Sewn Together

*Five years ago this week: Sandy Hook Elementary School, which should have been enough. This post contains gunshots. And sewing. With love. 

For reasons I do not completely understand, I am sewing a small sleeping bag, by hand.

First I cut a pattern from the large brown paper filler in the shipping box. I hold it up to the doll, who is blinking her eyes closed, lying still in her box. Her shiny two ponytails come to the waist of her cargo capris, which meet her wooly socks. She wears little pink hiking boots but can switch to even pinker crocs, presumably around the campsite in the evening. All eighteen inches of her will fit inside the sleeping bag.

For two dollars, I bought a yard of robin’s-egg blue satin. It was the closest thing I saw to whatever slippy material makes sleeping bags. This mini mummy-style bag will be extra silky—prom dress meets outdoor equipment. My palms smooth the satin onto our card table, and I pin the paper pattern onto it, as if I have done this before, but I haven’t. I also bought a lime green zipper, as if I know how to install it. Without consulting You Tube, my fingertips bend the satin along the zipper. I want to feel my way through this pretty, frivolous project.

I can sew. Last Sunday, I spent two hours sewing together the muscle bellies, then the skin on the underside of a dog’s chest. As I cleaned hair and dirt from deep inside the wound, I thought about the path of the bullet—perpendicular to the dog, grazing the sternum. My curved scissors trimmed away singed-grey tissue to reveal pink. We flushed and flushed the wound crater, trying to wash away what contaminates a body. Gunshot wounds are ugly. I imagined emergency doctors facing a person with such wounds—or, as has become frequent, many gunshot people in one event.

Gunshots in life—more abrupt than this wound alongside a holiday sewing project. Now it is bright blue satin and a camping doll for Christmas. Now it is flesh inverted, blown open. Our hearts bleed. We race towards the wounded. Then, when we could change the rules to help, we look away.

I understand that a gun can be a tool—a device held in your hand to perform a task. It can send a single bullet through a single deer in a field behind our house. In this animal, I leave the ugly wound, and we trim away the flesh for our freezer. We do this together, quietly, with mixed feelings. Even here, the gun is a tool for ending life, nothing else.

When do we need tools for killing? What do we gain from the freedom to have tools that destroy many lives, in moments? We gain people dying en masse, while learning, dancing, praying, gathering for music. Why do we cling to the right to inflict ugliness, when there are so many tools to create beauty?

For reasons I do not completely understand, I am bent on sewing this doll sleeping bag, so needlessly warm and sturdy. I pour hours into it, as if one person can mend everything by making something lovely.

Snow falls outside, and I watch the needle dipping in and out of prom-worthy fabric, not so different from satiny pink muscle. A needle is a tool for pulling things together, trailing a strand that will stay behind, holding. The edges draw closer. With time, the muscle will heal, and the fabric will thin—our brief lives, in some small way, sewn together.

In the Imperfect


We are hunched over a 500-piece puzzle when Sam sinks part of the edge into place. “Perfect!” I tell him.

“It’s great, not perfect, Mom,” Sam says. “There is no perfect.”

I almost weep with relief that he has, at some level, learned this truth, despite me.

Outside, Andrew and I have been working on another puzzle, sorting a barnful of wood into various piles. This stack will become a mobile pasture house for our laying hens, and that stack goes towards a camping shelter up on the hill. Several other piles will line the walls of our renovated barns. Also, I have insisted on a pile that we call “art,” for future projects with the beautiful, century-old barn wood. Everything else will burn.

We are clearing the wood from this barn because it is falling down and not worth saving, except in pieces dedicated to other structures. Traipsing back and forth inside the barn is companionable. We talk about plans. We look at each board, deciding its destiny. Gradually, the inside of the barn is emptying, tidying, and being prepared for careful demolition.

When we close the barn door, though, and head to the house, the barns look the same from the outside. So much effort is simply preparation for change. We have made many repairs here in the past two years, but big projects teach patience. Fixing an entire farm can take a lifetime, and it will never be perfect.

Some languages, such as Spanish, have an imperfect verb tense, which refers to events that happened repeatedly or continuously in the past. If we are lucky, someday we can use verbs in the imperfect to tell these stories, to describe how we worked on this farm.

Meanwhile, I am amazed that the view from our kitchen window is never the same, even when the barns’ imperfections are not changing. The shifting light and sky remind me that there are forces other than ourselves at work here, creating beauty. Even the ground itself changes. We are part of what shapes this scene, joining the seasons and plants and light in making this place. Not perfect, but life-giving and lovely.

As Sam and I scrutinize our puzzle, we try to guess just how imperfect the final product will be, knowing that our dog has been snacking fallen pieces from the floor. Days later, when Sam sets the final piece into the puzzle, there are seven pieces missing. Today, the picture is not complete, but we still feel satisfied with our work.




The Dangerous Thing About Searching

The dangerous thing about reading maps is following them out your door into the world. So I am out the door at noon and across the barnyard and into the woods and topping our hill. In my mind, I carry a map of the Barrack Zourie cave system, seemingly named by Tolkien. A map can resemble a good book in this way, taking you so far beyond yourself that you seem different when you return.

The dangerous thing about going out your door is wanting to keep going, which I blame on the sunlight setting crisp shadows onto the snow. My laced-up waterproof boots and insulated overalls—rugged and encouraging—are equally to blame. Luring me on, though, is also the Barrack Zourie, the mountain close to our hilltop and the long complex of tubes and caverns traversing underground, Southwest of the depression where our farmstead sits: Buried Valley.

Thin black lines squiggle across the cave map. I begin to read the circled numbers—depths, heights. Rappelling into Barn Entrance from the surface would drop you 98 feet into the Sewers, where the water is two feet deep and the ceiling is two feet above the water surface. An ill-advised left turn out of the Sewers ends at Death’s Door, but a right turn leads to Bluestone Highway. Further on, a tunnel called Bloody Hell leaves La Grande Chambre, connecting to Nothing Yet Passage, with a twelve-foot ceiling. In Whale’s Belly and The Swim, the ceiling is four feet above the water, but the water is six feet deep.

The dangerous thing about going onward is beginning to feel like you’re searching for something. Based on the map, I should be able to find a cave opening somewhere just off my path: Cave Mistake. Not a real entrance, but irresistibly named. As I zig-zag through the almost frozen woods, I wonder if Cave Mistake is the kind of cave opening that would require rappelling into, and if so, how obvious would such a drop be if disguised by leaf litter and light snow cover. I watch the dog covering twice my distance, trusting that if she remains up top, so will I.

The dangerous thing about searching is not finding the thing, which might be more relief than disappointment when searching for Cave Mistake. Instead I find rabbit urine staining the snow like red wine, a turkey feather’s velvet spread, curling ice designs, a tree hole rasped by a pileated woodpecker. Beavers have tackled an impressive tree along the wetland, in view of Barrack Zourie Mountain. I keep hiking in the bright woods, with my mind traveling underground and here at the surface, finding exactly what I came out here for.



This Thinning Ice

Let’s be clear. The ice is thinning, and we are all out on it.

Today on our frozen wetland, Stella leads the way, feeling confident because the kids explored here yesterday with Andrew. She ducks under branches, encouraging me to hold onto them and move slowly. She knows I fall down easily.

Yesterday was colder, though, and things seemed more solid than they do today. Now a crack snaps at my right foot as if beamed by imaginary lasers from my toe and heel. I jerk my feet sideways. “So if the ice cracks under you, lie down on your belly.” I tell the kids, “Spread out your weight, and squirm along to safety.” Sam spread-eagles onto the ice, trying it out. Laughing.

We are out on the ice, and although the water is only a couple of feet deep, my fear threatens to paralyze all of us. Up ahead of me, I hear loud cracks under Stella’s feet. “Ok, sweetie, come back this way!” She doesn’t move. “Stella, when you hear those cracks you need to come back! Quickly. Come away from there!”

As my voice rises, I arrive beside her. I realize the ice is fine. Her boots were cracking frozen bubbles at the surface. Stella crumples to her knees in tears because now I have shared my fear with her. We redeem ourselves, though, by holding hands and making some jokes and noticing again the beautiful way the light plays on the textured ice and how the barn cat has followed us bravely.

We are out on the ice that thins and cracks in the warming temperatures of today. I struggle with finding our course across it. I want the kids to know the truth without scaring them. And truth is, these kids and I have a luxury of not actually being in real, immediate danger here—the water would not swallow us.

Elsewhere, there are families on thinner ice, over deep water. And many families cannot choose safer ground. Even imagining this kind of fear—trapped, moment-to-moment fear for the lives of my children—feels blue hot, searing my insides.

It appears that the white men at this country’s helm cannot imagine that fear, or they simply do not care about other human beings. In rapid-fire, hate-filled executive orders, they discard people—parents, children—and the planet that sustains all of us. There are no traditional politics, or even facts, that can combat such depravity. All of us with intact empathy are trembling.

But we do not cower. So many people are transforming that blue-hot searing feeling into something visible—un-ignorable—in streets and airports, with words and wallets, with friends, neighbors, and strangers. Truth is, safer ground is changing, and we will all find ourselves on the thin ice over deep water, together.

These days, Pete Seeger’s words keep singing in my head:

Old devil fear, you with your icy hands. Old devil fear, you’d like to freeze me cold. When I’m sore afraid, my lovers gather round, and help me rise to fight you one more time.

Old devil hate, I knew you long ago, before I learned the poison in your breath. Now when I hear your lies, my lovers gather round, and help me rise to fight you one more time.

Out on this ice where things look bleak, something keeps surging in me, as irrepressible as the marching crowds. Thank you, everyone raising your voices, placing yourselves physically and otherwise in front of this administration’s barreling train of destruction. I will join you as we gather round, and help each other rise.

Back To My Senses

As I write at the kitchen table, oblivious to my tense shoulders and cooling coffee, a strange popping sound filters into my awareness like distant fireworks. Probably the cat sharpening claws, I think, until she wanders past me. And the dog is nearby. Is it ice cracking on the roof? Squirrels in the attic? Finally, I have to check and climb the stairs, baffled.

Two steps into our guest room, I burst out laughing. I forgot about the chicken.

One of our Polish hens had ended up indoors on Saturday evening. The other hens had plucked her tail raw and naked—chickens can be as mean as people—and she stood with her head hanging. We considered culling her, but between my feelings and dinner guests arriving within the hour, she got a reprieve and a dog kennel in the guest room. This morning, she spilled her food and is pecking vigorously at the newspaper-bottomed cage.

I forgot the chicken because I woke up bleary, roused reluctant kids, herded them through breakfast and into backpacks while zigzagging the kitchen being distracted by other thoughts, ushered them to the car without wearing a coat, hurried back indoors and fumbled for coffee, then opened my laptop and left half my senses behind until the popping started above the ceiling.

Laughing brings me back to my senses. I sink to the floor beside the cat, who has devoted herself to sitting with her very own indoor chicken. I notice the hen’s beak curving slightly to the right out of face feathers so thick I cannot see her eyes. The damp, sharp smell of chicken poop on newspaper. Low crooning of the hen. Purring cat.

Later, with my toes clipped into cross-country skis, I shuffle forward awkwardly out of our yard behind Andrew. Again, I forget my body, thinking that these skis are not working with me, probably because they are both left skis, and I should not even be out on them, risking a fall that could be debilitating, but I should get exercise and back into shape while I have the privilege of being healthy and access to skiing, which is not to be taken for granted, especially in this changing world. My shoulders have tensed and crept towards my locked jaw, and I am white-knuckling the ski poles. Even my toes are curled.

I breathe, sink into my feet, wiggle my toes, drop shoulders, unclench hands. My center of gravity shifts from my neck down into my pelvis—stability. Skiing becomes calming. I notice the woods around us. The smell of my breath in the scarf. Swish-crunch of Andrew skiing ahead of me. Jingle of dog tags as she wriggles past, focused only on how good it feels to move through snowy woods with people you love.