Dear Everybody


What I didn’t know: Islands sink and some of them disappear altogether. It’s easy when landlocked to not realize the properties of water. But maybe this is a property of land, and if so, maybe I know more about islands and sinking than I realize. But what I’d rather think of are the islands we could experience if we would just dip beneath the water’s surface. Some of you know who you are, you are already the surface dippers, already you have explored those islands.

Wait for me.

Some things, the art museum director says, are white light elegant. He sweeps his hand towards a width of wall waiting for the next exhibit. In some cultures, white light is considered to be of the spirit. He might be thinking of watercolors and oil paintings, but I think he also means to include the way lengths of light can wash over us. It’s why he works where he works, why he likes blank walls.

And I think, then, of white light and shore. Which leads me to my mother and how to this day she is both light and shore to me. I doubt she knows this. I could tell her, and in fact I do, but like a sweep of her hand sprinkling flour on her pastry board, the notion comes and goes away for her. She always gets back to rolling out the next pie crust.  I’ve come to count on this while fighting an ailment for how many months now. She calls frequently to do the long-distance-lips-to-my-forehead-test to see how I am feeling. We catch each other up.

Mom bought a bag of tulips when she bought her Christmas tree. She tells me this in March, asking “Did I tell you about the bag of tulips?”

December was a warm month for Montana and when she got home with the tree and the tulips, she realized the ground wasn’t frozen yet. It’d be nothing to get her little garden shovel and plant most of those bulbs. And so she did. And wouldn’t it be just the ticket to bury bulbs in December and get to see them bloom in March, or maybe April?

She tells me this while I am huddled in my quilts, a stack of poetry beside me, medicinal aids surround the nest of contemplation I have built to see me through recovery from something doctors haven’t been able to diagnose. The scent of a tool shed comes to me, the way earth smells warm inside a cold December shed, her wood-handled aluminum hand shovel on a shelf next to empty clay petunia pots. If she in fact has a garden shed, I’ve never been inside, but no matter, I’m inside it now.

And I think of leaving this story right there with you. Imagining wood and soil in a shed, picturing her hands at work, waiting to see what color the blooms will be.

But there is a little more to her story because she didn’t plant all the bulbs. There were 42 bulbs and she only planted 30, leaving 12 in the paper bag. Christmas started up and she and my father got busy with the tree and the stockings. Later, when she went back to her bag of tulip bulbs, it was nowhere to be found. Gone, but not tossed out with the trash.

“Oh, hang on,” she says, “I need to go stir the chili.”

I switch my cellphone to my other ear and listen to her set the phone down. It’s a land line, the good one in the living room where you can hear better than on the cordless phone kept in the kitchen. I can almost count the steps from her brown sofa, across the blue carpet, around the corner to the smooth expanse of white linoleum, to reach the stainless steel pot of chili on her black stove. Stir, stir, taste, add a little salt.

And then I picture her coming back to me, around the kitchen corner, across the blue carpet to the sofa with a large oil painting of a white cat hanging above it. The phone crackles when she picks it up and she is laughing about the bulbs. There are so many places they could be. Green shafts sprouting through cracks, finding just enough light to reach for. Undaunted.

I offer to help look for the bag when I come home next, but she dismisses that with her sweeping hand. She’s looked in the obvious places and now it’s time to sit back and let the bulbs be. One day they’ll be discovered, she says. And when that happens, they will be in bloom.


hello kitty

hello kittyRossella Vasta, an Italian artist visiting Montana tells us words create space for silence. She listens to the silence words achieve before she begins to paint. Kenosis: to empty one’s self, to willingly make room for  . . . what? The act of emptying.

Weather balloons are measured for their bursting diameters. They are meant to burst. There is no lid to this earth, yet we daily live as though we have limits. Weather balloons are also known as sounding balloons. To probe, explore: sounding.

My father slows the shutter speed when he shoots his sunrise photos. This is what it takes to let enough light in, letting colors deepen, as though readying a landscape for tea. Steeping.

When there aren’t mountains around, it’s easy to get mixed up and not know which way is up. Up, meaning north. Says the lady in the prairie store, admitting she hasn’t learned her left from her right, her east from her west. She didn’t grow up with the sun. She doesn’t know what to be afraid of first, living now on the prairie. Rattlesnake or coyote? To find her way back to calm, to center herself she recites Mount Everest.

Accidentally, I eat tacos with a former in-law. How can I not when we end up  in line together at the tiny taco hut? He searches for something to say to me, sounding like my former husband. Astounding, really, to witness the genetic hand-toss, the fingers fluttering in the air to indicate “whatever, whatever” when words escape all meaning. He dictates, flips through his soundbites, the speeches he has prepared to cover any topic. He’s half union, half white collar. He wants to tell me about a place twenty-five minutes from nowhere. I want to rescue him from his discomfort as he realizes he meant to say miles but said minutes instead, but I’m running out of rescues. And also short on caves.

Rossella Vasta’s art speaks the language of French cave paintings. We assume animals drawn on walls are kill drawings. See, this is what I took down. But when we rid ourselves of that notion, we make room for imagining the spirit of an animal captured when drawn on limestone walls. Maybe that’s why we empty, why we sound. Twenty-five minutes from nowhere birds sing through the timeline. Dogs howl in such cadence the path of an ambulance winding through the river valley is tallied. The more distant the howl, the further away the trauma. Wind rattles the cottonwood leaves in my neighbor’s yard, a hundred students clicking their tongues to the beat of a conductor’s baton.

the bass line


I ask my daughter, newly married, what it was like when she and her husband returned to his old hometown to attend a football game. He hadn’t been to one in some years. She laughed and told me he said, “Hey what happened to the boom?!”

This is why I tell her she is a writer. But she says she doesn’t write. She says she couldn’t write like I do.

I say, a writer is a writer even if she never writes. It’s the way she observes. the way she expresses herself. She’s the better storyteller. What I need to do is not come between my daughter and her sun.

Don’t be the shadow.


Even a cup of tea is subject to lunar tides. – Mary Ruefle


Things are selling like cupcakes, the lady in the booth next to ours exclaims every time someone asks her how her day at the Street Fair is going. She asks everyone why they are so beautiful. In the front of her booth, against paintings propped against a  purple chair, sits a cellophane box of four blueberry muffins on the pavement. We watch as shoppers shop. Painting, painting, oh, what? Muffins. In the back of her booth is a large salad bowl of coleslaw, uncovered. On the table she is trying to sell are two round platters covered in foil. Straw hats cover the foiled platters and we notice throughout the day that these are the only two items she never tries to sell.

The street fair is lively, and in our tent we can only witness what passes across the ten foot wide opening. The street is a stage and we are spectating. Across from us a six piece band plays a mix of bluegrass, blues, folk and what we call radio music. It doesn’t take too long before I have memorized the bass runs and in a slow moment I teach my daughter to play the bass runs with me. Wait for it, you’ll feel it and then you can not unhear it. Was it always this way, she asked? Or was it just this one song with a bass line you couldn’t ignore?

The bass carries us through the day. At odd moments she and I turn to each other, knowing before the bass plays it, what the bass will play. That shared head nod. The syncopated pulse.


My daughter and her husband are traveling north, one hundred miles, to a country wedding. The town has one motel, five rooms. The motel serves breakfast, only. If you want to eat any other meal, you’ll have to drive to Lewistown, thirty miles away. This is a town, my daughter says, where everyone brings their own creamer to the motel’s cafe for breakfast. A couple weeks ago the area experienced a flash flood and there has been concern the road to the wedding won’t be passable. Not to worry, the hosts reassure. They’ve marked an alternative route off the highway. Yes, the bridge is washed out, but don’t worry, just drive across it slowly.



the tailrace

tailraceInside the power house, overlooking the tailrace at Ryan Dam

My daughter married last month. My son married this month last year. I saw the minute hand move. Click.

Watches. Alarms. Clocks. Turbines spinning water into power. You can’t follow me here, said the man with the hard hat, the flashing tail lights. But my father told me to follow him through the gate anyway. Just go. And so I did. I drove my father’s van through the opened No Trespassing gate, my mother protesting in the front passenger seat that the hard hat man wasn’t going to recognize my father, sitting in the back seat. You just can’t go where you want to go, Bill, she said.

And when the hard hat man in his large white pickup saw us in his mirror, he turned around to confront us. I know, I’ve always known, the hows and whens to stop. It’s going forward that keeps me still.

Hello, Bill, the man said. Through his opened window, through my father’s, wound-down. Of course they knew each other. At one time, my father was the boss of this power camp. At one time, I was the little girl, Bill’s middle child, running through the camp, climbing cliffs, keeping a measured distance from the waterfalls.

Can you break a spell by yielding to it? This river has always had her way with me. Running through me when what I wanted was distance from her roar. She must have had a good war, this Missouri river. What it has taken for her to still be here, carving through landscape of wheat and rising yeast. Red stone, brittle shale. Dams strapped against her swell.


The Montana Girl Speaks of Water
                                                             after Langston Hughes

My soul has grown deep like
the rivers. The curl of eddies and bays

pool inside. I retreat downriver, into the spray
of the Crooked Falls, climb rock

cliffs, toeing dirt, sliding down
banks into the graveyard

memories of the familiar wide
lazy shoreline of my youth, retracing steps

skipped out with the verve and the snap
little girls had back in the day, still

wading in shallow water, my cuffs rolled
and my muddy elbows,

dreaming all the world was one
cool, shin-high ripple.

(Previously published at Babel Fruit)


Tailrace: The part of a millrace or the like through which the spent water flows



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