Thursday, October 20, 2016


In 1989, I attended synagogue on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, in Israel. I was invited by an American family to babysit, to take their child home when she became too restless to stay. They belonged to one of the only conservative synagogues in Israel. The toilet paper was torn ahead of time and the lamps were on a timer. As we walked to the synagogue, the profound silence was cathartic to me. The cessation of traffic was highlighted by the serious and yet joyful mood.  The women dressed in white fluttered in the women’s balcony like doves, the children were free to wander among the men praying downstairs, the sounds of plaintive Kol Nidrei wafted up like smoke from a celestial fire drenching us in holiness. Although I couldn’t understand all of the Hebrew, I could follow along in the prayer book as we enumerated our sins and asked to be covered by God’s merciful forgiveness.

The High Holy Days are a time of repentance in the sense of self-reflection, to consider harm you may have done to others and ask their forgiveness before God opens to your page in the book of life  at the end of Yom Kippur. I loved the fact that we asked for forgiveness as a congregation, that we were part of a ritual cleansing as well as personal evaluation. The community supported us as we declared those sins, those choices and decisions where we missed the mark, aloud. This year I read Michael Lerner’s additions to the traditional prayers  in Tikkun Magazine and was astounded by their clarity, admitting to sins of social injustice as well as the more personal sins of slander and lying, not looking out for others, neglecting our obligation to act as responsible members of a community.
Last year I taught a writing workshop at Stillwater prison for the purpose of holding a reading during Victim Awareness week. We entered this exploration together. They wanted to hold a reading to express their remorse and I would do whatever I could to help them make that possible, to write stories and poems that were well crafted, thoughtful, and honest.
I told them, “You can’t just write a letter of apology and expect to be forgiven. Your victim may never be able to forgive—but if I were a victim, I would want to know how you have changed. How you are different now and would never commit that crime again. I want to know about the work you have done on yourself.” The word I used is metanoia, literally with-mind, to find mindfulness which is translated in the RSV New Testament as repentance. To me, the concept of metanoia goes beyond repentance, it means that you have changed. That you would never commit that crime again because you are not the same person that you were.

As a victim, it can be a long hard road to healing. It can take years. It can take forever. I was lucky to have a therapist who was able to guide me through the trauma and tell a new story of survival and strength. After years of silence about my rape, I was finally able to speak about it, write about it, read my writings aloud at an exhibition through the MN State Arts Board called The Art of Recovery. I also have written about it in both memoirs Flowers in the Wind and To Catch a Dream, hopefully to find publishers someday. And yet, my impulse was to forgive the man who perpetrated the rape immediately after it happened because during the four hours he held me captive, I listened to his story. I knew he was a victim as well and that the violation he was pouring out onto my body were the results of his own abuse, humiliation and anger. It is not an excuse. I don’t believe forgiveness needs to include forgetting. However, I remember with compassion for both of us.

A few years ago I attended a Radical Forgiveness workshop led by Rev. Sher McNeal. We formed a circle and she read questions such as “Have you ever been hurt, ever been unkind to someone?”  “Have you ever been bullied,  have you ever bullied someone?” The acts of unkindness, abuse, violence mentioned became more and more specific. We were instructed that if we were either victim or perpetrator, to step into the middle of the circle. Then she asked us to look each other in the eyes and say, “I am sorry that happened to you”. No one knew who was victim or perpetrator. Rather we witnessed that with each question, some of us stood in the middle of that circle together.  Sorrow and forgiveness included all of us. Remorse included all of us. Forgiveness included all of us. Kinda like Yom Kippur. A covering over us of Divine Mercy.

After my Restorative Justice class, I felt that I would like to lead a class of victims and perpetrators, although not  from the same crime as I am not a therapist but a devoted writer who has used writing for healing through my own intuition. However, it was interesting to me to realize I would not want to face my own perpetrator in a workshop, no matter how genuine his intentions were to make restitution. I know he went to prison and I have no desire to be in any form of contact.

The work I needed to do was on myself:  the crime was a wake up call because at the time I was far away from living my own integrity, spiritual life and values and that I needed to remember self respect. I had to heal the belief and guilt that if I had been  attentive, I would not have been a target. He had told the court, “I picked her because she was the kind of girl who would never have a man like me.” At the time, I was recovering from rejection and was hanging out with  gay men because I felt safe and comfortable; they pampered me.

If my perpetrator had entered the Radical Forgiveness circle with me, would I have been able to look him in the eyes and say I am sorry that happened to you? Would we be able to weep together over his life wasted in prison and my years of PDST and distancing myself from relationships? Would we be covered by the mercy of God? I like to think it could be so. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Writing a Complicated Memoir

My memoir is a story of communal living and personal transformation. I joined the commune to live with my best friends, I was a single mom and wanted help to raise my child, and I was very idealistic. We took in the homeless and visited incarcerated adults and juveniles; we lived all over the Southwest and Northwest and in Mexico, Spain and Israel. Over time one person dominated the group with his interpretation of how we should live. The break up was a bitter mix of betrayal and disappointment and grief, but my journey continued to self-awareness, healing and empowerment.

After the group broke up, I dreamed of sorting, packing and running away for years, and sometimes still do. This describes what it has been like to write and edit my memoirs. For the ten years I lived in the commune, I did almost no writing at all, held to a standard of perfection impossible to achieve and a lack of privacy that prevented true self-expression. When I returned to the states, one of the first things I did was to enroll in a continuing ed writing class. Memories poured out of me onto paper, insistent and unstoppable. I wanted to capture everything while it was fresh in my mind. I made phone calls to friends to confirm details, I returned to Mexico and re-visited places I lived, I wrote furiously every chance I could but it still took me years to finish. In the meantime, I had to earn a living and raise my kids. I found true love and lost both the lover and a son to suicide and had to survive yet another painful turn on the wheel of life.

The memoir, started twenty-five years ago, grew into 650 pages. Five years ago I revised it down to 350 pages but it wasn’t until this past year that I was able to work with an editor and revise it to a publishable manuscript.

While writing down everything I could remember, realizations about myself, the person I was at the time, startled me. In high school, I was a rebel hippie; in love I was a free spirit; in heart and soul I was a poet. In the group, under the “guidance” of our leader, I was scolded and my personality flaws raked over the coals. At one point, I defiantly removed myself and my children from the group; longing to belong brought us back. But as I remembered the past, I saw how naïve and inexperienced I was, emotionally high-strung and desperate for approval. In this mirror of myself as a character, I was revealed in a not very flattering light: my introverted yet overly-dramatic personality, my need for acknowledgement and acceptance, my awareness of how attractive I was to the opposite sex, my opinionated ideas and resistance to advice, overlaid with undiagnosed PDST from a previous trauma. These personality traits made me seem out-of-touch, arrogant, vain, insecure, stand-offish, and “too sweet, not enough salt” as I was chided. Seen from this angle, I could understand how someone might be impatient with me and want to toughen me up. I could understand someone wanting to mentor me so I could be of service to others: to become strong, compassionate, visionary. 

I also had to be vigilant about blaming others or dramatizing the role of being the victim. In this way, my skills with writing fiction were helpful. Through the lens of trying to objectively describe interactions between myself and others, I didn’t pity the person I had been. And from there, I couldn’t excuse the way I surrendered my power to another. A lifetime of experiences would eventually teach me how to survive loss and disillusionment and bereavement, how to connect with understanding and openness, and how to be of service with deep empathy. But these were not mine when I first joined the commune and I cringed to see my faults laid bare under the scrutiny of my pen.

After I started the memoir, I shared the beginning chapters with members of a women’s writing class. They were curious and encouraging but when I started to publish poetry, my focus shifted. I might mention that I had written a memoir but I only showed it to a couple of friends. Lately I feel an urgency to get it out to the world. Perhaps it is because a dozen of the former commune members have died and I am painfully aware that time is running out.

I pitched my memoir to a well-established agent at the 2014 writer’s conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. He scanned a few pages and said he was interested. He advised me to hire a professional editor to go through it before submitting a proposal to him. Filled with new ideas from a workshop on how to write a dynamic first page, I revised the beginning until I ended up strangling myself. Even with the help of an editor, the agent rejected the proposal I sent. When it came back, I realized that I had been trying to fit into someone else’s notion of “a hook” instead of trusting my own voice.  But I persisted in rewriting the introductory pages over and over. And over.

One of the weaknesses of my memoir was that I was more comfortable as a fiction writer. I wrote it like a novel, without reflection from my present, wiser self giving insights on my past self, hoping the reader would connect to me as a character and want to know what happened next. Now I can see that reflecting deeply on the meaning of my experiences was so painful and fraught with emotional landmines that I was unable to tackle it head-on. Writing about those times when I was abused, not only by the leader of our group but others who were still my friends, and those times when I allowed choices to be made for me and my children that were unhealthy or dangerous, brought up unresolved anger and guilt. How hard it was to write from the perspective of hard-earned wisdom and even harder, to justify why I had stayed! I felt, for the first time, ashamed of my endurance, my duplicity, my willingness to go along with the abuse. I felt ashamed that I had been so stupid and naïve. My doubts began to crescendo as my editor asked questions about things that seemed obvious to me. I grappled with explaining the spiritual basis of our lifestyle, founded on interpreting the New Testament literally. I didn’t want to explain every scriptural reference because I thought it would bog down the story. It was a challenge to explain that as remnants of the ’60s with Flower-Power attitudes about parenting and property, we didn’t believe in nuclear families or owning possessions. For example, my editor would always bring up my children: where were they, was I worried about them? She would suggest that I add sentences such as, “As soon as I came home, I went to check on my son,” but that sentiment was simply not true. We raised our children kibbutz-style; I trusted others to take care of my boys and even left them to go across state lines. We were living a new paradigm as brothers and sisters in spirit, sharing everything in common and working for “God not Mammon.” Why didn’t she get that? Her red marks all over the page made me feel discouraged. I had to slow down and explain more than I wanted to explain. I wanted to take the readers on a ride with me, an exhilarating roller coaster of highs when we were doing God’s work and receiving what we needed and lows when we were begging on the streets, highs when we got invited to the inner circle and lows of being chastised, highs of feeding the hungry and lows of living with sexual predators. I had to remember that she was reading as an outsider and as a representative of my possible readership. There were moments when I almost gave up, thinking I could never untangle the complicated mess enough to keep a reader turning the pages. Revising was exhausting but I started to see how the manuscript was taking shape. My story made more sense and had more clarity.

My memoir is a multi-faceted, complicated story. If I think about everyone on that journey with me, there are more than one hundred points of view, not including some who left and never came back. Others had similar but vastly different experiences, including my children. I wondered if I should refer to some of these. As my editor pointed out, episodes piled up one after the other and she thought the reader might get tired of waiting for the other shoe to drop. The reader wanted the crescendo towards revelation and group break up, followed by my awakening or rebirth, she advised me. But I felt it was important to keep the integrity of the story as it unfolded, the reality that I lived this lifestyle for ten years and that group-think, disempowerment and blind obedience occurred gradually. It was later, after the editing process was finished, that I was able to go back and cut out parts that felt unnecessary or dragged the momentum. (I am glad that I have kept a hard copy of the original manuscript for myself, though.)

Because the leader was alive until recently, I chose to rename everyone, including myself. It wasn’t so much fear of lawsuits as fear of being harassed by him. I imagined him showing up at a public reading or contacting me through social media. Any possibility of attention from him made me anxious. I knew I just couldn’t handle it; rage and resentment surfaced during the writing and editing as well as a more compassionate understanding of my own journey.

I knew that the people I was writing about would be upset. I knew friends would be taken aback by some of my perceptions. I deliberately left out the more scandalous sexual behavior because I didn’t want that to be the flavor of the memoir or the reason people read it. At the same time there is more about my relationship with the leader than people who know me now might be aware of. I have to be willing to be vulnerable and take a risk that they won’t judge me. I wanted to show how miracles were possible when we lived by faith and served the outcasts and the disenfranchised of society, how easy it was. But as I meditated carefully on the past, my perspective shifted.

Perhaps the hardest thing to do in revising my memoir was to keep a consistency of vision and purpose. I wrote my story chronologically as that is how the memories were stored but in revising, I also recognized that my writing skills have improved since I started twenty-five years ago. I originally wanted the story to be told in the innocent young woman’s voice, then have that voice mature over time. My story is about giving up self-volition and reclaiming self-empowerment, naiveté and sagacity, losing a sense of individual identity and re-identifying myself, a transformative healing story. But while trying to summarize it for a proposal, I realized that what my story is really about was never feeling that I was good enough and the ways in which that belief allowed me to be victimized. This belief did not begin when I joined the group. My sense of self-worth had already destabilized during encounters with others who disregarded me or rejected me because I was different. This is something many of us deal with in our contemporary culture, especially women and especially artists. Because I believe in the power of story to teach and to reach out to others, it overrides the fear that others who lived with me might feel discomfort at reading my version of what they also lived through. I changed my name back to my real name in order to connect it to my previous work but kept the pseudonyms I gave everyone else. It provides some disguise for those who don’t want to be associated with this story. I also have my son to consider: he doesn’t want the story of his upbringing to be blatantly in the public eye if at all possible. In my preface I apologized to all that I was limited to the events and experiences of my own life told through the subjective lens of my own interpretation. I wrote that I regret that there isn’t a way to archive our shared experiences.

Now that the manuscript is edited and revised, it is possible to self-publish if I don’t find a home with a publisher, so I foresee it being in print some day. I want the take-away to be the story of survival and healing and being silenced no longer because, after all, that is the reason I felt inspired to share it. I rescued my own voice, both in telling the story and in living my life. I access my inner guidance daily. I claim my authentic way of being in the world and I am still learning how to live up to the person I want to become. I am powerful and I am still evolving.

I wrote the memoir to heal myself. Some of this healing happened naturally as I wrote down my memories and continues as I share this story through open mics or excerpts posted on my fb page. I revised it in order to offer it as a healing story to others, to remind ourselves that we are all more than enough. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

On My Knees

On my knees--how often I have found myself there, weeping, imploring, broken open--in front of candles, sometimes dedicated to the Dark Goddess; at the monastery in the Galillee; the canyon walls of the Chama, and how the earth under my knes supported me, accepted the tears, reached up with mineral life and centuries of compost and pawprints to bring green up my spine. How often I felt I could tumble down if a crack appeared but one never did. Now on my knees in a different way--with gratitude and joy, knowledge of my soul that no matter the form, it is dancing, no matter the distance, it is loving and being loved, no matter the weather, it is blossoming. On my knees because I am finally humbled by grace rather than pain, by surrender rather than sacrifice. On my knees but with my face uplifted to the sky, to stars, to the soft caress of the invisible, ready to stand on my own two feet and continue my walk to the center, the place where I am held. On my knees the way a gardener tenderly plants the seeds, pulls the weeds, and is held by Mother Earth. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Winds of Change: Split This Rock poetry festival

During the ’60s, I was uplifted by the wind of change. As a teen, I had become disillusioned by the institutions that were meant to guide me: school, church, the US political process. I awakened to injustice and desired to bring the world into balance; I protested, marched, leafletted, debated, wore a black armband, fasted, prayed. Then, we all grew up and moved on, some of us to continue the battle for equality, some of us to deepen our spiritual practice so we could change within, some of us to work towards wealth and security, some of us to raise families and make compromises as necessary. Split This Rock poetry festival reawakened my belief in the collective voice and the possibility of transformation throughout society.

At Split This Rock, we were all welcomed and valued. Emerging and beginning poets mingled with established poets, young voices were heard and older voices honored. The readings were dynamic, powerful and inspiring. We heard heart-wrenching stories of black mothers who have lost their sons to police violence and the loss of homeland by Syrian refugees. Perils a person of color encounters in daily living. Censorship and erasure of people of color. Asian women who work in dangerous, toxic environments in Silicon Valley.

But they were also filled with a spirit of hope, energy, compassion, connection, pride, purpose. It was as though the idealistic beliefs of the ’60s had found a new voice, a voice tempered in practicalities. Outrage turned into words and actions. A rededication. A relentless pursuit of speaking truth to power.

At the Poet’s Forum: How Political Engagement Affects the Writing Process presented by the Poetry Foundation and POETRY Magazine, Ocean Vuong said that poetry is an act of activism, that poetry opens our minds and hearts so we are less inclined to accept the popular culture's narrative. The next panel I attended consisted of contributors to an anthology of protest against Arizona’s censorship law that racially profiles authors called Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice. One panelist said, “It’s not enough to write poetry, we also need to march.” The panel discussed the necessity of writing poetry as witness, as a means of calling out and taking action against racially motivated crimes.

We march in different ways, I think. My days of holding hands and singing “We shall overcome” are over, not only because it is too hard for me to stand for hours without pain, but because it is not enough. Change has to come from within myself, my attitudes, beliefs, and judgments. Change has to occur within the places where I work and play through the work I love to do, treating others with respect, offering a different point of view, and using the skills I have to create dialogue or raise awareness.

At Split This Rock, I felt the winds of change blowing once again: insistent and unstoppable. Do we have the right to tell someone else’s story if we are not from their culture? What is cultural appropriation and who has privilege? Can we who are from white culture listen without bias or preconceived ideas? Can we listen to rage and not turn away because it is loud, not our style? Can we respond without defensiveness but with self-reflection and ask ourselves the hard questions of how do I contribute to the dominant culture’s narrative and how can I be an ally and a partner in the quest for true justice? Can I let go of my prejudiced views and open to new ways of thinking and interacting? Can I be the change I want to see and surrender my expectations? Can I envision change with my words and my art as well as my life? Can I speak up and do I know when to be quiet and let others speak their truth?

At Split This Rock, we are the voice of change. It was energizing and invigorating, but most of all, it was validating to a woman who began her poetic journey wanting change, wanting the invisible and ignored and forgotten to have a voice and a place. It was like the poetic answer to a Rainbow gathering where you are greeted with a big hug and “Welcome home, sister.” I felt welcomed home. I felt anything is possible.

Friday, February 5, 2016

flash fiction prompts 4 & 5

#5 Prompt based on visual:
The pocket watch in her hand. The last thing he handed to her, the one he has inherited from his father. Every time she opened it, it was off a minute but that didn’t matter. Every time she opened it she remembered that he was so sick at the end, it was a relief when he let go. Every time she opened it she remembered that once upon a time she had been his princess, his Buttons, his Sugarpops, and at the end, his Angel. "My Angel," as she swabbed his mouth since he could no longer take in anything orally. Whispered. Did she actually hear his voice or was it only her imagination, her wanting to hear one last word? If the pocket watch lost a minute a day, how long before it lost a whole day, a year? Would it be like peeling back time? How long before she could put it away and remember the corny jokes and laughter, the car rides with her arm hanging out the window, the breeze blowing back her hair, the spontaneous picnics: stopping at a gas station for soda, at a roadside stand for apples, a hunk of cheese and bread already in a basket? How long before she remembered the way he cheered at her basketball games and frowned as he scrutinized her dates? His sad eyes when she packed up to move to the big city? The dollars slipped into every envelope, her purse when she came home to visit? How long before the good memories overcame the horror of his last choking breath?

#4 Prompt based on conversation:

“Anna, are you going out again?” No, Mother, I just spent an hour putting my make up on and styling my hair because I am staying home, with you. Because I want to hear your complaints. Let’s see, we’ve covered my brother’s stupidity and lack of good TV shows, the neighbors’ tree shedding leaves on your side of the fence, the latest too-revealing fashions and the way the Puerto Ricans take over the sidewalks. I have heard about your aches and pains of arthritis and the latest argument with your doctor and the way the nurse was so rude. I just struggled to get on these pantyhose that I actually hate wearing because they roll over and make me feel fat and the heels that make my feet ache, so I can sit and listen to you groan about the inferior garbage service that Dad hired before he died. I love to eat fattening snacks with you before bedtime. Of course, I have my cell phone so you can track me down. In case you have those heart palpations again. In case the panic comes back and you feel isolated and alone, out here in the middle of nowhere. No, Mother, I just want a breath of air, a drink, a reason to sway to the music even if it’s from a jukebox. “I don’t feel so good, Anna. Can you make me a cup of that tea you brought me? The one that soothed me down?” “Yes, Mother.” Yes, I am taking off the heels and the pantyhose. What was I thinking? That I could leave you alone again, that I could escape? “Let’s find a movie to watch on pay-on-demand. Don’t worry, I’ll pay for it.” 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

flash fiction challenge day #2 and #3


She unfolds the dress, shakes it out, and slowly glides her hands into the pockets, hoping that there might be something there. A surprise. A memento. A glimpse of the happy day she wore it for the first time. The only time. She recalls so clearly standing in sunlight The bouquet left golden streaks of pollen on her hands and she worried that if she wiped her hands on the cream linen, it would stain. She recalls the voice of the female justice of the peace, how surprisingly deep it was. The black flutter of the justice's official garment. The cooling breeze that dried the sweat left along her forehead and between her thighs. She recalls how earnestly he gazed into her eyes, until everyone and everything else dissolved. And she remembers the catch in her throat when she said those old-fashioned words “Til death do us part.” She had suggested they write their own vows, speak aloud in front of witnesses, voice at last what was burning in their hearts, but he laughed at her. “Write vows, whatever for?” What she can’t remember is how they got from the courthouse to the party afterwards. It is all a blur. Champagne. Surely there was champagne? Did she eat? Sometimes joy or fear made it hard to swallow. She vaguely recalls how they embraced for a photographer’s flash. She can’t believe that it has been already six years since she left him behind after he cheated on her. She can’t believe there is nothing in the pocket, not a dried lily petal, not a handwritten note (she remembers they would write each other notes and leave them on pillows or in the fridge), not a trace of sugar, not even a wrinkle where the ring lay just before she pushed it onto his finger.  

Smoke billows thick and black from the chimney of the deserted house but instead of running away, she walks closer. Astonished. After all the twists and turns, saving for months from her paycheck, the scramble to get her birth certificate in order to get a passport, the days of planning and phone calls and emails to the couple renting her a room through airbnb, she can’t believe that she is so close and now it is going up in smoke. Or at least something is going up in smoke. She pauses and squints, follows the plume rising into the cold air. Only a fire in the fireplace, not a house fire then. How can this be a coincidence? She knows from the letter of the bookseller in the village that the house has sat deserted for years. He wrote that even the windows were intact. The house’s reputation and the proximity to the vicarage protected it from vandalism. Who is inside the house? She doesn’t want to think about why someone is there. Waiting for her?  The manuscript and the map are inside that house. She hopes the keys are there as well. The diary indicated that they are. The diary from her Uncle Jack, found in the bottom of a pile of faded photographs, scrapbooks, bills, half torn calendars, and then a series of sketches was the impetus to set her off on this mad goose chase. She has risked everything to get here. She isn’t going to stop until she has answers. But her quick pace slows to a more thoughtful one as she approaches the house. The house is covered in ivy and cracks run under the windowsills. The front steps sag, the paint peels away, leaving splintered wood. The windows are grimy and brass doorknob tarnished. She tries it in her hands. It turns and the door swings open. “Oh, it’s you,” she says, and pushes past him into the foyer.

flash fiction challenge day 1: It's Our Family

I began my flash fiction challenge on February 1st. hosted by Marjorie Altman Tesser from Mom Egg Review. ‪#‎febflash=Feb. Flash Fiction Challenge--Write one piece of flash each day in Feb.We will be featuring daily tips, optional writing prompts, advice, and encouragement from established fiction authors and editors. Scroll down to see them, or visit this link for all tips and prompts posted so far:

My challenge is to write short fiction. I write long narrative poems, memoir pieces of up to 3000 words and novels. Short stories have never been my forte. I took on the challenge to see if I caould do it and to see what might inspire me. My first piece is below:
The challenge was from RICK MOODY "Write a story with no modifiers (i.e., no adjectives, no adverbs)." My first attempt ended at 1400 words. Flash fiction by definition is less than 1000 words and the suggestion is to get 250 words down each day. So I went back and edited. It is still 870 words. I think I will develop it into a longer story.

It's Our Family

The fighting in the back seat escalated from annoying to maddening. The 12 year old’s pummels left bruises. The 9 year old boy cried but he had started it, singing out of tune to his ipod and flinging out his arms. Her son, driving, ignored it; her daughter-in-law, exacerbated it with threats that meant nothing. The three year old contentedly watched a movie on his laptop with earphones so large, he looked like a pilot. Grandma’s pleas to stop fighting didn’t make a dent. Gritting her teeth was not only making her joints ache but her heart. It was not the trip she imagined to spread her younger son’s ashes.

As the miles passed, her hopes that this family gathering could mend the past faded. Now she only hoped they could get through it, salvage at least the fun of camping. She imagined waking up to birdsong, sitting peacefully by the campfire. “Look out the window,” her son told the little guy. “We’re in nature!” They passed towering rocks on one side and the shimmer of the lake on the other. “Where, where?” the boy said, turning his head to the window and back, puzzled.

Yoan had decided the tenth anniversary was the time to spread his portion of his brother's ashes. He chose the river where they had camped together before children and nights without sleep and alcoholic down-swings and complicated mortgages. Josiah had left behind a son who would meet them at the campsite with Grandpa Don. Grandma had spread Josiah’s ashes at the Chama River where they had camped when she was pregnant; Don had spread his at the mountain where they used to ski. The fiancée was in rehab. Grandma worried about scars left behind.

She remembered the day she had spooned the ashes into several containers, one for her, one for Yoan, one for Don, one for the fiancée. How it fell to her to do because even though her life had shattered, she was more capable of organizing memorials and candle light vigils and altars, digging through piles of photographs, choosing cremation, purchasing urns. She went back to work for a year, then disappeared to Puerto Vallarta and margarita sunsets until one day she said to herself, What the hell am I doing? and moved lock, stock and barrel to Minnesota, to help out with Yoan’s kids.

Dividing the ashes was one of her most vivid memories, scorched on her eyelids and her heart. Releasing her share of his ashes was part of a series of rituals to shake loose the despair that settled into her soul. But only time would dull the pain, she would learn, despite everything she tried: counseling, support groups, art classes, workshops, travel, margaritas, yoga, grandsons.

They pulled into the campground where Don waited for them and claimed two sites next to the river. Nate fell in, soaking his shoes. Linda scolded. Then they began the hike, stopping by the tourist station to consult maps. Yoan remembered that it took an hour, but they were younger then. The trail was rugged, root-tangled, pine needle slick. Nate offered to take the dog, which kept both of them under control. The pre-teen boys discussed football. The little guy walked by himself.  Her feet ached but she kept going, determined.

The beach was covered in sharp rocks, no where to sit and catch her breath. They stood in an awkward circle. A few words were said, but the waterfall was loud, impossible to hear anything unless they shouted. While they waited for hikers to pass, the dog took off up the hillside and had to be retrieved. The urns were opened and upturned and powdery gray ashes swirled to join the water. The kids skipped stones. Photos were taken.

He was gone, even the last bits of bone. They each had to reconcile with the loss in their own way. His death divided them, too painful to talk about, once the last photos had been packed away, the urn that Yoan inherited parked on a shelf. What do you say when someone is in so much pain, they see no other way out? How can you reconcile it with the kind young man who was always optimistic? The tree they planted was barely surviving, no one had the heart to take care of it. The house he couldn’t really afford now someone’s else’s burden. She had cried until she felt drowned, submerged.

The kids were eager to get back to hotdogs and s’mores. The dog led the way, his tail wagging. The little one had to be carried. She couldn’t believe her feet could still move.

The adults sat by the campfire talking of everyday this and that: jobs, school, past and upcoming vacations. The boys tossed around a football until the fire was hot enough for hot dogs. Yoan stripped a stick for her to toast marshmallows for the little guy, who crawled into her lap. This was her moment of grace: whatever was left of her child was collected here, by the fire. Broken in places, grieved beyond measure, sibling rivalry for the cousin’s attention, the little one nestled against her, they were still family, all the family she needed.