Goodday mateys! I’m excited to announce that my essay Alaska on Fire was published in the latest issue of the Hellebore, Black Moss.

An acquaintance called it an “insightful, well-written piece on last summer’s wildfires, budget destruction and the Tlingit idea of shukalxs uxs’— where the end is called back to the beginning”.

You can read the essay here: https://thehellebore.com/alaska-on-fire/

I have also included some stunning art by featured artist Reyna Noriega — in my favorite colors, rose and teal!

My short story memoir, Rowing in Dulce de Leche, was recently published at the Lowestoft Chronicle. It’s about a young feminist-vegetarian who goes on a high school exchange to the land of meat and machos. In Argentina, “rowing in dulce de leche” means trying to navigate one’s way through a challenging situation.

An excerpt from the story:

And that’s when I spotted a thick, broad-shouldered jacket in distressed black leather that hinted gray in the folds and creases. It looked too rugged and boxy for my thin shoulders, but I didn’t care.

“Can I try it on?” I asked the sales attendant. She assured me that this jacket was for a man, and tried to show me the ladies’ section with its soft, supple, form-fitting leather garments.

No importa,” I responded, and tried it on anyway.

The oversized, faded jacket weighed almost eight pounds. The rugged leather coat, made from the cattle of the high plains of Tucumán, became my armor. Putting it on exchanged my sadness for resilience. The thick skin I wore shielded my own thin skin. Wearing it, I didn’t feel sad; I felt invincible. Like I could row through a sea of dulce de leche.

The fact that it was a man’s jacket made me love it even more. Men were powerful. Men held keys and could go and come as they pleased. Men made decisions and called the shots. Men didn’t have to go on diets or get catcalled by other men sitting on sidewalks. Wearing this coat made me feel strong, like a man. Although I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy the flesh of the Argentine cattle, I could wear one instead. In this way, I became part of the ritual of the preparation and ingestion of the meat.

I purchased the boxy coat and proudly wore it every day like a tattoo of freshly earned street cred.

Read the full story here: Rowing in Dulce de Leche

Photo by Agustín Lautaro on Unsplash

Because she is of the wilderness, why shouldn’t the rhythm of a thousand hustling feet induce her to run through TSA?

Because when riding an escalator, why shouldn’t she wait for the prettiest step, although it may mean losing Mommy who has alteady gone ahead and landing spread eagle upside down between five metal moving steps?

Because she prefers to pee on dandelions with the sun on her bottom, why shouldn’t she run out of the airplane lavatory with her underwear down around her ankles?

Because she is a magical fairy princess, why shouldn’t she pitch a next-level prima donna hissy fit when she doesn’t get a window seat?

Because she has a voice that bellows off mountains and belies her five years, and a mother who listens and encourages her to speak her truth in a world of men who won’t stop talking, why shouldn’t she use her voice to stand up for her tiny little self— because if she won’t, who will?— even if it means everyone on the plane goes semi-deaf?

Because she appreciates the ways of Miro, why shouldn’t she paint the floor an acrylic abstract masterpiece minutes after getting home from a two day flight?

Because my daughter is a mirror, why shouldn’t I expect her to run a bit feral like her mother?

And because God gave me over the top kids, and maybe I parent a little over the top, too— and because to whom much is given, much is required— why shouldn’t I expect that everything be too wonderful, too stressful, too much work, too satisfying, too unsatisfying, too draining, too hilarious, and too much?

El que niega la muerte, niega la vida.  (He who denies death, denies life.) — Octavio Paz

Yesterday the last leaf fell from our maple tree as my grandmother succumbed to a long sleep. She is between worlds now, purring like a kitty cat. Fall catches us in a bed of vermillion and rust to soften the blow that everything else around us is fading away. It’s a good time of the year to die.

I watch the leaves to see what the wind has to say. The wind carries the breath of the Crone, and the Crone is my dying grandmother. Sometimes the leaves twirl in whimsy, like children at recess, then chase each other with a round of tag. Recess ends and the leaves become a procession of chicks shooed off by their mother hen.

My Nani calls out to for my dad in one of her delirious night sleeps.

“Tom!” She awakens the caregiver next to her.

Crone’s breath carries her voice on the wind, all the way to Alaska to my father, sleeping thousands of miles away. He hears her voice and suddenly wakes from his slumber.

“Did you hear that?”

My mother has taken to administering morphine to my grandmother every six hours, even waking in the middle of the night to give her doses, so my Nani’s dreams don’t become nightmares. Nani seems content, comfortable, although she has the rattle of death in her breath. Every few days my mother changes the bed sheets and cleans her, and my grandmother continues her perpetual catnap.

The nurse, a small woman like my grandmother, also tends to her. She’s from India and wears head scarf, which brings us comfort, hoping that the nurse’s faith is probably enough for all of us.

When she leaves my grandmother’s side, my mom walks her six-month-old Havanese around the neighborhood, watches the leaves turn colors, and admires the well-kept Craftsmen-style homes of Bellingham, Washington. She passes by a field and spots a majestic buck. The buck is alone; startled, he looks up from his meal of grass. Perhaps he waits for his partner, just as my grandfather waits for my Nani.

My ex-husband from Venezuela comes to my mother in her dreams and plants a kiss on her cheek. Perhaps he comes to say “thank you for everything”, perhaps to say “good-bye”. Perhaps it’s to say “good-bye” to my Nani, the death rattle in her throat growing louder.

Brown leaves swirl in confused chaos outside of my sister’s office. She’s trying to work, but her mind is as unfocused as the wind. What can she accomplish today when all she can think about is Nani? Who knows how much longer she will be in this world?

My mom and the nurse move my grandmother into a new position, but the small adjustment hastens Nani’s journey. The death rattle ceases, and the silence that follows is louder than anything they have heard this week.

After one full minute, my grandmother takes another breath. It is the deepest, fullest breath she has taken in years. Possibly ever.

Again another minute goes by without any air into her lips.

Stillness. Quiet, like the deer.

Finally, she takes another deep, choked breath, and again this breath is followed by another minute of silence.

This is repeated two more times. Deep, slow, full-bodied breaths, as if to prepare herself for a long underwater submersion.

Are you ready, Caryl? the Crone says.

Yes, I’m ready.

Her spirit is gently puffed out of her body.

I watch the orange, red and gold paper leaf cutouts twirl gently in the soft ventilation of the library, 1,621 miles away in Juneau, Alaska.

“Nani passed an hour ago,” my mother tells me over the phone. Leaves on mobiles gently orbit each other, floating as if without gravity.

“We gave her a bath of lavender. We said good-bye.”

My mom and my sister are starving; they can’t remember the last time they were so hungry. After sharing a sandwich and chips at my grandmother’s dining table, they take their two Havanese dogs out for a walk.

They walk by the field, and there is the beautiful buck again. This time he is with a doe. The buck looks at them directly, as if to protect the doe and say, “Don’t mess with us, we claim this space.”

The doe looks at my mom and sister directly, but with a tentativeness that suggests she isn’t sure if she should stay with the buck or come closer. The puppy jumps and yips, so my mom and sister turn away to give them the peace that they have earned, and move on.

Nani is with Grandfather now.

I pick up the kids from school and we drive home the long corridor of Glacier Highway, where bald eagles perch on streetlights as if extensions of the infrastructure. In the car, I hear the music of lovely sustained chord, like the kind played in yoga or from a church organ.

“What song did you put on?” I ask my son.

“I didn’t put a song on yet,” he says. The lovely chord fades away.

The wind has stopped. The light is flat. The world is holding its breath.

At home, a raven warbles overhead. How will I know when you are with me, when there are so many birds here every day, so many spirits around me? How will I know which one is you?

Later I drive to yoga, and the world exhales as the sky breaks open. The hardest of rain floods the streets, windshield wipers work themselves into a frenzy. Rain sputters and chokes; like the sound of water boiling inside old baseboard heaters, except on the windowpanes of a yoga studio.

Back home, my husband and children watch a flock of varied thrush swirl outside our living room window. The thrush is one of the only birds that mates for life, and is considered to have the most beautiful songs in the world. You know in the spring, that first bird you hear when the buds are forming on the branches, that beautiful bird trill that sounds like an A major 7, calling the forest to awaken from its winter slumber? That’s the varied thrush.

A migratory bird, on their way to winter over in California. One of the brown and gold-flecked birds smacks into my living room window. My husband and kids go out to investigate. The songbird has perished.

The mystics say that when a bird hits your window and dies, your angel is trying to send you a message. Like the thrush, my grandmother was feisty, articulate, colorful, graceful, and a devoted wife, mother, and grandmother. She did not waste time, nor did she mince words. That would have been just like my Nani, to remind those she left behind that even in her death she would still have a say, so pay attention.

My daughter’s class visits the cemetery the next day to gather leaves for the annual fall leaf jump. Yellow maple leaves the size of a man’s hand scattered under yellow branches are raked together into piles. Kindergarteners work together to scoop them into garbage bags. My daughter spots a plastic treasure placed on one of the tombstones, and I stop her hand before she can swipe it up.

In the season when the living fades away and the dead come alive, the spirits of the deceased return to Mexico in an orange kaleidoscope of Monarch butterflies. Within the week, marigolds will be placed in Mexican cemeteries; families will celebrate loved ones who have moved on during Dia de Muertos. Offerings will be laid on alters, candles illuminating the way so that departed loved ones can find their way back to celebrate with the living again.

“What should we lay out for Nani?”I ask the kids. Some grapes and pretzels, definitely. Hopefully my dad will play her a song. She was always the first one on the dance floor.

My sister plays Nani’s electric piano while her husband plays along on his guitar. The piano sounds sweet and true, just like the songbird. My aunt picks the last of her brilliant dahlias in honor of my grandmother and sets a bouquet on her dining table. Variegated colors in fuchsia, rose and crimson, vibrant as my grandmother was in her colorful prints; she would often match her yellow pants with a yellow flowered top.

My mom invites Nani’s nurse to help herself to any of Nani’s beautiful wardrobe – they were both about the same size. My grandmother’s hearing aids are given to the other caregiver who sends them to her mother in Honduras.

The next day, a chorus of moody cellos envelops us as I drive my kids to school under eagles’ and ravens’ perch. We climb a hill into the mist, into the Crone’s breath, that lingers in tree-lined mountain ridges. Violins herald our descent towards the Gastineau channel, puffy clouds of gold blanket the horizon. Cracks of orange sky peek out, piquing curiosity as to what lies beyond, the way inspirational posters imagine heaven.

Drums build the score, and I feel like I’m in the end of the movie when the dam keeping my tears at bay finally breaches. Tender xylophone chimes in, reminding me to show compassion to myself – yes, you have felt, you have loved, and you will grieve.

The song crescendos with violins, cellos, and drums, all pounding in sync. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!

Until everything falls away, and only one cello remains.

We drive home from school that afternoon, past the eagles on the lampposts, past a full rainbow on the other side of the channel. It is a rainbow without rain, created with the setting sun and the last of the mist. On Crone’s last breath.

Photo by Adrian @aows on Unsplash

Living in Southern California, Halloween meant choosing between dressing up as sexy nurse, sexy bumblebee, or a sexy garden salad.

Halloween in my childhood was… meh, I don’t know? I was high on candy!

Halloween now, in Juneau, Alaska, means going door-to-door in 36° rain, watching my small children ask strangers for candy, a month of sugar crashes, filling the landfill with candy wrappers and random Halloween crap, spending $$ on costumes my family will wear once in a lifetime, and supporting corporations that can’t confirm that they don’t employ child labor in the harvesting of their chocolate. (Looking at you, Hersheys, Nestle, and Mars.)

What’s not to love?

Like any tradition, Halloween is so embedded in our cultural landscape that its rituals are taken for granted. Is it weird that we tell our children to ask strangers for candy just so we can steal it when they’re not looking?

Listen, I’m all for dressing up. I like to dress like a tree most days, or Steve Jobs. Today I dressed like a skeleton. Okay, just my face dressed like a skeleton. Or at least that’s what I saw when I looked in the mirror.

Unrelated, maybe I should wear make-up.

Because, sugar = inflammation.

Which brings me to the second thing we love about Halloween. Candy!

The way my kids go door-to-door seems so capitalistic. “More! More! Gimme! I need more! More! More! More!” Because if they don’t get all the candy, then someone else will, and heavens to broomsticks if that should happen.

It was like watching my otherwise angelical, perfect children, evolve into the Koch brothers. First, it starts with candy. Then they’re screwing the middle class. Trick-or-treating is just the gateway to the corporate rat race.

You think I’m being extreme. What’s wrong with a little candy, you ask?

The problem is that the highly processed sugar in those Reese’s peanut butter cups is stronger than I am, and I don’t like it when something has more control over me than I do myself. Next thing I know, the sugar-crash fog clouds my brain, my daughter is screaming, and my son is saying he hates his life. Even aspirin, water, and a hike in the woods can’t snap me out of my funk.

“It’s okay,” I tell my son. “I feel like crap, too. It’s not your fault.” A cop just visited his school and told his class about drugs, so he gets the whole getting jack-o-lanterned up on chemicals just to become a wilted pumpkin an hour later thing.

Yes, sugar is basically a drug.

 “Do you want to feel like this tomorrow, and the next day?” I ask him.

No, he doesn’t want sugar to control him anymore than I do, and chooses to feast on nature’s candy instead. Bring on the blueberries! They taste better than Twizzlers, anyway.

That is why my son dumped his entire bag of candy into the garbage, and I didn’t even ask him to.

A girlfriend told me that this year she took her kids trick-or-treating to show off their costumes. They only stopped at two houses for candy. Then they went home and enjoyed banana splits.

Next year, I think we’ll forgo trick-or-treating for banana splits.

Okay, maybe I don’t hate Halloween. I guess I just hate trick-or-treating. And cleaning glitter off my floor after decorating sugar skulls.

You see, the day after Halloween is Day of the Dead, and I’m all for celebrating that. I got to honor my grandma who passed away twelve days ago.

My children and students made sugar skulls this week in honor of Dia de Muertos.

Maybe we’ll eat them later.

Is it possible to “mom” too hard? Momming too hard looks like being pulled between my desire to work additional hours, because it’s easier than breaking up yet another fight & unleashing my inner Krakken because they snuck into the chocolate once again and cracked the passcode on the iPad, versus the guilt I feel for preferring to work over spending time with them.

(Even as I write this, talking into my phone whilst hiding in the bathroom for one second of uninterrupted peace, my daughter is screaming “Mooooooooommmmmm!” because she can’t reach the cereal bars.)

When I had kids I quit my job, read all the blogs, nursed them each for three years, took them to stem and arts activities and kindermusik. We invented creative projects, and I hiked them on my front and back. When they dug their heels in i gave them options. I loved them so hard. Yet my children could still be unkind to others. We co-slept. We still do. And after sleeping 4-6 hours a night & practicing unlimited patience & psychological manipulation to the point of tears, my husband would come home from work and say “but I worked all day”. 

Out of sheer amazement for their intellect and creativity I almost homeschooled them, but decided that a crazy mom is a crazy kid; and so I compromised on charter school instead where I volunteer endless hours in their classrooms, and even drive an hour out of my way to get them an education that I feel better suits their needs. And yet they still frequently end up in the principal’s office. 

I have mommed so hard, and I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing. And now I am just burnt out and look forward to Mondays when I can go to work to catch a break, because WORK IS A BREAK. 

I’ve taken on paid weekend trainings just for my own sanity and feel guilty the next day when my kids are tired or irritable at school. Probably because I wasn’t around the night before, I tell myself. 

Guilt or exhaustion. Those are my two options. And neither one seems to be making me a better parent. But work I can get trained for, and paid! And they give you really good snacks! And you can chew & swallow as quickly or slowly as you want, without having to make a mad dash for someone’s collar or fetch them a beverage or clean up a spill.

So can someone please tell me, where’s the paid parenting training? Because I think I’d like it to be retroactive. 

And more olives, please.

He crept in quietly, like a chameleon.

His lingering kisses took me on a voyage, told a story, with crescendos and denouements.

Usually he chased the sun in one of his rebuilt engines or on one of his many motorcycles, but he hit the brakes when with me.

Smooth, I thought he was water. But in reality, he was fire. He never met a blaze he didn’t love, and he raised it to the high heavens.

It was best not to carry matches around him, best to stay on his good side. He was fuel-injected, his engines modified.

His bonfires were so big they burned your legs, then your back when you walked away. Then he poured gasoline on them.

With others he was a bomb, an ax to grind.

But with me he was soft, spongy moss on the rain forest floor, slowly filling my spaces. Breaths like mist between my trees.

As long as I stayed on the soft side of his blade.

Photo: Maxim Tajer on Unsplash

In the morning, we take our paddleboards out over sleepy Auke Bay, still peaceful in her slumber, before the whale watching boats stir her up. The water is so clear you can see the bottom of the ocean. The gentle sun, low on the horizon, warms the salty air. For a moment I worry I might add another line to my face today, a face that resembles a map of where I’ve been, but then I remember that each one is a token, a souvenir, an adventure.

We glide over to check our friend Rocky, where my four-year-old daughter disembarks, summits the barnacle inhabited crag, and calls out: “I am queen of the mountain!”She insists on swimming out to me on my paddleboard, which floats over the water like a feather on a breath. One small movement can send her spiraling off into the deep or cutting into the rocks. Each slice into the water incites ripples that continue until they break on the shore miles away. 

Paddling like a puppy churning up the placid bay, she arrives at my board and crawls on. A humongous salmon jumps up and plops next to us, clearly enjoying the hushed morning. My son, yellow and gray like a canary in his wetsuit, soaks up the rays on his back while fully submerged in the water. Is he sleeping? 

“Are you alive?!”I call to him. In his blissed out state he does not respond until I holler, “Hey look, there’s No!”

The resident seal always comes when he hears the children’s voices. And look, now he’s playing peekaboo with us, popping his head up, then disappearing into the deep. My yellow canary son chases him on his paddleboard until they are just a few feet apart and engaged in the most epic staring contest.

At this point my daughter has already jumped off the board and is swimming towards the shore, just to prove to herself that she can.

The sun warms my face. Not to worry, I tell myself, I remembered sunblock today, fragrant like honeysuckle under the warming sun’s rays.

Photo: Kelly Renouf Sorensen

photo: Dani Nicole Photography

Breeze exhales in your left ear. Inhale sea spray. Hot sun consumes the thick jungle and complexions, varnishing the lucky ones until they sparkle. Your body, boneless, slithers into a hammock. Shadows of palm fronds dance over bare legs, chased by sunbeams. Toenails resemble pink shells in the sand.

Ocean waves wash through your lungs, salty. Exhale peace.  

Foreign words babble like water over river rocks and splash with a laugh into a turquoise pool. Isn’t that all you really need to understand? 

Soldier ants the size of your fingernail march in single file toward a tropical plant, returning along the same trajectory with chunks of red and orange leaves the size of your pinky. The tree will be gone within the hour.

No one in a rush. Pura vida. Pure life.

Steam emanating from the black sand begins to suffocate your skin until you feel you might burst like the chicharra. 

Rrrrrrrrrrr…. POP!

Only the lushest of rains can quench the thirst. You feel your skin squeeze, the black steam casting its spell, breathing is heavy. You don’t know if you can stand it anymore… until the sky breaks open and releases, sweet reprieve. 

Shhhhhh…..

Rain drops dance off palm fronds and corrugated tin roofs, sounding like a steel pan symphony. Broad banana leaves cocoon you through the downpour as the powerful aroma of flowers overtake your senses. Everything is glowing electric green.

And as quickly as it came, the rain moves on. You can see it darkening the dirt path just a few feet away. Sun returns hot, its lust unabated. 

A young figure with a back like a chestnut climbs a coconut tree and disappears into the canopy. A green ovoid coconut drops from the tree, plop! Followed by another, and then another. Man versus nature… 

Climbing down, he slices off the top of the coconut with a skinny machete. Man wins! 

“Así,” he says – like this, and he takes a swig from the young fruit then passes it to you. You put your lips against the small hole in the smooth green ovoid, tilting the bottom up. Sweet coconut juice charges your limp body, bringing you back to life and out of your lazy repose. You join him in the lowering sun, gentle like a lover’s embrace. 

Late afternoon sun tickles your skin until you smell like baked bread. For a second two scarlet macaws eclipse the sun’s rays, flashing brilliant vermillion and cobalt blue tails like arrows. As fervent heat surrenders to a gentle breeze, howler monkeys begin their posturing. Guttural iterations ring throughout the forest, sending frightened kittens running for cover. Untamed, wild, the jungle maintains its sovereignty. 

Photo: mapsdecostarica.info

Real talk

Costa Rica is practically paradise on earth. More than 25 per cent of their land is protected – the highest in the world. As a world leader in conservation, and in an effort to preserve the natural beauty and surroundings, 25% of their rainforests, tropical dry forests, cloud forests, marine areas, and wetlands has been set aside and turned into protected parks and reserves. 

photo: Rebloggy

Their citizens enjoy free healthcare, free preschool, and top-notch education (their literacy rate at 94.4% is much higher than the U.S.’ 86%). The most common refrain in Costa Rica is pura vida, meaning pure life, and can mean hello, thank you, you’re welcome, good-bye, and very good. 

The culture is so peaceful that when I lived there in 2001 even the police didn’t carry guns. They have no standing army. 

It is a very progressive and egalitarian society; the rich hobnob with the poor, but nobody really knows the difference when everyone’s wearing board shorts and sandals. Many women own businesses, although as an American woman business owner in Costa Rica, few took me seriously but deferred to my male partners. Voting day is a national holiday. The whole family goes out to vote, and the government throws parties and concerts at polling places. 

Costa Rica is pura vida, indeed.

Art by Solignia Arellano