A Charlie Brown Christmas

I called home today – the home home. The home of my youth, of my family, where my mother sits. On the porch swing, admiring the weather, the bright hues of tulips and yellow jonquils blooming, how green the grass is, what 70 degrees feels like after a long winter. My phone call went to voicemail. Or I guess we don’t call it voicemail when it involves the land line. It went to the answering machine, where my Dad’s voice greeted me – suspended in time, maybe 10 years ago, perhaps less.

I didn’t cry. I didn’t hang up (usually I quicken to call my mom’s cell phone – or, worst case, wonder if I should phone the police because where would she be right now?). I didn’t move. I didn’t breathe.

I let it really wash over me and for those 12 seconds, I got to pretend that life was as it always has been.

Hi Dad.

What I wouldn’t give for that simple sentence to be returned.

After the beep, I hung up, set the phone down in my lap, and I let myself get carried away on the cloud of that voice.

His voice was clear, strong. Deep but not a baritone. Warm.

In my memory, his voice could be stern, sharp and punctuated, like any voice. But mostly, it was rich, full of a life force, that liked to take its time and soak things in. And the mischief often in his eyes could forever be heard in the teasing lilt of his voice.

It occurred to me that my daughter, 21 months into her young life, has never heard that voice. The voice that would speak millions of words to me over the 40 years we had together, impart guidance and cajoling and parenting and wisdom and exasperation and answers and questions and poems and quips and songs and coming up with some confident statement on-the-fly that was likely some creative interpretation of the truth about living. Which is, I suppose, what we are always doing all the time. My dad just had a grander way of delivering it.

All of that, and she doesn’t know it.

I sit and wonder, at what point do I play it to her? Do I start now, and have all the snippets and videos and voice memos become baked into her memories too, so that she won’t ever feel like she was without him? So that she won’t ever feel like there was a before and an after?

Today, of all days, my mom got back a recordable storybook, “A Charlie Brown’s Christmas.” She and my dad created it for Mike and me in 2011, the first Christmas we were married.

A few months back, when tidying up the shelves, I found the book, long forgotten and buried under other books. My heart skipped, as I fumbled it open and pressed the button to hear the recording. It kept catching, no discernable words coming out. I quickly got a screwdriver and pried open the battery case. Only to discover the batteries surrounded by blue crystals, acid leaked out, dried up. I cleaned and messed with the springs, installed new batteries. Still no luck.

When my mom visited last month, I brought out the book from the safe place I was storing it, folded in a clean cloth in the closet. Seeing her own handwriting on the book and the dated year, she breathed in quickly and exhaled a soft “Oh.”

We were in a predicament. But my mom and dad have always known people. She said, “let me take it home and ask the sound guy or maybe Glen Sies. I think he did some work for someone on electrical things and refurbishing old radios or tvs before. I heard he still tinkers around. Maybe one of them can figure it out.” This is when I most miss my home home and people who know people who know how to do things.

Tonight, I did call my mom on her cell phone, as she sat on the porch swing, listening to the trains come and go and kids on bikes get fainter as they rode up the street. I imagined the sun setting at her back. She asked, “Did you get the video clip I sent? The book came back.”

After getting Celeste into her crib for the night, I made a cup of tea and settled into the pillows in my bed. I opened my phone and found the video clip. Now it was me breathing in quickly.

I pressed play. Loud and clear, my mom said, “The name of this book is a Charlie Brown Christmas, by Charles Schulz. A gift for Meaghan and Mike.”

And then my dad, “and any future little Campbell kids. Read to you by Mom and Dad in 2011. With all of our love.”

I set my phone down in my lap again.

I think to myself, “yes, I will play this. I will play it all for her.”

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As she grows

I watch her

in my 40s now

It’s called horizontal parenting

She jumps, just starting to get a whisp of air time

both feet inflight at once

She dances to the beat in her body

I tell her she can always find the beat with her heart

if she listens for it

She spins around one way

over and over and over and over


absolutely dizzy

bumping the table

then the couch

rolling onto the ground near me

I am still, except for my belly’s rise and fall

with laughter

She is still for three seconds

I count

Up and running again

“La pequena vaca, the little cow,” I say

“Torro torro, bull bull,” I say

“Corre corre corre, run run run,” I say

Her excitement builds as she

swings her arms back

kicks her left leg

leans forward and

charges towards me

The parenting books call them gross motor skills

the large muscles in her arms, legs and torso synapsing

neuron to neuron to muscle

And, I am here






on the floor

with arms wide

Can you imagine what this unfurling feels like?

her unfurling

her unfolding

the process of self-discovery

nearly 10 months spent curled unto herself

an occasional satisfying stretch here and there

until she mapped the confines of that first home with her small palms

and delicate fingers

when they decided to move, voluntarily, involuntarily, and brush up against the walls

The next months in a swaddle

for safety, for comfort, for the familiar

then one arm out, both arms out

a transition  

always in a transition

this breakthrough of movement,

this awe

this fascination

to now

to this moment

where my body wants more and more to rest

to find the quiet calm

to slow it down


and watch itself age

with its own grief

its own release

as I watch her age

We are on different trajectories

and almanacs

hurtling through space and seasons

we cross paths

her upright, defying gravity

me draped over the earth


At least, today

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Kelly-green tie

After he died, we stayed with his body, in their bedroom, in the house they have been in for 50 years. For hours. In and out. Crying, laughing. Staying busy, being idle.

He had on a favorite grey Notre Dame t-shirt, cut apart in the back so it could easily slip across his arms and chest. A feeling of normalcy, of cozy, of himself, rather than a hospital gown, provided by hospice, worn by others.

I thought at the last minute, while the funeral director was there with the gurney, “Oh, Dad needs to put some shorts on.” We had tried to keep him comfortable and just had a blanket draped over his legs for the last several days. We grabbed a pair of well-worn navy blue mesh shorts and slid them up his thinned and bruised legs. Off he went.

It was only yesterday, now nearly 3 years since that day, that my mom quietly reminded us, “Dad wanted to be buried, to be cremated in that suit he wore to your wedding. With the Kelly-green tie. We didn’t do that. We had a few other things going on.” She half-sighed.

So, wherever you are, Dad, transcending on and on into the air and the dust and the water droplets that have broken our years-long drought, beyond the limits of the atmosphere and into the universe, going back to the star from which you came, we’re holding onto that tie for you.

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Sing aloud my grief

How many things do I bury without even a song, rather, instead, moving forward, moving away, moving on, moving?

A glimmer of hope, passed.

A bubble-gum-pink camellia blossom, overflowing onto itself, taken down to the ground by the weight of its own beauty.

A tear, running down my left cheek.

A reason to turn left.

A missing sock.

A ladybug, upside down in the windowsill, the sun’s heat quickly turning it to dust.

A family heirloom, shattered.

A species of grasshopper, extinct.

A treatment, failed.

A glass of water, spilled, in a drought.

A language disappeared along with its speakers and a whole way of relating to, understanding the world.

A fallen leaf at the end of its time on the mother tree.

A fire in my belly, extinguished.

A wetland, receding.

A sob, swallowed, as I look in my rearview mirror at her standing on the curb.

A daughter, never again being an infant.

Why don’t I sing to lift up, to give voice to my sorrow?

Why don’t I sing aloud my grief at the breaking as I go?

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Nom nom

“Mmmmmmmmmmm nom nom” is the sound she makes, intonating up and down, crescendoing as she exhales. She perches in her orange high chair at mealtime. Her hands are stretched towards the ceiling, twisting at the wrist in circles and her legs are outstretched, feet twirling at the ankles. An orchestrated dance. And she chews and masticates and delights in whatever she managed to get into her mouth. Maybe it was coconut yogurt and pineapple. Tonight, enchiladas. It doesn’t matter.

The little lip smacks she makes while she stares intently at her plate.

Determining with her eyes now what her pincer grasp, the one she’s been working so hard on for all these months, laser-like now its precision, will next grab.

This noise. I want to bottle it up. Record it on a loop. Store it in my memory when I need to have a reset, to feel small again and get wonder at how I’ve landed in the universe. Remind myself that we all learn things, like how to bring food to our mouths, with precision, then bite, chew and swallow. Over and over again. We do this – and she’s learning how – to stay alive, to have sustenance, to live our culture, to break bread together, to restore and connect, to linger, to become a family, one meal around the dining table at a time.

Before her, I couldn’t dream of enjoying these sounds, the sounds of being human.

And yet now, here I am. Letting the smash and mash, moan and groan, snap and crunch, gulp and murmur sit across the table from me.

And I too am savoring it.

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The shared word for a shared place.

Where the Mississippi river meets

the Atchafalaya river

meets the Gulf.

Estuaries filled with shrimp and speckled trout,

egret and osprey, cypress swamps, oyster reefs.

Where people and tongues and cultures and inflections

have always mixed.

How copper got to the Arctic and turquoise

to the Caribbean, glass beads and buttons distributed

to the far reaches.


We’re still here, they say.

Bulbancha never left, its long tendrils from the past

unfurling themselves into the future to grab

what is rightfully theirs, reclaim and revive.

Native voices rising, along with the rising tides,

the rising heat, the rising anger.


The landing place for the life force that splits

a continent in half, the river waving, rolling

over landscapes far and wide, back and forth

with glacial time.

Cartographer Harold Fisk capturing

the meander maps for us to marvel

the river that has a will of its own.

Its ever-shifting banks, alluvial valleys,

just causalities in its innocence

and its vengeance.


On top of which the colonizers paved,

dug new courses, cleared logjams,

installed floodgates with barges and donkeys,

later levees and pumps and electrical failures

12 feet of water on top

of below-sea-level-ground. Digging canals

to dig for pipelines to dig for oil,

the silt and saltwater intrusion a shock.

The high water table, liquid in the darkness

always moving and shifting below

unsteady ground. Causing corpses

to rise up too, outstretched hands,

no longer able to bury the past,

to ignore history,

when it is reaching for you.

Written 2022 after a visit to New Orleans

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I cried today

I cried today.

I remember the point after which my dad died, maybe it was four months, perhaps five, where I didn’t cry every day. Maybe it was some indicator of a new stage of grief. Or maybe it was the physical proximity of that bed, that room, that house, that town, that state having more states between us now. All the physical reminders of death and dying, of hospice and stacks of sympathy cards, an airplane ride away.

The crying today caught me by surprise.

I was careening down highway 280.

It was my first day back in the office since February 2020, first day commuting. Since I decided to become a parent. Since I lost a parent. Since so much living and dying has happened. Since there was a moment I fell in love and my dad wished he could have been there even though he was there. Since silences fill spaces, complete with the tick and tock of the tall grandfather clock in the family room. Since my mom doesn’t have a need to use her voice all day.

I was careening down highway 280. I’ve written this sentence before.

That highway brings up so much.

When my work moved from the Presidio with views of the shimmering golden gate to a business park in the valley, when there was a bubble, when there was a recession, when I got married, when I sat idling in the pouring sheets of rain, when I got the phone call that it “was not good,“ that I had breast cancer, when I almost hit a deer, when I sat on so many family conference calls navigating my dad’s treatment plan, when I swerved to avoid a collision in the first bright ray of a morning sunrise, when I saw the reservoir drop so low, when I became old enough to wear driving gloves to protect my hands from the California sun.


This was my first time waking before my daughter, quietly getting ready, turning off the house alarm, scurrying down the block to my car in the dark, cranking the heat and kicking it into drive. All before 645am. She would be gently sleeping for nearly another hour.

No morning hugs, no morning books in bed in our pajamas, no helping me make my tea, no stretching out the minutes until the day started.

How many caregivers have had to sacrifice this, have never gotten this chance, have not been able to luxuriate in the soft joys of soft mornings?

This road, these phase shifts, the endings and beginnings.

The crying today shouldn’t have caught me by surprise.

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What is this land if not always changing?

What is this land if not always changing?

The arid grass and live oak landscape, co-evolved with the rise and fall of the oceans. Expansion and contraction of the earth itself, as each turn causes an inhale and an exhale. Sturdy trees with roots deeper than our souls, mother trees tending the social creatures, all connected and talking to one another on scales not yet understood, sharing sustenance and calls for distress, and all the while, providing so much – a home, a shelter, a food, a calendar with its signal of verdant buds to tell when the bears would wake up, a provider of dye for tattoos to signify an age and a readiness, a medicine to heal infected wounds.

Razed to make way for the animals, carried here across ocean basins, grazing, stomping, snorting, kicking up dust in their wake, dropping invasive seeds here and there, turning over soil faster than it cared to be.

Then orchards. The jewels of red, orange, yellow, tangerine citrus dotting the deep green and dusty brown hillsides. Giving way to soft-skinned apricots and deep purple figs. The ground kept and swept empty between to avoid any competition for dwindling water tables.

Onward we go to the hilltop multi-million-dollar homes, set against a backdrop of pink sunsets, cloud-free skies, bluebird days across the coastal mountain ranges. Silicon, devices, attention dispersed, looking down rather than at the sky, looking down rather that at each other, the noise so loud we cannot hear the messages from in front of us and from the beyond.

To whatever comes next.

Fire and water and mud taking back what was always theirs. They lay in wait for years, centuries, plotting and maneuvering. Until the skies opened and rained down hail, thunder reverberated through chest cavities and between heartbeats, and lightning illuminated the world as it is and as it was, if even for a moment.

Does the land know how to return to itself?

What is this land if not always changing.

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Can you imagine

Can you imagine

What it is

To be wrapped in silk

Its soft, indulgent embrace

Undemanding in its inquiry,

its invitation,

Its holding.

Just to be held

The silk spinning around you

Over and over again.

Once, twice, 100 times, 1000 times.

And still it goes.

Can you imagine

What it is

To be hanging, suspended in the air

disarming gravity.

A marvel.

A miracle.

The silk pad so strong

The breeze not enough

The earthquakes not enough

The rivers in the atmosphere not enough

The heat waves not enough

The tidal waves not enough

To shake you.

To shake me.

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What would I gain?

I sit flipping through the photo albums and the snapshots in my brain, thinking of this city, town, hamlet, blink-and-you-miss-it place that I’ve loved. There are so many places to love and that many more reasons to love them. The creamy sand dunes around Sidi Bouzid, the hunter green projected on Vancouver’s north shore, the periwinkles of the sea around Beaufort’s inner coastal waterway, the rainbow of terra cottas in Rajasthan. The golden bell within Kuala Lumpur’s Batu Caves.

How only so many generations ago, dreaming of those places, seeing pictures of those places, traveling to those places, visiting and then falling in love with and then living in those places was not a thing. In any one lifetime.

And yet, how nomadic has become a trend, an escape, an option, when it was once the norm.

How we have come full circle.

The explorers turned conquistadors and colonizers bent this trajectory, while burning down their own homes in the wake. Smoldering piles at their backs.

Thomas King says of settlers like me, essentially, “Watch out. It’s as though they always have one foot on land and one on the boat.”

I feel that in my bones.

My DNA a curated scattershot from across Europe. Is that my homeland?

I think of the tall grass-green corn stalks and their thin golden tassels of mid-July surrounding my birthplace in southern Illinois. The Myaamia, the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, the Kaskaskia, the Kickapoo, the O-ga-xpa Ma-zhoⁿ, the Osage and before them, the pre-Colombian Cahokia building the largest city and burial grounds North of Mexico.

Is that my homeland too?

If it is – and it is – why was I so urgently seeking to leave it, even if I love it? To bolt, my shoelaces tied, body posed at the starting blocks, muscles twitching.

What would it be like to know a place, to stay rooted in it forever and ever. Knowing it so intimately – where this spring leads to and what’s beyond that dead end. The dew point at which that the grasshoppers quiet their voices. The time when the deer shed antlers to reveal their soft, downy velvet underneath. The right moment to plant a tomato from seed. When the north winds blow, from all the way from the Arctic ocean’s shores, where they pass over so many heads before they pass over mine, what it means I need to do to keep the fire from working its way out too quickly. The temperature and cloud cover that are just right for the chlorophyll to break down, for the leaves to die, the green pigment to disappear, and the yellow, orange and red carotenes to become vibrantly visible to me. And why the jonquils decide to come when they do as the day gains light at its own pace.

One place. Generation after generation. What would I give up to know these things, to breath them in, to shift my compass to a new north star. Or rather, is the question, what would I gain?

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