During these last weeks, as you and Sarah, Wuck, labored to deliver a precious new child into our world, as I read both your letters, much of the west coast was on fire.
Smoke from mountains ablaze in California, Oregon, Eastern Washington, and Canada drifted hundreds of miles, from north, south, and east—all around—and <quote-01>piled into the Skagit Valley here<quote-01>. We could barely see the streetlights from our front room. For a week our little family had a true quarantine; the great outdoors were now toxic. We only stepped outside for a quick and necessary car ride, and even then I got headaches while driving. Abram didn’t understand why we couldn’t even ride his scooter out front. The air was a menacing brown haze pressing against the windows.
When the smoke finally eased—just enough for a hint of blue through the higher clouds—I took Abram to the creek.
These are the same Samish River headwaters where Abram and I watched the first autumn leaf fall weeks ago. He held his little cake pop for an hour—clutched it in one hand while his other held mine—as we waded the current and braved the uneven stones for the first time in his life. This second visit, though, we went in hopes of spotting some returning king salmon—some chinook.
He sat on my shoulders as we watched the still, shallow water. I explained to him how these huge fish we hoped to see were once little baby fishies in this exact creekbed. They’ve been out in the dark ocean, I told him, growing bigger and bigger, only to come home now, years later, to their exact birthplace, to make more baby fishies and then die.
“Oooohhhhh,” he said happily, with no registered concern for mortality.
In the distance, a sharp dorsal edge broke the smooth surface and slipped back under. Then the waters stirred in one direction, like a shark coming toward us.
I recorded a phone video of some of this surface gazing, this waiting, and texted it to you both. You, Wuck, seemed more interested in our background dialogue and sent the same video back to us through a black and white filter, some upbeat, folksy guitar music in the background. You and Casey improvising, “jamming,” you told us later.
Abram has been listening to the John Williams Essentials playlist ever since his Star Wars obsession began this Spring. The third track in the mix, after his favorite “Imperial March,” is the famous bit from Jaws, actually titled “First Victim.” He just calls it Shark Music. He hasn’t seen the movie, of course (that’d be cruel at his age and with his explosive imagination). But those two bass cello strokes make his eyebrows arch and his head turn toward me from wherever he is: the living room or back seat or my lap. So as the immense ripples advanced in that still creek pool, he knew exactly what notes to sing in his little voice just above my head.
“Let’s get our fishing pole, Daddy!” he said. We got him his first this summer, a little Star Wars one with an R2-D2 domed reel-spool. I laughed and told him these salmon would snap that shit on the first take.
One green-and-cabernet chinook the size of a toddler arched its tired body—they’ve been journeying as far as Alaska, Baja, and Japan for God’s sake—out of the quiet waters. Though it was smooth, this motion, my gut seized at its breadth. I saw a dirty pink lure stuck in its side. It had survived the gauntlet of treble-hooked fisherman at the mouth of the river to make it this far, to its remembered river bed.
I’m wondering as I write this, Wuck, about when—or if—you’ll find your way back to the Pacific Coast, return to the quiet avenues of our upbringing with Sarah and Ben, <quote-02>maybe for good<quote-02>. <quote-03>I greedily imagine you crossing the continent, through interstate tributaries, through smoke and fire, through kidney stones and nursing and diaper rest stops, the way Casey returned to his childhood creek at such a mortally perfect moment<quote-03>.
After Abram and I had watched for another twenty minutes or so, we also turned upstream, towards our own home. Behind us, several of these salmon began thrashing in the shallows—their spawning redds—violent as some aquatic dogfight. It was so loud we could hear it from fifty yards upstream. We turned to see the splashes explode into the yellowing trees above.
Males can get aggressive on the spawn, defensive of their patch of pebble, as they prepare the stony riverbed where the female will lay her fire-red eggs. With their tired bodies, they pound and shovel loose a fresh bed with a primal surge of final power. That accounts for some of the thrashing, but the females play their part too. Their backs and bellies are constipated with a firm pack of those fertile rubies, so they slam their own smooth bodies against the stones, writhing in electric motion, to loosen it all up inside, so they can deliver them to a colder resting place. The males then thrash some more, covering the tiny eggs with stones, like a burial. Once tucked into the dark and cold—buried there in the riverbed—those eggs appear almost to glow.
Abram and I both stood and stared at the booming and splashing; I didn’t think to get my phone out to record it. I didn’t even try to explain any of this to Abram.
There’s so much boom and splash lately. Some days we stand and stare. Other days we try to explain—the reading, the news, the online forums, and circles of friends.
Your birth story, Wuck, and these spawning salmon, remind me there is rarely an arrival of new life without some struggle, some frenzy—maybe even some terror. The transition between generations is rarely the smooth event we imagine.
In these same last few days—the first of fall—RBG finally collapsed in her fight to stay alive and thereby protect a fragile democratic institution. Is a storm coming, I wonder.
The weather outside my windows here seems to suggest as much:
After the smoke finally retreated and <quote-04>a bold blue sky rose triumphant and stunning over our valley on Monday, dark clouds moved in fast<quote-04>. I was riding my bike to the park down the street—Abram in tow in a rickety trailer some friends gave us—when the wind pressed against our little caravan. Early raindrops were needles in our eyes. As I write you both now, the next morning, I’m looking out a window vibrating in the literally-howling wind and splattering sideways rain. The big weeping birch in the backyard is thrashing in crazy whorls like some head of hair against an industrial hair dryer.
There’s a clash of weather systems.
Yesterday the officers who killed Breonna Taylor weren’t even charged with her murder let alone convicted.
The same day <quote-05>Trump<quote-05> once again refused to assure the public he’d commit to a peaceful transfer of power, no matter the election results. “<quote-06>We’ll see what happens<quote-06>,” he said. Unarmed families in cotton masks are risking the streets to shout their pain once again; walls of helmets and shields, automatic weapons and tanks, rise around them—more than the last time. The grief and tension, the horizon of authoritarian power—they are all mounting. My friends in Guatemala tell me this looks all too familiar. <quote-07>I’m honestly scared<quote-07>.
<quote-08>I often find myself alone<quote-08> in that Covid-emptied church down the street, taking collect calls from prisons, dodging the ceiling dust and debris that fall onto my head and desk as a construction crew races to replace the roof before winter. I bite my nails and write more “learning modules” for my One Parish One Prisoner program. This last week I finally tackled one I’ve avoided for months—”When They Disappear”—helping community members in these relationship teams cope with losing hold of their newly released friend, normalizing what can feel like disaster. They are likely relapsing, I write in the module, crumbling under the weight of their new life, facing a future that scares them, so much of their history still unhealed within them. They almost re-bury themselves, I wrote.
Jesus wept at his friend Lazarus’ tomb; I like to think it was during this weeping that Lazarus began to glow, buried behind the stone, like those salmon eggs.
What I really want to do right now is step outside, grab a smoke in the wind and rain, but the small courtyard beside my office, a little garden designed for prayer and reflection, is now a pile of roofing debris and overgrown weeds swirling about in the weather.
Back at home, Rachel cries out in sudden pain almost hourly. It startles me, puts me on edge for minutes afterwards. This new baby is kicking, turning, stretching inside her like Abram never did.
I want to follow my own themes here, tell myself that the thrashing within and without, the immense ripples moving across the land, the sudden uproar breaking the surface, they can be the first signs of new life. Maybe that’s what I see rising not just in the streets but all over, something just now breaking the surface. The Washington Department of Corrections decided this month to dramatically reduce prison costs and populations; that constipated old system is cracking and loosening and unloading thousands of souls into the streets to start new lives. Is this that something? I don’t know. When a mother goes into “transition”—I’m re-reading the midwifing materials with Rachel now—she often feels like she’s dying, <quote-09>like she’s ready to give up<quote-09>. My role as the partner-coach is to normalize this painful moment, encourage Rachel in travail: “You made it to transition, babe! This means the baby’s almost here!”
I wish I could be so sure about the larger contractions and outcries happening these past months—happening still in this land between us three. I wish I knew what role to play to help our generation embrace this pain, encourage our collective transformation in and through it.
I’ll say it again: I’m scared. Scared the fruits of such labor may be dead upon delivery.
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