Free Write Friday: Beach

She walked down the hill to the beach, bundled in a down coat, fingerless gloves and a white knit hat. Sneakers on pavement gave way to fine sand spilling over her laces as each step took more effort. Closer to the shoreline the sand was more compact, sturdier beneath her. Here she could stroll along the rocky ground, now pounded by the November waves, wind whipping them into a fury.

She imagined a storm, how it would rage in years past, toss fishing boats as they struggled to avoid the lighthouse signaling at the point. She thought of the contrast, just yesterday sun warming her face as she ate lunch, read, wrote on a picnic table perched on the beach, watching couples meander along the shore with their dog. She could linger.

The wind beat fiercely as she climbed a small hill to circle back. But as she found herself among the golden reeds, atop a mound just set back from the rocky beach, she felt suspended, wind pounding from all directions. She paused, the intermission comforting, demanding reverence.

Pressure on all sides, she remained. It was as if liquid, not air, compressed her. As if warmth, an unexpected peace held her in the midst of the chill November day.

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Free Write Friday: Retreat

You plan months ahead to make it work. Line up sitters, meal plan for the following week, organize an overnight weekend at Grandma’s house. It feels luxurious, the silence and the resting in words. “Thinking is work.” You read it on a bumper sticker weeks ago and it remained with you, rolling over in your mind. You wrote it on a post-it and stuck it to your computer. Thinking is work but it’s not valued, not reimbursed in our quantifiable, time card, excel spreadsheet world. 

So you plan. You prepare excessively just so you can have the time, the space to think. You kiss your babies goodbye, leave them with Costco lasagnas and Daddy’s breakfast-for-dinner. You drive to the ferry terminal, eat clam chowder, thick with cream, chewy and loaded with immersed oyster crackers punctuating each bite. You cross to the peninsula, familiar from childhood jaunts with your family: damp woods to explore, saline air stinging nostrils, small town diners with stiff grilled cheese hugging cups of tomato soup. 

In the dark it’s a struggle. You find the communal house on the old military fort, now converted into housing for writing retreats, community events. Odd to think these dusty buildings used to be barracks. You came here for your medical school orientation weekend, sleeping bags tucked under arms, eyeing strangers with anticipatory reluctance, a peculiar Junior High start to the four years of forming physicians into being. You also came here for medical residency retreats. Each spring you’d all gather, let loose in the way a group working 36 hour days, 100 hour weeks, caring for the critically ill must. 

The drafty house smells familiar, like ghosts of orientations past reside. Here are strangers, unbonded to you, a writerly community. All introverts, you’re bound by the thinking, the thinking is work. You write and you read. You walk and you sit. The seaside air suffuses your mottled skin, still tensile but hinting at fine lines and transition into middle age. You can think here. You can create. It’s work, but it’s inspired. And those other selves, those other lifetimes, those other beings of retreats past dance on the floorboards, float through the drafty air, haunt the tap-tapping as letters form into words creating sentences giving meaning to the empty page. 

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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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