One Bird at a Time

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In the spring a friend told me about a 100 Days of Creativity challenge she saw on Instagram. She mentioned it not in the context of posting anything, necessarily, but just in setting yourself a challenge like that, to do a creative thing every day for 100 days. I decided to take on the challenge by taking photographs of birds. Well, originally I decided my project would be that I would take one bird photograph per day, and then I would draw the bird, and then I would write something about it. Because if I’m going to plan a project, then I’m going to plan to do it times a thousand in a way that is almost guaranteed to fail. I realized before I started that that wasn’t a good idea (progress!) so I backed it down to one bird photograph per day. I don’t actually know how to photograph birds, and it turns out to be not at all like photographing dogs or horses.

Almost immediately I realized that I needed to set some other parameters.  First: it didn’t have to be a great photograph. It didn’t even have to be a good photograph. The point was that I was learning this, so any photograph at all was a step in the learning process. And just by the way, when you have a camera that you don’t know how to operate and it has a continuous shutter feature (I’m not even sure that’s what it’s called), you can take A LOT of bad photos in a very short amount of time.

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It took me about two days to realize that bird photography was going to be my gateway to meditation. I have written here before about my ambivalent relationship with yoga. My relationship with meditation is even more tenuous. I occasionally dabble in various forms of yoga, even if I grumble about it the whole time. I THINK about meditating. I don’t think I have actually ever even tried meditating, though I have almost downloaded a number of guided meditations and I have almost signed up for some meditation … classes? Is that a thing? Gatherings? Clearly, I haven’t done it.

And so the birds. The lessons started immediately. Once I got past “it’s ok to take bad photos,” I got to “look at all the things I don’t notice!” My first three weeks in the 100 days were dedicated to birds that showed up in the background (or sometimes foreground) while I was trying to focus on something else. And because I had no idea what I was doing with my camera, sometime the only in-focus bird was the one I didn’t realize was in the shot.

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One thing that is true, it turns out, is that there is a lot of standing around and waiting in bird photography. A lot of becoming really still. A lot of observation. While being still. And waiting. Really, these are not my strengths. I know – or at least I think I know – that part of meditation involves clearing your mind, and letting go of any distracting thoughts that come up. I’m sure my bird photography would improve faster if I were better at this.

Another thing that is true is that I started this project about six months after my oldest sister was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. When I talked to her after she had the biopsy but before she got the results, she said “The best case scenario is that it’s the Jimmy Carter kind and I take a pill and I’m fine. The worst case scenario is that it’s the John McCain kind and I die.” The biopsy came back the John McCain kind, or more technically but no more correctly, glioblastoma. It’s not one of your more treatable cancers. The five year survival rate is extremely low, and life expectancy even with aggressive treatment is 11 to 14 months after the onset of symptoms.

My sister set out to learn everything she could about glioblastoma and treatment. She read articles and studies. She found and connected with long term survivors. She applied for clinical trials and got into one, planning an aggressive sequence of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy. Her goal was to live long enough for someone to find a cure. She died on May 27, 6 days after her 59th birthday and 13 days after her 37th wedding anniversary. Less than 9 months after her diagnosis.

I didn’t have much of a relationship with my sister in our adult lives. We weren’t particularly close as children, either – not in that “my sister is my best friend” way that I hear about sometimes. She was seven years older than me, which doesn’t sound like a lot now, but when I was 11 and she left home for college it was pretty significant. She was kind of like a big sister in a book. She was almost magically creative in areas ranging from decorating cakes to naming dolls and stuffed animals, to choreographing, directing, building sets and making costumes for, and starring in annual neighborhood productions of The Nutcracker, to inventing complex and time-consuming games that keep us all occupied for hours on end. She was also just a sister, with all the sqabbles and jealousies and meanness that go along with being siblings.

For the last four or so months of her life, my sister wasn’t recognizably my sister. That is one of the many, many horrors of glioblastoma – it eats away your conscious mind before it kills you. I did not spend days at her bedside. I am eternally grateful that her husband was able and willing to care for her because I could not and did not. I went to see her sometimes, or to stay with her for a few hours so her husband could get a break. I thought about her every day. I continue to think about her every day. I have probably spent more time thinking about my sister in the last 9 months than I did in the previous 40 years.

I was, I am still, stumped about why I am so, so sad. I am sad for my sister, because it is complete bullshit for a person to die of something like this at barely 59 years old, and because she studied so much about it that she knew exactly what would and did happen to her, and it must have been terrifying. I am sad – and mad – that she didn’t get another 20 or 30 or 40 years to do exactly whatever she wanted to do. I am also sad for me, because my sister died. I think the part of me that is most sad is the part of me that lived with her and experienced her as that magical, maddening, creative, crazy-making big sister. I’m little kid sad. It’s a big kind of sad.

And so I spent 56 days waiting for birds to appear, and thinking about my sister who was dying. And I spent 44 days waiting for birds to appear, and thinking about my sister who was dead.

One of my favorite books is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, the title of which comes from something her father once said to her brother when her brother was overwhelmed by everything he had to write about in a school paper on birds. Anne uses it as a metaphor for writing – you don’t have to know everything you are going to write in order to start writing. You just have to take it bird by bird, one thing at a time.

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Bird by bird is something I often thought of when I started my photography project. Every day there are many birds, and the more I move to try to capture them on film, the faster they fly away. It’s also been something I think of while I wait for the birds and thoughts and images and memories of my sister cross my mind. Some of my memories are things I have been told, or family legend, some words or a sentence or a moment recalled without context. Some of my memories are mine.

I remember my sister’s perfect penmanship that never stopped looking like the writing of a precocious 4th grader who had just learned cursive. I remember the three of us sisters in my middle sister’s bedroom (it was the biggest) singing songs from a falling apart book of old folk songs. I remember being on the outside of that bedroom door, furious and heartbroken that my sisters wouldn’t let me in on whatever they were doing. I remember running down to the corner to wait to see her walking home from the bus stop in the evening after her ballet classes, and walk the last block with her. I remember her fingernails digging into my arm when I said something as a joke that she didn’t find funny at all. I remember the two of us laughing and laughing over a drawer of our old childhood drawings and letters in our grandmother’s house. I remember watching my mother while she was dying, and I am shocked at how much my dying sister looks like her, when I had always thought she and I looked like our father.

One bird at a time, the thoughts and memories flit by. Some of them I am able to capture, and some I just have to let pass. Sometimes when I go outside I can hear the birds but I can’t see them. If I wait, they will begin to appear. It’s often not that they are hidden but that my eyes are just not able to see them until I settle into looking. Similarly, when I try to reach for memories of my sister I think they are few, but while I want for the birds to appear, they begin to flutter around me. Like the birds, what I see at first isn’t always all that is there. Like the birds, what I think is one thing sometimes turns out to be something else. Like the birds, my memories come and go as they want to. I hope they will keep showing up, and I hope I will keep remembering to look for them.

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Blue Ridge Lullaby

Blue Ridge

I love it when people I love make art that I love. Music in particular grabs me. Listening to live music does for me what I gather church does for other people. There’s something about the connection I feel to the performers, and also the connection among the whole audience, and a general feeling of joy that really does lift me up. I have a similar unspecified feeling of connectedness to everything when I’m out in nature, and especially when I am in a place like the Blue Ridge mountains. I didn’t grow up there but I do have family roots there. I also have ties there to some of my favorite chosen family, the Allen family chief among them.

The first time I heard Holly Renee Allen’s Appalachian Piecemeal, I was driving, and I felt that same heart pull listening to it that I feel when I am driving in the Blue Ridge. I listened my way dreamily through the whole album three times. In the album intro, George Allen describes his fiddle playing as having flavors of bluegrass, country and mountain music. He passed all that along to his daughter, and she adds her own dose of blues and southern rock. Holly can sound red hot momma, and she can also sound like the whispered voice of all the women who wove the fabric of your life. Sometimes, both at once.

I have listened to the album online but I have no liner notes (are liner notes still a thing?) or any other information besides the song names. I don’t know which are covers and which are Holly’s own, and I don’t much care except that whoever wrote Matt’s Candy can write me songs forever, please. My money is on that it is Holly.

I don’t pretend to know anything about music beyond what I like, but that I know without question. Many of the songs here have a familiar ring to them, but I don’t know that I actually know any of them besides the beautifully rendered Ring of Fire. I don’t know who the artists are but I believe and hope that all Allens available had a part in this.

Listening to this music as I drove down the road gave me the feeling of curling up in the corner of a porch swing while listening to people I love play the evening in. The first time through I nearly had to pull over at the start of the last song, which is appropriately titled Last Song. It’s short, it’s a capella, and while I know it is Holly, it sounds just like what I believe it would sound like if, as I lay in bed with my window open on an early spring night with the redbud trees blooming outside, the Blue Ridge herself sang me to sleep. If the Last Song was the last lullaby I ever heard, I would drift away joyfully on its tune.

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http://hollyreneeallen.com

Watering the Horses

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About four weeks ago while watering the horses at feeding time, I dragged the hose to the end of its length to reach far enough to water Guinness. I stood there for about ten minutes, spraying him down. After a while it dawned on me that I didn’t need to wait for it to soak down to his roots, and if in fact it soaked all the way down to him that was quite a bit farther than it needed to go to water the grass seed I had just finished spreading on his grave.

We now have more horses below ground (five) on this property than above (three). Each of them has a grave site planted and tended slightly different from all the others. Three of them are outside of the pastures, and one is in a fenced area within a pasture. All of them are planted in flowers of different kinds, and each has a tree that volunteered on their grave, or somewhere else on our property that we transplanted. Those trees range in height from Cookie’s five foot maple (4 years ago) to Wy’s twenty-plus foot oak (18 years ago).

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Guinness was a horse’s horse, and he was Finn’s other half. We decided we wanted them to stay together, and for Guinness to be part of the horse landscape. So for the first time, we just covered a grave with grass seed and chopped hay to give it a chance to stay in one place and grow. For several days, the biggest challenge for the seed was that Finn kept rolling on Guinness. I don’t know if he liked the feel of the chopped hay, the fact that we were watering it so it was a nice cool spot, or if he just wanted to be close to his buddy. We will plant Guinness a shade tree in the fall, outside the fence so Finn can’t eat it.

Twice a day in the summer heat, we water the horses. They have hundred gallon troughs, but we don’t fill them all the way because that way we can keep adding a little water to keep it cool for them. We also offer to hose them off, so when they want, they get the sweat showered off. After doing the living horses, I dragged the hose to Guinness. We were in a bit of a drought – hard to believe, now that we’ve been getting flooded out for the past two weeks – and Guinness is buried at the top of the hill in the back field he shared (and still does) with Finn. That spot has the best view on the farm, but it is a lot of hoses away from the nearest water source.

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My family does not run to grave sites. My grandmother was cremated, and buried in a graveyard next to my grandfather who died long before I was born. But after that, all bets were off.

My father gave me custody of my mother’s ashes, with instructions to scatter them by the tree we planted for her on my property. I did that with some of her ashes, but before she died she told me that she would be sad if she never got back to New Hampshire, or to Rehoboth beach. She didn’t, so I got her both places posthumously. I took some of her ashes to Rehoboth, and scattered them in the ocean. My aunt buried some of her ashes in her garden in Virginia, and sent some to my uncle in New Hampshire, where he paddled them out to the middle of Squam Lake and scattered them in her favorite childhood place. It was only much later that my father remembered she had told him she wanted her ashes spread in Rock Creek Park, though as her best friend recalled it, what she actually said was “Fling ’em off the Calvert Street bridge,” which seems more likely.

It was my father’s ashes that we scattered in Rock Creek Park, in the end, in the creek itself. There’s something vaguely furtive about scattering ashes in public places, be it the ocean or Rock Creek, but probably no one would in fact arrest you for it. Still, it’s hard to be solemn and ceremonial while looking over your shoulder as if you’re handing off the money to the drug dealer and hoping no one notices.

My aunt was scattered in a few places, too. The day of her memorial service we scattered some of her ashes in her beloved Blue Ridge mountains, in one of the prettiest spots I know. I believe some went up to New England, and some were scattered in a memorial garden at a wildlife sanctuary in Virginia – a certain blessing to the animals there.

I wouldn’t want anyone stuck in a graveyard, and I certainly don’t want to end up in one myself, but I’m starting to understand their purpose. We have planted trees on our property in memory of people and animals who have died since we moved here. We celebrate our own version of Dia de los Muertos each November. Sometimes we clean up the memorial (human) and grave (animal) sites, and plant flowers, and sometimes we just light luminaria for each of them, but it’s a ceremony we hold dear.

Standing over Guinness’ grave twice each day, watering the grass seed and letting my mind wander, was a meditative exercise for me. It was also a transition time. I know there are sudden deaths, but with most of my animals and all of my relatives, dying has been a process, with a lot of activity and attention needed over a fairly long span of time. With Guinness, for example, he was sick for about six weeks. We tried everything we could think of to diagnose and treat him. Like any sick room, our feed shed was full of supplements and medicines when he died. I checked him, treated him, and tried to get him to eat four to six times a day, all the while watching him fade away. Throwing away the useless prescriptions is something I’ve done a few too many times now, but I’m sure I will do it again. Watering his grave was a way for me to keep tending to him while also gradually letting him go.

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Ruby

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We said goodbye to Ruby, our 18 year old truck, this week.

 

Ruby drove us and two of our horses out to Colorado one summer, 14 years back. We drove 3,200 miles round trip, blew out two tires on the horse trailer and needed new brakes on the truck by the time we got home, but she got us there and back. Still one of the biggest adventures of our lives.

On day 3 of the trip home, after the second trailer tire replacement, in the western Maryland mountains in heavy fog and light rain, we were not sure we were going to make it. One of our main cds that trip (remember cds?) was Patty Griffin’s Impossible Dream, and one of our two favorite songs on that cd was When It Don’t Come Easy. I don’t know how many times we listened to it that night.

Red lights are flashing on the highway
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home tonight
Everywhere the waters getting rough
Your best intentions may not be enough
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home tonight

Ruby moved us to our current home. We were in a rental that we loved and wanted to buy, but the owners did not want to sell. When we found this place, Ruby sat in the parking lot of the title company at settlement, hitched to our horse trailer loaded with all the stuff we didn’t want the movers to move, waiting to take us to our new house, which has now been our home for almost all of those 18 years.

But if you break down
I’ll drive out and find you
If you forget my love 
I’ll try to remind you
And stay by you when it don’t come easy

She hauled our horses to horse shows, clinics, trail rides, the horse hospital, and best of all, home from the horse hospital. She hauled loads of everything we needed her to haul: hay, wood pellets, horse feed, stone, sand, lumber, boxes and boxes of books from my dad’s apartment after he died.

She carried our family on vacations from the mountains to the ocean.

She was the favorite vehicle of every dog we have had.

She carried our kids from ages 9, 11, and 15 to 27, 29 and 33, and moved them into and out of dorms, apartments, and houses.

I don’t know nothing except change will come
Year after year what we do is undone
Time keeps moving from a crawl to a run
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home

In those 18 years, we have said goodbye to all four of our parents, my favorite aunt, three friends and mentors, six cats, four horses, and one dog.

We’ve had more jobs than I even want to think about.

You’re out there walking down a highway
And all of the signs got blown away
Sometimes you wonder if you’re walking in the wrong direction

During those 18 years Rose and I nearly split up, and then later, got married. In fact, during those 18 years, it went from being unthinkable to possible to law, that we could get married.

Those 18 years have seen our children start and end relationships, become engaged and unengaged, get married. We drove Ruby to our middle child’s wedding, come to think of it.

So many things that I had before
That don’t matter to me now
Tonight I cry for the love that I’ve lost
And the love I’ve never found
When the last bird falls
And the last siren sounds
Someone will say what’s been said before
Its only love we were looking for

Ruby was hard on brakes, but she never broke down, refused to start, or left us anywhere. She didn’t have a lot of oomph towing up hills, and her gas mileage ran to gallons per mile, but she went everywhere we asked her to go.

She still has a lot of miles ahead of her, and she has gone to a friend, so it’s almost like she’s staying in the family. But not quite. Our new truck has got everything we want and need, but it doesn’t have 18 years of memories. Farewell, Ruby, and thanks for taking us to where we needed to be.

But if you break down
I’ll drive out and find you
If you forget my love 
I’ll try to remind you
And stay by you when it don’t come easy

(quoted lyrics by Patty Griffin, When It Don’t Come Easy)

Things My Mother Kept

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Things My Mother Kept

On the floor of the entryway
To my parents’ apartment,
A Bath & Body Works bag.
My father gestured to it, saying
“There’s your mother”
As we walked by.
The brown plastic box of ashes
Fit as if it were made for the
Blue and white checked paper bag
With convenient carrying handles.

On her dresser,
A melamine plate I made for her.
Remember the Make-a-Plate kits?
We spent one first grade class
Preparing for Mother’s Day
Drawing and coloring earnestly
Green-roofed house, purple door
Bright yellow sun, black cat
The year, for some reason. 1974.

On her bathroom counter,
My earliest ceramic art.
Sushi plates before their time
A rectangle with mama and baby fish
A square with baby fish alone
Each and every scale rendered.
Anatomically improbable
And hydrodynamically challenged
But drawn with painstaking care.

In her closet,
A sweater I bought in high school
From the Tweeds catalog.
Cropped cotton cardigan, aubergine
Sleeves too long, as always, for me.
I used to raid her closet
Secretly, I thought
Not knowing, or forgetting,
That she raided mine right back.

In her locking desk drawer,
Plexiglass pendants
Made by an artist I had known
With his wife as family friends.
I once asked my mother
Why we never saw them any more
And she said, ever oracular,
“Life is short. Things happen.”

In the bottom of a wine cabinet
In the dining room
In a compartment I never knew existed,
The plexiglass chess set he made for her
Which I’m sure she told my father
She had thrown away.
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Partner Yoga

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I am a romantic. I believe that love at first sight and soulmates are real things. I like sappy love songs, country music, chick flicks, and stories with happy endings.

I’m also a realist, and I think relationships are just hard. I also think that staying with anyone, no matter how much you love them, takes a lot of damn work. Some days it seems like every single thing you can think of to say or do is the exact wrong thing. In fact, it’s hard to believe there are so many wrong things.

Recently Rose and I decided to try a partner yoga class. I hate the idea of partner yoga. Even more than regular yoga, it seems like a setup for complete disaster. It also seems like a great metaphor for why relationships are so hard. Most yoga poses are hard enough for me by myself, and adding the pressure of not throwing someone else off balance, or dropping them, just seems like too much. Not to mention getting dropped or knocked over by the other person.

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Sometimes when I am extremely resistant to an idea, it is because I should avoid that thing for a lot of good reasons. Sometimes, however, I fight it because it’s exactly what I need and I just don’t feel like working that hard, or working on that part of myself.

About half way through the class, our instructor had us all get back to back with our partners and prepare to go into half moon. Of the many yoga poses I dislike, half moon is high on my list. My standing leg gets tired , my hip on my lifted leg hurts, I don’t ever feel balanced, my bottom hand can’t reach the ground, my top shoulder hurts… It’s a pretty long list of gripes. So sure, let’s add the layer of doing that back to back with another person with their own list of physical complaints. I see no way that could go wrong. Such a good test of a nearly 25 year relationship.

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Getting into a yoga pose with another person turns out to take less think and more feel. That’s probably true of yoga in general, but left to my own devices my brain starts thinking what Anne Lamott calls its thinky thoughts. It also takes a fair amount of laughter, which fixes anything that feel doesn’t.

What I expected was awkwardness, pain, falling down, and irritation. What I felt was Rose’s back pressing against mine, and when I reached with my raised leg I had hers to search for to help extend the pose, and when I stretched my arm up and back I felt only gentle contact with her hand. What I got – and gave – was support.

Grace. You just never know where it’s going to turn up.

 

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Grieving Through My Earrings

My earring collection caught my eye today when I was sorting laundry. It’s pretty extensive, and it’s also pretty. A particular pair of gold squares with asymetrical silver cross pieces and blue stones struck me. Like most of my earrings they were a gift, and while trying to remember when my mother gave me those earrings (they look like something she would have chosen), I realized they were in fact a gift from my spouse, the most recent earrings she has given me in our twenty four years together.

I first got my ears pierced with my best friend when I was eleven years old. Her mother took us to a jewelry store where they used the combination piercer/earring inserter that sounds just like a hole punch you’d use on paper. When I was eighteen, my older sister decided she finally wanted to get her ears pierced and I went along for moral support. That jewelry store was having a “buy two, get one free” piercing sale, and my sister only wanted the conventional two earrings, one per ear, so I used the free one to get a second hole in my left ear. A few years later at college, I got a third hole in my left ear from a friend in my apartment one night. I had one of my old pointy starter earrings, and he had ice and a history of piercing his own ears (I think he was up to 17 holes total by then), so he iced me up and stuck the earring through my earlobe. I remain intrigued by the fact that that is the only one of my 4 earring holes that has never had been infected.

For my whole life I have never been fashionable, knowledgeable about fashion, or really even dimly aware of what’s fashionable. I lean towards jeans and t-shirts, or very plain colors. A lot of black. A lot of blue. A lot of sage (to the point that my spouse once gently took a shirt out of my hands in a store and, hanging it back on the rack, said “I think we have enough sage”). I have always tended to match pieces by color and not so much by print. I might get away with wearing a paisley shirt with a similarly toned flowered skirt now – I am 50, and I could call it “power clashing” – but when I was in the sixth grade that outfit was not a winner among my peers.

What I have always done is accessorize interestingly with earrings. I may be wearing jeans and a plain sage shirt, but if you add in dangly purple-shading-to-pink titanium flamingos, you stand out just enough. I have a pair of broccoli earrings that my mother gave me during a period when mostly what I wanted to eat was broccoli, and I used to wear them almost as often as I ate the broccoli. My earrings are weird, beautiful, and funny, and sometimes all three at once. For decades now I have worn only tiny diamonds with gold posts in my two auxiliary holes, but my two original piercings have displayed the full variety of my earring collection.

Earrings are a great fall-back gift idea for anyone with pierced ears. I have been given many earrings over the years. There’s a wonderful book called Love, Loss, and What I Wore that is a memoir told through the outfits that the author wore for different events in her life. For me, earrings tell a story like that, only more to do with the people who gave me the earrings. One of my many inaccurate beliefs about relationships used to be that if someone knew how to pick earrings for me, it showed we were meant to be together. Lapses like that aside, earrings and memories of the friends who gave them to me are inextricably linked. And I have had no more prolific giver-of-earrings than my mother.

It is twelve years since my mother died. For the first few years after her death I rotated between a pair of subtly unmatched diamonds she once gave me that were made from two rings inherited from family members, and the first pair of earrings I bought for myself after she died. I had had the diamonds for close to twenty years, and somehow lost one of them. Perhaps down the shower drain; I never knew. I was upset, but not as much as I expected. It seemed somehow logical that the time for those earrings was past. Since then I have rarely worn earrings, aside from my two tiny auxiliary diamonds in my left ear, which never come out. My ears started to get infected when I did put on earrings, and I just drifted into not bothering.

Late this past summer I bought myself another pair of tiny diamonds with gold posts. I now wear them, along with my other two, all the time, day and night. Every so often I check to see if they are there, but mostly I don’t think about them. I viewed this as my first step toward becoming a wearer of earrings again. A way to reaccustom my ears, and my heart, to the idea.

That was several months ago, and today, my earring collection caught my eye. It is dusty, and many of the earrings are tarnished, but the gold and silver and blue of the earrings from my spouse shone an invitation. I think that after twelve years I am ready to go through them all again, deciding which to keep, cleaning and shining and sitting with the memories as I go.groovy