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Nonfiction

On Self-Rescue

This past summer, I didn’t run the Upper Green, the Chattooga, or any of my favorite whitewater rivers, because my kayak skirt no longer fits around my pregnant belly. That’s what I say to my boating friends when they invite me on trips. But the truth is I haven’t been on rivers since before my body showed its tenant. I’ve been scared.

Summoning the Ghost Bear

Reports of a large, gray grizzly gathered thick as mist in the North Cascades of Washington State in the 1940s. A hunter after deer near White Chuck Cinder Cone glimpsed a silvery mother and cub. Near Fire Mountain, not far from the town of Darrington, a grizzly with long gray fur and two cubs ran at a man on the trail. She chased him up a tree, raking through his boot to his foot with roughly three-inch claws. After an hour and a half in the branches, he was rescued, carried out on a horse. Roughly a year later, the bear—or a similar one with gray fur that fluttered “like a flying squirrel,” an observer reported—charged at a family of six who were admiring the view from Fire Mountain. The husband shot the bear, who stopped, veered off toward Fire Creek, and then disappeared.

At the time, grizzlies like these were common enough that no one was surprised, but rare enough to make the newspapers. Their longtime presence in this sodden landscape along the Canadian border—characterized by sharp peaks, silver fir forests, and riotous rivers draining them—was memorialized in hunting accounts of the Salish peoples and, later, fur trading records of the Hudson Bay Company. Accounts of bears from white settlers moving in and claiming land during the late nineteenth century carried a whiff of the fable and violence of Davy Crockett tall tales. In 1888, one grizzly was shot with seven bullets, finally dying just a few moments before reaching the hunter. In 1924, an animal referred to as “a monster grizzly bear, whose footprints are as large as an ordinary hat” plundered campsites for bacon. They ravaged sheep, killed cows, and, wounded, left long, bloody trails into the bushes.

Delights

The Jenky Yesterday I was working in the yard, getting it into some kind of order (order a very loose usage in this case), and I noticed the goumi bush, with its thousands of unripe speckled berries, crowding the blueberry…

Legs

Indeed he seemed to approach the grave as a hyperbolic curve approaches a straight line—less directly as he got nearer, till it was doubtful he would ever reach it at all.
—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

 

My father had been dead about ten months when, in fall 2012, I called his prosthetics company and explained that I wanted to donate his legs to an organization that could reuse them. The lady on the phone was flummoxed. Maybe I could try a church, or the Veteran’s Administration? The VA receptionist put me on hold. The song: “Another One Bites the Dust.” I was hoping the next one would be “She’s Got Legs” when the receptionist came back on and gave me a number for the donations department. I hung up and called the new number, but they couldn’t help either.

Had I not inherited from my mother a strain of doggedness that regards frustration as fuel and obstacles as things to be smashed, I might have chucked the legs in the trash. Instead, I searched online and found Physicians for Peace, a group that accepts donated prostheses—which cannot be reused in the litigious United States—and sends them to medical missions in third-world countries. I emailed their gifts-in-kind manager, who invited me to call him.

And then, just as I was on the cusp of success, my fervor to be rid of the legs died. The email settled to the bottom of my inbox, and I put off calling. The holidays were coming—my first Thanksgiving and Christmas without both my parents—and it seemed too hard to let go of anything that had been part of them.

Canto for Angels

Name one angel who isn’t strange, and a stranger. A stranger came to Mary and introduced her to her own body, announced what it was bound to do. From then on, angels wouldn’t give her a moment’s peace. There’s no getting away from that dark-alley snowflake of an angel. No two alike. Yours is, after all, all yours. It’s a surprise every time you need saving—so much saving, to offset the hubris and jockeying. So much human still underneath the wings. In high school, my sweetest, dearest friend—I’ll call her Cindy—was the first person I knew who believed in angels. Long before mass-produced Hallmark angels decorated our lives every day, all year, Cindy said she felt her guardian angel watching over her all the time.

But there was not room for nearly enough angels, balancing side by side on the head of a pin. Or a nail. Or a railroad spike. Each angel would have to be a black-eyed nonconformist. Flawed and failing. Look around and know that angels are fallible, culpable. Each one envying the other’s trumpet. That maligned Angel of Death, will we know him when we see him? Perhaps he is no he after all, but your next-door neighbor, and you don’t recognize her coming to the back door with a slice of pound cake or an empty cup. No matter how good or kind or hapless or charmed we might be, some people, like Cindy, believe an angel is guarding you. A rough kind of guarding, like jostling in basketball, aggravating the air around you. Or invisible as static, the tinnitus you hear inside your head. Who might hover over our shoulders while we’re typing an email or scrolling through Facebook, looking for friends? It seems to me that Cindy and I—most of the young women we knew—were driven by a curious, rarefied agitation to know that life after girlhood would be an improvement. We wanted to hurry and be grown up, not recognizing how vulnerable we really were, weak and fraught with the need for possibility. Now years go by and eclipse and alter us. Through wormholes of memory, we marvel that we were ever safe.

Fake IDs

Remembering the young victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, a poet recalls the support that New York’s LGBTQ communities offered her in growing up and coming out.

Carry

I.

In the memorial garden, my colleague Michael Heffernan bends to tend some short, once-green plants that, to my untrained eyes, remain mysterious. He is quiet and pours the water with care. He is so quiet. In this, the first week of classes, my first on this campus, I don’t yet know Michael well, but already I know quiet to be, for him, the most unnatural of states.

The moment before, I was sitting in my office near his in our building, Kimpel Hall, and he was trying to exit the door next to my office, his hands filled with water glasses. I said, “Thirsty?” And he said, “Do you know about the garden?”

When I shook my head, he nodded toward the window, to a grassy patch, and I had work to do, new names to memorize, grading to finish already. Another colleague had just been in my office too, talking about a female graduate student, describing her as “a bag of snakes.” At first, I’d misunderstood. “She has a bag of snakes?” I said. “In the building?”

On the topic of snakes, I’m surprisingly neutral. But if this student kept her snakes, say, in her office down the hall, I felt I perhaps should be prepared.

A House in Karachi

It sits on a hill—a fact that does not, in most places, distinguish a house as anything beyond ordinary. But it does in Karachi, which is in large part a flat city, squat and sprawling and a bit surly on…