Personal Essays

I have been writing personal essays since I began writing 47 years ago. I’d love to sell the rights to them; if you’re interested, let me know.

Check back on this page often; I will add content frequently.

–Karyn Zweifel


(also unfinished)

If you ever want to get outside yourself and just observe human nature, there’s no better place than an RV park.  We take along our tent, a 35-year-old relic my dad bought on a whim when his marriage was bright and shiny and his understanding of my mother was surging toward its high water mark.  To my memory we never used it.

I didn’t even know we had it, in fact, until my parents divorced and honored me with a explorer’s pass to the physical detrius of their marriage.  It’s boxy and square and makes a lot of noise assembling the aluminum poles.  I’m quite fond of it.

Throw the campstove in the back — an artifact of my millenium paranoia  — some coathangers, sleeping bags, marshmallows and a coil of rope, and we’re ready to roll.  Two hours of travel later, and we’re pulling up alongside the camp store at Cheaha State Park.  We’ve followed close on the heels of a bicycle race (up Alabama’s highest mountain?  What kind of masochist…nevermind)  so there are lots of lean flanks in spandex to observe.

Curiously, there are also a lot of middle-aged couples on motorcycles, usually big, brawny bikes with capacious saddlebags ad cushy seats.  Me and my two kids swoop down on the store without mercy, eyeing choice bits of plastic to purchase as a reminder of our stay in the Great Outdoors.

My brain conjures up varied unpleasant reasons why they want the names and ages of all campers in our party (to know how many perished in that unfortunate rock slide, help in identifying our charred bodies after a forest fire, to run an FBI check, you pick one) but we are back in the van soon enough, clutching a piece of cardboard that identifies a little slice of state park that’s “ours” for the next few days.

The parking gate arm that’s supposed to keep out the great unwashed unauthorized crowds is busted off and lies abandoned in a thicket of weeds.  The road is crumbling asphalt and in every direction there are wide expanses of rutted deep orange Alabama clay.  Somebody has tried to shroud these scars with a sprinkling of hay, and some new grass is struggling through, optimistic green against the golden hay and red dirt.

Our goal is a nice view of the lake or the woods, not too close to any other campsite.  We forget about the importance of close proximity to the bathhouse until the tent is pitched, and by then it’s too late.  We’ve snagged the corner site; only three of the twenty or so sites are occupied, so we have no close neighbors.  The tent is sited away from the parking pad with its gray power box and white sewer stub sharing a concrete pad with the water connection.

Under some immensely tall pines, a few scrubby short needled evergreens and graced with twenty-foot beeches, the tent window frames a spectacular view of the lake, the mountain towering above it, its stony framework nudging through the soil like bones through flesh.

I realize my subconscious has been at work as I gaze at the peak in front of me.  I’m here for some distraction-free time to work on a book project that’s three years old and aging every day.  I want the leisure to recall why, exactly, this project grabbed ahold of me and still won’t let go.  So I have a mountain yet to scale; maybe when I’m polishing up the last chapter I can camp on top of the mountain and look down upon the rest of the world.

But actually, an RV camp, no matter how isolated or shabby, is no place to find solitude.  I know this.  Within minutes of our own arrival, a pickup pulling a popup camper slides into the space nearest ours.  Two guys hop out, and with a crank and a flourish they have accomplished what takes us another hour to achieve:  a comfy home-away-from-home, complete with astroturf at the front steps and plastic lawnchairs by the grill.  I covet a popup myself, but will have to settle for an antique tent until my first bestseller.

The couple is gay, and I am momentarily pleased that my daughter is too old and savvy to comment, while my son is still too young to care.  On our stroll to the bathhouse, we spy a 32-foot pull-behind trailer belonging to a retired couple.  We wave, exchange friendly greetings.  There seem to be four or five campsites occupied only by a trailer or popups folded closed, and I see more sites are full than I originally thought.  What’s more, a lot of these traveling homes are sporting Harley-Davidson stickers.  It takes me a few hours to register the significance of this.

As dusk begins to fall, unnaturally early because of the mountain’s shadow, another popup pulled by a mini SUV cruises slowly past our site.  They choose the site right next to ours and are also indecently quick putting up their campsite, complete with a strand of blinking christmas lights outlining their porch roof.  The low animal grumbling of a few motorcycles arriving are only a temporary distraction from the immediate needs to provide food and entertainment to my offspring.  We are treated to a stereo rendition of the Alabama-Georgia game, blasting from car radios on either side of us and up the hill.  Alabama loses.

Next morning, after an argument about naming lizards and the proper uses of a pine branch, I am ready for my hard-won solitude to begin. My husband picks up the kids and takes them home.  I flip open my laptop and await the muse.

…to be continued (this is an undated fragment I found on my hard drive, probably circa 2003. The muse still hasn’t found me and the book project is almost fifteen years old. But I have a publisher for it now!)

 Raining Feathers

A wild bird, an urban song

One day last spring, it was raining feathers on our street. They floated down like a dream, like snow, and brushed against the windshield. But we were late for church and I resisted the urge to investigate. Three hours later, returning home, I had forgotten all about it, until a feather spiraled gently down past my nose.
I looked up. There was no angel hovering above me. The sky was clear. I tilted my head back further and scanned the space above, pacing slowly back and forth across the street. Fortunately our street has very little traffic. The neighbors probably took my odd behavior as additional confirmation that yes, I do belong in Southside. But I was determined to find the source of the small downy feathers. I couldn’t think of any natural event that would cause a bird to lose its feathers that way, over such a long stretch of time. Once a neighbor threw a mattress out of a second-story window into a tree, but I didn’t spot any airborne bedding that day.
The old walnut tree across the street had very few leaves in early March, but a wisteria vine had enveloped its trunk and branches, making its canopy dense, its interior indistinct. As I struggled to see, something appeared out of place. I stood still to let my eyes adjust. There was a talon tightly gripping a branch, huge and looking wickedly efficient. My eyes traveled further, picking out the form of a large bird. Suddenly I was pinned with the most predatory look I have ever experienced. Golden eyes gleamed coldly, then seemed to dismiss me scornfully. The bird lowered its head and used its sharp, hooked beak to shred the unlucky pigeon that had become its lunch.

Its size, its ferocity, its strangeness infected all of us with a silent kind of awe. Here was a bit of the wilderness on our doorstep, in one of the oldest residential areas of Birmingham.

It was the biggest bird I’d ever seen on our street, easily eighteen inches long with tail feathers a distinctive rusty brown. The red-tailed hawk stayed for at least another hour, the flurry of feathers gradually diminishing. We circled the tree with our binoculars and camera, quietly at first. It soon became apparent that no matter how much noise we made, the bird of prey was not going to fly away. Hawks don’t scare easily. Its size, its ferocity, its strangeness infected all of us with a silent kind of awe. Here was a bit of the wilderness on our doorstep, in one of the oldest residential areas of Birmingham.
We have other reminders from time to time. Field mice sometimes come to visit; lizards sun themselves in the backyard. There is a narrow strip of woods and kudzu above 18th Avenue South and below The Club and other businesses on top of Red Mountain. Several times a year, a possum or two will wander down our way, its presence announced by our dog. Her “possum” bark has a puzzled note to it, and a wide streak of caution. She likes her possums safely up a tree. Mostly, they oblige her.
I spotted a fox one night, its eerie green eye reflection almost hidden by the underbrush. I have a friend whose front porch was crisscrossed with the tiny, five “fingered” pawprints of raccoons one morning. They came at night to steal the cat’s food. It seems that the veneer of civilization we have manufactured is a bit more tenuous than we might think. Birmingham’s wild side is in fact unusual for an urban area: we rank first in the country for green space, with 17.9 acres for every one thousand residents.
The 20-acre Railroad Park downtown probably won’t be a gathering place for wild animals, but its eight blocks of green space interspersed with lakes, trails, entertainment venues, restaurants and an open-air market will be a treat for downtown office workers, families, walkers and joggers. The proposed Red Mountain Park will give the city a refuge of more than 1100 acres for hikers, bikers and any number of possums, fox, and, yes, red-tailed hawks. Book-ending the city on the east is a park to be proud of: Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve is larger than New York City’s Central Park, and the second largest urban nature preserve in the country.
I haven’t spotted another hawk on our street. But just in case I feel a little intimidated by our city’s untamed edges, here’s some small comfort. As I sat on my porch the other day, a mockingbird let loose a long string of its copycat melody. It ended with the unmistakable trill of a car alarm. The mockingbird has learned its urban song, and remains out of its predators’ claws or talons. At least for today.

–July, 2008

Bearly Surviving Yellowstone

Canvas walls. Black bears with five-inch claws. Before the connection between these two thoughts sank in, I was committed to a camping trip in Yellowstone with my children. My son, Eli, is almost nine and my daughter Katy is seventeen. In late July, we packed up the car and headed north and west, 1,958 miles from Birmingham, Alabama to Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

We’ve been on a cross-country exodus before, mixing camping with occasional nights in hotels (the cost savings and natural environment having an equal and opposite reaction with doors that lock and hot showers). On this trip, we stopped to visit with some relatives on the way and shared our Yellowstone plans.

“How’re the bears out there?” My cousin asked in an offhand way. His wife piped up: “Our friends who live in Colorado, they were advised to have their children wear bells outside to frighten off the bears.”

It took no effort at all to dismiss these comments. My niece had already told me a story about a little girl being mauled to death by a bear in the Smoky Mountains. I am not one to scare easy. On one stop we saw a stuffed bear which loomed over us in a menacing way, teeth bared and claws extended. I hardly blinked.

But when the staff at a dude ranch near Pike’s Peak, Colorado, told me about the 500 pound black bear eating out of the dumpster the night before, I was greatly comforted at the thought of the nice, stout logs of our quaint little cabin that lay between me and a hungry creature of that size. I am brave, not foolish.

Still, we were five hundred miles away from Yellowstone. No worries. When we got to Wyoming, it was windy. And deliciously, wonderfully cool. The sky was blue and everywhere we turned there were jackalopes. We continued north and began to wind our way through the Wind River Indian Reservation, following the Togwotee trail. Soon we were climbing toward the Continental Divide, the Grand Tetons peeking up like a promise from the distant horizon.

Stopping for a cold drink, I was amused to see what looked like an oversized can of pepper spray with a huge bright red nozzle. “Bear Spray” proclaimed the bold label. I picked it up. Might be a fun little novelty item to take back home, I thought. When I saw the price tag I jumped back like I’d been bitten by a snake. It cost more than our entire day’s food budget.

“Worth it though, I’d say,” the clerk said laconically when my comments became audible. She nearly laughed out loud when I asked if there was a Walmart between there and Yellowstone. “You won’t find bear spray any cheaper anywhere else,” she advised me. “I wouldn’t go into the park without it.”

I decided she was either an overcautious hiker or an overzealous sales person, and just barely managed to dismiss her commentary. The scenery as we got back on the road helped. The Tetons grew closer with every twist and turn in the road, snow crowning the highest peaks. Close by, wildflowers in deepest purple and vibrant yellow dotted the fields, while snowmelt roared through the wide and shallow streambeds.

I was so thrilled to be in the middle of it all I could hardly drive. I kept sticking one hand out of the car window, clutching the camera and wildly stabbing at the button to try to capture the view from curve to curve. Katy thankfully confiscated the device before I dropped it on the road side or rear-ended the RV in front of me. We have lots of pictures from odd angles, mostly the road surface and the bug-spattered car body. I did keep one hand on the steering wheel at all times, however. Like I said, I’m not foolhardy. Just enthusiastic.

We drove through just a corner of the Grand Teton National Park, and I hope to live long enough to make it back there one day. But Yellowstone was our destination and I got pretty focused on getting there and busy second-guessing myself. Yellowstone hosts nearly three million tourists from around the world every summer, and I had decided to trust that somewhere in the 2.2 million acres would be a spot for us to stake up our little bitty tent.

We could see wisps of steam rising from famous sites as the two-lane road snaked its way north towards Indian Creek Campground. This is a small campground; in fact, most of the park employees we spoke with didn’t even know it was there. Run by the National Park Service and volunteers, space is offered on a first-come, first-served basis. No generators are allowed and the toilets are just commodes sitting over pits. Water comes from communal spigots.

They had plenty of spaces. We found a lovely site not too far from the water spigot and just far enough away from the toilet. A metal sign was screwed firmly onto the picnic table, one screw for each corner. The words were deeply engraved: THIS IS BEAR COUNTRY.

I looked at our tent, its walls gently ballooning in and out. Its thin, cloth walls. My mind’s eye flashed back to that stuffed bear we’d seen and its long, fearsome claws. Maybe, a little voice inside my head whispered, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.

Katy called my attention to the rest of the sign on the table. “Look, if a bear comes out of the woods we’re supposed to back off to the car slowly, and carry all our food and cooking gear with us!” I laughed, a little thinly. Our kitchen gear consists of two huge plastic boxes, a two-burner stove and a gigantic cooler. And even if I could make it to the car in one trip carrying all that, I doubt I’d have the presence of mind to do it slowly with a bear in sight.

Our campsite was overrun that night at dinner. Tiny little gray things, too small to be normal squirrels, too cute to be rats, I thought in my optimistic way. But no sign of bears, neither grizzly or black. On each of the four days we were there, we ran into a traffic jam of tourists gawking at the wildlife (wildlife gawking at the tourists, maybe) every fifth mile or so. At one of these, Katy reported seeing a little black dot near the summit of the mountain that everyone kept assuring themselves was a bear, but I withhold judgment on that point. I didn’t see it.

I must say, after four days and three nights in Yellowstone, I left a little disappointed that we never saw a single bear. We saw hundreds, maybe even a thousand bison. The massive, graceful bulk of elk was a frequent and welcome sight. Mule deer were rampant and we even saw a bald eagle soaring up into the cloudy sky.

The canvas of our dear old tent remained unviolated. Except for the rain. Our third night there, we splashed when we stepped into the dark interior, and once again it took a few clicks for all my synapses to make the connection. Water isn’t supposed to be inside the tent. I resourcefully used my pillow and the entire contents of my suitcase to soak up the little lake and spent a shivering and damp eight hours waiting for the sun to come up. The children, I hasten to add, barely dipped their toes into the wet before my noble sacrifice tidied everything up.

It broke my heart to leave Yellowstone. I would gladly take half a lifetime exploring all the sunny valleys, dramatic waterfalls, stunning geysers and eerie mudpots. But the rain accomplished what fear of bears could not: it drove me south and east, back to Birmingham.


The older I get, the more I cherish homely things. Petunias, for example. Their simple colors and careless blooms seemed too common when I was younger. Now petunias flank my front door. Purple and white striped. Purple because that’s my daughter’s favorite color. White stripes because those were close at hand as my three-year-old slept in his carseat and my husband waited in the driver’s seat at the garden store.

Hanging out the laundry is something else I used to view with disdain. But two years ago, I asked for a clothesline for Mother’s Day. We’d had one in the backyard of our first home. Rusted metal poles, the old fashioned kind, settled in cement. They’d acquired a funny tilt as they aged; I was afraid to put too much weight on them for fear that they would slowly fold inwards upon each other, a stately dance of decay.

Fifteen years ago when I was newly married I had a small house, a demanding vocation and a new dryer, a wedding gift from my mother-in-law, bless her. I also had, I see in hindsight, the priceless luxury of leisurely thought, all alone, my toes intertwined on top of my desk.

Now, my thinking time is more restricted. An ordinary afternoon consists of planning the best route to an obscure softball park in five o’clock traffic while fielding “why” questions from a three-year-old and focusing on the unbridled enthusiasm of a healthy preteen. It’s sandwiched somewhere in there. Did I mention keeping an ear out for that suspicious “ping” of my minivan’s engine?

This is why I decided I needed a clothesline for Mother’s Day 1999. For the Zen of it.

When I hoist that neon yellow basket, ergonomically curved to fit my hip, I am connected. I sway down the back steps, recalling a small unstudied kindness. When my mother was a child, she would sometimes look out the window to see her father, a gruff and ordinarily not particularly progressive man, patiently pinning up socks and jumpers and underwear and shirts. The basket, you see, was too heavy for my grandmother to lift. She had back troubles.

My mother remembers my grandfather flouting the conventions of suburbia circa 1946, and I am one with his rebellious spirit. It was a small flouting, but defiance all the same.

As I pin the sheets across the smooth plastic lines (six on this deluxe pull-out model which attaches on the other side of the yard, on the swingset) I am catapulted back to my own childhood. I remember screaming and playing tag in and out of the billowing clouds of sheets. I don’t remember ever being told not to, or of a single piece of laundry that landed in the Kansas suburb’s dust because of my play.

The scent of detergent and the cool sweetness of grass on my feet delights me in a simple, homely way. It is out here, with a jet tracing a silent swathe across the jewel bright sky, that I remember to breathe deeply again. To let my mind wander beyond the next moment, the next meal, the next call of distress.

It’s at its very best in the way early hours of the morning. The air is cooler, not yet ill-used by the day and the city. But no matter what hour I sling that basket up on my hip and march down the stairs, there is one constant: no human being follows me. It is as if the back door threshold serves as a magical barrier. It cannot be crossed. Not by a twelve-year-old arguing for another overnight visit, not by a husband with a checkbook in his hand and a question on his face. It is a splendid phenomenon. Even the telephone rings dimly, a feeble pull too weak to draw me in.

Of course, there are drawbacks. The dog invariably follows me out, tangling in my legs like a wicked sprite. Barely out of puppyhood, Zoe will sometimes even playfully snap at my ankles before her own private doggy business carries her off elsewhere in the yard.

Some of that business is another source of occasional consternation in the Eden of my laundry. Zoe deposits little gifts for me in an uncannily straight line up and down the length of the clothesline. But I have learned to be spry of foot as I breathe deeply and luxuriate in my solitary thoughts.

My clothesline is also a sort of atonement for me. After much internal struggle, I substituted my zippy little fuel efficient sedan for, yes, I hate to say it — a minivan. It holds more children than I can in sanity transport. It has enough room to separate warring siblings. It holds all the detritus of my life, in addition to three pairs of shoes (whose are they, anyway?), a bat and a matchbox car collection. The little cars and trucks zoom back and forth delightfully on the floor as I make my daily rounds.

I know the van is bad for the ozone. I shrink with fear from the whirring numbers which appear on the pump during my weekly fill up. It is not efficient but gosh, it has become such an integral part of my life. So I hang out my laundry to appease the ozone gods. I don’t know if my personal little energy credit exchange program really balances out, but it gives me some small sense of penance paid. Let’s not talk about disposable diapers, okay?

After a mere fifteen minutes of solitude, pinning up my family’s socks, jeans, t-shirts and underwear, I am ready for company again. So I move to the front porch, if I have time, where family members do not fear to join me. I nestle my son in my lap, smelling his unique sweet-sour scent (when did he last have a bath?), and smile approval at my daughter spinning roundovers on the front lawn. Life is sweet. Especially the homely parts. My petunias smile and nod their heads in agreement.

(C) 2002 Karyn Zweifel All rights reserved; call or email for reprint agreement

Mothering Hands

When my daughter Kathryn was an infant, I loved her with a fierceness that made my whole body quiver with its intensity. Just thinking about the possibility of harm sent adrenaline coursing through my veins like a cavalry charge. I could, I was sure, stop a bus with one arm, crush a rampaging dog with my foot, keep reckless drivers away by the sheer force of my will.

Kathryn’s every cry galvanized me into action; the slightest whimper shocked me from the deepest sleep. Remembering my agony of helplessness in the face of her wanting — helpless to know what to do, how to comfort — still has the power to make my gut clutch up.

Her misery was mine. Completely. Panicked, I promised her ice cream, sports cars, ponies and circuses. To no avail. When my repertoire of comforting things was exhausted, I even on occasion wailed in concert with her.

The fierceness of my love began to abate just as the intensity was about to burn me out. It was such a gradual process, I barely noticed it at first. Soon I discovered a nipple would assuage a minor hurt. To this day, when Kathryn comes crying with a bump or a scrape, I feel a visceral tugging deep within my breast as my body remembers her infancy.

Slowly, imperceptibly, the small cries of pain, frustration, anger, have lost their capacity to rip through my heart. As Kathryn grew less helpless, more mobile, I was no longer the sum total of her world. I relinquished responsibility for every hurt. And I could no longer claim credit for all the pleasures.

If I had kept that intensity of love, I would be dead by now. If each bump, fall, scratch and bite had wounded me as they did in her infancy, I would have bled to death.

Now, there’s more sympathy than empathy wrapped up along with the Big Bird Band-aids. This way, I can afford to let Kathryn out of my sight. I can bear the thought of her exploring the wide world with its many tricks and turns and stumbling blocks.

But at odd moments, that intensity, that fierceness, strikes my heart again. Snatching my breath away with its sudden heat. These are the moments when, in the middle of a business meeting, my eyes glaze over in the struggle to resist a nearly irresistible urge to find her and hold her. These are the moments that come, unbidden, and compel me to swoop down on Kathryn, disrupting her play with a powerful squeeze. Or, more often, the moments when I stifle the desire to touch her, hold her, and I simply watch her while tears well up in my eyes.

I have never loved anyone more fiercely.

When she is fast asleep, I creep into her room, pick my way through the minefield of toys and clothes and books, to watch the rise and fall of her chest. My mother used to do this. Loving mothers everywhere do this. Ostensibly to make sure the covers are in order, but I believe it’s for something else.

It’s to recover that intensity of loving. To recall that fierce joy.

And as I watch Kathryn sleep, I sometimes run my fingertips through her hair softly. My fingertips fairly tingle with the strength of my love for her. All the power of my loving is focused in my fingers as I lightly stroke her hair, sweaty from her dream play.

My husband told me once, years ago, what comfort that simple caress brought him when he was sick. Smoothing his hair with my fingertips, he said, made him feel loved. Safe. Now I know why. My mother, too, stroked my hair with her fingers full of that aching mother-love.

Now I pass that along to my daughter. These mothering hands of mine, so capable in a day full of shoelaces and cheese sandwiches and stubborn skate straps. So strong when a child’s hand needs holding or a dog’s leash needs restraining, so nimble, utilitarian, gentle; these mothering hands are also full of magic, full of the healing power of the fiercest love of all.



Copyright (C) 1993 Karyn Zweifel

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