First Dispatch from Bow Hill

My Aunt Sheila says it takes two weeks in your new house not to feel like you’re just on a  bad vacation. And she’s right.

I have moved a lot in my short life and I hate it so much that I wonder why I keep doing it. I am a person that loves to make is fluffy little nest to retreat to away from people and things. I am a person who is very good at doing nothing at all. I will make any excuse to “rest”, “recharge”, “take it easy”. In other generations that would have been called “lazy.” But I am lucky enough to live now in the era of “self-care, ” that most ego-centric of past times. I am a person who very unapologetically puts myself first. Always have been.

“No, I don’t want to.”

“No, don’t put capers on that.”

“Ugh, I hate this place, I’m leaving.”

“Yeah, that’s not going to work for me.”


“No, I brought my own wine.”

Are all things that you may have heard me say. Periodically, through out the day. Even to my kids! (GASP!) I am historically not great at transitions, although I seem to go through them, a lot, by choice (i.e. kids, marriage, moving constantly). But perhaps I keep returning to the things that cause me trauma because I am a sadist? Perhaps. Maybe I just love hard exhausting things because everyone else says “wow you must be so tired” and then I get to go rest a lot afterwards while being congratulated.  That sounds right.


I hear my husband say things like “I could never just hang out, I need a project, I like hard work.” I think he has a mental illness. I hate hard work, and I think people who like it are weird. If I could, I would just sit around all day drinking coffee and reading every single page in The New Yorker, which is easily, my favorite thing to do.


Yesterday and the day before we chipped up what felt like an entire forest of branches that had to come down of the surrounding trees. I got the worst blister of my life. Rob even took down two massive old dead Hemlocks with a chainsaw. Which was, the highlight of the day, because I got to watch someone else work super hard.  And watching a massive tree fall is nothing less, than thrilling. Especially, if you haven’t watched TV in a month.


There is an indescribable amount of hard work that this property and house require and I am so, not, prepared or looking forward to any of it. Also, it has occurred to me, that I am just about the least qualified person to buy and fix up a 100 year old farm house and try to build a working farm on it.

Rob is better suited to just about everything around here. It’s too bad, none of these weeds, dead trees, overgrown blackberries,  or rat-infested sheds, would respond to critical analysis, or a deeply cutting remark, in which case,  I would actually be useful as something other than a warm body, who makes sandwiches, and coffee, I DO make the best coffee of anyone in the family.


Rob absolutely excels at all things domestic. He is an amazing cook, carpenter, gardener, parent, wood chopper (the list could continue for three pages). I am excellent at things that are not useful in a survival situation, which, for us has always worked fantastic in an urban setting. But, here, it seems, my lack of domestic skill is exaggerated, in a way that feels unbalanced.

I analyze the weather.  I change diapers and do dishes. I assist in raking, weeding, and trimming. I mitigate toddler misbehavior. I demand apologies from children, and bribe or cajole them into eating, washing, and sleeping.



I spend about an hour every afternoon on my knees, in the front yard,  with my headphones in, listening to a podcast or an audio-book while I rip up decades of grass and weeds. Someone, more than 40 years ago, paved an intricate stone pathway connecting the side door to the original front door and covered porch.  It is well built, shaped nicely, adds stairs around the steeper parts of the yard. They must have spent weeks on it.

Judy, the previous owner has no more information for me. It was like that when I bought it. She says, with a shrug, and she walks back to her truck with an armful of mail.

But I make up stories about this person. With at least two truck beds of stones, piling, sorting through each one. Digging out the holes, trying out different ones, like a massive nonsensical puzzle. What a delightful project it must have been. They must have really been trying to avoid something way harder than that.

My trowel clinks and scrapes as I peel back the mat of grass and dirt. Bugs, bags of spider eggs, worms, beetles slugs dive and scuttle to avoid my advance. Like the Russian front. Being discouraged only by nature in her power to dwarf human ambition.


Humans have always harnessed death and decay to advance life. When something dies it adds richness, sticky nutrition. Serving a purpose. Death is not senseless in the garden. It makes way and nourishes the new. Time’s up spiders. We will be using this pathway anew.

Composting, for instance. Rob is in the middle stage of building a 3 bay composting system where we will  dump our cast offs from the kitchen and garden, and they will rot  and become something rich and fantastic. Again, Rob is so, so good at this.


In the evenings I nurse my wounds in warm water,  and pick dirt out of my nails. I slather all kinds of potions on my crackling skin. I make Rob dig out splinters while I whimper. My body stiffens and aches upon waking from the deadest sleep I’ve ever had.  One day we will look back on the first year in this house and feel a rewarding sense of accomplishment and then we can go take a well deserved nap.




Holy Terror

Today, you are 25 years old, it is foggy. You will walk down to the beach and drink a cup of coffee. You will sit in the cool sand dunes and watch the barges crawl under the bridge. You will think about your Grandma falling to bits and pieces with the decline of her body. In one moment of clarity last week, sitting on the sunny deck, she turned to you, tearing her eyes away from her Danielle Steele novel to inspect your tattoos and say,

“Molly, by God, you are a holy terror.” Then she turned back to wherever she came from, silently.

You will think about your own vanity, and how you would rather throw yourself off the bridge than ever ever get that frighteningly lost in your own mind. You think about your Dad who needs a hip replacement and your cousin who broke her femur mountain biking. You’ve never broken anything. probably because you never went mountain biking or sky diving or anything physically risky. You are not a physical risk-taker. You would rather read a biography of Lincoln than scuba dive. You wonder if it is strange that you have absolutely no desire to scuba dive, or sky dive, or high dive, or cliff dive. Even roller coasters seem like a pointless activity. But you are not against pointless activities, just ones where the end result is a burst of adrenaline.

Ruling out “extreme” as one on your list of addictions you find that your case is worse. You are a heartbreak junkie. Any kind of heartbreak, any kind of disappointment, whether it be bagel, career or boyfriend related. You stop in the middle of the wet street on a foggy night to examine the beauty of telephone wires. It’s really, really pathetic. But There is no adrenaline like the drop kick and splat of your dreams getting painted across the ground like some fat ass possum in the road at the wrong time. Its like childbirth, in that, you never learn. You forget each time how utterly awful it is. But at the same time how thrilling, how basic, how human. Dad calls this phenomenon the “underwater explosion”, people wont know what happened until days later, a rogue wave hits like a sledge hammer for no visible reason. The unseen daily sky diving of a self-important overly dramatic artist type.

Emotional free-fall, much more frightening than cliff diving, therefore… no need to cliff dive.

So, being 25, essentially homeless, directionless, and suffering from a severe form of mental constipation and daily “underwater explosions.” Well, at least you have a new job that is the most rewarding and bearable one you have had since pedaling cupcakes: day time bartender at fancy beer place in small affluent mountain town. Complete with all the hip trappings of modern gastronomy, including some of the old favs: Blue Bottle Coffee, a cheese menu, decorative animal skulls, unfinished wooden furniture, family dog, German things, no TV.

The patrons are salt and gold; English tourists with popped collars, local middle-aged men in colorful polo shirts, young loud construction workers, lesbians of all shapes and sizes, owners of hip clothing lines with black AMEX cards and small cherub offspring, dogs, bikes.

You love the daily aspect of it, you love that there is nothing but the weather and “business” to talk about. No larger existential questions need be answered at any given time of day. It was busy or it was slow, it was hot or cold, or “lovely” today. The patrons learn – and use – your first name. There is a very minimal amount of math involved.

You have a job, and a place to sleep, you are not in Afghanistan, everything else is gravy. You take time to appreciate the sound of your foot steps, really just how quiet it is here. You focus on the feeling of yellow sun on the back of your neck as you eat a turkey sandwich. You get up early. You learn how to say “Weinstephaner” correctly, and what the difference is between an Ale and a Lager.

You sit in front of a blank piece of paper after dinner and wait for something to happen. If nothing, then maybe tomorrow. You write down things like ” going to sleep after drinking a cup of coffee, ” and ” This whole year is lost to some kind of pale appreciation of afternoon light. Nothing gets done, I am happy.”

You stare for hours at a banana slug slurping its way up the window screen leaving a honeyed trail. Tomorrow you will write a story about a man who takes a bath after being in prison for 17 years. You will try to describe it. It will probably suck.

Prepare for Landing

There is a dip and a pull, like a hand tugging at the root of your tongue.

Good evening ladies and gentleman, we will be arriving at Burbank, Bob Hope Airport in about 30 minutes, the temperature is 75 degrees and the time is now 8:12 PM.

The lady next to you is still pounding Chardonnay. Her kids are draped across the seats, asleep, clutching stuffed armadillos.

We took the kids to see the Alamo, spent the weekend in Dallas. Their dad never showed up.

You nod and say how cute they are. Even though they spent the better part of the past 3 hours throwing pretzels at each other and scream-laughing.

You tell her about visiting your old friends from highschool, how one of them has two baby boys and her husband is in Afghanistan. You can’t relate, you tell her, but you would do anything for her, and the kids of course. You can’t imagine how hard your friend has to work just to keep it together, just to get up in the morning. She is the strongest, most brave person you know.

The Chardonnay lady confesses that she has never been so lonely as she was this weekend.

Flight attendants, please prepare for landing.

You wonder what it is about strangers, and airports, and honesty. You just nod. There isn’t really anything you can say to this lady. What do you know? You could be her in 15 years. It could be you, a single mom, chugging chardonnay and lecturing some girl in an airport about birth control.

The funniest thing happens when you visit old friends. It feels as if you were never apart. But now, everyone is older, with babies, and husbands, and houses. Then there is you, with less direction and fewer belongings than when you started. You’ve got your back pack and your suitcase, headed west to start over….again. But you always knew you would be the last one to grow up. No surprises.

The dirty martini you had for dinner is starting to make its comeback. You slip on your headphones and hum along to distract. The sun is gone but there is still a light blue glow to the sky. Little houses and buildings spread out in neat rows lit by tiny dots of golden street lamps. You are close enough to see people running around a lit baseball field. Miles and miles of people living in rows. The cars on the freeway are fireflies going in red and white rivers to and from the neighborhoods.

You are coming home. If home means the place where you grew up, than yes, you are coming home. But home is subjective. The place where you grew up is all stucco and cars and hair dye. When you think about it, you never felt at home there. That’s a lie actually, you always felt at home there when you would sit around your friend’s porch shooting the shit and drinking wine. But that is because of the people, not the place. You have to be reminded constantly that you don’t have to identify with the sprawling malls and car dealerships and endless track-housing. Just because you are from there, doesn’t mean it defines you.

But you can’t knock the beaches. The long wide yellowing beaches. Combed and filled to cosmetic perfection. The good people of LA and Ventura County stuff their cars full of colorful plastic furniture and wait in long smoggy lines to get in to the baking parking lot so they can drag their spawn across a quarter-mile of tar-hot sand, to sit in the salt stinging sun and play in the half-ton waves. The water curls and pounds the shore in variations ranging from pale white-blue to deep murky evergreen. And that smell. Like the beginning of the world; salt and decay and mud. Carbon-based life dying and being born at the same time.  But that’s the landscape, it has not home. Maybe the beauty of the place is too important to you, no, it just means you are a romantic.

You find a bench next to a planter in the pick up lane of Bob Hope airport. You drag your giant blue plastic case over to be your foot rest. You lean your head back on the smooth concrete and close your eyes, it smells like jasmine and gasoline. You bum a cigarette from some thin snarling lady and start counting the number of Mercedes verses BMWs that appear. You try to guess who belongs to which car. Then a dusty grey pick up truck appears around the corner and two giant bodies unfurl from the doors and start galumfing towards you. This is home, two big hugs and four man-arms to lift and shove your baggage in the back.  Your “little” brother makes fun of you and then you make fun of his hair. Your Dad makes un-funny jokes and sound effects the whole way home.

You are back at square one again. Life could be compared to a lot of things but the game Shoots and Ladders seems to be the most passive metaphor; you’ll take it.

The next morning you sit at your mother’s dining room table scaning The Ventura County Star and drinking excessive amounts of coffee. You try to write but it is as if there is shredded cotton filling your head instead of a brain.  Your brother tumbles down, grabs the jug of orange juice and a glass and posts up on the couch. You discuss future plans lightly. He is currently paying rent in Montana but has been traveling around working for Transworld on a contract basis and trying to keep Mom out of his hair.

“I’m trying to write,” you say, “But I just can’t, I don’t know what it is.”

He turns and says “I know, it’s like every time I come here it’s like a black hole of creativity.”

You nod. Yep.

The Legend of the Earthquake Kit.

People love to be prepared, they love to talk about being prepared. People love to plan ahead, save stuff, make lists. The earthquake kit is evidence to this. Disaster is always eminent, there are people who spend their lives predicting largely unpredictable things (weather, the justice system, elections, earthquakes, marriages). You grew up in California, where disaster, prediction, and preparedness are the replacement for seasonal weather. Every year: Disaster, preparedness, prediction, prevention. Winter, spring, summer, fall.

This one time, in the summer before fifth grade, your entire family (mom’s side) took a trip to Ireland, the motherland. In preparation for the trip mom bought you all matching Land’s End windbreakers from the catalogue. Very expensive. Your new, clean, slick navy blue coat with white and blue stripes on the inside. It had a pull string at the waist and through the hood. It had that catalog smell. It had book-sized pockets.

“DO NOT LOOSE THESE,” she said “I got them for the trip,” Even Dad had a matching Dad-sized one. You brought it to school one day. You left it outside at recess, probably in a tree, or balled up behind the baseball fields (where you could hide out and read books, and watch other people play marbles). You cried, you didn’t want to tell her. This was bad. Now you would not be prepared for the trip. She would be “Livid,” the word that could make the Hulk feel like a mouse. What you ended up with was this replacement parachute of a slicker – a last-minute K-mart purchase – it was this strange multi-colored geometrical pattern. You were punished by having to wear MC Hammer pants as a jacket.

Months of preparation had gone into this adventure. 4 families, 2 uncles, 9 kids, 8 adults, 4 marriages, 4 car rentals, endless accommodations. Organization of the troops on the opposite side of the coast had to be arranged, parties, lunches, dinners, tea, tea and more tea. A pilgrimage never before attempted in the family’s history. And all those passports to keep track of.

Your unit was known for chronic over-packing, so it came as no surprise to anyone when the Barraza’s showed up at the wet little lump of cottages in County Kerry with no less than 9 bags of luggage for 4 people. Everyone else just shrugged.

You remember little about the trip. Some highlights: The pilot couldn’t land the plane in Shannon until they cleared the runway of sheep, which they happily announced over the intercom. There was a large family reunion at somebody’s gigantic old stone house. All the other kids playing soccer, they looked like baby birds; pale, thin. You shared a birthday party with Cormack and Dermick your second cousins, twin boys, one with black and the other with turnip colored hair. The world cup was going on at the time, so in each car there was a tape of Irish team chants. The train of four packed cars would be sailing along some twisting back country road for hours passing herds upon herds of sheep singing “Ole, Ole, Ole…. something in gallic…” You were often car-sick. At some point while the dad’s were in charge you were left in a pub with your cousin (the only two girls) and wandered around until you found the rest of the herd (dad’s included) eating soft-serve and chocolate bars at a gas station. You went “whale watching” with some random old salty guy in his converted tin row-boat.

The most legendary moment of that trip was about a week in. You were in the kitchen of the little thatched cottage, sitting on the counter, soaking your feet in the sink and reading some historical fiction about the potato famine, (an assignment from grandma) after a day of running around in the wet green grass with improper footwear. Mom and Dad clomped down the stairs arguing.

“Well I thought it was yours, your make-up bag or something.”

“You know what my make-up bag looks like! It’s not this one, I thought this one was yours!”

“It’s not mine! I just have that one little rolling thing.”

There is a black leathery duffel bag in dad’s arm. He drops it on the table in the center of the room with a clunk.

“This yours?” He asks. You shake your head. And he unzips it. He scoffs, looks a little confused, and pulls out a can of peas. He puts it down on the table and pulls out another can of beans, then a flashlight, batteries, a small radio, some juice boxes, band aids, etc. They look at each other and start laughing.

“It must be Ellen’s, ” Mom says between giggles, ” She brought us to the airport, It’s her earthquake kit from the back of her car!”

“You mean we have been carrying around a 30 pound earthquake kit for ten days?” Dad shakes his head, and puts his hands on his hips and leans back and gives the ceiling a long hard “HA!” His laugh of helpless frustration, of disbelief and annoyance. Mom is leaning against the counter.In a half-joke she says, “What if there is an earthquake while we are gone?” We all shrug.

The story quickly spreads around the O’Neill camp. Cottage walls are thin, (metaphorically speaking, cottage walls are actually about 3 feet deep), and boundaries are of no consequence. The Barraza’s brought an earthquake kit all the way to Ireland with them. Everyone knows there hasn’t been snakes or earthquakes since God pumped out Ireland during his morning cigarette break on the 3rd day of creation. So imagine the rounds of jokes fired off during all the ensuing pub-hours. It’s the first story ever told when that trip is brought up. It’s probably the funniest thing to happen besides “The freak with the camera” thing. Which is a whole separate legend for a whole separate post.

The earthquake kit was something of a hot-topic at the time, it was trending. Everyone had one, what was in it was a mark of who you were, its your family nutshell. Ours had blankets, beans, capri-sun, canned peaches, and a “first aid kit,” Basically tiny finger band-aids, bactine, and an old tube of neosporin.

This is a good excercise to do when you are unsure of the direction of your life. What’s in your earthquake kit? What are the basics?

Yours is filled with books, paper, pencils, music. How you are living right now is totally in your nutshell: books, typewriter, assorted dresses, boots, 4 pieces of jewelry, pencils, pens, wine. You had to get your life down to your earthquake kit, to really see clearly what you value, material wise and other wise. Food wise, that’s easy. You would bring sweet potatoes, black beans, hot sauce, tortillas, avocados, apples, and a chocolate bar. You wonder why more people don’t have whiskey in their kits?

At your core, you must always know the contents of your kit, the contents can change but you must always take inventory, because this is your compass. This is what is inside your black box. Sometimes, when you feel stagnant or lost, you have to peel away everything else and just get down to your kit, to really see ahead. When the world starts to suddenly shake and crumble, which it will, you have to know you can survive. You have to keep your kit safe and clean, and fresh, well stocked. Else you be left without any survival materials, or a plan. Thats when the bottom drops out from under you. Don’t get this confused with pessimism. This isn’t the “Always keep your own bank account,” conversation. It’s a simple excercise in preparedness. It’s knowing that no matter what happens, you will survive, because you know you have these things to float on. You gotta be confident in your kit. Trusting your own foresight to get you through the rubble.

That’s what New York was about. Testing out your kit. Seeing what was missing, adding, subtracting, updating; general earthquake kit maintenance. What can you survive on? What do you want to survive on? Who is an essential element? What is the most important thing?

For some, like yourself, an actual physical shedding and essentializing of your possessions and a cross-country move is how you get down to the basics of yourself. Others may just have to take a 3 week yoga retreat to Bali, or a summer feeding children in Africa. Nothing is ever easy for you. And this is your own fault, and there is nothing wrong with that.

It is only when you can get down to the very center of your Tootsie pop that you can look around and see exactly what it is that makes you tick. It’s the most important map you could ever look at. And you love maps. Generally, this generation doesn’t have a map. We sort of flail around from one idealism to another then it’s “HELP! HELP! Somehow I ended up in a healthy relationship and I don’t have a map!” But the good news is, you have your compass all fresh and polished in working order. You may not have a map, but you know you need to go west, and you have a very reliable compass, and a well stocked kit.