My uncle used to take us out to an area in the badlands to rock-hound. He told us a lot of stories as we walked over that parched land and I suspect several were tall tales.

For example, he supposedly was one of the few who knew the location of a young girl buried in a dress woven with gold threads.

He was also known for practical jokes like collecting the round, prickly seed pods of a native plant, putting them in a pickle jar, and selling them to tourists at the local bar for a dollar, saying they were porcupine eggs.

The thing was though, he knew that land intimately. It wouldn’t be long before he’d disappear into the hills, leaving us behind to worry. What if he didn’t come back? What if he had a heart attack? After all, he was old and fat. What if he slipped and broke a leg? 

We never worried about him getting lost. 

We came from a temperate rain forest of thick and lush understory, shaded forests, ferns and salmonberry and salal. In his land we learned to recognize sage and yucca and tiny wild ground roses. We learned to watch for rattlesnakes and to not stick our little hands into intriguing holes in the ground. We learned to watch the weather out of respect for flash flooding through the washes we walked.

We came home with pockets heavy with treasure. Dark, mysteriously textured rocks that he told us were fossilized digested stomach material from dinosaurs. Sometimes those rocks became fossilized dinosaur poop. I still don’t know what those are.

Best of all was when we came home with sand marbles because those were truly a mystery.

Sand marbles are perfectly round, depending on how they have weathered. Most have a seam around them that you can break the marble open along. Inside is a small replica of the outer marble that lifts out. Someone once told me these were iron geodes but that didn’t explain that inner marble. 

My uncle said he took the marbles to a geologist one time and tests revealed a miniscule fossilized insect at the center of the inner marble. But that didn’t explain the formation of the outer marble or the seam. 

I’ve never found out what they actually are, even though I belong to a rock hound group. And honestly, I’m not sure I want to know. We should all have a little mystery in our lives.

When our son decided he wanted to be an archaeologist (age about five) he was given a paintbrush and followed my uncle into the badlands for his first ‘excavation’. He found a petrified lower jaw of a buffalo with the teeth still intact. 

That barren land was rich in stories and magic.

My family still looks for rocks; whether it’s seeking agates at the ocean, or just pretty stones that catch our eye when out walking. Our windowsills are lined with agates that glow when the sun shines through them. 

The last time I went into the badlands with my uncle I followed him as he sweated and huffed and puffed his way into the hills, picking up treasures with his three-fingered hand. I worried about his age and his weight. I worried when he did his usual disappearing act, going off alone. And as always I was profoundly relieved when we finally saw his silhouette high above us against the skyline, returning to us.

He always returned.

Until a week ago when COVID-19 took him. 

The Conversation Went Like This…

‘I need some severed body parts.’

‘I know a couple people I can ask.’

‘Okay, I’ve got a leg, a foot, and two hands.’

‘Daaannnggg…did they struggle much?’

‘No, but they won’t be late on their bill again.’

This was the conversation between myself and a friend recently, with some work-related humor at the end. Obviously I’m not collecting real body parts. I was looking for props for the upcoming filming of a book trailer.

It got me thinking, though, of other similar situations where things could be misconstrued if overheard.

I have a friend who used to be in a mystery writer’s group called ‘Women Who Kill’. I thought they should make tee-shirts.

There was the time, as I’ve posted about before, when a friend popped into a meeting at work, to say, thoroughly disgusted, ‘I can’t believe you killed Kelly!’ and then left without explaining that Kelly was a character in a book.

There was the time I sent an email to a forensic scientist asking what a body would look like if left in a cave in the Pacific Northwest for a month in the winter.

There was a writer’s resource group that had guest speakers talk about how to poison people, how to use a knife in a fight, how to have a gun not be traced back to you…and they met in a corner of a large bookstore. I’m sure they were overheard regularly.

And of course there’s always the gleeful conversations at coffee shops and restaurants when writers get together to brainstorm plot ideas and what awful things they can do to their characters to create conflict and tension. I bet those are fun for others to listen in on. Or at least, fun once they figure out what is going on.

In the meantime, I’m now on the hunt for blood…

On The Nature Of Tears

(There is a link at the bottom of this blog for a song called ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ by Max Richter. I paraphrased that title for the title of this post, and it is a perfect background music to read this by.)

As most of you know, this blog started out years ago as a way to engage my radiation-fried brain with words again. I thought if I wrote about writing, stories would come to rest on my shoulder, would begin to whisper to me.

So I started a blog about writing and those early posts were self-conscious and stilted. When I relaxed, words relaxed. When I just chatted about day to day things, friends settled around and joined their words to mine. When I told funny stories about my life, people came closer. I never paid attention to numbers of ‘likes’ or numbers of followers as that wasn’t what the blog was about. I chose to pay extra to keep the blog free of ads because it also wasn’t about making money.

It was about me, rebuilding a loving and respectful relationship with stories and with anyone who wanted to tell me a story.

But then I was hit hard, slammed into broadside, by loss and it came out in posts about grief. I didn’t mean it to be that way; I was just writing what had to come out.

Those posts, for some reason, resonated with people to the point where I was getting almost two hundred emails a day.

Today, I’m thinking about a recent loss of a friend and how the family is hurting and how this damn virus doesn’t allow us to come together to grieve.

This newest loss also has me thinking about the nature of loss. What is it about sadness that so resonates with us? Why do more people respond to grieving than to laughter? Yes, we’ve all been touched by grief, but we have also been touched by laughter and kindness and caring.

And why is it that those things like caring, reaching out, feel-good-stories, bring tears to our eyes and feel like tiny pieces of grief?

Why do we laugh until we cry?

Why do I get teary watching the underdog come from behind?

Why do I feel teary sitting here writing about being teary?

Obviously I’m no psychiatrist. I don’t know anything about how all this works.

But I want to know why, sometimes, deep grief feels sacred.

I want to know why sadness and loss pull people together, bring strangers out to help each other, even more so than celebrations.

I want to know why those stories make us bend closer to reach out and touch, partake, share.

There’s got to be something deeper going on than the simple glib answers about loss making us realize what’s important, or showing us our own mortality.

There’s something ancient here, something maybe genetic, that makes grief so incredibly powerful.

I don’t understand, but when I feel it, or when I see it in others, I recognize it.

Whatever ‘it’ is.

And I feel part of it.