Pushpins

This is my first and only short story. I wrote in 2011. Published it on the blog under another name in 2012 and have since made a number of edits. I love this little story. I love Emeline and Jimmy. I hope you do too.

Emeline unrolled a map of North America and hung it next to the others in her bedroom. She uncapped a new, black marker and wrote “Autumn Foliage” at the top, just above British Columbia. Using a meticulous system of pushpins, journal entries, and stickers, Emeline tracked various elements of the natural world. The greening of the grass in Spring. The turn of the leaves in Autumn. The rate of snowfall at Christmas.

October was Emeline’s favorite month. She checked the weather reports and looked up images on the internet. Each day brought a new burst of color and another group of red, yellow, and orange pushpins on her map. Each day another set of stickers and records entered in her journal. From prior years observing the forest around her farmhouse in Southern Maine she knew the colors began in August. She also knew that weather conditions in the Spring and Summer had a direct effect on how much good color they would see.

This year had been perfect. Not too hot, not too cold. Not too wet, not too dry. The Farmer’s Almanac predicted the most spectacular Autumn in a century. Everyday Emeline took a walk in the woods behind her house, looking for signs of October. She looked for it in the cooling night air and the slow disappearance of mosquitos and lightening bugs.

In the August before 5th grade Emeline saw only green. “Perhaps I am too early,” she thought, “I’ll come back tomorrow.”

And she did.

And the next day and the day after that. She went to the woods every day for a week and for the week after that.

By September school had started, the air cooled, the lightening bugs no longer flickered in the twilight, and a fine mist settled on the morning air, but Emeline hadn’t put a single red, yellow or orange pushpin on her map.

The first report aired on Channel 5 News at 6, then again at 10:30 and 11. Pictures of green flooded social media. It was the lead story on all of the major networks.

“Good Evening. This in from New England. A strange phenomenon which scientists cannot explain. The leaves, usually sparkling with fall color by now, have not begun to turn.”

Each night stories came flooding in. In Montana, the Dakotas, Colorado, the leaves had not turned. Meteorologists, climatologists, biologists, could only speculate—global warming, climate change, polluted rivers. None of it made sense.

By mid-October Emeline gave up hope for a colorful fall. She watched to see what would happen in the South, where the leaves don’t reach their peak until November. But in Virginia and Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama, Texas and the High Desert, all that remained was green.

The night of the President’s first address on the subject, her parents invited friends over to dinner. Emeline wasn’t too pleased about this because it meant that Jimmy was coming too. Jimmy was a year older than Emeline. They’d been friends and playmates when they were little but Jimmy didn’t like science and teased her about her maps.

“Now, James Holden, you behave yourself tonight. Be nice to Emeline. Don’t tease your friends,” his mother said as they walked to the front door.

He kicked the dirt.

Emeline picked at her plate of chicken and mashed potatoes while the adults discussed the latest collapse of the Red Sox pitching staff, the unusual number of people attending Sunday services, the bushels of apples they’d picked, and the run on canned goods, water and ammunition down at Foster’s Provisions.

“Emeline, how are your maps coming this year?” asked Mr. Holden. “How are you handling this leaf situation?”
“Well . . .” said Emeline, pushing her glasses back up the bridge of her nose.

Across the table Jimmy adjusted his pretend glasses and took pretend notes in his pretend notebook while Emeline explained her new tracking method. His mother tweaked his ear.

After dinner Emeline helped her dad with the dishes then joined her mother and the Holdens in the living room. Jimmy lay on his stomach, chin propped up in his hands. While he didn’t like science, he did like the President and wanted to hear what she had to say. Emeline sat on her knees, notebook and pen in hand.

The President didn’t say much. She and other world leaders had listened to the advice of climate experts and come up with a plan should one be needed. Though what that was or why they would need one she didn’t say.

“In this time when we all feel anxious or afraid I urge you: Count your blessings, keep doing the work that makes this country great. God Bless You and God Bless the United States of America. Good night.”
“Well, that was a whole lot of nothing,” said Emeline’s father and turned the channel to the post speech analysis.
“Shut it off,” said her mother. “Let’s just enjoy the rest of our evening.”

In all other ways October was just as it had always been. The sky was clear and bright, the air crisped, and the morning mist thickened. The squash and apples and pumpkins grew plump and abundant in markets and road side farm stands. Chrysanthemums bloomed. Acorns crunched under foot and the evening light fragmented like stained glass. Front porches were decorated with corn husks, hay bales, and scarecrows. Stores across the country stocked and sold cinnamon spice scented candles, plaid tablecloths, wreaths and garlands of artificial leaves manufactured in China—where the leaves had also not turned.

To the surprise of all, people who’d been hoping for years to see New England in the fall kept their travel plans. Tourist trains went up and down Mt. Washington. Kayakers navigated the Penobscot. Thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail who started the summer in Georgia reached the summit of Mt. Katahdin sporting T-shirts that read, “I hiked the AT so fast it stayed green.” At Walden, people sat dazed on the shores of the pond, wondering what Thoreau would think of this green October.

As Halloween approached pumpkins were carved into jack-o-lanterns. Garbage bag ghosts and spiders hung from the trees. Jimmy was excited about candy and wanted to trick-or-treat as a pile of leaves but his mother said that was in bad taste. He shrugged and went as a skeleton.

Emeline did not enjoy Halloween. Not only had she dressed up as Marie Curie and had to keep explaining her costume, but the trick-or-treating was accompanied not by the twisted, naked tree branches pointing like a witch’s finger to the moon, but by an eerie canopy that blocked the stars.

A week into November the weather turned cold and stayed that way.

Just as it always did.

Emeline sat on the floor by the fireplace, her head resting on the hearth.

“Emeline?”
“Yes.”
“What are you thinking about?” her mother asked.
“I was just wondering. The leaves didn’t turn, but everything else seems to have happened right on schedule. We had Halloween, but it wasn’t the same. Thanksgiving isn’t much more than a meal and a parade, but what about Christmas?”
“Oh, you can’t stop Christmas,” said her mother.

In December, the anxiety over the leaves was channeled into a new fervor for the Holiday Season. More twinkle lights were stapled to houses; more electric candles placed in windows. People who usually put up an artificial Christmas tree opted for a fresh Frasier Fir or Scotch Pine. The taller the better. Christmas carolers went door to door. Church pews were full all through Advent. The news stopped reporting on the strange situation with the leaves.

On December 24th, Emeline left a plate of milk and cookies by the fireplace even though she knew she was too old for that sort of thing. She awoke the next morning to a blanket of snow, presents under the tree, a fire in the hearth, and baby Jesus in the manger of their crèche.

And so, the holidays came and went and soon the new year arrived. Emeline tracked the snowfall. It started right on time and followed all the average records. She wondered how the delicate maple leaves could bear the weight of the heavy snow.

In March, the ice thawed and Emeline rolled out her “Daffodil and Other Spring Flora” map, though she knew it would be a while longer before the little pockets of sunshine poked up through the muddy earth. But poke through they did and soon the April showers brought May flowers.

“And you know what May flowers bring?” Jimmy asked.
“What?” said Emeline.
“Pilgrims!”

Spring bloomed. June warmed. July filled with swimming, Bar-B-Qs, and Red, White and Blue. For a few precious days, the world forgot to worry about the leaves. But as the August heat reached its breaking point and the last lightning bugs of summer lit the night, anxiety returned.

Emeline bought a new map and pulled last year’s unused box of multicolor pushpins from her desk drawer. She hung the map on the wall next to the others, gathered her backpack with notebook, pen, and other necessities of science, took a deep breath, and set out on her daily walk.

To her dismay Jimmy, who’d gotten a little taller over the summer, was waiting by the trees.

“Want some company?” he asked.
“Not really.”
“Too bad.”

They walked deep into the woods, Jimmy laughing and telling jokes all the way. To her surprise she found him funny. His jokes were still pretty dumb, but at least he wasn’t teasing her. She was even more surprised to find that she’d been following him.

“Where are we?” she asked.
“Hang on, Em, just a little bit farther.”

When they came to a stream Emeline stopped. She was tired of hiking and wanted to observe and to record. She removed her backpack and sat down on a rock.

“Pretty huh?” Jimmy said.
“Yea. How’d you find it?”

He shrugged.
Emeline took the notebook and pen from her pack, opened to a blank page and looked out over the water, scanning the trees.

“Look!” she cried.
“What?! Where?!”
“Over there. Look!”

Across the water, through the tangle of oak and Hawthorne, was a single, yellow leaf.

“Oh Jimmy, it’s beautiful!”

He reached into his pocket and handed Emeline a pushpin.


Photo by Kelsey Knight on Unsplash

Angry

I am angry.

I am enraged that a survivor’s voice was mocked. I am angry that Dr. Ford was called “a credible witness” because of her composure. Had she testified with the same display of fury as Kavanaugh those who sought to discredit her trauma would have pounced on her behavior as that of an irrational, hysterical woman. 

I’m livid at the hypocrisy of McConnell who wouldn’t hold a vote on Merrick Garland because we were too close to an election but forced a vote on such a controversial candidate six weeks away from the midterms. I’m terrified at what this means for women, for LGBTQ communities, for the environment, for immigrants for the separation of powers, for the world my son will inherit.

I’m angry because I fiercely believe in choice – choice on what to do with one’s own body whether that be pregnancy or gender reassignment; choice to marry whomever one pleases and live wherever one wants; and of not having to choose between bread or medicine. 

I am angry because the events of the past few weeks (months, years) are in sharp contrast with the values I hold dear. If my viewpoint were other than it is, I would be overjoyed at this moment instead of stressed out and having a weird, mild shingles outbreak behind my left scapula. Behind my heart. 

Listening to the music of Tori Amos and shaking with fear and rage and the weariness that came from crying over Collin’s announcement to vote yes, I stopped at a red light on my way to pick Cole up from school and engaged in a most basic spiritual practice. I looked up at the trees and the sky. Both were still there. Steady, ancient, comforting. So often they remind me that my life is small and short and the troubles I feel today will pass. And more, that most of the things I worry about don’t come true. 

Most. 

The poets say our trees stand in silent witness to our human drama. But the silence is a lie. There is new understanding that trees talk. They warn each other of disease and take measures to protect themselves. And like us humans washing our hands to prevent the flu, it doesn’t always work. They get sick, they wither, they die. The idea that trees are mere witnesses to our drama is also a lie. They give up their bodies for our homes, our paper, our furniture, our fuel. They purify our air and give shade and shelter animals with whom we also share a kinship. We need them. And they need us. We give them our very breath. Each letting go for us is a drawing in for them. Each surrender a harvest. 

If we could hear the trees speak in human language what would they say about the rancor in our world today? How would they express anger, joy, compassion, rage? Would they be allowed to use hot words and actions the way Kavanaugh did at the hearings, or would they have to take the more conventionally acceptable route of feminine anger expressed in tears only to be dismissed as too sensitive and emotional? 

“We have a lot of women that are extremely happy — a tremendous number — because they’re thinking of their sons, they’re thinking of their husbands and their brothers and their uncles and others and women are, I think, extremely happy,” Trump said.*

He’s right about one thing, I am thinking of my son. What kind of ethos will he inherit? How do I help him navigate the landscape of manhood when I have no experience in the area? How do I ensure that he will have the strength to resist a culture of toxic masculinity that he will be exposed to just as surely as my niece will learn about mean girls and the virgin/whore dichotomy? How do I make sure my sweet boy is one of the men who cover a girl passed out on the couch with a blanket instead of his body?

How do I teach my son about rage?

Perhaps I am to be like the trees. To stand steadfast in the messiness. To breathe in his experience and exhale my profound love. To demonstrate compassion. To teach him to call his representatives even when it seems hopeless. To offer refuge and blanketing shade. And when the time comes, to show him what it means to burn. 


* https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2018/10/08/tremendous_victory_trump_celebrates_kavanaugh_win_138285.html

Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash

Harvest

Dear Friends,

Welcome to the season of harvest and release. As I meditate on the dynamic tension between these two energies it occurs to me that while I’m accustomed to the practice of letting go, I’m not that good at harvest because I tend to focus on how my labors don’t bear the fruit I imagine they should. Which is a terrible attitude to take toward life. 

Cole and I end each day with “gratefuls” but perhaps I should take them a step further. Perhaps I could celebrate the harvest by living into the questions: What have I done in my life for which I am proud? What dreams have I fought for and nurtured instead of let wither under the harsh conditions of the world? A few things come to mind.

  1. I wrote a book. And equally, I’m still writing. 
  2. I left a toxic marriage and maintain an amicable, business like relationship with my ex.  
  3. I’ve studied and practiced and taught yoga. And equally, I’m still doing those things.
  4. I have a beautiful, sweet, kind, funny, inquisitive child with whom I get to share my days. And who always points to me and says, “You” when we do our gratefuls. I know he’s being lazy so I press him to be a little more imaginative. Then he comes up with things like “my nosy nose.” 
  5. I traveled to New Mexico and hiked up a mountain.

It feels showy and uncomfortable to write these down. Self-criticism is so much easier than self-celebration. The later feels irresponsible and gross. If I’m not in criticism, I say to myself, I’m in complacency. But the irony is that when I’m too critical I become paralyzed by my perceived inadequacy. When I’m in healthy self-reflection I am better able to act. 

In these first few days and weeks of Autumn as the squashes and apples and golden hued trees abound, I will accept the invitation to harvest. I’ll make it my word or breath prayer. Maybe I’ll buy some kitschy harvest decor at Michael’s as a reminder. I’ll ask for night dreams and waking awareness of how harvest exists in my life. I’ll do a focused journey meditation. I’ll look for it in sacred texts. 

I extend the same invitation to you. What have you done in your life for which you are proud? What dreams have you nurtured? Let’s gather together and celebrate the harvest. There’s time enough to let it go. 

Love,
Melinda

Photo by Fischer Twins on Unsplash

The Race

I commit to a lifetime of ongoing conversion and transformation, recognizing that I am always on a journey with both gifts and limitations.

~ Christine Valters Paintner, Monk Manifesto

Rex Stout, author of the Nero Wolf mystery series, was a genius. Once a word was down on paper he never changed it. For one who perhaps expects too much of herself the impossibility of such an ideal is laughable. And liberating. 

Recognizing something is impossible is just as freeing as recognizing something is possible. 

A year ago the idea of running a mile seemed impossible. But my stress level was so high last December I found myself eagerly doing intervals on a treadmill. I thought it would take me months to be able to run a mile. It only took a few weeks.

“Soon you’ll be getting a 5K team together,” said Michelette. 

I scoffed at the idea of a 5K. But then, sure enough I found myself thinking about it. Maybe . . . just maybe. 

Knowing I’d never put in the work without a tangible timetable, I signed up for the Carying Place Labor Day Race for Home. For two months I ran two to three times a week going as far as I could in a twenty-five minute time period. But I couldn’t do a full mile without stopping. What was possible on a treadmill where my pace was regulated and the air easy on the lungs just wasn’t happening outside. So I googled “couch to 5K”, found a 5 week program designed by an Olympic track coach, and began again.  

Three times a week I pushed myself through the intervals. By the end of July I felt discouraged. Most days I could sort of make it a mile without stopping. Sometimes I could do 1.5. With the race a mere month away, I knew I wasn’t going to make it to 3.1 continuous miles. 

I commit to a lifetime of ongoing conversion and transformation, recognizing that I am always on a journey with both gifts and limitations.

Conversion is one of the vows taken by Benedictine monks and oblates. I’ve read about it as a principle of daily improvement; of trying and failing and beginning again; and a willingness to be surprised by God. Conversion is a liberating principle. St. Benedict never asked for perfection. He demanded ardent commitment yet remained realistic about the frailties of being human. 

Quite without realizing it, in training for the 5K I embarked on a journey of conversion that tested my comfort zone and forced me to find the gifts in my limitation and my capabilities. Which is to say, I got to practice adjusting my expectations. My new goal was simply to complete the 5K even if I had to walk. 

Having never done this before, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I pictured a bunch of lean athletes in fancy gear running like gazelles, and little old me in my cheap cotton trying not to fall too far behind. Thank God I was wrong! 

Over five hundred and fifty diverse people ran and walked the course: some were solo, some in groups; there were moms and dads pushing strollers; old men, young men; old women, young women, and one in a Wonder Woman costume. Some had designer athletic wear, most didn’t. Only a fraction of the runners looked like the low body fat versions in my stereotyped imagination.

With all the positive energy and excitement of the crowd the first mile was easier than any mile I’d run before. The later half of the second mile was a challenge, but I kept pace with a woman from church and met my spontaneous goal of two continuous miles. On the third and final mile I kept up with two gentlemen in the their seventies who were doing run/walk intervals like me. This made me so happy. 

Recognizing something is impossible is just as freeing as recognizing something is possible. 

If I had held tight to my original goal of 3.1 continuous miles I would have failed, cried tears of disappointment, and been stuck in my bitter narrative that nothing ever happens the way I want it to.  Instead I lived my commitment to conversion. I celebrated the gift of being able to run at all, honored my current limitations, and crossed the finish line crying tears of joy.  

I’ll never write like Rex Stout and I’m good with that. After a modest rest I’ll get back to running and try again at a Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot. And if I’m not able to do it, or frankly no longer interested in doing it, that’s ok. What matters is not that I keep a commitment to 3.1 continuous miles, but to conversion; to transformation and to the recognition that this journey is always filled with gifts and limitations.  

 

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