Just posting a short story I wrote for a class. Feedback welcome.
For Pat McNeil; my brother, Jeff Reifsnyder; and my other brother, Paul Douglas
It was Wednesday night. My mother had volunteered to make the supper for the homeless shelter. That meant I had volunteered, too, whether or not I wanted to be.
I showed up at five, McGee, our Australian Heeler, tagging along behind me.
The kettle on the stove was boiling furiously when I walked into the basement kitchen of Our Lady of Perpetual Tears – Poor Mother, I thought, always sorrowful.
Steam billowed from the pot, reaching for the window, trying to escape. I should have paid closer attention.
“Where have you been?” demanded my mother, hacking away at the onions on the cutting board. A slender film of liquid cascaded over the edge of the sink, pooling on the floor beside her flip flop.
I knew that tone. I didn’t have anything to feel guilty about, but even the dog slunk away, eyeing me cautiously, a timid nod of “good luck”. It didn’t matter that I had done nothing wrong. There was something on my mother’s mind that was going to soon be on mine.
I cleared my throat, to let her know I had heard the question. I was a little worried about that knife.
I knew I’d better make it short.
“Pat’s …,” I started.
“You should have been here.”
She tossed the onions into the scalding water.
“You saw your older brother drop kick the Kid.”
It wasn’t a question. I had been there. Jeff drop-kicked Paul, who fell and busted his left wrist. It hung like the letter “U”. Clean and nasty.
My mother grabbed a paper towel to wipe up the floor. Unfortunately, it didn’t tear when she jerked it. It unscrolled.
Across the sink.
Onto the floor.
I was jealous of the dog.
“God-damn it to hell and back,” she clenched her jaw. “These damn paper towels.”
The more she scratched at them, the further they rolled.
I could relate.
I started inching toward the dining room, toward the exit.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she bellowed, strangling a bunch of carrots, the dirt still attached to them began to drop. Escape.
I didn’t say anything.
And I didn’t go out the door.
My mother was crying. And it wasn’t from the onions.
“It was a nice service,” I said quietly, as the dog slithered closer, her tail quietly tapping my jeans. “They buried him under the maple.”
My mother didn’t say anything, just began flaying the carrots.
I took the pod off the car.
For most people, having a place to unload their traveling gear would bring a sigh of relief. Me? I am aware there is an unsettled nodule of panic in my chest.
It may have something to do with not having had the same mailing address for longer than a few months in several years. (Don’t even ask how many phone numbers I’ve had!)
Ignore that sleeping bag draped over the water bottles on the floor between the seats.
Yes, I have tents (plural) in the back, along with other varied and sundry camping equipment.
Eventually, I’ll add canned food and “emergency” chocolate.
You know. In case the dogs and I want to take a road trip and stay overnight.
Which we’ve done collectively for the past three summers. Back and forth from Connecticut to Arizona (twice), with variation on a theme, from Connecticut to Montana, and then, from Montana to Arizona – which is where we are.
I like Arizona. I even love Arizona. But I am not sure I actually want to stay. I look around me, and see cattle grazing on endless hills, dry and drought-stricken brush in the loveliest shades of sage and cedar green, an eternally blue sky, and, Thank you, Campers, not a wildfire plume on the horizon – and there is a lot of “horizon” where we are. But, what about Idaho (snow and majestic mountains)? Or maybe California (coastline and vineyards)? Or, what the heck, I could always go back to Pennsylvania where I was born. Or to Western Massachusetts and be around friends. Or New Jersey, to be with other friends… ok, no, not New Jersey (Sorry, Jennifer).
It isn’t that Arizona isn’t wonderful. I have a job I enjoy. I live where I can hear coyote sing. I awake to the sound of cattle ambling by on the dirt road that runs by the RV. There is a white-faced cow who has taken a special interest in me and the dogs. We refer to her as Mother. ‘Haven’t seen her calf yet, but rumor has it, there is one on the way.
But it’s this concept of “staying” that has me anxious – you know, like not moving. Not starting over. Not being the only person I know for hundreds of miles around.
I know where to shop. I have several churches I call my own.
And, I can take ballet classes (Ballet White Mountains, Pinetop), swim in a heated pool (Show Low Aquatic Center), and kayak on the lake (Sunrise – Big Lake – Lyman Lake).
Plenty of hiking, walking, exploring (just step off the porch).
Dead things from 220 million years ago lying about not too far from here (see “Growing Small”).
What’s not to love? Why would anyone want to leave?
Which seem to be the questions I have been asked since I won that trip to Disneyland when I was twelve, and flew over the Rockies, and then out over the Pacific before turning to head back to Baltimore, Maryland… and came home with a serious case of Wanderlust.
From there it became absolutely necessary to explore Philadelphia (by bus and train, an hour from Home). Later Boulder, Colorado. Then, Missouri. Ocean City, Maryland. Newport, Rhode Island. Scotland, Connecticut. Huntington, Massachusetts… and then …
My family worried about me. Some of them still do.
“Why can’t you find a place and settle down! What’s wrong with where you are? You are just like your Aunt Violet!”
I never knew whether or not they meant this as a compliment. Aunt Violet had worked on the Queen Elizabeth II and had traveled the world. I knew her when she had retired and was living in Flushing, Long Island. I spent ten days with her when I was thirteen traipsing all over New York City. Other than informing me she spoke with her deceased husband in the room I was going to be sleeping in – Great. That’s a little creepy – I thought she was perfectly fine. The woman was in her “golden years” and she walked me almost to death, fed me wheat banana bread with cream cheese (I was still in the pizza and French fry phase), and introduced me to friends of hers from Switzerland and Holland.
Sure. Maybe I am like my great Aunt. I know I had a lot of fun shopping at Macy’s and taking the cruise around Manhattan. I traveled there by myself on a Greyhound bus. Chatted with strangers. Saw the World opening before me. What’s not to love? Why would anyone stay in the same place when they could go somewhere new, different, exciting, sometimes weird, occasionally terrifying.
We live on a really cool planet. And, while I might absolutely without reservation with no good reason to leave and be madly in love with wherever I am, I am aware that I haven’t seen Deschutes River (Oregon), or Mount Rushmore (South Dakota), or …
I took the pod off the car.
I wonder what happens next.
Amy Lynn Reifsnyder
May 14, 2018
How do I tell you that since participating in Petrified Forest Field Institute’s Fossil Dig east of Blue Mesa, I look out my front door differently. What could I tell you that would bring to you the same sense of adventure, the same appreciation, the same excitement that came along with the dig?
Should I tell you that, when I was a teenager, my younger brother – who fancied himself my elder – told me to “act my age.” I didn’t know what he meant then; I still don’t know what that phrase means. I mean, come on. I was born in 1961, but on Saturday, May 12, 2018? I was – oh, maybe 10.
See, the last time I intentionally dug for fossils, I was in Mrs. Horst’s fifth grade class. We had a field trip to look for fossils of ferns and bivalves somewhere in the hills of Pennsylvania.
Last summer, I met a family while camping in Tonto National Forest. The husband/father cracked open a stone for his son, and low and behold! A fossil appeared! How did he know?
How do you find fossils, anyway?
It takes dirt. Time. An awl. A couple of brushes. Knowledgeable scientists. Patience. An opportunity offered by Petrified Forest Field Institute (www.petrifiedforestfieldinstitute.org). And bright, mid-day light to find fossils in the “bone layer” of the mound we went to work on in the colorful badlands of the Petrified Forest National Park. We started the day with a tour of the research facilities located behind the Painted Desert Visitor Center, on the Interstate-40 end of the park. There we learned about the phytosaur, whose partial skull was on display. Handsome thing, it is, with a toothy snout about as long as my forearm. Looks kind of like a crocodile with shark teeth. But it isn’t a croc. It is a descendent of the archosaur, and is a distant relative, but it is a phytosaur – who knew?
The paleontology team, comprised of Bill Parker, Chief of Resources; Adam Marsh, Lead Paleontologist; Ben Kligman, Paleo-Intern; and Chuck Beightol, Term Paleontologist, worked patiently with myself and four others as we unearthed any number of fascinating items buried in the rock. I found a vertebra of I-don’t-know-what, but it was still exciting. I mean, look. Here we are in 2018 and I unearthed a bone from a reptile which lived somewhere around 220 million years ago. MILLION. Not last year. Not the year before. Not my granny’s birth year (1900), but 220 million years ago.
Kids think I’m old at 57. I suddenly felt like a youngster, a whippersnapper, a 10-year-old. Someone my age, you might think, might know a thing or two, but suddenly, I was aware that there is oh, so very much more to know – and it is under our feet.
We spent most of the day kneeling or lying in the dirt, chipping, sweeping, and prying rock apart to see what we could see. Marsh kept an eye on what I was doing, and occasionally picked up an ancient fish scale that I had overlooked. (They are very small.) He supervised while I dug out coprolites (fossilized dung), some of which also contained scales.
Beightol observed from above the dig line, catching glimpses of remains we missed. Someone found a really tiny spinal column. Most of us found teeth. Parker identified an ulna. Kligman supervised handling of the “small details”.
It was a blustery day, and from time to time, a hat, a kneeling pad, or baggie would get away from us. This sort of distraction was actually beneficial, as it gave us a moment to look around. Some of us were waiting for Mad Max to come screaming over the horizon. For all I knew, we could have been transported to a different planet. But there’s no need for intergalactic travel to find something new and unusual. Simply get to know the world around you. Everywhere you go, there is something new and interesting to find and explore. Maybe it’s a bone from a reptile from the Triassic Period. Maybe it’s fossilized trees. Maybe it’s something as simple and remarkable as how the changing light creates new colors on the hills and canyons. No matter where you go, it’s a cool planet.
My world has gotten much bigger – and older – since Saturday. When I was little, I always wanted to be one of those people who made great discoveries. Well, for at least one day, I was that person.
Accepted for publication by Petrified Forest Field Institute and Navajo Times
On query elsewhere.
Photo by Lloyd E. Johnson
Amy Lynn Reifsnyder
May 6, 2018
There is always a space between an assignment and the beginning of an essay or article where I go through the Slough of “I Can’t Do This!” It’s an awful place, full of small, biting remarks – memories, if you will, of nasty comments made by people I no longer associate with: “You can’t do this.” “You’re never going to be able to make a living from your writing.” “No one will buy your work.” “No one even likes your work.” “Your too wordy.” And other such discouraging platitudes.
Take this morning, for example.
No, wait, let’s start a few pages back.
Several years ago, I started an online Master of Arts English program with Southern New Hampshire University. I took courses while traveling – which I strongly suggest you not do – and passed/failed/passed/failed/passed regularly. I took this past year off to re-evaluate my purpose. I am tired of failing.
I am on this endeavor for several reasons.
Reason #1. While I have a degree in Spanish, and have taught Spanish successfully, I have always felt like a poser. I am a white woman of German heritage who grew up in an English- and Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking community. I can read Spanish (and German), write Spanish (and German), and speak Spanish (and German). But when I speak Spanish, I sound exactly like a white girl who knows textbook Spanish. In a country where Spanish is becoming a semi-official language, there are millions of native speakers who should be teaching the language, not me.
Reason #2. I taught Reading in a high school several years ago. I was required to teach from a scripted text (“While holding the green card in your right hand, walk to the left and say …”) which all of the students had placed into based on standardized tests scores. All of the students had placed into this level repeatedly. Some of them were there for the fifth time. I was dismayed. Obviously, they hadn’t had a decent teacher. Come to find out, for several years, they didn’t have any teacher at all! In many schools in Arizona, the teacher shortage means classrooms full of students sit the hour with one another and have no instruction due to lack of educated and certified teachers.
Vanity of vanities, I thought, I taught English at the community college level. I’ll get my degree and certification in English and go and teach the joys and wonders of dangling modifiers, parallelism, subject/verb agreement. I will be able to knowledgeably discuss literary techniques, and impart this glorious wisdom to my students.
I’ll also meet and get to read and write and chat with other geeks like me … OOoohhh, the joy …
Ah, hem, I was saying:
Reason #3. I write. And, while Arizona and other Parts West may be willing to hire a teacher in her late 50s, at some point, I may want to stay out of the classroom, and actually finish any number of stories, screen plays, essays, etc., which I have started. I think it would be nice to have my work published, my films produced, my poetry engraved somewhere. I figure, nobody will care if I’m a wrinkled old hag pounding away on a keyboard, as long as what I write has merit. Taking writing courses will improve my writing style, teach me the jargon of ‘the business’, and maybe I can meet some folks along the way who will offer more encouraging support.
So, here I am, Sunday morning, with an essay due by 11:59 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. I have homework. An essay explaining the difference between reading like a reader, and reading like a writer. I can do this. I’ve even taught this. So, why, at 6 a.m. am, do I wake with fear and dread in my heart? Why, considering, all the times I started and stopped and started and was stopped and started again, ad infinitum, do I feel like a Whack-a-Mole who should Just Stay DOWN!?
I won’t, of course. Despite – or because of? – the agitation, I’ll do my homework. I’ll work to improve my writing style. I’ll finish the film script by the competition deadline. I’ll tutor and teach writing classes. I’ll continue to grow. I just wish I could do this without plowing through the morass of “I Can’t” when I know I can. Drives me nuts.
I took the dog for a walk, and somewhere between the pond and the juniper, began composing what I’ll write later today: “A comfortable chair, a rainy day, a blanket, a cup of tea, and a good book are sometimes all you need ….”
Luncheon Faux Pas
They’re Not Kidding
April 26, 2018
It is dusk here in the high desert. The color of the sky is a muted combination of pale blues and lavenders above a seemingly grey horizon. No rain clouds, though. Just mellow relaxing hues with the occasional swath of pale tangerine with a touch of clouds. The younger three dogs are outside chasing the lizards that have suddenly appeared. Yesterday, they announced the presence of a snake under the propane tank. I’ve been a little worried about their interest in the tank. I assumed they were after mice, until Freckles’ voice went shrill and stayed that way until I went to investigate. I’m not all that familiar with Arizona reptiles, but, because the head was small, I assumed it wasn’t poisonous. Nonetheless, I dragged the dogs back inside.
Later in the day, I had another look under the tank. No snake. I let the dogs out and went to visit a neighbor.
There is something you should know about snakes, and other things that live in Arizona. They don’t die.
Well. Not right away, anyway. Even with their heads off, they writhe, scurry, slither, and wiggle.
Maybe you’ve seen something like this on an old spaghetti western. When the bad guy takes the final bullet, he staggers, blunders into onlookers, clutching at his bleeding torso, crying out to his only true love – wherever she is. No quick death for him. It can take hours.
Well. The wildlife apparently do the same thing.
On my way back to our house, I saw Freckles playing with a writhing something-or-another that looked like a small snake. Was there a nest under the propane? Had Freckles pulled out a baby?
No. Freckles was simply playing with the back four inches of whatever had been living out there. Playing with it because it kept wriggling in the most enthusiastic manner. Lord only knows where the head was, but the tail was having a gay old time trying to get away from my dog.
Several years ago, when I had my first encounter with an Arizona centipede (Do Not Touch!), I lopped its head off, expecting it to roll over and play dead. No, the darn thing zigged and zagged across the kitchen floor. I obviously watched Fantasia too many times as a kid, because all I kept thinking of was whether or not the pieces would regenerate, and I’d suddenly find myself surrounded by a multitude, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the brooms. I demolished the thing into its DNA strands with a heavy book, just in case.
There is another creature out here that Hannah simply loves: Child of the Earth, aka Jerusalem Cricket.
Ugliest things God ever made. Hannah can spot one from two rooms away. She trots over. Does the Stare, and then, unless I intervene (yuk), she picks the thing up, and trots around the house with it in her mouth.
Now, I love my Hannah-Dog, but this is not my idea of a good time. She won’t drop it. I won’t grab it. And the thing writhes and wriggles, and, if you believe what I was told, it sounds like a baby crying. I don’t know about that crying business. I’m usually focused on trying to get Hannah to at least take the thing outside. She dropped one in the living room one time. I stepped on it, but it didn’t smoosh. It just kind of – well. Buy some of those jelly candies, and step on them. They don’t smoosh either. Yick.
Hannah’s also the best Wolf Spider Pointer on the planet.
We haven’t seen any wolf spiders yet this year. I’d rather not, to be honest. They are quite beautiful. While they are not quite the size of a dinner plate, the one between the washer and the dryer would have fit nicely on the salad plate. I confess, I still feel guilty for smashing it to smithereens.
Spring has come to our part of the planet, and with it comes a whole Animalia I hardly know.
Should be interesting … now where did I put that book?
Run parallel in my mind
Amy Lynn Reifsnyder
April 19, 2018
What the Devil?
Devil’s Bridge Trail, Sedona, Arizona
Saturday, April 14, 2018
Where do I begin?
I suppose it’s safe to say you should trust the pastor’s wife when, after her husband informs the hiking group that this week’s trek is “relatively easy, with gentle inclines” and a round trip of two or three miles, she simply adds in, “times three”, and goes on to the next topic of conversation, without missing a beat.
It is wise to bring that extra bottle of water, so you’ll be prepared when you have to walk the extra miles to and from the trailhead, already overflowing with traffic – which is also lining the roadway – because apparently, it’s Spring Break, and not everyone goes to Florida.
It is also safe to say that this is Arizona, and that means USE SUNSCREEN because, well, it’s Arizona, and the sun might shine bright on Stephen Foster’s old Kentucky home, but it’s pretty strong here, too.
USE SUNSCREEN. Wear clothing – you know, shirts with sleeves, pants with, well, pants. Don a hat.
Assume the person who posted the “Be sure each person has a gallon of water” if they’re heading toward Devil’s Bridge – some miscalculated leagues ahead – knew what s/he was talking about.
If you have a dog, be sure there is a gallon or more of water for the dog, too.
Be smart. Take food. “Two miles” isn’t always “two miles”. And there are no road side cafes in this part of Sedona.
And, yes, gentle reader, there were “See the West” jeeps and other ATVs stumbling by as we walked the trail heading to the trail that headed to the trail that went up. While you may grimace and think snarly thoughts about their intrusive and – Shoot. What is that condescending word that implies they are a lower caliber of outdoors person because they didn’t hike? – while heading toward the Bridge, you might also, on the way back, come face-to-face with your haughty self-righteousness – and the aches in your hips, knees, ankles, oh, everywhere – and consider leaping in front of one of them, begging for a ride.
All this to say, I had an absolutely excellent time on Saturday. The Fellowship Team at Peace Lutheran organized this trip: Meet at the church. Car pool. Hike. Stop for ice cream. Come home.
But that set of telegram instructions says absolutely nothing about the giggling in the car, both coming and going. The story telling. The groaning. The admiration of the incredible beauty of a landscape that merged from scrub desert brush, to lush Oak Creek Canyon with clear running water (I do so love brooks and rivers of clear running water) and acres of Ponderosa Pine, then turned the corner to red rock spires, and washed out ocean floor canyons of yellows and reds with greys for “color”.
Sure, we had to go through the commercial district of Sedona – three of our caravan were heading to a day of strenuous shopping (and eating ice cream…), but this allowed the rest of us to fantasize about the next several trips we might take, and which restaurants we would visit after the next day of hiking. You know, just to be good citizens and support local trade, and all that.
We did have to park a mile away from the trailhead to Dry Creek Trail. From there, we had to walk the dusty road to Devil’s Bridge Trail – or the signs for it, anyway. As we got closer, there was another sign post, informing the panting hiker that the Bridge was a mere .7 mile ahead.
Right. It might be .7 mile ahead until you could see the switchbacks heading up the cliff wall. But if that was really .7 miles from the sign to the Bridge… well, let’s just say I doubt it.
In between, we were overwhelmed by the number of people on pilgrimage with us. All ages. A variety of nationalities. And yes, some scantily clad “photo op” muscular young men who, I am sure, suffered dearly later that night.
Clear sky, the perfect blue to complement the red and yellow rocks.
A washed out trail that is not where I want to be in the monsoons.
A minimum of shade, but some of the largest prickly pear ears I’ve ever seen – Oh. I learned a thing about prickly pear. These don’t cluster and reach toward the sky. Nope. This variety topples over, and lines themselves out like a proper lawn edging.
Not so many birds. Not even the occasional vulture – which, considering how many people were wandering around with no water, was sort of a relief, in a sideways sort of way.
What can I say? It was hot. Some of my thinking was kind of skewed.
The majority of the group ambled ahead, while I meandered with new friends. Eventually, we also parted ways, and I was left to enjoy the grandeur on my own.
It is no small thing to be able to take one’s time without insults and ridicule from more capable hikers.
I paused occasionally to snack on my banana-wheat pancakes with almond butter and honey. I sipped water regularly, lest I dehydrate, or suffer heat stroke. While the morning started out a brisk 38 degrees, by mid-day, the temperatures had gone over and into the 70s, maybe higher. Occasionally, a gentle breeze whisked the dust from my skin, but overall, it was downright spa-like. Simply lovely, actually.
I approached the final “leg” of the hike – the ascent up the switchbacks to the bridge.
My left knee (parts missing) has its own ideas about clambering up and down over chipped rock, sand, and ledges with no guardrails (see Walnut Canyon, Easter Sunday re: guardrails).
I had a look at the Bridge through the binoculars.
People were queued up, taking their turns in twos and threes to walk out onto a stretch of rock, and pose for some unseen photographer. A ravine of various bumps and twists waited below.
I know me. There was no way I was going out on that Bridge anyway. Hu-huh. Nope. Not me.
So, I found a lovely shaded spot along the trail where the steps allowed me to sit graciously, without having to curl my beleaguered legs into a knot. I considered playing Troll, exacting tribute from hikers and they traveled by.
I nibbled on the pineapple pieces from my sack. Then, I headed back toward the first trailhead.
The way I was creeping along, I figured the others would catch up with me soon.
Eventually, most of us appeared – two others, with dogs, had already made other plans, and would not be returning with the group. We were slightly crisp on the edges, and wondered seriously if we’d be able to walk the next day.
I cautioned Pastor that while I may be able to kneel for Communion on Sunday, I might need help getting up.
We all showed up for church this morning, all sore, all satisfied, all giggling.
Yes. Sometimes the trail is longer than we thought it was going to be, but if you’re traveling with the right companions, it is a ton of fun… times three.
Song: Notes from a frustrated birdwatcher
They say it’s bird song
I think it’s the trees, myself,
Calling snowbirds home.