Eat, Memory

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Thank you for the photo, Lori!

Last month, three girlfriends and I attended a dinner featuring dishes from Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook. The event, a labor of love co-hosted by Chef Shaun Heaslet of Harmons Bangerter Crossing Cooking School and Sheral Schowe of Wasatch Academy of Wine, paired five courses with five wines, each thoughtfully selected to highlight the terroir surrounding Keller’s renowned California restaurant.

At the dinner, I met a cowboy – not my first, but the most memorable thus far: a cattle rancher wearing a plaid shirt with pearly snap buttons, a worn brown leather belt, and faded Wranglers. He introduced himself as Spence and I told him my name in turn. He looked to be in his fifties, with tanned, wrinkled skin from years of working under the sun. We shook hands. It didn’t take long before he asked where I was from, to which I gave my usual response: “Everywhere.” His smile faltered, so I elaborated. “I grew up in Coney Island, but my dad and grandpa lived out West, so I spent most of my summers here… I’ve also lived in Arizona and Florida and…” Spence nodded, waited a beat, and said, “And that was what you hoped you wouldn’t have to tell me, right?”

*

Shortly before his death, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin published his manifesto, The Physiology of Taste: Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy. Brillat-Savarin’s essays and anecdotes explore taste and the senses, the elements of a proper culinary experience, and our responsibilities as diners. “The pleasures of the table are for every man,” he writes, “of every land, and no matter of what place in history or society; they can be a part of all his other pleasures, and they last the longest, to console him when he has outlived the rest.”

Every man and woman, I might add, with essays titled “Portrait of a Pretty Gourmand” (in “full-battle dress,” her eyes shining and gestures “full of grace”) and “Women Are Gourmandes.” I discovered long ago that I fall into his category of “predestined gourmand,” which is fortunate because he also classifies writers as those who benefit the most from good eating. My friends and I were there that night to eat well. It’s safe to say that we four lean toward indulging our sensual impulses, as was evidenced when we all fell wildly in lust with the evening’s tomato sorbet, and struggled bodily to refrain from licking our plates. Spence tried not to laugh.

And we would have gotten away with licking our plates if it wasn't for those other pesky diners! (Thanks for the picture, Casey.)

And we would have gotten away with licking our plates if it wasn’t for those other pesky diners! (Thanks for the picture, Casey.)

*

Spence charmed me by the first course. He turned to our group and asked, “Which one of you’s in charge here?” Casey raised two fingers and assumed the role of lead provocateur among the sixteen guests seated at the long, low-lit table. Spence did his best to keep pace, regaling us with decidedly non-PC jokes (about Mormons, minorities, and the blind, to name a few). His wife, Cindy, rolled her eyes; I suspect she’d heard the jokes a few times before, but the rest of us cackled. Casey tried valiantly to suppress repeated fits of giggles. By the third course, we were swapping pictures of the animals we love. He and Cindy showed us their pack of small dogs. “This one had one eye and was in bad shape when we got it,” he said, pointing to a brown toy poodle on his phone. “Rescue cost me $1200 bucks.” He grunted and mumbled, “Sweetest damn dog in the world.” Spence warned that he was hard of hearing, yet chuckled when we mimicked his “I can’t hear you” gestures. Cindy egged us on.

*

At the start of each course, Sheral provided her own stories and experiences with the wine she’d chosen, giving us a relatable sense of the geography and environment in which the grapes grow and are harvested, and sharing the provenance of the wines and winemakers themselves. We sniffed and swirled our glasses, pausing to observe the flavor of each wine and noting with pleasant shock and delight the changes evinced by our senses of smell and taste working in tandem.

Perhaps because we were so immersed in each sip, so intently focused on each sumptuous bite, I started to feel a little uneasy thinking about other meals I’ve eaten. I could tell you what I ate for breakfast, but could I draw a mental image of it? What did it smell like? How did the first bite taste? Was it as good as the last bite? Sheral’s sonorous voice drew me back into the moment, but my inner Brillat-Savarin clucked, Exactement. “In eating,” he writes, “we experience a certain special and indefinable well-being, which arises from our instinctive realization that by the act we perform we are repairing our bodily losses and prolonging our lives.” I resolved to pay closer attention to that which sustains me.

*

Though Brillat-Savarin was a lawyer by profession, his written legacy was central to the formation of the food writing and gastronomic world we know 190 years later. He posited, among many other things, that the company one keeps at a meal is as important as what is eaten; that hospitality and conviviality are essential and serve as direct aids to good digestion. Granted, his social circle – and the time required to dine as he did – differs greatly from what most of us recognize as the norm today.

It can be a struggle in this day and age to sit through a long meal, but it’s worth the fight. In the company of strangers brought together by passion and chance, removed from the expectation of cleaning up, we talked, drank, and ate for three hours. Who wanted to leave? We intoxicated ourselves with the spirit of joy.

*

We arrived to the dinner as strangers, but left with a feeling of satiation and heightened intimacy, which, I think, resides at the heart of any good dining experience. At the evening’s reluctant end, I heard a soft whistle behind me. Spence stood nearby, gazing at Casey with something like awe. “Man, you are tall!” he declared, smacking his leg and whistling again. He added, more to himself than to her: “And so pretty.” I am not sure if Casey heard his comment. I smiled inside and out. Spence tapped my arm and tipped his hat. “Y’all stay out of trouble, now.” We promised we’d see him again soon, but couldn’t speak for trouble.

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Saucy, sexy, and undeniably smart… Thank you for making the evening a night to remember!

© 2015 Julia Moris-Hartley

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In Gratitude: Eulogy for Jon Moris

IMG_2146This is the transcript for the speech I gave at my Dad’s life celebration in Featherville, Idaho, on July 25, 2015. I miss you, Dad.

*

Fifteen years and one week ago, friends and family gathered here in this very church to witness my father give his blessing for my husband to marry me. Today, we gather here once again, to begin a different but no less important new chapter in our lives. We are here, in sadness but also in loving celebration, to walk home the spirit of Jon Russell Moris. This is our time to share memories and stories that remind us, now and as we move forward in healing, of the great man Jon was: a father, brother, teacher, artist, writer, intellectual, mentor, leader, and fiercely outspoken individual.

In the words of Matthew Fox, a spiritual leader and a bit of a rebel soul: “We can take inspiration from the people who have gone before us… We don’t need to put them on a pedestal; we need to adopt them as templates for our own lives. That way our activism” – and I would add our sense of purpose –“will come from a deep place that is ultimately about a love for life. That is what sustains me: knowing that, whatever the outcome, I have stood with those who love life.” Today we gather as one to celebrate someone who genuinely, thoroughly loved life.

We exist in a deeply connected web that spans far beyond our everyday lives. Certainly, this became clear from the huge outpouring of condolences that our family received after Dad died. We are still registering the deluge of goodness he left as his legacy: thousands of students he mentored and advised, who moved into their professional careers and never forgot the strict, yet caring way he challenged them; myriad colleagues who benefitted from his advice, citing the sharp insight and formidable knowledge that Dad dispensed freely; friends from around the world, bridging a lifetime of experiences, shocked to their cores at the news of his sudden passing. Each message was an embrace from a vast universe I scarcely realized existed, but has now become an integral part of my own story.

Dad’s spirit was born free, and this is how he remains in my heart. I hear him in my chuckles and those of my children. I feel him hovering by the bookshelves with his reading glasses perched on his nose. Dad dwells in the mischievous chipmunks we feed on the porch. He’s up in the bedroom over the garage, clacking away on his typewriter. He’s sitting on the porch drinking his hundredth cup of daily coffee. Dad is everywhere. His death does not change this.

For the last seven years, I’ve had the good fortune to live in Utah and develop a strong relationship with my dad. But it is the little idiosyncrasies that I hold dearest in remembrance. Dad never hesitated to pick up a marked-down chair from Ikea – or, as he would say, ee KAY uh – and deliver it to me as a gift, whether I needed a chair or not… a reflection of his ample generosity as well as his appreciation for discounts and Swedish meatballs. (I recently learned he delivered chairs to all his friends, too, as a means of guaranteeing his own place to sit when he came to visit – it makes me smile to think how many gaudy orange Ikea chairs must populate the greater Utah corridor.) From him, I inherited a fierce love of books and especially of language. Dad was a true polymath; his mind drew connections between and across people and ideas, so that if he lent me – or better still, gave me – a book or gift, his loving thoughtfulness revealed itself. Dad encouraged me to express myself through writing, advice that I took to heart, because he meant it earnestly and because he recognized writing as a gift. And, though I laughed him off, for many years I was terrified that he would actually fulfill his promise to submit erotic fiction to Playboy under my name.

Dad understood me in a way that few others do. Even our rare silences were companionable. I made many friends in high school and college on the sole basis of being his daughter. And I never questioned it. People didn’t have to like me, but if they admired Dad’s twinkly-eyed charm, I happily befriended them. I just thought, “Oh, so you like my dad? You must be pretty okay.”

I have always felt honored to be a Moris, to be my father’s daughter in a family with a legacy of faith and humanitarianism. I would not be here if it wasn’t for my Dad and his parents. I am not thankful for the giant, Dad-shaped hole in my heart, but I am rich with blessings from and memories of Dad, and for those gifts I am intensely grateful. I stand with those who love life, and I stand with Dad.

© 2015 Julia Moris-Hartley

 

 

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Dear Julia Next Year

IMG_2111On the morning of May 29th, 2015, my cousin, a longtime supporter of my writing, sent me a message telling me that he missed me – Eater Provocateur, aspiring MFK Fisher 2.0, the woman and writer I dream to be. I did not have the chance to write him back or lament how much I missed me too. I’d planned to put together a book on Blurb this summer; I hoped to send off essays to journals. I was going to travel my small Utah world and write about the people and pioneers in local food production. I would take thousands of photos, and throw myself into research. After giving so much of my energy to my students, this was EP’s summer to shine.

Instead, that afternoon, I received a phone call from an emergency room in southern Utah, notifying me that my father had been admitted for a heart attack and possible stroke. The doctors could not stabilize Dad’s blood pressure, so they arranged for him to be airlifted to Salt Lake City. Not yet grasping the severity of Dad’s condition, I inquired whether I should drive to Salt Lake that evening or wait until the following day. They said, “Go now.” I went. CICU surgeons operated on his dissected heart throughout the night. Though the surgery successfully repaired the aortic tear, a scan the next morning revealed a massive stroke in Dad’s brain and no hope for recovery. He was, effectively, brain-dead. I hugged the hull of his body and authorized permission for the removal of life support. In the span of twenty-four hours, on a sunny day at the start of summer break, my father died.

*

In the intervening weeks, I learned more about my father than I ever wanted to. I scanned every credit card bill, finding pages and pages of online book purchases, and several unpaid balances. I sorted mortgage bills from utilities, three heavily indebted properties deep. I filled garbage bags with remnants of his last meals and pieces of his life that only held significance to him. I culled a biographical narrative of his youth from epistolary threads and salvaged forget-me-nots. But death is mainly business and arithmetic. In death, my father amasses a debt of $200,000 and rising.

My father was generous to a fault, and he attracted “friends” who found ways to manipulate and capitalize on his generosity. My siblings and I had often wondered why our tenured professor father lived like a pauper. Now we know – we have the calendar notations and check stubs to prove how he shared his salary with several others: current, past, or potential paramours; graduate students fallen down on their luck; renters he felt too guilty to ask for rent… and went so far as to pay their utilities to spare them from financial duress. Some of these “friends” received money from Dad for decades; one seemed especially distressed to learn that she would no longer be receiving handouts from Dad’s non-existent estate. Generosity was clearly Dad’s high.

It is not my intent to smear my father’s name, but I struggled with fury: at Dad for being such a tender-hearted idiot, and, moreover, at those who took advantage of his kindness. I will say that I did not hesitate to close accounts without notifying the parties waiting for their “paychecks.” I have also collected as much of their personal information as I can with the intent to press charges if the need arises.

As a counterbalance, I also learned that my father was loved and valued beyond measure by people who were not bleeding his bank accounts. Emails and letters poured in as news of Dad’s death reached farther and farther into his social and professional circles. All expressed genuine shock and concern; all were kind. The volume was overwhelming. I dreaded checking my email for fear of the inevitable raw and heartfelt messages within. In a way, after my mother’s laughable funeral attendance, it felt validating that so many people cared for my father, people who did not take advantage of his generosity but instead expressed their gratitude and devotion to him. I cannot remember which of these dispelled the fury, at least temporarily.

*

I still find it hard to drag myself out of bed. I do, but it takes a very long time and a lot of internal negotiation. My biggest motivations are letting the dog out and making breakfast for my family. I haven’t been running, though I know I should. I’ve been drinking too much, though I know I should not. My appetite is gone. But I believe that hope is slowly returning.

Over the weekend, I officiated Dad’s memorial service for the family. I did not pass out or collapse in grief. I held my chin high, kept my voice and my eyes level, and honored my Dad the way children must sometimes do.

I give Dad one hour each day: to make calls, to contest charges, to forward copies of his death certificate. His final affairs sit in a box by the piano; I can once again see the surface of my dining room table.

*

Dear Julia Next Year,

Remember that, at one time, you valued compassion and empathy. You will get that back.
Remember that letting go leads to freedom. Let go.
You will smile and laugh again. It will just take some time to recover.
You will not be – cannot remain – this cynical and foul-tempered. It is not healthy and it is not you.
One morning, you will wake up and want to run/cook/sing/dance/write/ be yourself again. The lengthy internal negotiations will shift from “Should I get out of bed?” to “Why shouldn’t I get out of bed?”
The murderous rage against those who manipulated your father will subside into peevish irritation and hopefully humor that cuts deep.
The world exists outside your door, and you are not done with it yet.
You stand with those who love life. So stand up.

© 2015, Julia Moris-Hartley

 

 

 

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They Say

Please, excuse me, bless you, and thank you.

Color in the lines.

Color outside the lines.

Dream big.

(But settle for small.)

Don’t talk politics or religion.

Speak your mind.

Shut up.

Speak up.

Say it again one more time.

Don’t you dare.

Be a friend.

Friends are great but enemies have more power.

Friends are worth more than sexual interests.

Sexual interests are worth more than friends.

Sexy (thin, strong, rich, et al.) equals happy.

Don’t be a jerk.

Don’t be a bitch.

Think for yourself.

Don’t stand out as someone who thinks independently.

Shine brightly.

Life lessons culminate in kindergarten.

We never stop learning.

Ask permission.

Never apologize.

Be brave.

Don’t be afraid to show weakness.

You’re not your parents.

You remind me so much of your dad. (And with his irreverent streak, too.)

You are lucky enough to hear your dad say, “Just be yourself, honey,” and it is the only advice you’ve ever heeded without doubt.

© 2015, Julia Moris-Hartley

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Dear Dad

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My father at his most wonderful.

Dear Dad,

You’re in surgery now. The doctors say things like “ruptured aorta” and “stroke” and “EKG indicates heart attack.” All I hear is noise. I sit in this bleak surgical waiting room with artificial plants, canned air, and pre-recorded sports blaring on televisions spread throughout the area. I tried to mute the television but larger forces disabled the manual controls, so, while I should be contemplating these precious minutes in which your life rests, quite literally, in someone else’s hands, all I can hear are sports fans cheering, as if they were waiting for this. This noise-filled place seems specifically designed to torture people like you and me, who dwell most comfortably in silence and natural lighting. The upholstered chairs – a random mix of vinyl and polyester, scratched, torn, and pale – bear the scars of silence lovers who came before us. I have a searing headache and my eyes have swollen half shut. It’s been eight hours since I got the call about your accident.

*

Dear Dad,

For five years, you’ve been my only birth parent, and I have drawn strength from you. You seemed to sense that when I lost mom, I would need something much more, and you rose to the challenge without my asking. I should have risen to initiating the discussion about your care in case of you-know-what. I stubbornly refused to, and now nurses are inquiring about your insurance coverage, the largest determining factor in the quality of your care, and I have no answers for them. I am failing you. I don’t know if I am strong enough to face this world as an orphan.

*

Dear Dad,

After mom died, I swore off happy endings. But I lied. Deep down, I still believe that if you survive this, that would be the happiest ending I could imagine for our family.

*

Dear Dad,

Someone in this waiting room is clipping his nails. Even without seeing the culprit, though I’m pretty sure it’s the man who’s visited the men’s room three times in the last two hours, I know the sound; I heard it often while riding the subways to and from high school. It didn’t bother me much on the subways: urine-scented and scuffed, what was more trash? But here, in this scrupulous place, where prophylaxis and sanitation are imperative for operation, nail trimmings mashed into threadbare carpets are a powerful reminder of life’s transience. We are water, bone, and much-too-fragile skin.

*

Dear Dad,

Though ambulances, fire trucks, and red helicopters shine as symbols of medical triumph in the modern age, they make me feel terribly sad. When I see one, I know that someone’s life has changed, and probably not for the better. Case in point, Mom + ambulance = devastating. You + ambulance = ? From now on, I will say a prayer every time a red helicopter crosses the sky.

*

Dear Dad,

You would understand better than anyone why I’m writing in this depressing waiting room in the long hours that stretch through the night. You would understand why, post-op in the ICU, I typed transcripts of what the doctors told me:

“His surgery was successful.” = Surgeons worked all night to fix his ruptured artery.

“We’re working to stabilize his blood pressure.” = We didn’t have time after his lengthy operation to clean the blood pooled on his mattress or the iodine staining his feet, but all those tubes you see are pushing medication into him to try to make him better.

“We’ll know much more when we can take a CT scan.” = Between you and me, the prognosis is not good.

*

Dear Dad,

You and mom were never meant to endure together in life, but I offered the universe a grim smile when I visited you in the ICU, because the scene before me was a mirror to mom’s. You both suffered suddenly and with enormous momentum: genetics responsible for one, blunt force for the other; you both spent hours in surgery, urged blindly on by your children in an effort to preserve your lives; your bodies both expired in sterile medical quarters, at your children’s behest, when artificial assistance failed to sustain you. I said goodbye to you both in the same way: sobbing, my head pressed against your hearts, muttering promises to bodies that in no way resembled the people you were.

*

Dear Universe,

Please tell me that your plans will not wrench me from this world the way you have claimed both of my parents.

*

Dear Dad,

You understood me better than anyone else has ever understood me. I felt at home in the amicable silences and exchanges between us. We’re peddlers of words, and it was always such a relief to rest in your company, shooing off propriety in favor of candor. Did I ever tell you that I made friends in college because of your reputation as a teacher? Did I ever mention how people of a certain mindset instantly warmed to me when they learned you created me? I never questioned it. My first instinct was always: “You love my dad, so you must be pretty okay.”

*

Dear Dad,

I promise to never again liken anything to having a heart attack or a stroke, other than an actual heart attack or stroke. I promise to start taking low dose aspirin once a day, exercise and meditate more, and resume my yoga practice. I promise to notice more in the world around me, and to be an active participant in helping others succeed, the way you have. I will give thanks as often as I can. I will find light in every situation. I promise to be unapologetically irreverent and an ambassador for mischief. I will question everything and refuse to settle for less than the truth. I will fully explore the path of self-inquiry. I will not let your legacy in this world die with you.

In love, sadness, and regret,

Julia

© 2015, Julia Moris-Hartley

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WIP

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Finding inspiration in the La Sals and the red rock faces that surrounded us.

Work in Progress (WIP) is an accounting term that represents the value of the components of a product or idea in mid-production, items and materials not quite finished but necessary for a product’s completion. In the construction of a home, for example, WIP accounts for the inventory of nails, screws, hinges, drywall, and lumber that eventually become finished rooms. In writing, drafts are the WIP that wait in ‘inventory’ for their time to galvanize into completed essays.

At the end of April, I had four WIP pieces saved on my desktop. I also had had enough with my glitch-ridden computer, which had been operating strangely for some time. I took my laptop to be repaired, hastily transferring my files to a USB drive in the dark hours before my children awoke for school. A technician removed and reinstalled the operating system, thus restoring efficiency to my writing tool of choice. However, when I returned home, I realized that I hadn’t copied the WIP documents. Pre-dawn, pre-caffeine, my mouse bounced between two windows and highlighted the wrong files to transfer. My WIP essays were gone. I stared at my desktop and tried not to cry.

I tell my middle school students that words are just words: they only have the power that we give to them. Following Faulkner, I advise students that they must never hesitate to “kill their darlings,” and should look at their writing instead as a process toward reaching even greater literary heights. Revise, revise, revise! Don’t fall so in love with your words that you lose the ability to write harder, better! Yet, confronted with a loss of my own short-sighted creation – so many hours of drafting and research – what I would have given to see my precious darlings again.

A long-awaited trip to the outskirts of Moab, Utah, with three peers and 21 students wrenched me from the scene of devastation. We could not bring technology with us. It felt almost like a relief to put my computer out of mind for a few days, and focus instead on being a participant rather than an observer.

For the next few days, our group slept in tipis. We hiked, read, sloshed, played, and explored. Four sopping, scrambling teenagers fished me out of class three waves when our raft entirely and epically wiped out. I began to recover small bits of the ideas I’d lost and imagine new ones. The red rocks that surrounded us advised me to be strong. Coyotes yipped nightly salutations, while, by day, lizards suggested idyllic boulders on which to lounge. I wiggled my toes in the ruddy clay creek and the wind roared its approval. Cottonwoods applauded as I played in the sand. The desert revealed a much larger work in progress.

I came home to a blank desktop, opened a new document, and started to write.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

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Noodle Soup

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The patient insists that she feels well enough to go to school. She’s dressed in coordinating purple hues, combed her hair, and brushed her teeth. She finishes all of her cereal – an uncharacteristic act of dedication to the cause of attendance. She refuses medication. The doctor, pleasantly surprised, puts away the nuclear orange tincture of ibuprofen, and transitions to her duties as chauffeur. Doctor-chauffeur starts the car, and returns to find the patient huddled over the toilet, clutching her abdomen, tears streaming from glassy, red eyes. The patient cannot go to school. The patient cries more.

My knowledge as primary-physician-by-proxy quickly exhausts itself. An actual physician swabs Rory’s throat and rules out strep, then mono. Rory’s diagnosis eludes. The doctor prescribes medicine, advises apple juice, and hands Rory a purple balloon and a coupon for a free soft serve cone from the gas station. I feel discomfited that he’s determined roughly as much about Rory’s strange condition as I have. Rory and I stop for ice cream before coming home.

Rory requests noodle soup for lunch. We’ve shared many bowls of noodle soup between us, from ramen to canned to freshly made, spiked with lemon and sprinkled with bright green herbs. I happily oblige. We face each other at the table, slurping. Dark broth dots our chins.

“Remember when we used to eat noodles together after kindergarten?” I ask.

Rory nods, a noodle dangling halfway in its ascent. Color has returned to her freckled cheeks. She dispatches the noodle and grins. “Every Monday!”

Memories of those early-out Mondays resurface with warmth, followed by a pang. At the doctor’s office, we learned that Rory will surpass me in height in exactly eleven inches’ time. Too soon, there will be crushes and first loves, arguments and hurt feelings, pity jealousies and tears… so many first everythings. The future materializes like an unwelcome lunch guest. Nostalgia and dread intermingle in my bowl.

I remember how much I loved nursing Rory by lamplight, how she smelled like French bread and sunshine. I study the girl she’s become: her lovely golden-green eyes and flaxen eyelashes; her beautiful, forthcoming smile; her long fingers resting on the table. She is – and I hope always will be – my little girl, for the moment distracted from discomfort by a balloon and the curative power of noodle soup.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

 

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Desert Dream

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The drive along Highway 89 from central Utah to Tucson, Arizona, takes about 11 hours, down a corridor between Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, to the east of the Grand Canyon, and over the Glen Canyon Dam. It traverses breath-taking landscapes and is, on this March day, relatively low stress, owing to light traffic, good visibility, and ample passing lanes. My husband and I have picked up our children, Kai and Rory, early from school. We are teachers and we are on spring break. We drive.

*

On our first day in Tucson, we visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Kai and Rory quiz me as we drive there. “Is it a museum, Mom?” asks Kai.

I tell him that it is a museum… and it isn’t.

“What? I don’t get it,” says Rory from under the rim of a Hello Kitty fedora.

“You will,” I say. The Desert Museum is a vegetation-rich place where visitors roam maintained paths, spotting birds and animals, and pausing to admire strange and beautiful desert plants. It is a gateway for learning the language of and kindling a connection to a region that bursts with biodiversity, and the best way to understand it is by experiencing it.

We take the kids to the raptor free flight. Falcons, hawks, and owls soar by, inches from our heads. Kai and Rory snap photo after photo. (The museum is also a photographer’s paradise.) The kids rush to acquire a new vocabulary:

saguaro (sah-WAR-oh)

cholla (CHOY-ya)

ocotillo (oh-koh-TEE-yo)

palo verde (pal-oh VER-day)

Rory points to a bright fuchsia wall: bougainvillea. Kai crouches to smell delicate orange orbs that proliferate alongside the prickly pears: desert mallow. We hear a singular chirp, and, after a few moments of searching, find a dusty brown female cardinal in the underbrush. Kai spots an aloe stalk that stands taller than we do and says, “It’s like an alien!” Later, he discovers a cluster of spiny teddy bear cholla: “That looks like an army of renegade muppets from hell!” he shrieks, clearly impressed.

“This is not like the desert I imagined,” says Rory, whose entire stance transmits the sense of buoyancy I’ve felt since we crossed the state line. “I like it.”

I like it too. My husband and I attended graduate school in Tucson, and in those few years formed an abiding love for the desert. We worked our first adult jobs, purchased our first home, and had our first child. Kai is the reason we’ve come back to visit. I want him to know where the story of his life begins.

*

We can’t go home again, but we try anyway. We stand outside the condo where Kai spent his first months. We knock. The tenants have put up brown craft paper as curtains. A gray lizard scuttles by; its throat flares orange. No one answers the door. I photograph Kai, posing outside the front entryway, as he did ten years ago. Though we are disappointed, I can tell Kai’s mind is clicking Tucson into place.

*

In Sabino Canyon, we sway on a flat bench as an aged trolley, groaning and sputtering, carries us into the Santa Catalina mountains, where passengers dismount to explore trails. We begin the downward trek back to the visitor center: 3.7 miles in all. Kai and Rory don’t complain. Tall saguaros surround us. Palo verde trees and mesquites shade a lush carpet of yellow blooms. We hear Sabino Creek trickling by, and stop to cast off our shoes and splash in one of its cold, clear pools.

As I sprawl on a pale, smooth boulder, luxuriating in the rock’s radiant heat, I watch a group of girls playing on the rocks across the pool. They look about Kai’s age. One of the girls, wearing orange shorts and a white tank top, squeals when a male mallard with lustrous, inky plumage alights on the water’s surface. “A duck!” she yells, pointing for her friends. “Look, you guys, it’s a duck!”

She runs to grab a bag of potato chips, then hurries back, stretching over the water’s edge to offer the duck a chip. I call out for Kai and Rory, and splash! The girl’s fallen into the pool, neck deep, mouth in a shocked O. She brings herself to her feet. “That was fun!” she exclaims, and quickly amends herself. “That was awesome!” She dries off and returns to feed the duck the remainder of her chips. Her friends gather around her and giggle, while her mother warns: “Be careful, now!” Within minutes, she dubs herself Girl Who Swims With Ducks.

A second mallard joins the pool and partakes of chips, though they turn up their beaks at nacho-flavored corn chips. The ducks glide along. I leave the scene feeling delighted by a moment of wonder in the desert.

*

I’ve been an ‘other’ for most of my life: immigrant’s daughter, born abroad; minority of Ukrainian descent, presumed Jewish, growing up in the lowest socioeconomic bracket of Coney Island; only child with three half-siblings; non-Mormon working at coffee shop and attending college in predominantly Mormon community; married in grad school; liberal Yankee in a traditional southern family; employee of an international school in a rural setting; interloper in Mormon pioneer country. Even in the classroom, I adopt the role of ‘other’ to provide a more balanced perspective for my students.

In the desert, I am myself. The sand doesn’t differentiate my footsteps from anyone else’s. The saguaro does not hide its spines or conceal the holes burrowed by the creatures it houses. The desert feels as close to home as I can describe on a spiritual level.

*

At dinner on our last night, I order a piece of pie for the four of us to share. An elderly couple who’d been sitting at an adjacent booth joins us in line for payment. “I thought,” says the smiling man, “that I was the only crazy who did that!” He laughs. I laugh, because I have a fondness for forthcoming people.

His twinkly-eyed companion says: “Once, in Kansas, he ordered a piece of pie and eight forks. The waitress looked at us like we’d gone mad, but, really, all we needed was a little taste.”

“Just goes to show…” the man continues. “The more you travel, the more loonies you meet!” He slaps a hand against his thigh, chuckling. His face is ruddy and furrowed with wrinkles. I have the impression he’s lived through a great deal and come out on the optimistic side.

“It’s inevitable,” I add, grinning. I resist a strong urge to adopt them both.

*

Is a little taste enough? Three days in the desert is not enough to visit Bisbee, with its iodine-colored mining “lake” or the Inn at Castle Rock, which is a quirky and delightful experience onto itself. It is not enough to visit the artists of Tubac or drink margaritas across the Nogales border or admire the riotous splendor of Madera Canyon’s avian population. It is not enough time to properly explore the Rillito Wash—not east by the Jewish Community Center or west towards First Avenue—or to meet with old friends and co-workers. It is barely enough time for mimosas at the Blue Willow and eggs and gunpowder at the Cup. But sometimes a little taste is just enough to whet the appetite.

As we pack our bags to leave, Kai fiddles with his shoelaces and sighs. “I don’t want to leave, mom.”

I hug him and try not to cry. “Me neither. But it was a good trip, wasn’t it? Would you like to come back sometime?”

Kai’s smile answers for him.

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© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

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The Winter Gods

Winter seems to have returned to central Utah. During several weeks of unseasonable warmth, grasses started to green and tulips threatened to unfurl from the dry soil. Tiny buds sprouted on the Chinese elms outside the house. We wore short sleeves and flip-flops, dabbing sweat from our brows. One exasperated friend took down all of her winter decorations, grumbling, “We haven’t even had the chance to make snow angels this year!”

I read updates from Boston, New York, and Chicago, and I cringed, not daring to draw attention to our weather situation while friends back East cursed the onslaught of yet another snowstorm. Locally, we scratched our heads and said things like, “Well, we can’t complain about this! and “This is incredible! It’s not January, it’s April!” But also: “What the hell is going on?” and “This summer will be awful!” Snow enthusiasts, lovers of nature, gardeners, and farmers alike implored the meteorological gods to return the snow to us. And, finally, last week, they did.

For me, the “heat wave” highlighted our dependence on the weather, the intricate web of causality that affects us where we live. Little or no snow in the high desert transforms the mountains into giant tinderboxes, acres and acres of trees ready to catch fire. Lack of snowmelt threatens the water supply, which impacts those who depend on water to grow their crops as well as those of us who don’t. No water means fewer foods to eat. The town grocery store posted a sign warning customers that, due to weather circumstances throughout the country, certain produce items may be intermittently available, if at all, which is of grave concern since my diet consists mainly of things that grow in the earth. We may have enjoyed a reprieve from the cold, but at what cost?

I worry when my region experiences summer in January and icy hailstorms in July. It distresses me when weather abandons seasonality and instead becomes a series of events and vortices. Shouldn’t changes in the atmosphere – isolated incidents, established patterns, and troublesome anomalies – warrant more consideration than just “small talk”? Every day I watch the sky in humble estimation of the greater forces in control.

On Monday, the winter gods rewarded our pleas with a dusting of light snow: just enough to sprinkle our shoulders as it melted from the trees; just enough to mute the ubiquitous brown sagebrush. We awoke the following day to a world in white. I think – I hope – that higher slopes are receiving even more snow. For this bounty, we bow our heads in gratitude and beg, “Please send more!”

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

 

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Ash

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“Where does the history go between two people when one of them dies?  All that landscape is lost.  And for a long time after the person you loved is gone you want to tell their story, so the story you’ve had together isn’t lost.  If it’s an ordinary story, one by one the people you try to tell it to stop listening.”  – Sharon White, Field Notes

In February 2010, a snowplow struck my mother in the head as she crossed a busy Manhattan intersection.  She laid unconscious at the Bellevue SICU after undergoing surgery to relieve the pressure in her hemorrhaging brain. On the morning before Valentine’s Day, I left my husband and children in Utah and flew to New York City to help my sister complete the inevitable tasks of impending death.

By Ash Wednesday, four days later, I felt desperate to leave.  I navigated the city streets – a mindless cipher, tapping an internal compass to reach my best friend. I got lost on the walk to Grand Central, though I’d walked there countless times before.  The churches propped open their doors. I kept passing people with telltale smudges on their foreheads.  A man tried to speak with me, took a single look at my face, and turned on his heels, hurrying away, plainly discomfited by what he saw.  I eventually made my way to Grand Central, and rode the train to Ossining with the opiate of angry buzzing in my ears.  What should have been a happy reunion with a dear friend was marred by intervals of despondency, numbness, disorientation, and tears.

There were long hours in the hospital: before the staff removed her ventilator, a process which required written and verbal consent, as well as consultation with a crisis counselor; when they dosed her with morphine to reduce her tremors; the wrenching anticipation of when it was going to happen – when her body would heed her brain and finally cease to function.  It took six days.  Then three more until my sister and I secured a funeral.  So much waiting for a body vacated by its soul.

My mother wore a St. Christopher pendant nearly every day for as long as I can remember, a simple golden disk with a picture of a man carrying a child on his back.  The pendant reads: Saint Christopher – Protect Us.  She wasn’t wearing the pendant the day she died.

I harbor this irrational fear that something will take me away as swiftly as my mother was taken from me.  My husband and I never told the kids what happened to mom; we just stopped mentioning her.  If something happened to me, what would become of my children? How would they remember me?  In Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams writes, “But the feeling I could not purge from my soul was that without a mother, one no longer has the luxury of being a child.”  Now that I have been both a daughter and a mother, I see the terrible incongruity of loss.  A parent ought never to experience the grief of burying one’s own child.  But to imagine leaving a void in the lives of your children is pretty awful too.

How I begrudged my mother for her secrets! Who does silence benefit?  Certainly not the person who carries her secrets like large pebbles sewn into the hem of her dress.  Not the people who, by dint of circumstance, were present when the event occurred and who must knowingly, through fear or complicity, share the burden of another’s silence.  Mom never understood that I write to free myself from the weight of too many stones.  The irony is that mom wrote to cast away her pebbles too: she made monthly journal entries after she arrived in the States, testing out her English and unburdening her soul.  She just never shared her writing with anyone.

From her journal: “I only want to ask: Dear God, where am I?  And where are you?”

After she died, I started walking away from things, shedding parts of me: a sliver of soul here, steady streams of tears there, raw whispers into the darkness.  I realized how much of myself I’d cloistered away, afraid to reveal who I really am for the sake of protecting mom.  What about protecting what I valued in myself?  What about remembering what I needed to keep living?

A friend sent me a copy of Field Notes after mom died.  The first half – the crushing recollection of a young writer’s grief upon losing her husband to cancer – I liked.  The latter half I interpreted as a quasi-happy ending, and, though I once considered myself a hopeless happy ending person, I no longer am.

When I was in high school, I elected to move in with my dad for the fall semester of sophomore year.  It was a rash decision based on my unrelenting desire to flee Coney Island.  I was tired of being taunted and afraid; I was tired of being leered at by the men who owned the local supermarket, Key Foods, and by random strangers on the subway. The counselor at my new school suggested that a school-sponsored trip to Escalante with a group of my peers might help ease the transition from New York to Utah.

Our group spent several days hiking through Escalante on a ‘survival’ trip.  I recall Jolly Rancher candies, nuts and seeds, and Tang, punctuated by the unspeakable beauty of rocks and the desert, and, for an unaccustomed city girl, grueling hikes.  I did not yet understand the school counselor’s goal: take a youth at risk (of what, I don’t know, but my life was not on an even keel), put her in one of Utah’s national treasures, and hope something important ignites.

The biggest challenge of the trip was the solo night.  Our guides deposited us along stretches of a riverbed, placing us a significant distance – and on opposite sides of the river – from one another.  We were to spend the night alone, using common sense and newly learned skills to set up camp, start a fire, and feed ourselves.  They placed me in a cave under an immense rock face.  I wasn’t prepared, couldn’t start a fire.  I felt terrified as night fell.  I remember sitting up in my sleeping bag, shaking.  And suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder.  There had been no footsteps, and I didn’t hear sloshing in the river either before the sensation or a few moments later when the sensation went away.  But the calmness that washed over me was unmistakable, as palpable as the river and the sand I sat upon.  Something ignited.

In the morning, we ate pancakes cooked on the ashes of a fire.  Ashcakes.  They were delicious.

I returned to my mother in New York in January the next year, bringing with me a newfound belief in angels – of a sort – or at least energies, both positive and negative.  After mom died, I kept waiting for a sign to point me back to that girl who believed in angels.  There were no signs, only ashes.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2010 – 2015

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