Magic Hour

Somewhere in some universe, Joey still exists. I know, because I’ve seen him.

*************

We always argued over where to go on vacation. I like exploring, adventures, and cold places. Joey always wanted to just relax, wind down, sit on a beach somewhere and do nothing. It drove me crazy. Every year, we’d take two weeks off and make a plan. Every year, we’d have a fight about the plan.

This year, I rented a beach house.

My therapist told me I never give myself time to slow down, that I hold myself to impossible standards, that I let other people do it, too, and I should be kind to my mind and my heart. My mother told me I’d lost too much weight. My friends needled me, every minute, to take some time for myself, to breathe and open myself up to my feelings, as if I needed a reminder of the aching, empty, endless, hollow void in my chest. And none of them offered to come with me, of course. Summer is family time, after all.

But I caved anyway, and I rented the beach house, because I missed Joey. And because I wanted to prove I could like it. And because screw him. And because it seemed like the best thing to do at the time.

The day I arrived, the cleaners were still there, finishing up.

“It’s a great house,” said an old woman with impossibly purple-gray hair.

“Looks like it,” I replied, because I’d only gotten one foot into the door.

“I hope you enjoy your vacation. I wish I could get away for a whole two weeks by myself!” She winked at me.

I didn’t tell her it wasn’t a choice.

When Joey and I had gone on our annual vacations before, we’d always looked for the smallest places we could find. We wanted to be close to each other, even though we weren’t very good at it. There was always conflict, by the end. There were tears and hateful words and, though we were both ashamed of it, sometimes a bruise or two. But we wanted to love each other.

I booked a six-bedroom monster with two kitchens and seven bathrooms at the end of an island, on an acre-wide plot of windswept sand dunes. I needed the space. My grief needed a mansion. It could expand to fill oceans. I wanted it to, and then I wanted to dry it up, burn it to ash, cast it out into the universe and finally be free. I wanted to wallow, and then I wanted to rise.

I stayed in bed for the first two days, in the cavernous master suite with the curtains drawn. I didn’t even turn on the TV. I just laid there, in the silence, in the dark. The blankets stayed crisp and straight, settled over me like a shroud. I was immovable, still as a dead body.

And then I pulled myself up, that third day, and ate a fried egg sandwich with extra hot sauce. Joey hated hot sauce. I dressed in a bathing suit that probably looked a little too young for me, and slathered on SPF house-paint sunscreen, and went to the beach. I was on auto-pilot, really, robotic, going through the motions. But I got myself out, and I set up my chair and my umbrella and I sat there, even though I hate sand and I hate hot weather and I hate the acrid smell of saltwater.

Eventually, with the sun low on the horizon, warm on my back, I fell asleep.

I thought it was a dream, at first. I woke up to a neon pink sunset and saw him there, in front of me. Standing near the water’s edge, in the ridiculous bright green swim trunks he always insisted on wearing, Joey waded into the surf up to his ankles, and turned around and smiled.

“It doesn’t get better than this,” he said, his voice as familiar, and flippant, as always.

I didn’t have time to reply. I blinked once, twice, and then the world around him seemed to ripple, almost flicker, and he was gone, like he’d never been there to begin with.

“What the hell?” I said out loud, to no one in particular. The moon was rising, and I was the only one left on the beach.

Magic Hour

I think a weaker person might have cracked. You just never know how you’re going to react to something impossible, right? But this is what I did. I packed up my chair and my umbrella, I took myself back to the house, and I had a glass of wine and went to bed. I woke up the next morning, and went to the beach again, and this time, I brought a camera.

I don’t know what had possessed me to bring Joey’s giant Nikon camera with me in the first place. I’d just felt like I needed to, because he would have. I’m not even sure how it ended up in my closet, but I found it and packed it. He’d have been proud I remembered, and then would have begged me to please be careful with it, because it was expensive and I was clumsy, and there was no way I’d be able to afford to replace it.

I sat out there all day, sweating, itching all over from sand and sunscreen, listening to the incessant, thunderous, irritating roar of the ocean, until the moon sat high above the water. Nothing happened. Nothing. I don’t even know what I was expecting to see.

I threw Joey’s stupid, massive camera into the breakers.

The days passed in a boring haze. I did all the things you’re supposed to do on a solo vacation as a single woman. I sat by the water, I swam in the waves, and lost my favorite bracelet for my trouble. I shopped. I went out and had a few drinks at a local dive and shucked oysters with a fun group of drunk strangers. I even managed a one night stand. In his bed. Not mine. But it all felt worthless. I just kept coming back to that moment, at sunset, Joey looking back at me and smiling.

I’d spent so much time, in those first few months, trying to build my life back up, trying not to focus on Joey and the beautiful mess we’d had and what I’d lost. And here he was, invading my head, not letting me go, again, over and over.

My last day, I headed out to the water’s edge. I watched the gulls fly overhead and waited. I have spent countless moments of my life just waiting. How many of them, I thought, for Joey? He’d never waited for me.

I eventually drifted off, and woke at sunset, again. I looked ahead at the water, and he wasn’t there. I felt relief. Just a huge surge of relief.

But then fingers brushed mine, and I turned and saw him, reclining in a chair beside me, bathed in that same late evening light, gold and pink and almost too perfect to be real.

“We should go in soon,” he said.

“Why?”

“It’ll get cold once the sun’s down.”

“I’m not cold,” I said, just before he flickered and vanished.

“Fine,” I said, to the empty space by my side.

************

I still see him, every now and again. I can feel him. I can feel him breathing. I can feel the air move around him. I can feel the weight of him, the mass of him, the difference it makes in the world. I wish I couldn’t. I’d make it stop, if I could. I’d break free of it. It’s worse than losing him in the first place, and worse than living with him before that.

I never know when he’ll turn up. It’s always quick, at sunset, always just when the last light of the day glows bright and then fades. I heard someone call that magic hour, once. I thought it had something to do with photography. I wonder, now, if there’s more to it than that, and if that time between day and night, when the world shimmers, really is just a little bit magic.

Joey used to talk about all the things we’ll never learn, and all the things we can’t understand. Once, when we were together camping in Patagonia, he snuggled up beside me near the fire and looked up at the stars.

“Do you think we’ll ever really know everything that’s out there?”

“I think people smarter than me have tried and failed to answer that question,” I said.

“Yeah, but if you could have the answers, wouldn’t you want them?”

I don’t know.

Write a poem in 250 characters or less! (Or, let me tell you about my impostor syndrome.)

Last year, I wrote a poem for Button Poetry’s Short Form Contest. I liked the poem I wrote, though it didn’t win. It later became “Unrequited,” and I’m quite proud of it.

As of last year, I’d never entered any of my creative writing into any contest, ever. Not even in college, when I sat on the editorial board of a literary magazine and could have easily, albeit not entirely fairly, included one of my pieces in the publication. (I wouldn’t have done that. I promise.) I’ve always been timid about my own work.

I realize that I have major impostor syndrome. I’ve never published anything, and I’m terrified to submit my writing to agents and publishers. I’m always far more impressed with what I read from others than with what I write myself. I feel, often, like my creative work is clunky, dull, trite, and uninspired. Not always, but often. It can be discouraging, maddening, and sometimes, debilitating.

To be clear, I’m not looking for sympathy. I think this is a battle many creative people fight every day. Some days, I win. Some days, I…stare at a blank screen and procrastinate and (not infrequently) cry, and I definitely don’t win. But on the good days, when everything comes together, I feel like I’ve made magic, and that keeps me working – through the fear, through the doubt, through the impostor syndrome. And I see that you can’t be an impostor in your own life.

The Short Form Contest requires a submission of 250 characters or less. That’s characters, not words. It can be a poem on its own, or an excerpt from a larger piece. When I discovered the contest last year, I felt…I don’t know, compelled to enter. 250 characters? I wouldn’t feel that bad being rejected over 250 characters. Very few people can do something amazing with 250 characters, right? And so, I entered the contest, knowing my poem wouldn’t be selected, and I felt good. It felt amazing just to put something out there.

So, I entered again this year, with a poem inspired by one of my mom’s favorite books, Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. (I’m helping my mom start her own business, and she was on my mind.)

I like my poem less than last year’s, but I put it out there, because why not? And I feel good. Maybe I’ll enter some other contests this year, or even submit work to some publications or agents. Maybe this is the year. We’ll see, and until then, I’ll keep writing. I hope, if you’re struggling, you keep writing (or creating whatever you create), too.

Oh, and if you want to read the poem I submitted this year, here it is. Enjoy!

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You should have known

I am more than the wings you tried to clip

I am more than meant to fly

You should have known

I am too much to trap and tether

and you are too small to try

Seagull 6

Fireflies

Every year I wait for the fireflies

and for the summer nights when

they flicker in the trees in the woods behind my house.

I call it my own light show, though

I know they don’t shine just for me

and I don’t have the heart to catch and hold them

in jars on my shelf,

to keep their sparkle and make it mine.

So I wait for them and watch them

for as long as they’re here.

And when the days get shorter and the nights get colder,

when they disappear,

I remember that all things in this world will come and go.

Nothing is forever. A hard lesson, learned over and over again.

I can’t hold on to the fireflies,

but I can watch them

every year.

Tree lights

The Day Thomas Leonard Came Back

We found him in the creek.

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He was crouching low over the water just like we were, looking for crawdads. It was June, the hottest, longest day of the year, and he was just there, like he’d been there the whole time, only he hadn’t. Not five minutes ago. Not one minute ago. We were certain we hadn’t seen him, and all of us agreed. Just this little boy. Dusty blonde hair, lots of freckles, striped red shirt, white shorts. He wasn’t wearing any shoes. We weren’t, either, so that didn’t feel too weird, but the fact that none of us had seen him there earlier, we just couldn’t shake how strange that was.

He said his name was Thomas Leonard, and that he lived in the big house on Morrison Street. We told him the only big house on Morrison Street was torn down two years ago to build condos. He said his mom would be missing him, and he was already late for dinner, and he should get along home before Marcus Welby. We didn’t know who that was. We let him walk away. What else were we supposed to do?

We didn’t realize this kid was THE Thomas Leonard. Every kid in our town knows the name Thomas Leonard. He’s the biggest, saddest secret, the scariest bedtime story. Or, he was. Thomas Leonard disappeared fifty years ago.

It happened like this.

One day, Thomas Leonard tells his mom that he wants to go to the creek and try to catch crawdads with his friend. His imaginary friend. He hasn’t had an imaginary friend all that long, and his mom thinks it’s weird that he’d make one up at his age, but apparently he’s always been a lonely kid. She’d hear him in his room all the time, by himself, but not acting like he was by himself.

“You can’t be G.I. Joe ‘cause I’m G.I. Joe. You gotta be Mickey Mouse.”

And then silence.

“Fine. I’ll be Mickey Mouse this time, but next time, I’m G.I. Joe. You’re awful mean sometimes.”

Stuff like that. See? He was a weird, lonely kid.

Anyway, he asks his mom if he can go play in the creek, and she says fine, go, but be home before dinner, and please remember to wear your shoes back this time. He says okay, and leaves the house at about 3:00 in the afternoon. He never comes home.

They only ever found his shoes.

Everything changed after Thomas Leonard disappeared. The town installed street lights, for one. And they built this huge bridge over the creek, just in case Thomas drowned in three inches of water. And no parent ever let their kid go to the creek alone, not even fifty years later. People remember things forever in this town.

We all thought it was silly, how we had to follow rules just because some dumb kid probably got lost in the woods, like, almost 40 years before we were even born. It’s not like they found any evidence that Thomas was kidnapped or murdered or something. But every time we saw a missing kid on the news, some parent in some house would say, “It reminds me of Thomas Leonard.”

No one ever talked about him out in the open, but this was the town that Thomas Leonard made. The street lights, the bridge, the rules. We heard this rumor once that his mother paid for all of it, out of some family inheritance or something.

She goes up to the mayor one day, after Thomas disappears, and she looks terrible. She looks like she hasn’t slept in a year, which would probably be about right, actually, and she says, “As long as I live, this will never, ever happen again.”

And the mayor looks at her and says we’ll try our best, and about a month later the street lights go up.

Thomas Leonard’s mother lived in this town until the day she died. She sold her house and moved into a little apartment above the antique shop. She stopped going out in public. And about a month before the evening we found him in the creek, she died.

“So sad,” everyone said. “But at least she’s with Thomas now.”

We saw the procession for her funeral. It was only, like, three cars.

But everything she paid for must have made a difference, because there hadn’t been so much as a sprained ankle at the creek in fifty years.

The day we found Thomas Leonard, we’d decided to go out one last time, before we got too old. Kind of like trick-or-treating. No one went to the creek after they turned fourteen. It was considered childish, something you only did if you weren’t cool enough to do something else. We weren’t really sure what that something else was, because hanging out in the grocery store parking lot smoking cigarettes and listening to music from your car radio just didn’t seem all that cool.

So we walked down to the town square, and around the corner to the picnic pavilion, past the swings and down the hill, over the train tracks and across the bridge. We’d only been there for an hour or so when we saw him, and we talked to him for less than five minutes before he walked away. Sure, we thought it was strange, but it wasn’t until about fifteen minutes later that we made the connection.

We got ourselves together as fast as we could and went in the direction we’d last seem him walking. We made our way back up the hill and into town, and we didn’t see him anywhere. And nothing seemed wrong. Like, we asked everybody we saw, and nobody had seen him. A couple of people actually yelled at us for playing such a terrible joke. We started to wonder if we were crazy, because it was impossible. No one disappears for fifty years and comes back looking exactly the same. No one disappears for fifty years and comes back, period. But we knew we’d seen him. We didn’t make it up.

We started to wonder, though, if someone had played a prank on us. So when we got home, we Googled his name. And there was his picture, clear as day. The boy we saw was definitely Thomas Leonard. Without a doubt. Same hair, same freckles. We tried to tell people, but no one would listen. We went to bed thinking we’d seen a ghost, and that it was probably the weirdest thing that would ever happen to us, and that maybe we didn’t want to go to the creek ever again.

And then, the next morning when we woke up, we saw the news. We couldn’t believe it. Who would believe it?

See, on the same evening that we found Thomas Leonard, on the longest day of the year, at the creek down the hill from town, Rebecca Bishop disappeared. She’d ridden her bike down there alone right after we left. We’d just missed her.

It’s been about three months, and they’ve only ever found her shoes. She’s the new biggest, saddest, scariest bedtime story.

Maybe fifty years from now we’ll go back. We might be crazy, but maybe we’ll do it. Maybe we’ll all still be here, in fifty years. We’ll be old. It’s so long, and we make promises to each other all the time we know we won’t really keep. But maybe we’ll keep this one, and we’ll be there, at the creek, waiting for her.

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I will never stop learning.

Here’s something I know: I am white.

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Here are a few things I also know, because I am white:

I have never had to change how I speak, dress, or do my hair for people to take me seriously and respect my intellect. I have never feared for my life during a police encounter, or worried that, should I be pulled over for a minor offense like speeding, I could be removed from my car and restrained, searched, or handcuffed for no stated reason. I have never questioned my place in society, my ability to access educational institutions, or how others see my humanity. I have never, ever been the minority in any room, ever. I have never been asked if I own my property. I have never been told to “act white.” No one has ever called the police on me for walking in a park, having a barbecue, selling bottled water, or playing with a toy in a public space. No one has ever asked me if my hair is real, and I can go to pretty much any stylist I want to get my hair done. No one has ever attacked me, hurt me, lied about me, or threatened me when I’ve shared my thoughts and stood up for what I believe in. There are no mechanisms of power currently in place to curtail my rights and opportunities in this society, and almost all of my elected leaders look like me. I know that I will be given the benefit of the doubt in my interactions with authorities and employers. I know I will never be treated poorly when moving into a “nice” neighborhood, and that an overwhelming majority of people living in that “nice” neighborhood will look like me. I know that my name will never be laughed at or questioned. I know my family’s name and history going back generations, because they were not stolen from my ancestors, and because my ancestors were not brought to this country in chains.

That’s a lot, right? And these are not things I know because they’ve been taught to me in school. I’ve not read them in books. These are things I know because I live in a society that looks at whiteness as standard, as normal and basic, and everything else as different and other, and, in the worst cases, as dangerous and threatening. These are things I’ve internalized, been born into, without even realizing it.

I’ve always considered myself a smart, curious person, and so it’s been humbling, humiliating, and eye-opening to realize just how much I don’t know about my own country’s history, and how much I didn’t truly understand about how people of color experience life here. As I’ve come to see just how many gaps I have in my knowledge, I’ve been doing a lot of reading (and a little bit of watching). There are lots of lists out there right now for people who want to learn. Here’s one, and another. Here’s one for children. And here’s one for movies, if that’s more your style. And one more. I don’t want to rehash these lists, and I certainly don’t think I can put together anything better, but I do want to share, because people have asked me, just what I’ve been reading and watching.

MEMOIRS AND NON-FICTION

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me

A memoir from father to son. Powerful, emotional, personal, eloquent. I’d wanted to read this one for a long time. I’m glad I finally did. I cried a lot.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Devastating, heartbreaking, and inspiring. I read this in college, about thirteen years ago. I felt like it was important to revisit it now, in this moment, with older eyes and more life experience. I was right. And, also, I cried a lot.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for What People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

White Fragility

Helpful, but humbling. It’s worth noting that this is written by a white person, and specifically targets a white audience.

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson

White Rage

Shocking, eye-opening. I needed a drink once I finished this one. I couldn’t believe just how much I hadn’t learned in school. It made me angry, and then made me sad, and then made me resolve to keep learning.

ARTICLES

“The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

“Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, ‘Never again.’ But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”

“How I Discovered I am White” by renegademama

“In other words, it’s ‘white’ until further notice. It’s ‘white’ until proven otherwise. It’s ‘white’ or it’s the ‘other,’ and it has nothing to do with actual numbers, percentages of ‘minority’ population. It has to do with power. It has to do with the culture of power. What do I mean? If a comedy film features a white family, it’s a comedy. If it features a black family, it’s a comedy for people of color. Think about it.”

“It’s Time to Listen and Believe” by Ben R. Williams

“But when someone points to the iconography of the Civil War era and says, with heart-breaking honesty, that those symbols are a painful daily reminder of the horror that their ancestors endured? When someone says that many of these symbols were erected during the Civil Rights era to intimidate people like them and keep them in line?

My responsibility is to listen to them and believe them.

When someone tells you what hurts them, you don’t get to tell them they’re wrong.”

MOVIES

13th

This was so, so hard to watch. But is so, so important to watch. You think slavery is a thing of the past? This documentary will make you think again.

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America

A mockumentary that plays with the idea that the Confederacy won the Civil War.

WHAT’S NEXT?

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

How to Be an Antiracist

I’m reading this one now, and I’m a little less than halfway through. So far, I’m struck by Kendi’s honesty, and this book feels very personal and intimate.

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad

Me and White Supremacy

This one was recommended to me by a friend. I’m intrigued and excited by the title and the premise. I’ll probably start on it next week.

The Pittsburgh Cycle by August Wilson

This is a collection of ten plays, each of which takes place in a different decade of the 20th century. I read all ten in college, and I think it’s time to reread them. They made a huge impact on me back then, and I expect they’ll do it all over again.

This is not a conclusive list, and I am not done. I won’t ever be done. I will keep learning, because even though I am sad, ashamed, and exhausted, it is my responsibility to educate myself and be better.

I’ve been encouraging others to do the same. It has not always gone well. It’s hard to hear that your people are the villains in someone’s story. It’s hard to see that your ancestors weren’t on the right side of history. It’s hard to contend with being part of systems you didn’t build and didn’t notice but have still benefitted from. I know that. I’m struggling with it, too. But it’s a necessary struggle, and it’s part of a necessary change that’s incredibly, tragically overdue.

Loving Day

I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.” –Mildred Loving

Today is Loving Day.  It commemorates the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized interracial marriage in this country.  The case was Loving v. Virginia.  The court issued its decision in 1967.  That’s only 53 years.

Today is also the day that Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist working in Mississippi, was assassinated. He was only 37.  He was a World War II veteran.  He was murdered in 1963.  That’s only 57 years.

Today also marks the anniversary of a mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.  49 people were killed, and it was deemed a terrorist attack by the US government.  It happened in 2016.

When I was in first grade, I had a boyfriend.  I don’t remember a lot about him, but I have a vivid memory of walking up and down the gym floor, holding his hand and smiling.  My skin is almost scary white.  If I were a condiment, I’d be mayonnaise.  My boyfriend was black.  We were “boyfriend and girlfriend” for less than a day, because later, after the hand-holding in the gym, someone told me that some people don’t like it when black people and white people are together, and they might be mean to me.  It scared me, and made me feel like I’d done something wrong.  This happened in Virginia, in 1992.

Primary school photo

When I was in high school, I was part of an amazing community theater.  It was just good fun to be up on a stage, in a costume, singing and dancing.  But even then, and especially looking back on it, I saw what inclusiveness, what love and listening, could mean to kids who were afraid to be themselves, because they’d been told by the churches in the area that who they were and what they wanted was something evil and abominable.  No one should ever be afraid that way.

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I’ve had trouble writing much of anything lately.  My heart and mind are not in it, and I feel like my (white, straight) voice is not the voice for this moment.  I don’t even know what to say, really.  These hurts are not in some faraway past.  They are now.  Ruby Bridges, the first child to desegregate an all-white school, is only 65-years-old.  George Floyd died a free citizen of this country, deserving of every single right and privilege that entails, with a knee on his neck in the street, pleading to breathe.  He was murdered on May 25th.  That’s less than a month ago.  The Trump administration has rolled back health protections for LGBTQ people.  It was announced today.

As we celebrate Loving Day today, I’m thinking of how far we still have to go here in the U.S. before we truly love all of our people, and before all citizens have the equal protection under the law that they deserve, and before all lives truly do matter.

I decided several years ago, when I started this blog, that I would try to stay away from politics.  I wanted to write about reading and writing and ideas and crazy adventures.  And I didn’t want to ruffle feathers.  I’ve spent a very large chunk of my life trying not to ruffle feathers, worrying about saying the wrong thing.  But I cannot stay silent, especially today, especially now, and sit complicit on the wrong side of history.  Make no mistake – what’s happening now is a fight for America’s soul, and it’s been going on for a long, long time.  This is not about politics.  This is about humanity.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” –The Declaration of Independence

The Bridge

“You do it.”

“No, you do it.”

“You big baby.”

“That’s mean! You’re always trying to scare me!”

Allie and Michael lay on their bellies, staring into the damp, moldy crawlspace under their red brick ranch-style house.  They’d explored every other inch of the place, starting with the attic, over the course of the last week.

“It’s not my fault you’re a big fraidy-cat,” Allie said.  She scooted forward along the bright green grass until her head and shoulders had disappeared into the dark.  “There’s nothing under here except dirt and spiders.”

“I hate spiders,” said Michael, and shuddered.  He sat up and brushed off his Yankees T-shirt.  “I want to go home.”

“This is our home.”  Allie emerged from the crawlspace with smudges of brown grime under her chin.  “Dad got a new job, remember?  We live here now.”

Michael’s bottom lip began to quiver.  Allie put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed it lightly.  “It’ll be okay,” she told him.  “Don’t cry, dummy” she said, and stood up.  “Let’s go have lunch.”

Allie and Michael grew up in the city.  They’d lived in a cramped fourth floor walk-up above a bodega all their lives, and this new house in the country, with lots of windows and a wide-open yard, frightened them both just a little.  It excited them, too.  They’d never had their own rooms, and sometimes, at night when the unfamiliar noises got to be too much, Michael would climb into Allie’s bed, and they’d huddle together imagining car horns and sirens.  Their mother had died in December, and their father had decided they all needed a change of scenery and some fresh air.  Now, in May, a little more than a week after moving in, all three of them secretly missed traffic and crowds and hustle.

Their house sat on a dead-end, gravel road in a valley, surrounded by old-growth forest six miles away from a one-grocery-store town.  Allie and Michael hadn’t quite worked up the courage to explore the woods, but they had spent time walking up and down the road, waving to the few neighbors they had and making up stories about them.

“Mrs. Roberson has an army of rats in her basement!”  Michael didn’t like Mrs. Roberson.  She had a cloudy left eye and a hunch in her back.  She’d dropped off a broccoli and rice casserole for them, though, the first night they’d spent in their new home.  Michael didn’t like that either.  He hated broccoli.

“Heather Fields hit a boy with her car once, and she didn’t even stop!”  Allie, who at eleven was all knees and elbows, and showing the first signs of acne on her cheeks, was just a little jealous of the beautiful, sophisticated sixteen-year-old Heather.  She drove a red sports car and had offered to take Allie to the mall three towns over once school was out.

After they’d eaten, just past the high heat of the day, and with nothing left to uncover in their house and all of their toys still tucked away in boxes, Allie and Michael went for a walk.

Michael noticed the narrow dirt trail first.

“Where do you think that goes?” he asked, pointing into a dark canopy of tree limbs and thick vines, down a path barely wide enough for two people.  “I never saw it before.”

“‘I’ve never seen it.’  Talk right, Michael.”  Allie peered down the path herself.  “Let’s go look.”

Allie dragged Michael along at first, keeping a tight grip on his sweaty hand, but he got excited and broke her hold when they found a long wooden bridge.  It spanned about a hundred feet, over a slow-flowing creek and above a field full of yellow buttercups.  Michael ran to the middle and looked down.

“There’s lots of dead trees down there,” he yelled back to Allie.  “And there’s a snake in the water!”

Goose Creek

“Don’t go down there,” Allie called to him, and quickened her own pace, careful not to step too hard on the old boards.  “This thing’s really old, Michael.  It’s not safe,” she said, once she reached him.  “Let’s just keep going.”

The trail seemed darker as they walked on, the tree canopy closer, and all the leaves brittle and lifeless.

“Do you hear that?” Allie asked Michael.

“I don’t hear anything,” he said.

“Exactly,” she answered.

“Stop trying to scare me!”

“I’m not!  I just think it’s weird.”  Allie grabbed for Michael’s hand again and pulled him closer to her as they kept walking.

Ten minutes later, the canopy opened up to reveal a fork in the trail, and at its center, a stone farmhouse, tucked away behind two of the biggest sycamore trees Allie and Michael had ever seen.  The house’s shutters were ragged, bright white that had gone gray, and its metal roof looked close to collapsing.  On its rickety front porch, a gray-haired old man in faded denim overalls sat in a rocking chair.  He stood when he noticed them.

“You two lost?” he asked.

“No sir,” Michael answered.

“We were just walking,” Allie added.

“Only people ever come see me are lost,” the old man said.  He beckoned them forward with a paper-thin arm.  “Sit with me a while?  I just made some strawberry ice cream.  Seems a good day for it.”

Allie and Michael looked at each other, and then up at the man, and walked up the front porch steps side by side.  Allie sat on a whitewashed porch swing off to the right, and Michael on the top step.

“I’m Amos,” the old man told them.

“Allie Daniels,” Allie replied.

“I’m Michael,” said Michael.

“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Amos,” Allie added.

“Nice to meet you two, as well,” Mr. Amos said.  “I’ll just step inside a minute and be back with some of that ice cream.”  The screen door creaked close behind him.

“Is this okay?”  Michael chewed at the nail of his pinky finger.

“I guess so,” said Allie.

“Dad always tells us not to bother grownups.”

“He invited us,” Allie reasoned.

Mr. Amos returned holding three ceramic mugs overflowing with ice cream, each scoop studded with bright red strawberries.  He presented one to Allie and one to Michael, and sat back in his chair with his own.

“I always did love strawberry ice cream best,” he said.  “You’re lucky you stopped by while they’re in season.”

“What’s that mean?” asked Michael.

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

Allie explained that they’d just moved from the city, and that they hadn’t even started school yet, and that Michael wouldn’t know a fresh strawberry from a spaghetti noodle. “And mom always did the grocery shopping before.”

“Before what?” Mr. Amos asked.

“Our mom died,” said Michael.

Mr. Amos sat his empty mug down on the window ledge behind him.  He shook his head and tucked his knuckles under his chin.  “I’m real sorry,” he said.  “My wife died about three years ago.”

“Do you live here alone?”  Allie felt bad asking the question right after it came out of her mouth.  “Sorry.  It just looks like really a big house for one person.”

“I’ve been here a while,” he said, and got an odd sort of foggy look on his face.  “Things never really were the same after she went.  Seems like I used to live totally different.”

They all sat silent for a moment.  Allie picked at a hole in the seam of her pink tank top.  “Everything’s different now for us, too,” she finally said.

Michael, from his perch on the top step, slurped the rest of his ice cream down in one bug gulp, and said, “I don’t like it here.  It’s too quiet and there’s nothing to do.”

“Well, now we got each other, don’t we?”  Mr. Amos got up and clapped his wrinkled hands together.

“Really?”  Michael’s eyes grew to the size of saucers.

“We could come back tomorrow,” Allie said.  “We could bring some books and games and stuff.  Have you ever played Crazy Eights?”

“I don’t reckon I have,” Mr. Amos said.  He came around to collect their mugs.  “But I still got room in this old brain for some new stuff.”

Allie glanced at Michael, and the two of them stood up in unison.

“We should get back home and stop bugging you for now,” Michael said.

“You’re not bugging me at all,” Mr. Amos said.  He nudged the screen door open with his bare foot and stepped inside, clutching the mugs to his chest.  “Y’all wait just one more minute before you leave.”

When he came back this time, he handed Michael an intricately carved little wooden fox.  “I carved that when I was about your age,” he said, “from a sycamore tree in my back yard.  Looked just like one of those before it fell down in a storm.”  He pointed to the trees in front of the house.

“Can I keep it?” Michael stared down at the fox in his palm, and wondered just how long it took Mr. Amos to make it.

“I think you should have it,” Mr. Amos answered.  “It’s meant for a boy, not for an old man.  It feels like it’s been sitting here waiting for you.”

“Thank you,” Michael said.  He looked at the fox one more time before stuffing it, as gently as he could, into the pocket of his khaki shorts.  “Can you teach me how to make one?”

“I sure can,” Mr. Amos said.  “Y’all come back and see me whenever you want.”  He smiled at them.

“Thanks,” said Michael, and smiled back.  Allie realized it was the first time he’d smiled since they moved.

“Thank you for the ice cream,” said Allie.  “We’ll come back tomorrow, before lunch.”  She paused.  “If that’s okay,” she added.

“I look forward to it,” Mr. Amos said.  “It’s been a long time since I had company.  I think I’ll sleep real good tonight, now I’ve got two new friends to see in the morning.”

Allie and Michael stepped off of Mr. Amos’s porch and out toward the path.  They turned around once, just before they reached the sycamore trees, and waved.  The old man waved back, and, as they walked away, Allie and Michael never heard the creak of his screen door.

************

They went back the next day, carrying a cardboard box full of sandwiches, chips, sodas, and books for Mr. Amos, and a deck of cards, so they could to teach him to play Crazy Eights.  They found the dirt trail, and crossed the bridge, but found no house at the fork in the path, and no sign that the house behind the sycamore trees, or the old man who lived there, had ever existed in the first place.  In his pocket, Michael felt the solid weight of the little wooden fox.

************

The following May, as the school year wound to a close and Allie and Michael began to dream about summer and all of its promise and possibilities, they decided to look for the house at the fork one more time.  They had to do it in the morning, because Allie had a sleepover later that day, and Michael wanted to meet some of his friends to practice for football.  He’d be old enough to play in the fall, in the youth league in town.

They didn’t expect to find anything, and couldn’t explain how they’d ever found anything in the first place.  None of their neighbors knew of a man called Amos, and all of them insisted there had never been a trail off of the road, or a bridge, or a stone farmhouse.  The whole neighborhood, they said, had been carved out of the woods only twenty years ago.  But Allie and Michael wanted to go back and see, for themselves, just in case, and so on a humid, overcast day, they set out looking for the trail.  They found it, and the bridge, and the fork and the giant sycamore trees.  Only now, instead of Mr. Amos’s stone farmhouse, there was a log cabin, and on its porch, a young man with dark hair in a plaid shirt rested in a red Adirondack chair.  He stood up when he noticed them coming.

“You kids lost?”

Allie and Michael looked at the young man, and then at each other, and walked up the front porch steps.

Loudoun Local: History and Preservation in the Time of COVID-19

“Too often, discussions about preserving and investing in critical places is deemed non-essential or a nice thing to do in good times. But the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that places are even more important in challenging times.” –Nicholas Redding

I came across this article a few weeks ago, and it got me thinking – what does historic preservation look like right now?  And does it even matter in such a frightening and uncertain time?

I live in a historic village, built around a gristmill that dates back to 1807 and still functions today.

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Sometimes, President James Monroe, who called this little village home in his later years, even comes to visit.

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I’ve lived here since 2016, when my husband and I decided to do the crazy thing we’d been talking about for the last five or so years and buy a 200-year-old house.  We have never regretted that decision, and I doubt we ever will.  We live in a home with a story, where generations of families have lived before us, where people watched soldiers pass by on their way to a major cavalry battle and where we find evidence every day of just how much has changed in our little corner of the globe.  Our house is part of America’s history, and we have the honor of serving as guardians of that history.

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You don’t just live in a building this old.  You experience it.  And that applies to historic preservation, generally.  It’s all about the experience, because there’s nothing quite like firsthand knowledge to help you appreciate exactly what you’re protecting.  So, how do we approach historic preservation in this historic moment?  And more specifically, how should we approach it where I live in Loudoun County?

Presence, engagement, and experiencing history online.

Take a look at some of our most well-preserved historic sites in America, and you’ll see people.  Lots of people, physically present – walking on the battlefields of Bull Run and Gettysburg, watching reenactments at Williamsburg and Jamestown, exploring the homes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Emily Dickinson, and Frederick Douglass (one of my favorites, that one).  It is interesting, memorable, and valuable to immerse yourself in history.

But what do you do when you can’t?

In Loudoun, we’ve gone virtual.  Loudoun’s Heritage Farm Museum has created a collection of online resources, their “Virtual Museum.”  They’ve also become a pickup location for the Loudoun Made Loudoun Grown Marketplace, which itself has gone digital.  The Mosby Heritage Area Association, a non-profit devoted to preservation through education, has created extensive online programming and hosts almost nightly events on their Facebook page (my favorite is “History on Tap,” and you should check it out).  And Oatlands Historic House and Gardens has started a blog, “Oatlands Originals,” to share a virtual collection from their archives, and has begun hosting a video series for tours of the property, including the idyllic gardens and grounds managed by Mark Schroeter, a respected horticulturalist with extensive experience maintaining and curating historic gardens.

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So many of our museums and non-profits in Loudoun have worked hard over the last several weeks to move their programming online, and to offer tours and education virtually.  It’s not the same, sure, but it’s what we can do, right now.

Funding in the middle of a pandemic.

At the best of times, preservationists often have to fight tooth and nail for the funding they need.  Unfortunately, desperate times often see that funding diminished, reallocated, or revoked altogether.  Just recently, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted to cancel funding for the Loudoun Museum, a move made more devastating by the fact that they’d previously approved that funding.

I’m not going to argue politics here.  We are living through extraordinary times, and difficult decisions are being made at all levels of both civilian life and government.  That being said, many museums, historic sites, and non-profits that promote preservation survive on donations from their communities.  These are scary and turbulent times, though, and if you can’t offer financial support, you can still spread the word and be vocal about what you love.  Word of mouth will never NOT be powerful.

Preservation requires passion.

And your voice is a resource, just like your dollar.  Preserving historic sites often feels more like a battle than a project.  No matter the issue – funding, recognition, apathy – preservation is tiring and sometimes thankless work.

In my village, we worked for the better part of three years to preserve several of our historic structures when our own elected representatives moved to demolish them.  It took a petition with over 5,000 signatures, hours of phone calls and knocking on doors and answering questions and making statements at public hearings before we were finally heard.  But we were, and the historic fabric of our village should hopefully remain intact for future generations of Loudouners to explore and experience.

Now, not even a year later, there’s a brand new issue, and a brand new petition, as the community works to protect a battlefield and the rural viewshed of a historically significant church and cemetery.

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Loudoun’s elected representatives continue to look for quick and easy ways to solve problems, even if they directly conflict with public sentiment, and even though we’re in the middle of a pandemic that stifles public input and engagement.  And no matter how this one ends, in another year, there will be another fight, and another after that.

The sad and difficult truth is that in a world always looking out for the next big thing, on the hunt for instant gratification, the long and labor-intense process of preserving historic structures and protecting historic areas is, for many, not a priority.

It takes energy and passion to make an impact in a world that too often just doesn’t care, and Loudoun County sits squarely in ground zero between the vital need for historic preservation and the rising tide of new suburbia.

Connecting through history and preservation.

Click on almost any piece of journalism about Loudoun County, and you’ll read about the stark divide between its suburban, technology-infused east and its rural, farm-economy west.  Here’s one, for reference, aptly titled “A Tale of Two Counties.”  It’s such a classic divide in America, and here in Loudoun, one of the richest counties in the country where eastern residents regularly enjoy winery weekends and polo matches in the west, it would be funny if it weren’t so damaging.

A few years ago, the Chair of the Board of Supervisors caused a minor kerfuffle when she remarked that she regularly hears people say “idiotic things” about the county’s rural west.  She apologized, but the wound she prodded was open long before her election, and it has never really closed.

In the early 2000s, a group proposed secession of Loudoun’s rural west, and that sentiment lingers today, newly invigored by discussions around an updated comprehensive plan.  Residents in the east complain when schools close for snow-covered dirt roads in the west, and in the west, long-time property owners worry about encroaching new development.  And just today, a group of three supervisors sent a letter to Virginia governor Ralph Northam requesting that, unlike the rest of Loudoun County, the rural west be allowed to begin Phase 1 of reopening after a month-long stay at home order.  Residents are divided on this, too, with many in support of loosening restrictions, and others concerned about the potential impacts of reopening too quickly.

In this climate of divided politics, opposing values, and different priorities, it’s hard to imagine anything might bring us together here in Loudoun, but we share a rich heritage and a unique history.  They belong to all of us.  Loudoun’s story is America’s story, from battlefields and farmhouses to office buildings and suburbs.  When we invest our time, our energy, and our resources in preserving our historic spaces for future Loudoun residents, we reconfirm our connection to this shared experience.  When we agree that historic places matter and deserve to be protected, we recommit to moving forward together.  Perhaps now, more than any other time in recent memory, Loudoun County needs its preservationists.

“We remember the tremendous power that physical, authentic places hold in our lives. Places provide the setting to embrace our desire to connect and engage. We must remember that feeling as we rebuild.” –Nicholas Redding

Little Things

Today I will dust the china.

It is the smallest

something

I can do when I am powerless.

I have said goodbye this year to:

Family

Friends

Routine and Work

and Feeling Safe.

I have said enough of goodbye this year to fill a book with just the word,

over, and over, and page after page.

I am tired of goodbye.

So today I will dust the china, because I can,

because there is at least a little power in little things.

And perhaps, tomorrow, I will weed the garden.

China

The Green Man

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Leland Foley always worked at night, when the little village was sleeping.  In the forest behind the small collection of farmhouses and cottages, no larger than thirty households, he’d found his latest project.  Among the dark thickets, surrounded by black branches stretched against silver-blue light, seated high and relaxed on his bright yellow excavator, he’d hack and push and dig and turn, and by morning, would survey his work with a proud grin and a cigar.

The night before the village’s annual Arbor Day festival, Leland worked.  It had rained all week, and the ground beneath his machine was soft and pliable.  The narrow river that wound through the length of the woods flowed high.  A chorus of owls and crickets and foxes sang and cried, and Leland was glad the motor of the excavator drowned out the cacophony.  Leland liked quiet in the woods, because it meant he could focus on the sound of making money.  Every crack of every limb, each thud of a fallen tree onto damp earth, sounded, in his mind, like the ping of a penny dropped into a piggy bank.

He’d had a piggy bank, when he was a boy.  It had been a gift from his father, who, as Leland had torn open cheerful red wrapping paper and clawed into a cardboard box to get at his birthday present, had imparted the wisdom by which Leland lived his life: “Bullshit walks,” his father had said, and placed a firm hand on his shoulder, “and money talks.  Remember that, son.”

Leland had since grown up, grown nearly old, and had given the same gift and advice to his own young son when the boy had turned eight.  Only he’d added, “Money means you can leave a mark, kiddo.”  The boy had looked at him dully, attention already moved on to the next brightly-wrapped package, some kind of toy, probably.  “You haven’t done anything with your life if you don’t leave a mark.”  His wife, her hands crossed at the waist of her pink silk house robe, had glared at him across their heavy oak breakfast table, but had said nothing.

In the morning, Leland and his family would join in the Arbor Day festivities and plant a tree in the village square.  His wife had insisted.  “At least try to make them like you,” she’d nagged, and argued that everything would be easier if he was on good terms with the villagers.  He did not look forward to the festival, but he would participate, if only for the photo opportunity.  He had several acres to clear before then, and so he kept at work, lulled into an easy rhythm by the beeping of the excavator, thinking of nothing in particular.

At around 5:00, with only an acre or so left to go and the first gray light of morning on the horizon, Leland took a break.  He climbed down and stretched his gangly arms and his thin legs.  He walked around the work site and surveyed his progress, his tired eyes sweeping over the flattened landscape, visualizing what would come next.  He’d already created a few nature trails, had made plans for a gazebo, a pond, and a tennis court, and would soon start clearing lots for large, luxury homes.  Maybe twelve, he thought, or a few more.  People would pay a lot to live in close-knit, characterful villages these days, and if no one else would take advantage of this free and empty space, then he certainly would.

He’d leave it to others, of course, to do the building, and he’d pay them well, with the profit from selling the timber.  But the clearing, the earth-moving, that he liked to do himself, the product of his own labor.  When this project was done, the village would be remade from a sleepy, old world hamlet into a new, modern, luxury community, one that he’d envisioned and created.  He’d build a town for the twenty-first century, a legacy he’d leave behind for everyone to see.  The villagers didn’t like it, had let him know and had complained to the local zoning board, but they would come around.  And if they didn’t, Leland didn’t much care.

He walked forward a few steps, loosening his stiff knees, feeling the give of the newly turned earth beneath his heavy work boots, and saw an orange flicker in the close distance.  It took a moment for him to process, but he realized he was looking at a campfire.  And a campfire meant a trespasser.  As quietly as he could, he made his way back to his SUV, a walk made longer knowing he wasn’t alone on his land, and grabbed the baseball bat he kept for self-defense.  And just in case, he tucked his gun into his belt.

He snaked, quick and silent, towards the campfire, and saw a young man, probably not more than twenty, reclining against a tall ash tree, his head cocked back and cradled in his hands, his long legs stretched in front of him.  He looked to be sleeping, but Leland approached him with caution.  In the firelight, it was hard to make out details, but Leland thought he saw a shock of red hair, a crooked nose, and, a few feet away, stashed against a boulder, a blue backpack.  He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, the young man opened his eyes and smiled.

“Well, hello, sir,” he said, cheerfully.  “What brings you to this neck of the woods?”

“I own them” Leland answered, flat and sharp, “and you’re trespassing.”

“Oh, I’m sorry about that.”  The young man reached into his pocket and produced a tattered map.  “I never could read these things,” he said.

“The highway’s a few miles east,” Leland told him.  “You should move on, or I’ll have to call the police.”

“Sure,” the young man said.  “Only you never answered my question.”

“Excuse me?”

“What are you doing out here in the woods?”  The young man stared at Leland with wide, curious eyes.

“I’m working” Leland barked.  “And these woods belong to me.”  He added, for good measure and to make himself clear, “So you’d better move on.  Now.”

“Well, that’s silly,” the young man said.  “The wood’s are no place for working.”  He paused, thought for a moment, trained his eyes on the campfire. “Not for regular folks, anyway.”

“Yeah, well, regular folks have to work to make money,” Leland replied.  “And you’re in my way.”

“I think you’ll find you’re in mine,” the young man said, quietly, and if Leland thought he perceived a shift in the young man’s demeanor, a sudden coldness in his speech, he couldn’t be certain.  The young man looked up and added, with a bit more volume, “If the highway’s east, then I’d have to go through you to get to it.”

Leland had no answer to that, and said only, “I thought you were bad with directions.”

The young man leaned forward, began to shovel dirt onto the fire with his hands, and said, “I’m bad with maps, but I’m good with directions.”  He stood and stamped on the smothered embers a few times, and then stepped away.  He grabbed his backpack, hefted it onto his shoulder.  “And I’m good with the woods.  Seems like you are, too, in your own way.  Or bad, depending on how you look at it.”

Leland said nothing.

“Let me tell you a secret before I go,” the young man said, and stepped in close.  He leaned over Leland’s shoulder, his lips close to Leland’s ear.  “You’re standing in a fairy ring.”

Leland looked down, and found that he stood in the middle of a small circle of mushrooms.

“And the moon’s full,” the young man added.

Leland looked up.  Ten minutes ago, there’d been only clouds, but now, he could see the full moon, bright and looming in the lightening morning sky.  And wrong.

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The full moon wasn’t for another two weeks.  Leland was nearly certain.  He’d seen the information only this morning, when he looked at the weather.

“You should make a wish,” the young man whispered, and then laughed, loud and hardy.  He stepped past Leland, close enough that his threadbare backpack brushed Leland’s arm, and began to trudge through the underbrush, whistling as he walked.

Leland watched him go, didn’t dare move until he was out of site.  He went over their conversation in his head.  And he thought, in spite of himself and for the briefest moment, of a wish.  A wish to leave a legacy in these woods, to remake them.  A wish to make a mark.

Leland’s feet began to tingle.  He looked down again at the tiny, snow white mushrooms all around him, surrounding him on all sides, no higher than his toes.  He began to feel stiff all over, and realized he couldn’t move his knees, then his elbows, and then his neck.  Somewhere in the forest, he heard a fox scream.  Or perhaps it was the high-pitched yowl of his own voice, just before his lips sealed shut.  In his last moments, he thought of houses.  Neat rows of cream siding on a flat, sodded landscape missing its carpet of deep green forest.

And then he didn’t of think anything at all.

********************

In a little forest outside of a tiny village, near a serpentine slip of a river, stands a broad, dark-limbed tree that village children call “The Bad Man.”  It is an ominous thing, all black knots and rough, prickled bark, with leaves like human hands.  When the wind blows through its spindly branches, the villagers say it screams. The children insist that it holds the spirit of a greedy man who disappeared a long time ago, and they play a game to see who’s brave enough to touch it.  The adults don’t say so, but they grow up believing it, and they avoid that part of the forest.  The tree stands on its own, covered in a thick layer of black moss and poison vines, set apart from the ashes and sycamores around it.  At its base rests a ring of white mushrooms.  And high on its trunk, sticking out like a cancerous knot through the moss and vines, is an angry, twisted face.  The villagers say it’s been there for a hundred years, maybe more, like a blight that will never heal.