Still Living

Three weekends ago, I was walking on the beach with my mother, talking about history, which means we were talking about politics.

I’d just read an article about a team from women’s college Agnes Scott pulling off a trivia bowl upset against Princeton in 1966. It wasn’t the buzzer-beater upset that stayed with me (though you should read about it, because it’s enthralling) – it was a pair of lines about Princeton’s admissions policy:

“In 1966, Princeton was still an all-male institution. It would take another three years before the university opened its doors to women.”

So. 1969. My mother was in junior high. Schools were being ordered to desegregate “at once” after ten years of basically just getting to it whenever they felt like it. African Americans had only fully received the right to vote four years earlier. The statistic also made me think about Ruby Bridges, who was 15 in 1969.

We’re walking along the tide line, my mom and I. “Someone had to push to get Princeton to admit women,” I say. “It wasn’t just going to happen on its own.”

It’s a gorgeous, sunny morning on the coast, the kind you’re unlikely to get in July, let alone October. I’m trying to mesh my thoughts with the still-running algorithm in my brain that’s forever seeking an answer to the 2016 election. I’m trying to reconcile this beautiful day with how much I feel like screaming.

“Those black-and-white photos of Ruby Bridges going to school, they’re in all our history books, and they made it feel so set in stone.” The sun is shining on the waves. Lots of people are out walking, collecting shells, sipping their morning coffee. Do any of them feel like screaming? “But Ruby Bridges is only in her 60s. It wasn’t that long ago.”

I would never have said my mom was politically active, though she was involved in women’s organizations before I was born. But my sister has been volunteering with Nashville candidates while she’s getting a master’s in some kind of field that will help save the world, and I called myself a feminist from the minute I first heard the word, so whatever my mom did raising us, it worked.

“The women my age are all horrified at what’s going on,” she says as we walk. “We never got to take it for granted. We saw the marches. I thought we’d have taught you better.”

“You taught us just fine!” And I try to tell her we don’t take their work for granted, that we do vote – and that may be true for me and my sister, but we, collectively, have taken it for granted. Otherwise we wouldn’t have a president who doesn’t mind being endorsed by the KKK. Otherwise the record turnout for 18- to 29-year-old midterm voters would be something less miserable than 30%.

In an episode of “Parts Unknown,” Anthony Bourdain says, “Democracy, as it turns out, requires regular maintenance.” Forty-nine percent of eligible voters participated in yesterday’s midterm election, the highest turnout since the 1960s. (Around 60% vote in presidential elections.) Maybe we’ve finally had a wake-up call; maybe we slowed the sled down. But it’s so much easier to look at the black-and-white photos in our history books and tell ourselves the fight was already won, by other people, so it’s nothing we need to worry about. Conversely, it’s also easy to watch the news and doubt that one voice can make a difference.

I’m still learning to see my privilege. I know that my tendency to see civil rights movements as relics from before I was born is because I’ve never had to live those struggles myself. Everything from the job I work to the birth control I can use to the bank account I manage to the clothing I feel free to wear has been fought for me by women who came before.

But history doesn’t end when the textbook closes. Ruby Bridges is still alive. Three of the four women on that trivia bowl team are still alive. John Lewis is still alive. Ruth Bader Ginsberg is still alive.

Democracy is living, and the opposite isn’t death – it’s stagnancy. The ocean I walked beside never goes still, and neither can we. There’s no buzzer-beater, once-and-for-all victory – not even on the Supreme Court. We can find solace and strength in history, but we can’t close the book, because it’s still in progress.

We’re just history that hasn’t been written down yet.


Hours of Hell and Hope

The rain returns Saturday night. I wake to the smell of it as the first drops fall late at night: the scent of creekbeds, of unfurling grass, of cool stone.

Across the continent, Heather Heyer is already dead.


We planted a new rhododendron in May. It hasn’t bloomed yet, but its tag promises delicate pale pink ruffled flowers. It’s a double; when it blooms, it’ll be especially beautiful.

But the summer has been hot. Seattle breaks its record for days without rain. The rhododendron turns brown, dries up.

What has happened since May, anyway? Events whip past like slaps; people with more grit than I have are cataloguing them. I look it up: Yates testified, the House voted 217-213 in favor of repealing the ACA, Comey was removed.

Tiring, isn’t it?

That was all before May 10th. The rhododendron was still green, content.


Sunday morning is cool and gray. The rhododendron looks stronger. Its leaves are no longer limp, though many are still worryingly brown.

I see #HeatherHeyer in my Twitter notifications and I know without having to click who she is and why she died. I’d like to go to church, but I’d also like to never have to speak to another human again. To force a smile and say everything is fine, I’m great, how are you? feels like a crime.

I don’t go to church. I get coffee with my sister. We talk about everything but.

I spend the rest of the day feeling anxiety, something I’m usually spared. It feels like a tangible thing that’s crawled inside me and steadily inhales my hope, leaving me hollow. It sits heavily in my gut, making my heart race, layering over my vision with a veil of nihilism. How often can we stand up and push against this rotten, creeping wall of hate? What’s the point?


Would there be such an outcry if Heather Heyer had been black, asks my friend on Monday. We’d already wondered that ourselves, and we already knew the answer was a whispered no.

It’s very easy to condemn hate when it makes itself obvious. There’s no gray area when men with Confederate and swastika flags are shouting “Heil Trump” and that’s the mildest of their slogans. How much convincing will it take to stir up this sympathy next time a black person’s name becomes a hashtag?

How are there still people who need to be talked through the concept of humanity?


We go to a vigil Sunday evening. Around 70 people are there, some older, some with young children. Their signs are written with everything from “F*** Nazis” to Bible verses. I brought a candle in a jar. The organizers brought candles for the end of the vigil, but for the majority of that hour, I’m the only one with a candle instead of a sign. The gusting wind catches at the flame; twice it needs to be relit.

A few people speak. A representative from the NAACP says, “It’s time to start talking to each other.” I know he’s begging us to finally start listening.

A boy on his father’s shoulders leans down toward me. “What’s the candle for?”

“It’s for hope.”

The only other time I’ve ever carried a candle is for Christmas Eve. When I bend to blow out the candle at the end of the vigil, I remember the verse that always closed those services: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

I always thought that particular translation was interesting: “has not,” compared to “couldn’t” or “can never.” It’s not particularly inspiring, the way it reminds us that the wall of darkness is ever-present, but it is comforting: the light still shines, vulnerable but unyielding.

Maybe it’s the size of the crowd, or the presence of children who are learning a better way, but the thing in my gut fades away. The only way we force that wall back is by keeping pressure on it, and we take turns pushing. We aren’t alone.


Monday morning is cool and gray. There’s dew in the grass when I walk the dog. The rhododendron is surviving.

We dig deeper. We relight our candles. We grow, upward and outward, until the day the wall erodes, falls, and is forgotten.


Two Hundred Seconds

I store new songs – more accurately, I hoard them. Before I’ve even heard a song all the way through, if I like it, I’ve catalogued its most distinctive lyrics so I can look them up later and add the song to my collection. I have a note in my phone full of phrases from songs I’ve wanted to collect:

hold back the river

take Jackson out of me

what kind of man loves like this

I’m driving and listening to NPR. I’m not usually driving during this particular program, so the music I hear is an unexpected surprise. I like this band’s sound, whoever they are, so I turn up the volume and listen closely. I wait to catch lyrics or the band’s name, waiting like a hawk to snatch my prey from the air and go on with my day.

“This next song, we’ve never recorded,” she says during a break. “We play it very rarely, so we hope you’ll enjoy.”

I’ve been to concerts. I know the magic of a favorite song performed live, familiar but achingly different, comfortable but ephemeral. I’ve been to shows where the band came onstage for their encore and waited patiently, silently, for the audience to go quiet enough for them to perform their final song completely acoustic – no mics at all. The room held its breath. We could barely hear them singing and it was beautiful.

I’ve only been half paying attention to the experience of a new song because I spend the time anticipating experiencing it again. All the new songs that I’ve collected phrases from, I may as well have been talking over, for all the thought I gave them after I had what I wanted from them. Anywhere I have Internet, I can listen to any song I want immediately – but if this particular song was never recorded, that means I can’t buy it, or even hear it ever again.

That isn’t why I turn off my mental recorder, though. It’s peaceful to realize there is no gratification, delayed or instant or otherwise, beyond the next two hundred seconds of music. I and a few thousand listeners are the only people who will ever hear this song, performed this way. I’ve let many countless seconds slip past without realizing how unique they were, so I focus on these and what they have to offer. I narrow my world down to the now, and the music.

In my car, I hold my breath.

The Morning Walk

We start our day walking alongside the whispering yellow grasses in the undeveloped lot. They put a cul-de-sac here, connecting it to our neighborhood, but got no further. Now the wild grass has dried and gone to seed, and the field is scattered with daisies, lupine, and clover.

River likes it here best. She trots ahead, her tail loose. She gets nervous in the neighborhood itself, especially in the afternoons, with the watching houses and kids on bikes and extra noise. Here, though, in the cool quiet, it would be easy to mistake her for a “normal” dog, one we’d raised from a puppy rather than adopting three years ago.

Three weeks after we got River, we tried walking her in a different portion of the neighborhood. A pair of dogs barking at her from behind their fence scared her so badly that she slipped her collar and ran off. Luckily, she ran straight home. After that, we got her a harness, and we never took her along that route again. She used to be scared of so many things: flags snapping in the wind, heavy rain, her own leash. She’d shake and her tail would tuck under – she’d even refuse the treats we tried to feed her to distract her.

She veers, sniffing – she wants to go into the grass. I keep her back, wary of ticks. I’ve never spotted any; usually it’s just ladybugs perched on the seed heads, preparing to start their day.

Three years on, River is doing a lot better. She still hates beaches and only tolerates car rides. She’s much more comfortable on walks, but is still rare to see her this relaxed. I let her leash out and her tail sways as she trots.

Someday they’ll actually finish building here, mowing down the grasses and cramming nine or ten houses in, and those houses will fill with new families and new kids and new fears to overcome – but until then, this is our morning walk.

It’s Just A Compliment

I am walking with my friend back to her car after happy hour. It’s a nice evening, going dim as purple dusk falls, but the city streets are quiet.

The men are outside their bar, some smoking, some just standing around. There are five of them. I know what they’re waiting for and they confirm as we come into range. We’re the only other people on the sidewalk and though we don’t say anything to each other, we know what’s coming.

“Hi, ladies…”

It’s never just “hi.” It’s bait and hook in one, words tossed out indiscriminately to discomfit, to bother, to outright hurt.

Being smarter than the fish, we have options: fight back; instruct; keep walking, ignore; respond politely and hope that doesn’t bring their net down on us.

(Thank God it’s “us” tonight and not “me.”)

We keep walking, silent, resolute. We have swum this noxious creek before. What woman hasn’t?

“Fine, whatever – bitch.”

Regardless of whether you bite or not, the hook still stabs. There’s still the searing heat of shame and fury because no matter how you react, they win and you lose because the goal was never flirtation. The goal was pain and the power to inflict it.

Fight back? That only works in the movies.

Instruct? An invitation for further harassment.

Ignore? “Bitch” is one of the more salubrious designations they assign you, and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up as you try to maintain your pace and look unruffled, all the while expecting angry footsteps, shouting, a grabbed arm.

Respond politely? Like hell.

Middle finger up over the shoulder as we stride away, a reversed salute, a pathetic dismissal that does nothing to change them or their behavior, does nothing to protect whoever else they might prey on that night.

It doesn’t even make me feel better.

Cat On A Cool, Shingled Roof It’s Not Supposed To Be On

If we had air conditioning, I probably wouldn’t have had to drag my year-old cat in from off the roof Monday morning while balancing the detached window screen in the other hand and bowl of kibble against my hip.

We do not have air conditioning.

We have a box fan that gets wedged into the open window on hot nights, like Sunday night. It keeps the bedroom cool enough to sleep, which is our biggest priority.

Our cats – exactly one year old, physically if not behaviorally adult cats – have different priorities. They’re obsessed with finding a way under the drapes, onto the top of the fan, between the blinds and the screen so they can…sit there? Feel tall? Plot their escape? They must have their reasons, but all we know is their climbing is noisy and precarious.

Fortunately, they leave the fan alone during the night. As soon as the sun is up, though, either Rocket or Robot will inevitably try scrabbling up the fan and/or the curtains.

Usually, I remember to take down the fan and close the window first thing. That did not happen on Monday morning.

I was downstairs refilling my precious coffee when I heard the familiar sound of something heavy and plastic becoming detached from the bedroom window. I sighed, gathered my things, and went upstairs. I expected to find the fan fallen on the carpet and a fluffed-up cat crouched in the hallway, pretending nothing was wrong.

Instead I found the fan still upright, and Rocket sitting on top of it. He seemed to have popped one corner of the screen out of its frame – and he was very interested in getting out onto the roof.

I grabbed him and the still-whirring fan and chucked the former onto the bed and propped the latter against the wall.

And then the question occurred to me. I dreaded the answer before the thought was even fully formed: where’s Robot?

I looked back out the window.

She was crouched at the edge of the roof, eating something out of the gutter. (She likes to eat twigs. We have strange cats.)

I prioritized and acted with precision borne from pet-related crisis:

  1. Lock Rocket in the bathroom to keep him from joining Robot. (Deal with whatever he does to the bathroom later.)
  2. Turn off fan to avoid fire, sliced-off fingers, shredded drapes, etc.
  3. Put fan down. Need maximum dexterity.
  4. Regret not putting on proper bra in case I have to run outside to chase down Robot.

I reached through the gap and started tapping on the roof. “Robot!” I used my sweetest sing-song pleading, even though I’d have much preferred cussing her out. “Robot, please come back, don’t make me go on the roof. Heeeeere, kitty kitty!”

Her attention remained on the gutter. I tried not to think about what she might be eating – instead, it gave me an idea.

I sprinted into the hallway, dumped a handful of kibble into her bowl, and brought it to the window, levering the screen out with one hand and rattling the bowl with the other.

“Come here, kitty!” Rattle rattle rattle.

She looked back and, praise be unto the Lord, padded gracefully up the shingles. I propped the bowl up against my hip and seized her, hauling her back through the screen.

Midway through the process, the screen popped out of its frame.

I held onto it with my left hand, not daring to move it too much in case it made a noise and spooked her. The food bowl tipped, scattering kibble onto the windowsill and carpet. Robot let me drag her back into the house and launch her onto the bed, as far as I could safely throw her, while I figured out how to reattach the screen.

It didn’t cooperate, but Robot was happy to clean up the spilled kibble for me.

I left the screen in the bathroom for my husband to deal with. Rocket immediately returned to the windowsill, seeking the escape route his sister had taken advantage of.

Robot, unrepentant monster that she is, fell asleep on the floor.

If there’s an “old enough to know better” threshold for cats, I really hope they hit it soon. Summer is coming, and I do not want any more cats exploring the roof.

I do, however, want air conditioning.

Chasing It Down

My first jersey was pink. I was in kindergarten. My dad was one of the coaches, the first of many years he’d play that role. He might have seen coaching as the natural progression of his love for soccer; he might have hoped to transform a group of suburban girls into eventual Olympic champions. Maybe he expected nothing more than to convey his love of the game to the next generation.

He probably didn’t expect us to spend most of our first game huddled around the ball, an inside-out phalanx of bubblegum-pink t-shirts with a ball ricocheting within.


I played goalie in the pink jersey years. My mom will, to this day, tease me for my tendency to pick the dandelions that were growing in the goal box while the action was at the other end of the field. It just seemed like a reasonable way to pass the time. What was I supposed to do, just stand there and watch? I had overexcited parents and stampeding footsteps to alert me if the ball was coming back.

My husband remembers all his most crushing defeats and most victorious saves from when he played soccer around the same age. I don’t remember any of that – just the weather, the dandelions, and the cluster of pink shirts far away at the other end of the field.


After that, the jerseys were steel blue. We fitted in with the rainy skies and the muddy fields, all of us pale and desaturated by fall in the Northwest.

On one of those gray days, I was playing forward. I much preferred defense, but my dad was trying to get me to branch out. By halftime, I was tired, and a few minutes beyond that, I was exhausted. I raised my hand four or five times, trying to call for a sub, but my dad had me play on. He even subbed another girl off the field, but I had to stay in.

I can’t remember why he refused to sub me out. I think he wanted me to keep it up, lead the team, set a good example, so on and so forth. One of the perks of being the coach’s daughter was having an unofficial leadership role placed upon you at all of eight years old.

Only, at eight years old, I didn’t give a damn about leading. I just wanted five minutes to catch my breath.


It rained often. The goal boxes turned into mud pits. On the really cold days, we couldn’t feel our feet, but that just made us braver when we had to charge a much taller fifth-grader to attempt a tackle. We were already soaked, so falling in the mud wouldn’t matter, and with various body parts going numb, the collision wouldn’t even hurt. Our blue socks turned black with mud. The white turtleneck I wore under my jersey for warmth was sodden up to the elbows.

We trudged back to the car after another loss. It was dark and pouring. Strands of my thin hair were plastered to my face. Mom wrapped me in towels and I climbed into the car and tried to close the door.

We had a minivan then, with a button you had to depress to make the door close. I remember my hands were so numb, and my strength was so depleted, I couldn’t push the button, not even with both hands. I kept pressing, watching with detached fascination as my thumbs turned white but the door refused to close.

I switched to tennis after that: it was played mostly indoors, and for outdoor matches, when it merely looked like it could potentially sprinkle, you didn’t play.


My husband texts our friends. We all have World Cup fever, and the weekend forecast is promising, so we gather a few friends, some cones, and a soccer ball and head to the nearest park.

The sun is out, but it’s rained recently so the grass is slick. Even though we can barely run on it without slipping, we start off playing three-on-three anyway.

Within five minutes, I’m winded, additionally so because I can’t stop laughing about it – twenty years ago, I could have run like this for an hour. Luckily, the others are not much better off.

“Apparently we need to do this more often,” I say.


“I was thinking never again.”

After the opposing goalie slips and nearly does the splits trying to make a save – and after we are all red-faced and sweaty, but too proud to admit how tired we are – we switch to passing the ball in a circle. I get to stand and relax for a few moments, feeling my heart rate return to normal while the sun glitters in the dewy grass.

I try to catch a high pass with my knee, but misjudge my angle and the ball sails past my waist towards the fence. I run, racing my shadow for the ball.