Otakon 2016

Welcome to Wonderland

In one way or another, I have kept a journal since age 12. I've kept an online journal called Musings since late 2002. My topics range from things that happen in my daily life to my thoughts on pop culture to my ponderings about everything from dreams to the secret thoughts of pets. In November 2007, I began mirroring it here, although I often included extras to this version, such as memes and quizzes. In February 2010, I stopped updating the original journal on my home page and instead started a writing journal there.

For some insight into who I am, read Intro to Alyce. For a guide to the many nicknames I use in my online journal, check out Who's Who in Musings.

The beautiful, sweet dog in one of my icons is Una, my best friend and nurse dog for nearly 11 years, who passed away on October 22, 2010. She was my inspiration, and she taught me how to be a better friend and mother; a better person. My son, Kung Fu Panda (KFP for short), benefits from all the caregiving skills I learned in those 11 years. My husband, The Gryphon, probably does, as well!

The goals I established when I first begin an online journal remain the same: this is a way to explore the tangential, the seemingly accidental observations many of us overlook but which may, ultimately, be where all life and all mystery hinges.

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What I Did Over My Summer Vacation

In the free moments I've been given, since all of our summer plans for trips and camps and such were canceled, I finally returned to a project that went on indefinite hiatus five years ago when my mother died. My second volume of poetry, "Owning the Ghosts," is finally available!

The cover of my poetry book

The best way to order it is through the link on my author website's Books page: http://www.alycewilson.com/books/. For some reason, Amazon's done something wacky with the search engine so that the search results for specific books are notoriously bad, unless I suppose, it's a top-seller.

You'll also notice on my Books page a link to the book of my third great-grandfather's poetry, "Reading's Physician Poet." Dr. James Meredith Mathews was born and raised in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and then moved to Reading, Pennsylvania (rhymes with "breading"), where he became a widely-respected physician and community member. He also wrote poetry, which was occasionally published in the local newspaper. The collection includes those poems as well as some other poems of his that my paternal grandmother passed down to me. The appendix provides a genealogical history of his branch of the Mathews family. I published this book in December, as a Christmas gift for my father and my siblings. I sent copies of this book to historical societies in both Doylestown and Reading who were greatly appreciative of the work I'd done.

The cover of "Reading's Physician Poet"

Enough about me. How are you all doing?
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LJ Idol Week 26: Black Hole Sun

This is my entry for this week of LJ Idol (therealljidol). This week was an Open Topic.

Whenever I hear the song "Black Hole Sun" by Soundgarden, I sing along with a French accent. That song conjures dune grass, cobalt sea and cerulean sky. Hot air, suffused with ocean mist, bug spray and sun block. Me and my sister, with her long blonde hair tangling in the wind, as she carefully applied mascara after a day on the beach, so that we could hit the boardwalk together.

The year was about 1995. I'd finally broken off a soul-crushing relationship with a guy who'd tried to force me into a lockbox of his creation. Free again, I reconnected with my sister, who had been in elementary school when I'd gone away to college. The spirited, dimpled girl who was continually singing had become a fiercely beautiful teenager whose serious expression made her look years older but who still possessed the same impish sense of humor.

Our family hadn't taken a vacation together in several years, not since our parents separated. Plus, I hadn't spent a summer at home since college started, spending the first year as a camp counselor and the rest at an off-campus apartment. For that reason, I'd missed out on the few vacations my siblings took with one parent or the other. Now, as an adult and an almost adult, my sister and I planned a vacation together, just the two of us. I can't remember which one of us suggested camping on Assateague Island National Seashore, but the site fit our modest budget perfectly. We could spend a long weekend there, tent camping, preparing our own breakfasts and lunches, and then driving into Ocean City, Maryland, for dinner and entertainment.

We had camped at Assateague before, a somewhat legendary trip with our mother when she and Dad had first separated. Most of that vacation went smoothly, but all anyone ever talked about was the night that didn't: when my brother had gotten food poisoning, thrown up all over the tent where he was sleeping, and then, on top of that, a thunderstorm had struck. I'd been about 17, and my Mom had asked me to drive my "boat of car," a 1973 Chevy Caprice Classic, which we'd brought because it was roomier than her Ford Escort. The driving rain had made the island road so dark I'd depended on lightning to see my way forward. We'd found an all-night laundromat to clean the tent and then stayed that night in a motel room.

With just two of us Wilsons along, we hoped to avoid the trouble that seemed to follow us as a group. This had to be better than past family vacations, like the time in Chautauqua, New York, when I crashed my bike into a tree and split open my lip, drinking from a straw for the rest of the week; or the trip to Maine where we dealt with both a gas leak and then a car break-in.

Overall, the Wilson sisters' vacation was turning out much better, except for the biting flies, attracted by the wild ponies who live on the island. We loved watching the ponies on the beach, especially at sunrise, but we hated their horseflies. My sister, who had begun leaning into her leadership strengths, established our routine of spraying each other all over with bug spray the minute we woke up in the morning, and after taking a shower.

One day, a couple days into our trip, she came back from the shower, her long, damp hair turning her shirt dark. The more expensive state park had heated showers and flush toilets, but the national park only had chemical toilets and chilly showers, designed for removing sand quickly. I think this particular day, she might have walked all the way down to the national park's bathhouse, stealing a hot-water shower, so to speak.

She sat at the picnic table, sighed and said, "It feels so good to be clean, but not for long." After smoothing sunblock on her legs and arms, she asked me to help her with her back and then douse her with another bug spray dose.

That's when the French-Canadian guys at the campsite next to us started singing, at the top of their lungs, "Black Hole Sun." We couldn't see them because of the dune that separated our site from theirs, but their exuberant voices wafted to us, along with skunky marijuana fumes. The song clearly meant something to them, because that wouldn't be the last time we heard them singing it. Always in unison, at the top of their lungs, with their lilting accents bending the ends of the words.

My sister and I would look at each other with a smile that said, "There they go again." We'd continue with what we were doing: putting together our lunches or putting on makeup for a trip to the boardwalk. Their group song became our in-joke.

Over the course of our days together, my sister and I got to know each other again, as adults. We talked openly about relationships, about our hopes and dreams, and about silly things, too. It was like a slumber party that lasted for several days. Yes, there were stinging flies and pony poop on the beach, but that brief vacation ranks among the best I've ever taken.

Our friendship flourished in the days and years afterward. Assateague marked the beginning of young adult adventures together, like the sun-blazing music festival where the lead guitarist in a band called Moonboot Lover played guitar with his teeth; or the festival in the woods where we ate some mushrooms and got weirded out by a band who wouldn't stop talking about worms; or the Grape Jam Festival near Erie, Pennsylvania, where Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart saw my big camera and grinned at me from the stage, and where Tragically Hip fans from Canada wrapped themselves in Canadian flags and drank way too much Labatt's.

Those days may be long gone, but we've replaced them with family trips. All three siblings gather with our children and our father, tempting fate by gathering too many Wilsons together. Jamming into rented cabins, or into my sister's surprisingly spacious little house, we spend our days at museums or beaches, where our kids play and we talk until the sun goes down.

So many memories later, and still, the minute I hear that song, I can't help singing along. At the top of my lungs. In a French accent.

In case you'd like to do likewise, here's the video for "Black Hole Sun."

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LJI Week 25: The Snow Throne

This is my entry for Week 25 of LJ Idol (therealljidol). The topic this week is "The Catbird's Seat."


Me with a much smaller snowman at about age 10

When my brother and I were about the age my son is now, we vowed to build the biggest snowman ever. Surrounded by perfect packing snow -- wet and dense -- we took turns rolling a ball of snow around the hilly empty lot next to our house, once surveyed as a road but never paved, and now the perfect sledding place for us and the other neighborhood kids.

The ball grew larger and larger until, in one spot, we hit grass, and a few blades clung to our snow boulder, which came up to my brother's chest. He selected a place to roll it, safely over our property line, behind one of the bushes, where it would be protected from sleds and sleighs of all varieties -- plastic, wooden and those impossible-to-steer plastic disks.

Next came the middle section, and we put our tired arms back to work. This portion, we knew, should be a bit smaller than the bottom, but still huge. As we worked, our mittens grew wet and chilled. We had to move to a new location on the hill, where we hadn't decimated the snow.

Our middle section, completed, came up to my brother's waist and, to our chagrin, was too heavy to lift. Not to be deterred, my brother knocked on the next-door neighbor's brick-red door until the teenage son answered and agreed, reluctantly, to lift the icy rock onto its base.

Not the most athletic of guys, our neighbor grunted and cussed under his breath as he lifted the ice ball. Struggling to lift it high enough, he didn't want his effort wasted, so he commanded us to be ready with handfuls of snow to pack into place where the two balls met, and hold them tight. Eagerly, we did so, and as he slid the ball onto its place, holding it still with some effort, we made with the frozen mortar, fixing the middle section in place.

Pleased with the results, we asked our neighbor to stick around until we finished a head. Rapidly rubbing his gloveless hands together, he told us, "Not today, guys. I've got to get inside."

Disappointed, we nevertheless had to admit we wanted to go inside, as well. Golden afternoon light had turned to bluing twilight, and we were cold and exhausted. We left our naked, near-compete colossus and pulled open the front door, to shed our snow-covered boots, gloves and hats in the front hallway.

Our momentum broken, the project lay fallow. A day later, we stood studying it and agreed that, even without a head, it was still our biggest ever snow creation. But since it didn't really resemble a snowman, more of a bumpy solid column, we didn't bother to affix the traditional rock buttons, stick arms, carrot nose, and scarf.

My brother, whose idea the snow giant had been, was the first to discern its new use. Using the snow halfling's waist as a foothold, you could heave yourself up on top of the creation and sit on its empty neck. He flattened and compacted the snow up there to make a better seat. The view, he told me, was amazing.

I was skeptical until I climbed up myself. Turning my gaze downhill, I could see past our house's white siding, the neighbor's mint-green trailer across the street, and downhill all the way to the state highway at the bottom, the white fields beyond, and the rising slopes of Kling's Hill, the biggest sledding challenge in our neighborhood. Covered with a fringe of leafless trees, Kling's Hill looked like a wintry oasis, with little black dots climbing up and whooshing back down.

After a few minutes, my brother demanded another turn, so I climbed down.

Always a fan of quiet spaces, that winter I often sought the respite of our snowy throne, to sit and contemplate our neighborhood in a way I never had before, from lofty adult heights.

The half-built snowman lasted longer than the snow on the surrounding slope, acquiring a grimy translucency, both from our feet and from the melting process that condensed it further and further. We continued to climb it as long as it lasted, finally stepping onto it like a stool as its height shrunk with warmer days.

Considerate makers, we let it slough naturally into the hillside, respecting it even as a grayed lump, though lesser children would have stomped it flat. By the time sleds had given way to bicycles, the snow throne had returned into the spongy earth, where wild violets grew.

Existing in a pre-Instagram childhood, we never photographed our creation. If our parents noticed the ice sculpture, they didn't say. Our snow throne, born of imagination, therefore still exists. Sometimes, I send my mind there, to cool off, in wordless peace, to hear the wind shuffle through pine trees, the far-away traffic, the chuckling of winter-brave birds.
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LJI 11 Week 24: The Pursuit of Happiness

This is my entry for Week 24 of LJ Idol (therealljidol). This week was an intersection, where we chose one of two topics and worked with a partner. I chose "I'm the Ussain Bolt of running from my problems." Please read my partner, karmasoup's entry, found here: https://karmasoup.livejournal.com/51435.html.

Out of respect, I changed the names for this story.

In those days there were no pedometers (except perhaps a mechanical kind, used by marathoners), so I have no idea how far I walked with the church youth group. What I can say with certainty is that the entire time, I was goggling at Davis.

The tallest in our group by far, with raven hair and pale skin, he had a strong jaw and long nose with a rounded tip and flared nostrils which I thought was both distinctive and adorable. Most of all, he was funny. I've always liked funny guys.

The afternoon-long trek down country roads had been organized by our youth leader as a bonding activity, to be followed by a sleepover on the sanctuary floor -- boys on one side, girls on the other -- so that we could wake before dawn to prep the community room for Easter brunch.

As Davis took long strides down the country road, sunny fields stretching on either side of us, I pumped my much shorter legs to keep up. Giggling at his running commentary, I attempted to get in a few laugh lines of my own, gratified every time I could make him chuckle. His warm brown eyes danced as the sun glinted off his smooth, glossy hair.

It might have been easy to pretend no one else existed, except they did. Flanking us, in front and behind, walked the rest of the youth group. A phalanx of teenagers, striding through the countryside with mirth on our lips.

Then from behind me, Caleb panted up to join us, his mousy-brown curls plastered to his forehead with sweat. He pushed his oversized glasses up his short, unremarkable nose and, out of breath, asked me if I could hang back with him for a minute. He had something he wanted to talk to me about.

Before I could object, Davis took the hint and picked up his pace, giving us a little wave as his long legs took him farther down the road. I watched his back as he caught up with a few of the guys and grew more and more distant.

Soon, it was just Caleb and me, and suddenly I was aware of all the small noises. The gravel scratching beneath our feet, the clouds of gnats rising from the fields.

Caleb reached down and pulled something out of his tube sock, a folded-up piece of paper. He fumbled for words. I slowed down to listen to him, though I yearned to pick up the pace. Opening up the paper, he presented it to me like a precious parchment. "Would you... go to the prom with me?" he asked. My eyes finally made sense of the words on the pink paper: details of the spring formal dance at his high school. Both he and Davis were a year older than me, and unlike Davis, Caleb didn't attend my high school, but one in the next town, just north on the Susquehanna River.

For months, the three of us had played out a similar dynamic. A small parade, Davis in the lead, then me, with Caleb tagging behind. But on that gravel road, as Davis grew smaller and disappeared on the other side of a small hill, I realized I'd never catch him.

Against my better judgment, I told Caleb yes.



Me in my pink prom dress

Even though I wasn't terribly enthused about my date, I was somewhat excited about attending my first formal dance. My mom and I went shopping at the local mall, and I managed to find a dress in our budget that possessed every bit of '80s fashion flair: puffy shoulder ruffles, lace at the neck, and a poufy skirt in a shiny pastel-pink fabric.

On the night of the prom, Caleb arrived to pick me up in a white tux with a shiny pink vest to match my dress. He gave me a wrist corsage of little pink flowers with white baby's breath, and my mom took a bunch of pictures in the front hallway. I looked miserable in all of them.

Caleb ushered me to the car, a four-door Buick he'd likely borrowed from his parents, and chattered enthusiastically as we drove to the prom site, a local banquet hall. I had trouble participating in the conversation, not because my heart wasn't in it but because he kept veering dangerously close to the center line, putting me on edge. He didn't smell like alcohol, so maybe he was just very, very nervous.

The venue was festooned with decorations and backdrops that completely transformed it into a glittering cityscape, which to us country bumpkins seemed romantic. Or would have, if I'd been there with someone who made my spine tingle, instead of someone who left me feeling indifferent.

We got our prom portraits taken, and he got me some punch, then introduced me to his friends. A group of us took over a white-clothed round table, and the evening started to turn around. Whereas Caleb bored me with practically every word out of his mouth, his friends were charming. I warmed to a bouffant-haired girl who was so bubbly she was the personification of an '80s prom dress. She and I spent much of the evening making conversation, determining we had a lot in common. More, unfortunately, than I seemed to have with sports-loving Caleb.

Every once in a while, I accepted Caleb's invitation to dance, and we awkwardly shuffled around the floor, in two-footed '80s slow dance style. His hands rested lightly on my waist, trembling. I stared around the room, taking in the decorations, not a bit interested in staring into his eyes.

By the time he drove me home, still veering occasionally towards the center line, even Caleb could figure out what was happening. "Are you all right?" he asked, words he probably meant to sound considerate, but which betrayed a smidgeon of annoyance.

"Yes," I said. "I'm just tired. It was a long night."

We drove most of the way to my house in silence.

Caleb walked me to my door, where I deigned to give him a chaste kiss. Even he couldn't be fooled into trying for another and trudged back to his car, shoulders slumped.

I didn't need to worry about Caleb asking me out again.


I should have learned from that experience, but Caleb was only the first of several guys I half-heartedly dated in high school and college. They fit a pattern: humorless nice guys whom I found bland but tolerable. In almost all cases, I ended up bonding more quickly with their friends or roommates, although I wasn't enough of a cad to date any of those people. But I also wasn't kind enough to break things off in person, or even at all. Instead, I had a bad tendency to ghost people, before that was even a slang term. I'd stop answering calls, make excuses when asked to go out, and they'd eventually take the hint and slouch away.

Meantime, I continued chasing unattainable guys whom I found attractive, funny and exciting, making a mess of all those romantic attempts but somehow, luckily, managing to retain most of them as friends.

Ten years later, I was visiting my dad the year I married my first husband, and as he liked to do, Dad got me caught up on the local news. Never good at social niceties, Dad blurted out, "Did you hear that Caleb died?"

"No!" I exclaimed, feeling a stronger pang than I would have expected.

He produced a recent newspaper clipping, published the day after Christmas. Caleb had died in a car accident not far from his home. Well, he was a bad driver, I thought, then reprimanded myself. Reading the obituary, I learned that he'd just celebrated his one-year wedding anniversary. The news of his eventual romantic happiness made me feel both a little better and a whole lot worse. He hadn't enjoyed his happy ending for very long.

I remembered that long-ago, terribly dull prom date, realizing only then that I was partially to blame. Caleb had deserved someone who really wanted to be his date, who would have enjoyed the evening and shared his quavering nerves about making the right moves. I should have been honest with him from the start.
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Happy Birthday Wishes for KFP

My son, who goes by the online nickname KFP, will be celebrating his 10th birthday soon. This would have been a big party year, but instead we've moved his celebration online.

When I first sought suggestions for how to celebrate his birthday in this unusual time, someone suggested that I ask people to send him cards or letters. I think what he'd appreciate even more than that would be to read comments, view virtual e-cards, photos, animations or artwork shared with him online.

I'm going to take these comments and images and incorporate them into a birthday slide show for him.

If you'd like to wish him a happy birthday, you can do so in the comments on this post. Thanks!
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LJI 11 Week 23: "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn"

This is my entry for Week 23 of LJ Idol (therealljidol). We chose partners this week, and mine was kittenboo. You can find her entry here: https://kittenboo.livejournal.com/408867.html.

"If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn"

My final grad school year, I made
a choice. Declined an offer
to continue as an English instructor, for life
on the road. To write, you must live,
I felt. And so, we embarked, my dream-eyed
first husband and I.

Made a choice, to stow boxes
in Mom’s attic (some to stay
until she died). And to crisscross
mountain paths, sticking to small
blue lines on the map. We wanted
to see the world we passed through,
not just blurred freeways.

Each day, consulting our map,
we’d find a college: wash up
in locker rooms, check email
on library computers. Wander
the campus like wild-eyed
prospects, then find
parks, or monuments,
or walking tours in the area.
Anything free.

And so I made a choice, to spend
that summer, first meeting up
with other hippies at
the Rainbow Gathering
in Missouri, then
snaking up the Mississippi. We
happened through Hannibal
just in time for Mark Twain Days. Walked
the paths of his books. Kids
parading down the street
in prairie skirts, dungarees.

Watched the fireworks over
the Mississippi River.

We visited the Field
of Dreams, pristine
baseball field swallowed by corn,
the two-thirds size house front.
If you build it, they will come.

And I made a choice to continue,
skirting Minneapolis, stopping
in Duluth, Bob Dylan’s hometown.
Beautiful buildings with covered
raised walkways, for winter. A sunny
walk past old, ornate houses. The lake wind
gave me a summer cold.

As we wound north, locals
became taciturn. Mosquitoes pursued us,
seeking our blood through air vents
in my Ford pick-up truck, Red Arrow.

At Canada’s border, customs agents
held us to examine our gear. Made us sign
a paper relinquishing fireworks
given to us by young guys
in Mississippi on Independence
Day. Taking a nap in a park
in Thunder Bay, being awakened
by a police officer. Move it along.

Then the bear, who’s already had
her own poem, who broke into our truck
as we camped in rough woods. Taking
our bread and everything she could carry
for her cubs as we cowered.

In Canada, the dream broke. I
awoke and made a choice
to stop running on empty through
the wilderness. No more
sleeping in the truck, living
like ciphers, unobtrusive and
constantly moving. I made
a choice to reenter
the daily drab. Apartment
lease, pizza job. Near home,
near family. Certainty.

(And though I didn’t know it,
divorce. Years of bad love.
A series of circuits, snapping
together to this better future.)

A choice I made, that set
the rest of my life in motion.
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LJI Week 22 Write-off: The Snake

This is my sudden-death write-off entry for Week 22 of LJ Idol (therealljidol, which is an open topic. I had no idea this morning what I wanted to write about, and then the idea found me.


Black Race snake, photo by Peggy Bragg

Sometimes you find the snake, and sometimes the snake finds you. Groggy, the gray day compounding my morning disillusions, I aimlessly scroll through my social media feed when, bam! A brutal S-curve fangs a grin at me from a friend's feed. My friend spotted the harmless Black Racer snake scrawling across her sidewalk, so she snapped its picture and skedaddled. Most people probably wince and keep scrolling, but in my poor brain, the snake stays.

A figurative snake. A memory snake. Snuggled in my brain crevices for 23 years, only to swirl back up with a moment I'd rather not write about. But sometimes, as I said, the snake finds you.

On a sweltering summer afternoon in the late '90s, my ex-husband and I have driven to a little shop along the Susquehanna River, near Harrisburg. I've parked in the empty gravel parking lot, which should have been an indication the specialty food store (Book store? New Age art shop?) is closed.

This rarely happens, even in dreams, but I see myself from outside my body, my hair long and wavy with frizzled split ends, wearing the faded burgundy peasant shirt with the loose elastic wrists from continually pushing it up to the elbows, a breezy drawstring skirt and Teva sandals on my dusty feet, walking across the lot.

As the figure that is me returns to my red Ford Ranger pick-up with the white cap, christened Red Arrow, my husband crouches down to look at something in the gravel. Skinny and tall, his dark hair hanging down past his shoulders, he is wearing the threadbare purple madras shorts I gave him when they no longer fit me, and some sort of an oversized white T-shirt (they always hung from his shoulders to billow like a flag over his impossibly petite waist).

"What are you doing?" I ask, knowing better. Too often, his actions make no sense to me. Compulsions, I believe. A spiritual sort of OCD, which more and more often has become disruptive.

"Shh!" he says. "Don't scare it."

I finally focus on the shape in front of him: a pure black snake. No expert, I have no idea what kind it is, only that it's not a rattlesnake, the most common venous snake in Pennsylvania, which any hiker or nature lover should be able to identify. I'm also certain it's not the second most common venomous snake, a copperhead, which I saw once, beheaded by a shovel by a friend's father.

"Back away and it will go its own way," I tell him, repeating the advice given to me by my father about the harmless garter snakes that would sometimes surprise us by darting across the sleepy country road on which I grew up.

"No," he says. "I don't want it to go away. I think I'm meant to take it with me."

In the middle of a muggy Susquehanna summer, my blood chills. "No," I tell him. "We can't."

He gestures to the empty truck bed, which we had slept in, with way too much gear, while traveling up the Mississippi after marrying, just a few months ago. But now, it is like a giant, red empty box. All our gear has been offloaded into the odd second-floor apartment with the sinewy hall that we rented near my hometown when I insisted in getting off the road before we ran out of money. I've taken a job as a pizza delivery driver, quick money while I look for something better.

The truck bed is empty, yes, but not a snake crate. I imagine him scooping the snake up, the animal flailing in fear, perhaps lashing out. And if not, slithering in a panic, all over the bumpy black rubber mat, as we drive back home. Then what? How do you get a terrified snake out of a giant empty metal box without one of you getting hurt?

"Absolutely not," I tell him. By this point in our relationship, I've accepted a lot. His nightly compulsion to sing a song outside about our love: endearing at first, but now inconvenient, to say the least. The way he has to retrace his steps to wherever he had a bad thought, to exorcise it. The food offerings, laid beneath trees, even when we were on the road and only had a small meal to share. Other offerings: the silver forks my grandfather gave me, diminishing in the drawer as I keep finding them outside, gifts to the nature gods.

My disassociation wants to cloud this memory over, pull me back from the moment. That excruciating neverland, our mental battle. He pleads with me, as if he knows that the snake is his spiritual savior, as if it can cure him. So certain. Me, I only know that I will not consent to making bad outcomes possible.

I climb into the driver's side, and the slamming door makes the snake skittle away as my husband wails. Futilely, he chases it, but it escapes into the long grass. Finally, he climbs dejectedly into Red Arrow, and we drive home.

Between us, a chill so palpable I feel goosebumps. It will not be the last, or most dramatic, such battle, but it is the moment both of us know how our marriage will end. At least I saved the snake.
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LJI 11 Week 22: Spirit House, A Way of Unbecoming

This is my entry for Week 22 of LJ Idol (therealljidol), where the topic is "Hiraeth," which is a Welsh word that means homesickness, yearning, and longing, or "a longing to be where your spirit lives."


West Milton in 1919. A somewhat blurry collection of little white houses
with some larger boarding houses in the foreground. In approximately the center of the photo
is a blurry indentation where my house would later stand.

Recently, I came across a panoramic photograph of my hometown in 1919 (Milton, Pennsylvania, panoramic view, 1919). With trembling hands, I used the controls to sweep west, across the Susquehanna River, to the little village where I grew up, West Milton. Spotting the simple slanted roof and modest steeple of the church I attended, St. Paul's U.C.C., my eyes swept up the little road we used to walk down every Sunday, and then westward along Highland Avenue to the middle of the street.

My childhood home did not yet exist. I saw merely a slightly blurry indent of fields. Nor did the homes that flanked us on either side, that filled up a full street of evenly-spaced little bungalows.

No hint, either, of the trees we called "the woods," which were really a sort of large fencerow between the homes and the fields beyond. The woods we explored, memorized on internal maps to find the most fascinating locations, like the little creek where we tried to fish with corn on a stick, or the abandoned 1930s car in an indentation, pockmarked with bullet holes that gave us a frisson when we played nearby.

None of it (except presumably the creek) yet existed. And for some reason, I exhaled.

To wind backwards, past the freshly-renovated house I visit in dreams (though even there, I'm aware our family no longer owns it). Back through the muddled despair as my siblings and I struggled to weed out the clutter we'd suddenly inherited from our mother. Back through the time we stopped visiting, when her dog began to frighten us with his sudden attacks at the door as anyone arrived.

Further back, to chats on the porch swing, her taking me to my old bedroom, now her art studio, to show me her most recent works. The dismal days I stayed on her pullout couch, after my first marriage broke up, sneaking drinks of Jaegermeister I kept next to the stereo in the built-in cabinet, and listening to a John Lennon album each night, just to get to sleep.

Then further, to the three weeks my first husband and I stayed in my childhood room, after a misguided vision quest for the first month of our marriage. And then, a short time after, after we'd moved out, to the weekly meals at her house, where she always welcomed us, whether expecting us or not.

Back to college and grad school, when I no longer lived there but still used it as a home address. Mom would pile up mail on the wooden mantlepiece for me, mostly things I didn't care about, anyway. How odd it felt, cramping myself into my old room with the double canopy bed, too big for the space, the white glossy dressers with a painted rose pattern; the matching kid-sized desk. My father still can't understand why I didn't take all that furniture after her death. I merely have one dresser, which I'd claimed years ago and taken from place to place for more than a decade.

I tried to tell him, I don't have space for it all. Only for what really matters: the family photographs, the tubs full of her artwork, things like that.

I don't have space for the old box fan that sat in my bedroom window on summer nights, because my part of the house had no air conditioning. I'd wake up in the wee hours to turn it off when it grew too cold. I could hear the far-off train, passing through with a mournful cry that, to me, was comforting.

The dreams I had, looking through those lacy pink-trimmed white curtains, over the rolling foothills to the south (now festooned with oversized McMansions). I have room for those memories, but not everything. Not for those curtains, even if they were still in good condition.

To keep every item that held a memory in that house, I'd have to rent out several storage spaces. To fill them with bicycles, ridden successively at different ages, still stored in the garage. Or even my most painful denial: the upright grand Leonard & Co. piano, made in 1881, rescued by my grandfather from a curbside trash pickup. But now, after years of neglect (and cats), it was no longer worth saving. I can only hold onto the memory of all the nights I played that piano, after dinner, alone in the dining room with the stained glass chandelier, the china cupboard full of glassware, and the family Bible (which I did keep).

I want to unburden myself of guilt. To slip backwards even further, to my childhood playing Barbie dolls with my friend on the gold velvet loveseats in our more formal "living room," to be differentiated from the "family room" in the back of the house, with the giant cabinet TV and the wall lined with inset shelves, crammed full of books.

Backwards, to afternoons spent with my brother in that family room, using wooden blocks to create the outlines of a neighborhood on top of the heavy dark wood coffee table, where we'd place Fisher Price plastic furniture and play out stories with Fisher Price people.

My little sister, my favorite toy at the time, a red-faced bundle in a faded green pram that might have been an antique. I remember worrying that Mom would accidentally let go of her on our walks down our quiet street, and she'd go bouncing down the steep hill to the more trafficked streets below. I think I even asked her what would happen if she did so.

Or back even further, to my parents showing us the house, trying to interest us in it. I was initially unimpressed. "It doesn't have a stage," I told them, referring to the landing that connected the front rooms with the living room in our apartment above my Dad's medical office. On that wide, flat stage, I would perform to a captive audience of parents or their friends who'd come to visit.

My dad showed me the landing at the bottom of the steps, but it was much too small, with no seating area. Then he showed me my room, upstairs. It had violet walls, with an accent wall in a purple and white floral wallpaper that I adored. Immediately, I wanted to move, announcing that would be my room. (It had no heat, either, so I had to keep my door open in winter so that heat from my brother's radiator would come through the door.) My room became the only room my parents did not redecorate, because I would not give up my purple walls.

You could go back further, to the time when the previous family lived there, the Youngs. Back to the time when their three boys pressed their palm prints into the fresh cement on the sidewalk next to the porch, carving their names with a stick. My brother and I used to press our hands against those hand prints: at first, much bigger, then eventually, ridiculously small.

Or back even more, to the previous owner, an old woman by the time she passed away, I believe in what would become my brother's room. (At night, sometimes, he felt a presence. I never liked being in there in the dark. He would sleep with his blanket over his head, a form of protection.)

Was she the woman who called to me once, from the upstairs hallway in the middle of a bright afternoon? Just my name, spoken once, as if trying to get my attention. The voice sounded like a young woman. How long did she live there? Or did the voice, instead, pass through a seam in time, from when my sister called me from down the hall, as we both worked to salvage what we felt was most important? Or from some other, forgotten time? Or from myself, traveling back in memory to burst through reality with my own name?

Back, much further than that. Past the time when the simple wood-frame house was built, sometime in the 1920s. To a family perhaps standing on that little indent of land, making plans. Imagining it all, taking form inside their brains.

That blank slate, a green, blurry place of potential.