Free Write Friday: Leaves

She walks with a wide gait, toddling down the sidewalk. Pausing at a crunch underfoot, she bends to pick up a dried leaf, yellowed and brittle. She examines it, hands it to you as if a treasure you should keep. It crumbles at your touch, leaving only the spine between your fingers, frail leafy remnants rain down onto the concrete below.

She’s enthralled by it all, gesturing her chubby finger, exclaiming with a noise that captures the essence of “leaf” without sounding anything like the word. As you walk home she squeals for you to stop at every tree, at every fallen branch. She reaches out to the Japanese maple in your front yard, afire this time of year. It was the one tree you asked the contractor to salvage when your house was remodeled half a decade ago. He looked at you sideways at the time: Why bother? But you knew. This tree would color your fall joyous.

Her pupils constrict as she touches the feathery crimson tip of a maple leaf, five points splayed out in reverence. Her lips curl as she considers the velvet color. “Leaf. Leaf. Leaf.” You repeat it to her as a mantra, as if a reminder to yourself. Each year it all changes – summer warmth to fall crisp, winter hibernation to spring sprout – but the words remain constant. You want her to learn so it will steady her, a foothold to rely on in this revolving world. You know the cycle, the recurrent pattern that must proceed. This too, the brilliant chorus of colors dancing, will tumble. But its glory today, blazing in the late October sun, is enough for you both.

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Free Write Friday: Pumpkins

Pumpkins reign this time of year. Pumpkin spice infuses dense breads, pumpkin syrup sweetens lattes thick with foam, bulbous pumpkin costumes cushion costumed kids, oven roasted pumpkin seeds sprinkled with coarse salt are browned to a satisfying crunch. At the pumpkin patch my son collects them in his wheelbarrow like he’s hoarding for hibernation, rolling the lumpy gourds along the uneven ground, raising the smallest with handled stems above his head triumphantly. He’s working, intent on his task, unaware of the futility; we’ll only need a few of the treasures he amasses. 

We’ll carve them, paint them, light them from the inside. Set them out on the front porch steps. They’ll rot from the bottom up, browning and reeking, black mold creeping up the sides like sinuous coils of vines, a ruinous infestation. The children will dress up, pretend to be, gather their eager plastic tubs, pumpkin shaped with garish black triangles for eyes, nose, teeth. 

They like the flickering glow as jack-o-lanterns wink from neighbors’ homes. Each unique, each decaying from the moment they are chosen. Plucked from the earth, carved and admired for a fleeting celebration, a macabre exultation, as darkness descends into shorter days and longer nights, as the curtaining chill causes retreat into fireside evenings, woolen socks, cups of steaming tea cupped in chapped hands. 

Pumpkins serve a transition: the yellow summer glow into the crimson of the winter season. The jarring contrast tempered by this orange intermediary, tolerated, even embraced, if only for a month or two.

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Free Write Friday: Lists

I’m the kind of person who likes to make lists. Grocery lists, to-do lists, lists for work tasks, home tasks, personal tasks, lists of things I should do today and this week and this year and this lifetime. Yellow post-it notes litter my work desk, stuck to my computer monitor, clogging up the fabric tackboard mounted along one wall. I’ve tried different techniques in the past to manage my lists, but paper is still my preferred method. My purse is peppered with scraps torn from a gardening store mailer or a cafe napkin, reminding me to pick up milk and tampons and cough drops on my way home. We have an app now to keep the convoluted family schedule straight, each of five family members assigned their own contrasting color, but the to-do list blankly staring back from a palm-held screen doesn’t work well for me. I forget to check it, there isn’t the same satisfaction with crossing off, tossing a scrap of paper, purging the item from my mind and my day.

Sometimes I’ll find an old list in a rarely-used purse or backpack. I’ll remember that particular week, the mundane tasks I felt were so urgent, so important at that time. Order cupcakes for my son’s birthday, send that email to my boss, finish editing an essay for the submission deadline looming, now long past. Once I found an old list from my wedding, the endless tasks for that momentous event crossed out carefully. There were a few things still left, that never got done. There always are. 

I’m the kind of person who likes to color code. I’m a splitter, not a lumper. In medical school I had an infamous binder: two inch white with a clear slotted cover, brightly colored tabbed dividers for each course. Red for Histology, green for Pathophysiology, orange for Intro to Clinical Medicine. I had a separate binder for Anatomy; all those organs and nerves and blood vessels, origins and insertions of muscles to memorize: they deserved their own separate filing. Colored pencils used to sketch out each organ, each nerve pathway, the sequence of events mapped out for optimal memorization. 

I’m the kind of person who likes to plan for every contingency. Futile, I know. Futile, I’ve realized. Futile, I still plan meticulously, despite knowing better. Now, I at least have the realism to not expect as much from my planning, know it all may be in vain, know that lists and organization and planning ahead only achieves calm for the now. Eventually chaos ensues and chaos, despite best laid plans, ultimately reigns.

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Free Write Friday: Exercise Equipment

She’s tried gym classes, Jillian Michaels DVDs. She’s run around the track, jogged over wooded trails studded with stones. She’s done two-a-days, eager teens taking turns running drills, hard stops at the line, lifting barbells in the weight room behind the lunch room behind the theater where they held the high school dances. 

She’s bought stretch bands, barbells, balance balls, plastic steps with risers. She found a pull up bar for free on the local mom’s list serve. They buy and sell fancy rain boots and football tickets and ask each other for advice on family-friendly resorts in Zihuatanejo and the best estate planning attorneys and drop-in childcare and ways to get kids involved with climate action and places for Santa photos over the holidays. She fits right in.

She’s taken yoga classes – not hot – that seems unnecessarily suffocating. Spongy mats laid out on the hardwood floor, downward dog and sun salutations with arched backs into flexed toes. Tree pose her favorite: upright and accomplished, easily mastered with her gift of balance and big feet. 

She’s taken pre-dawn boot camps, meeting a group of head-lamped women exclaiming encouragement as they huff up dozens of stairs, breath billowing into the chill morning, sweat trapped under layers of workout gear. She liked having others to exercise with, run hills or jump into burpees, but the classes just weren’t sustainable after having her own children. The other demands of the morning, of harried family life took reign. 

She’s had an online trainer, focused and encouraging but intimidating with her exposed washboard abs. She’d never dieted but for the first time in her life she paid attention to what she ate, limited her junk food, her evening snacking; stopped eating sweets and bags of chips and salsa and glasses of wine whenever she wanted. She stopped indulging in huge bowls of homemade popcorn, puffed and crunchy, doused in hot butter, sprinkled with salt, handfuls melting unceremoniously in her eager mouth, absently stuffed while watching another Netflix episode of Breaking Bad or The Wire or Game of Thrones. She got enough sleep. Felt strong, empowered. 

She’s pushed an unwieldy jogging stroller around the lake, 3.2 miles of sneakers pounding on damp asphalt, muddy gravel, swerving this way and the other to avoid the deep ruts, the many pools of murky water that coalesce after a spring rain. She got to know each curve of the path, each puddle, each turn of season that marked the route like an aging backyard maple, imperceptibly swelling trunk, leaves changing and falling and budding again.

And maybe that’s fitness: fits and starts and seasons and patterns. Lately she’s fallen back into her flesh, into her routine, into her strength and stamina; the muscles build, the mind clears and her body is her own again. 

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Free Write Friday: Bike

We walk the bike to the cul-de-sac, center the powder blue contraption in the middle of the street. My dad’s leathered hand holds the back of the white banana seat. I clamber on, gripping the handle bars till my knuckles whiten. I lean too far forward as the bike teeters precariously side-to-side. A white wicker basket hangs from the front, adorned with plastic daisy flowers in bright colors; it is the consolation prize for a hand-me-down bike from my brother, meant to transform it to an acceptable level of femininity.

I push one sneakered foot down, then circle the other. My ankles waver as my dad trots behind. I glance anxiously over my shoulder; is he still there? Pumping my legs, the sudden transition to stability is exhilarating. Wind slapping my face, wisps of dark hair waving behind. I’m flying!

I suddenly panic, remember: I’m unsteady, I’m unsure, this is new. Is he there? I turn just slightly, a glance for comfort. But he’s gone, far behind me. As he grows smaller in the distance, the angst in my own chest expands. “Keep going! You’re doing it!” He shouts. But the trembling, the uncertainty have already taken hold. Anxiety disrupts and I topple: bloodied knees, gaping frustration as I crash down.

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Free Write Friday: Birthday

When she was a kid the coolest birthday parties were hot tub parties. Skinny seven-year-olds wearing Care Bears swimsuits would pile into the spa, overflowing the water, grinning through their giggles, secrets whispered past wrinkled palms as bubbles rose from the churning jets. Some parents would let them snack in the tub: sticky caramel corn or lollipops. After soaking there’d be cake and ice cream, opening presents and receiving favors dropped in plastic handled bags. 

She didn’t have a hot tub at her house, always admired the girls who did. One year though her mom threw an elaborate birthday party, a carnival theme. Their sloped backyard was transformed, different stations set up for children to explore. Her mom manned the face painting, tiny lions and rainbows inked onto rosy cheeks as she perched on the picnic table bench. Her older brother told fortunes in the green canvas play tent, towel fashioned into a turban as he passed predictions on to the little partygoers. There were balloons and plastic door prizes. With three kids in her family, it was rare to have such an elaborate birthday celebration. All her best friends and girls she wanted to be her friends were there; she was overcome with glee. 

Her mom always made the birthday sheet cake, sprinkles on top, tube frosted lettering: Happy Birthday! This was before Pinterest, long after and decades before handmade was considered worthier, the hipsters’ and modern moms’ claim to superiority. It was the progress and image-obsessed eighties: Hypercolor t-shirts, squared polyester shoulder pads and blue eyeshadow were king. She always, ungratefully, wished she could have a store-bought sheet cake or an ice cream cake from Baskin Robbins; perfectly frosted corners and magenta lettering sprayed on. Her parents were frugal though, and her mom’s cake surely tasted better. Two facts lost on a child who wouldn’t know, until decades later, what was best for her. 

Now, with three children of her own, she bakes tiered birthday cakes, carefully procures themed party favors, plans activities and decor to suit each child, so their memories will be bright. But she’s also exhausted in the stretched way every modern mother is; she’s gained perspective. Maybe every other year will be a big birthday party when they’re young. Sometimes store bought treats, sometimes just one friend over for a special outing. Because she knows: you really only need one outstanding birthday party memory to last a lifetime. 

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Free Write Friday: Hair Accessories 

I used to play beauty parlor with my best friend. She didn’t like the game of coiffing, but I enjoyed the tugging on hair, taming her strawberry blond curls, selecting and applying the ribbon or hair clip just so. I would stand back and admire my handiwork, wisps and strands situated as I commanded. They succumbed to my coercion and I was satisfied. 


My hair was cut too short in fourth grade and I never got over it. It was a “boy” cut, not the cute Dorothy Hamill kind made popular by the 1980’s figure skater. Instead of a bobbing bowl cut, it’s as if the hairdresser took clippers to the back, the sides, the whole mass of thick dark tresses. It was too short for any hair clips and headbands gave me a throbbing ache at my temples. I wore a blue and red and white knit button up sweater in my school picture that year. I liked the sweater, the fanciful snowman perched near the hip pocket. My smile though was strained as if I knew the aberrant hairstyle would haunt my year. 

I went skiing once that winter with my brother and as the attendant was helping us onto the chair lift, toes frozen in clumpy boots, I heard a distinct, “There you go, boys!” He was being friendly but I was mortified, this mistaken identity at a time when all begins to hinge on your perception of what others think about you, molding what you come to think of yourself. 


My son gets upset that I can’t braid his hair like I do for his big sister. I pull out accessories: clips and bows and headbands in an attempt to give him alternate adornment. He seems placated, a thin line of a smile as I pull back a strand of his bangs with the royal blue polka dot clip. He steps back, but doesn’t scurry away to admire himself in the mirror as my daughter would. No, it’s the participation that matters to him. He rushes downstairs to show off his fancifulness. 

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Free Write Friday: Purge

You have the sudden urge to purge. You spend a long holiday weekend sorting through all of your children’s clothes; the Space Bags stuffed beneath twin beds and dressers, the lost items at the back of their closets. You match socks, discard pliable hand-me-down infant shoes. You sort through stained sleepers used by three, maybe four children. You organize clothes too small, too big for your three children. You find dusty discarded tights hiding behind a dresser. 

Then you move on to your own closet. Haphazard piles of clothes in four different sizes, maternity pants with stretchy elastic waistbands, nursing shirts with openings for nipples to peek through. Some are worn and gigantic, others are new with tags, bought on sale on a whim early postpartum when you were self-conscious about the extra chub, in need of pants that actually fastened but didn’t accentuate an after-baby muffin top. 

You try things on, everything that is “regular” now that you’re not pregnant or nursing. You’re done with that phase, toss those clothes into donation piles enthusiastically. You revel in your body back, no longer a receptacle for another’s development, no longer a conduit for sustenance. You kneel on the closet rug, toss items out the door into organized heaps. You slip one leg into old jeans, boot cut, out of style. You still have a hard time getting rid of things that fit but don’t provide true comfort. Each spared item should elicit the thrill that comes from a piece that feels just right on your skin, in your bones. You’re a goldilocks who holds on to the chair that is just a little too small, a little too big; if only you had the strength to keep only that which is just right.

After folding and organizing all shirts, all slacks, all dresses, all jackets, you sit back and admire. It’s a thing of beauty, a sigh of release to have it all there, visible, organized. That momentary satisfaction is enough to propel you downstairs into the next project. 

You tackle the junk room, meant to be a playroom. It became a dumping ground in the last 12 months, initially out of necessity, then out of sheer exhaustion. There were too many urgent demons swirling to even acknowledge this minor chaos existed. But now you have a window: the strength, the energy to sort, to discard, to organize. Bags of ski gear, gift wrapping, party decorations weigh down the child’s train table, buried under clutter. Boxes of camping gear, partially deflated sports balls, missing pieces of random toys are unearthed as you dig, excavate further into the room. 

This takes longer, more endurance, more muscle. You lift heavy items, find you’re missing ski gloves and appropriate boxes for storing camping gear. It takes more emotional energy to decide what toys to keep for your youngest child, to gauge which winter hats will still fit your oldest two. It doesn’t end with the same satisfaction, the playroom purge. Piles of equipment, of clothes, still line the hallway, boxes of trash and donations in the mud room. But the door can open, the children can play. You set up the train tracks on the squat table, lay out two trains heading in different directions. You can’t explain it, but it felt necessary to get this all done, right now. You were desperate for an ordered respite; seemed the antidote to a season of chaos devoid of calm. 

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Free Write Friday: Eggs

We used to have chickens. We housed them in our backyard, in several iterations of a homemade chicken coop. We got three chickens at once, learned it was better for them to not be alone. Our neighbor girls had raised chicks in their classroom, they were looking for takers to adopt the fuzzy creatures. We were childless, homesteading was en vogue. Why not?

They came to us with names already; I can’t remember them all. I do remember Becky. White feathers, she was unassuming, not the leader, not the most endearing; a ready follower. 

Raccoons roamed our city neighborhood like a carnivorous gang, looking for trouble. Sometimes I’d turn on the back porch Iight to catch a glimpse of their panda-like fur, eyes glinting in the sudden illumination. They didn’t seem to scatter like other animals, held their own. They were arrogant, behaved as if they belonged there and wouldn’t be deterred by a human intrusion.

One night we woke to horrible screeching. At first it sounded like a child, a dramatically tortured innocent. I realized it was the chickens, our chickens, crying into the night air, desperate for escape. They were trapped by our carefully placed chicken wire, the sturdy boards of our coop.

My husband went into the backyard to witness the carnage, chase away the culprits, recover plume and innards strewn across the lawn. I would discover feathers weeks later, flown to corners of our yard unnoticed that first night, that next day. I don’t know all the details of what he found, couldn’t stomach the specifics. 

The next morning I heard a familiar noise, distinctly bird-like. Over on the neighbor’s roof was Becky, injured leg, hobbling and whimpering but alive. Becky was a survivor. How she escaped the raccoon’s rampage is a mystery. Quiet and unassuming, still, she had the grit to somehow endure. We took her to the bird vet and spent weeks painstakingly feeding her antibiotics for her wound infection. 

We adopted other chickens over the years, nine in total. Some were lost to faulty gendering (roosters out themselves quickly with their incessant crowing), others succumbed to subsequent raccoon attacks. Becky survived to the end. When she finally surrendered we decided to close up shop on chicken rearing. We enjoyed some very expensive eggs and learned a justified wariness toward savage raccoons. 

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Free Write Friday: Eclipse


I remember standing in a small field on Kauai, thick kelly green blades of grass underfoot. The square glasses, opaque cellophane-like lenses didn’t seem to do much at all. I was told to look up, face skyward. My older teenage brother had built a box, a contraption that revealed a projection of the eclipse. It was all underwhelming, the tiny crescent in the sky, projected on the cardboard. I remember thinking, ungraciously: This is it? I don’t remember it getting cold or dark or being moved in any significant way. After the novelty of the moment wore off, I wanted to get on with it, proceed with our vacation day. Head to the pool, play at the beach. I had only a vague concept of what I was looking at, looking for. 


He starts to cry as the temperature drops. I want to take it all in, but he’s a heap on the wet grass, weeping beneath his paper solar eclipse glasses stapled to the back of a child’s tiger face mask. Why does the sun have to disappear? Why does it have to happen only today? He wants to ride his bike around the perimeter of the park but Dad says let’s wait until after 10:20 a.m., the point of maximal partial eclipse, 92% in these parts. He collapses into the whimpering mess of a typical three-year-old: unpredictable, unintelligible wailing. 

We begin to feel a chill, our friends put on sweatshirts. I’m unprepared and goosebumps emerge on my bare arms. There’s a festive feel, the large field peppered with strangers in lawn chairs, blankets splayed out with picnic foods, cardboard contraptions and eclipse glasses at the ready. My son is hugging his knees, sitting on the gravel path. His wails drown out the crowd, focused skyward, as they start cheering. 

I’m anxious about my one year old, afraid she’ll gaze directly at the sun. All faces turned upward, leering at the spectacle. She’ll follow suit. But I have to attend to my three-year-old, whimpering about the sun, the moon, a desperation in misunderstanding. I think about the historic panic about such an event: the sun disappearing momentarily. Of course it would feel like an omen, a harbinger of doom. He’s channeling that historic angst, knowing that the sky darkening midmorning is unnatural, feels off. 

I crouch beside him, rubbing his back, trying to convince him it’s all right. I can’t tell if he’s upset because the sun is disappearing or because I can’t keep the eclipse from remaining for another day so he can see it tomorrow. It doesn’t matter. It’s the illogic of a three-year-old tantrum. 

The air seems filtered, a hazy Instagram “Nashville” tainting the late summer morning. Time speeds up and suspends, as if the eclipse causes a filtering of moments, a sifting of time. As if heavenly bodies aligning requires all to pause ceremoniously, a recognition of our minisculeness. And yet nothing waits for the three-year-old angst. He rocks in my arms until the typical light returns and all is as it should be again. 

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