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

A devil’s club graveyard all that remains,

bones of a mighty clubbed fortress

reduced to small brown skeletons,

silent, still scaffolds of what once was.

This is how you say madrugada in English–

the coldest, darkest, undead hour

when spirits roam the earth, right before

the first snow: 

the rainforest so dry and quiet

bones and shapes, negative space,

the air sucked right out.

This poem was first published at Plum Tree Tavern

Photo by Linford Miles 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?

About the Prose Garden

“When there’s uncertainty, when you’re looking for meaning beyond this world–that takes people to poetry. We need something to counter the hate speech, the divisiveness, and it’s possible with poetry.” — Joy Harjo, the first Native American U.S. poet laureate

Here in the Prose Garden, we grow stories, prose and poetry to inspire, featuring fresh perspectives, close-ups, close calls, cluster-flucks and koester-pluck, all with a good watering of beautiful contradictions and terrible word plays. Let’s explore the entropy of parenting and life in Southeast Alaska, true tales of venturing off the beaten path, crossing borders real and invisible, and living beyond the imaginable.

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” — Toni Morrison, 1931-2019.

Nature in tandem, aiding and abetting,
Waves smooth as the bodies that chase them,
Perfect symmetry drawn in ocean combers,
And all there is is this moment.
Diet of fish and fruit rendered my body spacious,
Boneless like a jellyfish,
Flesh swimming in skin sun-kissed,
Mermaid hair blonde, waving,
One with the water, anticipating,
Interpreting the swell,
Hop up on the board and let nature propel
Me down the mouth of a blue roaring barrel.
“Let go, let God,”
Letting nature take over,
She shoots me down a perfect comber.
Traveling at the speed of sound,
The world slows down,
And for a moment in the wave
I’m in a frozen glacial cave. 
Shady cover from lusty sun’s tan,
She spits me out like a one-night stand.
What a thrill– I need another
And go back like an abusive lover.
Having tasted euphoria in the green room,
Enlightenment in the break…
If there is a heaven,
I know it’s got waves.

As a child, I was always writing stories in my head. Often times these stories took shape as episodes that were part of a larger series I called “Just the Weather” — mini soap operas that only I and my sister knew about, every person that interacted with us an unwitting character.

Currently, I’m reading two debut, out-of-the-box memoirs: one is In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, and the other is Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden. The first is written in the second person: “you did this… you did that…” etc., and I’m starting to believe her. I see what she did there. I am now inside of the book as willing participant, reliving my own abusive relationship alongside hers. And I wonder why I’ve been feeling down lately. She’s gotten under my skin. Is it the second person tense, or her structuring of the novel as mini vignettes, the poetic prose, my connection with her stories, or all the above?

The second, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, is written in the first person as most memoirs are, but in the present tense. Be wary of the present tense! the professors warned me. T Kira Madden fears not, and it works. In the present tense, everything is all happening right now, not yesterday, or last week, or twenty years ago. The stakes are rising.

Bouncing between two memoirs, now I find myself talking to myself. “I’m crossing the street to go to the library,” I tell no one. “The elevator lets you in, but won’t deliver you to the library,” I say, as if I were talking to my reader. “Too cold to wait outside, you can ride the elevator for fun, or hang out with the homeless person in the lobby. ”

Now the homeless man and I are both talking to ourselves.

Questions I’m pondering… what are some really good memoirs? Conversely, what makes memoir good?

What are some unique story structures that work?

What does the reader think about reading a story in the second person?

What is the correct pronunciation of memoir anyway? If I say “memwhah” do I sound pretentious?

Feel free to drop answers in the comment box. Have a great weekend. Signing off…

Summer in Juneau, Alaska

(P.S.: summer is definitely over and out up here)

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

Thanksgiving is approaching, and naturally I’m thinking about the power of gratitude. Brené Brown studied happiness in more than 1,000 people over a course of twelve years. She found that every one of her subjects experienced joy as a direct result of feeling grateful. At first, this seems counter-intuitive– after all, shouldn’t joy come first, then gratitude? Dr. Brown found that it’s actually the reverse: practicing gratitude is a necessary precursor for experiencing joy.

I first discovered the power of gratitude during my twenties, when I lived in Jamaica for six months. I was not feeling very thankful at the time, as the home I stayed in was tiny, and the couple that housed me were up in age. My steady diet of chicken and rice had me all plugged up. Mr. and Mrs. Groves peed in a bucket next to their bed at night, and the smell would waft into my room through the large crack in the wall. Even in the world of dancehall reggae, I was required to keep to their strict curfew. I would lie in bed smelling their urine. I was also recently groped on a crowded city bus in the capital of Jamaica, Kingston, by a hand that came out of nowhere. I couldn’t let go of my backpack on my front, for fear of being robbed. I couldn’t let go of the bar I held on to, for fear of being thrown by the herky-jerky bus. I had to stand there with the protruding hand up my crotch until I could get off at the next bus stop.

One day I met a Rastafarian elder and lamented to him about my current situation. Rather than taking pity on me, the Rasta man suggested that I try giving thanks instead. I looked at this thin man in his torn, worn clothing, and long, grey-haired dreadlocks. Despite his stained teeth, he wore a big toothy grin. He seemed very pleased with himself. I wondered how it was possible that this humble man could be more thankful than I, a young, privileged American. And then I felt ashamed.

Noting my confusion, he invited me to come “siddung and reason a lickle bit”. He was not disappointed in my privileged self-pity. Instead, he proceeded to tell me that he had no money, no family, no house. Yet despite his lot, he gave thanks every day. “Life is the greatest gift,” he said.

The Rasta man seemed genuinely content, and the smile lingered in his eyes and the upturned corners of his mouth. I wondered how a man who had nothing but memories could be so grateful. It was as if gratitude alone determined his happy disposition.

The importance of expressing thanks, or gratitude, was a common, refrain I heard from many Rastafarians while living in Jamaica. It amazed me how people with so few worldly possessions, for whom daily life was a struggle of survival, could find so much to be thankful for.

Fast forward twenty years, my daughter spilled her juice all over the floor for the umpteenth time– a big sticky mess, and I had just cleaned!

I thought of that Rastafarian who owned little more than the shirt on his back. Give thanks, give thanks, I reminded myself as I cleaned up my daughter’s mess. Life is the greatest gift…

I had a kitchen that could be cleaned, I had cleaning products, and we could afford juice. Pretty soon my dining table and floor were even cleaner than before the spill. And because I didn’t scold my daughter, her tears dried up quickly.

A few minutes later I heard her outside, singing joyfully to the mountains, and I gave thanks that I had a daughter who holds a mirror up to myself and in turn makes me a better person.

With gratitude, I was already feeling more joyful.

(pictures are my own, taken in 1998)

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.

 Wind’s hands reach
with fingers of amber leaves,
grasping for the deer that
disappears into the night

When does a deer become a pet? When you start to feed him apples? When he comes around regularly enough to earn a name?

It’s deer-hunting season, so I’m surprised he still comes back.

“He looks tasty.” My husband licks his lips.

Don’t even think about it, my eyes shoot back.

The deer and I are kindred spirits – solitary, quiet, we prefer leaves to meat. We both have widely spaced eyes. (The better to watch out for predators, they say.)

My spirit animal comes to visit us nightly, undeterred by the hostile wind that spits leaves like popcorn and men toting rifles. The mechanical monsters with headlights for eyes that occasionally snake down our dirt road have not scared him off.

I ask the children what we should call him. They have already named the resident seal at Nana’s house “No” and the porcupine “Yes”. Recently No brought by a friend to visit; they called her “Not”. I’m wondering if this deer will be called “Maybe”.

Fall gusts snatch the coffee right out of my cup, splattering it all over my coat. My ghost-like reflection spooks me in the mirror. The wind that promises me a bad hair day slams the door back in my face, telling me to stay home. It smells of snow. Yet the buck comes back to steal leaves off trees and fatten up for winter, knowing that the bright white will soon blanket all in its peaceful slumber.

With luck he’ll live to see it.