Image 01

The Polar Vortex and the Missing Girl

January 7th, 2014 by admin

January 7. Cold air that normally sticks around the North Pole has slipped its moorings, heading south, today in a polar vortex.  Ice quakes are shaking the earth in the midwest. Milder here, but with the wind, 13 degrees still feels like negative one.  All extreme weather–wind driving rain at an angle nearly parallel to the ground, thick fog that off-gassed from snow banks, or even a night blacker than any due to low clouds–makes me think about her.  So, for sure I would connect the  polar vortex to the missing girl, the one who cut through the playing fields of her high school on the way to a path through the woods still covered in mostly green leaves, 89 days ago.  That was when she disappeared.

She was wearing yoga pants and a baggy sweater in the school security photo that offers the last picture of her.  So, to me, how could she not be under-dressed during a polar vortex–at least in my imagining? Her cell phone was in one hand and the other hand was covered down to the fingertips by her sleeve.  I do that sometimes, too, pull my cuff over my thumb and hold it there, like a street urchin, when I’m feeling nervous.  (Was she nervous as she headed toward the door?)    She was wearing boots that were black or brown, depending on which FBI Missing Person poster you read, and carrying a large, slouchy bag. In the security photo, the shoulder bag seems to be made of cloth, large enough to haul the mail around the neighborhood.  She was about to step away from the first four weeks of her freshman year of high school and into something else.

The reason I know about this girl (who disappeared, by the way, three days before her fifteenth birthday) was that the week before another girl disappeared, a little closer to my home.  I discovered the news of the other girl on Twitter, as I also discovered just twenty hours later, already gone, that they found her deep in the woods near a statue she liked as kid–a secret spot in the magical forest of her childhood, maybe,  to her.  She left a goodbye note to someone, left her keys in her car.  So, when an almost identical child, just a couple years younger, disappeared a short while later, it seemed like an epidemic:  missing girls in leggings, long dark hair and darker eyes who have an obligatory but slight smile in one or two selfies they leave behind on Facebook.  Two girls with sad, wan smiles.  I’m not saying that’s a reason to become obsessed with missing teenagers, I’m just setting up my way of thinking about the still-missing girl in bad weather, during scary dark nights, almost all the time when I am near the woods.  My first thought was that girls sometimes walk into the forest to kill themselves–why is that?    Whatever draws them there?

But suicidal thoughts don’t seem to be the case with the girl who’s been gone for 89 days as of today.  From everything I’ve meticulously gathered in the past 89 days, on crime websites and chat rooms and all the news reports, is that she was probably going to meet someone–walking into the woods alone like that–she left her friends behind on the bus and even texted one of them a <3.   A last heart–signifying everything or nothing?–just before she strolled off the path toward something else.  These were two different girls, walking into trees that were starting to turn golden, leaving little notes behind like breadcrumbs, for different reasons–or so it seems.

I don’t think I’ve missed a single thing–not one of the series of daily press conferences with the attorney general and the FBI agents flanking the tearful mother in the first three weeks as October wound down, not the handwritten letters the mother posts on facebook talking directly to the girl or the pictures of the girl’s pugs wearing reindeer antlers as Christmas approached, not puzzling the news that the mother had received a letter from the girl a month after she disappeared.  I know only what police have released about this missing girl–maybe more than the average person, but still not much.   With just that to go on, you could say there are two choices, that either this girl is warm and safe from the polar vortex or that it no longer matters what the weather outside is.  Or you could think what I am, now, as I watch the naked branches outside my window rock back and forth and back and forth: you could think about how there  is a world of shadows in between these black and white choices–life and death.  You could wonder about the exact moment–that split second when “walking away” becomes “missing endangered.”  You could think whatever led up to that moment started a long time before 89 days ago, and the arctic pole moved south. Girls don’t go missing for nothing.

What Took You So Long? What I Can’t Say About Writer’s Block

February 14th, 2012 by admin

Last May I went to brunch with some of my husband’s cousins, in Boston from the West coast for a college graduation.  I was seated next to one of the cousins’ husbands, a nice guy, someone I’d met on about three other occasions over the span of 20 years. We don’t know each other well; the conversation was friendly but awkward, and I was probably talking more than I needed to because that’s what I do when I’m nervous, and I blurted out that I had a book coming out in the fall of 2012–this was something like  eighteen months away still.  I rambled on about what a long process it was. I stopped, eventually.  This is when I noticed his face.

The guy has a long, thin, still face, almost devoid of all expression.  It was very hard to detect, but I could see he was slightly squinting.  After a long pause with me not talking, and because he’s a lawyer and allows words to settle into the dust before responding, with just the wisp of a quizzical expression on his blank face, he said, “This is your first book?”

I nodded.  At that time I was feeling rather proud of my book, which is why I was rambling/bragging about it, and which was why I didn’t really scrutinize his verbal italics on the word first.

Well, not until I heard him say, “What took you so long?”

In all the times I’ve told people that I signed with an agent, that I had a maybe from two editors, that I had finally sold my book, no one else ever asked me what took me so long.

I can’t say I ever had this set of feelings converge on me at the same time and so quickly.  It was the ambush that had been waiting for me for quite a while and I felt the weight of the question as it landed. It divided and like ninjas landed on my shoulders and right in the middle of my chest.  I can’t say exactly which feelings they were, or how many of them were piling up on top of my shoulders and chest, but it was a gang, for sure, and they made speaking impossible.

What kind of question is that? I might have asked if my mouth were functional and my jaw not frozen shut.  I could have responded really well, if I’d been able. I mean–what are the chances of anyone ever publishing a novel in the first place?  I could talked about the odds, the market, the state of publishing.  Or I might have chuckled about the took-you-so-long part, dismissively waving it off  and saying something about the value we, as a culture, put on prodigy.  But as a matter of fact,  I was the second-to-youngest person in my MFA class.  The only person younger than I was in that class is  a novelist now.  His  name is Brett Lott, and he became an Oprah writer.  If I wasn’t a prodigy, I at least  had a lot of opportunities  when I was younger. I had plenty. Instead, I nodded my chin toward the end of the table and mumbled something about two of the reasons and how they were sharing a plate of french fries over there, but don’t most writers have children?

At the same time one member of that gang of ninjas that was so heavy on my chest and on on my shoulders whispered: “He’s asking a good question.”

A question I kind of  suspected I would need to answer–or at least I would need to understand, myself.  Over the years, I’ll admit,  I’ve given it a lot of thought.  For the longest time I wanted  a name for what was keeping me from writing.  I felt better that I had a name for it. . . .  The name meant I could read books about it;  I could consult therapists who specialized in it and who advertised in the Boston writer’s community. I could make appointments concerning it.  (I could spend money on it.) Or I could try more zany remedies like establishing rituals and buy $100 fountain pens.  (I could spend money on it.)  It was called Writer’s Block.

If you are reading this because you have given the reason you are not able to write–or to finish your writing–this same name, I sympathize with you.  I’ve cried like you.  I’ve looked out the same windows, with my (fill in your writing implements here:  pen and paper, laptop, computer screen) in front of me, time finally cleared, bills finally paid, laundry put off til another time. I’ve seen so much weather out those windows:  snow falling like icing sugar, rain coming down in sheets while trees seemed to blossom in time-lapse.  I’ve holed up in public libraries, waiting for my imagination to kick in, sat there looking past the screen and past an empty page–at  mothers packing toddlers into minivans in the parking lot.  I’ve sat in my share of coffee shops for the afternoon while the aroma of chocolate undertones changed to from dark roast, to smokey, to burned.  I’ve sat at my dining room table and found myself, once again looking out the window instead of writing, once again,  watching the kids walk past my house on their way home from school at the end of their day,  knowing my time was gone already, thinking I had nothing much to show for it.

I could tell the cousin’s husband this cycle went on for a long, long time.

That thing that goes by that name–it can certainly have roots in sadness, and injury, and self-doubt. It can be trauma disguising itself.  That’s why I’m not going to use the name any more.  Instead I’m going to speak directly to you, if you think you have it–that thing that’s getting in your way from doing what you really want to do. I want to tell you to give in to what you really want to do.  Give yourself permission to give in to yourself: Write and don’t look back. Write as if you life depended upon it.


Write now, the minute you stop reading–even if it’s for fifteen minutes.  At the end, read your words: Forgive yourself for not being perfect, and celebrate how good you are. Even if it’s just a little good, have a party for yourself. Don’t forget that party–it’s the most important part.  It’s what will get you to come back.

And then promise yourself you will come back, soon.  Don’t think about what comes next, whether anyone will like it, because in the bigger picture, no matter what happens next, it doesn’t really matter.  You won’t need to give it a name anymore because it’ll be over.  Believe me when I say, just write. ***

***More hopeful words on writer’s block later, and fora few tips about how to get out of  Writer’s Block  Prison, go to

Photo by Yoshi Makishima

The Colors of the Scent of WONDER BREAD

January 31st, 2012 by admin

Whenever we drove by  the Wonder Bread bakery when I was a kid, I saw primary colors.  To say you could smell the combination of yeast and flour would be an understatement:  You’d hit an invisible wall of bread–a wall made of the aromas of baking bread, that is.  I don’t believe there is any way on earth not to picture a slice of white Wonder Bread under those circumstances, in addition to the primary colors on the Wonder Bread wrapper, the red, yellow and blue circles.   I didn’t have the name synesthesia–if that’s what you could call it– I had only the most benign sense of what the scent of Wonder Bread had done to my unconscious–connecting forever, the cheerful symmetry of primary colors with what I had been raised to believe was the center of all life–bread–and its sweet, yeasty aroma.  I was in college, and a professor (who happened to unlock the mystery of Emily Dickinon’s poems for me, as a matter of fact),  introduced me to the idea that Wonder Bread was evil incarnated.  Professor Al Thomas told us all to try this: to take a loaf of Wonder Bread and squeeze it and in a very short time you will have a small ball.  That’s all it is, he said, just a small ball of nothing.  You think you can live on that?

I was nineteen.  Professor Thomas wanted to provoke the class  into thinking about the conspiracies of consumerism that surrounded us, and to me at the time, he seemed overly agitated about a loaf of bread, the little coals in his dark eyes glowing.  I mean, it was Wonder Bread.  It was primary colors and field of white, and me, driving through Sunbury in the passenger side of a warm car, some adult was at the wheel and in charge of things and my whole life–the blank canvas of my life–was ahead of me.   What’s the big deal anyway? Don’t buy the stupid bread if you don’t like it. That’s what I was thinking.

I was, as I said, nineteen. I’m a lot older now. Yesterday, my fourteen year old son told me that he’s afraid his father and I will leave for work and not come back.  It’s not just a passing thought, either. This is  a very real possibility for him since the death of one of his classmates, just a few days before Christmas, just about  a month ago, redefined the logic of remote possibilities and statistical long shots, and made all the impossible (and terrible) things a lot more likely.  More than likely.  Because of Susan’s death, to him  the term improbable means nothing, now. And when I say almost never, he takes no comfort. It’s as if the flap of the envelope that contains his life opened up and a thing–a person–that was in there shook out–without any warning, without a reason, and without any kind of sense.  He’s not sure what or who might be here one minute and gone the next.

Earlier yesterday afternoon, right before he told me that every time we leave he imagines it’s the last time he’ll see us, my boy was talking about how his English class watched Oh Brother Where Art Thou on the day before Christmas vacation–they had read The Odyssey and the movie is a retelling of the story– and how his teacher told them to dance out the door like the characters in the movie. He was showing me some of the kids’ dances–the self-conscious and goofy way middle schoolers might comply with a favorite teacher’s request:  Make up your own dance as you leave.  The last time  he saw Susan, she was dancing.  That’s what I was thinking.  I’m guessing in some part of his mind, my boy was thinking this too.


They had been out of school on Christmas vacation for just 22 hours when the email came.

My son ran out of the house when I told him the terrible news.  He said, “I really have to go,” and left.  He told me later he ran alongside his friend Nick, while Nick rollerbladed home.  He said he ran fast and wasn’t ever out of breath.  He responds just as I do to panic; his adrenaline kicks in.  I’m never as clear-headed and productive as I am after I encounter, head-on, something awful, even if there’s nothing I can do about it.

A couple days after we found out, when we were getting ready to go to the grief counseling the school had arranged, he asked  if they’re sure.  That was exactly what he asked, “Are they sure about her?” And we had to break the bad news all over again.  Yesterday he admitted that he still thinks that one day he’ll be someplace, maybe  Vermont, and he’ll run into her, and she’ll tell him it was a mistake, and things will make sense again, the way they used to a month ago.

He and I both know that’s not going to happen, but we also both know he’s got to consider the possibility of it all being a big mistake.  He’s still a kid.  Or rather, he’s straddling the primary-colored world and the cloudy one.  I don’t know what to tell him when he asks how long it will take for him to stop thinking that way–that magical way. I wish he wouldn’t have to stop–at least not for a while. He’ll fully step into the world of clouds soon enough.


Lately I can’t get this out of my mind–the scent of factory-made bread and how you could smell it for blocks before you hit the Wonder Bread plant, and for blocks after you left.   I still associate circles of primary colors with slices of white bread that have just a little more weight than air.  In fact, I see red and blue and yellow whenever I smell yeast.   It’s an automatic thing, an illusion left over from my childhood:  I am in the passenger seat still, the smell of fresh Wonder Bread surrounds me and lulls me to sleep.

 Photo by Yoshi Makishima


Hello world!

January 4th, 2012 by admin

Welcome to WordPress. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!