The Summer Road of My Mind


There are so many little things that seem inconsequential in the big world. Small things, like when my daughter handed me her bowl of black raspberry ice cream, giving me the first bite when it should have belonged to her and the sweetness of it was doubled.  There on the spoon and on my tongue was a flavor that took me in Time’s slipstream—down Route 39, riding in the shade of the maples that my best friend’s granddaddy had planted, past the spring on the hill that supplied our little town with good, sweet water.

I was in the car with my dad again, riding on a narrow road between yellow fields because it was summer.  He hadn’t said where we were going but I knew and I fidgeted a little because I was happy.  The windows were down and the dust came in and even that was something good, the wind and the dust and the sun over everything.

The tires crunched over gravel when we pulled up to the Texaco station, ringing the bell that came out of the hidden mouth of the tube that snaked across the pavement, letting everyone know we were there.  I could see a hand waving behind the station’s big front glass. I saw the embroidered red Texaco star on the gray shirt of the man who was waving. My dad swung the big car over the ringing tube again and lined up next to the red and white gas tanks that said they were “Fire Chiefs”. We were all exactly where we supposed to be.

I got out of the car.  My flip flops slapped against the bottom of my feet.  My toes and ankles were scratched from running through briars and creekbeds.  Inside, it smelled like oil and rubber and cigarettes.  That was exactly the way it was supposed to smell.  I was asked “What flavor today, little lady?”  and sometimes I picked chocolate and on some days black cherry, but never Neapolitan because vanilla took up took much space.  Today, I picked black raspberry.  It was scooped up and the cone was wrapped in a thin paper napkin and handed to me by hands that still smelled like Lava soap. The first taste was how the day felt and it was all pretty close to perfect.

The road I’ve been traveling lately has been a very different one from that summer road. The pavement seems tilted and glints with mysterious shards. The trees that line the way provide little shade, the leaves seem flecked with barbs. There have been more questions than answers. I ache a little from needing the feel of a benevolent sun on my skin.

So I needed a place that was familiar and safe and full of a simple richness. That’s what I tasted on the spoon tonight and when I thanked my daughter, I really meant it.





I come from a long line of invisible women. They were creatures of flesh and pulsing arteries, desires and frustrations, anger and bitten tongues, love and faith and doubt. They were fearful and brave and some pushed out babies and some never knew a man.

My grandmother from generations ago is being rocked at the bottom of the Atlantic, along with her two little children, Mary and Josiah. They were slipped off the side of a wooden ship before they reached American shores, their skin mottled with small pox. They died on board a ship with the comforting name of The Welcome, dying far away from their old home, watery miles from the new one, wrapped in a shroud and sent into the salt. And now their bones, maybe still together-I hope they’re still together-moved by currents or the wake of large fish, making designs in the sand. A dance free of muscles and cartilege and skin. Free of pock marks and fever. My grandmother lies there in the deep silence, and she rocks forever, her babies traveling around her.

Another grandmother, nameless, graveless, dying after giving birth to her first child, a boy.  The baby’s father was a fair skinned, blue-eyed descendent of an English merchant who shared a ship’s voyage to Pennsylvania with William Penn. The birth of a son was recorded, acknowledged in the well traveled two hundred year old New Testament that is in my keeping now. The mother, Native American, having delivered her infant is noted as “Unknown.”

A great-aunt, considered “different”, shunned by kin because of her affliction, stopped on a too warm summer’s day on her way up Back Mountain Road to ask for a cool glass of water from the kind woman in the farmhouse set back off the road. The woman, her husband gone to war, her belly round behind her apron, invited her in, gave her that cool water, and asked her to sit in the shade of the porch for awhile. My aunt stayed for seventeen years, raising the baby that was behind the apron and her two older siblings. Kindness was granted.

Her kin still denied her. She is buried in the cemetery where they all rest now, but her grave is unmarked.

They are all as real to me as the imprint of my mother’s lips on a love letter she wrote to my father before they were married, the sweet stain of her lipstick caught in the crease of the paper.

I walk with all these missing women, sharing their caul.


Unfamiliar Music

I’m sitting in a parking lot on a too-warm June day, waiting for my husband who is notoriously thorough in his shopping habits.

I’m watching people. I’m watching the rhythm and flow of other couples, families, all of them strangers to me.

The impatient ones who try to open the door before their partner unlocks it. The teens too tall for their newly stretched out bodies, doing their assigned duty of carrying bags for their mother, who is driving. The teen climbs into the passenger seat, waiting, just waiting until its his turn to flip on the engine, go where he wants to go. Until then, Mama holds the key.

Someone is always holding the key.

The rhythm and flow of our lives-my husband’s and mine- has become syncopated lately.

We’ve had our own unexpected dance.

We met on a bus.

We talked about everything.

He made me laugh.

I married him. He married me. All of our strangeness and offerings got stitched together. It was the most incredible surprise.

Last week, I had an unexpected surgery, done at midnight by capable people. I healed well during this whole week. I read myself silly and at the end of the week craved tomatoes and apple pie and got them. They were delicious.

In less than two days, I am facing another surgery. One that’s been in the works for awhile. So much is an elastic mystery. We none of us know what to expect.   My daughter is brave and quiet and studies me when she thinks I’m not looking.    My husband peels the skin from small tomatoes as a gift,  reaches for me while we’re reading.

We are unfamiliar with this script. We want to call for rewrite every now and again.

And yet, the music plays. Our feet are nowhere near familiar with the rhythm or the dance.

But if this be love, by God, play on. Please play on.



A Box of Spirit



Last spring, it was snakes.   This year it’s turtles.

Last year, creatures were shedding their skins all around me, leaving their cast-offs for me to find in shady places, among flowers, next to the rock they itched themselves against to free the sleek new thing underneath.  The skins were papery, see-through and etched with small patterns of the snake they used to be.   The designs came up like stretch marks.

Once, when the phoebes were building a nest under the eaves over the kitchen window,  darting up and down like feathered scythes, a long transparent strand escaped from the weaving and floated in front of the window,  weightless in the breeze.   It carried a pale pattern of diamonds where scales had been.

This year, it’s little turtles, barely here, the size of the center of my palm.  Their new shells are painted somehow while they’re in the egg, squares and half circles, gingko leaves,  Japanese fans.   They’re safe from mosquitoes but don’t know all the things they’re going to have to stare down and skirt around, all the steps that will seem like miles, all the potential cracks in their armor.

They stop me in my tracks on walks.   Their eyes are small chestnuts, shadows of the fruit of Appalachian trees that no longer exist.   They are flecked with fresh mown grass, showered with its green.

They don’t shed their skin.   They grow into it.  They’re out in the open and they’re staring me down, daring me to walk far and steady, away from blades.


I was on a familiar country road, pocked and pitted and bordered by dandelions and buttercups, its edges frayed—tire biters.

“Stop,” the sign turned toward me read, held by a man whose face was flat with boredom, his white hard hat flecked with pits from tossed up gravel. Lately, it’s been feeling like I’m always stopped in my tracks, some sign telling me to stay right where I am, a bored stranger carrying all the power.

Once, I had pulled over at this very spot when I caught a view of two bald eagles flying low overhead. I edged off the side, got out of the car, caught up in the sheer grace of the moment. Looking up, I heard the squeak of their calls to each other, a big winged bird with a small throated sound. Cars and trucks rumbled by. I pointed up; nobody slowed down or looked skyward. The eagles circled and dipped and rasped.

I had stopped of my own accord, staring up into the cirrus streaked sky, idling in wonder.

Now the man in front of my car spoke into a crackling radio, spun the sign around, giving me new directions.


I eased over the train tracks, over the road that was losing all its winter carved potholes. The smell of creosote was sharp and dark.

The road was smooth and quiet. I had been wanting a smoother road for a long time now.

The tires hummed over the new pavement. I turned the radio down. My thoughts unjumbled themselves from their dueling hemispheres of worry and disquiet.

“No Center Line” lit up in yellow in front of me. A sign, a portent, an omen.

It was a relief to not be divided down the middle, just for a minute. To have someone warn me that my regular guidance wasn’t available to me for a small space in time. I was on a smooth road, shining signs were giving me advice, my tires were the first ones to travel this new road. I was leaving tracks where none had been before.

I was aimed toward home. I could still feel the shadows of long ago eagles.


Thin Places


The Interstitium of Stone, Beartown State Park, WV


Last week I read the most incredible thing. Researchers have discovered a whole new organ in the body. Just like that. And we all have it.

It’s something called “The Interstitium”. It lives somewhere between our skin and our veins, a layer between what walks around in the world, exposed and vulnerable, and our viscera. They found it by accident because it hid whenever tissue samples were dried out in order to be studied. All of the magic went away when they removed the juice. Everything collapsed in on itself.

Then, a random tissue sample remained full of fluid and energy. When it was flattened on a slide, there was this thing, a portion of a mysterious organ, its internal real estate mirroring the expansiveness of the skin. It was living in the In-Between Place. A thin place where all the energy is and where the answers might be.

I was so excited I forgot to read about what exactly the organ does, or what it might do. It doesn’t matter. It’s got to be magic.

In my mind, it’s like webbing and it carries electricity. At night, I think about it glowing there, my own perpetual nightlight, because it knows I’m afraid of the dark.

I feel its pull and tug. It spreads out like solar flares or small waves coming up on shore. I see my Interstitium as those bioluminescent fish my son and his two best friends-eight years old and fearless-swam next to one night in the Rappahannock river, leaving watery trails of green ribbons glowing behind them while I stared and worried they might turn radioactive.

I think I glow like that now. I think we all do.

We carry our own Thin Places.

An April Day in Richmond


273633A9-39FF-4CB5-A01F-4605C7CE0BCCI’m thinking about what I saw this morning, driving by the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. What I saw was Spring. What I saw were flowers—big, little, and medium blooms that hadn’t been there four days ago. They were from bulbs and on trees so I don’t think they were snuck in during the night.

I don’t remember ever seeing such lit up blooms in my life even though I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley where the ladies of the church and competing garden clubs lined up their daffodils and narcissus, their hyacinths and tulips all along the stage in the gym of the school or in the Fellowship Hall of the church. Those buttery, pure flowers stood there, one to a vase, like pollinated gladiators, like powdered high school queens at homecoming waiting for their blue ribbons.

Today’s flowers were even more than that.

There must be a sort of energy underground, the dirt and the earthworms pulsing with it. The tendrils of the roots must reach toward the earthbound socket until they’re jolted with some sort of charge. All it takes is that one warm day and life comes up through the stem and the leaves, bursting out of the cup of color at the top of the flower.

All at once, it was Spring.

I got to drive by while it was happening.

Ghost Skin




“Wrestle gently with snakes.”- Valley Haggard, from her book
A Halfway House for Writers

I’ve always been terrified of snakes, have been since the time I was maybe eight and wandering around in the Monongahela forest behind my grandfather’s house. I didn’t know him much. I knew the woods better.

Everything was calm there under the branches. I think it was spring. And then in a patch of leaves and pine needles right in front of me, a snake. It was enormous. I’m sure it was. It was the copper color of last year’s final leaves and striped with diamond patterns. Its eyes were narrow. I knew it wanted to kill me.

I ran hard and fast out of where it had been safe just a minute before, down the hill to the back porch of the house where my grandfather lived his mysterious life. I never told a soul and I never went back into that part of the forest.

Last summer, for the first time in decades, snakes showed up in my yard. A long black racer draped itself on the walkway in front of my gate and wouldn’t let me pass. There was no threatening behavior on his part. His sleek, unexpected presence stopped me where I stood. After the third time, I started looking for him. When he wasn’t there, I checked places where he might be. I missed him. I missed whatever it was he was trying to tell me.

A garter snake surprised me in the yard one day, warming herself in a patch of summer sun just where I was walking. We were both terrified by the suddenness of each other. She turned herself into a green and yellow coil, all determination, no venom. I stood back but didn’t turn away from her. She was beautiful in her checkerboard skin.

We both watched each other from a safe distance until she unlooped, stretched, smoothed into the day lilies. Her eyes were round. I watched until she slipped away, her small head lifted. I took her picture before she left.

At the end of summer, there was a small snakeskin under the step, etched with a ghostly checkerboard design.

My Chinese zodiac sign is the snake.

My skin is shedding.





I’m thinking about Time and all the things we can do with it.

We can spend it.
We can waste it.
We can save it.
We can lose track of it.
We can watch it fly.
We can give it away.

We might long to just hold on to some of it.
We might be able to make a little Time.

Time can make us passive and we simply watch it go by.
It can make us aggressive and we want to grab some of it.
Just for ourselves.

Time is elastic, stretching out in front of us.
It’s a box, a container, and we want to fill it.
Time is quick and smooth, like mercury, and just won’t go
in a straight line.

Sometimes, it just changes and we’ll be walking along and all at once,
Time will stand still.
Then it travels, because we’re always wondering where it went.

It’s the thing that we’re reminded of as our children
change in front of our eyes; as our face does in the mirror.

Time touches our hair and makes it change color.
It’s a magician.

It speeds up without warning us.
It’s a trickster.

Time wants us to think it’s infinite.

And then, somehow, it just runs out on us.


The Claiming of Names


My grandparents’ house in Cass, West Virginia.

My athletic, competitive parents were probably expecting a boy child so when I showed up on a snowy spring morning, a month early, there was no name for me.

Several days went by.   Nurses armed with clipboards and starched in every way came in several times a day, nudging my parents toward not keeping me anonymous.

They briefly thought of Annette but even at seventy two hours and six pounds, I didn’t suit the perkiness of that name.

What was needed was something solid.   A name that meant something.

Mary.   For my grandmother.  My mother’s mother.  A gentle, soft-voiced woman, full of melancholy and kindness.

Jo.  For my mother Jolene.   All fire and spirit, salt and vinegar.   She’d crossed out her own birth name, the middle one, changing it from Belle to Isabelle-not because it was more poetic or melodic but because Belle was the name of the town madam and she would be damned if she shared a name with Belle Cross.

Mary Jo.   Named for my mountain matriarchs.

Years later, after waiting in line for two hours, my daughter and I were standing in front of Neil Gaiman, the man we’d come to see.    He was generous and gracious and personalized each book handed to him, using up the ink in fountain pen after fountain pen.

He looked at the sticky note with my  name.

”Mary Jo.”   He rolled it around in his mouth like taffy.

”Southern,” was all I could say.

”Mary.”   He paused.  “Jo.”

His small smile was curious.  The ink that held my name dried quickly and he handed the book he had written with the name I was given back to me.

I spent some time imagining that he would remember my double name, so far away from his English sensibilities-that it would appear in one of his yet-to-be-written stories.

I flattered myself.

There have been times when it has felt like the person behind that name has been like so much ink, glanced at and remembered in a vague way.

There were times when the wearer of it might have been named Echo because of the brief flare and quick fade of it.

When it came time to choose a new last name, one that belonged to me and not a man I was no longer married to, I didn’t return to the name I was born with, the maiden name.  I didn’t want to carry a name that no longer applied to me.

I took my mother’s name.  I chose the name my grandmother took on the day she married.

I took the last name of the two women I was nonchalantly named for, claiming the old story of the new me.