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“Once long ago, there was a seal who loved the sea…”

Writing is a strange business sometimes. We think we’re writing for readers, and then it turns out we’re writing for ourselves. We think we’re writing for our present selves, and then it turns out we’re writing for the children-we-were or the adults-we-will be.

Or both. Today I came upon ”Seal Story,” a selkie short I wrote more than a decade ago. Selkie stories are by their nature about the pull between two worlds, and when I wrote this one, I was thinking about my fears around one day becoming a mother, about the tensions between the creative world I already inhabited and the world of parenting, which are often presented as two very different, irreconcilable things.

But when I reread the story today, I found myself thinking instead about losing my own mother, and my struggles with being her adult child—about reconciling her need to be so many things to so many people with figuring out my own place in her life.

I don’t know whether Mom and I ever got to the final version of this story. I do know there are things I need to think about here, though, and that this was a story I needed to reread today.

In case it’s a story you need—or even just want—right now as well, I’m sharing it below.


Seal Story

You know this story.

Once long ago, there was a seal who loved the sea. On bright days she swam through the warm water, while waves crested with foam and salt scented the air. Yet she also loved the land, so on dark nights she shed her skin, took on human form, and danced, not through waves, but on cool, wet sand.

One night a young man caught sight of her, and when he crouched behind the rocks to watch her dance, he also caught sight of her gray skin shining in the moonlight. The young man couldn’t believe his good fortune. He stole the skin, and he hid it like the treasure it was.

The seal woman had no choice. She could not turn back to a seal; she could not return to the ocean. Instead she made her way to the young man’s home, and if the road that led there cut her bare feet, this story does not tell of it. It tells only that the man and the seal woman were soon married, and that they lived together in his house near the sea. Whether she grew to love him or hated him all her days–the story does not tell that, either.

What it does tell is this: in time, the seal woman had children. Her love for them was as deep as the sea, the joy she found in them as true as the stones beneath it.

And yet.

The young man’s house faced the ocean, and through its windows the seal woman could see the changing tides. Walking its halls, she could hear the crashing waves. Restlessly she paced those halls, long after her children slept, until one night she found the skin the man had hidden. In the attic, in the cellar, beneath a stone–again the story is silent. It says only that the sea grew loud, so loud, as she held her skin once more.

She could not ignore that call. She kissed her children as they slept, and she crept quietly down to the sea. But her eldest daughter woke, and heard, and ran after her mother.

The girl wasn’t fast enough. As she reached the sand a flash of gray disappeared beneath the water, and then she saw only waves.

This girl was human-born; she could not follow her mother. She returned to her father’s home, and the stones did not cut her feet. But even as she walked, she knew she would never forget that while her mother loved her as deeply as the sea, the depths of the sea were nothing, beside her mother’s love for being a seal. She would never forget, and she would never forgive.

You do not want this story. You are a child; you are unkind. The seal woman’s happiness means less, to you, than the girl’s.

Very well.

Once long ago there lived a seal who loved the sea. When she sought to return to it, her daughter ran after her.

The girl was fast enough. She cried out, before the seal woman disappeared beneath the waves, “Do not leave me!”

The seal woman heard, and her daughter’s voice pulled on her, as strong as the tides. She could not ignore that call. She shed her skin once more, and she carried it back to the young man’s house, her daughter clutching her hand all the way.

She found joy in her children for many years more.

And yet.

In the end her children grew up and moved away, even the daughter who’d begged her to stay. The young man grew old and died. The seal woman also grew old, too old to return to the ocean. She lived, bitter and alone, in the house near the sea.

She did not forget, and she did not forgive–not the young man who stole her from the water, and not the daughter who stopped her when she sought to return.

You don’t want this story either. You want the seal woman to be happy, and her daughter as well. You are trying to be kind.

Try this, then: The girl ran to the edge of the sea, and her mother heard her cries and knew she could not go.

Not that night, and not for many nights after. But one night, when her daughter was nearly grown, the seal woman returned to the waves after all. She did not kiss her children goodbye this time. She did not want anyone calling her back.

Her daughter mourned, but in time she did forgive. She knew her mother had stayed as long as she could. Besides, the girl lived in another town by then, or perhaps even in the city. She had a young man of her own, and she did not wish to return to the house by the sea, for her mother or anyone else. Instead she married, and in time bore children who pulled on her, strong as the tides.

And yet.

The story does not say whether the daughter ever longed to escape her own young man, or even her own children. It says only that she knew she could not leave, not when her mother had left her.

You are still not satisfied. You will have a happy ending, or else none at all.

I cannot give it to you. I can only give you this: The girl was fast enough, and the seal woman heard her cries, even before she pulled her seal skin over her human one.

So she did not go, but neither did she promise to stay. She drew her human daughter close. “I was a seal before you were born,” she said. “I will be a seal after you leave. I am a seal now, and I am also your mother. I will not be only one thing or the other.”

The girl did not understand. She only cried louder, because she thought her mother was leaving her after all.

“Trust me,” the seal woman whispered. She pulled on her seal skin then, and she slid into the sea.

I do not know this story.

Perhaps the girl goes home to mourn her loss, only to have her mother return to her, hours past dark. Perhaps she waits by the water’s edge until the seal woman reappears, dripping and human, to take her daughter once more in her arms.

What I do know is this: as her children grow, the seal woman spends time on land and time at sea. Perhaps the girl rages at this, and perhaps she weeps, because she misses the seal woman, when she is away. Because she wants her mother to be one thing, for her and no one else. I do not know whether the girl will come to understand, in time. Perhaps she’ll forever fear the day the seal woman will leave her for good.

And the seal woman will leave in the end, though not for the sea. You are a child, but surely you know this.

Still, when that day comes there will be nothing to forgive and nothing to forget. By then the girl might have children of her own, in this town or another. I like to think one day she’ll turn to them and say, “Your grandmother, she lived on land, but she also lived in the water.”

I hope there’ll be more joy than sorrow in her voice when she says it, and when she takes her human children into her arms. “Once long ago,” she’ll whisper to them, “there was a seal who loved the sea.”

Then she’ll smile, because she knows this story.


Seal Story” first appeared in Merry Sisters of Fate on February 28, 2011. You can find a full list of my stories here.

Fact Check (a found poem)

Scientists
Are not opening a portal to hell.

Scientists
Restarted their accelerator—
The world’s most powerful accelerator—
To learn more about the origins of the universe.

Social media suggest a different purpose:
That scientists are using the machine to open a doorway
For demons,
Wicked spirits,
High Evil Principalities.

The claim is baseless.
Scientists are engaged in scientific-related activities.

Experts use the collider to study
Unexplored energies,
Microscopic particles,
The creation of the universe,
Dark matter.

Scientists are engaged in scientific-related activities. 
The collider cannot open up portals to other dimensions.


Found poem from “Fact check: Scientists at CERN are not opening a ‘portal to hell’,” USA Today, July 26, 2022.

There is no “back to normal.” There’s only forward to whatever comes next.

The trouble with talking about getting “back to normal” is that time doesn’t run backwards. It runs forwards.

We can no more return to a pre-Covid world than we can return to typewriters or gas lamps or steam trains or diplomacy without the threat of nuclear weapons.

The fact that Covid is likely to be with us for a while yet is not a reason to pretend it isn’t here anymore. It’s a reason to evolve and adapt and find better ways of managing and existing in our changed world. 

Whether it’s learning new ways of socializing outdoors or improving ventilation indoors, learning to live with masking, getting better at quickly developing vaccines that respond to current virus variants instead of long extinct ones, or countless other things we haven’t thought of yet because we’ve been so busy trying to go backwards instead of forwards that most of us haven’t really stopped to think, haven’t really tried get creative, haven’t put in the hard work of finding new ways of being and doing—as well as the hard work of finding new ways of communicating the need for change, too.

If we keep trying to go “back,” we pay the price in human lives, all while grasping for something that’s well out of reach—grasping for a time and a way of life that are no longer ours.

But if we let go of what was and instead try to move forward—well, then maybe we can find our way through where we are now to something new. Something that works better. Something that costs fewer lives.

Something, even, that makes us feel hopeful about the future, instead forever sad that we can’t reclaim the past.

And maybe, just maybe, once we’ve done that for the pandemic, we can also do it for all the many other looming challenges we face together, as well.

Broken windows

I always thought personal responsibility meant not just taking responsibility for how your actions affect you, but also how your actions affect others.

I mean, if you throw a ball and it breaks a window, you don’t just check whether any of the glass shards cut your own skin and then move on. You also apologize to the person whose window you broke. You especially apologize to the person whose window you broke.

You definitely don’t say the owner of the window is to blame for not using safety glasses or putting up shutters or for having the bad luck to live in a house within easy shot of a playground.

And okay, sure, there will always be people who hide or run or deny that ball was theirs. But they’re the ones who are failing to take personal responsibility. We all know that.

So how did we come to believe that, during a pandemic, personal responsibility instead means just taking responsibility for whether our actions cause us and our loved ones to become sick, disabled, or even die? How did we come to believe it only matters if the glass cuts our own skin?

That’s not how it works. If I willfully act in ways that increase my chances of infecting others, I’m personally responsible for that.

Even if the people I infect choose to be around me of their own free will. Even if they’re high risk or have comorbidities or are just in poorer health than me. Even if they seemed “healthy” but got hit hard anyway. I’m personally responsible.

Even if no one else around me was acting to protect others, either. Even if there’s peer pressure not to protect others, and I don’t want to speak up or say no or be the only person in the room wearing a mask. I’m personally responsible.

Even if the people I infect are fine but they go on to infect strangers I’ll never know and never meet and never hear about who aren’t fine. I’m personally responsible.

Even—yes, even—if they failed to get vaccinated, failed to protect themselves as fully as they could have. I still threw that ball through the window. It doesn’t matter if the window should have had safety glass in place. I’m still the one who broke it.

If we remembered what personal responsibility meant in other contexts, would we act to protect others during this pandemic, instead of mostly only acting to protect ourselves and those closest to us?

Or is that too much to ask, in any context? Have the stresses of an ongoing pandemic broken somehow inside us, making it too much to ask?

Leaving us unwilling to be personally responsible for our actions after all?

The stories we tell

As I enter this strange new unparented new stage of my life, I’ve been thinking about how my family gave me many gifts.

And I’ve also been thinking about how they gave me stories about myself, some less true than others, some more harmful than others.

As happens in families, there are those who’ve chosen to be the keepers of those stories, to try to keep them alive and to give them power, true or not.

But I get to choose, too.

And I don’t choose to keep these stories. I choose to be—to continue to work toward being—my true self, and not the self who others, through decades of family and time, wish to believe I am.

Their reasons believing—for needing to believe—are their own.

They’re nothing to do with me, unless I let them be.

There’s no pandemic in the universe next door

Some days I feel like I’m living in a parallel universe.

I’ve seen the data, data showing that my community, like so many communities, has yet again reached high levels of Covid transmission. I’ve heard the pleas from those at high risk, begging others to care about them enough to try to protect them, to try to help slow this thing down so that one day they’ll have a better way of protecting themselves than staying locked in while their friends—the people they thought were their friends—go out and party.

And I’ve seen those around me ignore these things, utterly.

When friends and colleagues talk about being excited to be return to in-person events, without a trace of hesitation, often without seeming knowledge that Covid is still here at all, I’m baffled. The best of them wear masks to protect themselves. No one talks about protecting others. I’ve heard otherwise kind, compassionate people talk about how others at these events are responsible for their own decisions, about how those at risk should just stay home.

I haven’t heard anyone talk about those who might caught up in the chain transmission that begins at these events, people who never even attended them but have friends, or friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends, who did. People who could experience long term disability or even—yes—death as a result of the actions of people they’ll never meet.

So many people seem unwilling to avoid doing anything, anything at all, to slow this virus down. So many insist on attending not just small gatherings but conventions and conferences (and concerts and plays and basketball games) with thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people. They say we can’t stay on lockdown forever, as if lockdown or a 100,000 person indoor meetup are the only options, no middle ground.

And—this is where I get to feeling like I really am in another, neighboring universe—so many don’t even seem aware these issues exist or need to be considered at all anymore. Those around me say they’re thrilled to be back in person, and then—maybe with a mask added for good measure, maybe not—they carry on as if attending these events, no matter how large the crowd, no matter how lax the safety measures, is perfectly normal, even admirable. They share feel-good group photos about how wonderful and heartwarming and healing it is to be hanging with others again.

If there’s a slight edge of desperation to some of these posts, some hint of trying too hard to prove that life is good and the cool kids are together again, well, no one talks about that either.

They do talk about going out for drinks and sharing meals at these events as if that’s perfectly normal too, as if it’s just what one does, as if it doesn’t undo so much of the good of whatever safety precautions they are taking—never mind that any safety precautions only go so hard in large enough a crowd anyway.

When pressed about this, people talk about the need for professional connections and professional collaboration and professional knowledge exchange. In the writing community, they also say that they have no choice because they have to sell their books, their work. And sure, that’s always a real and pressing and ongoing concern, but can’t creative people get creative? Can’t we re-imagine how we reach readers and viewers, and search for ways to sell our work that don’t require attending huge events, or doing all the other things we did Before simply because we’ve always done them?

But no one really wants to talk about that either.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve imagined we’re still in a pandemic at all—but then I look at the data again and I listen to those at risk again. I accept that vaccines, while they’re so important and do help so much, aren’t the perfectly impenetrable wall we hoped they’d be. I remind myself that my mild case of Covid could become someone else’s serious case of Covid, because that’s how contagious diseases work.

Call it gaslighting, call it cognitive dissonance—but something strange really is going on here. The depth of denial is frightening, and isolating, and honestly kind of lonely.

I wonder why so few people seem to understand how much and how deeply we’ve stopped caring about each other, when it comes to this infectious disease, even as they keep caring about each other in so many other ways. It’s as if Covid exists in it’s own little box, separate from all the many things we care about. All the many things we allow ourselves to think about.

Many events have been ending with Covid outbreaks, outbreaks large enough to affect not just attendees but also their communities. But then the next event comes around, and somehow nothing changes—everyone is still thrilled to be back in person, back with their friends, back in business, as if the examples of the gatherings right before theirs just don’t count somehow.

Maybe it’s all just denial in the end, denial and desperation. Or maybe I do just live in a parallel universe after all.

But there’s something going on here that I don’t fully understand, and that I’m still grappling with as the pandemic—because yes, there still is a pandemic—goes on.

[May 31 CDC Covid Community Transmission Data]
Current CDC Covid community transmission data from this universe. Data from other universes may vary.

Words shared at my mother’s funeral, a week ago today

When I was eight, I came to my mother, furious about an injustice: the free calendar we’d gotten from McDonalds had left out all of the Jewish holidays we celebrated.

Many parents would either tell their kid to stop making a big deal out of something for which, after all, they’d paid nothing—or alternately, agree that this was disappointing and then tell their kid to move on.

My mother found the address of McDonalds’ regional manager, and she helped me write him a letter.

A few weeks later I received a written apology and a promise that this would never happen again. And as far as I could tell, based on the years of future calendars I diligently checked after that, it didn’t.

The lesson Mom taught me that day—about standing up for myself, about speaking up for what I believed was right—has stayed with me to this day.

If in the years that followed, I went on to turn that lesson on her as much as on anyone else, I still never forgot where it came from.

My mother spent her entire life speaking up in defense of others. From taking on the schoolyard bullies—and school administrators—who tormented me as a child to being there for the countless friends who needed her, no matter how late the hour, to giving her all for the many, many people she looked out for, in so many ways, throughout her professional life.

Mom was the youngest child of Russian and Polish immigrants, the first generation born in the United States. At 19, she dropped out of college to get married. In her 20s, she had three kids—first me, then my sister and brother. In her 30s, she returned to school, earned her nursing degree, and spent more than a decade looking after the patients entrusted to her care.

In her 40s, she returned to school again, earned her business degree, and became a union organizer. When she ran for Business Agent of her Teamsters local, people told her no woman had ever held that job. When she ran for President, they really told her no woman had done that. Their doubts just made her more determined to succeed. For more than two decades, she won election after election. She spent so many years serving the employees she represented. Whether she was negotiating better contracts or getting back the job of someone fired unjustly, she was always there for her people.

And I do mean always. Her phone rang constantly, and she almost always answered it—often to the dismay of family and friends hoping to enjoy a few quiet moments with her. On one memorable occasion, after we met up in Manhattan, she even picked up the phone as we were enjoying a horse-drawn carriage ride through Central Park.

I’m not sure Mom really believed in time off. I am sure that giving 100% was never enough for her. She gave everything she had to everything she did, always.

And as for all those friends who turned to her through the years? She always answered their calls as well. She gave them all she had, too.

Or as she put it to me just a few weeks ago, “I’ve always worked at a high energy level.”

That’s an understatement, truly.

As the decades passed she was thrilled to add a growing number of grandchildren to the list of those she cared about. She always answered their calls, too.

A few years, just before my own daughter started kindergarten, I unexpectedly required open heart surgery for a congenital heart defect. Busy as she was, Mom flew across the country to be with me. She stayed for a month, putting most of her work on hold—though of course her phone kept ringing, and of course she kept answering it. I knew that time for the precious gift it was: a chance, one last time, to have my mother take care of me as well.

It goes without saying that I’ll miss her terribly. And I know, by the way her phone kept ringing until the end, that you’ll all miss her too.