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Posts Tagged ‘memory’

Surfing channels the other night we got stuck on a home improvement show and before leaving TV behind for sleep we witnessed the woes of a family whose kitchen layout was so awful, their stove was crammed into an alcove by the back door. Lying in the dark coming out of dreams the next morning I was picturing my grandmother’s kitchen, trying to remember: where was the stove? I got it in place against the wall shared with the living room; next to it, the fridge. Then the doorway through to the front of the house; and I went around the room like that, filling it in, nailing it down. Like staking out a tent before you go inside.

As I worked my way around the walls things came back to me. I couldn’t actually see the stove, or its color—probably white, definitely electric—but I remembered that Grandma used to store crackers in the oven. Club crackers, my grandparents liked. I guess they stayed fresher behind the oven door and its seal.

Atop the fridge were two ceramic roosters—well, actually a rooster and a hen I think, one being large, the other small. I have them now; they have red-painted combs, gray and white feathers, ochre-colored feet standing in matching clumps of green. You should always have a rooster for your kitchen, I think I remember my grandmother explaining. Certainly no farm would be without one, and she did start life on a farm.

Passing the fridge and the doorway in my mind I turned to the north wall; up against it, the kitchen table. Very 1950s, it was chrome and cornflower blue formica and suddenly I was seeing the blue light in the kitchen, on a winter morning. From my highchair pulled up to the end of the table I could see out, see the snow drifted and heaped everywhere, piled on the sills of the screen porch beyond the back door. The light is sudden and fierce, almost scathing, bouncing off the snow and into the room.

Behind me in the corner there is some kind of electric roaster, a behemoth that sat on its own cabinet, the kind of kitchen fossil that I imagine a lot of women of my grandmother’s age had standing around. Above it, the black telephone, mounted on the wall. I remember my grandmother talking on the phone. My grandfather almost never did—his hearing was bad, and he was telephone-averse. But I can hear my grandmother’s voice, clear, echoing just slightly in the open room with all its hard surfaces, and I remember the lilt in her voice in just the single word, hello. When she answered the phone she did not ask a question: “Hello?” Who are you? Instead she sang, gently: “Hello!” I am here.

She was there, they were both there, as was I. As I work my way around the kitchen I take on this feeling of my grandparents and their lives, a slowness and a kind of solitude but also presence, intention. Without the distraction of electronics, email, smartphones, cable, so unlike my life today. I remember how my grandparents turned on the television to watch a particular “program,” as my grandmother called them, Lawrence Welk or the evening news. Grandma liked to watch a John Wayne western if one was on.

My circuit around the room takes me along the eastern wall, passing the door to the porch with that winter light streaming in like an ice-bright river and next to the door the sink, framed on both sides by cupboards, above and below. I can’t picture the curtains in the window over the faucet, but suddenly I see a pale green, the cupboard doors or the walls must have been painted that hue. Then I’m seeing wallpaper, a pattern comes almost into focus: neutral tones, flourishes and a spice grinder. I think it was on the wall over the table.

On the fourth and last wall, more cupboards and then the washing machine. This is a small house, my grandparents’ place, even though the kitchen feels large and open in my childhood memories. But there is no basement or utility room, so the washer is here and the dryer is in the attached garage, beyond the dining room. When it’s really cold outside Grandma will open the small closet next to the washer (I can see the door, it’s louvered), take out a Pendleton shirt hanging on a hook there, and put it on before she carries the clothes out to the dryer.

I feel how big the day was, opening up before us on a bright winter morning. I see my grandfather take up his coffee cup (and it was a cup, sitting on a saucer), I hear the sound of my grandmother’s chair scraping softly on the floor as she gets up to take dishes to the sink. They did not rush, or hurry. I realize that they were retired; but I believe their calm ways and measured pace had as much to do with who they were and the world they came up in as with circumstance.

Breakfast in the kitchen. I turn the memory over and over in my mind and study it like a small but endlessly faceted diamond, and in that expanse of time there is something vivid and real that I have trouble finding in my life today: that slow, deliberate act of living even in the smallest things, especially in the smallest things.

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Early Morning, Late October

Early morning at the cottage. In summer this time of day is so utterly peaceful, sitting on the porch with coffee, watching the dawn come up slowly. Hearing the birds all around, listening to the water. The smell of pine. The promise of a summer day on the Bay.

But it’s late October and pitch black outside. I opened the back door, went out and checked the temperature (nearly 50°—not bad) on the thermometer that hangs on the pine tree. How long has a thermometer been there? I can’t say; decades at least, maybe longer than I’ve been on the planet. The tree, definitely longer. I measured it two years ago to estimate its age: ninety-something. Only a few feet from the back door, I fear we will have to take it down if we build even a slightly bigger place.

Despite the dark mornings, which do seem sudden and mournful, fall is beautiful here. Driving up to Bellaire yesterday from M72 there was lots of color, bright maples and birches mixed with the dark of pines all along the road. Near Mancelona a small mountain rose from the plain, all covered in red and gold and saddle-brown.

Driving from Bellaire to the cottage up around the end of Torch Lake was even better. The highway twists and turns, rolls up over hills and dips back down, crossing glacial moraines: the piles of silt and stones the glaciers left here as they retreated from what is now Lake Michigan. I had a series of vistas: a carpet of green field running up to a calico frieze of woods; a country lane lined with yellow maples winding away towards a distant, checkered hill; horses grazing behind a ramshackle fence, the trees glowing crimson and yellow beyond them. The road showed me these views and put them away again, like shuffling photographs—such is the speed at which we move, in cars. But even on foot I know the views would change coming around a bend, going up and downhill. I would just have longer to study each picture before it disappears into memory.

Into memory. The sun was out, and even though I was traveling at close to sixty miles an hour, I gathered and will hold onto these images through the long months away from here, the perfect gold of a sugar maple something to gnaw on this winter, like a dried husk or some prize kernel stashed away. (We are more like squirrels than we care to admit, I think.)

I see some light is just now beginning out the picture window, a deep blue color—almost like peering through water. I feel like I’m looking through the glass wall of a big aquarium, as if fish might swim by, darting in and out the trees. There’s still no wind; and I think, why shouldn’t I put my coat on and go out, as in summer? Sit in the half-light (not even—quarter-light) with my coffee and drink in the quiet one more time.

Winter will be long. I will miss this place.

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Christmas Eve.

Snow is on the ground. Icicles big as baseball bats hang from the porches of the little houses on Leroy St., and if you come late and the church lot is full and you have to park on the street, you will carefully make your way up the end of someone’s driveway—lit by Christmas lights—and move along the sidewalk as if through a tunnel, flanked by walls of snow.

Inside, there’s a huge tree at the front of the sanctuary, hung with ornaments all in white and gold, all Christian symbols. I don’t think even the grownups know what half of them mean. Ok, we all know the dove is about peace, and the fish has something to do with early Christians, but lots of others just seem vaguely familiar, or not at all. A woman in the congregation painstakingly crafted every one of them, out of Styrofoam and braid and beads. (The tree in the social hall, in the basement, is far less majestic. It’s artificial, white, and has a color wheel turned on it so that it slowly changes: blue, to red, to emerald, to a funky gold. It always has a hypnotic effect on me—I could watch it for hours.)

But back to the sanctuary. The advent wreath’s up front, on a stand. I never remember what the colors mean, I just know the white candle in the center does not get lit ‘til Christmas. I like the purple candles best, and how fat they are: big, round columns that look like they could burn for days. The altar is banked with poinsettias, scores of them. Sometimes our family has paid for a few and takes them home later, but at home they always look spindly and kind of lame to me compared to how they look amassed here—an army, a forest of fiery red flowers.

There are a lot of people packed into the sanctuary, some of whom we see only once a year. But my young brain doesn’t think about this much, or judge it. It’s exciting, the crush of people, all dressed in their holiday best. Men in waistcoats, and holiday ties; women in jewel colors, ruffles, hairspray, clip earrings. One year our mom sews long skirts for my sister and me. (Mine is deep green velvet. I think Linda’s was port.)

The sanctuary feels warm with the press of all these people, and the darkness at the windows along the sides makes the effect even more cozy. Crammed into the pews, a handful of kids always drop their votive glasses, and they clink as they roll around on the floor. “Good God, it sounds like a bar in here,” my dad always says, and we all laugh.

Every year the service begins with our best musicians, the T. family, playing “Gesu Bambino,” “Bring a Torch, Jeannette Isabella” on alternate years. Tom’s sweet violin cuts through the sanctuary, supported by his mother’s steady cello and intertwined with his sister’s warm-sounding flute. Already everyone knows that he will play in a professional orchestra one day. I can picture the chairs they sit on, small wooden chairs that usually stay in the storage space behind the choir loft and have “ihs” carved in the back.

The choir assembles in the “narthex,” the space just outside the doorway to the sanctuary. I always think it’s funny that people seem to enjoy using the technical terms for parts of the church—and yet, it fascinates me, too. The T. family has finished playing, picked up their chairs, retreated from in front of the steps to the altar. The organ begins something we all know—because it’s Christmas Eve, and we’ll know all the hymns tonight. There is a sound—how do you describe it? The sound of everyone around me getting to their feet. And as the choir comes down the center aisle in their pale gold robes, we’re all singing. “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant…” Even in the robes, I can tell who’s who—and I enjoy this, recognizing that the short woman with the carefully coiffed hair and the gorgeous voice is Mrs. A., and the tall, thin man who bounces a little is Mr. W. They’re familiar, and yet, transformed. Or maybe it’s just that I recognize the fellowship in singing in a choir, symbolized by their robes. I know about singing in a choir, I’ve been doing it here since I was four years old.

And sing is what we will do, for the next hour. Sure, there will be readings from the Gospels, and the minister will address us briefly. He knows he has to keep it short on Christmas Eve—besides, with the votive glasses rolling around, and the occasional baby bursting into voice, how long can he expect to hold the floor?

And we have a lot of carols to sing—so many, that “The First Noel” will only get three of its umpteen verses, and someone’s favorite will get left out—better luck next year. And then the moment comes we’ve all been waiting for, even those who don’t know it.

The ushers come up the aisles and light the candle of the person sitting at the end of every pew, and that person lights the next person’s candle, and that person, the next, until everyone in that crowd of people is holding a burning candle in a glass. The lights are dimmed and the organ, softly now, strikes up “Silent Night,” and we begin to sing the last hymn.

Somewhere around verse three the organ drops out and it’s just us, the multitude, singing in the candlelight, the dark of a winter’s night pressing in at the windows as we sway with the music, not really thinking any more of gifts we’ll open tomorrow, what Santa will leave under the tree, what we’ll have for Christmas dinner, or even the relatives we’ll see. All drops away—as I suppose it must have in churches all over the city, with their own colors of candles, ways to decorate an altar, hymns to the eternal.

How strong a pull has Christmas Eve. When I look back on it, I think I understand better than I ever have that for me, the pull is in the power of uniting, of belonging, of opening our hearts. And of course, singing.

Always, singing.

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Goodness

Jenny was always such a good girl – maybe that had something to do with it. The rest of us found it easy to come together in a kind of sisterhood of mean. What happened was especially ugly on my part – she was my friend. How many times had she waded into a ruckus on the playground when I, smallest in the class, was getting pummeled? She was big, for elementary school, tall and sturdy. Blond. I think her eyes were hazel; I don’t exactly remember. I found her on Facebook once, a few years ago. I didn’t friend her. I guess I could go look again – see what color her eyes are.

Maybe we did it, that day at Girl Scout camp, because most of her stuff came from K-mart. I remember that about her family, that her parents loved shopping there, thought it was great that they could get everything from shoes to shampoo, casseroles to carpet, for cheap. I noticed, because my family often shopped at the more upscale department store, where my school shoes were fitted by a professional and went out the door in a nice box with a plastic shoe horn tossed in.

I’m not sure it was all about socioeconomic status, though, because there were two sisters in our tent, the Pritchards – Kathy?  and Susie – who were living with their divorced mom and seemed to be on a shoestring. But the clothes they brought with them to camp were cool, and worn with confidence. They seemed to know who they were, and they were happening. I attributed this to their mom. I pictured toenail-painting parties, hairdo experiments, all of them having fun together.

Jenny’s mom wasn’t like that. Neither was mine. Before one of these Girl Scout outings, my mom pulled my long hair back and worked it into a single braid, then was distressed when I came home with it hanging loose around my shoulders, one of my friends having insisted that it needed to come down. It was the 60s, after all. Long, flowing hair was so in. The Pritchard sisters never would have showed up at Girl Scout camp in a braid like that.

I think it was the younger of them, Susie, who started it. I can see her blond bangs, drifting just slightly into her eyes, her grin, her thin, clever fingers, but mostly I can hear her. Chattering, teasing. Always commenting on something.

The tents at Girl Scout camp were on platforms, canvas-enclosed rooms big enough for cots ranged along the sides. When we walked up the handful of steps and through the door into ours, we discovered it was built on a hillside. The back looked out on open space where the hill fell away, into a ravine. Not too deep, but too far to jump down. A nice breeze came through, with the doors front and back open to the air.

Jenny took a cot in one of the back corners, and like the rest of us, began unpacking, laying out her stuff on her bed: hairbrush, toothbrush, bug spray. A Trixie Belden book (practically the only reading material her mother allowed).

Susie went over, that sly grin playing around her lips. “What’s this?” Picked up something from Jenny’s cot – a rain poncho, folded into a little pouch, or her flashlight – and began a game of keep-away, taunting. Susie was quick, but Jenny’s long arms would soon wrap her up. Maybe that’s why Susie pitched it, the flashlight – right out the back of the tent. It flew in a beautiful arc, we all saw it.

“Awwwwwww.” Jenny protested, annoyed.

Susie laughed. And picked up something else from Jenny’s pile of equipment – her hairbrush? And tossed that, too. And suddenly we were all throwing Jenny’s stuff out the back of the tent – shoes, mess kit, the ointment she’d brought for her eczema. I’m sure we all laughed as we did it. I think Barb, a tall girl with a wild mane of auburn hair, did a tap dance in between pitches.

Jenny was silent, almost sullen, as she went out the front of the tent and around to the back to collect her stuff. Not one of us lifted a finger to help her. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a packet of ponytail holders or another shoe came flying out the back while she was out there, like the last dribble from a faucet just turned off.

She didn’t speak to us for hours. We acted like we didn’t care. I breathed easier when the entire troop reconvened, assembling around the campfire for dinner. We could all blend in then, Jenny included, act natural, and not as though we’d just brutalized her, behaved like a vicious flock of chickens, mercilessly pecking.

Deep inside, though, I knew. As two older girls, Cadette scouts, acted out a Civil War song (“This Cruel War Is Raging”) while we sat in a circle around the fire, I had a hollow feeling, a hole inside me filled with the cold knowledge of who I was, and Susie – still joking, poking whoever was sitting next to her, getting shushed by Mrs. C., our leader. Who we all were.

Except Jenny. She turned a cold shoulder on us, her goodness intact.

 

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“What’s your favorite movie?”

The question was asked at a post-meeting luncheon, while my table was playing “get to know you” games.  I couldn’t come up with anything right away.  The truth is, I have trouble naming a favorite anything.  Singling out just one book, film, piece of music or even color is hard for me, and I usually feel dishonest naming something.  (Maybe I’m just hopelessly indecisive – I’m not sure.)  While I took my time answering, the question morphed to: What film can you watch over and over again?  When you randomly come across it while surfing channels, what film will inevitably draw you in?

Sitting next to me, my friend Bill named a quirky horror movie he adores.  (He described it as being both a horror flick and a love story.  I don’t love horror flicks, but that combo does sound compelling.)  Someone else named an old classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.  I sat there thinking: what old film do I watch, at least for a couple of scenes, nearly every time I come across it on TV?  And then the answer popped into my head, and somewhat sheepishly, I shared it with my companions: The Sound of Music.

Yup, that ridiculously sentimental musical, so dripping with sweetness that at times it gets syrupy. Its reputation as one of the most saccharine films of the 60s makes watching my favorite scenes a guilty pleasure.  I don’t think I’ve watched the entire film straight through for years; but whenever I find it on TV, I hope to catch the Lonely Goatherd number, and the scene where Maria dances the Ländler with Capt. von Trapp.  The way the camera catches the light in Maria’s eyes, and the captain’s formal wear – complete with white gloves – reel me in every time.

I know The Sound of Music is oft-criticized for being impossibly corny.  But I think we could agree that, like an old war horse or a grand dame from another era, it deserves some respect simply for surviving.  And in a way, it’s woven into the fabric of my life.  It came out in 1965, and I remember getting all dressed up and going downtown to see it with my mother and grandmother.  I don’t remember the experience of the film, at all, just the excursion.  It was an event.  As proof, I offer the souvenir program, still on my bookcase. (It’s got all its pages, but the cover’s falling off.)   I don’t know when I last saw one of these for sale in the lobby of a movie theater.  I suspect souvenir movie programs went the way of the dinosaur a long time ago.

I have a rough idea of how old I was, the next time I saw the film – just entering adolescence.  I can’t confirm the year with absolute certainty, but a poster I found online for the re-release of The Sound of Music dates from 1973.  I would have been 12 or 13.  Before the days of home video and DVD, eight years was a long wait – so people happily queued up at the theater to see the film again on the big screen. For me, the second viewing was like I was seeing it for the first time.  I don’t remember actually watching the movie – I just remember my reaction to it.  For two or three days I walked around feeling dazed and filled with an unfathomable pain.  I thought at the time I just really, really wanted to live in Austria.

I realized later – much later – that I had a huge crush on Julie Andrews as Maria.  A lot of things made more sense after I came out, in my early 30s – this was one of them.  No wonder I was crying in the bathroom after I saw The Sound of Music! I thought.  Any healthy, young lesbian would fall in love with Maria: she’s a tomboy, running around the foothills of the Alps, climbing trees; she plays the guitar; she’s not afraid to make play-clothes out of curtains, or tell the captain to stop using a whistle to call his kids.  She’s equally beautiful in her nightgown, the homespun jumper she’s wearing when she leaves the abbey (carrying her guitar case), or the blue dress she wears to the ball, when the baroness remarks that the captain can’t take his eyes off her.  Plus she was raised in a community of women, and she sings like an angel.  What’s not to love?

So even after all these years, when The Sound of Music shows up on TV (which it does fairly often), I find myself pulled in.  And just recently, when I was facing what I expected to be a very trying and challenging day, I thought of the number Maria sings about confidence, as she makes her way to the von Trapp mansion for the first time.  I could hear Julie Andrews singing the intro in my head: “What will this day be like?  I wonder…  What will my future be?  I wonder…”

I got the CD out (yes – I own the soundtrack) and my partner and I sang along with Julie: “I have confidence in springtime; I have confidence in rain…”  Sally thought it was really funny, that the words of the song and Maria’s predicament, as she left the abbey for a new life, would come back to me as we approached a day that felt unusually daunting.  I thought it was funny, too – but it’s also proof of the power of film.  Corny as it is, The Sound of Music has imprinted itself so indelibly on my consciousness that it will probably be there until I die.  Good thing I love that Lonely Goatherd number.

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Yeah, I know – there are so many ways to interpret dreams, you can’t put too much stock in them. Different people at different times have claimed them as omens, portents, visitations. But then again, they could just be neurons firing, the product of a busy, busy day in the psyche. Who knows?

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I dreamed I was in the back of a smallish car. The seats were folded down, and I was lying in the back like cargo. The car kept rising and falling like a ship at sea. A soothing rhythm; if I paid attention I could feel the wavelength – the interval between the moment we started climbing the wave and when we dropped over the crest.

My dad was driving, my mom was in the passenger seat beside him. We were stopped for a moment when I saw him slathering some dark mud on his arms, like he was preparing for an onslaught of voracious mosquitoes. He told me it was important to do this, here. I asked, “Where’s here? Where are we?”

He looked at my mom. I didn’t hear what he said, if anything, but I recognized his gentle, open expression and I knew he was asking her for help explaining. I remember him doing this in life sometimes, when he wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t hear what she said either, and I couldn’t see her face. He turned back to me and said two words: “Astral projection.”

I still wondered where we were going. For a moment I wondered if I might be dying – I guess because my parents have both passed on. I wondered if we were about to crash through some barrier, ending my life on earth. But I was worried only for a moment – and then I felt calm. I thought to myself that everything was ok, because I had faith in this journey, whatever it was, wherever my parents were taking me. I laid back down in the car and tried to feel that rhythm again: the pause on the crest of the wave, the plunge that made me just a little dizzy, then the slow surge forward.

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When I wake up I remember the dream clearly. “Astral projection” though, I’m not so clear about. I know I’ve heard of it, but I’m not sure exactly what it means. I think “astral” has something to do with the stars – that’s about all I can dredge up from memory.

I google it:

“Astral projection (or astral travel) is an interpretation of out-of-body experience that assumes the existence of an ‘astral body’ separate from the physical body and capable of traveling outside it.” (Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English, 2006)

Strange journeys we take in our dreams, to realms where a dictionary may help more than an atlas. Where are we really? There is no telling.  But don’t forget the insect repellant. There could be gnats like you’ve never seen before, where you’re going.

 

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Spring Find

Sally found it. She was raking last year’s leaves and needles from under one of the big pines between the cottage and the garage, and saw a gray and furry-looking blob. At first she thought it might be scat. But there was just the one small lump, and on closer inspection she saw it was threaded with tiny bones. Mouse bones. It was an owl pellet.

Owls, I’ve read, eat their prey whole. Their systems can harvest nutrients from most parts of the animals they eat, and what they can’t use they regurgitate in a pellet like the one Sally found: fur and bones. It was quite dry, and pretty clean, although the bottom of it had once been sticky – there were a few pine needles plastered to it. She put the pellet on the old aluminum table that sits out in the yard so I could study it, too. I took a picture. It was between two and three inches long, and looked a bit like a miniature clump of knitting, stuck through with tiny needles.

Soon after, our neighbor from down the road came by, walking his dog, while we were raking around the mailbox. “Want to see our owl pellet?” Sally asked him. Like us, he loves the outdoors and is interested in the natural world. He said yes, and came down the drive with us and into the yard to see.

“Where’d you find it?” he asked, looking it over, and Sally pointed a couple of feet away. I couldn’t read the expression on his face, as he followed her gesture, and then looked up and around the yard. To the north, my sister’s property is as of yet undeveloped, and while I can see my next-door neighbor’s house to the south, my wetland lot, with the spring creek that is right now merrily burbling its way out into the Bay, lies between. I wondered if he was thinking owls must like the privacy of our yard. Or was he looking behind Sally at the homemade fence my dad put up next to the garage, to keep the deer out the year he had a garden? It’s falling down. I haven’t decided what to do with it; or with our ancient, rusty wheelbarrow, which is propped up against it. I’m thinking I may make the barrow into a planter…

I mentioned that I remember my dad once found a tree where an owl was roosting, just off the trail across the road from our driveway. “I don’t know where it is, now,” I said. “There were lots of bones and pellets underneath it.” My voice rasped some, as I said it. Our neighbor’s face looked a little sad, and I thought maybe he was seeing for a moment what it was like here, forty years ago or more, how much I remember, and how sometimes change is a mournful thing.

Then he told us about a screech owl he heard one night. It was putting up a terrible racket, he told us; he said he was out in his pajamas in the middle of the night, trying to see what it was. “It sounded like a kid being killed!” he said, and laughed. I nodded in agreement. I’ve heard that sound, too. The summer I was nineteen, I was alone at the cottage but for the family dogs. They wanted out in the middle of the night, and as I stood at the back door peering into the pitch blackness and waiting for them to come back, I heard an ear-splitting scream. It truly sounded like someone being killed, except somehow more supernatural. (I guess because it wasn’t human.) I didn’t know what it was. I had to ask my dad about it, later. Without hesitation he said, “Screech owl.”

Our neighbor and his dog moved on to finish their walk, and we put the owl pellet in the garage. Like so much we used to bring in from the outdoors, not just stones and shells, but snakeskins, bird bones, the empty paper wasp nest my dad hung in a corner of the ceiling – we’ll keep it. It’s a sign that the wild is still here, around us. It’s a hopeful thing.

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