Author Archives: The Reluctant Girl Scout

About The Reluctant Girl Scout

Let's be honest: I haven't been a Girl Scout since the Reagan Administration. What I really am is a writer, a teacher, and a muser, who goes places (reluctantly) and loves them a lot (once I get back home).

The Flintstones Transformed

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In Celtic spirituality, there is something holy or magical about those in-between places: dawn, dusk, the shore and its mixture of water and land. But I find this neither-here-nor-there period really unsettling. The gloaming.


The time between what was and what is next can rattle a person. Suddenly what was seems so safe and survivable, whereas the future is one big Riddler walking around with a question mark on its chest, taunting you from behind his mask.


It has been a year of question marks for most people, and we’re no different. Some of us have the same questions (What will 2020 bring next? Will any of us survive? Do you really have to wipe your groceries down?) And then there are those questions that are unique to each of us. Z and I have had a series of them, as I mentioned in the last blog, but the most recent has been since we got the news that our beloved pre-war brick apartment building was maybe structurally unsound and the management wanted us out quickly. What next?


This is the apartment where Z and I got our act together and moved friendship to a new frontier. This is our newlywed home full of our hopes and dreams, a lot of wedding gifts, too many books, and the trousseau I created for myself, which instead of clothing suitable to a married woman and linens suitable to dinner parties was a host of lovely big cherry furniture handmade by the Amish in both Shaker and Sheraton styles.


I’ve often tried to avoid those Riddler surprises. In my early 30s, I decided I was ready to settle down, even though I didn’t know with whom yet, and I also knew that I have a certain aesthetic I didn’t want questioned. My solution was to invest in the furniture I knew I wanted before any partner could contradict me and announce we would be a mid-century modern family or, horrors, one constructed of chrome and glass. I had a couple of friends whose husbands were inordinately invested in how the house was decorated and wrested control of said aesthetic from their wives, and I knew I couldn’t let that happen to me. (Nothing like getting the decorating cart before the marital horse.) My thinking was if I already had the furniture then most men would be glad they had a drawer in which to put their socks and relieved they had no decisions to make in that regard and no financial obligation creating a couple decorating style.


Possibly I should have been investing more of this scheming into career plans instead of in service to a life I might well not have had. But the heart wants what the heart wants and what I wanted was a Tom Seely door-and drawer end table.


Had I known I was going to spend my later adult life like my early childhood— in apartments, traveling, visiting friends and spending a week here, a week there—I might have used that money more wisely. Banked it. Traveled more. Bought easily movable items like expensive fountain pens or platinum jewelry. Instead, I bought a six foot Shaker table and had it custom made with a drawer for pens and a keyboard drawer—an investment in my writing, the desk I would use for the rest of my life. I wanted roots, even if I wasn’t sure how or where I would be growing.


As it turns out, that desk was a gateway drug. More pieces followed. Z came along and in what was one of my most devious acts, I got a couple of other pieces even though I was beginning to suspect we’d end up together and maybe he should have some say. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to mind at all when I told him he had to sell his used IKEA chest of drawers that often didn’t want to open and looked like something Peter and Bobby Brady would have shared in the 1970 so my antique mahogany dresser could have that floor space.

Imagine my horror when we walked into our new—previously sleek and spacious appearing—apartment and not only did the space suddenly seem much smaller and more like a storage unit, but nearly every piece of my cherry furniture was dinged or scraped. I don’t mean a little—perceptible only to my critical eye—I mean like a rat chewed on one of the corners or the malicious Captain Hook decided to take out his frustrations with Peter Pan on one of my surfaces.


Rest assured, the cheap bookcases and pre-damaged furniture was moved without incident. So we’ve got that going for us.


Since the move, I’ve been taking an inventory, letting out painful sighs as I rub the latest dent or ding I find. Z discovers me, red with rage, growling about the injustice of hiring professionals with no real professionalism. No doubt it’s getting annoying. Z is not a person who puts much stock in material things—acquiring them, protecting them, feeling like a little light has gone out of the world when something is suddenly less perfect than it was. He’s a thoughtful, caring person, but he’s focused on humans and probably can’t understand how I still feel guilty that as a 12-year-old I sold my hobby horse, Charger, at a garage sale. What did Charger think that I’d abandoned him so carelessly for $10 after we’d ridden miles and miles together across my earliest memories? Charger was not an inanimate object, and I’d argue that all of my precious things are sentient. At least in my imagination if nowhere else. So I can’t fathom how abandoned my furniture must have felt when they were left in the care of cretins without blankets or plastic wrap to keep their surfaces scrape free while Z and I were eating Potbelly sandwiches in the green conference room at our new place, hiding away from any virus germs the movers might have breathed on us. (I’m reminded of the very few babysitters I had as a child and how, as my parents were leaving, I’d look dubiously at the girl or the woman in question and think , I don’t know about this one.) I was doubting people’s qualifications before I knew what the word meant.


Also, when Z asked if I wanted to complain to the moving company, I was torn. As an educator, it seemed like a teachable moment: wrap people’s furniture up and don’t take a running start when you’re trying to squeeze it through a doorway as if it’s Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross Station and you’re trying to get trunks onto the Hogwart’s Express. But on the other hand, they were young. They are working during a pandemic—risking their health—and these are strange, tough times, when people find themselves doing work that was never on their list of life goals. Z suggested I err on the side of grace, and it seemed right to me, not to prioritize things over people. So I’m not praising them with positive reviews for their politeness and speed (both true) nor am I dinging them like they did my blanket chest.

Z has moved a lot more than I have, and since we’ve known each other (read: nearing two decades) he has moved six times, and before I officially entered his life, he did it with two suitcases and a few boxes of odds and ends he’d collected that he didn’t want to get rid of: a toaster, a lock engraved with the names of family friends from Zimbabwe, some batiks from Africa, family photos. Easy enough. I, on the other hand—who has moved very little, give or take in and out of dorm rooms in the late 80s—have acquired. A lot.

Unscratched, Sheraton dresser supporting the muchness of my life: too much art for too few walls, Writer’s Chronicles from a decade ago, books stacked everywhere, and a rug that even with nothing on it looks excessive and like the inside of my brain.


The furniture is the least of it in terms of number, but it is the weightiest. So I’ve been pondering why when Z suggested we get rid of a piece of it or put a piece in storage, I was horror stricken—as if he suggested we disown one of our imaginary children. When I bought this furniture I was thinking forever; I was thinking by owning it, I’d purchased rootedness, stability, maturity.


But often enough, there is a Doritos bag on top of the desk and a bra hanging off one of the knobs on the chest, so possibly owning these pieces did not turn me into a grown-up and didn’t make my world any classier.


Other riddles I’m pondering right now would be the unlikelihood of the pair of us moving from our quirky old four-story brick building to a brand new building that would have been classified a skyscraper by residents of our original building in 1923 when it was built. It’s exactly the sort of place I imagined never living: a little drawer in the sky in which to stuff a human life.


Furthermore, Z and I have had a particular loathing of this building—just two and half blocks from our old one—since the construction signs went up for it. It is standing in the footprint of First Hill’s only McDonald’s—that great equalizer in the neighborhood where mothers and children picked at Happy Meals while healthcare workers from one of the nearby hospitals ate McSalads, and where the people who were unhoused often scraped together the change they’d collected for a MealDeal and a half hour indoors. We rarely ate there, but just knowing we could get a French fries and a McMuffin whenever we wanted was a comfort.


Once McDonald’s came down and the building went up, we loathed it’s pretentious name and advertisements that promised luxury living, and there were an awful lot of young tech people coming in and out of the keyless front door, waving fobs and marching in with their designer dogs. We knew they were likely making three or four times what we do and having no idea that a person’s first apartment shouldn’t have modern conveniences or a rooftop deck with views of Puget Sound because it builds character to “rough it.”


It’s possible we were a little bitter.


On our nightly walks we would say the name of our place and wrinkle our noses or one of us—probably me, because I had three years of French in high school—would say “oh la la” in a snarky voice.

There are a lot of these too-tall buildings encroaching on First Hill.


But then we got the news that we had to be out of our place in 30 days —suddenly those crooked windows and door frames seemed sinister instead of full of character—and we found ourselves taking note of the “First Two Months Free” sign at Oh La La and we went on a tour.

Reader, we fell in love.

All of that empty space–plenty big for our belongings.


It’s everything I purport to loathe: a drawer in the sky, visible concrete supports in the living room, nothing that will do anything to enhance my beloved furniture. (The space seems custom made to mock my furniture for looking old fashioned.) The new place is grey and white and not a brick in sight, there’s a similar building across the street so on coffee breaks we can blink at other “hunker downers” across the way.

Lake Union, I didn’t even know you were visible from here.


But those floor to ceiling windows and the distant view of Lake Union? The layout of the kitchen and living room? The two-bedroom, two-bath configuration that will make guests still welcome? And oh my, the walk-in closet? The dog treats in the lobby? The trash chute on our floor so we don’t have to go to the alley again? That rooftop deck with the big grills and fire pit and hammock? Yes, please. Where do we sign?

Who doesn’t like a triple-view study, even if one of the views is into the lives of many someone elses?
Behind Door #1: a walk-in closet with adjustable Elfa shelving. Be still my heart.
Later, when we can have parties again, we can reserve this space.


But right now, we are stuck in the gloaming of the move. It feels right now like we are living in a very messy Air B&B. We’re taken with the views and keep being surprised by things like the size of the drawers or the ease with which machines do things for us like carry us down 9 flights of stairs and do our dishes and raise and lower our blinds. (I am one Roomba and a pair of pearl earrings away from turning into Jane Jetson.) We aren’t home yet, in other words. It’s novel. And messy. Maybe it will feel more like home once we stop tripping over rolled carpets and being shocked by the number of planes flying into SEATAC because we’re on the flight path and people are flying places instead of staying home.

Suggestions for getting to the sofa?
Or why the movers decided to put down a rug as if to distract me from the gouges in my furniture?
Or how this man manages to look so happy in the midst of a mess like this?


Also, let’s be honest, we are not Oh La La people. The neighbors had to be alarmed when they saw us wheeling in suitcases every night with a bevy of things stacked on top from Z’s collection of Crocs to my small metal rooster, Bob Johnson. We are less Jetsons and more Flintstones (though come to think of it, Wilma could rock pearls too, and I’m not sure I can).


The old place doesn’t feel like ours either. Which is good, because it isn’t. We were both surprised how easily we walked away from our happy first home together. Once we had it empty—which took ages—we thanked it for being so good to us, told it we loved it (it seemed important because we suspect it might be slated for demolition in all of it’s crooked, shaky glory), and we locked the door one last time and walked away.

Goodbye #101 and #102. I’ll miss your diamond-ring style doorknobs.


So, we find ourselves in the in-between, in the four-letter expletive of the move when we can’t find anything, even if it was just in our hands. We have no idea how to condense the contents of two small kitchens into one small kitchen. The laundry we haven’t been doing because we knew we soon wouldn’t have to share washers and dryers with people who refused to clean out lint traps is stored in “my” shower, so Z and I are sharing his, even though this gives us an air of someone who needs an intervention. We spent a half hour walking around the garage looking for the storage unit we were promised but it seems not to exist. The place where it should be is a door with a “Danger: High Voltage” sign hanging on it. Suddenly our kitchen lights won’t turn off, our internet won’t hook up to our ROKU, and Z’s work computer—from which he does his work—is not willing to communicate with our router.


But here we are, sitting with the impractical, mental home I started creating with my furniture in 2001 as we wait for the rest of the place—and our brains—to catch up. This whole ordeal would have been easier if I hadn’t invested in so many worldly goods and could get size-appropriate pieces from IKEA, drag out the Allen wrenches, and assemble our new functional life and then disassemble it later when it no longer suits us. Although those pictogram instructions often raise their own sets of questions.


Next time I broadcast from Oh La La, hopefully the place will feel like ours and I can talk about something more interesting than how to turn a bookcase into a kitchen island. Hopefully we’ll have two working computers and I’ll better understand why our dishwasher doesn’t seem to want to dry. We’ll embrace the magic of the in-between and cross our fingers that the view of Lake Union doesn’t disappear with the next offending build. But who knows, maybe in 15 months when our lease runs out, we’ll decide we’re ready to move into that new building that is being built on someone else’s idea of home.

We found the sofa, anyhow.

Zen and the Art of the Stalled Engine

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There’s a car out front that has stalled and the driver keeps trying and trying to get it started but the engine won’t turn over. Or catch. Or, well, go. It’s been so long since I’ve driven a car anywhere (almost 9 months) that I can’t remember the proper terminology, but what I know for sure is that it seems like a metaphor for this blog, for the 18 previous blog attempts I’ve made since May, and, let’s be honest, for 2020 as a whole. It’s like the year didn’t get started and we just had to push it to the curb, sit, and wait for AAA.

And now it’s October and AAA has been taking its sweet time rescuing us.

Fortunately, it’s not quite rush hour yet or there would be cars behind this guy honking their horns and telling him to get stuffed, as if he intentionally chose to make them go around him. I feel like I should go down and offer to help him push his car, but he’s not wearing a mask and I’m still wearing my nightgown and UGG boots (a sexy, sexy look on the over-fifty set) even though it’s 4 p.m. So instead, I’ll do what I’ve been doing since March and just stare out the window and wait for something about this scenario to change.

It’s not a perfect metaphor, I guess, because this year has not exactly stalled. The hits just keep coming when you get right down to it. The fact that I haven’t really written since May isn’t from lack of trying. No sooner would I start a post on whatever the latest worry or “event” was, then something else would happen making what I’d written seem suddenly less timely or worthwhile. Were I quicker writer who didn’t need to let my work steep before sharing it, you might have been reading entries about what it was like to live in Seattle during the protests against police brutality and systemic racism that resulted—for a time—in the creation of the police-free CHOP Zone not all that far from our apartment. You might have read about the fires here and in Oregon and California that left the city with unhealthy air for almost two weeks while we were in the middle of a heat wave sans AC. You might have read about how the pier downtown where we have taken the most photos of the Sound over the last decade collapsed. You might have read about my stepdad’s surgery and the two weeks that followed wherein I tried not to call daily to see if he was demonstrating any COVID symptoms. You might have read about my sadness about the passing of RBG (and what the means for women and people who aren’t corporations) or a host of other people who have died since last time we met here. More recently, there’s been grief in the extended family, though I’m not yet ready to write about that, and so I guess that shouldn’t be counted in this list, other than it’s made the prospect of writing a blog post—about how disappointed I am that the Just Born candy company wont’ be making Halloween or Christmas Marshmallow Peeps because of the pandemic—seem extra trite.

Ditto the trite but bothersome news that the store we go to most often—Bartell Drugs, which is a local chain that treats its employees well, carries local products, and has been around for 130 years—has decided to sell itself to Rite Aid. The letter they sent out to their loyal customers said nothing would change, but, of course, everything will change. It might take a couple of years for it to get that unique Rite Aid smell—cheap laundry detergent, off-brand candy, and desperation—but it’s coming. As is the 21-story building that will block our view (and possibly the sound of the bells that please me daily) of the beautiful St. James Cathedral. As will the new bus route that’s going to add a lot of noisy, dirty traffic to our already noisy, dirty street.

These are mere trifles compared to the other stuff happening in the world—to people we know and don’t know—and our country and the global environment, and so what’s the point of complaining? But I don’t like change or discord and we are in a long, ugly season of both these days.

So, I was good there for a few paragraphs. It seemed like maybe the car was finally going to start and I could tootle on down the road, but here I am again, stalled. Z and Hudge are honking at me to get a move on, but I clearly need a jump. Or gas for the tank. Or a complete engine rebuild.

What I’d most like to do is to hire a chauffeur and shout “Home, James” from the backseat while I sip a Moscow Mule and wait for the car to drive over the Rockies, through the Great Plains, and over the Mississippi towards my own ones. One of my chief beefs this summer has been seeing people on social media enjoying their vacations, time with family, and mask-less interludes with friends. Some days, I’m even passive-aggressive about it and won’t like those pictures. Z and I would both like to be with our families, with each other’s families, sitting on a beach, crowded or otherwise, but we don’t think it’s smart given my wonky immune system, Mom’s compromised one, and Zimbabwe has had closed borders for quite awhile even if we were feeling brave enough to go see Zma.  I realize some people think we’re being excessively cautious. Aside from not wanting to get the virus, we’re also trying to be halfway decent citizens.

If it seems like I’m patting myself on the back for our virus virtue, I’m not. This is one time I’d very much like to not follow the rules. But neither of us are made that way, so here I am, watching a car in the middle of 9th Avenue try and try to get itself started.

 Another metaphor we had to work with this summer was Chicken Little worrying about the sky falling when the ceiling in our kitchen literally fell in. Neither of us were in the kitchen—and were, in fact, across the hall asleep and didn’t realize it had happened until the next day—but it was a mess. Like car jargon, I’m also bad about house construction terminology, but we could see the rough boards above and it pulled down enough plaster where the walls joined the ceiling that we got a glimpse of the wallpaper that had been up there possibly since 1923 when our building went up. Never have two people been so happy that they are renters instead of owners, I can tell you that. Our maintenance guy and an associate had it fixed, the light re-installed, and the paint on within a day, and all we had to do was clean up some forgotten chunks of rubble.

We assumed it would be a much bigger deal and there must be some dire cause—oxen living in the apartment above us having a dance party, perhaps—but our building guy shrugged and said, “It’s an old building. It happens.” Now I’m eyeing all of our ceilings with alarm, and I suddenly understand why most of the 1990s and early 2000s were spent with my mother staring at her own ceilings and making her    disapproving, I-don’t-like-the-look-of-that-crackface. I always assumed it was an irrational fear of hers, but it turns out sometimes the sky does fall.

Sorry for doubting you, Mom.

If I sound depressed or cranky, I’m not. I’ve got appropriate intermittent rage and sadness mixed in with a few scoops of joy and a lot of “I’m alright.”   In January I started anti-anxiety medicine in what has proven to be my second best ever piece of intuition (after knowing instantly that I would marry Z whether he agreed to it or not). When I casually mentioned to my GP that I’d been having some trouble riding crowded buses and a particularly dastardly elevator with no buttons inside (where was it going to take me? Who knew? Maybe it was one of those Willy Wonka deals that would burst through the ceiling), the doctor said clearly anxiety was having a negative effect on my life and here, try some pills. So I started them and then the pandemic struck and while I have no idea how I’d behave on a crowded bus because I no longer ride the bus, I have noticed that in the last 9 months I spend a lot of time hearing horrible news and feeling something akin to sadness or dismay, and then moving on with my day. Maybe this is how normal people have always been functioning and I didn’t realize it and took everything personally—someone else’s misfortune felt like mine, some story about something like murder hornets had me thinking, “Well, this is it then. This is how we’re all going to die.” And now it’s more like, “Huh. That’s too bad. Do we have any more M&Ms or is it time to put in another order with the grocery?”

Oh good. The car outside has gotten started and tootled off. I no longer have to berate myself for not being a more helpful citizen. Farewell, metaphor. Drive safely.

It’s a day-to-day existence, this life we’ve been living, isn’t it? Of course it always has been, but before we could distract ourselves with book sales and concert tickets and planned trips. This Covid Time is very “Here I am in this moment. Now it’s the next moment. And the next.” It feels Zen in some ways, though I wouldn’t say it’s the peaceful, easy feeling I always imagined accompanied a Zen mindset. But I am very much aware that I’m one Netflix binge and grocery order away from either an existential crisis or enlightenment. (My money is on the former.)

Some days Z and I are so busy with work and our internal thoughts that we barely have the energy to talk to each other in depth. And other days, that’s all we do. This morning, we were lying in bed, not all that interested in getting up in the grey, cold late morning, and so we talked and then found ourselves randomly singing multiple verses in not-quite-harmony of “This Old Man/Knick Knack Paddywhack”, a song I haven’t thought of since listening to the Fisher-Price record player belonging to my cousins Jimmy and Ben circa 1972. It was weirdly delightful.

Of course we’ve spent the rest of the day asking ourselves why we feel so behind with work, but I’d rather be a little harried in the afternoon than to have missed that musical moment with Z.

I thank the pandemic for those moments. For Zooming with friends and family. For really appreciating students and reading their work because it seems more important than ever that they are doing it and we are spending time together talking about the significance of their words (and truth). For all of the adorable pandemic puppies that people have been walking. For realizing how much you really like seeing the lower half of the faces of perfect strangers and how you’ll never take a casual smile with a passer-by for granted again. From my desk, I can see the top of Columbia Tower, which is the tallest building in Seattle. During the smog from the fires, I couldn’t see it. Now it’s back, and when I look at it, I take a deep breath and feel grateful for clear air and that building even though on most days I’m mentally shaking my fist at all the high-rises that block the sky.

During the worst of the smoke and when the building peeked through.

Several years ago, a counselor I was seeing told me that every morning he wakes up and knows his “next pain in the ass is already in the mail.” His point was, I think, you’re never going to achieve nirvana, Beth. There’s always going to be something on the horizon that is headache or sadness. At the time, I thought maybe he needed to see a counselor because it seemed kind of a pessimistic way to look at life. I was young(ish) then. I wanted to figure myself out so everything in my life would be perfect. But now I think I understand what he was saying. Back then, I was incapable of hearing the implied “but” that came with his statement. This sucks, but also, there are the _____________(moments of spontaneous song, the puppies, photos of a friend’s new grandchild, an extra long phone call home).

I’m trying to focus on the but alsos.

**ADDENDUM**

Last week, while I was trying to wrap-up this blog entry with my silent writing group of complete strangers that I met in a writing course I took with Lauren Sapala in August—a class I loved and a community I’m appreciating more and more each day—Z was across the hall talking on the phone with our building manager. When my writing session was over, I packed up my stuff in my basket and made the long commute across the hallway to our “real” apartment, where he told me he had both good and bad news.

The bad news? We have 30 days to get out of our twin apartments, where we’ve lived together for the last ten years (or, alternatively, where we’ve spent the first decade of our married life) because there’s some structural unsoundness. The good news involved some reimbursement for our troubles, which, at the time, didn’t strike me as being remarkable or worthwhile because I could only picture us homeless.

It seems only fair to withhold from you the story of my frustration that in the midst of this news, Z was fussing about where his slippers were and how cold his feet were because it casts him in a bad light. I was losing my mind, wanting more details, wanting him to tell me something that would calm my heart rate, and he was fussing and faffing looking for his half-dead slippers. Finally, he returned to the subject at hand. See how nice I was there, to protect him and not tell you about how it went on for what seemed like minutes and minutes and minutes?

Initially, it was really hard to imagine living anywhere else. We’ve been so happy here. Until I found it had some structural compromises, I’ve loved the crooked walls and windows that don’t quite shut, and quirky faucets. I’ve liked being in a building so old that it creaks and “talks” even if it’s meant I share washers and dryers with all the other building residents or I’ve been doing dishes by hand for the last decade, much to the chagrin of my once-attractive nails and hands. I’ve loved our weird set-up with our writing studio/guest apartment/extra-large-storage-space-across-the- hall.

It’s unconventional and meant we had a lot of guests, including me randomly inviting a writer I’d read and loved but never met to come stay with us for a few days while she was on a book tour. I’m relatively certain she wouldn’t have been inclined if we just had a spare room, but because she had autonomy, I got to meet her, have some drinks with her, and now we send each other emails and snail mail periodically because, well, I care about her now because she’s real to me. And I’ve loved wondering about the people who lived here in the 1920s when the building was new. Were they doctors or nurses at the neighboring hospitals? Flappers? Were they reading The Great Gatsby? Could any of them fathom the stock market crash? Prohibition? A second world war? That one day Seattle wouldn’t be a sleepy logging town? There’s history here, and like living in its dust and crumbled plaster.

So it was a long, sad weekend. I kept looking at everything I’d miss. We took tours at a few places, and then landed on an apartment so unlike any place I’ve ever imagined myself wanting to live that I still can’t believe we’re doing it. I’ll give you the low-down in the next post once we have the keys and have figured out how many of our worldly goods get to come with us.

Now that we know where we’re landing though—and we’ll be in the same neighborhood—I’m making lists of things I won’t miss here at our first home together: the constant diesel grit on everything from the buses that idle out front, the late-night parties that sometimes happen on the stoop by our bedroom window, the postage-stamp-sized closet, unlocking the garbage dumpster because America is so messed up we think our trash is a treasure. And admittedly, the alley is cleaner now that no one is dumpster diving, but it still feels wrong to me every time I click that lock.

These continue to be weird, weird times. I hope this finds you well, be-masked, and managing.

Special Aptitudes

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For reasons known solely to my subconscious, I can only write now if I have on this $5 hat purchased in December 2010 when Z and I were on our way to Zimbabwe and got stranded in a wintry New York City with nothing warm to wear. This probably tells you all you need to know about my current state of mind.

 

Taking that six-month blog hiatus turns out to have been a very bad idea because last fall when it started, there were things to write about. I’d been places (Indiana, Baltimore, Long Beach, Indiana again) and done stuff (taught some classes, gone to some events, seen some people), and had some thoughts (since forgotten).

 

But now, this is what I’m doing:

 

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I’d feel better about this if these guys had one of those circus nets under them.

 

No, I’m not washing windows. I just couldn’t quit watching these men washing windows on the 14-story apartment building across the street last week. I had essays to critique and to write and chores to do, but this got all of my attention.

 

The guy on the right was working slowly and methodically. If you want clean windows with no smudges, I’m guessing he’s your man. The other guy on the left was more fun to watch because he was zipping around from side to side and dropping down quickly on his ropes and generally putting on a performance, but I’m pretty sure those windows would be cleaner if he’d taken a Labrador puppy up with him and let it lick the glass. Still, if there’d been a hat on the ground for tipping purposes, I’d probably have dropped in a few bucks because he was mesmerizing—like Spiderman with a squeegee.

 

I should turn my desk to face the wall because there is no end to the distractions on 9th Avenue. For instance, I just saw a young woman walk across the street with a stuffed panda twice her size hoisted over her shoulders. Where’d she get it? No stores are open. It’s not fair season yet.

 

Also, there must be something on one of the leaves of the big tree out front because I keep seeing people stop to study it and two people took pictures and I’ve been speculating about what it might be—some secret message? A death hornet? (Because those are a thing now, in case it seemed like we didn’t have enough to worry about.)

 

Finally, I’m glancing suspiciously at all the cars parked across the street in the special “park here only if you work at the hospital” gratitude parking spaces and feel certain that not everyone over there actually works at the hospital because they aren’t wearing scrubs and sometimes have dogs with them that they are walking. If they don’t head directly to the hospital, I purse my lips in disapproval.

 

This is the minutiae that now fills my days. Perhaps your days are similar re: whatever is outside your windows leads you down rabbit holes. Or perhaps your house is full of children or an unruly roommate or partner whose chewing is making you crazy, thus there’s no time to look out your window. Or maybe you are one of those frontline workers who should be afforded the primo parking spots who can’t look out of a window because you are busy keeping us healthy and fed and our garbage cans emptied. Thank you.

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When you can’t do anything else to help: construction paper!

 

 

I can only speak for myself, and what I’m realizing is this: when you are forced to slow your life down and limit your line of sight, it’s amazing how much time you can spend looking at stuff you would normally not even notice.  As it turns out, I’ve made a discovery that I may well be uniquely qualified to tolerate this pandemic lock-down.

 

At the beginning of the year, I celebrated my birthday back in Indiana. Initially, Mom and I had big plans for a little road trip or at least a movie, and in the end, we decided we were really tired and would rather go home and talk and nap and eat the remaining pieces of Christmas candy. It suited me fine, though had I known the incarceration that would soon be upon us, I might have pushed us to find the energy for a more public celebration.

 

To commemorate our most important collaboration of getting me born all those Januaries ago, I forced Mom to drag out my baby book so I could see who sent well wishes, the newspaper announcement that I’d arrived and to whom, the little envelope with my tiny fingernail clippings and a lock of my hair. It’s a book I looked at periodically when I was a child because it seemed to point to the notion of me as a celebrity—I mean, it was a book…I love books!—and it was all about me. But now that I’m older it’s more of an archaeology mission. Was I already me when I was born? Was I full of a multitude of possibilities or was my destiny already written? More importantly, as I age, I want to see mention of the people who inhabited my life at its beginning but who are no longer here.

 

In addition to the ephemera of me and the memories of my own dearly departed, Mom had also recorded this on a page labeled “Special Aptitudes” my primary skills:

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Look at me–setting the world on fire from 20 months on–I was destined for celebrity!

 

Mom has always been heavy with the praise, which may have given me a false sense of my own specialness because I was shocked to discover that for a baby book that covered my first seven years, there were only three things listed there that set me apart from other plebian children, and one of those—coloring within the lines—was really just a matter of decent hand-eye coordination and rule-following.

 

The thing is, these three skills of mine are basically the same now as they were then, and thank goodness because now that we are neck-deep in Covid-19, sitting and staring at books, magazines, and “especially Christmas catalogs” is helping to pass the time. (I wish. What I wouldn’t give for a 1973 Sears Christmas “wish book” right now.)

 

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Move over, Pooh Bear. I want in that swing!

 

When Governor Inslee instituted his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” initiative at the end of February, I made plans for all the things I’d get done: the writing, the crafts, new skills, cleaning. Z and I put up a giant-sized Post-It note on the front door we’d no longer be using. On the note were three columns: one list of fun activities we could do at home (games, puzzles, renting movies we’d been meaning to see, reading, etc.), one a list of household chores, and a third short list of joint projects we’ve been meaning to tackle from paying our taxes to writing a book together.

 

We’ve pretty much checked off everything in the fun column in the first two weeks and have added a second giant Post-It, on which we record the license plates we see on our daily “health” walk—we’re playing the pandemic version of the license plate game and have only nine more states to get. We keep discovering the same license plates over and over again because nobody is doing a lot of driving so cars stay parked in our neighborhood for weeks at a time. I’m so tired of getting excited about Iowa only to get home and discover we already have it. I’ve given up hope that we’ll ever find Rhode Island and West Virginia.

 

Meanwhile, the other two columns on our to-do list remain unticked. We haven’t even done laundry because a) the thought of using the shared washers and dryers in the basement is unpalatable b) we are kind of tired. The pile of dirty clothes and sheets is now high enough that it impedes the opening of our sock drawer, so soon we’ll be going sockless. Thank goodness it’s almost May.

 

My point here is that it’s clear to me now that I was always destined for a certain lack of productivity—there’s proof of that in the baby book. This is basically what I have to work with. If you need me to color or annotate your books or stare out your window and think deep thoughts, I’m uniquely equipped to excel in this capacity. It doesn’t seem like much to offer the world when it’s in such dire straits hough.

 

That said, I assumed even with my innate low-energy that with two months or more stretching in front of me, I’d finally finish knitting that sweater I’ve been working on since 1999, get all of my class notes into a three-ring binder, read through the stack of books I got for Christmas, finish filling in our wedding memory book from a decade ago, and some other surprises.

 

But I haven’t done any of those things. I started to clean out a bag I had stuffed full of detritus but how that ended up was detritus all over the coffee table instead of in a bag.

 

Thank goodness the governor has given us another month of lock-down; maybe I can still turn this ship around. Though that baby book seems kind of prescient, and I’m already wondering if that new yoga mat is going to be used given that it didn’t come standard-equipped with a version of me that actually does things.

 

In the meantime, here are the things that are keeping me sane:

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This is my to-read-immediately stack, as opposed to the to-read-imminently stack behind my head in the window sill.

 

The books in line to be read next.

 

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Every year this seems magical.

 

This view greeting me when I dare to venture to the drugstore for my “nerve” pills.

 

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Admittedly, I’d have been happier if it were a Hoosier rabbit with big ears, but in a pinch, this one will do.

 

Seeing emboldened wildlife on our daily walk.

 

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My Big Fat Greek Puzzle.

 

Traveling through the magic of puzzling.

 

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Library scented.

 

A candle that was lit at the same time as candles were being lit in Zimbabwe and around the world.

 

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Not library scented.

 

Spring’s aromatic beauty.

 

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Not a commentary on the reading material.

 

Never knowing what you’ll find in the Little Free Library.

 

 

The nightly 8 p.m. cheer for health care workers. Usually, we’re in the house banging pots and pans, but on this night we happened to be on our walk.

 

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These signs that are popping up all over First Hill.

 

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Is it you, Michelangelo?

 

Unexpected finds.

 

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This Honey Bucket has lost is way.

 

Ditto. (Also, thumbs up for traffic-less streets when you are a pedestrian.)

 

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Elliott Bay, how I miss you!

 

The idea that Puget Sound is still out there and one day we will be able to take a ferry ride on a cloudy day and it will look like this.

 

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Artwork by Henri Lebasque

 

Stolen images and memes.

 

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Thanks, Anaïs!

 

Masks made by a friend and shipped priority so we could go out into the world.

 

Be well. Stay safe. Rely on your own special aptitudes to get through these strange days.  xoxo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tiny Hands Injures Her Neck

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They don’t make skies like this in Seattle.

It’s Mom’s last day in Seattle after a three week visit, which was preceded by a 5 week visit of mine to Indiana, so I’m starting the morning with my “Fall Décor” lights set on high-beam, two strong cups of tea, and some Lizzo so I won’t feel the sadness that I will likely feel tomorrow when we point her towards her gate at SEATAC and wave goodbye.

 

Stupid Lizzo.

 

Thanks to Lizzo’s contagious upbeatness, I spent the last three days in phone hell instead of enjoying Mom’s presence here. A couple of weeks ago I discovered that if I drank tea in the morning, sprayed myself with the Aveda Pure-fume that is supposed to open up my 5th chakra of communication, and listened to a Lizzo playlist on my way to class that I was transformed into the instructor I’m meant to be. That is, this magical elixir makes me as extraverted as I’m capable of being AND able to come up with near-perfect examples, analogies, and author and book titles when class discussion goes down a twisty path.

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Autumnal energy booster.

In fact, the magic lasts even after class and so that is why on Tuesday, “Truth Hurts” blasting into my ears as I walked home with a bounce in my step, it seemed like a perfectly natural thing to pick up a plastic Coke bottle that someone had tossed on the ground.

 

This is not something I normally do. Normally, I look at litter—which enrages me because it’s so senseless—and think, they really need to clean this place up.

 

They.

 

Earlier in Mom’s visit we’d been to the Convention Center to see the Northwest Water Color Society’s exhibit and while we were there, the youth of the world were out marching in protest of the deplorable state of the environment. Mom and I stood peering out at them a few streets away as traffic backed up, spewing exhaust into the atmosphere, and I felt a little teary as I watched them. A woman walked up to see what the fuss was and said something that could have been supportive or sarcastic and Mom said something sagely back like, “Why shouldn’t they be protesting? It’s their world.”

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It doesn’t look that impressive from this distance, but we were impressed.

When you don’t have children of your own you sometimes forget that you are not “young people” or “the youth” that you have always felt you were. It’s a surprise to realize that your own mother doesn’t see the world as yours anymore, so much as she sees it as something for some younger generation.

 

It’s also shocking to wake up one day and realize that the children of the world aren’t just mad at the people you were mad at when you were their age but they are actually mad at you. And you’ve got no leg to stand on because you were pretty Gen X apathetic and emo through most of the 80s and 90s and aughts and only got very marginally woke when you moved to a city with a plastic bag ban and curbside recycling and composting. (And don’t tell these children or the city Trash Sheriff, but you don’t compost because you live in 500 square feet and hate fruit flies and justify this failure of yours with the knowledge that you have no car, have not filled the landfill with the diapers of your imaginary children, are unfashionable and thus keep your clothes for decades instead of sending them to a landfill, and fly somewhat less than the average upwardly mobile Seattle.)

 

Later, on that bright, caffeinated, Lizzo perky day, while I was walking down the street, saw that plastic bottle and thought this they would finally do something and pick it up and throw it away, I felt good about this choice. I was a block from home and so I could  wash my hands and thus the germs of whatever cretin had last touched the bottle, and I knew that if I put it where it belonged, it would not roll ten blocks down the hill into Elliott Bay and choke a baby Orca. It was a win for the environment and a win for my belief in myself as a decent human being.

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The Orcas beneath this ferry are NOT choking on at least one plastic bottle because of me.

 

And then my ancient, petite iPhone jumped out of my pocket when I bent over and skittered across the sidewalk. The screen spider-webbed and only 1/10th of the display worked—and not the helpful bit of display wherein I could turn Lizzo off or check my text messages but instead the part that showed my battery was at 86%.

 

On the plus side, I was in such a good mood that I dealt with it. I threw out that bottle, made an appointment to get it fixed, and then used powers of reason to deduce that paying $70 (or more, if fixable) for a six year old phone that had been slowing down anyhow was perhaps not the best use of money. I even maintained my calm when I discovered that the fabulous replacement phone I’d been fantasizing about for six months would cost what a new MacBook Air would cost. (Things have changed in the six years since I bought a phone.)

 

With optimism, I got online and ordered a pre-loved older phone that was a couple of generations newer than my old one and by all reports online was “the” old phone to get. (Added benefit: a few moments of sanctimony as I thought about how much better I was for reusing someone else’s phone and not depleting the world of extra minerals for a brand new one. You’re welcome, Earth!)

 

I was even surprisingly perky about living two whole days without a phone and spent time reflecting on life before 1992 when I got my first “car phone.” It was in a giant carry-on sized bag that sat beside me on the seat in case there was a roadside emergency. I stood at the bus stop listening to music in my head—still Lizzo— and pondered how back in my day you’d just go out into the world untethered to technology and it never occurred to you that it wasn’t “safe.” If you had car trouble, someone would probably rescue you or you’d walk somewhere and borrow use someone’s phone and help would come.

 

It was a different world. Now if I forget my phone and walk five blocks from the apartment, Z growls at me and makes me feel like I’ve been juggling the kitchen knives again.

 

I maintained the good humor until the new, “pre-loved” phone arrived. It’s lovely and does all the things I want it to do even if it is 4 generations behind whatever is the hot new powerful thing. But it is also giant and every time I pick it up, all I can think about is Donald Trump needing two hands to drink that normal-sized bottle of water. I’ve always thought I had big hands for a woman, but I guess not. I can’t balance the thing in one hand and text—it’s a two-handed situation now and it won’t fit in the wallet I bought for my money and my old phone three weeks ago, and since I currently don’t have a case for it, I’m carrying it in a protective recycled pencil pouch from a women’s cooperative in a developing country and refusing to take it out unless there is carpet and soft furnishing underneath me.

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New phone for giants next to cracked, reasonably sized phone.

Yesterday, I peppered my Millennial students with questions about how they manage their giant phones, some gianter than mine, and they looked at me the way I used to look at Great Aunt Clara when I had to explain that you could now get money right out of an ATM and didn’t have to talk to a bank teller or anything. Apparently you just hold it and appreciate that the movies you’re watching on Netflix are easier to see than they were on that old 5c. What a stupid thing to complain about, their expressions said while their mouths said, “I know” as they nodded their heads to humor me.

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Self-explanatory.

 

While I was in Indiana, I had dinner one night with Leibovitz, Little Leibovitz home for a week before starting grad school, and Baby Leibovitz home from her first year of college. It’s been awhile since I’ve been with all three of them at once, and it still surprises me when I visit Leibovitz’s house and the girls aren’t there, so I was glad the planets aligned. Frankly, their having grown up still jolts me. I spent a lot of time with them when they were little, then Z arrived on the scene and distracted me somewhat, and I woke up one day and L.L. was no longer begging me to “do projects” and B.L. was no longer carrying her pink blanky, and so on this particular night it was still surprising to be sitting across from these creatures I met on the day they came into this world and now they are beautiful and clever and have lives of their own that I know nothing about. They are wise in all the ways I remember being wise when I was 20 only they seem to be going places I never was.

 

On this occasion, they tried to convince me their cauliflower crust pizza was just as good as a real pizza crust and even though I know it is categorically untrue that anything made of cauliflower can be as good as bread, I want to believe. We laughed, talked about school and the winding down of summer, while I sat there and tried not to behave creepily while I admired their perfect skin, particularly the bit under their eyes that is unlined and bagless. Was my skin ever that smooth and un-aged?

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You know what’s better than cauliflower? Sweetcorn fresh from my aunt’s field.

 

At some point, their mother told me that she’d water skied for the last time this summer. She realized it wasn’t worth it—she doesn’t have the back for it anymore, etc. and in a brief second I saw this look pass between the girls and I heard my mother and her friends two decades ago talking about new aches and pains. I too, had probably glanced at whatever of my contemporaries was nearest and gave that look. That look that says, Here we go again with the aches and pains talk. Older people are so single-minded and unaware.

 

Suddenly, I felt like a wizened crone, and so decided to to lay some truth on the girls: “You think you’re always going to be the age you are right now, but one day you are going to wake up and you’re going to be this age and it’s going to shock you because inside you’ll still feel 20 but your body won’t feel 20 at all.”

 

And even that sounded like something I know I heard my mother say 20 years ago. They laughed and said they knew, but of course they don’t know. You can’t know when you are young that you won’t always be young. The future feels so far away.

 

On the drive home, I was on a hamster-wheel of thought that went How’d I get here? Why aren’t they still in diapers? Weren’t Leibovitz and I just putting them to bed early so we could talk about real life stuff without havng to spell it out? Weren’t Leibovits and I just their age?

 

It seems fitting to me that the first 45 record I ever bought was Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle” and oh, how those opening lines about time slipping into the future fascinated me as a ten year old even though I didn’t quite understand. (And yes, Steve Miller, but it could have been worse—my 3rd grade friend’s first 45, bought at the same time as mine from the now defunct Elder-Beerman department store, was “Muskrat Love”, a song that has blessedly fallen from radio playlists for a reason.)

 

Other than the phone, the other distraction while Mom has been here in Seattle, which has kept me from being fully present and focused on her is that before I left Indiana, I injured my neck.

 

I’m saying I “injured” my neck because that will make you think I was working construction, building something important, and there was an accident with some rebar and I was damaged and now am collecting workman’s comp. The truth is, I slept on it funny. Or turned it too quickly. Or shrugged my shoulders too vigorously when someone asked me where I wanted to go for dinner. I don’t even know what happened, but one day I was in agony and I stayed that way for two and half weeks.

 

I had a couple of massages that briefly helped, but then the muscles would turn themselves back into a Celtic knot after a few hours and I’d be popping Advil, some Class A narcotics I had from kidney stones of yesteryear, and none of it touched the pain. It was the kind of agony that is not so bad that you have to go to a room to be by yourself to whimper in peace, but it was the kind where when you are with other people you can’t really focus on their words or make plans for Big Fun in the City, and you talk over much about the number of pain you are in on that inane pain scale when your husband asks how you feel. All you can focus on is your body and how it used to work so nicely and now is wrecked and may never be the same.

 

After a visit to the doctor, I was sent to physical therapy up the street where a nice therapist called Laurel (who I highly recommend) has worked on the muscles and made me do exercise.  Though it still twinges at times, I finally feel normal again but I may never backpack across Europe, and, frankly, I could do without her telling me how all of my muscles are connected because I don’t like to think about anything under my skin all that much.

The upside: my posture hasn’t been this good since I saw that episode of “Brady Bunch” as a kid when Marcia  was walking around with a stack of books on her head.

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Dear Street Artists: please don’t force me to think about my own inner workings.

 

Because Seattle is a young city, most the people at this therapy joint are young and are having muscles iced and heated and manipulated that they clearly strained while free climbing or running marathons. They’re in appropriate, attractive athletic wear and even though injured, they are doing vigorous stretches and strengthening exercises. Meanwhile, I am sitting in a chair in a cardigan tilting my neck from side to side and holding it for 30 seconds at a time and Laurel is saying, “That looks great!! Keep it up!”

 

I’m ashamed of myself for how pleased I was the day I saw a woman there who appeared to be older than I was, sitting at a table sorting beads from one bowl to another, and I thought with some satisfaction, “At least I still have my fine motor control!” As if this is all some kind of competition—who is oldest, who is strongest, whose hands are big and dexterous enough to hold their phones and regular sized bottles of water that they’ll fail to recycle.

 

So now I am here with a brain no longer addled with pain or obsessed with what phone is most cost effective and environmentally friendly—and which case will protect it best when it slips from my tiny, ancient hands—and it is time for Mom to leave. We are spending our last day together here painting, considering that maybe we should shower and dress before Z gets home from work, and with her worrying her suitcase won’t zip or will be too heavy and me insisting that it will all be fine even though I don’t know for sure, but I think—in my “youth”–that I know more than she does about the weight of things.

 

At some point, Z will come home, will get out the luggage scale, and will find out if she’s good to go or if we have to find a second suitcase for her to lug home a few books she got for her birthday that cost less than the fee for an additional bag.

 

Hopefully the truth won’t hurt. But it usually does.

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To Tiny Buzz Lightyear, even my tiny phone would be too much to deal with.

Finding True North

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Z surprised me this weekend with an overnight to the Suquamish Clearwater Resort & Casino, which is a ferry ride away from the city and which was a delightful break from noisy, dirty, summer Seattle. We go there periodically on day trips for a little flutter on the penny slots and try our own weird ways to convince the machines to relinquish the dosh, but our systems are largely based on faulty logic and even faultier intuition so we never leave much richer than when we arrived and often leave $40 poorer. But this trip over was even better because he’d booked a room for us in the resort with a water view and we arrived with just enough sunlight left that we were able to drink it in.

 

I forget every year how sometimes it feels like the city lives right in the apartment with us when the windows go up: the bus idling, the dustups, the barking, the leaf blower racket all curled right up on the couch with us.

 

Earlier in the week I had walked to work and in the course of my journey passed three separate men who were talking loudly and angrily to no one visible—one of whom was the most pitiful creature I’ve ever seen, howling like the hounds of hell were coming for him—and, after saying a little prayer of God-please-help-them-find-peace, I marveled at how even if you have your faculties in tact and aren’t under the influence it’s a kind of insanity to walk past such people as if it isn’t happening, as if you are traveling in a triple-paned pod that somehow keeps you removed from the curses and the cries (and what I think was a three block rant about Jeff Bezos and how he’s ruining the city).

 

So I was glad to find myself looking out over Agate Passage Sunday evening. We watched an eagle that may have been nesting in a pine tree in front of us (or may have been a series of eagles that we wrongly referred to as “The Eagle” and “him”) and some sailboats. It was peaceful. Because we were inside—it was warm and mosquitoes were outsidewhatever noises were out there, we were oblivious. I could feel the city lifting off of me.

 

We wanted to maximize our view, so we decided to stay in the room until the sun went down, which meant we missed dinner at the restaurants and had to eat at the 24-hour deli in the casino. And then we played our $20 each on the casino slots.

 

They did not pay out. They do about 10% of the time, and never in the big way we plan for them too. But still, we live in hope, which is half the fun—spending our imagined riches before we ever step onto the casino floor.

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This is from a different casino, but this post was looking text-heavy, so here’s a fancy light and some sticks!

The next morning, I woke up early and while Z was still sleeping I sat on the balcony. No matter what I do on a vacation, I feel I’m doing it wrong. If I’m on the beach, I’m sure I’m missing a view from a ridge. If I’m reading a book, I’m sure I’m missing a heron or a certain shimmer of light. On Monday morning, it was no different. I wanted to write Jane because it had been too many days and I twitch if I go too long without sending her a recap of my week or my latest thoughts on the Enneagram, whatever I’m reading or watching, and the general state of the world. (Jane is very generous in acting as my journal. I need an audience.)

 

After forcing myself to sit there for several minutes, I finally determined I could write her while ignoring the screen and looking at the view in a sort of multi-tasking-with-nature scheme. I did with some success, and it must have looked appealing to the woman on the balcony next to me, because not long after I opened my computer she sat down her coffee, padded into her room, and returned with her own computer.

 

I described the view to Jane, thinking that would keep me rooted in the spot even if technology was sitting on my lap. I told her about the houses you could barely see across the water on Bainbridge Island because the pine trees are so thick, the rocky beach below where a couple of dogs were loping, the way the sky and land around Puget Sound is always pastel in a way that makes my heart do a little flip. This isn’t a view I have daily, and yet I feel I’ve been looking at it enough on our periodic jaunts for the last 13 years that this is the thing I would miss most if we ever left the Pacific Northwest. I would miss the palette here the way I still miss the clean line of an Indiana horizon at sunset.

 

The problem with me getting enraptured with beauty is that beauty and angst reside very near each other in my brain. So while I was looking at the expanse of trees and water and sky in front of me, I was also thinking about all the ways we’re wrecking the planet. I was thinking about the beautiful, historic photos of the Suquamish people—a woman with a basket, a group shot of handsome football players from the early twentieth century, a child in a canoe—that were hanging around the hotel. I had feelings about what was done to them and what the world might look like if they’d been left to their own devices and all the garbage the casino was generating that day alone and about the people inside who were maybe not sticking to the $20 limit that Z and I have.

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I don’t know why my finger is in this photo or why it looks like a snapshot instead of huge portrait hanging above the desk, but this woman’s face is one of the most gorgeous and haunting things I’ve seen. I wonder if she would mind her image plastered around the resort.

It piles up on you, all the worries and ugliness, but the benefit of being somewhere lovely when you think about horrible things is that you can do some deep breaths, watch an eagle make a pass across the water, and push it out of your head for a time.

And I was able to do that until an older (than us) couple settled under one of the umbrella tables beneath the balcony. The be-hatted man bellowed across the lawn at another man, “Which way is north?” The man seemed not to hear him. The be-hatted man and his wife talked loudly between themselves about which way was most likely north as the wife pointed south and said she was sure that was the direction they hoped to locate. I considered yelling down to them but it was early and didn’t seem nice for the people still sleeping in the rooms around us, so I let them fumble with their map and ask a few more people, and then I began to suspect they didn’t really care about the direction they were facing so much as they enjoyed having something to talk about.

 

I started giving Jane a (riveting) blow-by-blow of what the couple was doing. How they ensnared another, equally loud, couple with their query about directions despite the fact they both had fancy phones that probably had compasses, despite the fact that they said to the couple they came regularly and stayed on Sundays and then offered tips of places where they could dine, despite the fact that they lived due north of the resort and surely knew which way home was having just driven south to get where they were.

 

The be-hatted man yelled at a young woman walking nearby, “Nice earrings!” though it was unclear to me how he could see them. She dipped her head and touched her earrings and hurried into the lobby.

 

I hated them. I hated them for their morning chipper. I hated them for their loud voices. I hated them for their need to connect to other humans. What was wrong with people that they had to be so loud all the time, I asked Jane. Why must they fill every silence with words? Did they have no unspoken thoughts?

 

And then I told her that I thought those homophobes who are always suggesting “the gays” should be sent to an island where they could be with each other and not bother “us normal people” had it all wrong. It was the extroverts who should be sent to the island. They could sit at umbrella tables and drink Mai Tais and make loud small talk with strangers all day long. They’d be happier. Introverts would be happier. Surely that would be a win-win!

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I feel certain the fire hydrants on Extrovert Island will look like this. Olé!

I’m sure Jane was thrilled to get my email. I’m always such a beacon of light and happiness.

 

Finally the couple left, Z woke up, we had some tea, and my mood re-brightened. We determined we didn’t want to leave and attempted to secure a room for another night, but the only one available was the $600 presidential suite and our bank account was not presidential. We decided to check out, eat breakfast, come back to the grounds we were overlooking and pretend we were still guests. We commandeered a table under a willow tree right by the water, and set up shop. Z did some work and called Zma. I worked on my too-long email to Jane and made a mental list of all the work I’d tackle when I got home when our mini vacation was officially over.

 

A family with too many ill-behaved kids showed up behind us, and I started type-grousing to Jane. I was particularly disparaging of their rat tail hair-dos and said “’rat tail’ pretty much tells you all you need to know about the parenting style of this family.” They were so loud. The father was bellowing playful orders at them as if they were in their own yard and no one else was around. I started to hate them more than the be-hatted directions guy.

 

Children. Hate.

 

I told Jane I thought maybe I’d hit an age when I was ready to start going to adults only resorts, but then I wondered would that mean we’d be surrounded by a bunch of single Millennials bent on hooking up? Loudly? Around us?

 

“I’m starting to think what I’m really hankering for is a retirement community,” I typed to Jane.

 

Then I looked back at Agate Passage, heard the eagle, and I’d forget to be annoyed by the Loud Others again. And then they left.

 

This is what I think is difficult in the city: there are fewer places of peace and beauty to distract yourselves with when the mongrel hoards are nipping at your heels. It is inspiring and exciting and fascinating, but when someone is screaming in your window you can’t do deep breaths, look at a spot of beauty, and forget that some stranger is encroaching on your peace of mind.

 

Z and I sat out there, inadvertently getting too much sun even though we were in the shade, for over three hours. It was so relaxing. At one point, the Rat Tail Boys returned but Loud Dad wasn’t with them, and they were talking quietly to each other about the bugs and rocks and bits of nature they were seeing like junior scientists. And I thought how lovey they were to be so interested in the world around them.

 

Those few hours on the green with the water lapping gently beside us were the best part of the trip and we weren’t even technically guests of the resort any longer. Maybe that was why it felt so sweet.

 

Maybe we finally figured out a way to game the system.

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Not a bad office for the day.

You Are Here

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This mural is on a building I pass on the way to work. Usually, I’ve got a crease in my forehead as I think about the things I need to cover in class or remember someone’s essay I forgot to respond to or am obsessed with some other worry. Then I see this and it never fails to make me laugh at myself. Most of the stuff I spend my time fretting over is pretty insignificant. As am I in terms of some of the old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest.  As is this blog entry. It’s the end of May. I haven’t blogged in yonks. This isn’t a real blog, but I’m hoping it will keep you sated until the next real one.

 

  • I am, yes, still angry about the end of Game of Thrones. The only reason I am still carrying my direwolf totebag is because of my deep and abiding affection for House Stark generally and Arya and Jon Snow specifically.

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  • I am, yes, worried about Kit Harington, who is reportedly not handling the end of the show very well and has checked himself into rehab. I have watched a lot of interviews with him and poured over articles hoping that my concern from afar and Rose Leslie’s love from “anear” is healing his heartache.

 

  • I am, yes, re-reading Game of Thrones in an attempt to find evidence that should George R.R. Martin ever write his own end to the series it will be different than what the showrunners just put us through. I’m highlighting and taking notes and am generally embarrassed by how much I’m geeking out over this. (Z is being very patient. Also, he’s been instructed to quit calling me Khaleesibeth.)

 

  • I am, yes, already complaining about summer. It’s been warm here with a big unrelenting sun hanging in a cloudless sky (other people are excited about this). Yesterday when I got to my class in a brand new building, the AC wasn’t working. Unlike the old building, this one has no interior windows to open because it’s climate controlled (in theory). We pushed tables and chairs out on the courtyard patio for an al fresco class experience during which we were under the SEATAC flight pattern (roar), next to a nonfunctioning but still thrumming AC unit (dull roar), and some guy in the building behind us kept leaning out the window and retching loudly (gross). Also, I kept trying to put my hair up with a pen the way writer’s do when they are dug into the work and can’t go rustle up a hairclip out of a drawer, but like many things taught in the How to Be a Girl-Writer camp that I never attended, it is a skill I have never achieved, so I’m pretty sure I just looked like one of the Weird Sisters in MacBeth, stirring a metaphorical caldron with a broomstick handle, stringy hair framing my face as I toiled, and thus lessening my credibility as I lectured on point of view in the short story.

 

  • Today I realized that I don’t know how to use our toaster. Apparently in nine years of marriage I have never done my own toasting. The blueberry waffle I was attempting to heat kept popping up, still frozen. Instead, I heated it in the microwave from which it emerged a crunchy hockey puck. Today’s menu: hockey puck, three strips of fake bacon, and one scrambled egg with a small piece of shell. Delicious.

 

  • I’ve belatedly discovered Lizzo after listening to an interview Terry Gross did with her recently, and I’ll admit that I kind of want to pick a fight with Z tonight (maybe about the toaster and subpar waffle) so I can burst into song: hair toss, check my nails… It’s not the kind of music on my regular rotation, but I keep thinking how differently my twenties would have looked if I’d had Lizzo singing a little truth to power and encouraging me to walk out the various doors of my youth that I should have walked out of more quickly. (Alas, she was only six years old when I needed her most, and now I don’t want to walk through any door if Z is on my side of it. Even if he came into this marriage with that cantankerous toaster.)

 

  • At our last class last week, a student presented me with this awesome tote because she knew about my affection for Joan Didion. (Jane said to me when I sent her a pic, “How wonderful that we live in a time when there are totes for every interest we could possibly have in the world.”) Ever since I’ve got it, I’ve been considering ways to jazz it up so it looks even more like Didion—I’m thinking sunglasses, beads, a cigarette.

 

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  • I’m headed to Indiana next week because it’s been calling to me. One of my students this quarter was from Indiana and we were bonding each week over the things we miss about it, plus I scored 100% on the “Are You a Hoosier?” quiz on Facebook (no doubt generated by Russians trying to figure out how to game sugar cream pie to Putin’s advantage). I’m looking forward to it. I’m dreading being sans Z. You’ve heard this story before so I’ll spare you.

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My student & I bonded over my Hoosier tumbler of choice. (It’s more about the blue than the chocolate, I swear.)

  • In addition to sating the urge to be in my hometown, my trip home came about when my paternal cousins, an aunt, and I decided we needed to have a genealogical get-together. I am currently ill prepared for it. When we set it up, I was imagining that I’d morph into an organized person who went with a binder of newspaper clippings, extended family trees printed off for everyone, and photos compiled in chronological order. Instead, I’m probably going with my laptop and a recently re-opened Ancestry.com account and a dream that some, better future Beth will be prepared for the next time we get together. (Future Beth astounds me with the things she can accomplish.)

 

  • When planning said genealogy weekend, I realized belatedly that for two decades we’ve had all of our reunions at the Scottie Dog house, which I no longer have access to since Mac has gone to the Happy Hunting Ground and his parents have moved to the desert. So when you picture us together— talking about Great Great Grandmother Ellen Kelly who left Ireland during the Famine and had a baby girl on the high seas whose birth is marked “Atlantic” on census records—please imagine us gathered around a queen sized bed in a Holiday Inn room instead of on the screened porch with a view of a woods and a pond.

 

  • Do moths bite? Because I have some bites that are itching and the only insects I’ve seen in the apartment are moths trying to feast on my knitwear. I think maybe moths bite.

 

  • On Easter weekend, Providence and I paid a lot of money to spend six hours at a spiritual retreat led by The Artist’s Way guru Julia Cameron, meant to get us in touch with our creativity. In the ‘90s, I was a devout follower of Cameron, and even now I teach students about the magic that happens when you write daily “morning pages” (stream of consciousness writing for 20-30 minutes a day). It was a period of my life when I felt extra creative and so I was anxious to get a tune-up with the master herself. Providence and I both pictured ourselves rotating between listening to Cameron’s wisdom and journaling for the whole day. I imagined soft lighting and cups of tea. Instead, it was a crowded hall where we had to fight for seats, and it was an introvert’s nightmare. Rather than reflection, Cameron did very little talking and instead made us do an exercise in small groups of strangers where we listened to their answers to some of her rapid-fire prompts and then wrote out tiny encouragements on ripped up bits of notebook paper. The idea was that we’d all go home with some inspiration and a sense that we had a right to create when we read what strangers had said to us, but it was hell. I did a few rounds of it with a smile plastered to my face because I was committed to getting the most out of the experience, I really was. But then it became apparent that all we were going to do all day long (other than occasionally sing choruses of songs Cameron had written) were “popcorns” with different groups of people. Providence and I were hoping it would change after lunch, but when we returned and Cameron started with, “Okay, get in a group of four people you don’t know” Providence let out an audible blasphemous expletive, which made me snort with laughter. It was, hands down, my favorite part of the day. I did not leave with any new inspiration, though I did come to the conclusion that at this age, I know my own mind and will not be cowed into activities dreamed up by an extrovert and made to feel like I’m faulty because I hate it. I’m not sure that nugget of wisdom was worth $150 and the stress of trying to find parking  around Green Lake, but that was my take-away.

 

  • And yes, two of my four Cameron books have been deposited in one of the Tiny Libraries that dot the neighborhood. And yes, they were deposited with glee.

 

  • My passport expired and because the Department of State isn’t exactly efficient these days, I decided to get a new one immediately. I waited until a day when my skin looked particularly glowy and my hair had some bounce. I put on my best color, and marched to the UPS store. I felt confident that it would be a good photo, even as the camera in use kept sliding down the pole on the tri-pod. At the very least, I believed there was no way this photo could be worse than the last one—taken on a boiling hot day ten years ago at a CVS when I was angry because two weeks before my departure and after several calls the passport folk admitted the good photos I’d sent in had been damaged and I had to resubmit and rush new ones to them if I had any hope of making my residency in Dingle. That photo is a red-faced Beth who all but has a cartoon “$%&# &%@” above her head. So really, there was no way this pic was going to be worse—the temp was cool, I was coiffed and had put on make-up, and I was feeling chipper. And then the UPS guy showed me the pic and said, “Will this do?” and I realized that though this decade has been the happiest of my life, my face did not get the memo that “happiness = youthful appearance” and my brain did not get the memo that when ten years passes it shows. I could have demanded he re-take it, but it was clear to me my jowls were not his fault. So I shrugged and said, “I guess that’s what I look like,” paid my money, shoved it in an envelope, with my old angry passport, mailed it off, and marched back home. Now I wait. Fortunately, I don’t need a passport for Indiana. Yet.

 

  • There’s a new Corgi-Australian Shepherd mix puppy in the neighborhood and I keep bumping into it and forcing its mother to talk to me. I don’t think she really wants to, but now that I’ve lived here nine years I’ve decided I’ve got to be the change I wish to see in the neighborhood, and that change is people with dogs talking to me and, occasionally, letting me pet said dogs.

 

  • Every few weekends, Z and I have a little adventure by way of taking the bus or lightrail to some neighborhood we haven’t really explored. We walk around. We get a drink. We try to look like non-threatening new neighbors instead of people who don’t belong. Some days we find views. Other days we find gorgeous houses. Sometimes we find archy shrubberies or discover we aren’t that far from the lake.

  • Mom and I have started painting together every Monday. When I say “painting together” I mean she paints in Indiana and I paint in Seattle at roughly the same time and then we email each other our efforts and praise each other and feel good about ourselves because we’re doing something more than watching videos of baby elephants trying to sit on people’s laps. My goal is that my efforts turn out something like this—little sketches from photos I took on past travels:

 

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Unfortunately, some of my attempts are abject failures. This was supposed to be Z. He was not impressed:

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  • Z sent me a string of texts today in which he was hooting in person and with laughing emojis because he was watching people walking past his office and get flapped at by some nesting crows who don’t understand about college campuses and right of way. I reminded him that Jon Snow got a scar from a crow and then I quit laughing because I started feeling sorry for Kit Harington again.

 

And now we have arrived where we began, the outer edge of that ancient tree stump. Not a particularly significant location in history, but here we are.

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The Bug-Eyed of Notre Dame

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Yesterday, a writer-client I’m working with came into my studio with news that Notre Dame was on fire. Her voice was mournful, and I’ll admit that I was doing calculations re: the proximity of my cousin G, who works at a neighboring campus in South Bend, when the writer said, “The spire is down” and then I knew she meant the French one, not the Fighting Irish one in northern Indiana that I’ve been to periodically since childhood.

 

She filled me in on the details and my heart sank. We turned to her work and I spent the next two hours delighting in her words and ideas, and was able—thank you Headspace app—to stay focused on the words at hand though my brain kept trying to slink back to the idea of Paris without Notre Dame, of history without that particular touchstone.

 

As soon as she left, I watched the footage and had a loud, honking weep. I felt all twisty with grief and briefly considered walking up the street to St. James Cathedral until I looked at the clock and realized mass would be in session and what I wanted was quiet and contemplation in a beautiful space, not words and ritual. So I cried some more, ate some peanut butter crackers, and got on with my life. Like you do.

 

Here’s the thing: I’ve never been to Notre Dame. I’ve never been to Paris. I’m not really Catholic. My only experience with The Hunchback of Notre Dame was watching the Disney version only because I was interested in how Demi Moore would play Esmerelda. If I’m watching a historical movie in which the English are fighting the French, I root for the English. (If the English are fighting the Irish, that’s a whole other thing.) Despite four years studying French, the only phrase I’ve committed to memory is les belles vaches du Normandie (that’s the beautiful cows of Normandy for those of you who are not bilingual like I am), and I can wish a guy I knew in 8th grade who has spent his adult life in Paris Happy Birthday en français if I double-check the spelling with Google Translate before hitting “post.”

 

So I’ve been thinking about why I shed more tears over timber and stone than I did over the last five mass shootings in the U.S. or the forest fires last summer, and I’ve isolated it to a few reasons why it seemed so terribly sad to me, a person who has self-ostracized from France because I fear being sneered at by Parisians who think Americans are gauche.

 

I am a self-reflective person, so let’s get that category of over-indulgent mourning out of the way.

 

Notre Dame has been on my bucket list since 1981 when I stumbled into Madame Rutkowski’s French I class in high school. I’ve always assumed at some point I would get to France. I imagined I would admire the cathedral and then make my way to Chartres, Reims, Rouen, Mt. Sainte Michel, and I would end in the Louvre and only then truly worship at the altar of art. I did not like Madame Rutkowski, and she did not like me much. But I realized later in my life that she was an incredible teacher even though most of us were mediocre students at best, and if she were still alive, I would write her a note and tell her that, thank her for making me interested in French history, architecture, art, Roman aqueducts, boules, Le Petit Prince, the sites of Paris and the fantastical way the city unrolled like a snail shell from the oldest arrondissement where I wanted to start my exploration. These are the reasons—not the language or her or even Audrey Hepburn—that I came back for French II and French III.

 

And so, let’s be honest, that weep was for myself. It seems clear now in the light of the next day that Notre Dame will rise from the ashes. Whether it is fixed up in my lifetime, and whether I happen to be in Paris when it’s open to the public is another story. But even if it is, I will be keenly aware that parts of it are now a facsimile and it won’t feel the same. It’s illogical, but I’ll know. When I was at Canterbury Cathedral looking at the steps that were worn away by penitent pilgrims who had crawled up them on their knees for centuries, I was moved. Those steps could be replaced with something new made to look old, sure—the same smooth, uneven dips in the stone could probably be duplicated with a machine of some sort—but I would know it was a fabrication.

 

Which brings me to the second reason for the tears of Notre Dame. I hate when history is lost to us. The picture that got me going in the first place was the one shot up in “The Forest” that featured all the wood that had been there for centuries. Even though I assume your average tourist couldn’t go up to that peaky bit of the attic and rest her cheek on the timbers, the idea that she could until yesterday and now she never will be able to wrecked me. Who touched those beams? Who made sure they were hewn to specifications so they fit where they were supposed to? Who got damaged backs and hands and feet moving those heavy timbers before there were mechanized pulleys and cranes? I would feel this same way if the fire had engulfed some centuries-old hovel that had housed peasants. It’s not about the grandeur—it’s the loss of that connection with people from all those yesterdays ago.

 

The news today is that one of the particular problems with a rebuild is that the forests that supplied the oak for that skeleton have all but disappeared because humans kind of suck and don’t let things grow when there’s a profit to be made off of old-growth forest—and sure, “The Forest” was maybe an early pillage of the forests, but I can forgive a little of that if it’s used for something beautiful and meaningful and lasting. I love a touchstone with the past, and while I’m happy to focus on how all is not lost—and how no one died—yesterday the loss seemed too much to absorb. Like an erasure of generations of people and events. Goodbye.

 

And finally, there is the thing that made me howl loudest when I re-watched that spire fall, wondering what would be left when the fire was quenched. What I’m beginning to realize at this late juncture in my life is my “thing”: I need for the world to be beautiful. I don’t like ugliness in general (Z can attest to this as my eye automatically goes to whatever is hideous or wrong with the city on our nightly walk), but more specifically when something beautiful dies because of natural disaster or human ignorance or arrogance, a combustible cloud of grief and rage builds inside me. I feel like Nancy Kerrigan crying WHY? after her knee was whacked, thus dashing her dreams.

 

We don’t really do beauty anymore, do we? Not the beauty that requires craftsmanship, forethought about future generations, purpose outside of making a buck. Instead, we do serviceable. Or interesting. Or ironic. Or provocative. We’re so busy looking forward, disdaining the past, that we don’t realize that our buildings and our sculptures and our uppercase Art has more to do with causing a stir now than it does to satisfy an inner need for beauty. So when something lovely, something painstakingly crafted via nature or human hand, disappears, it feels visceral.

 

I become obsessive and start harping on things like pole-barn churches being built on formerly beautiful pasture or the buildings in Seattle that have artful edifices and courtyards that are callously bowled over for un-interesting steel and glass to house the elite people who can afford a vista, with no concern about how it looks on the outside to the those of us forced to stare at it daily. The view out for the few is all that matters.

 

That massive, ridiculous staircase sculpture—an ode to consumerism and wealth— in New York City’s Hudson Yards is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

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Maybe its beautiful if you’re a bee. Or a cyborg.

I don’t hate it. It’s interesting. I suppose were I to climb it the views might be spectacular, though there are certainly more picturesque and striking views in other parts of Manhattan. I can see how tired parents might love exhausting their children on those 154 flights of stairs. But there is nothing there as groundbreaking as a flying buttress. It doesn’t please the eye so much as entertain it. If it imploded tomorrow or eight centuries from now, it wouldn’t be a huge loss to civilization. I’m never going to sit on one of those steps and get chills because it feels holy, the way I once did in the interior of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House Complex in Buffalo (maybe the last period in the modern era when true craftsmanship was still celebrated) or get tears in my eyes when I see light streaming through the oculus in the Pantheon in Rome.

 

I know. I know. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

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People love Portland, Oregon—they have a sort of revered affection for it that I’ve never caught. Maybe it isn’t Portland’s fault, my lack of enthusiasm for it. I have had a series of unfortunate events there beginning with my first trip when Z and I were engaged. I loved him to bits, had no question about my future with him, but I’d begun having “The Terrifications” about leaving home. Other Portland failures on that trip included my early disappointment in how much like a warehouse the famous Powell’s Books looked, when what I really want in a bookstore is a few leather wingbacks, a fireplace, and a learned Person of Letters smoking a pipe and reading some dense tome while I browse nearby.

 

I was similarly disappointed in my inability to locate Voodoo Donuts.

 

Also, we happened upon a parade of naked bicycle riders, a sight almost more disturbing than Notre Dame burning yesterday. All that pale, jiggle-y flesh daring us to find fault with it as it bumped down the street.

 

Subsequent trips have been no more pleasant, have included repeat disappointments with Powell’s, inability to locate the donuts, and an overwhelming sense that everyone there isn’t as interested in showering as they are in other parts of the country AND the sure and certain knowledge that my having noticed this means that I’m too square and superficial to fully understand Portland and its celebrated weirdness. The last trip, last summer, ended unceremoniously when I had a full-on panic attack while I was driving home during rush hour. My brain was fizzing and pinging because there were too many people—in my lane, on the road, on the planet—and they were sucking up my oxygen and seemed hell-bent on making sure I never ever got home.

 

Also, if I’m being completely honest with you—a policy of mine—I have to admit I do not really like Portland’s poster boy, Fred Armisen. He makes me more uncomfortable than naked bicyclists and rush hour traffic in an unkown city combined. And no, I don’t know why.

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King Street Station, Seattle

A few weeks ago, Z and I took the train to Portland, which was a labor of love. I was itching to see my friends from my old MFA program, who were in town for AWP. It had been five years since I’d seen some of them, more years for others, so seeing Chickpea, Quill, Geeg, and the Beard was worth whatever pain and suffering Portland was prepared to dole out.

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A little ambiance at King Street Station, Seattle

Our trip started in Seattle’s King Street Station, which was built when things were still made to be beautiful at the turn of the last century, designed by a firm that would later go on to be associated with Grand Central Station in New York City. When Z moved here 12 years ago, it was being renovated after years of disrepair and “modernization” had wrecked it (plaster reliefs, tile mosaics, and marble replaced with sheetrock and dropped acoustical tile because when is that not a good idea?). But now, it’s grand and old timey again, and I’m sure people would argue that it’s inefficient, but I feel really endeared to the way that train travel—the tickets, the assigning of seats, the check-in and boarding process—is so analog. Everything is paper, a lot of it handwritten. All of it adds up to a sense of how things used to be and, frankly, it seemed less tedious than waiting in line to board a plane.

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I wanted to steal one of each of these.

What was disappointing, however, is that when we were actually on the train, we were looking forward to lunch in the dining car. We were both expecting linen table cloths and Hercule Poirot, but instead we got the equivalent of concession stand and some crowded stools, so we staggered back to our seats with our hotdogs and drowned our disappointment in the view of Puget Sound and a few glimpses of the Olympic Mountains on an otherwise grey day.

 

In Portland, we stayed at the Woodlark Hotel, a building that had been an old hotel, then had been slated to be demolished years ago, but someone with foresight (and money) rescued it, and opened it recently—nicely remodeled. The desk clerk happily informed us we’d been upgraded to a space with more light, so I swung the room door open with relish only to discover a king sized bed with a path around it (i.e. the same as our own bedroom at home), a “closet” that was brass pipes jutting out of the wall, and a desk and chair built for young Swedish children (unfortunate for Z since he had papers to grade while I was swanning around with my friends). It did have the promised window with a view onto the busy street below, and I decided to appreciate how bijoux it was and how much I preferred it to a modern, air-tight space with no sense of itself.

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Hotel closets have never been so stylish and accessible!

Also, the fine folk at the Woodlark were so proud of the wallpaper in our room that it was duplicated on the coasters, room key, and the home screen of the TV. For four days I felt like I was in a steampunk jungle.

 

Whenever I see this particular set of friends, I’m surprised by how it feels like we said goodbye a month ago and no time has passed. We quickly dive into conversations about writing and life and memories from a decade ago when I met them as a homesick first semester nonfiction writer. They were all considerably younger than I was and almost done with the program, but they invited me in and that made all the difference. They saved the experience for me—made it fun, instead of an ordeal, taught me the ropes of handling the sometimes grueling residencies, and bought me a birthday tiara to help me celebrate my 42nd birthday the year The Terrifications began in earnest.

 

I’d like to regale you here with amusing anecdotes from those three days, but the truth is, it wouldn’t be interesting or entertaining: inside jokes originally constructed after too much alcohol, conversations about writers we like/loathe, stories about bodily functions and housekeeping. We went to Powell’s Books and I liked it better as I wandered around with Quill and Chickpea, recommending books to each other—focusing primarily on display books because they were face out and required no bending over. We weaved around streets looking for a place where my unsophisticated palate could be sated with something that wouldn’t completely bore them. I tried to find my bearings on the streets that all seemed the same to me (I never could figure out which direction was north, where the center of town was, or come to a conclusion about why a city so much smaller than Seattle seemed to have twice the homeless population.) We went to the river, a serviceable working river, but no beauty. My favorite bit, the Portland sign in Old Town that’s the shape of Oregon with a deer leaping away, as if it too is frightened of Fred Armisen.

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A serviceable river. I do love those little bridge turrets!

Chickpea and Quill made it a goal to get me, finally, blessedly, to Voodoo Donuts, where we waited in a long line while looking at pictures of the donut treasures awaiting us—donuts covered in breakfast cereals, bacon, bubble gum, and shaped like joints and rude body parts. Getting a treat there is an event, though Chickpea was chastised by her server for ordering a single donut, “just so you can say you’ve been here” which was kind of off-putting. Surely half the people in that line were there so they could say they’d been to this temple of donut worship.

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My final review: Voodoo donuts are okay. I don’t really get the hype. I know it’s blasphemy for someone living in the Pacific Northwest to say this, but I’d rather have a Krispy Kreme.

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At least there’s one thing I can tick off my bucket list.

 

Our first night visiting our friends, Z and I rode the light rail back to the Woodlark. A security guard at the train station when we arrived told me it’s the best light rail system in the U.S. and maybe it is. (I can’t really judge—Seattle’s isn’t very complex or expansive.) But I didn’t love it. I’m used to riding public transportation, I’m used to the odd squabble, the random strings of curses at no one in particular, dogs of all varieties sometimes growling at each other. But on our ride home—at a respectable hour—a preppy looking dude with a black eye got on and began fake-punching and mouthing off to other people on the train. He wasn’t a racist, he said, but he was Special Ops and could throw the two guys at the back—who were Black—off the train if he wanted. There was a lot of back and forth between the three of them, and one of the guys said, “Dude, you’ve already got a black eye.” Later, they got off the train, shuffling past the instigator, and one guy mumbled, “I’m out of here. I can’t go to jail tonight.”

 

This left Z and me and a few other people further away for him to perform for. Whatever he’d been smoking or sniffing made silence an impossibility for him. He sidled up to us, asked Z if he was a doctor, and without really waiting for an answer said he was a doctor. A Special Ops doctor who worked for the CIA. We kept our eyes trained on the floor, hoping he’d catch a clue. But he kept up with his rambling chatter. Too close. Too unstable. He flexed a muscle and told me to feel it. I finally looked at him and said sarcastically, “No thanks.” He said to Z, “She’s got big eyes.” (Z insists he said, “She’s got big, beautiful eyes” but I’m pretty sure it was just “big eyes” said in the same sneering tone that Billy McGathey once used on me in 7th grade Home Ec not to look at him with my “bug eyes.” (I’m not sure why me looking at him was a problem—mostly I was just unimpressed with his seamstress skills and certain that my big eyes weren’t actually buggy.)

 

I don’t know if Z knew things with this guy were likely to get worse, or if he could sense that his wife was a middle-aged woman with occasional hormone instability and two Long Islands in her gullet. I wasn’t afraid of this swaggering, black-eyed twerp, and what’s more, I kind of wanted him to threaten us because I felt suddenly fierce with rage that he’d fake-punched a miserable looking guy in front of us, forced the squabbling guys behind us to listen to his bullshit about not being a racist when the first people he swaggered up to were people of color, and making the few remaining people on the train stare at the floor trying to make themselves small targets for his inebriated malice. I haven’t been to a gym in 7 years nor have a lifted anything heavier than a laundry basket in recent years, but I felt so angry at how ugly he was being that I was yearning to pop him on the nose.

 

I also suddenly wanted to talk about myself in the third person after punching him: Big Eyes has spoken.

 

I’ve never hit anyone in my life and I’m wildly uncoordinated, so it wouldn’t have ended well. The swaggering, black-eyed twerp and I have Z to thank for ushering me to the door at the next stop where he and I stood on the corner for ten minutes waiting for the next, less crazy train.

 

Because Z had a lot of work to do and because of the distaste I now felt for both the light rail system and Evening Portland in general, the last night there, I took an Lyft out to meet my friends. I chatted all the way to the ‘burbs with the driver, a transplant from Atlanta who had come out two years ago to help her college-student daughter adjust to her new west coast life. She was friendly and chatty and I was hepped up on caffeine. She said Portland wasn’t really working for her. It had been an adventure and she was glad to come out to help her daughter, but her daughter was making her own way now and she herself wasn’t really making any friends. When she moved in, she had introduced herself to her neighbors because she thought it would be nice if someone would maybe notice if a burglar was crawling in her window or she was dead on the doorstep, and she’d like to reciprocate that favor. Instead, they politely blinked at her and then shut their doors. She shrugged. Maybe she’d try Portland, Maine, next, she said. So I told her that I’d gone to grad school there, that that’s where I’d met these friends I was visiting, that I thought she might like it, but it would be very different from Atlanta too.

 

Chickpea and I sat around the rental unit for a couple of hours while the conference goers were off getting themselves registered. We talked about Maine and dogs while she cut up crudités and I gave myself a sort of Tarot reading with Quill’s new faerie cards. (It was unsuccessful, though the faeries indicated I perhaps had an unhealthy relationship to the outdoors. Which is true. I’m kind of allergic to it.) The others arrived, we stuffed ourselves with snacks and then left for supper and stuffed ourselves with food at the paleo, dairy-free, gluten-free restaurant where it seemed to be a requirement of the other customers and the staff to wear big, knit caps. Two of us were leaving the next morning, the other three were staying for the conference.

 

I hate this, the goodbyes. I waved farewell as they crossed the street, climbed into my Lyft where the music was soft and the driver was silent. He wove through the traffic while I wiped away a few tears. The Portland sign glimmered in the distance as we crossed the river. How can you miss people who you’ve really only ever been with for maybe forty days of your life all told?

 

It makes no sense. It also makes no sense that an ancient building I’ve never seen in a country where I’ve never been can move me to tears, whether standing intact or aflame.

 

It’s all illogical. But it’s my heart.

 

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Union Station, Portland

Anti-Malarial Dreams III: A Procrastinating Adventurer Realizes She’s on an Adventure

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Last month here in Seattle we had a couple of weeks of freakish winter weather that made me feel like I was back in Indiana. Two nights before it was scheduled to come, Z and I went to the grocery and we found bare shelves and a crazed herd of humans, preparing themselves for what we were both certain would be four-hours of snow-covered streets that would soon melt.

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The cupboards were bare.

We were wrong.

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Like some African animals, Seattle snow is not easy to photograph.

I know it doesn’t look like much, and were I in Indiana with my Indiana boots and my Indiana coat and my flat, flat Indiana horizon, I’d have been out in it, dusting off my car and driving to work. But the thing about snow in Seattle is that we have something like 7 snowplows and steep inclines in all directions. The few times I ventured out in my shoes that are fabulous for rain, I discovered they were not fabulous for snow and ice and I slid all over the place, felt ancient, and locked myself into the apartment afterward vowing not to go out until the snow melted.

 

Even since it’s melted, it’s been unseasonably cold. No one else here seems to notice. They’re running around in lightweight jackets or no jackets at all, but even bundled up in hats with earflaps, scarves, and mittens, Z and I feel like the wind whipping up the hill off the water is made of knives.

 

Apparently we’re a spectacle. One night we were having a walk and some 20-year-old snarked to his friend, “They’re ready for winter.”

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These people are prepared for Snowpacalypse, but the guy in the hoodie looks like he might be snarky.

My vow to stay indoors until the snow melted should have, perhaps, also included a clause about staying in until the complete disappearance of know-it-all hipster youth too.

 

 

I had the big plans last summer to write regular installments during and about our trip to Zimbabwe (with an Ireland chaser), and then I got waylaid with pneumonia and a variety of other events and moods that I recognize now as excuses. So far, I haven’t continued Anti-Malarial Dreams because I don’t feel like I can do that trip justice. Whatever I write will disappoint me, could annoy Zimbabweans I know and love, say too much about the students we were traveling with, say too little about the people we encountered, be dishonest by not telling you the things that troubled me on the trip or be too honest by over-sharing.

 

In the realm of fight or flight responses, I have chosen neither and instead have just been frozen, a white tail dear in the high-beams of an SUV.

 

I’m teaching Writing for Procrastinators this term, a class I designed precisely for people like me who have a lot to say and some ability to say it, but who scare themselves into silence. One of the students last week said he’d been writing a lot since taking the class, but he was too nervous to send his work to me for comment. I told him he shouldn’t do that to himself because in this particular class and with this particular instructor (me), the stakes are pretty low. He nodded and said he’d try to find the courage to send me something this week, and I realized maybe I ought to practice what I preach. The stakes here are pretty low. If you jeer and throw rotten produce at me to demonstrate your displeasure, it’s just going to hit your computer screen anyhow, right?

 

 

* * * * * * * *

 

Our first day in town with the students after visiting Z-ma’s school, we go to Sacred Heart Cathedral for a tour, a tour I suggested Z take us on because I love a good cathedral. It’s not as grand as St. Patrick’s in New York, or even St. James, which is up the street from us in Seattle, but it’s lovely. Thomas, our guide, gives us a quiet tour and when he isn’t talking we stroll around, looking at the statues and artwork. The Catholic students in our group spend a few minutes in prayer. There’s no smell of incense, no real statuary, no Stations of the Cross, and for these reasons and maybe some others, it feels almost like a church that was built for one denomination in the distant past and has recently been taken over by another. But I’ve read the history and know it’s always been Catholic, it has multiple services—some in English, some in Shona, and one in French/Portuguese.

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So peaceful.

Providence, Hudge, and I stand in the balcony and look at the artwork above the high altar, and Providence notices that almost all of the images in the church are of white people, which I can’t really work myself up into any sort of righteous indignation over because when it was built, it was built for white people who weren’t really planning on inviting congregants of color inside.

 

What’s more curious to me, however, is that the artwork has remained the same since independence.

 

Another curiosity: a small brass plaque on the wall where one of the Stations of the Cross would be in any other cathedral. It says only “The Five Irishman,” and we’re left to wonder who they were, if they put up the plaque because they dedicated something to the church or if they are being remembered here, likely by other people long gone. For some reason, I picture them as New York style firefighters or cops, immigrants who ended up in Africa instead of the Americas, who would be played by Denis Leary or Aidan Quinn.

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Well, okay then.

Z tells me that his aunty and uncle, both from Italy, had their funeral services here, and because I knew Z when his aunty died, suddenly I have my own fabricated memories. I can picture a service in this church. I can picture Z’s relatives there, mourning the loss of a woman I wish I’d had a chance to meet. I can picture Z walking behind her casket, even if he didn’t. The mostly empty cathedral comes alive in my mind with prayer and ceremony and sadness.

 

I wish I could ask his aunty if she knew the Five Irishman.

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Later in the day, we go to Harare Gardens where I’m slated to teach a lesson to the students about reflective writing, a task I’m not that excited about because it’s been awhile since I’ve taught 20-year-olds, and also because Z, Providence, and Hudge will be there to hear what I have to say, and the jig will be up. It turns out the Imposter Syndrome from which I sometimes suffer travels with me.

 

On the walk to our meeting place with the students, Z tells Providence, Hudge, and me about how the park looked when he was a child. It was a showplace. He points towards where a playground was, the restaurant that sounds like it would have been Harare’s answer to Tavern on the Green, he notes where fountains were, how lush it was, how well manicured. When he was a child, it was a destination.

 

Now, it is overgrown. It’s still lovely in that way that anything green in the midst of concrete is lovely, but now it’s wild and uncontrolled. The benches are broken, the paved pathways are crumbling, there is litter everywhere. There are people everywhere. Men and women in suits and dresses who seem to be headed to meetings, mothers with children, people who appear to have fallen on hard times, who remind me of the homeless people back in Seattle who populate our parks.

 

The park feels like a metaphor for Zimbabwe. It’s a place of wild beauty that has seen better days, has seen worse days, and the people inside it are getting on with their lives while we Americans look at it with our western eyes and pass judgment in one form or another.

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My pictures of Harare Gardens are subpar, so here, have an orchid from Z-ma’s garden.

We find our way to a clearing with a rickety bench where I perch myself next to Providence, and the students find places on the grass to sit with Z. I give a little talk and try not to worry that what I’m saying is obvious and too simplistic for these sophisticated Seattle students, or that Providence and Hudge, who recently paid me to edit a project of theirs won’t wonder what they were thinking handing their words over to a poser like me. I give the students a writing exercise before I talk some more.

 

A little boy with huge eyes sizes us up, comes over, and puts his hand out. He wants money. It’s early in the trip and the students—all women—are trying not to interact with people as if they themselves are ATM machines, though it’s clear that this one is hard for them. The kid is, possibly, the most adorable boy in all of Zimbabwe. He’s maybe five, seems to be on his own, and he’s got this casual nonchalance that is charming. There’s nothing desperate or angry about him. Instead, he looks like he’s got the world on a string and no real cares. A few of the students shake their heads no at him apologetically, and he stuffs his hands in his pockets and looks like he’s going to whistle, it’s no big deal to him they don’t want to part with their money. Then he spies Providence, who must look like an easy target, and he tries his hand with her. She tells him no but offers him a breakfast bar that she’s fished out of her backpack, and he seems happy with it. We assume this will be the end of it and he’ll wander off, but instead, he finds a spot on the grass with the students and sits down, as if he’s part of the class. It’s distracting. The students smile at him, snap some photos, ignore their writing assignment. But also, his presence there seems somehow more important than anything I could say to them about using descriptive language.

 

He stays with us until the session is over and we dust ourselves off and talk about where we’ll have lunch. The boy wanders off towards a group of people who are either people he knows or his next marks. He turns to us and waves goodbye, big smile. The students talk amongst themselves about their concerns for him, wonder why he isn’t in school, where he sleeps at night, if he’s starving. Z, ever the voice of reason, points out that his clothes are clean, his shoes are in good condition, he himself is clean, and that someone clearly cares for him, even if it’s unclear why he has free reign of Harare Gardens at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday. Somehow, I don’t feel worried for him. There are other kids—older kids—who have clearly been forced onto the streets that we see begging at intersections, sitting around in small herds, barefoot, dusty, cold, and those kids make my heart ache. This one? He’ll be okay, I tell myself.

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The bench I taught from was 68% more rickety.

Z sends the students off to find lunch and we make our way to Not-Tavern-on-the-Green, the Parkview Restaurant. Before we get to the door, the students have rejoined us. Where they were feeling adventurous the day before in the confines of the elementary school, it’s easy to see that the muchness of the city is overwhelming to them. I would be overwhelmed if Rick weren’t leading me around, and we’re happy enough to have the students with us.

 

Though the restaurant had been fancy in its day—which you can see from the large, now be-curtained windows that used to look out on the park, the architectural elements on the interior, the plastic plants where real ones no doubt used to reside—it is a shadow of its former self. Initially, we wonder what we’re getting ourselves into—is the place clean? will the food be edible? are we going to regret this choice?—but the server is friendly, at least half the tables have other customers, and though the restaurant serves primarily Zimbabwean dishes, when we look at the menu we see that the vegetarians in our group can find something to eat, and my four-year-old’s palate will be happy enough with some chicken and French fries.

 

Before our food is brought out, the server comes over with a bowl, some napkins, and a sort of red plastic watering can so we can wash our hands. I’ve eaten out in Zimbabwe before but always at places that are more “modern” (read: Western, read: places white people are comfortable), and because I’m still meditating and trying to live in the moment, I don’t let the weirdness of this—a stranger standing over me, pouring a stream of water onto my hands while I rub them—affect the look on my face. I tamp down the questions that are humming in the back of my head like, “How clean are hands without soap?” and “How long has that water been sitting out and where did it come from in the first place?” and “Is it rude, once you’ve washed your hands like this to then get out your hand sanitizer?” Later, I ask Z if this is something that he is used to that I’ve somehow missed out on during previous trips, and he explains that this is a traditional Zimbabwean restaurant and this is the custom, but no, this isn’t something that is normally done at the restaurants where we’ve frequented.

 

It’s one of those moments when I realize that though this is my third time in Zimbabwe, what I know about the place could fit on about five grains of sand. Later in the trip, Z and I will eat at an “Italian” restaurant in the Chinese mall where the menu offers SNAIL A’LA FRENCH (we get spaghetti instead) and when the server comes over with the little pot of water and bowl for hand washing, I feel victorious and slightly less like a big, anxiety-ridden American.

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When we leave the restaurant and head off to our next activity on the Avenues, where various embassies are, we see our little friend from the earlier who waves at us again, smiles, then skips off in the direction of an adult who may or may not be connected to him.

 

On the Avenues, Z gives the students an assignment—to find and take pictures of political posters for the upcoming election. It’s part of a bigger discussion they’ll have later about the media, but also Z’s attempt to send them off on their own for awhile so they aren’t trailing after him like he’s a mother duck. Part of the experience of a short study abroad class like this is to force the students into situations that make them a little uncertain, a little uncomfortable.

 

Ritual pre-lunch hand washing has been enough uncertainty for me though, so I stick with Z, Providence, and Hudge as we investigate a couple of pharmacies, looking for some supplies that got left behind in America. At one, Providence asks about a brightly colored package of what appears to be gum by the cash register—what’s the flavor? is it tasty? some question like that—and the cashier momentarily looks embarrassed and then says, “They’re condoms” and we all, together, burst into laughter.

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My photos of the tree-lined streets of The Avenues are similarly bad, so here, have a bushman painting from Lake Chivero.

We kill time while the students do their homework by walking along the tree-lined streets, looking at the barbed wire and other fortifications around the U.S. Embassy, and notice, suddenly, that Z has sent the students out on a fool’s errand. There are no political posters in this area. Security is much tighter because of the embassies in general and the U.S. Embassy specifically. In the rest of Zimbabwe, there’s not a pole, tree trunk, fence, or rock that hasn’t had a poster of one sort or another pasted or nailed to its surface. The students are tenacious enough, though, that they venture a bit further afield and find a few. While we wait with them for our G-taxis to take us back to the “compound,” we’re tag-teamed by multiple people asking for money. They are as tenacious as the students despite our wan smiles and head shakes, and we’re all relieved when we climb into our taxis and head home, where, behind bars and high walls we can feel like ourselves and not have to navigate the difficulties of a new culture, of poverty, and of being identifiable as dopey, stingy Americans with bottomless wallets that are sealed shut.

 

That night, Z and I have dinner with his brother and sister-in-law at Vali’s (more of those delicious meat pies!), and it is one of my favorite evenings because it is so laid back and there is no having to “extrovert” with students or guides or strangers. Though it’s chilly, we sit outside under one of the propane heaters and talk easily. The proprietor and my brother-in-law know each other, and start ribbing one another. My sister-in-law and I talk about the kids and the dogs and complexities of figuring out the best way to pay for things in a country that has a shortage of paper money. In retrospect when I try to figure out why this is one of my favorite memories of the trip, what I come back to is that we had nothing but time stretching in front of us. The class had just started, their house was within walking distance of our little compound, and so we didn’t have to pack a year’s worth of conversation into an hour. It was one of those moments like I have in Indiana when I get a taste of what our lives might look like if we didn’t live so many miles away from family, moments when there isn’t a clock ticking down in the background.

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A sky that would make Magritte envious.

The next day we leave Harare behind for a few hours and with two hired SUVs and drivers, and Z, Hudge, and me in Z-ma’s ridiculously high truck, we head for a game drive at Lake Chivero. This is a place I’ve been before a few times and one that is important to Z’s family because his father and aunt both had their ashes spread there, not far from the bushman paintings. The paintings sit between the lake and the picnic ground, where we eventually gather with students who reject the Zimbabwean fruit Z has on offer because though it might taste sweeter than anything in America it does not look perfect, like it would in a market in the U.S. Z shakes his head and loads the fruit back into the truck for us to eat later. They’ll be forced to pee in the bush because the public toilet is out of commission and so many years removed from when it was working and useful that it is preferable to be showing the world your backside than to be in that dark, spider-infested facility. They’ll snap photos by the lake and demonstrate interest and warmth towards Z as he sprinkles rose petals on the spot where his aunt’s ashes were sprinkled and then on the lake itself where his dad’s were sprinkled three years before I met Z.

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I love a flightless bird. So much easier to get a snap.

But before any of this, when Z, Hudge, and I are rocking and jerking along the uneven road, trying to spy game, while the newer SUVs eat the trail of dust we leave behind us and where they stop for photos when we throw our hands out the windows to point to an ostrich or a zebra they might have missed, I have this moment of complete contentment and pleasure. It’s a perfect day and these minutes feel like the sort that get filed away in some scrapbook of Perfect Moments that you drag out on rainy days and remember happily. It is sunny, the windows are down and blowing my hair, Z’s capable hands are on the steering wheel, our conversation is easy, swelling and silent depending on the proximity of the animals we want to see.

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Waterbuck, the most unfortunate of the African buck because it comes with a target right on it’s backside.

And there is a voice inside my head, laughing, you are in Africa, you are in Africa, you are in Africa. The sheer impossibility of a girl—who wept her way through Girl Scout Camp, who avoided new experiences whenever possible, who went to college an hour away from home because anywhere further afield would have pulled that tether too taut, who has envied nearly every person she’s encountered who has lived a more adventurous life—riding in this truck with this man and that friend on a continent I assumed I’d only ever see in movies or reruns of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, it was… magical.

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I find giraffe to be one of the hardest animals to spot, which is counterintuitive since they just stand around eating leaves with those giant necks of theirs.

It helped that of the three of us, I was the best game spotter. It pleased me because I remembered our first trip to Lake Chivero eight years before when a giraffe would have to be nearly flicking its tail in my face before I could see it, and now I was seeing . . . everything. (And I didn’t even have my glasses on.)

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If you ever see a job listed for photographers of animal backsides, please let me know. (I was pleased that I spotted this rhino though–they look a lot like rocks.)

A Tally of Creatures Spotted on Game Drive

 

  • warthog
  • ostrich
  • fish eagle
  • sable
  • tsessebe
  • waterbuck
  • impala
  • rhinoceros
  • giraffe
  • zebra
  • baboon
  • wildebeest
  • cheeky monkeys
  • one man’s shoe, abandoned and forlorn

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These shy creatures can be similarly difficult to spot in the wild.

The following day is similarly excellent to me. The students are out on a solo project, interviewing vendors at the local flea market (more handicrafts than the used goods you might expect at an American flea market, though there are booths with clothes, books, video games, etc. as well), so Z, my sister-in-law, and I find ourselves headed cross town to another pharmacy that has promised to have the needed supplies we failed to get earlier in the week. My sister-in-law hangs between the seats, giving Z directions, and pointing out where she used to pass time while waiting to pick the kids up from school, the lovely property where she grew up, a new restaurant she heard was good. She’s got an infectious laugh, and I feel similarly lucky to have these moments that feel something akin to carefree, something akin to what it might have been like if I’d happened to be in Zimbabwe three decades ago, when we were the age of the students on the trip.

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And then the weekend comes, the students fly off to Victoria Falls, and the four of us climb into Z-ma’s truck and point it towards her house. We stop on the way to get petrol and because we’ve got crisp American dollars we get to go to the head of the queue and I think wryly of the old American Express slogan, membership has its privileges. The line for those who are paying with Ecocash snakes out the drive and towards the highway, longer than any fuel line I’ve ever seen. Though six months later, we’ll see video footage of lines that twist and turn around city blocks, hear stories of people who wait out all night to get petrol and when they arrive at the pump discover they can only have a few liters. Z and I will be tucked back into our carless, Seattle life before there are riots and gunfire over these shortages and other concerns that will plague the country. But for now, we have a full tank, and so we head home to Z-ma.

 

As the wind whips my hair while we drive down the Bulawayo Road—passing the balancing rocks, the man holding aloft puppies for sale, the rocks and trees and fences plastered with political posters, the goats running to or away from home, the combis pulling over to let riders off, the school children meandering home in their uniforms, the women in business dresses and housedresses with briefcases in hand or babies strapped to their backs, the pylons whose wires carry electricity from Lake Kariba to Z-ma’s house—my head is still singing: you are in Africa, you are in Africa, you are in Africa.

 

And I am.

 

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Five Shades of Grey

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Lies I regularly tell:

 

  • “I’m sorry!” [patting pockets] “I don’t have any cash with me!”

Translation: I do have cash, but not in my pockets, and I’m not digging in my purse to look for my wallet on Broadway. I hope the next person you ask has more money readily available than I do and is more generous.

 

  • “I’m fine.”

Translation: In answer to your query, “how are you?,” I may or may not be fine, but I’m really not in the mood to get into the intricacies of the inner workings of my brain and how I achieved “fineness” today after battling various anxieties or nuggets of melancholia. Let’s move on to more interesting subjects. How are you?

 

  • “Interesting!” [primarily written in marginal comment of freshman composition papers I have graded]

Translation: It isn’t. But it is the most interesting thing on the page and I really, really want to encourage you, so let’s start with this thing that could potentially be interesting and dig into it. (Note: if I’ve written “fascinating!” I mean it sincerely.)

 

  • “Money isn’t important.”

Translation: It is important —it keeps a roof over a head and creditors at bay—but I’ve been bad at getting it and worse at keeping it, and as a topic, money is a really boring one, so let’s move on to something more intriguing for all of us, shall we?

 

  • “It’s okay.” [in response to an apology]

Translation: Right now, I think it’s okay and I just want things to be normal between us, but there’s a good chance this is going to be coming up again in some journal writing over the next two to eight months. Probably I won’t bring it up to you again though, so you’re off the hook.

 

  • “I wrote.” [usually in response to Z asking, “What did you do today?”]

Translation: I did write today, but it was probably an email and two paragraphs of an idea I had that quickly went south and was absolutely NOT the writing you and I were both imagining I’d be doing when we said goodbye to each other this morning. And it definitely isn’t writing that is going to achieve fame or earn money. Sorry.

 

 

We all have a few of these we keep up our sleeves like aces, I suspect. But I still feel rotten when I put one on the table. As I’ve written about here before, I’m not someone who lies naturally. Largely because I was raised to believe it’s a Bad Thing to do, but also because I stink at it. Even when telemarketers call and ask for Z, I’m pretty sure they know he’s sitting on the sofa when I say he isn’t home from work. I’m not sure what it is that I do that gives me away—a shade of pink I turn, a shift in the eye, a tone of voice—but it happens and I’m found out. Not that it’s a skill I want to hone because I’d rather not be able to rely on it. This is the same reason I don’t own a gun.* I’m sure there are situations when having one would be useful and feel empowering, but I don’t want to have to make that choice.

 

Z is a particularly good b.s. detector. Last week I’d complained of a headache and Z suggested I put Aveda Blue Oil on my forehead. (FYI, Blue Oil is magic. It’s also been discontinued and replaced with a subpar mouthwash colored “Cooling Oil” that probably is almost identical in composition, but I’m put off by the new color and the metal roller ball that is really cold. I hate unnecessary change and almost never see the new thing as superior, so you should probably judge for yourselves.) I’m sure I had a reason why I didn’t use the Blue Oil—I was about to eat and didn’t want that pepperminty smell to interfere with the flavor of my lunch or I was about to read something and knew the vapors from it would render me temporarily blind because you can’t really open your eyes right after you’ve applied it. But an hour or so later he asked how my headache was and I told him I still had it, and when he said, “Did you use Blue Oil?” I said, “Yes.”

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One of these things is not like the other.

I don’t know why I did this.

 

That’s a lie. I do know. I didn’t want to hear that disapproval in Z’s voice. He doesn’t ever understand why I don’t do the thing that is in my best interest (drink the water, sleep at the decent hour, do the yoga, wear the hat on a cold day), and the truth is, I don’t understand either. But I don’t always act in my own best interest and his lip pursing when I “misbehave” is sometimes a reminder of what an abject failure I am at being my best self.

 

So I said, “Yes.” I thought I’d gotten away with it because at the time I was walking ahead of him in the hallway in our apartment building and he couldn’t see my face. But he knew. Z always knows. He said something like, “You did not” and I felt indignant that he’d doubt my (worthless) word, and I said, “I did too!” and then he said, “Let me smell your forehead.” He kind of chased me and attempted to sniff my head while I swatted at him. We laughed. The jig was up.

 

It usually ends this way, these little lies I tell to save face or to feel my own autonomy or to avoid confrontation. The other person knows what I’ve said is codswallop, but unlike Z, they are usually polite enough not to call me on it.

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In case you are thinking Z is a brute, please note these fabulous Post-it page flags were in my Christmas stocking this year. He’s a star.

Though I’m sure there were instances in my childhood when I first learned the lesson that I was no good at lying, the one that sticks in my mind is 8th grade gym class. Though I was no longer her student, “Hitlerman” still ran the girls’ locker room like basic training, and though my male gym teacher didn’t care what we wore, she was not happy that we were allowed to forego our hideous red and white one-piece gym suits and instead wear more generic “athletic apparel” so long as we hadn’t worn said to school that day. It wasn’t a bad rule in that it probably kept the school 50% less stinky because 13-year-olds weren’t wearing sweaty gym clothes into algebra. But one day, I decided to wear in gym the lavender polo shirt I’d put on for school that morning. I looked good in it and there was 0% chance it would get sweaty because I did as little as possible in gym class. “Hitlerman” spied that shirt while I was pulling sweatpants. She asked if the shirt was my “street clothes” and I said, chin jutted out, “No.” I went down to the gym to pretend to play volleyball for 45 minutes.

 

I don’t know why I lied. I don’t know why I didn’t just put on that stupid gym suit in the first place, but there was something about her questioning my autonomy that turned me into a liar. Also, I really liked that purple polo shirt and saw no reason to take it off when I’d just be standing on the sidelines of some sport I didn’t care about feigning interest while my more athletic classmates sweated for both of us.

 

I thought I’d gotten away with it. Back in the locker room, I changed into my jeans, re-laced my shoes, darted down the steps when the bell rang, and there she was, standing in the hall, looking at me sternly. “I thought you said that shirt wasn’t your street clothes?”

 

I have no idea how I replied. She wasn’t my teacher and had no authority over my grade, but I wasn’t a rude or confrontational kid. I fully expected to be court martialed and knew I deserved it even though it was a stupid rule. But other than the disapproval and disappointment plastered on her face, nothing happened to me. She’d never been impressed with my lack of athletic prowess, but the year before she hadn’t shamed me for my half-speed lope up the soccer field or the inelegant floor routine I’d created for myself during our gymnastics unit. She seemed to appreciate that I was a good student who wasn’t athletic. I wasn’t a troublemaker or a smart aleck, and that’s probably how I got good grades in her gym class because what I know for sure is I was not a natural on the balance beam and didn’t deserve an A.

 

But there we were, her knowing now that I wasn’t really that good of a person and me knowing she knew I wasn’t.

 

I didn’t like the way “liar” felt on my skin, and even now I find myself wanting to make excuses for why it was okay for a 13 year old to assert her authority over her own wardrobe and body.

 

The ease with which some people lie—without blinking or twitching or needing to write blog posts about it—disturbs me. If you lie regularly and with vigor, I wonder, do you cease to recognize the truth? Does truth hold any value? And when I look at my toolkit of lies that help me navigate life (or a walk on First Hill), I wonder if those are gateway lies that will one day lead to bigger ones that wreck family or professional relationships or threaten national security. Do those little lies matter? Would it be better if I said a terse “No” to someone asking for money? Would it be a more honest life, though friendless, if I told someone how I really feel about cancelled plans or a sharp retort? (How I feel can get kind of tedious.)

 

Z and I have been watching Season 1 of “The Affair” on Showtime this month. I’m not sure I like it, but I can’t seem to quit it. I am intrigued by the way the show is written. We get a story from the point of view of one of the two main characters and then we get it again, slightly altered, from the other. Initially, it seemed this device was being used so we’d get information the other character didn’t yet have, which is an interesting way to make a viewer or reader feel complicit in someone’s lie. (For example, we know why the female protagonist is so dark and moody long before her love interest. She’s got some secrets.) As the show progresses it becomes apparent that not only do the two points of view fill in holes, but they are actually significantly different. Noah sees himself as a good guy who can’t help who he loves, but sometimes when his paramour, Alison, tells her version of the story you can see that he’s not quite as good as he thinks he is. He’s selfish and single-minded at times, and he doesn’t seem to recognize that Alison has a life outside of him. For her part, Alison blames herself a lot but also sees herself as a basically benevolent force in the universe, but through Noah, we recognize that she is not above being manipulative. The show leaves it up to the viewer to figure out which version is closer to the truth.

 

We can also see the ways in which the characters lie to themselves. In one scene, Noah sees Alison after a long break and she is wearing a white dress and looks radiant. In Alison’s version, she’s wearing more practical clothes and looks a little haggard. Where’s the truth? Is Noah a man too deeply obsessed to see reality or is Alison too depressed to remember rightly that she did look a bit like a fairy princess-temptress? It’s a curious thing to have to consider truth to this degree when watching a show you only clicked on because you’d run through all the available episodes of “Shameless” and “Ray Donovan.”

 

I’ve solved nothing here. Come to no conclusions about the degree to which a lie is socially or personally acceptable. Maybe we all have to decide for ourselves and there’s no gold standard. All I’ve really produced for myself here is another headache.

 

This time I’ll use the Blue Oil. I swear.

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Art installation outside the Salt Lake City convention center that explored opposites and left the viewer to figure out what falls between the two.

 

*Attention would-be kidnappers and attackers: I say I don’t have a gun, but I could be lying.

There is a Light and it Never Goes Out

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American excess as depicted at the Lilly House, Winterlights, Indianapolis Museum of Art

I sigh and huff a lot when I’m in Indiana, which is where Z and I are now for the holiday. I’m not sure if it’s because I am by nature a dissatisfied person and so the huffs come out, or if because every time I come home to Richmond I find a little more to be disappointed in. I love my hometown and I will cut you if you disparage it, but I am allowed to criticize it because it is mine. And in the nine years I’ve been in exile in Seattle, the place has changed, and rarely in good ways.

 

Outrages this year that have been frustrating me:

 

  • Elder-Beerman, the big downtown department store that was built before I went to elementary, shuttered earlier this year, so I cannot go there and look for last minute Christmas gifts while humming “Silver Bells” and riding the first escalator I ever encountered in my life
  • Veaches, the downtown toy store of my youth that had a birthday castle in the basement where you could pick out a present went out of business last year, and buying toys for children is not as much fun at big box stores
  • dire predictions that my favorite bakery—and maker of many of the birthday cakes of my life—may be the next to go because there just aren’t a lot of people downtown these days
  • perpetual roadwork that contributed to the demise of the first two and is contributing to the demise of the third
  • the creation of a new bike lane that—while I’m not philosophically against—makes me feel pessimistic when I see it because I’m not exactly sure where anyone would ride their bikes now that Elder-Beerman and Veaches is gone, and the bulk of people on bikes in Richmond are riding them because they lost their driver’s licenses for one reason or another, so I’m not sure if they’ll actually use or obey the bike lane rules when it opens up
  • my favorite shoe repair guy could not save my beloved Ecco shoes that I dragged with me from Seattle, ignoring all cobblers there. Also, he had a photo of Mike Pence hanging up in his shop—steely eying all who enter the store—in a prominent spot that should have been reserved for his deceased wife or Jesus
  • various former 19th century mansions torn down or turned more derelict since I was here last
  • a few restaurants shuttered
  • a changed store layout at Meijer that makes it impossible for me to find Chicken in a Biscuit crackers and mascara
  • the stereo in my old bedroom that I bought in 1989 has a CD player on it that no longer works. And by “no longer works” I mean “totally works unless you want the CD door to eject so you can change CDs.” If, however, you really want to listen to the Ally MacBeal Christmas soundtrack that has now been in there for three Christmasses, you’re in business. (Robert Downey Jr.’s version of Joni Mitchell’s “River” is a favorite of mine, but at this point, I kind of wish the river would thaw and the singer would be swept away in its current.)

 

I’m also sighing a lot because I’m older and I don’t understand things anymore. Our niece asked for a L.O.L. Surprise, which I’d never heard of. It turns out it’s this ball or capsule the size of your hands (or suitcase sized if you are an extra generous uncle and aunty, which we are not at this juncture) and YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT IS IN IT UNTIL YOU UNWRAP ITS LAYERS. You know vaguely that you’re going to get a hideous, small, big-eyed doll, who has a water bottle and an outfit change, and you’ll get some stickers and “surprises” (I suspect none of them good), but you have no idea what doll or what outfit because you have no clue what is inside the thing until you unwrap it. Like a present. Which this is. But even I don’t know what I’m giving this kid.

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No peeking, Bridget!

How is this a thing? I mean, given that Cracker Jacks always tasted a bit like sugary cardboard with nuts, I know that the only reason I ever wanted a box of them was because there was some crap toy inside and I didn’t know what it would be. The mystery was intoxicating. But after my 3rd box and subpar “prize”, I realized I’d rather have a Milky Way that tasted nice or new coloring book. I can’t fathom asking Santa for a new Barbie in 1972 and not knowing if I was going to get Malibu Barbie, Quick Curl Barbie, or a brunette Barbie. (Maybe I always was a control freak.)

 

The other thing on B’s list was a JoJo Bow, another thing I didn’t understand and had to have the 14-year-old clerk at Claire’s Boutique explain to me.

 

Have you seen these things? JoJo is a Nickelodeon star with questionable taste in hair accessories, and a giant-assed bow plopped on her head. They are very popular with the cheerleading and dance set, though until two days ago, I did not know this and assumed the girls who had them on their heads didn’t know anything about aesthetics yet. The assistant showed us the two they had on offer—they’d sold out all the others—and explained that they are popular with toddlers through twelve-year-olds, which is an expansive demographic. Why can’t I ever think of these things and cash in?

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Look away from the screen, Bridget!

Did I mention a JoJo bow retails for about $14?

 

The assistant also showed us a third choice: the JoJo Bow Surprise Pack. You have no idea if the bow inside is brown or rainbow colored with sequins, but the joy of it is the surprise.

 

Apparently being surprised is really important to this latest generation of children.

 

Fortunately, B’s little brother wanted presents that made more sense to my ancient mind: dinosaur stuff and snake stuff. No problem.

 

So it came to pass that on the drive home through a downtown that no longer looks like my hometown after this shopping excursion for SURPRISE items, Z and I were singing along to Amy Grant’s rendition of “Sleigh Ride” and in the midst of it I let out a spontaneous huff. Z looked at me, alarmed, and said, “What’s wrong?!” and I said, without missing a beat (and slightly indignant), “Nothing. I’m huff singing!”

 

Like that’s a thing.

 

It is true that we were at a part of the song where Amy makes a reindeer sound or something and maybe I was prematurely singing that, but in all likelihood, it was a legitimate huff I didn’t even know I was making because my brain is constantly trying to recalibrate things that have changed here or that I don’t quite understand now that I could be a member of AARP. (How did a 6-year-old earn 11 million dollars on his YouTube channel by unboxing toys? Who watches that? What’s happening to people?! Does this not also make you want to huff?)

 

Z laughed. Hard. And questioned me about what “huff singing” was, and then tried to imitate it, and I said, “No, No! You’re doing it wrong! You’re sigh singing. That’s a whole different thing!”

 

Huff singing became very real to me and I wanted him to know how to do it properly.

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Huff singing optional at Winterlights, Lilly House, IMA

Other things I’m confused about….

 

Leibovitz came over last night because she hadn’t been at my mom and stepfather’s or seen their tree for years (Mom’s tree is pretty spectacular and well-known). It was a delightful evening, and it felt very strange to realize that one of the last memories we could conjure up of her at the house was when she had her first baby in tow. We remembered specifically what the baby had on, what Leibovitz herself was wearing, and where they were sitting as Baby Leibovitz googled Mom’s tree with her big blue eyes.

 

Baby Leibovitz is a senior in college now.

 

Time passes and you don’t even realize it.

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Christmas, snowy yesteryear. (Do you see why I always want to come home for Christmas though? How cozy is that?)

But what was troubling me last night was not the passage of time. What was troubling me was that even though I was in the comfort of my parents’ house with the people I love most, I couldn’t remember what to do with my arms.

 

Things are easy between me and Leibovtiz. We’ve been friends since we were twelve, so it’s not like I needed to put on airs, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out where my hands usually are when I’m talking to someone. I looked across the living room at her and she was comfortable, talking naturally, kind of relaxed on the sofa, and I was sitting there (granted, it was in a chair I never sit in) like I was in a doctor’s waiting room. I kept rearranging the pillows behind me thinking that would help. Sitting back. Sitting forward. But still, there were my hands at the end of my arms and they just didn’t seem to belong to me.

 

What do I normally do with my arms and hands on any given Thursday? I still have no clue.

 

As usual, this blog post is reading like some curmudgeon wrote it. You wouldn’t know how happy I am to be home, how much fun I had earlier this week at the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s “Winterlights” celebration with Z and my folks. How glad I’ve been to see friends, have tea with my high school journalism teacher and reminisce about my years editing the school newspaper and yearbook (and my dogged determination to have a shiny gold yearbook), an Indianapolis adventure with my mom, aunt, and good friend, and a weekend adventure with friends from college which found us hooting with laughter and still behaving very much like nineteen-year-olds, and, later, reuniting with Z after an 11-day geographical separation and just in time for our 9th anniversary.

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Lilly House, Winterlights, IMA

There has also been the grief I felt driving past the house of one of my favorite people ever—my high school art teacher who became my friend—and who died earlier this year and whose passing is the reason I haven’t written in two months: my words disappeared when she left. Seeing her house and knowing she was no longer inside and that there’d be no quirky Christmas card this year, no lunchtime conversation that I’d leave from with a list of books and movies and ideas to investigate, was a jolt. And then an ache. And then something akin to joy that radiated outward as I realized how lucky I was to know her, how lucky I’ve always been to have the exact right people in my life, and how when they leave—even though I miss them—they are somehow, miraculously, still there, buried deep in my head and my heart.

 

Christmas is my favorite season, but it is also the season most inclined to make me melancholy. It’s custom built as a holiday to be a time of looking back, at some earlier Christmas that was better. Better because I was younger (and knew what to do with my arms). Better because everything felt magical and untouched by cynicism. Better because there was snow. Always snow. But mostly, better because more people I loved still populated the planet.

 

But today, on this winter solstice, I woke up thinking about the pagan traditions that Christians would have us shake off even though they were the genesis for the season. Bringing in the green to give it shelter from the long winter as a show that we are invested in its rebirth, celebrating this longest night of the year because there will be more light every day moving forward, taking stock of the good fortunes of another year lived. I’m not sure how or why anyone would want to convince us that doing any of this is wrong.

 

And so I’m going to hang up my holiday melancholy for the rest of the year as best I can. Enjoy Mom’s tree and being with my people here even if I’m missing our family celebrating the shortest day of the year there on the other side of the equator, even if at times my heart longs for the places of my youth and people no longer on this mortal coil. It’s all just being human, isn’t it? And so I will huff sing with vigor and be grateful for what I’ve been given.

 

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A fall display back in Seattle, but the sentiment is the same: light and love to you this solstice!