A friendly note to the gentleman who nearly killed me today. (Caution: Contains swearing.)

Dear Sir,

I can only assume that the text message that you were avidly sending was far more important than safely transporting yourself from point A to point B. (Where were you coming from, and where were you going? Home to work, and back again? Are there people that will miss you in either place? Are there people who would reject you if you had, as you nearly did, become a murderer?)

I am the woman in the red minivan – the Very Nice Mom – that you nearly murdered today. There were four kids in the car as well – Nice Children, all.

Look. You can’t pretend that you weren’t texting. You were. I know you were. I can see it a mile off. I can see the telltale swerve, the lack of spacial awareness, the sudden loss of speed control. I can tell by the ghastly pallor thrown upon your face by the tiny but powerful screen’s ghoulish glow. And really, that’s a blessing. Because I was ready for you.

Had I not been – had I not been prepared to employ my well-trained Jedi Mom Car Tricks (there are special schools. every mom in a minivan is well versed in how to turn their cars into physics-defying, futuristic bits of magic. But perhaps you knew this. Perhaps this is why you didn’t care to be safe.) – you surely would have slammed your sedan into the side of my car, sending me off the bridge. It nearly happened. Here is who you might have killed.

1. A Very Nice Mom. She bakes cookies and cooks excellent soup and welcomes strangers into her home and makes them feel welcome. She tells jokes and writes books and loves her neighbors and is loved in return.

2. Four Very Nice Kids. These kids, of course, both outnumber and outweigh the Very Nice Mom. They are precious – both to me, and to the world. And they should be precious to you. These kids are the ones who may restart your stopped heart on the operating table someday. Or invent the drug that restores your granddaughter’s sight. Or write the book that makes you believe in God again. Or marry your nephew. Or spoon soup into your withered lips during your last, waning days of life. But you don’t care about that. Your text, apparently, was far more important.

Look. I get it that you’re afraid – afraid of loneliness, afraid of inadequacy, afraid of irrelevancy. I understand your fears. There should be another fear at play though. Fear of assholery. Because make no mistake: you are a fucking asshole. I do hope that’s clear.

You went careening from one side of the freeway to the other as you went flying out of the cloverleaf entrance. You did not look. You did not care. You nearly killed us, but I was faster, smarter, and more nimble. Yay, me. What you did, sir, can only be classified as a dick move. And I hate you for it.

Look, you are not alone. There are other assholes. Hell, I counted eight on my drive home. But make no mistake. IF YOU TEXT AND DRIVE YOU ARE A FUCKING ASSHOLE. And if you harm another person while texting and driving, you are a fucking asshole forever. And I fear this is in the cards for you, sir. I mean, Dick.

Fuck you.



On Vanishing, Precious Things.

Lake Nokomis Beach, remaining its awesome self.

I had the best day today. I am sick with grief. Both are true.

It is Friday. I am covered in sand. And I am sunburnt. The sand will flow away down the drain and the sunburn will fade and fade. I am trying to hang onto something. This day. This afternoon. This sunlight and sand. Children in the water. The smell of sunblock. The screech of their voices. The shimmer of skin. Their hard-muscled bodies launching into the sky.

And I am getting ahead of myself.

My daughters left just before lunch to do a bible study with their grandpa (it is one of his great joys at this stage of his life: those two beautiful girls; the mysteries of the Universe bound in text and paper; the certainty of limitless love) and my son and I were left to our own devices. We had already had breakfast, made banana bread, explored the storm damage along the swollen creek and looked for frogs.

“I’m bored,” Leo said the second the girls left.

“Let’s walk to the beach,” I said.

He looked at the sky. It was still gray and damp with a little bit of post-storm chill lingering in the air. “Really?” he said. Then he shrugged, slid into his swimtrunks and we walked to the lake.

(I am trying to cling to something precious. I cannot hold on. It vanishes the moment my fingers clasp around it. I am grasping at smoke; I am trying to snag starlight with a string.)

We were the only ones there, save for three lifeguards who lounged on the grass reading novels. One sighed as we arrived, hoisted himself off his blanket and summited the guard chair. The sky was gray. The lake was gray. A mama duck shepherded her bright-tufted babies through a red-buoy obstacle course. Leo eased himself into the waves.

“It’s cold,” he complained.

“Come in if you’re cold,” I said.

“No. I like it.”

The water at his knees. His trunks. His belly button. The water lapping his shoulders, then his neck, and then he was swimming, every once in a while shooting me a gleam of teeth over the wave.

“Do you see me mom? Do you see me?” A spurt of water. A joyous splash.

Of course I see you. You’re the only kid here.

We planned to stay for an hour at most. But the sun came out and the day grew steamy. And then kids from the neighborhood showed up. Kids that I have known since they kicked in their watery worlds within their mothers expanding middles. Kids who I love as much as my own. And their mothers, who I also love.

An hour became two.

Then three.

Then three and a half.

The children covered themselves in mucky sand. They wrestled in the mud and grass. They washed themselves new and clean in the water. They swam out to the diving dock and plunged into the deep again and again. They were bright birds, slippery fish, creatures made of fire and water and star. They were magic things.

Do you see me?

Of course I see you. You have swallowed the Universe. My eyes are your eyes and my skin is your skin and my heart is your heart. It will be so until you go into the wild world and leave me behind.

(I am grasping at vanishing things. Each moment is like a bead of water on sun-soaked skin, each ghosted remains scattering like dusty pebbles on a dry, dry river bed.)

I smiled and waved and swallowed a sob.

On the walk home, he took one step for every two of mine. He was barefoot, shirtless, holding his towel to his shoulders like a cape.

He asked about different kinds of rocks. He wanted to know the difference between a paleontologist and an archaeologist (he wants to be both when he grows up). He told me the story about a flying dog who fights crime and who shows up in his dreams most nights. He wondered about june bugs. He wanted to know if he could go to college with his two best friends. He wondered if it was possible to hold your breath for a year.

We scanned the sidewalk for lost pennies and priceless artifacts. We estimated the weight of dinosaur bones. I rested my palm on his thistledown head. He let me keep it there. He smelled of sun and algae and sunblock and boy.

“Did you have a good day, buddy?” I asked.

“I had the best day.”

“The very best?”

“Of course. I always have the very best day. Don’t you?”

I wound my hand in his hand and held on tight.

“I do believe I do, buddy,” I said.

And I swallowed a sob.

In which I discover that my job has Downsides.


Extreme caveat: If you are a writer and happen to have a kid or two running around the house, you may want to skip this post. Hell, I lived through it and I kinda want to skip this post.

My son’s second grade teacher returned to work after her maternity leave last week. I’m thrilled about it – which is not to say that I didn’t like the substitute. I did. But oh! I really like this teacher. My daughter had her as well in second grade, and I think she is rainbows and poppy fields and fairy wings. She leaves a trail of glitter wherever she goes. She is wonderful.

So, to welcome her back, I stuck a little care package in Leo’s backpack (a nice pen, yummy candies, note cards, etc.) and stuck in a copy of Iron Hearted Violet to add to her class library for good measure. I figured most of the kids in the class are too young for it, but she has a couple of students who are tearing their way through the Harry Potter books who would be ready for Violet. Plus, she already had Mostly True Story of Jack in her classroom library, so might as well have the two, right? I put both things into the backpack, but one came back again. Leo gave her the care package, but not the book.

So I asked him about it.

“I’m not going to give it to her,” he said. He didn’t look at my face. He shoved his hands into his pocket and looked at the ground.

“Okay,” I said. “You don’t have to. But I’m curious. Why not?”

He started walking in a circle. My daughters who were both reading their books on the couch looked up. Tight mouths. A grimace hiding in the crinkles around their eyes.

“I don’t want her to know my mom is a writer,” he said. The girls sighed as one. I looked back at them, and they instantly buried their faces back in their books. I turned back to Leo.

“Why?” I said.

“Because, ” he said. He still didn’t want to look at me.

“Do you know that she already knows I’m a writer. She has all of my nonfiction books too. And Jack. Why does it matter if she has Violet?”

“Well,” Leo said. “Maybe she forgot. She probably forgot. So I’m not gonna tell her again.”

I looked back at the girls. They held their books rigid, without turning the pages. “Girls,” I said. They did not respond. I pressed on. “Does it bother you when people know what I do for a living?”

The skin on Ella’s forehead wobbled and bunched, her lips crinkling up into a tight rosebud in the center of her face. “Ummm….” she began.

“It’s not that….” DeeDee said.

“I mean….” Ella faltered.

I raised my eyebrows. “It really bothers you that much?”

DeeDee nodded.

“Not regular people,” Ella clarified. “Regular people know what you do and it’s no problem because we can ignore them. And we do. But teachers?”

DeeDee gave a great, guttural sigh and slumped into the couch.

“Teachers think it’s extra cool. And they want to talk about it. And use their overly-excited teacher voices and get all breathy and stuff and they say things like ‘Oh your mother is a writer and oh that must be so wonderful for you and oh excuse me while I raise my expectations for you forever.”

“They think things about us,” DeeDee said. “Wrong things.

“It’s annoying,” Leo said.

“It’s awful,” Ella said.

“It’s the worst,” concluded DeeDee.

“And they don’t know what it’s like,” Ella said. “They only see the book when it’s done, and they think, oh cool a book! And it’s true. The book is cool. But they don’t know the other parts that go with it. The moping and the whining and the long nights.”

“And crying,” DeeDee added. “Sometimes there’s crying.”

“And the You Being Gone.

“We hate it when you’re gone,” Leo said.

“And the clicking computer late at night and it wakes me up because I know you’re up,” DeeDee said.

“And the muttering. And the emails. And the emails with muttering. And don’t even get me started on Twitter,” Ella said.

“I hate Twitter,” Leo said.

“And then we have to like the book. And, like, what if we don’t?” DeeDee said.

“You don’t have to like it, sweetheart,” I said. “That has never been a rule. You don’t even have to read it.”

“And we’re proud of you,” Ella continued, “but most people just think that writers just print a book out of their computers and viola. But we know all the other stuff that goes with it. And it is not all good stuff.”

I must have looked rather aghast, because the kids all looked at one another and started to backtrack.

“But we really love you, mom,” Ella assured me, and hugged me. And the other children hugged me too. They kissed my hands and nuzzled my face and told me I was a Good Mom, Mostly – which is all I’ve ever aspired to be. Every day, I try to maximize the Mostly.

And then I made soup. And tried to quell the Dark Thoughts in my soul.

And here’s the thing. This job is hard. It’s hard on us, and it’s hard on the people who love us. We love the characters in our stories; we worry about them, fuss over them and mourn them when they die. We fashion a world for them to live in, and we labor and sweat to heave huge elements together, to slide whole continents into place and hang the stars in their firmaments and conjure storms and mountains and wide oceans and the vastness of space; we build families and dynasties and nations; lust, joy, betrayal, consequences, and mad, mad, true love. We invent histories and intimacies and broken hearts. We walk on the backs of teeming schools of fish and allow ourselves to be devoured by wolves and consult oracles and, when we are stuck, we offer our dinner to a beggar and hope for the best.

And then – then! We are buffeted by things we cannot control – reviews, marketing campaigns, sales executives and librarians. We experience failure. We experience defeat. We are elated, then crushed; we sink and then we soar – sometimes in a single afternoon. And we don’t get to experience the one thing that drives us to the page every day. We do not get to witness the child that pulls our book off the shelf. We do not get to see the world that we hinted at uncurling from their brain. We do not get to bear witness to the imagination of the reader at work. Our book is our proxy. And we pray that it is enough.

My job is hard on my kids. It is hard on my husband. It is hard. It is not the only job in the world for which this is true. Lots of us have hard jobs – and we do them with real commitment and love. We do them because we are called, or we believe in the work, or because of necessity. For whatever the reason, we balance the needs of our family and the needs of our work, and it is not always perfect. We do our best, and we do a mostly good job.

Later that night, I laid down with Leo and asked him if he wanted another chapter of Watership Down.

“Not tonight, mom,” he said. “I want one of your stories. And mine. The kind of story that we tell together.”

“Okay,” I said. “What’s in this story?”

“A boy, and a mom, and a monster that lives in a swamp,” he said.

“Does the monster quote poetry?” I asked.

“All monsters quote poetry,” Leo said. “Ask anyone you like.”

And so we began.

Nerd Mom Is Nerdy

I was a total fraud the other day. A baldfaced, unabashed, dirty, rotten liar.

My daughter, DeeDee – my rockin and rollin little intellectual, type-A punkster, really wanted to dye her hair pink for the summer. Since I am equipped to deny this child exactly nothing, I acquiesced. I figured, the poor child spends most of the year in a school uniform, where brazen earring-wearing and glittery nail-painting and eye-shadow sporting are forbidden. In the summer, I thought, let the child go nuts.

So I went to the beauty supply store, looking for the long-term temporary dyes – the ones that slowly come out over twenty washes or so – and we talked about which ones were least likely to cause irritation or harm.

“Is this for you?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “It’s for my nine-almost-ten-year-old. She’s super rad.”

“Oh!” she said, clutching her hands to her heart. “You’re Cool Mom! I love Cool Mom! I want to be Cool Mom someday!”

And I smiled and basked. God help me! I basked! It felt so good!

“Um,” said my son. “No she isn-”

“Shh!” I said.

“What?” the girl asked.

“Nothing!” I said, my voice overly bright and brittle as broken glass. “We’d better be off.”

“But mom-”

“Off we go!”

I slapped my hand over his mouth and continued to bask (just keep saying it! I wanted to shout. Say it and say it a million times and then it will be true!) as we hustled out the door. I needed to keep the kid quiet. Because Leo knew – he knew!

“Hush, boy!” I hissed as we scuttled into the blazing heat of the sun-baked parking lot.

“But mom!” Leo said.

“Can it.”

But he was right. I am not Cool Mom.  I wish I was Cool Mom. But I am not, and I never will be. I am Nerd Mom.

Or maybe I’m Dork Mom. The semantics of Nerd vs. Dork always confuse me, and the fact that I have spent any time at all trying to parse out the nuances of meaning between nerd and dork confine me forever to both.


Today, while Ella was volunteering at the local library and DeeDee (pink hair and all) was at two different camps, and Leo, after doing his little golf camp at the municipal golf course, was on his own for the rest of the day. So he and I went to Fort Snelling, and did what all history nerds do when visiting historical sites:

Folks, it was some hard core nerding.

My seven year old son had several in-depth chats with historically cosplayed volunteers in the wheelwright shop and the blacksmith shop and doctor’s office and the kitchens.

“Hmm,” he said, eyeing a nail that was out on a display at the blacksmith’s shop, “I thought the nails were supposed to be square in those days. Why is this one round?”

“Oh,” the smithy said, somewhat embarrassed.

“Your display isn’t right,” Leo chided.

“That’s not supposed to be there.” He pocketed the nail and grinned at the other adults in the room. “Cute kid,” he said.

“I’m not cute,” Leo said. “I’m right.”

Later at the bake shop, Leo and I had Serious Questions about yeast. “People think yeast is bugs,” Leo told the lady, “but it is not bugs.” 

We went into the soldier’s barracks and an actor was showing another child the mechanisms comprising his firearm. Leo put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You shouldn’t touch the hammer. It’s made of flint and it will cut your finger right to the bone.”

The actor was taken aback. “How did you know that, son?”

“Ummm,” I said, not wanting to get into the story of how Leo, at four, had snatched one of those guns (which are heavy, by the way) and ran outside with it, laughing all the while. A guy dressed as the general chewed him out and explained in graphic detail the many things that could injure him forever and ever. I don’t know if it was the graphic nature of the descriptions or the fact that he was in a general’s outfit that did the trick, but the lecture made an impression on Leo.

I looked at the ground and not at the pretend soldier’s eye. “I think we read it in a book somewhere.”

We then went to the general store and Leo explained to an old man all about the manufacture of tobacco.

It was in this moment that I realized that I have permanently ruined my children. My weird obsessions with odd details and obscure facts, my insistence on looking up every dang thing that ever crosses my mind? These things are part of my kids’ psyches. They remember the weird things I’ve told them about ship building and agriculture and government. They remember odd facts about astronomy and transpiration and the role of blue-green algae in the ocean’s ecosystem.

After leaving the Fort, we stopped at the library to return some books and grab some new ones, and also to share a story before we headed across town to pick up DeeDee. Ella was in there somewhere, setting things up, but we hadn’t seen her yet. Leo and I sat down on the floor, with a gorgeously illustrated copy of Melville’s Moby Dick spread out in front of us, as well as one of my favorite books of all time – The Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. We also found a book on the history of ship building. Leo was terribly interested in the boats that had been retrofitted to be able to navigate through ice. He leaned into the pages.

“So,” he said. “It’s oak planks, then tar, then iron. But doesn’t the water get through the iron?” We looked at the descriptions of seam sealing and we imagined the terrible fear that sailors must have had on those whaling ships, surrounded by an enraged, icy ocean with no help possible. We imagined being unleashed into the world on a desperate, futile, and morally questionable task.

Then we heard a gasp.

“MOM?” Ella said, her face positively green.

“Hi, honey!” I said, waving.

She stalked over. “Don’t hi me,” she hissed. “There are people that I know here.”

“Well-” I said.

“And here you are.”


Nerding in public! UGH!”

And she stalked away.

Leo looked at me and patted my back. “Secretly,” he said. “She likes her nerd mom.” He grinned. “And so do I.”


Yesterday, I had to take The Boy ™ to the eye doctor to check on some tracking issues that were making reading a struggle. The good news is that he doesn’t need glasses nor does he need any kind of therapy. The bad news is that the reason why he gets so physically exhausted when he reads is that his whole body is working to keep his eyes in alignment.

“Since he’s able to keep his eyes pointing parallel on his own,” the doctor said, “then he is doing exactly what he needs to be doing to train his muscles. Give him lots of praise when he reads, make sure he knows that he’s tired because his body has to work extra hard, but with daily practice he’ll get stronger and stronger, and opt for bigger type and books with pictures for now, and don’t be in such a hurry to put the kid in chapter books. Let him be a kid. With kids books.”

Then he paused and thought about that for a moment.

“Have you noticed,” he continued, “that there are some AMAZING children’s books out lately?”

Why yes, I said, a faint smile on my mouth. I may have noticed a thing or two about it. And I may know a few of the folks making those amazing stories, but that’s another post.

Anyway, Leo, after a long day of eye tests and exercises, performed admirably and with distinction. I was honestly bracing myself all day for the moment that he crawled into the duct work, or reduced a hundred-grand-pricetag bit of equipment to smithereens. Or called the therapist lady a poop-head. Or whatever. But no. He was a perfect gentleman – conversational, gentle, serious, with a couple well-placed jokes that were actually funny. It was as though someone took my child and replaced him with somebody else’s perfect child.

Anyway, we headed back to school in the middle of the day. I parked the car, took his hand and walked across the parking lot. A classroom window pushed open and a kid’s head popped out.

“LEO’S MOM!” the kid yelled.

“Yes?” I called back.


I looked down at Leo, who shrugged back at me. “Well,” I called back. “That’s what it looks like.”

I could hear a teacher’s voice in the background saying step away from that window at once young man. But the kid persisted.


And before I could say to the doctor the kid yells “LEO’S MOM ARE YOU GOING TO VISIT OUR CLASS.” And then two hands grabbed the kid’s shoulders and pulled him out of sight.

We went into the building and a group of first graders were walking down the stairs.





I smiled at them and continued to the office. There was a kid sitting on a chair with a huge bandage on his knee.


Another kid was leaving with her mom.


I signed Leo in and walked down the hall to his class. I saw a kid with a bathroom pass – one of my first graders on my Lego League team.

“HI LEGO LADY!” The kid said, running over and giving me a hug. “I MEAN LEO’S MOM!”

And a realized a few things.

1. My son has made me famous.

2. My son, being the loudest human in the world, has trained the kids in his school to be just as loud as he is.

3. The rest of the school, assuming that I must be quite deaf at this point, feel the need to shout at me to make sure I can hear them.

4. Because my son is fun, they assume that I am fun as well.

This last one, alas, is a fallacy. Just ask my kids. I am not fun at all. I am the enemy of fun. This was told to me last night – at bedtime – with great enthusiasm, with gusto and relish. “Mom,” my kids informed me. “You are the fun-killer.”

Still, to these kids at school, I bear the fun of my son on my forehead like a seal. I am the Fun-Bringer. I am LEO’S MOM.

(so there)

The Barnhill Family’s Disaster In the BWCA: A Tale of Love, Loss, Heartbreak and Redemption

All right, maybe “disaster” is too strong a word. It wasn’t a disaster. It was almost a disaster. Very, very almost.

First of all, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should warn you off the bat that if you are the sort of person to be deeply troubled by stories of Cute and/or Beloved Domestic Animals In Peril, then you should stop reading right now. I actually started this post a while ago, but I couldn’t bring myself to finish it until we had a better sense of my dog’s prognosis.

I couldn’t write this when I honestly thought she was going to die.

Unfortunately, it’s still an open question. She’s definitely on the upswing, and after what she’s been through, she looks fantastic. Still. We could still get Very Bad News next week, so I’m just hanging on to each precious day, and feeling grateful for it. Gratitude, I’ve found, is a powerful thing. Very powerful, indeed.

In any case, my dog is super old, super gnarly, and is, as far as I can tell, made of cast-iron. We’ve had more scares than I can count with her, and every time she comes out of it astonishingly healthier than she was before. She had a brain event a while ago when she lost control of her limbs. We thought that was it. She got better. She ate a dead fish and got a terrible salmonella infection that the vet said would have killed any other dog on earth. Not Harper. She has eaten, digested, and shat batteries without even a stomach ache. She’s tough, smart, and fiercely loyal to us. She’s the greatest dog on earth, and I’m speaking in entirely empirical terms here.

Anyway, here’s the story:

We piled the family (two parents, three kids and a dog) in our extra-long, Kevlar canoe, along with backpacks and Duluth packs, and slid into the wilderness.
The Boundary Waters, as usual was exquisitely beautiful. It was greener than in recent years due to heavy snows and consistent (persistent?) rains, the rivers were plump and high, the lakes lousy with fish, and wildlife scurrying in every direction. It was also, however, lousy with bugs. Massive swarms of the biggest mosquitoes I’ve ever seen in my life crowded the air, divebombed our eyes, invaded our noses and mouths and assaulted our skin. It was a mosquito invasion, a mosquito apocalypse, a mosquito Plague from a very pissed-off God. We cowered and wailed and begged for forgiveness, but received no succor. We learned later that we’re having a banner year for mosquitoes this year. So that’s great.

Now here’s the thing about camping: even when it sucks, it’s great. It was cold, drizzly, and windy. The kids work hard, we work hard and it’s awesome. One of the things about being outside from the moment you wake up to the moment you crawl into the tent. is that you become incredibly good at noticing things. We notice the shine of the clouds on the water. We notice the wiggly shadow of a beaver as it slides just under the skin of the waves and disappears into the weeds. We notice the rhythms in our own bodies, and the rhythms in one another. We anticipate one another better, respond better, listen better. When we’re in the woods, we operate better as a family.

And there was one thing that both my husband and I noticed: Harper was slowing down. We knew it would happen, of course. Some day. In the future. Harper was sixteen after all. At least. She came into our lives in the fall of 1998, and the vet said she was between three and six back then. And after all these years, she never showed a hint of ever slowing down. She went running with me, chased squirrels and rabbits, and was a general spaz.


This year.

This year she lagged.

This year she slowed.

This year, instead of leaping into the canoe and leaping out, she paused, planned, stumbled.

My husband and I watched her and worried. “This is probably her last year camping with us, ” we said over dinner. And we were sad about this. When Harper first came into our lives, we were a couple of idiot kids with no sense of direction, no plans, no lives. Harper made us into a family. And we never looked back.

On Saturday morning, the day we were supposed to leave, I woke up before everyone else, stumbled out of the tent, and realized that Harper was gone.

Like, completely gone.

I filled her food and water bowl, called for her, walked the trails that spidered away from the campsite before they vanished into the thick undergrowth, and found nothing. No tracks. No signs. We heard nothing in the night. The ground wasn’t disturbed. She just….. vanished.

Come back, come back, come back, my heart said. But she didn’t.

So, we couldn’t leave. Fortunately, we always pack an extra day and a half’s worth of food, because you never know if it’s just going to be too dangerous to paddle out. The weather can be changeable and dangerous, and it’s important to be prepared.

Also, one can lose one’s dog. And you can’t look – or weep – on an empty stomach.

For the rest of the day we looked. Ted bushwacked in three directions, calling her name, but heard nothing. We piled into the canoe and paddled along the jagged shore of the large lake, calling and calling, but nothing. We talked to other campers, but they had seen nothing, heard nothing.

Come back, come back, come back.

As the day waned, Ted and I tried not to look at each other. We tried to smile for the kids. We tried to keep them upbeat. We did our best to keep from crying, because we knew that any emotion we show, the kids will feel a thousand times over. “This sort of thing happens all the time,” we lied. “Harper’s a tough cookie. She always knows where we are. She’d never leave us for good, never.” That part had always been true….but what if it wasn’t?

Finally, we went back to the portage trail that we had hiked across to get to this particular lake in the first place. We figured, if she had run off chasing something and got turned around, she might have ended up on the trail, recognized the smell, and stayed put until we came back.

In retrospect, it wasn’t a great theory, but it was all we had.

It was an awful trail, thick with bugs and mud, and about a mile long. And while it was easier to do without Duluth packs on our backs and a canoe on our shoulders, our hearts weighed heavily inside us, and so it was a long, trudging slog. The only one among us with a spring in his stride was my son, Leo.

Leo the true believer.

Leo the ardent friend of his dog.

Leo, whose first language is Dog, who’s prime culture is Dog, who was – and I will admit this freely – raised by his dog.

Leo believed that we would get to the end of the trail, and his dog would be waiting for him. Leo believed that he would be exasperated but happy, and that the re-united family would trudge on back.

But Harper wasn’t there. Leo stood there for a moment, his damp breath punching in and out of his nose, before dropping his backpack to the ground, tilting his little face to the sky and letting out a long, brokenhearted wail.

And the girls cried.

And Ted cried.

And I cried.

Because there was no pretending anymore. There was no illusion of a happy ending. We had lost our dog. And lost her forever. We took one another’s hands and trudged back to the canoe.

Come back, come back, come back, our hearts thundered.

That evening, I made dinner. We sat on a log and told stories about Harper. I told them – though they heard it before – about how Harper showed up at our friend’s house, sick, scrawny, and desperate for love. I told them how Harper took care of Ella when she was a baby, herding her like a little lamb, keeping her near me as I desperately typed out my four-times-delayed Master’s thesis. We told them how Harper used to grab the leashes of other dogs and take them for walks.

“We love Harper,” the kids said.

“We know,” we said. “We love her too.”

Come back, come back, come back, in our breathing in and our breathing out, in our watering eyes, in our twitching lips, in our shaking hands.

In the middle of doing the dishes, we heard a sound – a high, bright howl. I thought it was a loon. Or a pack of loons. Loons aren’t in packs, I thought absently.

Ted leaped to his feet. “HARPER,” he called. That’s not Harper, I thought. It’s a pack of loons. “Harper,” he called as he turned on his heels and ran up the rocky knoll next to camp.

The howls pitched higher, and there were more of them. Coyotes? Wolves? It certainly sounded like more than one animal. The kids followed Ted, calling wildly for their dog.

“Harper, Harper, HARPER!”

About a third of a mile down the lake, Ted saw a scuffling in the scrub. Then the points of ears. Then a curled tail. Then our dog, scrambling out of the woods and into the water.

“Don’t take your eyes off her,” he told the kids. “Don’t let her out of your sight.” He ran down to the shore and leaped into the canoe, paddling like mad to our dog.

It was then that I started sobbing.

Ted carried her back to the campsite and we gathered around her. She was in rough shape. She had some puncture wounds around her snout and some cuts on her two back flanks. She didn’t want to put any weight on her back right leg. But the worst of it was a benign tumor on her front left leg – a tumor that the vet had told us was dangerous to remove at her age since older dogs don’t do well with surgery, and she couldn’t care less about it, so why bother. It had grown by quite a bit, was now irregularly shaped, and quite red. It oozed.

“She may not make it through the night,” Ted told me.

“I know,” I said. “And we may have to carry her on the portages home.”

“I know,” he said, and we both knew that we would happily carry her down a thousand portages, just to get her home again.

Harper is home now. And she’s doing great.

“This dog is built to heal,” our vet said. “She may even outlive us all.” And I believe it. She’s on antibiotics and they appear to be working. She’s eating and drinking and annoying the neighbors with her obsessive barking at All The Squirrels. She’s not out of the woods by any means. We still may find out that her tumor has outgrown its blood supply, that it’s now necrotic and will eventually kill her. That’s a possibility and I accept it.

Still, she’s home.

Still, she’s alive.

And I know I don’t get to keep her forever, and I know that her life has an expiration date, but by being grateful for today, I also have the opportunity for gratitude for every day. Gratitude, I think, is one of the great forces of the universe. We are much happier when we are saying thank you than when we are saying please. Gratitude anchors us in the world we are in, this moment, this experience, this life. When we are in a state of gratitude, we are most fully alive.

I am grateful that Harper’s okay.

I am grateful that she came into our lives.

I am grateful for the irrevocable shift that she precipitated in my life. I am grateful forever.

So this is my prayer right now: Thank you.

Into the Woods

Last year, I took my family into the wooded north of my fair State – to a wilderness area known around these parts as the Boundary Waters (officially the BWCAW, or Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness). If you’ve never been, you simply must. Ancient rocks, abundant wildlife, deep, cold lakes with some of the clearest water in the world. Moose. Eagles. Cougars. Wolves.

It’s magnificent.

We went sporadically when the girls were little, but ever since my son turned two, we’ve gone every year. And every year, we’ve come home saying, “Well, that was definitely our hardest year. Next year will be easier.”

We said that when Leo tried to lose himself on the portage.

We said that when he stabbed a hole in the tent with a stick.

We said that when he peed on my sleeping bag ….. on purpose.

We said that when he dumped boiling water on his feet – right before a huge storm, and we couldn’t leave.

And we said that last year, when, after using the latrine and accidentally dropping the hand sanitizer into its putrid depths, decided that he would be responsible. He would be useful. And he would be brave. So, my son – my irony-loving son – hooked his arm on the lip of the toilet, and lowered himself inside.

He returned to the campsite, up to his thighs in decomposing shit, proudly displaying the hand sanitizer.

Next year, Ted and I told ourselves with quavering voices and shaking hands. Next year will be easier.

And today, I believe it. Today, we venture into the woods.

There is a great poetry to the wilderness excursion. We go seeking……something. Peace. Riches. Serenity. Enlightenment. Adventure. Castles. Dragons. Enchanted Kings. And we re-emerge into our real lives indelibly changed.

Or the world that we left has shifted under our feet.

Or the universe we left is not the universe to which we return.

We go to the wood and survive in the wood and are changed by the wood. We become fairy tale, fable and myth.

Last year, when we were camping, I brought a notebook and wrote the opening chapters of my project Witless Ned and the Speaking Stones. Since then, I finished the book, and realized that Ned needed an accomplice – a girl named Aine.  Now I return to the story, again in longhand, and will restart the narrative while sitting on a rock, next to a groaning tree and a windy lake.

And you know, I’m rather excited about it.