in the west, the sun shed an ambient light over everything, the fresh white snow, making the transition from day to evening barely noticeable. We grabbed the sled, a blue plastic toboggan, and walked to the backside of the property, our breath escaping in plumes of smoke.


We passed the chickens, and then Bob, who was clearing the snow off his maroon Prius. We stopped to say a quick hello and then continued, walking past the workshop, past the clothes line that held tiny strands of snow along its wires, past the abandoned cistern and the abandoned truck. The snow crumbled softly underfoot, and the nylon sleeves of our snowsuits zipped keenly. We walked past piles of scrap wood and wire fencing, broken windows and cement mixers, and old rubber tires; the sort of miscellany that one becomes accustomed to in New Mexico. Everything was covered in clean, white snow. Finally, just beyond the woodshed, we left the crumpled path and leaned into the thick, untrammeled snow in the rear of the property. In summer, this hillside was a utopia of sage, purple aster, sweet clover and juniper. We stepped carefully to avoid tripping over the sage, and plowed brusquely through the husks of clover and aster, whose skeletal frames made intricate patterns on which the snow clung like lattice.


“Dada, can I ride in the sled now?” Pema asked. It was hard work, climbing this hill. The hidden nooks and tree boughs, which in the summer were magical groves, now formed a field of obstacles, and the acequia, which winds down the hill through a series of switchbacks, bringing water to the property, was covered in snow. We had to be careful not to trip and fall in the ditches. “No pup,” I said, “I can’t carry you up this hill. You can ride once we get to the top.” After a brief pause, “I can hold your hand though.” “Okay,” she said, reaching up with her pink mitten, plowing through drifts up to her knees.


We scooted under a juniper branch, heavy with snow, and I cursed good-humoredly as snow rained down into my collar. Pema laughed. Finally, we popped out up top, on the high road that snakes along the acequia madre and eventually veers up a long hill to the mesa, where the windswept houses and escarpments of ancient rock overlook the Rio Grande Gorge. Silke’s house, our presumptive destination, jut queerly above the flat table land, its steep green roof less than half a mile as the crow flies, but our journey would be circuitous.


“Now can I ride in the sled?” Pema asked. She wasn’t tired. She just wanted the simple joy of riding in the sled. Me too. “Yeah, pup,” I said, setting the blue toboggan on the ground, “but I’m going to ask you to walk again when we get to the hill.” Smiling, she stepped into the sled and handed me the rope. “Okay,” she answered.


Eight hours earlier, the car was running. As I helped Pema into her snowsuit, beads of sweat were forming on my face and neck. Dressed for a long day outside in the snow with nine children, I was sweltering inside. I had scraped and cleared the windshield and stuffed our things in the car - breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, water, tea, extra clothes, laptop, wallet, phone, blanket, a change of shoes. We would be gone all day, first meeting Ada, Pema’s close friend, and then joining forest school till mid-afternoon. After that, we’d run some town errands, and then we had a Christmas potluck with all the children, and their parents, at six. We wouldn’t be back till bedtime. Most of our things I had gotten together the day before, even, thank God, putting the snow tires on our car. I was ready. We had presents, a day’s worth of food, and even something for the potluck. Ten bunches of kale. I smiled when I thought of that. No one ever brings vegetables to a potluck.


As I helped Pema get the pants of her snowsuit over her boots, we watched the snow falling, now quite rapidly, from the sky. I would have to clear the car windows again. I’m infamous for not using the telephone, but while I was excited, not everyone likes to test their driving skills on snow covered streets. So, at the last possible minute, I picked up the phone to call Silke. Might as well make sure I wasn’t going through all this for nothing.


Pema looked at me expectantly as I dialed and put the phone to my ear. “Hello,” came Silke’s voice, matter-of-factly. It dawned on me that she’d probably had dozens of these calls by now. “Hey Silke,” I said, trying to sound confident and excited. “Oh Joe, I’m so glad you called,” she answered. Pema rubbed her pink mitten anxiously over the knee of my snowsuit, making that zip-zip sound. “What’d she say?” She asked. I held up a finger. “What’d she say?” she asked again, and I mouthed the words, “Hold on…”


As I hung up the phone, Pema started to cry. She could read my face. I was disappointed too. We had done everything, made all the plans and contingencies. It’s just, well, you can’t make everyone else do it too. We sat, dejected, for a minute or two as Pema wailed through tears, “But why, Dada? What will we do?”


I’m terrible at changing plans. My whole life is about setting things up and then seeing them through. It makes me useful, respected, trustworthy. A model citizen. But spontaneity is not my skill. I hate admitting defeat, and I will usually mope around awkwardly till eventually I just get tired of myself. Here we were, after all, ready to charge into the snowstorm and ravage the hillside with a passel of children, when suddenly the whole world stopped. There wouldn’t even be a Christmas potluck. What was I going to do with ten bunches of kale?


Two years ago, I realized that if I was going to be a good father I had to find opportunities for Pema to play and interact with other children. Before that, it had seemed perfectly normal for her to spend all her time with Mom and Dad. That transition was a big challenge for me. It was not natural for me to care for two or more children. It was intimidating, and the give and take of other parents’ needs was equally confounding. Eventually, I took advantage of the easiest solution I could find. I just made myself available, and I tried to learn. Who doesn’t want free childcare, after all? Now, two years later, I spend twenty hours a week, sometimes more, with two, three, sometimes ten kids roaming loosely under my care. I am stunned to find myself here. This wasn’t the obvious direction of my life.


I’ve gotten so good at filling our time with other children and activities that in the last few months I’ve found myself missing the boredom and loping uncertainty that sometimes accompanied Pema and my travels. We used to spend much more time together, just she and I, exploring the landscape and the creativity of our minds. Once, having found frozen plums on a neighbor’s tree, we hurried to pick them stealthily and then retreated to the river, laughing. Our fingers were cold and clumsy, but those frozen plums made the best meal of my life. Of course, it’s wonderful to do these things with other kids too, but I miss the intimacy of that one-on-one time, which now usually only comes with errands in town, stories before bed, or feeding the chickens on frosty mornings. We even have another child in our community now, Francis, so that even our transition moments at breakfast or afternoon lulls are often filled with the excitement and attraction, the needs and distractions, of another child.


Shortly after I hung up the phone with Silke, Pema and I paraded dejectedly back through the kitchen and into the Buffalo Room, the large central room at New Buffalo, the community where we live. Everyone could tell our day was canceled, and I could read their expressions of sympathy and condolence. Everyone except Francis, of course, who saw Pema and immediately lit up. “You’re here?” he asked. Pema still had tears on her cheeks. “Yes, Francis, we’re here,” I answered straightforwardly. “You’re here?” he asked again, looking into Pema’s face.


We made the best of it. After peeling off several layers of clothing, we took out the train set and made a large track and village. Eventually, I left Pema to it and emptied out the car and started sorting things away. Finally, after a couple hours indoors, and some good snacks, I was ready to head back outside. We suited back up, along with Francis, and went out to find a sled. I knew Ruby and her dad had one, so we walked next door to look for it, Pema and Francis sort of groaning and complaining at first, finding it hard to walk in their thick snowsuits. Francis, at two and half, had a full Carhartt suit on, which made him essentially a solid piece of cardboard.


We didn’t find the sled. As we walked back, scanning my mind for something that would work, we heard the distinctive rumble of a diesel engine. Lo and behold, there was Ruby, coming down the drive in her dad’s truck. They had the sled. Everyone cheered up. We walked back to New Buffalo, me, Pema, Francis and Ruby, and spent the next two hours riding up and down the long sloping driveway, making snowmen and knocking them over, throwing snowballs, and generally rolling and giggling till we were soaked and freezing.


But now, as Pema and I crested on top of the long road to the mesa, all that was behind us. Ruby had gone home to her mother. Francis was down for a nap. After eating some hot soup quietly in our room and drawing Christmas fairy postcards, we had snuck back out to the fireplace and retrieved our almost dry snowsuits. No one was around. Earlier that morning, as a sort of consolation, Silke had invited Pema and I to her house, about a mile and half away, but I had waffled throughout the day whether we’d go or not, and if so, whether we might drive or walk.


It had continued to snow all day, and by now there was a good six inches of snow on the ground. It was nearing four o’clock when we stepped outside, Pema and me. After climbing the sagebrush hill and stepping out onto the high road, we had a massive view of the snow covered valley and mountains. One of the magical things about snow is that it never gets dark. Even though the sun was nearly down, the whiteness of the landscape would make it so that we could see well into the night. The clouds overhead, like a thick wool blanket, kept the air temperature quite reasonable, and after dragging Pema for a little while in the sled, I even took off my hat.


“Hey Pema,” I said, as we ambled along, the sled scraping the snow in a continuous motion of sound.


“Yeah, Dad?”


“In just a moment, we’re going to reach the hill and I’m going to ask you to walk, okay?”




The only sound, the crunch of my boots and the coarse growl of the sled as we drifted into the night.




I left the house two hours ago, amidst a soft rain, the odor of damp sage and dirt clinging to my nostrils. The earth was dark and close. Drifting rain clouds surrounded me like a thick blanket, hiding the moon and stars. It was hours before daybreak, and aside from a few house lamps and distant headlights, there was scant light anywhere.


I love walking. I love walking wet, I love walking cold. I love walking in the dry heat of early summer, and in the winds that cascade over the mesa, breaking and swirling on junipers and pinons, pouring over my head and into the valley. My hair, though short, follows. So do my thoughts. I follow the wings of solitary hawks, or the murmur of starlings. On occasion I meet an owl, a great blue heron. Mostly, it’s just dogs.


If the sky is black and filled with stars, I am there, walking. If the sun is high, or if the wind rustles the leaves of the cottonwoods, I am there too, just walking. I walk past houses and cars, past the telephone poles that are the same telephone poles each time. The grain of their wood is exposed, and they stand tall, yet, not so straight. We, all of us, lean. My route, which varies slightly, never deviates much, so that my eyes and ears and skin absorb the subtle changes of season, time and place. My nose adds to the conversation. I am always talking to myself.


In the course of a week, I will cover twenty to thirty miles, all within roughly the same circuit. This is my mind. It lives in the spaces between evergreens, in the geography of the mountains, and the rhythm of my footsteps. When the grasses turn from green to gold, and then brown, my thoughts change. One solitary cottonwood can give rise to a flock of scampering thoughts, or break my heart. I follow the tracks of dogs, coyotes, and then jackrabbits. Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t. Rain makes for mud, and within the curved depressions left by small animal feet, I read myself. The sun bakes each step and cornice, even the zigzag of tire tracks, like pottery. Sometimes weeks pass till a new rain resets the tableau.


I know where my thoughts are, because I can walk to them. There are discarded bottles and piles of trash, the hum of electric cables, and sloping paths that curve exquisitely into the hillside and disappear behind a clutch of junipers. Shades of dusky olive blend with roseate plant stems, ochres shift to gold, yellow and brown. In late summer, purple asters spread across these fields like whitewash. There’s a burned out building I walk past, haunting my thoughts, crumbling adobes, and once a flock of cranes. The withered stems and husky seeds of fall are the same thoughts, succulent and green, in spring. We talk about it all summer long, my hands and eyes running over their coarsening jackets. Cars rumble by, even at four in the morning, and I have to reckon with that. The dirt road underfoot turns to pavement.


Two days ago, I was walking with the earth children, nine kids in tow, Silke in front. I’m the caboose. Eleven people on a dirt road is a noisy, chattering mind, but I still felt the familiar left, right, left, right plodding of my feet and spine. That rhythm ties everything together, even my bowels. I was holding Ruby’s hand. We were walking from the top of the canyon, overlooking the Hondo River, heading down to the more massive gorge of the Rio Grande. It was a long walk for children aged three to six - half a mile down, the Rio Hondo burbling on our right, past the horse skull and broken toilet, past the flat promontory stones, the wild apple tree, over the little bridge, the bird and sun petroglyphs on our left, high above the confluence of the two rivers, then the big steel bridge, drop in a stone, and still a quarter of a mile back up the other side, the Rio Grande now on our left, down the path, finally to the cave. Then, we’d have to do it in reverse. A mile and a half or more, much of it a steep climb. The kids complained almost immediately. I love that kind of shit.


“What do you think, Joe?” Silke had asked. We all stood outside the cars at the top of the canyon, weighing the course of the day. “No, I don’t want to walk,” whined Little Bear and Griffin, and the others took up the lament. I was conflicted. I’d made the trip with Pema before, easy enough. Most of the other kids I was pretty sure of, but a few were more fragile. Plus, I had Ruby with me, who’s only three years old. I didn’t really doubt any one child, but I had my doubts about all nine together. That uncertainty, to my way of thinking, meant we might as well try.


At first, we were higgledy-piggledy and many of the kids groaned. But by the time we really got moving, having stopped for a good view of the horse skull, the kids had broken up into two’s and three’s, holding hands or each other in conversation. Some walked alone. Silke and I exchanged occasional glances, she well in front, me in back, hardly a word between us. Humping along, like the legs and neck of a camel, our jaunty vertebrae rose up and down, clicking and clacking with the irregular hoofs and heartbeats of eleven apes of varying size and shape. Like always, the soft roar of the Rio Hondo held the background, splashing and hissing its way through the boulders below.


The snaking course of the path clings to the south wall of the canyon, meaning the sun, now in its winter aspect, spread a broad cloth of shade over us and the path. Permanent ice. Ruby slipped and slopped in my hands, casually repeating the obvious, “I slipped and fell.” “Yep.” The air wasn’t that cold, so I was wearing sneakers, the soles of which are worn smooth from so many miles underfoot. It was all I could do to keep from slipping myself, and aside from the two bags I carried, I had a three year old Ruby in my left hand, and the occasional Little Bear in my right. Heaven, precarious heaven. As we crested each outside turn, we had patches of sun to warm our bodies, and bare earth under our feet. After slipping most of our way down the path, it felt so good to be grounded.


Griffin and Wolfie, having seen the horse skull for the first time, spent much of the time identifying moose and elk skulls with all kinds of antlers and pointies. Advah, perhaps the most fragile in our group, was wrapped in the hand and conversation of Autumn. Autumn is a powerhouse of a girl, and the two of them conquer almost anything. At some point, Ruby, who spends plenty enough time with me as it is, had scurried up to Silke in the front. I could see her, still slopping around and dangling occasionally from Silke’s strong arms. Pema and Esperanza, to my quiet delight, were walking together like old friends. Rudy, one of the newer kids, a boy, was doing his best to keep up with Griffin and Wolfie. Little Bear, who keeps to herself most of the time, wove in and out of the groups and occasionally drifted back to me.


Contrary to her name, Little Bear is not so little. She is the largest of the group and one of the oldest. She is the first child I have interacted with regularly that really tests my strength. Often we’re clambering over rocks and rivers and I occasionally help the kids up or down a steep embankment. Little Bear, a knowing sort of mischief in her eye, stands ready for her turn. She knows it’s a challenge for me, but she wants me to pick her up all the same. It’s a sort of test. “Me too…?” she seems to be saying.


Little Bear also tends to isolate herself. She is Native American, the only one in our group. She’s also a bit overweight and has the disposition of a mule. Maybe a bear. Stubborn and intelligent, she is above the typical playthings of most of the other children. Everything is old news or boring to her. She is by far the strongest child in our group, but she almost always lags behind. That’s why we’re such good pals. We have developed a unique relationship, in that she tests me very thoroughly to see if I’m authentic. Mostly, I am, and she demonstrates her affection by playing coy and twisting my fingers into tortuous poses.


After a brief bathroom break at the bottom of the canyon, we crossed the steel bridge, the Rio Grande raging beneath our feet. “Tell me if you see a river otter,” I shouted as we walked over the bridge, and, of course, Griffin and Wolfie immediately claimed to see one upstream. Don’t forget, these are the thoughts that accompany our footsteps. Those river otters, whether seen or not, swam in our minds. Griffin’s loud claims rang with real clarity in the steel trusses of the bridge, softening into a gentle chime, singing in the steel. Truth is not so simple.


We climbed up the other side and settled into the cave for lunch. We had an hour or two before we’d have to repeat the journey. After lunch, I told a story and then we climbed out into the sun. Silke made small crafts with the children. I lit a fire. After pressing bread dough onto sticks, I passed them out for the kids to roast. But mostly they preferred to mill about, playing in the cave above our heads, settling who was a baby, who was a mom, and whether there could be three dads or not. They came and went, firing like neurons along jagged paths. We clung to the western wall of the gorge, the Rio Grande spilling below from north to south. My imagination filled the space around us, and it glowed in the sun. Across, to the east, we could see gray, black and yellow stone cliffs, exactly like ours.


My thoughts are like words, like children’s feet. I connect one place to another, forming a geography in my mind. I walk the same paths over and over, not for dullness, but to observe the subtlety of variety. “Someday,” I thought, staring at the stone cliffs beyond my reach, “perhaps we will sit over there.” We would rest and eat lunch on yellow-gray stones, much like these yellow-gray stones, and eat the same foods, peanut butter, bread, seaweed packages with green letters. We’d have the same arguments and groans, but we’d also stare at this cave with a new perspective, remembering. We’d put the pieces together. The earth. Our minds. The labor of our feet across dirt and stone.


“What are you doing?” asked Little Bear, the last word drawn out in a whine like an accusation. Her eyelids drooped, half-closed, over her pupils, and her whole expression feigned boredom. “I’m driving a boat,” I said, pleased with the absurdity of my answer. She rolled her eyes.


Catcher in the Rye

It snowed. Silke stood at the top of the hill, between two stocky pinon trees. It was nine in the morning, and the temperature had yet to break fifteen degrees. The children, all nine of them, were crawling and slipping up the slope on the right hand side, garbage bags in tow. Their heavy boots and puffy snowsuits made each movement difficult, but comical. Everyone was screaming and laughing. Behind me, the Rio Pueblo, thick with a layer of frozen ice, gurgled underneath.


At the top, as each child arrived, Silke laid out a garbage bag over the slick snow and sat them down. I was at the bottom. After navigating the narrow pass between two lichen-covered stones, the riders plunged down the embankment, leveled off, and barreled directly toward me. Our eyes locked. Joy filled my belly, and the teeth of my boots sank into the snow for grip. Poised like a football lineman, I greeted each child with a roar, tackling them before they scooted onto the icy surface of the river and, God forbid, broke through.


The whole route from top to bottom wasn’t more than fifty feet, and it was less than twenty from there to the embankment of the river. As often as not, the children, spinning and flopping with stray arms and boots, slowed themselves before they even reached me, so that our raucous greetings were simply an expression of our shared joy. But the hill, though short, was quite steep and a careful rider set squarely on the bag could easily have rocketed past me onto the surface of the river, and beyond.


Moments like this quiet my mind. The immediacy of the activity takes over and all my thoughts and plans recede to the background. My social awkwardness dissolves, and the world becomes close, very close.


Two days later, I found myself staring into the eyes of a great horned owl. I had just finished writing the preceding paragraphs, and was headed out to feed the chickens and turkeys before moving into the rest of my day. As I approached the gate to the garden, and the chicken coop beyond, several of my housemates were clustered around a green wagon. It was not quite eight o’clock, and I could immediately tell something was up.


A week prior, something had killed one of our turkeys. It was a juvenile turkey, a chick just a few months ago, but now about the size of a chicken, and no easy catch. Because it happened at night, when the turkeys were roosting on the roof, we were uncertain as to the killer. What was conspicuous was the fact that the turkey had been beheaded, and that the carcass had been left behind.


Less than a week before that, one of the male turkeys had killed the other. For over a year, these two brothers were never found alone. They paraded and shimmied together, and, except for the occasional scrape, seemed to be pals. Then one got sick. We thought he would die, but after a brief convalescence he came around. The next day his brother, apparently sensing the other’s vulnerability, attacked him to the point of death. Victorious, the male bird copulated with his dead partner while the humans in his midst stood mystified.


The dead male was feathered and hung up in the root cellar. It was just two days before Thanksgiving. Not exactly fortuitous, but there it was. I was a little extra cautious of the victor, whom I always distrusted, but in fact he seemed more docile than ever. When, a little over a week later, a second turkey chick was killed, again in the middle of the night, confusion reigned.


“Did you hear that scream an hour ago,” one of my housemates asked me early one morning, “Out in the courtyard?” No, I hadn’t heard it. But I had heard scuffles on the roof throughout the night. Turns out lots of people heard things, but never quite enough to make sense of it all. Finally, the turkeys - now down to one male, one female, and five chicks - tried to roost on the neighbor’s house. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the turkeys were trying to escape their killer, but we were so confused by the series of events that we chased them down off the roof and herded them back home so they wouldn’t get lost.


Later that evening, well after dark, someone went to close up the chicken coop. It was later than usual, and when he got there he found an owl gorging on a chicken, apparently a recent kill. After an initial attempt to chase off the owl, he saw its long black talons, its fierce yellow eyes, and thought better of it. The next morning he found the chicken’s head, severed, and took it, along with what was left of the body, into a distant field.


It seems ridiculous that we could be befuddled for so long, but we did not yet have the advantage of hindsight. We had talked through the possibility of a housecat, a bobcat, a weasel, even a skunk. Nothing quite fit. The victims were beheaded, but not eaten, not fully at least, and so the carcasses were left behind. That ruled out coyotes. And there was the matter of climbing onto the roof. The male turkey was unpredictable, sure, but no one had ever seen him be that vicious. But an owl, that finally made sense. An owl struck at night, could fly silently onto the roof, and had a beak and talons powerful enough to decapitate. Her kills were probably too heavy, and she was forced to leave the carcass behind, where an opportunistic coyote or dog might snatch it.


The next night, the female turkey was gone. No one ever saw her body. Four birds dead in less than a week. Finally, a neighbor and I herded the five remaining chicks and the sole adult male into an enclosed pen next to the chickens. We didn’t close them in the plywood coop, because the pen was screened in with chicken wire all the way around, including above.


The next morning, as I went out to feed the turkeys, I saw the male walking through the courtyard, as if nothing had changed. “How did you get out?” I wondered aloud, as I continued on to the pen. I fed the chickens first. In the pen next door, I could see four of the turkey chicks running around, eager to be fed. As I walked over with a bucket of water and some grain, I found the fifth, now dead, lying on the ground in the yard outside the door. The door was closed. This made no sense. I opened the door and stepped inside, careful to close it behind me. After feeding and watering the chicks, I looked the entire enclosure over for a hole, finding none. A male turkey is a large bird. I was confused, and also irritated. Fact is, I find the turkeys a little irritating, even when they’re not being killed. They have no sense of personal space, and their beauty can also be described as hideous. I left the final carcass in the yard, my senses dulled with exasperation.


A few hours later, I would be standing at the bottom of a snowy hill, catching children as they rushed down the slick hillside into my arms. There was a new boy in our group, Joah, and his mother was tagging along for the day to make sure he was comfortable. Joah was plainly shy at first, doing his best to find avenues into the group, a very sweet and tender boy. I could see he was a bit uncertain, and I had made an attempt earlier to warm him up. “Hey Joah,” I said, taking him aside for a moment as the other children lined up and took turns sliding across a puddle of ice. “Guess what?” I said, “My name’s Joe. Kind of like JO-ah. Kind of interesting, huh?” “Ugh, yeah,” he said, kindly but distractedly. We walked back to the line forming in front of the ice puddle and I held out my hand to him. Initially, he refused. Who was I, after all? When another child, Little Bear, eagerly took my hand instead, Joah brightened and the three of us took off running for the ice.


Ten minutes later, I watched Joah sledding down the hill with two other boys, all three wrapped up in each other’s laps. As they landed in my arms, not without a sudden force, we all burst into laughter. They scrambled to untangle themselves, and, standing up, took off for the hill. But Joah turned around. “Father Joseph,” he said, the sobriquet catching me by surprise. It was a twist on “Papa Joe,” which the kids usually call me. But Joah didn’t finish what he was going to say. He stood for a moment, unsure. The screams and laughter continued from all directions. He smiled and decided it was time to get moving.


I turned to Joah’s mom, who was at my side, her eight-month-old tucked in her warm chest. “Have you ever read The Catcher in the Rye?” I asked. “This is exactly what he - what was his name? Anyway, this is exactly what he wanted to do.”


Early Saturday morning, two days after I had gone sledding with Joah and the kids, two days after the final turkey had died, I got up early to take a walk in the blackness of night. Pema was back with her mother, sleeping. I returned, good and chilled, to write for a couple hours before beginning my daylight chores. I had already struck on the idea of The Catcher in the Rye, but after two hours of uninspired work, I produced only a few paragraphs, none of which I thought much of. The moment at the bottom of that hill had been lovely, but I didn’t have much to say about it.


Two hours later, I walked outside to feed the chickens and turkeys. As I approached the gate of the garden, which leads to the chicken coop, three of my housemates were standing around a green wagon with a cage on top. “We caught the owl,” one of them said. But I already knew it.


I’m not sure where the three other men went. We had gazed at each other indirectly. There was concern in each face. Sorrow. Victory. My eyes were wide with the moment. I came within three or four feet of the owl, and suddenly we were alone. Again. She was inside a cage, resting on the same wagon we had used for children’s rides, to haul straw and wood. The owl’s wing was gruesome and deformed. She could not retract it, so it hung limp in the air in front of her. She appeared ragged and uneven. The visual shape of a bird is almost all feathers. I had learned this especially from the male turkeys, whose giant topography, shimmying feathers and broad tail fans conceal a surprisingly small animal inside. The owl, now unable to smooth her feathers into a tight coil, had no dignity of appearance. But her eyes were wild and luminous, without fear, and yet casual.


As I approached, I felt all the indecision fall out of my body. It was her. We had met before, over dusk, she sitting on a low branch, me gazing curiously into her face and those fierce yellow eyes. We had had dozens of sightings, actually. Once, during a bonfire, Pema had watched her alight from the tree directly over our heads, spread her vast wings, and soar silently into the night. Owl feathers part the wind silently, making them stealthy and deadly predators. If Pema had not had her eyes to the sky at that precise moment, lit by the glowing fire underneath, no one would even have noticed.


Now she was in a cage. She adjusted her face to look at me, the muscles of her eyes synchronizing with those of her neck. My sympathetic neurons fired, and I could feel my own neck twisting, my blue eyes peering back at hers, yellow. Our eyelids blinked. I felt horror and grief, naked and foolish. This owl had terrorized our birds. We had greeted each other over the laments of dusk. I felt the admiration and respect worthy of a powerful foe.


I’d like to say that we met, that somehow, through our eyes, we acknowledged each other. I’d like to say that, prior to her capture, as she sat on a branch or as she flew over our campfire, we shared something, that I had gleaned a meaning from her visit in my life. But I hadn’t. All the projections and clockwork of my mind were met with an impenetrable emptiness behind her eyes. She was a creature wholly different from me. She had no fear. She had no pity. Even behind the cage, she appeared solely interested in collecting observations for herself.


I learned later that the owl had flown back into the yard to feed on the dead turkey. The chickens and turkey chicks were safely locked up, but I had left that final carcass behind, largely by neglect. Sometime in the night, after feeding on the carcass, she attempted to fly away and got caught in the fishing line that snakes above the chicken yard, a casual attempt to keep wild birds from flying in and eating the chicken feed. She must have gotten tangled in the wire and flapped for - who knows? - hours. Poor thing, I thought. That’s what I could read in the other men’s faces, and surely it was written all over my own as I examined her through the cage. But the owl did not recognize our sympathy. She did not betray fear or anything other than her bold predominance.


I’d like to wrap these two stories up neatly, me at the bottom of the sled hill, saying hello to Joah, then staring at the owl on the branch at dusk, later through the cage. As I fit the grooves of these stories together, a greater meaning would rise from the interplay. But that would be a sort of lie. Instead, I find myself sitting with the vast emptiness between these experiences. I cannot reconcile them. I don’t exactly wish to.


Except this - I want to teach this. Not teach, but allow. I want to live a life that allows for the rich concatenations of culture, and the emptiness of brutal ignorance. I want to go sledding with Pema and her grandfather, and then have to clean up severed turkey heads and be angry about it. And I want Pema there with me. I want her to ask me what it all means, and I want to lie and stumble and grow frustrated with my answers, and then pick it back up hours later with a new softness. I want to be stretched, severely, as much as I can manage without breaking. No, I want to break, but never too much, not till the very, very end. And I don’t want to prioritize one thing too much over the other. I don’t ever want to figure out who that owl was. I want to enjoy all the richness of what it means to gather as a family over the holidays, with personal memories, warmth, sugar, and the long accretions of cultural history. I want to catch children at the edge of a frozen river and laugh, and remember Holden Caulfield, or forget his name and have to look it up. And I want to walk out into the darkness and find myself naked and cold. I want to meet a predator that has no fear of me, or a lowly bacteria that can bring down civilizations, or my gut. I want to die alone, scared. I want this for myself, surely, but I also want it for Pema and the other children in my care. Not necessarily now, but when they’re ready. When they can choose it for themselves. It’s coming no matter what. I want drunk, living animals. And I want to tidy up with a broom occasionally. Life is disgusting. It is rich and beautiful, full of joy and pain. I want to eat sugar cookies with my mom over tea, recalling stories from my youth, and I don’t ever want to forget that there are severed turkey heads under my feet.



Pema had removed her shoes, insisting that she was warmer in stocking feet. She was dancing in the snow. Having sat in the car for the past five hours, the wide open sky and endless snowscape of Lama Mountain had beckoned both of us outside. Home. Like a sprite, she sashayed, danced and leaped through the dry, sparkling powder. I stood still, hands warm in my pockets. The earth was silent. Every direction seemed endlessly empty, and full. In the distance, a black car crawled down the icy road. The end was not quite here, but it was so damn close.


We had been in much the same place a year ago. Megan and I had recently separated, and after an extended trip to see family, just me and Pema, we had made the long journey from Denver Airport, south across the Colorado border, down past Questa, to Lama. We had seen our cousins in Denver, flown to Cleveland to see Grandma and Grandpa, Uncle Peter, and dozens of other extended family members. After five months of reconciling with the separation of our nuclear family, I had been in the nest of old family and friends, united and bonded with Pema, sharing the joys and special occasions of our large, Catholic family. The trip back with Pema was full of laughter and song, and reminiscence. It had been so wonderful that it hit me like a hammer when Megan drove down the icy slope of the Forest Service road that leads up to Lama. We exchanged brief greetings, a bag of clothes. It was getting dark, and cold. All three of us wished to be home. As Megan and Pema drove away, I returned to my car seat, and slumped. Turning the ignition, the heat fan came on like the sound of a distant river. Warm air blew across my face. I was crying. I hadn’t expected this. Hadn’t the last week meant anything? Was it gone so suddenly?


I spent the next few weeks in grief, questioning whether one week of joy was worth all this misery. My life as I understood it had ended. My role as a father and husband had unraveled. I already knew this, but the closeness and joy of my recent trip with Pema drove home the fact that I was, after all, alone. No one was holding my hand. Pema didn’t belong to me. It wasn’t that I was hopeless, or that I wasn’t needed. It was just that I didn’t know who I was anymore. The story I had been living with for so many years had evaporated, and I was alone in a way I had never reckoned with before. It was a sort of death, but I was still clinging to the life I knew.


A year later, now just a few days ago, I stood in almost exactly the same spot on the earth, having taken almost exactly the same trip with Pema to see Grandma and Grandpa, Uncle Peter, our cousins and dozens of extended family members. We had even gone ice skating. Now, I was dreading letting go.


It was cold when Pema and I had left Taos, but the snow we returned to was a surprise, the first real snow of the year. It was only a couple of inches, but I had not yet put the snow tires on my car, and the road up to Lama was steep and unplowed. I didn’t want to chance it. So there we were, just like last year, waiting at the s-curves, the junction between the more serviceable county road and the unmaintained Forest Service road. The air was magnificent, and the pips and squeaks of small birds accented the enormity of the silence after hours of the dull background noise of the car. In the distance, creeping down the icy road like the careful paws of a black cat in the snow, was Megan’s car.


I have come to love the bittersweet, almost as much as I love anticipation. Happiness is unquestionably pleasant, but it’s often attended by ignorance and negligence. Sadness and anger have a weight and importance to them, but there’s no getting around the fact that they feel wretched. Bittersweet is the most complete, the most austere, the most integrated, and somehow the most pleasant. It combines happiness and sadness, leaving me with the feeling of robust presence coupled with eternity. It has all the joy of happiness, but is attenuated by something like knowledge or wisdom. In bittersweet moments, I sense a tension within that reveals a range of experience like nothing else, like traveling by foot to look out from a promontory over a vast and diverse landscape.


Do you remember skating with Grandpa and me? It was your first time. You had been asking for months, and I was putting it off. I thought you would grow frustrated when you realized how challenging it is, the slipping and falling. It was probably a bit of laziness too. When our flight to Denver was canceled, we suddenly had four hours, and when Grandpa came back to the airport to pick us up, strange luck, he said, it was just the moment of public skate at the rink. Did we want to go? It was the same rink I skated on when I grew up. But it had been so many years.


We talked over things as we laced up our skates. We had the outdoor rink, so it was going to be cold the woman behind the counter had said. She was patient, and after kindly pointing out the differences in the skates, she set down a pair, a hybrid that had short, curved blades like a hockey skate, but a toe point for grip and breaking. “These are the ones most people prefer,” she said, and I eyed at them with excitement, feeling their heft and the cold metal of the blade against the skin of my hand. It had been more than twenty years. “Here’s the thing about skates,” I said, after we sat down to change, “You have to tie them really tight.” Glancing through the window, we could see a solitary old man performing graceful loops around the rink.


Grandpa and I held your hands as we stepped onto the ice for the first time. There was a little metal walker too, but I wanted you to feel the warmth and safety of our human tether the first time out. The old man was on the far side of the rink. Otherwise, we had the entire place to ourselves. We stepped onto that giant skin of ice, as if onto another world. The momentum of our last footstep on solid ground carried us away from the walls of the rink, and there we were, the three of us gliding forward gently out onto the ice. It was twelve o’clock, Wednesday.


“Okay pup, here we go,” I said, smiling, but uncertain. I made a few, small strokes with my legs, left and right, watching my father do the same. You held on like a wet noodle in the middle, but we stayed up. “That’s another thing,” I said, filling the emptiness of my uncertainty with words, “You don’t really walk. You have to push your legs left and right, and then you just glide forward. It takes a balance…” I went on continuously, pointlessly. We made a short loop, you fumbling and wiggling, but somehow Grandpa and I, to my surprise, managed to keep us all on our feet. As I talked, I discovered a confidence in my legs that I had not expected.


Once, in late high school, I had gone skating with friends. It had been five or six years since I skated regularly, but I had figured it was like riding a bike. So I was surprised and embarrassed to find myself slipping all over the place. I was hardly any better than the beginners. What had I lost? And what was different this time? Maybe it was the skates.


We swung back toward the door for a rest. “I don’t know, pup, what do you think? Want to try the walker?” It didn’t take long for you to realize just how hard it was going to be. Your images of gliding over the ice, like professional skaters, quickly reconciled with our awkward movements and your inability to maintain even the simplest balance. Grandpa and I, hands and legs firm, did our best to keep you afloat without tripping ourselves, but it was almost as if we were carrying you. That was the mistake. Relying on me and Grandpa to keep you up, it took but a few short minutes to count yourself out. You were done, you said, almost crying with frustration. This was the moment I had anticipated.


But damn if something wasn’t magic in the air. I guided you to the exit and set you up where you could watch through the Plexiglas wall of the rink. “Let me just see what I can do,” I said, sort of asking permission to leave you by yourself, daunted and uncertain. I felt conflicted, but it had been so long, and I felt more confidence in my legs than I had expected. I wanted to take a turn by myself, following my own center of gravity. I had a sense that I could really scoot. “Watch me,” I said, “you push left and right. It’s not like walking.” I took a few gentle strokes and suddenly came alive. I took a cautious lap, getting my “sea legs” under me, and then took off, nearly racing across the ice.


Pumping my legs left and right, swinging my arms and hips, I could feel the strength coursing down through my torso, through the outer flank of my thighs and knees. The subtle musculature of my ankles held my skates sharply in place as I carved through turns, suddenly recalling the little slip step of my left leg as it drifted behind my right ankle, speeding faster through each turn. How was I doing this? Don’t you remember high school?


I was magnificent. So was Grandpa, though he wasn’t testing the waters as vigorously as I. Years ago, when I was ten years old, I was able to dart in and out of dozens of people, flicking and lighting through a crowd of skaters with friends at my back and front. We were a hazard, no doubt, but we were sure-footed and spindly. We could make sudden stops, spraying a coat of ice crystals as high as an unsuspecting friend’s chest, and then speed off in the other direction before he had a chance to retaliate. Once, by accident, I lost my footing on such a high-speed “hockey stop” too near the rink wall. I woke up seconds later (was it minutes?) being carried off the ice by a kindly old man.


I was so enthralled with my muscle memory and relative skill that I wasn’t paying much attention to you. Suddenly, after three or four laps, I found you back on the ice. You had picked up the little walker and come out of your own accord. You were leaning on the walker and making careful, confident strides. “Hey!” I shouted, curving past you, our eyes sharing the joy of possibility. I continued to skate freely across the ice, shouting “Look at me! Look at me!” and with each minute you grew more confident and capable. Then you fell. I slowly skated up to you, keeping silent, waiting for your reaction instead of rushing to your aide. You smiled. No big deal. Picking yourself back up, we acknowledged that it’s not much different from falling outside. A moment a later, I fell too, and we both laughed.


You had to master your own balance - that was it. When Grandpa and I were holding your hands, you weren’t able to feel your own center of gravity. Your whole balance was off. So was mine. We were tangled like goofballs, just barely keeping from falling, and you could feel the anxiety coursing through each of us. But then we let go. I raced, Grandpa swirled, and you just watched. Damn, that was the best moment of my life. I didn’t encourage you. You were just suddenly on the ice all by yourself. There was an inner joy glowing in each one of us, tethered loosely by our eyes and hearts. We did that for an hour. Your first time. I was so proud.


A few hours later we returned to the airport. After a long plane trip, we spent the night with our cousins, making the long drive in the late morning and afternoon to New Mexico. Now, after nearly twenty-four hours of traveling, we stood in the snow in Lama, watching Megan’s car draw close. I felt the pangs of uncertainty and distraction. I wanted to hold onto you and never let go. I wanted to absorb the sadness of the moment in packing up clothes and bags, anything to keep moving. But I didn’t.


After Pema drove away with Megan, I sat down in the car. I turned the ignition and the heat fan came on. Pema had been so excited to see her mom, feigning aloofness. “Where are your shoes?” Megan had shouted playfully, as Pema laughed and hopped through the snow. But it was getting cold, and dark. We exchanged a bag of clothes, brief greetings. All three of us wished to be home.


There had been a lot of pain in the last year, but just as much reconciliation and love. After reconciling my loss, I had found my path as a single father, and there was no doubt it was a strong and confident one. I hadn’t lost Pema. We had our own way. And Megan and I were great friends, if no longer lovers. We were co-parents, mutually sharing one of the greatest joys of life. There was trust and compassion between us. I watched the car climbing up the icy road, Megan and Pema warm inside. I put my car in gear, leaned on the steering wheel, and slowly crept out onto the ice.


Plum Pie

We had made a small fire, and nine of us were huddled around it. Overhead, the branches of old trees, long dead, were arranged in a sort of lean-to pattern that served as our roof and walls. Two narrowleaf cottonwood trunks, whose forked branches held secure the pitched walls of our lodge, stood like sentinels in our midst. Underneath, thousands of golden brown leaves made a soft, but noisome carpet. It was a cold morning. The wind was ferocious, and a mix of rain and snow had been predicted. When we arrived, we quickly set about the task of building our little shelter as we watched a wall of gray clouds move in. Late fall was moving towards winter.


By this point, some of the children were bedded down on the crunchy layer of leaves, blankets and scarves improvised from anything at hand - hammocks, ponchos, extra clothes. Advah, who had recently been sick, was so thoroughly wrapped in a cocoon of leaves and blankets that her head, with its thick curly hair and wide, dark eyes, appeared as if sprouting up directly from the earth. Two of the children had carried a sizeable carpet of moss from the hillside, and some were simply splayed one way or another. Silke had three children in her lap.


I was encumbered only with the task of storytelling, and feeding the fire. We had just had lunch, roasting homemade bread over the fire with melted butter, and now it was time to rest. My hands worked constantly to keep the fire alive as I told the story. Our fire was small, and when the flame died down, smoke enveloped our little shelter, stinging our eyes and lungs. The children would shout, “White rabbit! White rabbit!” a folk remedy improvised by Silke to ward off the smoke and reduce the sting. The movement of my fingers, as I snapped twigs and arranged the fire, lent a certain aid to the story. “Tell us the one about the baker and the elf,” Griffin had shouted, to general approval. Just yesterday, I had told this story, and the children were in agreement that I should tell it again.


There was once an old baker who lived in a village. He was a very good baker, and all the people in the village loved his wonderful breads and muffins and cakes. Every morning he would bake bread, and you could smell it all over the neighborhood. It was one of the first things you noticed when you woke up. People would come in and buy the loaves of bread in the morning, and if children came on their way to school, he would often give them a roll or something to take with them. In the afternoon, he baked pies and cakes, and whenever people had a special occasion they would ask him to make something special for them. They would bring in fruit or nuts and honey, and they trusted him to make something of it.


“Is this the one about the elf?” asked Griffin, “Tell us the one about the elf.”


“Yes, this is the one about the elf,” I answered, snapping a twig into thirds and placing them on the fire. “But you’ll have to listen.”


So, one day, an old woman came to the baker with a large basket of plums from her tree. It was an old tree, and the plums were a dark purple and very sweet. “We are having a party,” said the old woman, “to celebrate our neighborhood. Please bake us a pie and I will pick it up tomorrow morning.” She knew that the baker would know what spices and things to add to make the pie delicious. The baker looked at the plums, which he could tell right away were sweet and delicious, and said, “Yes, I will bake you a pie. Come back in the morning and I will have it ready for you.” The woman said thank you, and left.


The baker took the basket of plums, which was quite large, and set it on the counter. He cut the plums up, took out their stones, and mixed them with just the right amount of spices to make them delicious. Then he added some walnuts. He put another piece of firewood in his oven, and went to his cupboard to get flour for the dough. He mixed the flour with butter, water and salt, and put the dough into a large pie dish. It was a very large dish, as it was a very large basket of plums. It was so large, that when he put the plum filling into the pie and placed another layer of dough on top, he could barely lift it. It was as wide as a man’s arms spread out, like this, but the baker was a strong man, because he kneaded dough and lifted bread in and out of the oven every day, so he could lift it. He put the pie in the oven, and then cleaned up his little shop and prepared things for the next morning.


“And then the elf ate it.”


“Not yet. The elf hadn’t gotten there yet.”


The pie took a long time to cook. By the time it was done, it was time for the baker to go to bed, and so he took it out of the oven, holding it tightly with both hands, and put it on the counter to cool. The smell of the pie filled the little shop. He took a deep sniff. “Mm,” said the baker, and he knew that it was a very special pie. “If only I could have a piece of that pie right now, mmh, I would… But no,” said the baker, “I won’t. It belongs to the old woman.” And with that, he walked up the stairs and went to bed.


Well, later that night a little elf came into the shop. He would often come when the baker was sleeping and eat the little crumbs and bits of things that were left over. The baker had never noticed, because the elf was, after all, so small, and he ate so little. And at that, he only ate the crumbs and leftover bits that no one wanted anyway. Well, the elf came in and immediately, sniff, mmh! He smelled the plum pie and it smelled so good he wanted to find out what it was. He looked on the table, and in the cupboard, and even walked inside the oven, which had cooled down by that point. Finally, he climbed up to the counter and found the pie.


Mmh! It smelled so good. “Gosh,” he thought, “maybe I could have just one tiny piece. After all, I’m so small and probably no one would notice. And it smells so good.” Now, normally, he would never eat something that was whole and fresh like this. He only ate the bits and crumbs that were leftover. But the pie smelled so good, and he could feel that it was still warm, and, well, he couldn’t help himself. “Just one tiny piece,” he thought. He grabbed hold of a piece of crust and yanked it out, and indeed it was quite small. But even still, it had soaked in a bit of the plum filling and when the elf took a bite it was so good. It was the best pie he had ever tasted. It was so good, in fact, that he thought, “Hm. Maybe just one more piece. After all, I’m so small, and the pie is so large. Probably no one will ever notice.” Well, after that piece, the elf had another piece. And then another. And then he had one more, and then a little bit more, and a bit more. Finally, after many little pieces, the elf was stuffed. He could not eat another bite.


“White rabbit! White rabbit!”


I had let the fire die down. The smoke was drifting into Advah’s eyes.


“White rabbit! White rabbit!” shouted Esperanza. The wind changed direction constantly.


I placed a few more twigs in the fire, and stirred the coals a little bit. I blew on the embers, smoke stinging my eyes. A small flame perked up, and then more. I placed a few more twigs on top, and suddenly the air was clear.


Okay, so the little elf was sitting there, his belly was round and he was sort of lazy from eating all that pie. Well, he looked at the pie and he could see there was a hole. It wasn’t very large, but still it was a hole. It looked like a mouse had been nibbling at it. Well, the elf felt a little bad about that, and now he was worried, because the baker would come down in the morning and notice the little hole and, the elf thought, the baker would be angry. Then, he had an idea.


He got a little bowl and went to the baker’s cupboard. He got a little flour and mixed it with water and butter and went to the oven. Even though the oven had cooled, so that the elf could walk inside without getting hurt, there were still some embers at the bottom, and he stirred them together and blew on them a little. Just like we’re doing here. He formed a little cap out of the dough, and set it there to bake. Then he went to get a sip of water, because his belly was so full of pie he needed something to drink.


Finally, the little cap was done. The elf took it from the oven and walked back to the counter where the pie was. He had to shape the cap to fit, knocking a bit off here and there, and finally got it to roughly the right size. But it stuck out a little. It wasn’t exactly the same shape as the hole, and it was a little different color. He held the little cap in his hands, thinking, when suddenly he heard, “thump, thump, thump.” He looked around, and then he heard it again, “thump, thump, thump.” He looked out the window, and he could see that it was just beginning to be daylight. “Thump, thump, thump.” The elf realized it was the baker coming down the stairs. “Thump, thump, thump.” He looked, and there was the baker’s foot. There were only two more stairs left. “Thump, thump.”


The baker stood in the room. The little elf didn’t know what to do. He was still holding the cap. He looked left. He looked right. He looked out the window, and down at the hole in the pie. Without thinking, he held the little cap over his head and jumped into the pie, fitting the little cap in place and leaving just enough room to breathe.


“Did the elf eat more pie?”


“No, he did not eat more pie, because he was too scared to even think.”


The baker walked into the room, and he could smell the delicious plum pie. He sniffed the air vigorously and was pleased with himself. He thought, “Hm. If I could have just one piece of this pie, I would be content, and it would be so delicious… But no. I must leave it for the old woman.” Instead, he washed his hands and stirred up the embers in the oven and put in a load of firewood. As he was walking to his cupboard to get the flour for the day’s bread, there was a knock at the door.


It was still very early, so the baker was surprised. When he opened the door, it was the old woman. “I’m sorry for arriving so early,” she said, “but our party is quite early and we have to walk back through the village. I was wondering if you were done with the pie.”


“Indeed,” said the baker, “can you not smell it?”


“I smell smoke.”


“Does it smell like plum pie?”




“Yeah, well…” I added some more twigs and blew on the embers.


The woman, sniff, sniff, put her nose to the air and said, “Ahhh… I can smell it, and it must be the most wonderful pie you’ve ever made.”


“It just may be,” said the baker. But I’m afraid you can’t take it, as the pie is so large that you will not be able to carry it.


“Yes,” said the woman, “that’s why I brought my two sons.” And indeed, there were her two sons directly behind her. The three walked into the baker’s shop and the delicious aroma of the pie was a delight to them all. Their mouths were watering. The pie was so large that it took both of the young men to carry it. They placed it on their shoulders, one on each side, and walked out the door with it. The woman thanked the baker for his work and paid him a generous fee. The baker was happy to take it, but a little sad to see the pie go, because he had not had a chance to taste it. “Oh well,” he thought, and went back to his cupboard to get flour for the morning’s bread.


The two sons and the old woman had to walk through the village to get to their neighborhood, and everyone in the streets smelled that wonderful pie and saw how large it was, that it took two grown men to carry it, and the old woman and her sons felt the stare of envious eyes. “Good morning,” the old woman said, “If you would like a piece of this pie, please come to our party and we will all share it.” After a while, quite a crowd was following that pie through the streets.


Well, the whole time, the little elf was still inside the pie. He was bouncing and sloshing around as the two brothers carried it on their shoulders. It was all he could do to hold onto the little cap and keep his head above the plum filling. He did not know where he was going, or what he was going to do. He was too frightened to think.


Finally, the old woman, her sons, and the crowd, made it to the neighborhood, where there was an even larger crowd gathered. Everyone saw the pie and made way so that it could be set down on the table in the middle of the gathering. It was still warm, and everyone could smell it. It smelled like the most delicious pie they had ever smelled, and they knew that the baker was a good man and made excellent pies, and that the plums were good plums on an old tree, so that everyone was anxious to have a bite.


The woman asked people of the neighborhood to bring plates and bowls so that there would be enough for everyone that had gathered. Many men and women went to their homes and brought back a stack of dishes, so that a large pile of dishes of every color and variety stood on the table next to the pie. The woman had a large carving knife, and before she cut the pie she said a little prayer of thanks.


“Thank you, everyone, for coming,” the old woman said. “We share this pie in gratitude for our neighborhood and all the people who live here. And for the village that supports us. We give thanks to the plum tree that grew these plums, and to the baker for making them into a pie. Thanks to the sun and the rain, and all the things that make our lives whole.”


“Could the elf hear her?”


“The elf heard every word, and even smiled.”


With that, the woman took up the carving knife and began to cut from the center of the pie. The elf was more frightened than ever. But he was surrounded by a crowd of people and didn’t know what to do. As the knife drew near, suddenly, he sang:


Lai la la lai - la la lai - la lai lai - I am alive…

Lai la la lai - la la lai - la lai lai - I am alive…

I’m alive…


Everyone looked around. They had heard this beautiful song, but they didn’t know who sang it, or where it had come from. They stared at each other with blank faces. No one knew. Finally, the old woman shrugged her shoulders and began to cut the pie again. And again, the little elf sang out:


Lai la la lai - la la lai - la lai lai - I am alive…

Lai la la lai - la la lai - la lai lai - I am alive…

I’m alive…


Again, the old woman stopped. And this time, as everyone was looking around in confusion, one of the sons noticed the little cap in the pie. It looked a little out of place, and was sort of a different color. He thought maybe he had seen it moving while the song was being sung. He placed his fingers on the little cap and pulled. Out came the elf, dangling in the air, holding onto the cap from underneath.


Everyone was surprised, for they had never seen an elf before, and now he was dangling from the pie crust, covered in sticky pie filling.


“Hello,” said the little elf. “I’m very sorry to have crashed your party. I visited the baker’s shop last night, just for some crumbs, but I couldn’t stop myself from eating a little bit of the pie. It smelled like the best pie I’d ever smelled. And I was so hungry. Please forgive me. I know it wasn’t the right thing to do, but…”


Everyone looked around, astonished. But they understood. It did smell like the best pie they had ever smelled, and didn’t they also want a piece? And, after all, it was only a small nibble the elf had made. Then the old woman said, “We will forgive you, if you would be so kind as to teach us your song. It is such a lovely song and we would like to know it.”


“Certainly,” said the elf, happy to be safe. The son who was holding the elf placed him on the table, and as he sang everyone listened.


Lai la la lai - la la lai - la lai lai - I am alive…

Lai la la lai - la la lai - la lai lai - I am alive…

Lai la la lai - la la lai - la lai lai - I am alive…

I’m alive…

And who…is this aliveness I am?

And who…is this aliveness I am?

And who…is this aliveness I am?

Is it not the holy blessed one?


Everyone enjoyed the song very much, and some of the people began to sing it quietly to themselves so as to remember it. “And now,” said the old woman, who had begun cutting the pie again and handing out pieces, “we will share a piece of pie with you, but perhaps you had better wash up first.” For the elf was still covered in sticky plum filling. “There is a water basin over there,” said the woman. The elf washed up, as pie was handed out to everyone who had gathered from the neighborhood and the village. And when the elf came back, he was given a piece even larger than he had eaten the night before.


“And that is the end of the story, for now…”


“Awww, tell another one.”


“No…” I answered, smiling patiently. It was time to start cleaning up to head back home. “Well, okay,” I said, “I’ll tell you one more thing the elf did. They asked him to do one more thing.”


The old woman had put a large slice of the pie into a bowl and asked the elf to carry it back to the baker’s, so that he too could have a piece. “I would,” said the elf, but I cannot carry it. It is too large.” There was an old man in the crowd, who was a sort of tinkerer, and he said he would help the elf. He had taken an old shoe and fashioned a small wheel at the front with two sturdy branches to make a wheelbarrow for his grandson to play with. But his grandson had grown up and no longer played with it. He ran home to get it and set the little wheelbarrow down in front of the elf. It fit perfectly in his hands. The old woman placed the slice of pie inside, and everyone waved goodbye as he set off down the road back to the baker’s.


“And that’s the end of the story, for real.”


“Aw, come on. One more story. Please! Please!”


“Okay children,” said Silke, “it’s time to start gathering our things and cleaning up. We need to head back home.”




We could hear the crunch of leaves as our legs and bodies shifted. “Thank you Papa Joe for sharing your story,” Silke said, “And thank you, children, for resting and listening.” Crouching and climbing out of our little lodge, we were immediately set to new tasks. Silke asked some of the children to gather the hammocks and blankets, others ran off to play on the rope swing. The clouds, which had been thick and gray when we entered the lodge, had broken, and there were patches of bright blue sky overhead. By the time I walked to the creek to fill up a jar of water to douse on the fire, the whole mood had changed. Children were running and laughing. The expediency of chores was at hand. Autumn, invited to wake up Little Bear, was laughing conspiratorially. Griffin, stuffing a hammock into its sack, was singing softly, "Lai la la lai..."



A Womb of Sound



This is the sound a child hears in her mother’s womb. It is the first sound, rising and falling in rhythm with her mother’s heart. The developing fetus is bathed in it, waves of sound coursing through her mother’s blood and organs, through the warm, amniotic fluid, crashing on the shores of sinew and bone. Kshshshshsh… It reaches the ear canal without ever once moving through air. There is a distinct crescendo as the heart beats, followed by a diminishing cascade. Kshsshsh… It falls nearly to silence. But never silence. Always the heart picks it up again, always the waves crash back in. Constant. Fluid. It is the primordial sound that belongs to every child. It belongs to you too.


Pema told me just two weeks ago that she no longer needs shushes. It was nine o’clock, bedtime, and we were snuggling. I was too tired to register much reaction, but deep inside I experienced that strange emptiness that comes with parenting. My daughter didn’t need me anymore. At least, she didn’t need my shushes.


When Pema was first born, there were few things I could directly do for her. I couldn’t feed her. I couldn’t hold her, not like mama. I couldn’t comfort her, at least not very well. I didn’t smell like mom. I smelled like an unfamiliar ape. Within minutes of holding her, Pema would be squirming for mama - tired, bedraggled mama. This was heart-breaking for me. I felt helpless, ignorant. I had spent my whole life mastering tasks and skills, and I wanted my daughter to instantly recognize how vital and important I was. She didn’t care at all.


The only thing my little child recognized was my voice. I could talk to her, soothe her. I could sing. And, I learned within that first week, I could shush. I read about it in an article titled The Five S’s, shorthand for: swaddle, side, swing, suck and shush. I tried all five, but shushing was the real magic. From the get go, I was determined to put Pema to sleep myself, so that we did not have to rely solely on mama. I would lay Pema on her side or her stomach, rock her from side to side, and shsshshshsh…


This is the sound of a river, as it drops over rocks and sticks and swirls through pools and crevasses. It is the sound of the wind through trees. It is the crunch of leaves, when strung together in one long stride. Kshkshkshksh… It is the sound we hear when we turn on a fan, or the faucet, or when a car speeds by in the distance. It is the sound of a field of grass. Put your ear to a clam shell and what do you hear? Kshshshshsh… the sound of the ocean.


At first, I had only a rudimentary understanding. I was pursing my lips in the way we might if mimicking a librarian or a teacher. It was as if I was giving a command, using the expression as a word. I puckered my mouth, clenched my teeth, and hissed. Be quiet! It was awkward, a little bit rude, and I resisted it.


But it worked. And in time, all that shushing had its effect on me too. I began to slow down and recognize myself. My tongue was softening. My mind was quieting. I was listening. I too was being soothed. Subtly, my intention transformed along with my listening, and with this simple sound I was able to communicate calm, safety and security to my sleepy child. It was as if the sound moved through me, relaxing my arms and tense nerves. Pema, wrapped in the warmth of this blanket of sound, fell asleep readily. Out and back in, waves of sound held us here, present, in love. It was magic.


I have always enjoyed sitting by a river, listening to the soft roar of turbulent water, even more so when I am anxious or frenetic. The sound fills my head. It literally occupies me, moving into my body. It’s as if my awareness is scrubbed clean by thousands of tiny grains of kshshshshshsh… A cosmic reset button. Afterward, as I walk away and the sound lifts from my awareness, I am almost always in a new place. Having traveled into the womb of sound, I am birthed back into the simplicity of sunlight and shadows, the bending leaves of grass.


Crunch, crunch, crunch. This is the sound of my feet walking on earth. The staccato rhythm mimics my heartbeat. There is a coming and going, a falling left and right, a percussiveness. But it is all the same sound. Krnchshshshsh… I drag my foot across the dirt and rocks. My mother’s heartbeat, alive.


I have been putting Pema to sleep with this sound for nearly five years now. It has poured over my palate and swirled inside my cheeks every day since she was born. I can spill it from the back of my throat, the sound of a comet in empty space. By slowly moving my tongue toward the roof of my mouth, bending the sides of my tongue flat, the pressure of the air, my breath, moves forward and the sound becomes atmosphere gliding through a rocky tunnel. Different locations in my mouth, the same sound, with unique voices. Pierced, held, at the tip of my tongue, just behind my teeth, it takes on the quality of a whistle, a high-pitched whine like the mysterious sound of idle electronics.


Fully exhaled, my lungs pull the sound back in with a slow rise of my diaphragm. I hold the sound at my teeth, then shape it with my lips into a widening curl. Ksshshshsh… The air, dropping like a wave, splashes and rolls in every direction, reverberating through my nasal cavity, off the pockets of my cheeks. Wide open lips, my throat feels cool as I inhale, “ahhhhhhhh…”


The sound is not one sound. It is a cacophony, a turbulence, a gray wash of noise. We sometimes call it white noise, but I think gray or brown is a better word. White light is pure and calm, undifferentiated. Kshshshsh… is the sound of broken glass, a thousand leaves rustling. It is millions of tiny everythings. When I pick up a handful of brown sand and hold it very, very close, it reveals a splendid diversity of texture and color. There are smooth shapes and jagged shapes, rose colors and greens, blue and black. White is color distilled, untainted. Brown is every color imaginable.


If I could listen to each tiny grain of sand, as it dropped from my hand to the earth, it would resonate with a note particular to its shape and size. Plunk, plink, plink. There is music in everything. Everything makes a sound. But if I pour the whole handful at one time, kshshshsh…, a great multiplicity of noise erupts, so complex, so chaotic, that my ears cannot distinguish the individual grains of noise. The crash of millions of sound waves. A motion of sound so complex that the individual tones disappear into the background. All I hear is the primordial hiss of the universe. Breath. Cosmic dust. The friction of air.


When we experience this at high volumes, it is terrifying. The sound of Niagara Falls. The eerie sound of a television tuned into nothing in particular. The background radiation of the universe. It is a great unknowing, awful in the original sense of the word: fearful, mighty wonder.


When Pema was about a year old, I began talking with other parents about shushing. “Of course!” they seemed to say, “everyone knows this.” That’s why it’s one of the Five S’s. I learned that I could buy a white noise machine, or get an app on my phone. In fact, lots of children’s toys came with some variety of this sound built into the light-up, push-and-pull action. “Right,” I thought, “duh.” I planned on getting something. I talked about it. For weeks and months, and perhaps even years, I thought about it. But for some reason I never did.


When Pema told me she no longer needed shushing to go to sleep, I felt a small pang of loss. But truth be told, I felt perfectly satisfied. This was something, after all, that had remained wordless between us since she was born. We referred to it as “shushing,” but we never really talked about it. There was no need to. So when Pema told me she didn’t need me to do it anymore, I instantly knew she was right. I didn’t even really respond, except to say, “okay.”


The pattern has been set. It was there long before I ever made a sound. It was there in Megan’s womb, when mama’s heart was bigger than the whole baby. Kshshsshshssh… It must have risen slowly, so subtle and ethereal, at first. Surely, there was no sound for Pema at the moment of conception. It must have taken months to develop all the inner ear bones and tympanic membranes, to test and execute the signals along her developing network of nerves, to organize and awaken the organs of sound in her brain. All those crossed signals, the tiny executions of molecules building blocks upon blocks upon blocks, fluid in the ear. Everything makes a noise. When did she first hear it? Did it come like a sudden switch, an instant recognition? Seems doubtful. It must have taken countless technicians to equalize all those different systems, the fits and starts, till she heard the regular rhythm of her mother’s heartbeat. Constant, unchanging.


I hope that Pema will remember me shushing her. She’s old enough now to have memories that will last into adulthood. I like to think that the sound will soothe her for the rest of her life, even if unconsciously. The static snap and pop of dry cottonwood leaves shaking in the sunlight. Kshsshshssh… I have already had future conversations with my adult daughter about it all. You, me, the mystery of it all. A cup of tea in a future house, at a future visit. Tears in my eyes.


“Pema,” I’ll say, only half-modestly, “the sound was yours well before you ever heard it from me. You listened to it twenty-four hours a day in your mother’s womb. But even before that, you were surrounded by it. It’s there every time the wind blows, every time you turn on the heat fan in your car. It’s the sound of the Rio Hondo plunging into the gorge. Everything. It is the most cosmic and awful, the most mundane. Rub your hands together. Your fingerprints scrape the sound off like flakes of dry skin. Touch the sand. Listen. The wind is blowing through the grass, singing you a song. It’s not me. It belongs to you.”


I’ll be lying through my teeth.


Broken Wagon

“The wagon broke?”


“Yes, Francis.”




Just two minutes ago we were happily caravanning down the long dirt road that leads to the Rio Grande. We were camels. Pema, Ruby and Francis were in the back, in the wagon. I was in front, but I wasn’t really pulling. My legs were backed up against the front of the wagon, trying to prevent us from careening down the final leg of our journey, a steep grade of road that leads directly to the river below. Pema and Ruby were sitting quietly, when Francis, who cannot tolerate a moment of silence, spontaneously burst out the first word of a favorite song, “Bismillah.” Thusly, in Arabic, he invoked God.


Spfff, the front end of the wagon hit the dirt. Pema and Ruby giggled. It quickly grew infectious. As I turned around and stared for a few dull seconds, all three giggled in that uncertain way that children do, no one really sure what they were laughing at, only laughing because someone else was laughing, and then laughing uproariously because it was funny to listen to each other laugh. Being a human is funny. Or a camel, for that matter. I chuckled.


The wheels were splayed helplessly on the ground. Our camel had broken a leg. Maybe two. Silence reigned again for a moment, till Francis, uncertain, struck up again, “Bismillah…”


I lifted the wagon to inspect the damage. The bar connecting the front wheels to the steering mechanism was completely sheared in half. The wagon was hopelessly broke. The mirage of our adventure slowly began to dissolve into reality. We were no longer camels. Now we were three children under the age of five and one adult, more than a mile from home, in the middle of a dirt road with a broken wagon.


We had been traveling for a couple hours, stopping to climb the waterfalls near the top of the canyon, to have a snack, or whatever occasion presented. Along the way, the kids had intermittently climbed in and out of the wagon, helping to push or simply walking alongside. Mostly they sat in the back, burrowed amongst our bags and buckets, a sacred space of wagon all to themselves. It was a mile and half to the river. We had the time.


“The wagon broke?”


“Yes, Francis.”




Good question. But first things first. “Alright,” I said, “everybody out. Let’s get off the road. You see that flat spot over there? Let’s walk over there and figure out what to do.” Dutifully, Pema, Francis and Ruby climbed over the side of the wagon and made their way, while I dragged it on its rear wheels. Pema and Ruby quickly climbed into a large juniper tree. As I inspected the wagon a little further, I saw Francis out of the corner of my eye, pants down, sort of squatting. “You peeing?” I asked. “I’m poopin’,” he said with a great volume of smile. Clearly we were doing okay.


The wagon is not a child’s plaything. With a steel mesh frame and sides, this wagon is designed for hauling wood and construction materials. It has four squat, pneumatic tires, which we had remembered to inflate before we left. Each of the kids got two pumps, and I finished. On prior occasions, I had loaded this wagon with firewood as high as I could stack it, leaning heavily forward just to get it to budge. It was Francis’ father who turned it into a joyride, giving the kids rides down the gravel driveway and back, past the horses, to the pond. I had been a wheelbarrow sort of father. But this was to be a major expedition, and the large, flat cargo area was an ideal space for the three kids, with plenty of room for our stuff. There was even room to jostle around a bit and jockey for position. Perfect.


It never even occurred to me that the wagon wouldn’t make it. But maybe that was wishful thinking. After all, one tire had made an uncomfortable snap as we filled it with air, a crack in the old rubber spreading from one tread to another. I pushed on it with my thumb. Ruby placed her hand over mine. “What do you think?” I asked. “Yeah, it’s fine,” she said, mimicking the casual certainty she’d heard from her parents and other adults countless times. It’s amazing what that sounded like to my ears - just enough of a cosmic “sure” to take things for granted, to assume the best. The tires were so thick it probably wouldn’t matter. Anyway, there were three others.


“The wagon broke?”


“Yes, Francis.”




Yeah. Why? Now safely on the side of the road, I was ready to talk shop. “Well, Francis, I guess you could say that we were too heavy.”




“Well, there’s a piece of metal that broke and, well, it just wasn’t strong enough to hold us.”




“Well, it wasn’t big enough.”




“Well, they didn’t make it that way.”




“Yeah. Good point.”




Francis is two and a half. He has reached that vocal stage where he basically can’t stop talking, or screaming or singing. It’s a bit of a challenge sometimes, especially to the girls, to whom Francis will walk up and scream, repeating, “Hi Pema,” or “Hi Ruby,” over and over within an inch of their face. He’s perfectly unaware that they dislike it.


Our trip today was largely meant to bond us as a group, something that’s needed. Francis is too young to really understand that other people have needs. He’s still in a place where the world, and its people, are a part of him - or something like that. He honestly just can’t discern that he’s bothering anyone. It’s not on his radar at all. So, you can’t exactly blame him.


Pema and Ruby, of course, are more aware. They often team up to purposefully exclude and provoke him. They make a game of rejecting him. They’re faster and bigger, and Francis can’t follow them. He’s constantly appealing to me, “Where they going?” He’s blissfully unaware - except that, chasing after them, he tries to be part of the game.


And then there’s sharing things, like the one and only tricycle. One way or another, the dynamic can easily degrade until someone, usually Francis, cannot prevent himself from pushing or pulling or hitting. The girls are more subtle. They understand this is not acceptable behavior. But they also know that, if Francis starts it, the rules are looser. Self-defense is sort of justifiable. They almost force him to hit them, and then, somewhat triumphantly, shove him to the ground.


We, the parents, find this relationship confounding. And it’s new to us. It’s easy enough to reprimand a clearly flagrant behavior, but our attempts are often hopelessly ineffective and don’t address the larger picture of what led up to the encounter. But how do you teach all this? How do you even observe it?


Part of the challenge is that Francis is new to our environment. Though Pema has long been friends with Francis, he has only recently become old enough to really engage with as an independent person. But more importantly, he is new to New Buffalo. New Buffalo is where we live, a community of about ten of us, where we live and share space. Ruby and her father live next door and are basically part of the community. She and Pema have been playing together many days a week since we moved here over a year ago. They’re very bonded. Francis’ parents are good friends of mine, but only a month ago did they move to New Buffalo. Now Francis is a regular playmate, and to Ruby and Pema it’s a sort of invasion of the sacred space that used to belong solely to them.


As the parent of an only child, the primary challenge for me has always been to provide meaningful activity and organization to our day. Now, suddenly, there is a sort of sibling relationship going on, and there are regular conflicts. This is very new to me, and to all of us as parents. All of us are parents of only children, and none of us have the time-honed skills of managing or redirecting the energy that sometimes erupts. That adds to the confusion, because not only are the three kids trying to figure things out, so are the three sets of parents.


On the suggestion of Silke, my mentor, I had embarked on the day’s journey as the sole caregiver. “There should be one person in charge,” was her advice, and I aimed to test that out. We had five hours, more if we needed it. There was nothing to do and plenty of time. We could easily work through conflict if and when it arose. I was quite prepared to focalize us if that was needed. Being outside on a journey, I had hoped, would be an aide. Plus, we had a wagon. There’s just something about a wagon.


“The wagon broke?”


“Yes, Francis.”




Pema and Ruby were still in the tree. I got out some snacks while Francis and I repeated our interview. Fact is, the trip had been stellar so far. We hadn’t had one conflict the whole time. It was, as I had hoped, so fun that the general atmosphere had been light and inclusive. We were a tightly knit group of travelers, bonded by our common adventure. This was exactly what we needed, particularly Ruby and Francis, so that they could begin to bond in positive ways.


Having decided the wagon was kaput, I decided to stash it behind the juniper tree Pema and Ruby had climbed. If you leave things on the side of the road in New Mexico, people take them. It’s not really stealing. I do it too. People just assume if something is left on the side of the road it’s up for grabs. It usually is. Besides, the wagon now looked like a piece of junk, another common roadside attraction. So, I had to hide it. Turns out, I should have done a better job, but I had a lot on my mind. We had about a half mile to the river, or a mile back home. The river was downhill, but home was up.


As I was lifting the wagon behind the tree, I heard Ruby say, “Not like that Francis.” I turned to look. Ruby took the water bottle from Francis, and, to my surprise, managed to get the screwcap off. She handed it back to Francis, who took a big gulp and coughed. He smiled. Ruby took the bottle from him and set it down in the sand, and then took Francis by the hand and helped him climb just a step or two into the tree. Pema sat on a limb high above, singing softly.


It was about eleven o’clock in the morning.


“Okay guys,” I said, nudging the wagon to its final position. I put the question to them, “Should we go to the river, or head back home?”



Eight hours later, I was sitting in my room on my computer. Ruby had gone home hours ago, and Pema was with Francis and his father. I was trying to get a couple hours of work done, when Kerim, an aging hippie of Turkish and Cuban descent, with long white hair and several missing teeth, burst loudly into the sunroom outside my bedroom door. He’s my neighbor, and we share this wing with a young woman of mild demeanor. She and Kerim are best of friends.


“Well Joe, we got the wagon,” Kerim shouted. There was adventure in his voice. He had been driving his red pickup. “Some guys had it in their truck, but we chased ‘em all the way to the highway.” He was shouting, laughing. He loves this kind of thing. “Me, Pema, Francis and his Pop. They were gonna take it. You should’a stashed that thing behind some bushes.” He was high from the excitement.


“I did. Shit, I’m sorry dude,” I said, “I hid it the best I could behind that juniper.” I felt bad, and it came out as excuses. “Sorry you had to do that.”


“Nothing to be sorry about,” Kerim smiled, “I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t want to. But if we had been just two minutes later we would’a lost it.” He smiled his toothy grin, revealing the gaps between. He loves being the ragamuffin.


Later, Francis’ father recounted the story. “We got there just as it was getting dark. A truck was pulling away as we drove up. I got out and looked around but couldn’t find it. I yelled to Kerim, ‘follow that truck.’” He was laughing. “Kerim just took off. I held the kids in both arms.” I’ve driven with Kerim before. I had a sense of how that went.

Jewel in the Creek

It was there, in the creek. We had been walking through the forest, along the path of an ambling creek, down hills and over roots, sidestepping rocks and circling round old tree trunks. There were seven of us, two adults and five children (ages three to six). Each of us had a hand on a long strip of rope that we variously used as a swing, a jump rope, or a snake. Now we were a dragon, trailing through the forest, visiting the trees and leaves and bending our awkward bodies into their shapes. And then there it was, as if it had always been there, the jewel in the creek.


“Tell me children,” said Silke, “how does the water flow in the creek?” Various shouts and responses. None of them were paying much attention. No matter. “Do you see, children? Take a look.”


The creek was small, even by New Mexico standards. In most places a young adult could easily cross it with a nimble hop. The flow, at this time of year, was little more than a trickle. But a torrent of old trees and branches and rocks crisscrossed its path, creating a series of pools and roundabouts and cascades that made for joyful variety, and sound.


Here, where we had stopped, the water tumbled out of a thicket of small branches, over the course of a large stone, and into a small circular pool not more than three wide. It created a most delicious trickling sound. At the far end, amidst another thicket of branches, the water seeped out almost unnoticeably. It has probably been like that for years, or at least since last spring when the snow-melt brought a refreshing plunge of water through the creek, breaking the old dams and re-pitching the limbs and branches for another season.


The magic of this pool was that the water, trickling in from above, created a gentle circular motion, a gyre, that was breathtaking. On most occasions, one would not have had the opportunity to notice it, but it being fall, the pool was now littered with leaves - roseate, yellow and cream-brown. Subtle varieties of color and shape. They turned slowly in the pool, as if clockwork, each leaf distinct, moving in unison. Smooth, laminar flow.


It would go on like this, it was evident, until something disturbed this near miracle of balance. It would turn effortlessly into the night, the next day, perhaps into the new year. Until, that is, someone steps timidly on the thicket of branches, or a mother deer, stealing silently through the night, dislodges a stone with her hoof. It might just take one leaf after another, tumbling down from the branches above till the surface is crowded in a thick, wet mosaic of color. Maybe it will stop.


But not today. Today, the gyre was a jewel of a thing to watch, a perfect harmony of color and motion, slowly turning each leaf yellow, cinnamon and strawberry blonde. In front and back, above and below, and in every direction this clockwork jewel was surrounded by the multitude and crisscrossing layers of wilderness and humanity. The branches and microbes and mosses, the discarded cups and shiny foil of candy bar wrappers. The glossy green glass of beer bottles mixing into the soft, muted greens of the junipers and sage. A thick bed of pine needles was underfoot, and the discarded leaves of a thousand generations of summers and winters. It was all here, circling this jewel, the wind and the clouds, the voices of birds, and us.


Of course, the children had little patience for this sort of idle romancing. The language of the forest speaks differently to them. One word is enough. Breaking my reverie, one of the boys, Griffin, spurt further down the trail with telltale clomps of his feet. A wild horse, that one. He stopped after a short distance. “A fish! A fish!” he shouted, and of course we followed.


Fish, king of the mythical water underworld, the sort of beast that is always presumed, nearly sighted, often hidden - pretended, magical, gross and sublime. And real. There we stood, next to a much larger pool of water, all seven of us eagerly searching…and then there it was, quick as a black flash, a fish as large as my hand. We had all seen it, clear as day, darting from one dark corner to the next. There was no need for posturing, or doubt. The look of joy on each child’s face, and on my face, was immeasurable. We turned, each of us looking into each other’s eyes as if to nod our assent. It was real.


We spent the next half hour - a half hour! - sitting on the bank of that creek, anticipating the fish’s next move.


“Over there!” one of the children would shout.


“No, that’s just a shadow.”


“No, it’s a rock!”


“I’m going to stab it with my stick.”


“Come here, fishy fishy fish.”


Now the posturing began. The pool was quite large, large enough for an adult to take a plunge and even kick and spread one’s arms. On the upstream side was a massive collection of old tree trunks with branches and roots dangling into the water, creating a large shelf of impenetrable density under which a shadow realm of fish and possibility thrived.


Perched along the bank, each of us had taken up our positions, some sitting idly near the top, others hanging precipitously over the edge. Several had sticks, or were floating boats of leaves or bark. There was a sense of anticipation, and also that timeless eternity of perfection. There was nothing to do but wait and listen to each others waiting.


“There it is!” Griffin shouted, always eager. His eyes are keen, and his movements are quick and nimble. He turned and looked at me, eye to eye, as if to prove he saw the fish. He pointed vigorously with his hand, and pierced each of us in turn with his glance. If I believed him, if we believed him, would it be fair to say that he had seen the fish? I wore an expression of doubt. But who’s to say?


Griffin anticipates and overshoots reality vigorously, so that it’s hard to take him at face value sometimes. But there’s no question that he is almost always the first to sight something, to reach something, to climb up, to discover. He is the proverbial handful, but I have fallen in love with his indefatigable and fierce curiosity. He tests everything for himself, doubts everything I say, pushes every limit. And yet, he does it all within a container of respect. He is, socially, one of the most graceful and inclusive of all the children, favoring no one in particular and excluding no one else. He is wild and passionate, and to my tastes, quite alive.


He’s also exhausting. While Griffin was shouting and posturing with the other children to establish the truth of “seeing” the fish, a process involving lots of shouting, turns and twists and flung arms, I observed a calm, undulating movement seep between the slats of sunlight and the dappled curtain of roots over the water. The fish. Unmistakable.


“Shhh…look,” I said, trying to calm the energy down. “Do you see? There. Under the roots. Moving slowly. It’s headed for the shadows.” My hands and the motions of my body imitated the calm manner of the fish, unconsciously at first - the perspective, perhaps, with which we might see it. But the current of voices was too much. Observation, this time, required the patient patterning of black on black, movement, slow and steady.


We were a gaggle of noise. Apes, after all. And the fish swam through us, as through the shadows, as if we weren’t there at all.


Cottonwood Leaves

In the spring, Pema and I watched the large cottonwood tree outside our home shed tiny green buds all over the ground. Rather, we felt it. The branches, knocking and clicking above us whenever the wind blew, towered over the sandbox, and strong gusts brought showers of the little green buds onto our heads and shoulders and backs. We crouched over our creations, holding the little buds in our hands, dragging them in spirals through the sand, and burying them in piles.


Pema calls them pepitas, pumpkin seeds, because they resemble the familiar teardrop-shaped seeds that grow inside pumpkins and other winter squash. They also come in fifty pound bags from the wholesaler, a cheap alternative to nuts. The ground was littered with them. A bit more slender than pepitas, they have the same teardrop shape - one end is rounded, while the other is pointy. A little tip of orange sap usually adheres to the pointy end, hardly larger than a grain of sand. We collected them and added to our various piles of colors and objects and whatever might be useful. Sometimes they were goats, eating grass and drinking water at our corrals. Crushing them open revealed a sweet, earthy fragrance, reminiscent of chamomile, that would linger on our fingertips for hours.


Now it is autumn, and when Pema, Francis and I walked out to the sandbox yesterday, we found it covered in a carpet of leaves of astonishing color and variety. This was new. Only a day or two ago there was but a mere sprinkling of leaves, most of them supple enough I could still bend them in my hand without that telltale snap. Now, as we approached our destination, our feet kicked up that invigorating autumnal sound and we realized at once that we had stumbled into a treasure.


Cottonwood leaves are heart-shaped, with crenulated edges that curve in patterns reminiscent of the course of rivers, or the movement of snakes. Turning gold in the fall, the trees, a cousin of aspens, are radiant and noisy, showering leaves like gold dust whenever a good breeze picks up. One of the largest trees in New Mexico, their trunks can easily grow five feet thick, sprout several huge branches, and an enormous umbrella of foliage. Ours was rather more modest, but plenty large enough for three on a Saturday evening.


The three of us had walked over to the sandbox with nothing more in mind than the typical filling of containers, the dragging of sticks, and with the thought, perhaps, of recovering Francis’s wheelbarrow. Parked on the overlook down to the horse fields, it too was covered in leaves, as were all of our cups and buckets - everything mysteriously covered and clean, as in the first snow of winter. Perked up by the sights and sounds, we immediately grew excited. The snap-crunch of the leaves was like static electricity, quickening our pulse. Our bodies began to dance in grand, sweeping motions. What had begun as a half-hearted tour became, instantly, a passionate encounter with place.


I picked up a large pile of leaves and threw them into the air, the golden leaves raining down over us. “Again,” squealed Francis, with that exuberant smile of his. “Yeah, yeah, again!” agreed Pema, twirling. As I threw more piles over us, I seeped into the landscape. I had been a little bored and frustrated when we walked out the door, but now we were effortlessly present. After all, the mountains, the five o’clock sun, the blue sky overhead. I was immediately entranced. “Let’s get a rake,” I said.


I ran to the shed. Two large rakes, but nothing a child could use. Oh well. I grabbed both, one with a wooden handle, warm, and one with metal, cold, both opening out into a big plastic fan. I closed the door and ran back as quickly as I could. “Okay, okay,” I said, dropping the rake with the metal handle. “Give me some room so I can rake these all up…and we’ll…you know…Francis, can you move the wheelbarrow?...Yeah…Pema…what’s that?...Hey, if you find big sticks, just pull them out. So we don’t fall in them.” I couldn’t stop talking. I was too excited. I was kind of singing the words to myself, and out loud, dancing through the crunchy music of the rake in the leaves. Crackle, crunch, roll, dance, step, shuffle, groove.


We had a big pile within minutes. The leaves, gold and green and brown, were like crunchy manna from heaven. It was approaching sunset. “Oh my goodness, oh my goodness,” I kept singing, “this is so right and good!” I could smell the crackling leaves, their sweet and almost fruity aromas, with just a touch of the decay and ferment of fall. “Do you smell that?” I asked, more to myself than either to Francis or Pema, “Smells like pepitas…or…or…fresh baked bread!”


Smells have a way of enfolding and unraveling memory. I was back in spring with Pema, hands in the earth, pepitas driven like goats to the food bins, crushed in cold hands and erupting with plumes of fragrance. But I was also back home in Ohio, on Altamont Street, with Pete. We were in the backyard with Dad’s old metal rake, the tines screeching as we dragged it under the huge mulberry tree that was the deciding presence of our backyard. Pieces and stems of damp leaves had worked under our collars, into our hair, and behind our ears, and now we were regathering the leaves for another run at it. And there I was, under the embrace of that tree, of childhood, of Pete. Damn, Pete. Where’d you go? Where’d I go? New Mexico is so lovely. Here, Pema, Francis and I have acres of backyard and wilderness to explore right out our front door. It extends for miles, Pete, hundreds of miles in every direction. I opened my arms as if to show him. But Pete…ah well. I turned back to my rake.


Pema and Francis were in the pile now, leaves skirting up past their waists. Francis was giggling. Pema was singing. I threw up a huge swath of leaves with my rake and let them dazzle and fall and bury them. They laughed and kicked their legs. Pema ran out, still singing, twirling, and jumped, full-bodied, into the discarded chattel of this old tree. One tree. I buried Francis up to his head, giggling and joyful. “Again, again,” he repeated.


We were present with each other, but we were also present in ourselves. Pema would get out of the pile, dance around for a minute, and jump back in. Francis would shuffle around and laugh, then laugh even more when Pema landed back in the pile. I smiled and stretched my container for joy a little further, adding another layer of memory to timelessness.


I suppose I can’t exactly speak for Pema and Francis, who, after all, were laying down only one of the first layers of memory, tamping it effortlessly in place with the smells and sounds, the wash of excitement. The sun had not yet hit the rose-colored hues of evening. It painted the landscape for them in the clear yellow translucence of full day. My heart went out, into the future - Pema, decades from now, shuffling under the boughs of a cottonwood, through a river of yellow, brown, and green leaves, shaking up that familiar sound. She reaches over, picks up a handful of the dry, crackling leaves and holds them to her face. The smell of pepitas. Goats in the shed. Or maybe Francis, on a hillside somewhere with a lover, silently admiring the way the leaves shucked off a large patch of wildflowers in streams of reds and purples and browns. The way they fill the contours and crevasses of the earth, revealing the topography and landscape of memory.

Bull Snake

We met a snake on Thursday. It was me, Pema, Ada and Francis. I’m thirty-six years old. Pema is four and a half, Ada is three and half, and Francis is two. I don’t know how old the snake is, but it was big. “I would guess one hundred,” Ada said with her typical giant mouth smile. “One hundred what?” I asked. Laughter. “Silly Joe Joe.”


It was a bull snake, sometimes called a gopher snake or rat snake. It’s harmless, but beautiful. Black and gold patterns all along its sinuous back. One giant articulation of muscle. We had just returned from an outing with Silke and her forest kindergarten - Pema, Ada and me. Francis caught a glimpse of us as we walked past the kitchen, excited, as usual, to see us. The girls and I headed round the outside, while Francis shouted to his mother that we were home.


As we turned another corner, headed toward the mud pit, we crossed a small landing of brick pavers next to the western sun room. Pema and Ada walked right past the snake, lost in each other. I might have walked past too, but my peripheral vision brought my attention to something out of place. “Holy shit!” I might have said. But I probably didn’t. Instead I yelled for the girls, “Pema! Ada! Come here! Pema, Pema! Ada! Right now. Come here, come here! Look at this snake!” I was determined to win their attention.


“Look, look,” I said, when they had both returned. The snake, pinned against the corner of the wall, was about three and a half feet long, as thick as a banana. Immediately, the girls went into a squat position and got close. I hovered behind. Black and gold ran along the snake's back, surrounded by the red brick floor and earthy brown stucco wall. Its tongue flicked, and I guessed it was a little frightened. I was surprised not to see it dart away, but it may have felt trapped. There was no immediate thicket of grass or shrubs to shrink into. It was perfectly exposed, and that’s largely why we found it so fascinating. In the near distance I saw our two male turkeys, taking notice of the commotion. Every business is their business. That snake is coiling with fear, I thought. Its black, forked tongue flicked out every half second, but its body still sat largely unmoved.


“Can we touch it?” Pema asked. “Yeah, gently,” I said, “but be nice to it.” Both girls rubbed along its scales with one finger. Slight, cautious adjustments cascaded through the snake’s spine, ever so slight. It continued to stay rather still. The turkeys were approaching, but hadn’t yet begun their odd guttural noises and quick steps that betray excitement and bravado. The girls seemed to have had enough, so we headed back for the mud pit. “Good,” I thought, “before the turkeys get involved.”


At the mud pit, we met Francis. I told him about the snake and invited him to follow me. He and I went back around the corner to the brick landing, and the girls followed. Now all three crouched down, within two feet of the snake and its constantly flicking tongue. The turkeys still held their distance. Slow, incremental movements were visible along the snake’s spine. But it wasn’t going anywhere.


“Touch it. Touch it,” Pema said, emboldened by her new role as elder, “You can touch it Francis,” She held out her hand to show him, giving the snake a more casual, and gruff, caress. Ada poked the snake again, also emboldened. All along its spine the snake began to move more forcefully, holding its muscles tighter, but still it kept its ground. It wasn't moving, as in traveling. It was adjusting, compressing, crouching. Smelling. The long thin line of its body was now in modest curves. Francis had had enough and ran off. Pema, now almost reckless, poked the snake once or twice more, as if it were a stick or plaything. Suddenly, the tip of the snake’s tail began to vibrate very fast, raising a scuffling sound as it rattled against a dry leaf. It was nervous, no question. Okay, I thought, time to get out of here and let it find its way to safety.


But by now, it was as if the muscles in the snake were all waking, tensing, aligning for some grand purpose, and I could see the power of its singular musculature. I am, after all, quite aware of my own. "This animal," I thought, "is coming alive. Its relaxed tension is coming to full poise." Pema gave one last good poke, and the snake, which had already twisted into a coursing-river shape, became enraged, not only with the full power of its muscles, no doubt, but the same sort of chemical wash that occurs in my own body as I get tense or fearful or manic. Its head reared up off the ground, its whole body contracting with a muscular power that only seconds ago was hidden in torpor. Its entire body length flexed, its tail vibrating frenetically, and two massive coils of switchbacks in its neck allowed this previously docile animal to raise its head a foot or more off the ground. It faced off squarely at us, and emitted a “hesshsshsshsshssh” that shocked me.


I was stunned. I had never seen a snake do this. Not in real life. Pema and Ada were obviously both stunned too. They had stood up, thank goodness, but were still watching as if hypnotized - their faces only a foot or two from the snake’s hissing mouth. The sound reverberated in our ears, nothing like the Sss-sound most of us learn to associate with snakes. The power of hundreds of coiling muscles squeezed every ounce of fluid air out of that snake’s body and hurled it at us - hhhheehhhh - from the depths of its throat. My sympathetic neurons fired. I could feel the air coiling through my own throat and escaping with the rough scratch of an H with clenched teeth. That was the feeling. That was the sound.


I came to my senses. “Pema! Ada! Move! Move! Go! Get away! Right now! Right now!” I knew the snake wasn’t poisonous, but it appeared as if it might lunge at any second. A bite was still surely painful, and I feared it would be a traumatic event. Things so rarely rear up and bite us. And I still had compassion for the snake, who after all was just trying to keep safe. It’s one thing to observe these beautiful creatures. Another thing to scare them out of their minds.


The girls finally tore off in a fearful mix of hilarity and screams, around the corner, another corner, to the mud pit, past the apricot tree, and spilled through the kitchen door, spewing screams and half-cocked phrases like addled birds to the adults inside. As they did, I backed away and walked after them, the chemical tension in my lungs and muscles relaxing into full-grown laughter.


All this happened within seconds.


Into the Wild

I owe some gratitude. My life has exploded in remarkable beauty, shocks of unique colors, and varied directions. Quite recently I’ve discovered yet another, one I would never have predicted even a year or two ago. I cannot discover why I have such good fortune. Listen to this.


I have been joining Silke’s forest kindergarten casually for a few weeks now. Silke is a remarkable person with vast life skills, and unquestionable expertise in child development and education. She is one of those inspiring people whose training and vocation is well-aligned to her natural proclivities, a joy to observe. I share many of her proclivities, but I have none of the experience and training. It has been a blessing to “work” with her, which is to say - play with children and laugh. That is our work.


Last night, Silke and I talked a bit more formally. We both acknowledged that our collaboration was useful and fruitful. I have now committed to joining her twice a week, on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and taking on a bit more responsibility. Ostensibly, she gets another adult, a sort of assistant, while I get to study her techniques and pedagogical background. Truly fascinating stuff for me.


For most of my young adult years, I had little to do with children. As a male, and the youngest in my family, that was the norm. Our culture is organized within peer groups, not cross-generationally. Though I had the great fortune to belong to a large, loving extended family, the conventional upbringing I received convinced me that I did not “have a way” with children. I was wrong.


It took having a child to teach me not only how to engage with children, but that I love it. It’s no secret that Pema is the joy of my life. But managing a gaggle of children has taken some real effort on my part. There were times when I had to take some risks, pushing in and out of my comfort zones.


When Pema was about two and a half years old, I recognized that she needed regular activity with other children. Prior to that, it had seemed perfectly natural for her to be with mom and dad most of the time. Her need for social engagement with other children was an interesting parenting challenge, because I could not directly meet it. But I wasn't going to pay someone to care for my child. And I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to figure it out for myself.


At first, of course, I was uncomfortable. But I made a real decision, a real commitment, to develop the skill of managing and orchestrating two, sometimes three, children under my care. I wanted to be an integral part of Pema’s development. I never considered handing her over to others, even avowed experts. I knew that raising children was my own development, my growing edge, and I was not willing to sacrifice that. I owe great gratitude particularly to Kara and Ada, with whom I was able to experiment with early on. Now we’re like old friends, but at first I was just pushing myself to do it. I was uncomfortable, unsure of myself, and I made mistakes. Eventually, I figured out what worked and what didn't. I got somewhat good at it. More importantly, I got comfortable. I enjoyed it.


I began to actively seek out other children, and particularly to have sole responsibility for them - so that I could train myself to do it. It sounds absurd saying it like this, something that is so natural, but it really took focused effort on my part, pushing through discomfort, learning from mistakes, etc. What I also discovered in the process is that I don’t really enjoy hanging out with children AND parents. Today, I still have little interest in getting together with other parents. Adults tend to find each other, and talk to each other. Me too. I find this dull and predictable. Worse, when mom or dad is around, other children have a hard time entering a direct relationship with me. All perfectly understandable. I’m not suggesting that I’m the center of attention. Simply that, to master childcare, I have to be attuned to the children, not adults. I need to develop a direct relationship, and that means I need to earn it.


This is sometimes an awkward place for me, because of course there are children’s parties and get-togethers all the time with other parents. I have no interest in such things. What I want is to be with a group of two to five kids, particularly if we’re outside and have no toys - so that we have to discover ourselves and our world. My typical compromise on toys is a set of plastic containers, which inevitably are filled with water, mud, grass clippings, sticks and flowers in various assortments of pies and cakes and salt and soup and kowatowa nonsense. All great stuff.


Back to Silke. Silke is a German woman. In the states she is known as a Waldorf teacher, but what I learned last night is that her training and background really relate to her development within the German school system, and her own proclivities of course. It was in America that she aligned with Waldorf education, because it best expresses her personal inspiration. It’s the way we (Americans) best understand her. Of course, I’m condensing things a bit. Within an hour, she was able to elucidate a background of pedagogy and cultural history, including an offhand, but nevertheless captivating, retelling of the story of Red Riding Hood, that had my neurons firing in that delightful fractal pattern of connection that makes the whole world stand still and resonate with completion. Ah ha. Here it was. The sun was setting. We were enjoying some lentil soup, homemade bread, and goat cheese from Saul, Ruby’s father, a friend next door.


I had observed Silke’s simple way with children, seemingly so easy and basic, and now she was giving me a glimpse of the encyclopedic background of knowledge and pedagogy that were so familiar to her that they were at her fingertips in every movement of her body and song. Truly remarkable. The sort of mastery that makes ornate manipulations of great success look like simplicity, like a master potter. Or the wisdom sayings of the Tao Te Ching. I get it. At least, I sort of do.


Here I am, resonating with all of Silke’s description of childhood development, recognizing the patterns I’ve observed in myself, and immediately grasping the significance it has for me, my loved ones, our culture, and the world at large. All vital things. All things I dwell upon when I read about archeology or military indoctrination, when I watch a dragonfly flit along the edge of a small pond, or when I recognize Pema correcting my errors. The whole world is a magnificent ball of reality. This, in fact, why I don’t really truck in magic and miracles, clear descriptions of god or spirit, crystals, unicorns, fairies, or right or wrong for that matter. The earth is manifestly real and I can touch it with my hands and mind. Its plain old boring and magnificent just as it is, like the feeling of sand in my toes.


Here’s the rub - I now get to work with Silke twice a week. Every Wednesday and Thursday I am going to bring Pema and another child or so, to join Silke’s kindergarten. The whole design of her school is to be outdoors. Not outdoor moments or trips, not learning adventures - an entire school that is outside. There is no building at all. In exchange for a modest amount of help, I have the opportunity to take my education in this realm to a whole new level. More, I have the opportunity to work with children, particularly Silke’s children - five young ones who don’t really know me from Adam. Children can be tough to crack. They do not just give their affection and respect to you simply because you’re there. You have to earn it.


Can you see how delicious this is? How else could I gain this opportunity to discover myself, to discover these beings, to discover the way that we operate as humans in the world? How else could I do it in the majesty of cottonwoods along the Rio Grande and in the pools of our imagination? How else could I do it under the tutelage of a master whose guidance isn’t dominated by instruction and words, but by subtle motions of song and hand. Now that is a gift.


I wish to say one other thing. I recognize that this opportunity, and others like it, is blossoming in my life because of a choice I made about one and a half years ago. There are a few related facets to this choice, all of which are the same thing. One way to say it is that I am not going to focus on earning money. I don’t shun it - I love money! - but I’m not going to make decisions based on obtaining it. Another way to say it is that I am choosing time over money. I think it’s fair to say that my time is worth something in the range of $100/hr, possibly more. Actually a lot, lot more. This makes it very easy for me to avoid work, because the natural equation is almost always in favor of keeping my time to myself. Or, I might say, keeping my time for the education and fulfillment of the life that surrounds me.


An important corollary of this choice is that I made the clear commitment that when I’m with Pema (3 1/2 days a week) I am exclusively with her. We have to make food and wash clothes and blah, blah, but I am not going to work. I’m not going to allow a divided attention. I give myself freely and wholly to her, to us, to life. This itself is a great luxury and a gift. It is this choice, this background intention, that has allowed this opportunity with Silke to blossom in my life, for surely I would not have entered such a commitment if I was concerned with how it would bring money into my life.


One last thing. I wish to acknowledge the gift of Megan in my life. I have not spoken of her much in this tale, but surely she has everything to do with it - not just as Pema’s mother and my greatest friend, but because so much of the way I live, so much of what I understand life and relationship to be, comes from her, from my tangled frustrations and great joys with her. Megan - you are a remarkable creature, and I promise I will never let you forget this.


And now, if you’re still reading this, imagine - you. How can I snip the ends of this tale and pretend it has a beginning and an end? It doesn’t. Isn’t it obvious that I’m in debt to everyone? Isn’t it obvious that everything I’m describing and acknowledging began with my mom and dad? A small nomadic tribe of people on the plains of Africa? With the early bacteria that exhaled atmosphere into the planet? With the way the earth swings around the sun and the way atoms bond together and swallows dive off telephone poles? Isn’t in inherent in the way that words fit together to form meaning? And misinterpretation? Each other and ourselves, making war and mistakes? And love? Isn’t the creation of everything, and its concomitant destruction, actually what I’m speaking about? Isn’t it all happening right now? There’s violence in the world right now, and great joy. And why, then, why am I saying this? Why am I doing anything at all?


Because it tastes so good. Because grit was meant to be washed across the surface of my palm. Because plums sometimes still dangle, frozen in mid-November, from bare trees that have no leaves. What a miracle! Look around, it’s happening right now. Don’t tell anyone. Quiet. Now, to life!