Wishing on a Dark Moon

Maybe because it involved fire, maybe because they all had something to burn, they said yes.

I’d never paid much attention to the cycles of the moon, how my earthly body might be in tune with this celestial body. I come from a tradition of sun-worshippers, but other cultures use lunar cycles to set time and give meaning to the changefulness of life.

The new moon, or the moment of darkness between waning and waxing, marks the beginning of the month in the Hebrew and Chinese calendars, and the Old Farmer’s Almanac says that it’s the best time to plant vegetables that bear fruit above ground.


Burn what no longer serves you, and say a prayer for what you want to grow, wise women suggest, because this is the order of the universe. One cycle fades, another emerges.

It was raining steadily outside. Diana and I had changed out of wet clothes into pajamas. The air hung with the perfume of ginger, garlic, and broth from the soup we had for dinner.

“You’re going to burn your enemies?” Luke asked me.


My list was two pages long. I ripped it out of my journal as the kids quandaried over what to put down. “I wrote about my fears,” I told them, “and thoughts that make me feel insecure.”

The new moon is also called the dark moon, because it looks as black as the night sky.

I didn’t expect the boys, now 13 and 10, to start looking for small writing paper in the pie chest. Diana paced around the playroom, reminding us that we weren’t going to tell anyone what we wrote.


They used to say this in church: Give your worries to God. Lay them down at His feet.

How did this work? I wondered. I was too ashamed to tell God things like, “I’m not even sure you exist.”

When I was about 8 years old, my Southern Baptist grandmother gave me a daily Bible verse tear-off calendar. I peeked ahead to see what message had been selected for my birthday. It was Matthew 8:26: “Why are you fearful, O ye of little faith?”

My life has been a dance of trying to hide what I was afraid had already been revealed.


Mark’s crushed paper ball made the candle flame muscle up and arc. Luke’s crumpled piece made a broad wall of light.

I scrolled my pages and touched them to the flame. They became a gray log, and I thought of fallen trees in the woods, bark peeling off in curls.

When Diana placed her squared folded sheet into the pillar candle, the schoolgirl blue lines stayed neat while frilly waves of sunset orange and night black advanced.

The earth knows how to transform, how to receive and dissolve. This beautiful merciful destroyer.


Wax came spilling down, running willy-nilly over the table. We put out the fires with splashes of water, then celebrated with rhubarb sauce over vanilla ice cream. Our table looked like a moonscape, or a funeral pyre. An after-party.

A few hours later when the last sunlight had leaked from the sky, Diana came downstairs, eyes blinking in the kitchen glare where Mark was making a poster on the Roman military. She said she was hot, but she pulled me close.

I climbed into bed with her, and she clutched my shirt with one hand, burying her head into my chest. “I said I wanted to give up being scared of the dark but I’m still scared,” she whispered. “Even more than before.”

“When you look something in the eye,” I said, “it can be more scary than when you were running away.” And I told myself as I spoke to her, “Sometimes we need to give it more time. Trust that it’s working even if it doesn’t seem that way at first.”


Faith is hard to hold in a place where magic isn’t real if it can’t be proven with test tubes and microscopes. When we can’t see all that is unfolding: the seeds that are growing underearth, the ghosts collapsing into the night.

“You should go,” Diana said when we heard my husband unlocking the front door and looking for me.

Dov’è la Mamma? he called up the stairs.

“He’s missing you,” she said. “I’ll be okay with the light on.”


My new moon prayer:

Take away my doubt and my shame, and replace it with compassion and trust as steady as the sun.

Show me how to stand in my own light, even when the world is bright and actionful.

Open my perception to the signs and symbols that are always here, pointing me where I need to go.

Amen.

Another Daughter Leaving

Virginia and I walk to the Indian place on the corner for our bi-monthly lunch date. They seat us at our favorite booth by the window, and I gaze across the table at her. She looks down, puts her napkin on her lap, and sneaks a glance up at me. She has made her eyeliner in a cat-eye style I remember doing, and the hair around her face is pulled up into a half ponytail. Matching her gold hoop earrings is a necklace that says “Milano.”

She’ll be off to college in 3 months. Only a few weeks ago, I felt crumpled by the task of raising a teenager. I’m not doing it right. I know nothing. I’m harming her instead of helping her. Now over Baighan Bharta and Aloo Palak, we talk about religions and the Enneagram, manifesting and desire, choosing college classes, and the time that I failed Physics for Poets.

What would the past 17 years have been like if I had been less fearful, and more loving? If I had not been ashamed of who I was? If pearls had formed around the grit of my regrets, and I had jewels to then press into her hands?


For Mother’s Day last week all I wanted was for everyone to go on a family picnic at the dairy farm. It was the first Mother’s Day that not all of my children were there. Sofia is in New Mexico working on a farm, and next year, Virginia will be gone too.

Standing on that pasture under the cold May sky, I felt smaller. Smaller in the way that you do when you take off a heavy wool parka that you don’t need anymore.

I tried to be who I was supposed to be — strong, sure, un-confusing. Then motherhood became a shield that helped me hide all of who I am.

The waiter with the shiny head and jovial eyes brings us a take-home box, and as we pack away the eggplant and tomatoes, the spinach and potatoes, Virginia tells me how every morning she goes over what she’s grateful for. “But if you don’t say why you’re grateful, it doesn’t work,” she tells me. “It just becomes a list.”

Who am I to her now, who is she to me? Once dancing in the roles that life had cast us in, we are now characters leaving the stage. I who made rules, monitored, and enforced. She who needed guidance, protecting, guard rails. What remains is something that cannot be categorized or explained. No teacher and no student — maybe we have always been both.


“You don’t realize what power the top bunk has,” I overhear Mark saying one night in his room while he and Virginia are trying to pull a fitted sheet around the hard-to-reach corners. “Monsters can’t get you up here.”

“You don’t think monsters can fly?” Virginia says, as she tickles him and tells the story about how she used to hang from the top bunk to make faces at Sofia, and one time she fell off, laughing and crying at the same time.


When she is away at work one night, I find her pine green fleece jacket inside out on the window seat, and intertwined in it, a strand of her golden hair.

There are only so many more vegan grain bowls she’ll prepare for us, only so many episodes of Master Chef we’ll watch together, only so many mornings her sweet-sad pop songs will billow through the house.

When she gets home, she’ll fix a snack and go down to watch The Sopranos until after I’ve gone to bed. In the morning I’ll coast by her as she cooks her oatmeal before logging into her Stats class. When she leaves for work, I will have already gone to pick up Diana. We go on with our lives.

A wave crests, and then it falls. The day unravels, night comes. Endings and beginnings, leavings and arrivals: they’re all bound into one unbreakable thing.

Mothers and children, grandmothers and grandchildren, ancestors and unborn babies, inextricably tied one to another. There is no end and no beginning. Yet in the heaving, tumbling middle, it feels like we are living through a million deaths and a million births.

Art by Florence Harrison from The Early Poems of William Morris

Anew

It’s January 1, 2021. I wake to the sound of children’s voices downstairs. The new year has begun like many others, yet the voices are a little different. My son’s voice is becoming a man’s. The teens, now silent in their beds, were once little girls. 

I hear the baritone voice of my husband. This house we have made together. This life. Comets colliding together through space. Children like stardust, clinging to us until they hurtle off too. 

I hear the espresso maker pumping. Ceramic plates being set down on a wooden table. I know the noisemakers and party hats are still strewn across the crumbs and candle wax. The bottle of sparkling cider we never drank has exploded in the freezer, but I don’t know this yet.

Outside my bedroom, the cat mews. It’s 9:15, I have slept in. I slide the pocket door over the slanted floorboards. He wants to be close to me. I pet him and by the second stroke, he is purring. Animals teach what I keep forgetting. How to love, how to be loved.

The sky weeps. A sad start to a year that the whole world wants to be better. Can we find a less traumatic way to live? Before the virus came, we were still dying alone in hallways, keeping a safe distance, putting masks over our true faces.

Downstairs I find the boys lining up matchbox cars under the couch. I begin chopping onions and celery. Lentils bring good luck, Enrico’s mom used to say. Little coins in a bowl, we will spoon them in, eating prosperity for lunch.

A warm world, a world just awakened. What if I started each day knowing I am a little closer to my death? What would it be like to walk through the world so tender? Not cleansing the traces of sleep, not covering the dangerous softness we had when we were born.

A Photo Album of Nothing, and Everything

The 2020 photo book that I just made for my parents, as I do every Christmastime, had more pages in it than other years, and my daughter Sofia wondered, “Of what?”

The starting images seemed spewed from a bottle of champagne: birthday dinners in packed restaurants, a stageful of kids dancing to the Little Mermaid, college tours through Mardi Gras, cousin reunions, airports, and beaches. 

Then, a grainy photo of empty toilet paper shelves at CVS. Stockpiling books at the library. Children’s art taped to windows. Hopscotch, puzzles, cherry blossoms.

But before all this, there was a picture that didn’t make it into the photo album. A swath of wet concrete and a group of kids walking away under a gray sky. It was March 13, the day schools closed, and the morning assembly had just ended. 

I hadn’t taken enough pictures, I remember thinking as I watched hundreds of elementary school kids stream into the building. I fumbled for my cell phone, eyes tearing up, and managed to hit the shutter button once before Diana, with her pink and green frog backpack, walked into her 1st grade classroom for the last time. 

Before the outbreak, I had been so preoccupied with my own worries and ambitions. I was never satisfied with where I was. I was always trying to get over there. Trying to become someone else.


You never feel more alive than when you are about to die. When the virus threatened to destroy everything, I felt awake. Everything in my life seemed to shift into order. All the jockeying to be accepted felt hollow, and the aloneness I had been trying to quash fell away. A thickness pressed in all around me, a feeling of togetherness much more subtle and steady than any acceptance from the world of men.


Dark matter is what scientists now call empty space. Invisible yet so powerful that it holds galaxies together. The great religions speak in parables and poetry of an indescribable something that contains everyone that ever was and ever will be. A oneness stronger than all the fleeting delights and disappointments of this life. 

We have become very good at seeing what shines and burns — the stars and the supernovas, glowing cities and their arteries, the synapses firing between neurons. But our fascination with light has sometimes blinded us to the power of the dark.

When the lockdown dimmed the world, the empty space showed its aliveness. The distance between humans suddenly felt charged. Our similarities seemed so clear and poignant. And the space inside me, once seeming like a black hole, was filled with a magnetic force.


By the time you flip to the month of May in our photo book, the pictures have become more and more green. Instead of faces, monuments, and ceremonies, the camera lingered on the daisies and the blue hydrangeas in our garden, how they seemed to luxuriate in our attention. The lens paused over the grassy hill near our house that was always there to receive our screen-weary selves. Snapshot after snapshot captured the farm in Ohio, which welcomed us whenever we needed to escape the city.

There were still things to photograph in the fall — the tree that fell on the car, school desks at home, unrest around the White House — but the photos seemed to tell that 2020 was about nature: vicious beautiful nature. The virus that both ripped us apart and fused us together. The wind that sanctified, the woods that soothed, the plants and the animals, the puddles and the moonlight, the dirt and the rainbows.

It was a year of heartbreak. Seeing the world on its knees, my heart broke open, and in came all the sorrow, and all the love. For what was lost, for what we never had. For the downtrodden, for the departed. For all that I have been given, and all that will slip away.

There was also grace, there is always grace. I have been so full of effort and too poor in faith to notice it much, but this year was different. There were moments when I knew I was both nothing and a part of everything. There were gifts and sometimes, the wisdom to accept them. Moments that wouldn’t be captured in any photo. The script of a snail’s silver path in the morning light. Sleep that supplied the answers in a dream. A smile of forgiveness that was offered without being asked for.

Cresting the Hill

We went out for dinner on Saturday night, just us as it is every night, except Virginia put on lipstick, Enrico changed his pants, and I wore earrings. “I like your cheetah dress,” Diana said to Virginia, as she climbed into the car with her sparkly sandals on.

All along Wisconsin toward Georgetown, restaurants had claimed the parking lane with tents and string lights, turf and potted plants, spreading themselves outward for as long as they can, until winter comes. Fire lamps and concrete medians made space for wooden tables and white napkins. Green lattice and plastic flowers tied to metal dividers turned blacktops into parklets.

In the spare restaurant that had once been packed with tables, we were only six, not seven. Our oldest daughter is at college. Next year Virginia will go too. Little by little they will leave. This is the way of the world. 

If I live to be 100, my life has already passed its fullest point. One day big cars, trampolines, and jumbo farm shares will no longer be needed. One day our house will not groan from the weight of bodies climbing all over it. One day there will be no college essays to edit, Instagram accounts to monitor, colors to stitch together in the calendar patchwork. That will go threadbare too. 

I am grateful to have held this fullness. 


After dinner, we drove back home in the dark. A city bus that said Fair Shot lumbered away from the curb and headed past us down the hill.

The wind blew, helping the trees shed their leaves.

At home, I took off my earrings to get ready for sleep. This life of clasping children is waning, but another life is growing. I feel myself spilling out from the center inside. There is no end to this fountain. It always quenches, it always knows.

Photo by Kyle Roxas on Pexels.com

When I climb into bed, my body is tired, my back aches. I feel my bones lightening with invisible catacombs of air. My cheeks sink. Parts of me that were once fertile are now suspected of harboring disease. 

But I know there is nothing that needs to be added to me. I have always had everything I needed.

The rest of my journey will be for emptying what I have collected. Until the day I leave, blind and nameless, through the same blackness from which I came.

When

When your daughter comes down the stairs wearing a satin bustier under a Las Vegas jacket, you will want to say no but you won’t, because you will remember being 16 too. 

When you think refinishing the kitchen table will take a week, you will still be eating outside two months later, balancing dinner plates and glasses of milk on the porch swing.

When your youngest daughter loses her front tooth on the slide in the backyard, she will come rushing in with a radiant bloody smile and you will see her new again.

When you are thirteenth in line at the public library to read a novel loved by a friend, you will open the latch to the door of the Little Free Library and there it will be.

When your ten-year-old gets braces, he will let you hold his hand on the walk home and everyone will get butter pecan ice cream after dinner for the pain.

When your daughter’s college announces high levels of coronavirus in the wastewater, they will close the dining room and library, and she will eat alone in her room.

When Air Force fighter planes roar through the sky above you, your throat will blur and you will miss the child who believed there was something so powerful and so good.

When an ornery melancholy sits down inside you, you will try to convince it to leave, you will lean your back against it and try to push it out the door.

A friend will tell you to let the feeling rest. This will go against what you’ve always known, and you will be afraid it will stay like a squatter in an abandoned government palace in Madrid.

You will stop trying to find out who the squatter is or why he is here, and this is when you will see that it was you who invited him in, and this is what you have been waiting for.

Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock

Be the Swimmer

I’m afraid of losing my voice. I’m afraid it will vanish in the rush of the world turned back on.

I’m afraid of entering society’s maze again. Maybe I’ll shrink back into a titmouse, when for a time I felt as explosive as a volcano, as wild as a dragon, solid as a pyramid, serene as a falcon.

I’m afraid we will return to chit-chat and patter talk, and it will be hard to know anyone’s soul when the expected response to ‘How are you?’ is ‘Fine.’ It’s so hard to get a foothold, I feel like I’m just clinging on.


When I was growing up, before I started thinking my body wasn’t skinny enough, I would spend all summer at the pool.

I remember how quiet it was under the water. When you are completely surrounded by blue, everything is connected. The water presses into you — heavy and complete — bending the sun into rippling diamonds, making waves every time someone would jump in, scattering crystalline bubbles everywhere.

We graduate to the world of air. It’s easier to get things accomplished here. Easier to move around, so light and transparent, but hard to feel the waves that connect me and you.


I’ve been so cradled in our shelter that I am not afraid of the virus anymore, I’m afraid of people. I’d like to add in one friend at a time. I’d like to vet people for trustworthiness and sensitivity.

I get overwhelmed by all the messages: the facial expressions, the look in the eyes, the tones of voice, and sleights of phrase. My mind gets noisier and noisier until its motor overheats with the task of interpreting it all, running over and over that it’s all my fault.

I’ve had emotional breakdowns over how I handled children’s party invitations. I’ve based my self-esteem on whether a handful of people I don’t know likes me. I’ve emptied myself trying to smooth out the rough parts until I was hollow.


Outside the bedroom that Mark, Luke, and Diana cuddle up in every night, I sing lullabies into the hallway. The floorboards of heart pine shimmer from the light of the neighbor’s window across the way.

I see the squared doorframes, the slanted lines of light, and each room looks separate. One door is closed, one room is open, one space holds clothing and one holds a bath, one room is suffused with lamplight and one is dark.

They seem separate, but they’re all attached. To the same hall, the same story. They’re part of the same house, built by the same man for his one family.

The notes of Edelweiss — E-G-C-B-G — travel through the air whether someone is listening or not. And even if that musical alphabet means nothing, I am still connected to my children, whether they are awake or asleep, in the house or on the street, pleasing me or making me angry.

When everyone seems scattered, I want to be the glue. Melting into the cracks, filling in the empty spaces, supplying the missing notes. 

I need to remember how to be the swimmer, instead of the water. To dive in and play, no matter what my body looks like, where the lanes markings are, or what anyone else is doing. Plunging and swirling and flipping upside down, until I’m tired and it’s time to ride my bike back home.

Time to Cast Off

You know you have become too safe 
when you can no longer grow 
if you stay where you are.

When the shell that has protected you
is now what hinders you.

And so, like a crab who knows 
when to molt, you must find 
the weakest part of your armor,

the fracture that aches the most.
This is where you start.

You must break your own shell,
and carefully back out
each limb and each eye,
until you are tenuous and new again.

You must disrobe like a lover
before her mate
and enter once again
the cycle of death and rebirth.

For if you are not brave enough
to be unhidden,
you will bring about 
the very danger you fear the most.

Lakkana Boonrat/Shutterstock

Coronavirus Reckoning – 5 Months In

For me, the coronavirus outbreak was both a horrendous tragedy and a once-in-a-lifetime gift. It was a calamity that threatened everyone on earth and melted away the hierarchies that separate us. We were just human beings for a while. 

In the blackness of quarantine, I became invisible. Free from the constant daily interactions that always seemed to lead me to think I somehow wasn’t doing things right. From the self-consciousness that plagued me: how I was perceived, how I was judged, how I measured up according to the rules of the arena I found myself in.

The quiet darkness hid it all. I was simply a soul. A human being in a family of human beings. 


This is why I am not eager to go back to the way things were.

I don’t want to try to fight my way into society’s detailed ranking, its tight grid.  I don’t want to be aware of how I do or don’t fit in, where I stand in the graph — high or low, left or right.

I don’t want to look at everything I do through the lens of the groupthink to decide whether I am good or bad, worthy or worthless.


“I am a man.” I love this declaration that I see on t-shirts in Black Lives Matters marches. It helps me rewrite the limiting scripts in my mind. When I see a Black person I don’t know, I feel the assumptions my mind is making, and then I say over it, “Man.” Or “Woman.” Or “Child.” 

This is the way I want to be seen. I want to see others this way too. Greeting each person as a human being makes me feel part of a One, not a fragment among many. When I see someone and “human” is all I need to know about them, my heart speaks, not my mind, and compassion flows out.

Every country, every society has a unique hierarchy. People not born with the qualities that are valued at the top will most likely struggle to feel loved and accepted, always feeling they are on the verge of being kicked out.


I love people. I need people. I crave connection and soul-to-soul communion. People cooperate, lift each other up, make each other feel less alone, become the safety net. We help each other survive and thrive.

But there is something about large groups that leads us to categorize and place value on people based on what they do, what they look like, how much they earn, or how assertive, outgoing, or fashionable they are.

Perhaps this is why I am not heartbroken that our world will stay small and that our house will become a school this fall. School — even as a parent who only is involved with fundraisers and drop-offs, field days, plays, and graduations — brings back the same feelings I had as a child: I’m different and I’m afraid of what I have to do to belong.

I feel sad for my children, missing all the happy nurturing things about school and playing with friends in the sunshine. I feel sad for my daughter who will start her senior year on a computer. The suffering inflicted because schools are not opening is devastating. It’s a sign of massive dysfunction, and I feel a sense of dread as I witness the institutions and economies that support the livelihoods of so many people continue to deteriorate.

This is why it is so hard to reckon with the fact that I am okay with keeping the social, busy, public part of my life in the dark for a while longer, and clinging to the peculiar warm light I have found in the wreckage. Because as much as I grieve our losses, there was something unhealthy about the way we were, and something healing about what is now.

Denis Belitsky/Shutterstock

Letter to Myself

When you are so busy throwing stuff into the shell of your body, you don’t realize that to feel fulfilled, you must simply stop.

The sound trickling in is not water rising to drown you, but the sound of your own self coming into its rightful space.

Nothing can replace this ‘being one’s self.’ That is why you keep running, seeking, rushing, doing — desperate to fill the emptiness you fear.

Your longing is the longing for your own self: your own love, your own trust, your own intuition. 

Sometimes you feel that you are an empty riverbed. A ditch that can never be brimmed, never satisfied.

Don’t be afraid of this blackness. It is what connects you to everything that ever was and everything that ever will be. It is what everything springs from and dissolves into. This is the power you are afraid of. The unknown, the endless, the incomprehensible.

Don’t fill the emptiness with small tasks and petty demands and a million directives from your in-box, your to-do list, and your self-help books — they will never be done, and you will never be full.

Don’t fill it with someone bigger, more powerful, more charismatic and brilliant than you — this person will leave and you will be alone again.

Don’t fill it with what you want to buy, become, create — if these things come, you will still feel something is missing. Even when your arms are full, even when you have everything you asked for.

These glimmering, brightly-colored, squeezable things — they are always morphing, growing, disappearing. You can never hold them and be done.

Only water can satisfy a riverbed. Only the part of you that is connected to all the streams, all the oceans, the lakes, the waterfalls, the floods and fjords that circle the world. The river of life that never ends and never begins. 

Jack Anstey/Unsplash

Let all other things be washed away, all that has blocked you, obstructed you, made it impossible to hear the sound of your river rippling, to taste the flavor of your own soul.

In the stillness, your breath is a wave, coming in and going out. The knowing will eventually come, flowing through you from somewhere deep inside, filling the space you thought was vacant.