Empire for a Blueberry


April 2016


While I was looking for the photo of me with my old dog Stormi for my last post, I came across a picture of an old friend who died 23 months ago. The picture was from 1999, taken during her hiatus from studying abroad in France.

I thought of her yesterday, too, when I saw a clump of dandelions in a yard. She liked dandelions. One of her last Facebook posts had been a goofy refusal to clear them from her yard like her suburban neighbors.

Dandelion cluster.jpg

Recent reports have revealed a “surge” in the numbers of death from suicide, and the NY Times had an article titled “sweeping pain” a few days ago (although the title has changed).

Sweeping pain is right.

I didn’t know how she died for weeks. I didn’t want to ask after I received vague word she’d passed. I wasn’t surprised.

Like dust with a broom, the first slap of grief billows, cycling back in smaller clouds.

I know depression is a disorder, with suicide as a consequence of failed treatment. So it seems wrong to try to understand it within an individual. To think thoughts like — she was always the conductor of her own life, no other disease or attack could snuff her out. Or to become furious with her — she was always so selfish.

Yet since I’m still here on this side, imperfect, I know my thoughts are normal, natural. Like every other person in her life I’m sure, I can see in retrospect where I might’ve guessed she needed help. Living 700 miles away though and still struggling to forgive her for not showing up for me in 2007, when she easily could have, I kept my distance from her.

It’s entirely speculative when I try to imagine her thoughts in her last moments, and I wonder often about the role simply being a woman, a wife, a mother may have had. To erase your self in children; to make choices about where you lived based not on your own dreams alone, but the needs of your spouse as well; to make a major shift in your career path so you can fit with his.

When I think of the two girls we were when I snapped that shot seventeen years ago, both poised to be ex-patriots, both sure we were anything but ordinary and would never be boring, I never would’ve imagined us back in the States, her in a suburban mansion and me in a Midtown bungalow, learning to knit (her), crochet (me), and wash diapers.That’s all gone now. Depression is a disorder, I know. It might be my own grandiose image of self that makes me imagine I could’ve helped.

Just when I’d think I understood her, she’d always show herself a black box to me. But I just can’t help myself from thinking that if only I’d spoken up, talked to her about the way my own life had zagged along my path, she might’ve zigged back into hers.


Youthful life stories

Sometimes Hoot’s mind is a mystery to me. He heard the name “Donald Trump” on NPR this morning. “Trump? Why’d they say Donald Trump?”

“He’s running for president, sweetie. We’re going to hear his name a lot.”

Hoot laughed. “Donald Trump is not a president! He’s a movie!”

I didn’t understand at first. “He’s a what?”

“I say he’s a movie! Not a president!”

At other times, he’s completely familiar.

Walking Mocha, he says, “Mama, next time I’m a dog I’m not going to be a little dog who goes ‘yip yip’ all the time.”

I smile. “Oh you were a yippy dog before?”

“Yes, last time.”

“In a dream?” I asked.

“No! Last time I said! I was a little dog. The next time I’m a dog, I will be a big big dog!” He stomped his feet and stopped walking.

“Okay, okay, I’m sorry. Why are you going to be a big dog next time?”

“I was a little dog who barked at Mocha last time. I was not a friend. Next time I will be a big dog who is Mocha’s friend.”

“Oh, you want to be Mocha’s friend next time you’re a dog?”

“Yes, but I will not be a big dog who steals food from tables. I will be a good dog.”

“That’s nice, Hoot.”

“Yes, Mama, that’s nice.”

We walked on.

“Last time” I wasn’t a dog–in the 1970s, I guess–I was a bunny, but not the kind of bunny who harassed my dog Stormi. I was a friend to dogs. But then our neighbor ran me over with his lawnmower.

Mama Young




I have a 3,742 page dictionary, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary 6th Edition (Oxford University Press, 2007). 

Out of all those thousands of sheets, X words take up just three. More than 1/3 of the first page for X is covered in definitions for just the letter X: from “X” is the twenty-fourth letter of the English alphabet and the twenty-first in the “ancient Roman” alphabet to numbered definitions from X-factor to X-out. I couldn’t think of an inspiring X word today, so I decided I’d just learn the definitions of the first ten words following.

The second X word, X-acto, I usually hear paired with the kind of knife responsible for one of our most terrifying moments in parenting, when we learned Hoot had learned to use chairs for climbing. I suppose if we lived in Xanadu we’d have servants in charge of more carefully organizing our household and anticipating disasters. Speaking of my housekeeping skills, I only recently threw out the xanthum gum responsible for my failed experiment with gluten-free challah baking but my OED tells me I could’ve also used it for oil-drilling and mixing up fake blood.

The Greek word xanthos means yellow and forms the root for xanthene, a tricyclic compound that can be used to create “brilliant, often fluorescent dyes,” and xanthelasma, or yellowish patches on the skin caused by lipid (fatty) deposits.

Apparently we have the cartenoid pigment xanthin to thank for lovely yellow plants. But we really ought to worship the crystalline purine xanthine which is in caffeine and two less pleasant but equally necessary parts of life, blood and urine.

Animals who are “excessively” yellow suffer from xanthism. The dictionary didn’t tell me what “excessively yellow” means for a creature’s health, and neither did a quick Google Search. Since I’m rather fond of the color yellow, I was slightly offended. Would this room be said to struggle with xanthism?



I told Josh I would write sentences for the first ten definitions of words starting with X, like in an elementary grade school assignment and he said, “You’re really giving up” on this blog challenge. I felt a bit like a Xanthippe, or “a scolding or bad tempered woman or wife.” My goal was just to make sure I sat down and wrote a bit each day, on different subjects. This might not be the most exciting post, but I probably learned the most from it. I will make it to the end of this challenge.

W is for Why


Why do people have to wear shoes?

Why is there glass on the ground?

Why do people throw glass on the ground?

Why do birds have two wings?

Why do mosquitoes bite people?

Why do flies eat poop?

Why do girls have two butts?”

If I have mastered anything in parenting at all, it’s the ‘why’ stage. I’m not the best at packing lunches or tying shoes, but I can only remember one time I haven’t outlasted a child on a why campaign. The boys and I were late to somewhere and I was driving in heavy traffic with a sinus infection headache. I would like a do-over on that trip because I’m sure their questions were very worthwhile.

If you’re thinking I couldn’t possibly manage the whys of your children, you apparently haven’t met mine. I don’t boast often in my life (at least I try not to), so please give me this one.

My 3 tips for outlasting a why loop:

  1. Make your answer as small as possible. You can always expand out. If they ask, “why is the sky blue,” start with “because that’s how the light in the sky looks to us.” So many directions to go from that one small answer! You might end up having to explain molecules and sun rays, or you may end up on a tangent about how people who cannot see get along in the world.
  2. If you don’t know the answer or don’t like your answer, be honest and/or deflect. I’ve told Hoot and Wise, “I don’t know but we can look it up,” more times than I can remember. If they ask why I don’t know, I tell them, “Because I’m not perfect — I don’t know everything,” and ask “Where do you think we can figure out the answer?” This answer worked when I taught in a Montessori School 15 years ago, and it works now. Also, saying “What do you think?” can be fun. Earlier today, Hoot asked me, “What do ducks eat?” Fish. “What do sharks eat?” Fish. “So why people like ducks but not sharks?” I had a long answer to that that but I didn’t really feel like saying it. Instead I deflected  and he told me a long story about a robot named “Transform-i.” Transform-i had a nice pet fish that was eaten by a shark. So “Transform-i” got a new fish, but that fish wasn’t nice at all. A duck ate the new fish. Transform-i was still sad about his nice old fish, but at least he didn’t have to worry about feeding and taking care of his new mean fish. “So dats why people do like ducks but people don’t like sharks.” I like that answer as well as any I’d have given him tonight.
  3. Realize it’s not really about your answer, but rather the conversation. Your answers matter, of course, but this isn’t a police interrogation, a job interview, or an oral exam in graduate school. Ultimately, the child is just trying to talk to you, and as long as you keep engaging, you’re not going to get it wrong.

When I think about what I’ll miss about having truly young kids, the why stage tops the list.

V is for Volunteer

Memphis has no shortage of opportunities for the dedicated community member — the vast majority of it unpaid or compensated at a low rate. I’ve burned out a bit over the couple months, even as I don’t feel like I’ve done enough.

I love celebrating my neighborhood, but today I want to vent for minute. My image above is of our neighborhood Greenline, featuring an art project, The Blue Kids, completed well before we moved in by a Rhodes College art class. They’re a target for vandalism.

Dedicated volunteers, but especially a wonderful local artist, have given hours of uncompensated time and probably a thousand dollars towards repairing them over and over again. The volunteer committee removed one of the blue kids a few months back after they determined he was too damaged to sensibly repair. I’ve helped out twice with repairing the kids — very little in comparison to others.

The number of people I’d never seen help out who came out of the wood work to complain about how the repairs and removal went down…..

Hoot with umbrella

Above is an old picture of Hoot at the station house. The Greenline, again, is a volunteer run organization. Josh didn’t do the most work, but still he did a tremendous amount of work for the ArtWalk this weekend, planning the menu and cooking food, managing to coordinate that with our Passover planning, which was frankly amazing since he was also working on book proofs. I’m sure the other volunteers also had family and work obligations to manage.

It’s a great event. Then this morning a parent at school told me, “They really need to do a better job organizing and promoting for it. There were too many other events this weekend.” The event happens the same weekend every year. They promoted it on Facebook, on Nextdoor, and with giant signs dug at several intersections.

It was a successful event.

The past few months, every time we organized a political event, every time I ran a phone bank, someone had a bit of advice for me.

The complaints of course don’t take away from an events or organization’s successes, and by no means does the complaining dominate my volunteer experiences. Nor do I think all advice is obnoxious.But the assumption that volunteers should always be doing more or that a person who actually isn’t giving time would do it better, really gets to me sometimes.

If only the people advising a volunteer who hasn’t asked for their thoughts would jump in and help instead of talking smack.


U is for Undertaking

After much prodding from Wise, Hoot has finally answered the “what do you want to be when you grow up” question. He wants to be a sign. Not just any sign, but one of those tall, balloon signs that advertise “Sell Your Gold here” and cellphone stores. They’re “Air Dancers” actually, as I just learned from a Google search. So Hoot wants to be an air dancer when he grows up. That sounds about right.

Our dog sitter and kid sitter is studying to be a funeral director.

[Hoot made me practice saying “kid” “sit” “ter” after I said baby sitter last night.]

I never thought much about how people become funeral directors. I guessed they inherited the business, or somehow fell into it. But our sitter feels a calling. After attending what she felt were too many poorly done funeral services, she wants to make sure families are better taken care of, bodies more carefully treated. Our kid sitter isn’t a kid — she’s over forty with a grown son of her own.

As I well know, it sometimes takes a long time to figure out what you want to do with your life.


I’m happy to encourage air dancing for now.





T is for Tradition

I write this post from our synagogue’s library. I coached a fabulous kid about to have his bar mitzvah this morning, working through the finer points of the Torah portion, “Parshat Kedoshim.” I’m watching our cantorial soloist lead kindergarteners through songs in the garden out the window.

This week will be chaotic (more so than some at least). Wise has four hours of rehearsal every night for Fiddler on the Roof, opening next weekend. It’ll be Passover until Saturday night, so we’ll have no throwing together dinners from Kroger’s frozen section.

Our neighborhood’s annual ArtWalk on our Greenline was yesterday — our fourth year here to see it. We’ve settled into traditions in Memphis, but since our children are still young and growing, no two years’ events are ever the same.

We have traditions we purposefully create — hosting seders, lighting candles for all of our children on Shabbat, choosing February 2nd as Mocha’s birthday–but also others that happen of their own accord. We watched the Prince of Egypt over Passover two years in a row at some point, and now Wise thinks of it as a tradition to watch it every year. Hoot thinks it’s required that we stop by the creek on our walk to school to look for fish, every time.

Or is that a habit?

This past year, because of my heavy focus on politics, I broke away from so many good habits and formed new bad ones. I didn’t have enough time to write or work out, and I’ve lost a balance. I ate too much junk food and drank too much coffee. I spent too many nights not putting my children to bed and weekends not playing Legos or sleep friends with them. We have bedtime and wake up traditions that I want to become routine again.

Being a good citizen is not easy.




S is for Seder

Pesach/Passover begins tonight.

We have the house in order and Josh even managed to finish most of the cooking last night.

We’re having one family over and I’m pretty excited about the custom Haggadah I made at We’d been using the New American Haggadah for a few years, and of course we have a collection of Maxwell House Haggadahs (although I just realized ours are pre-2011 revision.) Both have their value, but I just kinda wanted to see what it would be like to create a Haggadah where I’m not saying, “now skip to page 14, oh, I mean 15, I mean 12” or handing out transliteration sheets for our non-Hebrew reading guests. Essentially, we customize the haggadah every year, as all families do, but this time no one will see the cuts and additions. I love the cohesive text (or at least I think I do; we’ll see how it goes.)

Since I only discovered the customizing website last night, ours is pretty basic, but I’m already thinking about how Hoot, Wise, and I can really create a great family one for next year.

R is for Retelling, Re-reading, Recollecting


Fourth grade marked the year I started staying home by myself before and after school, riding my bike to school on days the weather cooperated, and going to the neighborhood park without my parents but with friends. I had regular sleepovers with a neighborhood schoolmate, and we’d often spend Saturday or Sunday morning riding the neighborhood, eventually ending up at the park.

One such Spring Sunday, one of the first clear days after a lot of rain, we ventured beyond the playground equipment, to a small wooded area with a creek. The creek created an island, or at least a peninsula, which we claimed as our magical domain. We went to her house for lunch, chatted briefly with her brother who warned us it might be private property, and then got back on our bikes and returned to our island. Constructing dams, we formed a refuge for magical creatures. We jumped between stumps and rotting logs, searched for crayfish, and eventually realized we ought to go home for dinner.

The next morning, at school, another classmate rushed to tell me some news.

My friend’s brother had died over the weekend, by suicide. The world slammed in on me. When? I had seen him not 48 hours earlier. I later learned some more details. She had learned of it as soon as she went in the house that day. I’d said goodbye to her on the driveway, because her house was between my house and the park. My fourth grade mind tried to comprehend what that must have been like, knowing the my shock and sorrow at that moment were nothing compared to what my friend had experienced, seconds after I waved goodbye and said, “See you tomorrow.”

Not long after, I tried to take another friend to the island on bikes, but I couldn’t find it. I guessed the creek had dried up.

At least that’s the way I’ve always remembered that period.

About a month ago, I decided to read Bridge to Terabithia. It’s a book often suggested to children coping with death; a book everyone reads but I somehow had missed out on. I remember my friend telling me about all the books people were giving to her in the months following her brother’s death. I remember teachers talking to us, giving us books to read, having class meetings in the library pit with counselors. I don’t remember what anyone said or what books we read.I have no memory of reading Bridge to Terabithia, but now I wonder. I’d like to try to find the spot again, but if memory serves, someone long since built a new subdivision back there.




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